Tag Archives: integrity

A New MAGA?: Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again… Post Ravi Zacharias Evangelicalism

By now, many of you already know about the final report from RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries), detailing some of the sexual abuse committed by Christian apologist/evangelist Ravi Zacharias, through day spas he owned over a decade ago in Atlanta. It is pretty devastating.

There is the sexual abuse pattern, involving multiple reports of molestation over the years, that is of grave concern. Ravi’s victims, to varying degrees, have suffered. But there is more to it than that, as none of us are “sin-free.” Let me be clear about this up-front.

The bigger story is the utterly unrepentant attitude that Ravi apparently had, as he continued to solicit and receive photos of young, female massage therapists on his SmartPhone(s), up until a few months before his May, 2020 death. But the most egregious thing is the extreme lack of accountability that Ravi had in his ministry and personal life, a failure among even his closest friends and colleagues to ask tough questions, to speak openly and honestly, and to encourage the pursuit for truth, among others who had questions. Sadly, any attempt to question Ravi’s behavior or at least divulge more information was met with talk of “spreading rumors,” accusations that those who asked such questions were “demonized,” and even one report that Ravi went into a rage and threatened to resign, if pressed any further to provide more information. Ravi even threatened at least one victim, that if she ever told anyone what had happened, that it would put “millions of souls” in danger of eternal hell-fire.

When I became aware of the first controversy, in December, 2017, involving misleading information about Ravi’s academic credentials, I was hoping that this controversy would be the end of it. I had been given the impression by staff at RZIM that the academic credentials issue was simply a matter of confusion and cultural differences, and that there was a good explanation behind the sexting incidents involving a female friend and devotee of Ravi’s, Lori Anne Thompson.

Like many of the staff at RZIM, including the person I talked with, we all hoped that everything could be satisfactorily explained. After all, I have personally invested a lot of time and energy over the years promoting Ravi Zacharias, RZIM, and Ravi’s teaching materials. I have taught two adult Bible classes, at my church, based on Ravi’s teaching material, and co-taught another class with some friends, using Ravi material. Though my specific role was minimal, I helped to work with a team at my church for at least 5 years or more, to try to get Ravi Zacharias to come speak at my church, which eventually did happen, about a decade ago.

Ravi’s appearance at our church was the single largest event, in my church’s history. Folks came from 3 to 4 hours away to hear him speak. The place was packed. It was exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

But after what I agonized over in December, 2017, and listening to all of the accolades given at his memorial service, back in May, 2020, I started having that sickening feeling in my stomach, that something still was not right. The then Vice President Mike Pence hailed Ravi as the greatest apologist of this, the 21st century. Well, what was I to make of that?

Thankfully, it took the courage of one woman, a follower of Jesus and one of the massage therapists Ravi groped over ten years earlier, to finally speak up. The only one who would listen to her was an atheist lawyer, and that finally got the ball rolling. Other women spoke up and the story broke back in September, 2020. Still, RZIM at the time decided to double-down on the message that there was a good explanation here, and everything was still OK. Other defenders of Ravi continued to double-down and profess his innocence, explaining that the accusations were all “attacks from Satan,” intent on destroying a godly man’s reputation. Meanwhile, I have had conversations with skeptics who only look at this as simply yet another reason why Christianity can not be true.

Yet, at the same time, RZIM did agree to conduct an internal investigation, and this time, they promised complete transparency. Why did it take so long? Almost THREE YEARS LATER????

Well, we finally got the story this past week….. Thanks to the courage of that one woman who finally spoke out.

Now what?

It does not roll off the tongue very well, but I propose a new “MAGA” slogan: “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”

There are several problems though, with my new slogan. First, “Anti-Celebrity-Christianity” is an almost impossible goal to achieve.  It comes with the territory. After all, the Apostle Paul, and the rest of Christ’s earliest disciples, were known as pre-modern equivalents of today’s celebrities, in their own circles.

Jesus is and will always be THE reason for why we believe. Nevertheless, we simply can not separate the Christian faith completely from those who claim to represent Jesus. There is no way that any single one Christian can have complete adequate knowledge of the faith, without having a measure of trust in other Christian leaders, who know more than we do about certain aspects of Christianity, who can live as examples for us to follow.

Take Tim Keller, for example. As co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, Keller might come as close as possible to being a spokesperson for broadly-Reformed-minded evangelicalism.  But he is nevertheless a celebrity. He recently was interviewed on a podcast where he talks about the dangers of celebrity Christianity. When hardly anybody knew who Tim Keller was he was a pastor of a rural church, in a town less than an hour away from me. But now he gets people asking for autographs for his books. It is pretty awful. I would encourage folks to listen to the full podcast, as Keller has some excellent observations to make about the current state of evangelicalism today.

