Ravi Zacharias was an internationally-reknowned Christian apologist, with an extensive personal ministry as well as founding organisations which worked with many others in contending for the truth and credibility of the Christian faith. He died in May 2020 from a rare cancer of the spine, and at the time many Christian leaders paid heart-felt tribute. The Wikipedia entry about him summarises his approach to apologetics:
Zacharias argued that a coherent worldview must be able to satisfactorily answer four questions: that of origin, meaning of life, morality, and destiny. He said that while every major religion makes exclusive claims about truth, the Christian faith is unique in its ability to answer all four of these questions. He routinely spoke on the coherence of the Christian worldview, saying that Christianity is capable of withstanding the toughest philosophical attacks. Zacharias believed that the apologist must argue from three levels: from logic to make it tenable; from feelings to make it liveable; and from whether one has the right to use it to make moral judgments. Zacharias’ style of apologetics focused predominantly on Christianity’s answers to life’s great existential questions with defense of God. He argued that the dominance of the visual in modern communication systems has impacted people’s capacity for abstract reasoning altering their way of perceiving things; however, the integration of abstract reasoning into one’s worldview is important to have its base grounded in absolutes rather than on relative feelings and fads.
But in 2017, several years prior to his death, he has already faced allegations of falsifying information about his academic credentials, claiming that he had been enrolled in courses at both Oxford and Cambridge when neither was true, and of inappropriate sexual relationships with several women, some of which he denied, though he admitted being unwise in some of his behaviour. These allegations resurfaced after his death, and his organisation, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), commissioned an independent investigation whose report it published last week. Conservative theologian David Robertson summarised its shocking findings:
When it was first reported that Ravi Zacharias was being accused of sexual abuse through a couple of massage parlours that he had financial investments in – the news was so shocking that it was hard to take in. As with all such allegations it is better not to comment until we know the truth. Now we do.
Although there are concerns about the speed at which Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) began the investigation, once it was started it was done throughly and speedily with no excuses and no attempt to cover up. The final report, released last night is devastating. It’s a tale of money, sex, abuse, greed, exploitation, and more. It’s far worse than we anticipated. We now know:
1. Ravi Zacharias was guilty of sexual abuse on many occasions, in different places, over a period of many years. These involved not only women in the US, but also in Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and almost certainly other places.
2. He especially used those who worked in massage parlours – even “importing” them from overseas and seeking “more than a massage”.
3. In one example he offered to take a masseuse to travel overseas with him.
4. He used RZIM ministry funds to fund his abuse. He would either pay them, or give masseurs large financial gifts. Four received monthly support from RZIM’s charity for the poor for a lengthy period of time…
The evidence is clear. Ravi Zacharias was a liar, a sexual pervert, and an abusive, deceitful manipulative, greedy hypocrite. This goes way beyond one incident, one fall. It reveals a lifestyle and pattern over many years. He fooled many people, shamed his family and brought disgrace upon the Church. He was someone of whom the scripture warns us – a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The international board of RZIM responded to the publication of the report with a four-page statement, which all through is marked by a sense of profound shock, grief and repentance. What is most striking is the repeated thread of repentance for previous actions of the Board in trying to dismiss earlier evidence and allegations and minimise the concern whilst Zacharias was alive. It includes this comment in relation to the person who first went public with her accusations:
We believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias. It is with profound grief that we recognize that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified. This leaves us heartbroken and ashamed. We are deeply grateful for their longstanding commitment to making the truth known and admire their strength to carry on even when they were not believed. It is our hope to seek a redemptive way forward with Mrs. and Mr. Thompson and seek their forgiveness, while recognizing that we have no right to this and wanting to be led by them in terms of what might be most helpful.
There is little doubt that the organisation, in its present form, will need to be wound up, and all links with Zacharias removed. But there are key questions to ask about the culture of organisations which allow the abuse of power by ‘celebrity’ individuals—something that is hardly limited to one tradition in the church, and which we have seen all across society. The issues seem to me to cluster around three key questions:
- Why do we allow individuals to be put on pedestals where they appear to be above question or contradiction?
- What happened to proper process of accountability and transparency?
- Why is there a lack of honesty, particularly in relation to questions of relationships and sex?
Interestingly, David Robertson pointed to some of these in his reflection in 2017 when allegations first surfaced.
It’s not a popular concept and often comes with misunderstanding and tales of abuse – but discipline is essential in the Church…One of the problems in today’s church is that we have far too many Christians (and sadly Christian ministries) who are not subject to church discipline. We all need to be part of a biblical church community where proper biblical discipline is exercised.
I noticed someone express their shock and surprise on learning that Zacharias had not been a member of a local church congregation for many years. That sort of basic rootedness in a real, local, Christian community seems to me to be an essential counterbalance to the ‘celebrity’ that comes with an international ministry. Perhaps this is a good argument for all Christian leaders, at whatever level, including bishops, to be part of a local congregation?
