Healing the Wounds of Jesus’ Followers

I write this with a heavy heart, as heavy as yours may already be from the revelations of Ravi Zacharias’ hidden life. If you hadn’t heard of him, Zacharias was considered one of this era’s greatest Christian apologists. If you haven’t heard the news, an independent investigation found he had systematically groomed vulnerable women over many years, plying them with attention and gifts, obligating them to return sexual favours, threatening them should they ever tell.

I interviewed Zacharias once. He was brilliant, charming, winsome.

And yet he was living a lie. 

The Victims of Ravi Zacharias

We’re starting to lose count now of his victims. First are the emotionally and financially vulnerable women he strategically targeted. Then there’s the couple he bound with a Non Disclosure Agreement before rushing to the press to label them extortionists. There’s the Canadian woman he counselled as a teenager to get an abortion, later calling her a liar. And Zacharias’ staff were victims too, with Zacharias and members of his US board marginalising, maligning and firing those who asked too many questions.

I have friends who worked for Zacharias’ UK and Australian offices – good, godly, fruitful people. Some have resigned. The UK office has split from the global organisation. God’s work has suffered.

The Response from His Defenders

While most have responded to this news with the abhorrence it deserves, some Christians, eager to defend a man they revered, are responding in less than helpful ways. It’s important we challenge some of them:

‘These allegations have surfaced now that Ravi can’t defend himself’

Not so. While this independent report comes after Zacharias’ death in May 2020, the first allegations arose in 2017. A credentials issue raised alarm bells a few weeks before that, and the abortion issue stretches years back.

‘We’re all sinners. If you’ve lusted after a woman, you’re just as bad’

Yes, we are all sinners and Jesus condemned lust (Matthew 5:27-30). But this response sets up a false equivalence of sins Jesus never intended. For a start, Zacharias’ case isn’t one of sexual compromise as much as strategised abuse of power. Secondly, it ignores the fact that there are degrees of sin. Stealing a cookie isn’t equivalent to rape (imagine telling a raped woman that). Likewise, a lustful look isn’t the same as ongoing, unrepentant, targeted abuse of vulnerable women. In Matthew 5 Jesus points out the hypocrisy of those who ‘look but don’t touch’ and think they’re morally fine. He is not equating lustful thoughts with abusive acts.

No, we can’t judge Zacharias’ eternal salvation or damnation (Matthew 7:1-6). But for the sake of victims feeling heard, believed and finding healing, we must unequivocally condemn his abuse. 

‘He who is without sin can cast the first stone’

Similar to the response above, this is meant to caution judgement of Zacharias’ actions. But not so fast. When Jesus said this he was coming to the rescue of a woman singled out for her part in adultery, while the man involved was conveniently overlooked (John 8:1-11). Jesus also said that anyone who caused ‘little ones’ to stumble would be better off having a millstone tied around their neck and being thrown into a river (Matthew 18:6). I don’t see that scripture quoted much. My goodness, this is so serious.

‘It’s the church’s fault for placing men on pedestals’

Halfway through writing this post, theologian Tanya Marlow posted this exceptional article on responses to the Zacharias scandal, tackling this one with great insight. “The reason St. Paul makes strict recommendations of the character of a leader,” she writes, “is that it matters. It matters. We have the right to expect Christian leaders to be people of good character, even if they are not perfect people. The Bible itself sets up this expectation.”

And then she adds:

“When we say to people who trusted Ravi Zacharias or Jean Vanier to be good people, ‘You shouldn’t have put him on a pedestal’, it is subtle victim-blaming of both the secondary victims and the direct victims… in so doing, we are blaming the people who trusted the abuser rather than the abuser for abusing.” 

We must face the reality of Zacharias’ abuse, not avoid or excuse it. Only then can victims heal.

The Questions it Raises

Such an event has raised significant questions for many of us. Here are some I’ve read or had asked of me in the last few days:

Can I trust any church leader again?

“I thought I had processed all there is to process about my experience with sexual abuse,” Diane told me. “Then along comes yet another Pillar of the Community Everybody Trusted doing the unthinkable – just like my perpetrator… So what is the real church? What’s true? Am I following some kind of cult? Where is Jesus? How do I find a trustworthy church fellowship and/or pastor? This is what I am asking.”

Ravi Zacharias. John Vanier. Bill Hybels (alleged). Carl Lentz. Jerry Falwell Jr. Becki Falwell. John Howard Yoder. John Crist. James MacDonald. Multiple Catholic priests. There is a shaking of the church going on right now, particularly the American church whose influence reaches wide, and failed leaders and figures are being exposed. Not all of these failings are over sexual abuse, but many are. And they trigger folks like Diane.

There are things we could say to this: That these failed leaders make up only a fraction of a percent of the millions of Christian leaders around the globe. That the majority shouldn’t be tarnished by the behaviour of a few. That we shouldn’t allow the crooked a double-win by letting them taint our view of the straight.