I also remember when it came out that the famous liberal Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, had been secretly involved in numerous sexual affairs, outside of his marriage, throughout much of his adult life. His adulterous infidelities were so bad and numerous, that even his wife sought relief in her own sexual affairs, just to cope with the trauma of living with a sex addict. Tillich had sought to completely recast a vision of Christianity with a multi-religious worldview, that incorporated many non-orthodox theological perspectives. Nevertheless, he has been hailed as one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century.

It is very easy … and tempting… for an evangelical like me to dismiss Tillich out of hand, with some measure of secret pleasure over his downfall, in his reputation. But then I think of Ravi Zacharias, and I realize, yet again, that none of us are far away from missing out on what God truly seeks to purpose in our lives.

So, where do we go from here?

Practically speaking, what do I do with my Ravi Zacharias books? Well, I have never owned any Tillich books, but I have a few of Ravi’s…. and I have a few other books written by people who have gone through serious moral failures, even such failures that continued on for years.

It is important to remember that even if an author has a personal failing, that it does not necessarily invalidate the message that the author is seeking to communicate. We must evaluate the writings of a person based on the evidence, logic, and claims that the author is making, and not strictly on the character of that author.

I personally do not plan on tossing out my Ravi Zacharias collection anytime soon. But I do not feel compelled to recommend him either to others. The main reason for saying that is because I think there are a lot of other Christian apologetics authors who are just as good, if not superior to Ravi Zacharias, in making their arguments for the Christian faith.

A good example would be from Michael Licona, perhaps one of today’s most well-known defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, who has produced a short video, putting the Ravi Zacharias scandal in perspective, when it comes to making good arguments for the Christian faith (see below).

But the bigger issue for me is this: How can we get away from an evangelical sub-culture that tends to idolize its celebrities? Here are my big takeaways:

  • Cultivate church and ministry leadership structures where there is sufficient accountability. Do NOT promote “lone ranger” Christianity.  Get into an accountability group yourself, where someone you trust (or more) can hold you accountable.
  • Develop institutions centered, not around personalities, but around good, solid Scriptural doctrine.
  • Invite questions, dialogue and conversation. Allow yourself and others to express their doubts, and work through them. Pray for one another. Love one another.

Those are probably some good places to start…. to start to “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”


A Call to Repent Internally at RZIM

Truth-telling is essential to the cause of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. For if an unbelieving world can not regard Christians as trustworthy people, why would they even bother to listen to us, when we speak about Jesus?

Events of late in the Christian world have brought me much despair. But some recent news have given me a ray of hope.

This past weekend, an apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) wrote an internal letter to RZIM’s leadership, calling upon RZIM for more transparency regarding the controversies regarding some of Ravi’s actions, while he was living and leading the RZIM ministry. The letter was leaked out from RZIM, and published at Julie Roys’ website, where Julie describes the letter’s content as “stunning.” The fact that such a letter was even “leaked” out from RZIM is stunning in and of itself. Interestingly, the letter calls for RZIM to rebrand itself, something that I made a case for several months ago, after a new series of allegations were disclosed. The author of the letter, Dr. Max Baker-Hytch, a senior tutor with RZIM’s  OCCA The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and a lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, a private hall of the University of Oxford, urges that the corporate culture at RZIM is due for an overhaul.

In response to the letter, several apologist associates, working with RZIM, have decided to sever their ties with the organization. One of those associates, John Dickson, believes the ministry of RZIM to be in “grave peril.

Serious accusations against Christian leaders should not be taken lightly. We should uphold the reputations of leaders, as best as we can, and not jump to conclusions. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that all of us have skeletons-in-the-closet, that we need not always publicize. Everyone falls short of the glory of God, and we should extend grace towards others, as much as possible, so that relationships can be healed and integrity maintained.

But that being said, when a Christian leader or organization presents a story, that does not jive with the available evidence, then that warrants a measure of skepticism. An initial act, that might lead to disgrace is one thing. But when a concerted effort is made to cover-up such an act, the lack of trust associated with the cover-up effort is infinitely more damaging than the original transgression itself. When this type of behavior is exhibited by Christian leaders, and the organizations that support them, then this is a clear case where the celebrity cult of personality has eclipsed whatever good the ministry might be doing.

