Sexual abuse, pride, hypocrisy and the desperate need for authenticity in the Church….more than just about Ravi Zacharias…
Many in the Church are reeling right now, in light of the horrific history of predatory abuse now being revealed in the life of the late Ravi Zacharias, author and well-known apologetic speaker. Not “simply” a case of lust and surrender to temptation, the undeniable evidence released by his own organization since his recent death, shows a calculated, elaborate system of gaslighting, spiritual abuse and manipulation to facilitate extensive sexual abuse and in at least one case, rape. And sadly, thus far, there have been no accounts of admittance, let alone of confession or repentance of these heinous sins that covered a span of many years. Instead, when confronted by his first victim while still living, this man, who was the true offender, employed the classic use of “DARVO” (a term used by those working in the field of sexual assault to mean – Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) to shame and vilify one of the very ones he had himself victimized.
Of course, the obvious and heart wrenching devastations (to the point of suicidal longings) that RZ’s sin wrecked in his victims is the main point of concern in all of this. And still, as with any tragedy, there are many other things for the Church to also mourn, discuss, learn from, question, change and so forth in regards to these tragic revelations.
Asking the right questions when a leader falls
So far, much of the focus has been on “what should we do to prevent this kind of sin in our Christian leaders and what do we do when it happens”? Discussions of accountability, safeguards, etc. are abounding.
But one point that we should take careful note of is the more foundational question of “what exactly does it even look like to be a Christian”? Not for the purpose of judging or condemning one another, but how can we prevent and / or confront sin in our own lives and others if we have a damaged or inaccurate understanding of what this life of faith is even all about?
This is a point the Apostle Paul makes in reverse (by saying what a Christians life should not look like) in the second chapter of the letter to the Romans, an epistle that is one of the greatest treatise on the very essence of the Christian faith – grace.
Paul starts the book with a general introduction to the idea of sin and therefore, by implication, the need for grace and salvation. Starting with creation and the subsequent sin there in the Garden he lays out the inherent sinful state of all mankind from the very beginning.
Once this has been established he immediately makes the natural transition from mankind in general to address God’s people in particular by saying “You, therefore, have no excuse.” He was speaking about those who taught the word of God, but lived contrary to its very instruction. This is an extreme rebuke for what we should consider extreme actions on the part of those who name the name of Christ – namely, hypocrisy. Paul goes on to say that those hypocrites who practice unrighteousness while teaching against it are “storing up wrath” for themselves for the day of judgement. Strong words, indeed.
“To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger.”
Those of us in the church for any amount of time, let alone those of us in leadership know this principle and teach it widely; do good and be rewarded, do evil and be punished. But we also know that we are no longer under the law, but grace, and so the good we do is simply in response to the great God has done for us first, right? We know this. We teach this. We know we can’t say one thing and do another. And yet the hidden poison of hypocrisy – pride – is often swallowed and offered up regularly to others by the very ones teaching against it.
“Celebrity Christians” is missing the point
Many are pointing to the fall of RZ as a problem, inherently, of “celebrity christians”. But focusing simply on notoriety is missing the point. In chapter 1 Paul talks about that the faith of the christians in Rome being “talked about by the whole world”. In the book of Acts the notoriety (albeit negative to some) of the believers is referenced as local leaders lament that “these men that have turned the world upside down have now come here”. And here in the second chapter Paul even commends those that “seek glory and honor” and then goes on in verse 10 to assure those that do good that they will, indeed, receive such glory and honor! But by comparison it seems clear that those who do good are seeking a different kind of glory and honor than those who do evil (some translations even add “that God offers” at the end of verse 7).
“Self-seeking” is, of course, the key word. “Celebrity Christians” is an appalling oxymoron. But, as a friend said “It’s ok to be the center of attention if the attention is centered on Jesus.”
So what does it mean to be self-seeking as a christian leader? For starters, when we act contrary to God’s word it’s not because we somehow lack the understanding that what we are doing is wrong. We understand. We just taught on it last week. But we do so because we convince ourselves that we are an exception. Or we deserve it, after all the work for the Kingdom we have done or all we have sacrificed. Or we do things that look good, but underneath the veneer of “rightness” it’s really about us, making us look good, feel good, obtain status or attention, having the right answers or at least not having to face those awkward unanswerable questions, etc. etc.