But for people who’ve faced abuse, trust simply needs time to be rebuilt. All I can say is there are good, godly people in churches all around us. And the sense a victim develops to sniff out suspect folks can be a trustworthy asset moving forward.

I came to faith through Ravi Zacharias. Is my faith based on a lie?

Russell Moore addressed this important question well​ by drawing on church history. When persecution hit the church in the fourth century, some clergy renounced their faith. The church suddenly had a question to wrestle: was a believer’s baptism valid if the pastor that baptised them later renounced Christ? The church concluded that a baptism wasn’t rendered invalid by the failings of the clergy overseeing it.

“Your salvation and discipleship are not dependent on whether the preacher from whom you heard the gospel is genuine,” Moore writes, “but rather on whether the gospel itself is genuine. It is.” Even Judas preached the gospel for a while. Those who believed through his preaching believed in the truth of Jesus.

How could Ravi be so fruitful while living such a duplicitous life?

Joanna asked me this question, one I’ve pondered too. Isn’t a holy life needed to be fruitful in God’s work? Yes. But the Christian message and its Subject have a power greater than the failed mouths that share it. The apostle Paul railed against those who preached from selfish motives, but could still be glad the gospel at least got preached (Philippians 1:15-18). That’s an astonishing thing to say. A duplicitous person can share a message people respond to because the message is true and powerful.

What do we do with Ravi’s books and teachings?

John Howard Yoder wrote seminal works on Christian pacifism. Jean Vanier’s writing on community and the disabled was invaluable. Ravi Zacharias gave responses to sceptic’s questions that were true and helpful. What do we do with these teachings now?

I’m in two minds.

Zacharias’ publisher has pulled his books from saleHis ministry has pulled his YouTube videos. I think this is right. Profit shouldn’t be made off an abuser’s work, and victims shouldn’t have to watch their abuser being adulated online anymore.

The problem of course is how much of the person’s work we denounce. Martin Luther wrote an abhorrent anti-Semitic tract, later used by the Nazi’s to drive the Holocaust. Karl Barth kept a mistress for years, to the heartbreak we imagine of his wife. We don’t bin either theologian’s works in total because of these failings. Instead, we condemn what is abhorrent in these leaders and affirm what truth and light they brought. If we wouldn’t dream of denouncing the L’Arche communities Jean Vanier founded for the disabled, why should we denounce other work of his, like his writings?​

This has been my general approach so far, one taken by others too. Truth shouldn’t be dismissed because of failed messengers.​​

But in this case, it’s a hard position to keep. One can’t quote Zacharias now (or Vanier) without bringing anguish to his victims and those he betrayed. As Tanya Marlow says, we’re not talking about someone who was grumpy, but someone “choosing to violate a woman’s body, an act that has a lifetime of consequences for that woman, the one thing apart from death that every woman dreads.” 

Whether one can still learn from his books or not, I certainly won’t be quoting Zacharias anymore.

A Prayer

There will be much to learn from this sordid episode: about the importance of boards and governance, about treating allegations with seriousness and victims with utmost care, about accountability and not taking a sword to those who ask legitimate questions. I believe the US board of RZIM should resign, and I hope the ministry’s current donors will support the local branches, like the UK office, that now need funds to rebuild and continue their fruitful work.

But let’s end where we should. With the victims.

One night last week, after reading the official report confirming Zacharias’ abuse, I also read the story of Jesus’ arrest. When Judas and the mob approach, Peter, perhaps to defend Jesus (or maybe just himself), pulls out a sword and attacks one of them. Jesus’ response is swift. “Enough!” he says, before rushing to heal the victim. It wouldn’t be the last time Jesus had to heal a wound inflicted by one of his followers.

And so this is my prayer for each one left bleeding from this event:

Lord Jesus, would you heal the wounds inflicted by your followers.


Image: Lausanne Movement (used by permission CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Comments:

  • February 18, 2021
    Andrea

    How very sad to read, I’m not familiar with his work and now I’m glad of that … it my heart is heavy for all affected. Praying for you Sheridan as you stand with all those others of integrity who provide the trust and faith for those seeking the right kind of authenticity.

    reply
    • February 18, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      It’s devastating, but we can at least see God’s hand in it coming to light. Now for the heling of the victims. Thanks Andrea.

      reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Jenny B

    Many years ago, when I became a Christian, the local pastor’s wife gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. She said to: “Look at the Lord, not other people.” So many times, I’ve said that to people and reminded myself of it. We all fail in some ways and will be let down by others, but our Lord never fails or falls in any way.

    reply
    • February 18, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      Yes, while there’s no excuse for abuse, and every requirement to deal with it firmly, our faith has to be in Him and Him alone.

      reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Nils

    Thanks so much for this summary Sheridan. It’s the most helpful I’ve read of this tragic tale.