It took courage for Dr. Baker-Hytch to write such a letter, and that courage gives me some hope that integrity is still something to yearn for. Let us pray that RZIM will make good on their promise to pursue truth, take Dr. Baker-Hytch’s letter to heart, and do the right thing immediately. 

A broken trust can be hard to rebuild and repair.


Ravi Zacharias and Christian Integrity

Jesus Among Secular Gods, by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale. One of Ravi Zacharias’ wonderful books….(just, please, do not call him “Doctor”)

I have been an enthusiast for the apologetics ministry of Ravi Zacharias for several years. So, I feel compelled to respond to recent allegations of impropriety, as reported in ChristianityToday magazine.

Ravi Zacharias, his radio program Let My People Think, and his ministry, RZIM.org, have blessed the church with excellent materials in Christian apologetics. Our church was edified when Ravi came as a guest speaker several years ago, and I personally have taught several Adult Bible Classes, using Ravi’s material. Long-time Veracity readers will observe that we link to RZIM resources multiple times. I am still encouraged by the quality of Ravi’s work and ministry, for the sake of the Gospel.

I am therefore disappointed to learn of the recent allegations, that Ravi has misrepresented his academic credentials, over the years. I knew that Ravi had a Master of Divinity degree, but that he never has pursued an academic doctoral program, of any sort. However, he has received “Honorary Doctorates”. What I did not realize, is that this has led a number of Christians to mistakenly refer to Mr. Ravi Zacharias as “Dr.” Ravi Zacharias.

RZIM has responded that it has been customary, in certain cultures, where Ravi goes, that they refer to him as “Doctor,” out of a sign of respect for elders. This is evidently so. But it is inappropriate to go by the status of “Doctor,” in all cultural contexts. This may not be a big deal for some people, but I would disagree.

Truth matters, folks.

In an American context, calling someone “Doctor” gives the mistaken impression that the individual has earned an academic degree, when it was actually only an honorary degree. The two are not equivalent. If someone practicing medicine claims to be a “Doctor,” but has not an earned degree, this would be misleading. The same standard ought to apply to Christians who pursue academic work, to further a ministry. So, it is disturbing to learn that RZIM itself did not immediately and thoroughly self-correct this issue, when it was first raised two years ago, in 2015.

There are a few other issues, brought out below, in the video by the Steve Baugham, who describes himself as the “Friendly Banjo Atheist.” You can read RZIM.org’s response to some of the allegations (noted also in the Christianity Today article), Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton’s research, and Mr. Baugham’s video and other materials, and make your own assessments. As to the allegations with respect to the Canadian couple, there is just something weird going on there, that I can not fully grasp. I find there are several lessons to be learned from this most unfortunate situation:

  • First, Christian leaders should stop the continued practice of accepting the title of “Doctor,” when it is only honorary degrees that have been conferred, and not PhDs.  This practice is misleading, and Christian leaders should act in a manner that is above reproach. Politely demurring is good, but insufficient. Public, academic records should be set straight.
  • Secondly, as the Scriptures teach (Romans 3:23), all of us have failed at different points in our lives. Ravi Zacharias is no exception. Neither am I. Neither are you.
  • Thirdly, Christians should be on the forefront of telling the truth. Waiting for critics, like the “Friendly Banjo Atheist”, to point out our faults, is not good enough. Waiting two years before fully addressing problems with claims of misrepresentation and fact-checking issues, even if it was inadvertent, is not good enough. As apologist Randal Rauser writes, “When it comes to effective apologetics, it is important to have clear, concise, and logically valid arguments with plausible premises. It’s also important to have good rhetoric, a touch of humor, savvy cultural awareness, and a dollop of self-deprecation….While that is all important, the most important aspect of any effective apologetic is credibility. Credibility depends on demonstrable integrity. And integrity depends on conduct that is absolutely above reproach.”  An apologetics ministry, no matter how good it is, that raises questions regarding personal trust, actually undermines itself.
  • Fourthly, the whole business of admirers calling Ravi “Doctor,” has been completely unnecessary. The effectiveness of Ravi’s ministry stands on the quality of his arguments, reasoning, and rhetoric, not by misleading claims of holding certain academic credentials, that he never did. Ravi has his own issues, yes. But I find it disturbing that a radio listening and book reading Christian audience lacks the basic skills of spiritual discernment, that should insist on fact-checking sources and upholding standards of accountability.

I had the privilege of meeting Ravi Zacharias, when he visited Williamsburg, and our church, those few years ago. I found him to be a most gracious, genuine, and caring man. He is on the “front-lines” for the Gospel, so it comes as no surprise that he would have critics.