Not surprisingly, the major Christian publishers in the US have immediately withdrawn all the publications that Zacharias wrote or contributed to, and others are re-writing their texts in order to remove references to him. How should we respond, immediately and in the longer term, to good things said by bad people? Australian Michael Frost rather helpfully puts the question in a broader context:
What do we do with the work of disgraced men? While people are debating whether to throw out their Ravi Zacharias books I’ve felt a bit pious because I don’t own any. But I do have a Michael Jackson record. And books by Vanier, Barth and Yoder. Should we pulp good work even if it was made by bad men?
(Theologians Jean Vanier, Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder were all revealed, after their death, to have either abusive or irregular sexual relationships.)
The conversation thread that follows highlights three quite distinct issues: the impact of person and their ministry on the immediate victims; the reactions of those reading or making use of the work; and (in the case of writers rather than artists) the potential distorting effect of their life and outlook on their writing and arguments. In the longer term, and particular in the case of Christian writers and theologians, this last question grows in importance. Who would disagree with Zacharias’ summary of the apologetic task I cited above? But who now would be foolish enough to cite him in relation to this?
On the Facebook discussion of Christianity Today’s announcement of the removal of his works, there is exploration of this question—but it is surely too soon to make these judgements. Tanya Marlow powerfully articulates where our priorities should be:
Oh my goodness, these comments.Who is more important to defend—an abuser, or the victim? What did Jesus say about hypocrites? What is more important to defend—the victims of abuse, or some books?
These women have not only been sexually abused but spiritually abused. They were called liars. They were threatened. This is their moment of vindication—of speaking up for the sake of justice. This is NOT the moment to express sympathy for the person and system that traumatised them. And if you’re wondering when that moment might be, it’s never.
Do we really think the kingdom of God has no theology better than that written by sexual predators? No, it’s not a sad thing these books are being withdrawn. It’s a sad thing that women were sexually abused. Anyone who says ‘it’s time for nuance’ or ‘well, we shouldn’t judge’ or whatever is already judging – and you’re making a judgement about whose defence you’re jumping to.
As for me and my house, we will seek justice for victims of sexual abuse and proclaim that there are thousands of theological books in print and yet to be written that are not written by abusers, thousands of prophets, priests and theologians already out there and yet to be called who aren’t sexual predators. There are better things to champion than the cause of a sexual predator’s books. Please.
This question must surely be the one that occupies first place. But those who came to faith through the ministry of Zacharias—directly or indirectly—are also left with a sense of betrayal and disorientation. John Stackhouse articulates this, in conjunction with wider theological questions raised here, without losing this focus.
A friend grieves the news of a report on Ravi Zacharias’s awful sins. And there are more on the public record now that don’t show up in his report (such as his absolutely disqualifying lies about his academic credentials, accomplishments, and positions, detailed in Steve Baughman’s well-researched and unjustly overlooked book).
How can he read Ravi Zacharias anymore? Worse, he knew RZ personally and was blessed by knowing him. What, now, about all that, in retrospect? Does he just rewrite his memories and throw away RZ’s books in the shadow of Zacharias’s wickedness?
What I wrote on his FB stream I put here, too, in case it can be of some small help:
What remains truly astonishing to me is the undeniable and enduring value in the work of notorious sinners such as Karl Barth, John Yoder, and Jean Vanier.
To be sure, I’ve been on my guard for a long time with Barth (and Paul Tillich similarly) to see whether their theology is actually bent in such a way as to accommodate their sin. (I have yet to come across someone who has taken this hermeneutical approach to either theologian, but hundreds of scholars study them, so maybe someone has.) Same now with Yoder. But still: so much blessing from such toxic streams…
Yet we know Martin Luther was capable of both great blessing and hair-raising cursing. John Calvin and John Knox made terrible decisions as leaders accompanied by invective harsh even by sixteenth-century standards. None of the grace God passed to us through such people excuses their sins, of course, as none of what little good I’ve been able to do as a teacher and writer excuses one jot of my own considerable transgressions. I’m just wondering aloud at how God has been somehow able (and, yes, mysteriously willing) to truly bless many others through people who were demonstrably very, darkly wicked. These aren’t isolated cases.
And doesn’t God do the same strange thing every day through me, through you, if only on a smaller scale? It’s all very odd, and disquieting. (But whom else has God to work with? There aren’t that many saints around…)
I thus won’t chuck all my Barth, Yoder, etc. even as I wince every single time I happen upon their names, as their abuse of women is forever attached to every good thing they said. What is genuinely good deserves appreciation as such. But we must remain on our interpretative guard: Only Jesus spoke God’s own truth all the time. None of the rest of us deserve automatic and total deference, even as God is mysteriously pleased to grant us the privilege of conveying grace to each other.
The challenge, then, is to listen well, *expecting* distortion because of sin, but also *trusting* God to bless withal. What else can we do?
We pray first for those who were Zacharias’ victims. We pray for those connected with him who feel betrayed by his abuse. And we pray for ourselves, that we too will resist putting others on pedestals, commit to accountability for ourselves and others, and honesty about difficult questions.