Socially acceptable manifestations of pride
One ministry staffer, after their pastor had confessed to sexual immorality said of him – “It wasn’t really about the sex. It was that over time he just didn’t deny himself anything. The final sin was just one more thing that he wanted and no longer said no to himself.” As pride grows, our life slowly becomes less and less about what has God said and Who He is and more and more about our desires, our comforts, our standards. Self-seeking.
For those of us in ministry, one of the questions we must ask ourselves is why do we do what we do and how we do it? To be seen and admired of men? We know this is a danger and wrong, and we battle with the Holy Spirit to put our flesh under submission and walk in obedience. But what do we do when we see it in others?
The leader who is so uncomfortable with confrontation so puts off and puts off the awkward conversations and questions to those in their ministry teams that are flying red (or even orange) flags in their speech and behavior. Only after the meltdown, the hospitalization, the affair or the divorce then saying “we all thought there were problems”. The overseer that hears a concern from a female team member that the young unmarried pastor has an “unhealthy relationship with women” and jokes it off with “if you’re not sleeping with someone who’s not your wife, I’m not concerned.” The ministry speaker who massages scripture to the point of blatant heresy but it’s let slide because “that’s not what they meant”. The “fudging” on numbers as to how many attended our event or cropping photos to make even the few that were there look like even more. Or simply the stress-inducing fear of not looking good on camera, or in newsletters and so timing things to the second, controlling even the minutest details and making sure not to use the words I, me or mine in ministry communications but talking about ourselves the whole time. These are just running a tight ship, right? Just keeping things running smoothly, professionally. Right? Maybe. And maybe not.
If there ever were a group of self-seeking people in the Church, those in Corinth would be at the top of the list. But as that list is counted down of the grievous sins they were guilty of, Paul encourages them that “such were some of you. But you were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” He did not shy away about talking openly about weakness and sin.
Washed – positionally transformed, once and for all, from dirty to clean, and this coming in response to repentance and faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus to cleanse us from our sins. Sanctified -the active ongoing process of being made like Jesus. Not perfection, but the ongoing daily process of taking on his image. Justified – the status of not storing up wrath, of being free of future judgement for our sins. And all this is accomplished in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit of God.
Have we in the Church, and sadly especially those in positions of influence, been washed, but in the process of sanctification have begun to “lean on the arm of the flesh”, or look to our own cleverness or connections to round up resources, shore up our reputations, fine tune our images and message and have, frankly, been successful at it? So successful that the train has left the station and even though it is no longer headed towards the goal God had intended, but towards self, it rushes by many completely unnoticed, except to note its speed and efficiency. Those who might notice that we seem to be off track feel like it’s impossible to stop us or feel it’s not their responsibility and so do little or nothing. (Or even more grievous, actually value most of all ambition and accomplishments in ministry even if it is accompanied by moral failures, because it keeps their train on track, too.) And the ones running the train, (because after a time it is no longer God), are too busy stoking the fire to keep it moving and caring for the passengers needs to see how far in the wrong direction we’ve gone.
Giving opportunity to blaspheme the name of the Lord
And lest you think I’m being too harsh on Jesus’ Bride, please know dear brother, dear sister, that all of the examples I’ve given here in one way or another, one time or another, I have been guilty of myself. I can speak of these things with clarity because they are drawn from my own well of failure, of self-seeking covetousness and insecurity. I have not arrived but, with all of those who have come to God to find refuge, I am merely still walking in the truth of Christ towards wholeness, attempting to bring all things into the light.
In fact, I really hesitated to even attempt to address this whole issue. I finally decided to because if there is any reoccurring phrase I’ve heard this past year from friends who do not count themselves currently (or ever) among the Church is “Why are Christians not speaking out about this (or that) moral inconsistency by those calling themselves Christians?” In many cases Christians are. But when we are not, why not, indeed?