Steve Baugham may have an axe to grind, but nevertheless, the grist for the mill has at least some substance. The current crisis Ravi Zacharias is experiencing is surely painful, and those who have benefited from his work should earnestly pray for him, and the rest of the RZIM ministry team. This is not an unrecoverable situation. Contrary to Baugham’s conclusion, at the end of his video, I personally believe that this is an opportunity for RZIM to make something right out of this. Let us pray that Ravi, and those who work with him, will learn these painful lessons and do the right thing.

UPDATE: December 7, 2017. RZIM’s public statement on the federal lawsuit.

ANOTHER UPDATE: December 7, 2017

Also, if you check the Wayback machine, for June 26,2016, for the Oxford Centre, an Christian study center in Oxford, England, you will see that under endorsements, it lists “Dr. Ravi Zacharias” and  “Revd Professor Alister McGrath.” This is altogether strange, as Ravi has no PhD, and Alister McGrath has several. RZIM helped to start the Oxford Centre. Why would Ravi be listed as “Dr.,” but not Alister McGrath? Thankfully, the Oxford Centre has since fixed the issue. But it leaves open the question as to why the folks at RZIM, who probably were the ones who put up the website, let this error go unnoticed and uncorrected, for so long? Ah… this is frustrating!

A BETTER UPDATE: December 8, 2017

I made contact with someone at RZIM (Vince Vitale) to discuss the academic credential issue. I report on this really good conversation, as an addendum, to a related post, published earlier this year.

UPDATE: March 17, 2018

Ravi Zacharias carries ministry credentials from the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA). The C&MA recently concluded their investigation into the controversy. Their conclusion?

“Evidence does not provide basis for formal discipline under the C&MA policy.”

 

UPDATE: December 23rd, 2020. Review of the sexual impropriety charges at a spa, partly owned by Ravi Zacharias, conducted by a law firm hired by RZIM, releases a preliminary report indicating that Ravi did act inappropriately.


Selma, 1965: Where Were the Followers of Jesus?

It was March 7, 1965, a day remembered in the civil rights movement as “Bloody Sunday.” A group of African Americans were planning to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand that they be given the legal right to vote without any unnecessary encumbrances. Six hundred men and women began their march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be greeted by a line of state troopers waiting for them with billy clubs and gas masks, and members of an all-white county posse, composed of men who had been deputized to participate only the night before. The non-violent marchers were told to go back home or “go to your church.”  Television cameras, such as these scenes from CBS, were broadcast around the world showing how the marchers were run over and beaten by “law enforcement.”

In the 2014 film by Ava DuVernay , Selma, the general outline of the story is depicted, showing how the marchers were eventually able to complete their march to Montgomery, which resulted in President Lyndon Johnson urging Congress to pass the Voters Rights Act of 1965. Critics have made much of DuVernay’s negative portrayal of President Johnson as being directly antagonistic towards the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., so one might complain of the tendency to oversimplify the narrative regarding what happened in Selma, and King himself was far from perfect.

Nevertheless, as I was watching the film, I kept thinking to myself, where were the followers of Jesus on that “Bloody Sunday” morning? As the state troopers were putting on their gas masks, they acknowledged that among the marchers were many Christians. And yet, I wonder where were the white Christians? Were the white Christians of Selma all in their churches that morning worshipping God? Upon hearing the television reports, did they come out and lend a hand to their African American brothers and sisters in the Lord as they were bleeding in the streets?

There were many who saw the events of “Bloody Sunday” unfold before them on their television sets across the world, and some responded by traveling to Alabama to participate in a future attempted march. One of these was a Unitarian Univeralist minister from Boston, James Reeb. Much like the Samaritans in first century Palestine, who were viewed in John 4:19-25 as theologically suspect with their call to worship on Mount Gerizim instead of the correct place, Jerusalem, Unitarian Univeralists fifty years ago as well as today are viewed as being theologically suspect among evangelicals. Yet why was it that someone like James Reeb became a martyr for the civil rights movement when he was beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, and not a more theologically-sound born again Christian? Is it fair to say as in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, that James Reeb was like a modern day “Samaritan?”

Much has changed in fifty years, but it is the silence of the predominantly white, evangelical church during those tumultuous years that most disturbs me. In light of the teaching of Scripture, the silence is deafening. How was it that the evangelical church had became so complicit in the sin of racism, compromising their witness for the Gospel?

They had their Bibles. They had the message of truth and reconciliation.

Where were these “followers of Jesus?”


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