    My only caution is about what we do with Zacharias’ work going forward. As you say, many people were positively impacted by his apologetics. But then I think of someone like Martin Luther King, whose adultery with multiple women is well documented. Should we also stop quoting him be user of the hurt he caused? The way I see it is that I still see King as a person of integrity who genuinely wanted to follow Jesus but had a terrible weakness in the sexual area. But what if the women he hurt? Wouldn’t they be further hurt every time he is lauded? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Viktor Steiner

    This is a bold and very wise post, Sheridan. Especially that you differentiate between different grades of sinful behaviour. Thanks.

    reply
    • February 18, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      Thanks Viktor. That’s been the factor I’ve reflected most on lately – that collapsing of all sin into one category.

      reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Christina

    Thank you for sharing this. Something that really needs addressing is how the women in these stories are viewed and supported by the Church

    reply
    • February 18, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      Yes indeed. I think we’re so aware that Christian leaders can be vulnerable in a social media world where accusations without substance can quickly get traction (I’ve seen that happen), that we too quickly launch into protection mode. It takes so much bravery for abuse victims to come forward due to the shame often involved (not to mention threats). They need to be treated seriously and sensitively.

      reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Joy Cafazzo

    Where are the “Nathan Prophets”?
    I know people who use a skewed comparison between Trump and King David (Lord have mercy) to excuse the behaviour of Trump using King David’s adultery as a reason. They seem to forget that David heeded the call delivered by Nathan and repented. God uses flawed people but only when they become clay in the potter’s hand. With Zacharias, I agree that the fault is solely with the perpetrator, but where were those in his orbit who could be the “Nathans” and call such a one to repentance instead of covering the sin to save an ‘important’ ministry? Or, as in the other case mentioned above, their jobs or political power!?

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    • February 19, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      An important question, Joy. We know that staff who asked too many questions were distanced. Could it be that there *were* Nathan’s along the way we don’t know about who were ignored? We just don’t know.

      reply
    • February 19, 2021
      Robert Brown

      Yes, Joy. I read this excellent blog post by Mary DeMuth which Tanya Marlow referenced. It makes exactly your point and gives a good Biblical perspective.. https://www.wetoo.org/blog/

      reply
  • February 18, 2021
    Mona

    Devastating, Shocking, and so very very Sad. Mr. Ravi Zacharias was a well
    versed defender of Christianity yet we now know that he didn’t live a Christ-like life. This is a great and powerful reminder that we are to follow our saviour JESUS and obey His words written in the BIBLE not human beings whose flesh our weak. Praying for his All his victims #Brokentrust

    reply
    • February 19, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      Praying with you.

      reply
  • February 27, 2021
    Brian

    I remember being disgusted by some of the accusations I’d heard about at least a year before his death. There was a lot of “smoke” so to speak. He spoke at our church some years back, very powerful. What a bizarre life he led. I understand we all sin, but to lead such an influential ministry and carry on the way he did. Was the struggle intense? Did it rip him apart inside? Or was he simply duplicitous to the end. Frightening…

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    • March 5, 2021
      Sheridan Voysey

      I’ve asked the same things. Abuse specialists tell us that an abuser must first appease his/her conscious about what they’re doing before they continue their pattern of behaviour. So the human ability to self-deceive, telling ourselves we somehow ‘deserve’ something or that God will ‘understand’ because of the ‘pressures’ we face etc, ay be part of the answer.

      reply
  • March 10, 2021
    A. amos Love

    Sheridan

    You write, “…I’ve read or had asked of me…”
    “Can I trust any church leader again?”

    NOPE…

    I had to learn this the hard way.

    Jer 17:5
    Thus saith the LORD;
    Cursed be the man that trusteth in man,
    and maketh flesh his arm,
    and whose heart departeth from the LORD.

    But the benefit of the abuse from church leaders…
    Is, you have NO place to go, but to GO to Jesus…

    Ps 118:8
    It is better to trust in the LORD
    than to put confidence in man.
    ——-

    In th Bible…
    Jesus had a unique take on “leaders” for His Disciples…

    “ONE”

    Jesus, taught His Disciples NOT to be called leader.
    For ONE is your leader, the Christ…
    And, His Disciples must have believed Jesus… Because…
    In the Bible, NOT one of His Disciples called them self “Leader.”

    Mat 23:10-12 NASB
    Do NOT be called leaders;
    for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ.
    But the greatest among you shall be your “Servant”.
    Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled;
    and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

    Humble – Dictionary = a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance. Do you know many? any? who take the position of Leader? Who are Humble? Having a modest or low estimate of their own importance?
    ——-

    If someone calls themself “leader?”Or church leader? Or christian leader? Or spiritual leader? In opposition to what Jesus taught His Disciples? Are they one of His Disciples?
    ——-

    Isa 3:12 KJV
    …O my people, they which lead thee
    cause thee to err,
    and destroy the way of thy paths.

    Isa 9:16 KJV
    For the leaders of this people
    cause them to err;
    and they that are led of them are destroyed.

    reply

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