Do you know that at least one of RZ’s victims came forward emboldened by an atheist blogger questioning RZ’s (now proven to be embellished) credentials? An atheist blogger was the one voice publicly speaking the truth of what this victim already tragically knew personally of RZ, that there was hypocrisy. Others came forward so that the initial woman who brought accusations against RZ (and was harshly castigated and not believed initially) would know that she was not alone.
Where are you, where am I when I see that the Emperor has no clothes? Do I wait for an atheist blogger to sound the alarm or an already victimized person? Or do I speak up for those who have no voice, and cry out for accountability? It is not easy to confront either ourselves or our brothers and sisters. And it is not always either encouraged by leaders nor is it always well received. It is, however, vital to the life of the Church.
Each of us has to answer those questions and take the risk for what will happen if we do confront. The answers and results will vary. But the Apostle Paul tells us clearly what will be the result when such hypocrisy is allowed in the church “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:24)
Telling all the stories
In situations like these (because sadly, RZ is not the first nor will he be the last) Christians often quote Scripture that says “love covers a multitude of sins”. It does. But it covers it, not hides it. It covers it with the blood of Jesus that washes the stain of sin away. But only when it is first uncovered and brought to the cross where the blood can cleanse.
One pastor, dealing with sexual sin in his ministry team member said “We’re not going to hide this because THIS is the Gospel. We are sinners and there is forgiveness when we repent. We want people to know this and come to Jesus to be likewise forgiven.” Hats off to him, he understands the power of humility. Thankfully, in this case this brother repented and is being restored.
But the message of the case with RZ is also one that we want people to know. Only God knows his final destiny, but there are consequences to sin, particularly a lifestyle of un-repented sin, and yet God is a righteous and fair judge. So as well as the restored sinner stories, we need to tell the full Gospel; the testimonies of those entering into eternal life as well as those rejecting the grace of God and headed to eternal judgement, and all those in between that we may never know the final outcome of their stories. Satan is defeated “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimonies.” (Rev. 12:11)
So we need to be honest to not shy away from either kind of life story, but what do we do before these stories are finished? Lately on many fronts in public life it has become vogue to begrudgingly acknowledge the blatant pattern of failings and sins of someone who names the name of Christ, but still promote them or stand alongside them with no confrontation because they, basically, say or believe “the right things” or they promote our causes. But we know that Jesus said that “even the demons believe, and shudder”. (James 2:19) And to the Pharisees he said “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39) Of course beguiling words, charisma and connections, but also even holding to right doctrine, should not trump the transformation that only salvation brings. We don’t use the phrase “born again” much anymore, but maybe we should? Because life, new life in Christ, is what an encounter with the living God creates.
No more false facades
We need not be afraid to confront the dark things in our lives or in the lives of others. Christianity is not about perfection, it’s about walking in life, not death, walking in the light not darkness. Thanks to Oprah, Dr. Phil, and a myriad of self-help books, programs, etc. there’s a generation that has grown up outside the church that already know that the first step to healing is admitting you have a problem. The world wants to see that kind of authenticity in the Church themselves. A wise mentor once said “Share successes build walls. Share failures build bridges.”
None of us want to offer the hurting world a false facade, a Hollywood movie set that looks great but is only a wall hiding a dirty and dark reality. What the world needs is nothing my pride can produce but rather the treasure that only my honest, basic, clay pot is designed to hold – Jesus.
I pray that RZ actually did repent to someone at some time and that this might be made known, not to clear his name, but for the potential for healing for his victims – both the women he met and who worked in his massage parlors but also those in his organization that he deceived and his own family. But whatever the final judgement for RZ, there is still time for us to not let the leaven of the Pharisees leaven the whole lump. May we humble ourselves before one another, confess our sins to one another that we might be healed. May we tear down our false facades and stand with Paul in saying “I am who I am by the grace of God.” (I Corinthians 15:10)
“But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
May the world see not a perfect church, but an honest, humble church walking towards wholeness with a perfect and holy Savior.
“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
To read an Open Letter from the International Board of Directors of RZIM on the Investigation of Ravi Zacharias (included is the 13 page independent investigation of RZ’s sexual misconduct)