Horrifying news broke recently of allegations that Ravi Zacharias for years used his power, influence, and money to sexually harass, abuse, and, in some instance, rape women he employed or otherwise knew. The more details you know, the more outrageous the story is. I won’t rehash the sordid details here. It is sickening and heartbreaking all at once. The story inspires rage, and rightfully so.
What compounds the pain is that Ravi Zacharias is just another Christian leader in a long line of Christian leaders guilty of sexual misconduct, abuse of women, and abuse of power. At the time of his death, countless men and women otherwise ingrate of these charges against him, hailed Ravi as a hero. Here was a man who finished well. Here was a good and faithful servant.
But he was not good. He was not faithful. All indicators suggest he was a manipulative serial abuser.
[See the Addendum at the end of this post: one of the complicating factors with Ravi is that unlike pastors who fall into a moment of passion and commit adultery, he appears to have engaged in a long-ranging systemic act of abuse. His intentionality and hiding of his sin is not adequately described as a fall from grace, as much as that he was a wolf preying upon the sheep for his own sexual satisfaction, and blackmailing them when threatened with exposure. This post will be no help to such abusers; it is focused on the original temptations long before a man or woman gets to such a place.]
Pastors and Christians globally are disheartened by the news. Many I have spoken to are shaken. If Ravi Zacharias can hide such horrible actions, who is safe? If he can’t be trusted, who can?
How do we avoid becoming the next Ravi Zacharias?
In the wake of the allegations against Ravi, many have also reported that Ravi was not an active church member. His life was mostly lived on the road and he didn’t have a regular presence at any particular congregation. Ravi’s memorial service was held at Passion City Church, but it’s difficult to tell where he was an actual member. According to a Ruth Maholtra, an RZIM employee, he was not a church member in any meaningful sense (HT: Justin Taylor)
I don’t have all the answers for how to avoid a moral downfall, becoming an abuser, or failing to finish well, but here is one thing I do know:
Church membership is essential. Alone it is insufficient.
If men and women are going to avoid giving themselves over to private sin that destroys themselves and others, simply being a church member won’t cut it. In some ways, saying church membership is the answer in a pithy way is naive beyond measure. Mere membership is not a cure all. No one should require telling that the church has not always been a surefire way to avoid abuse. There has been widespread and tragic tales of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct in nearly every major denomination, most recently the Southern Baptist Convention. At times, and to our eternal shame, powerful religious leaders have even used their influence to coverup abuse in the church and enable abusers.
Being the kind of church member who is part of a Sunday School class, attends the potlucks, gives to missions offerings, decorates for VBS is not the surest way to avoid falling into deep and harmful sin. Your church attendance record is not unimportant, and can even be a good indicator of your exposure to the truth of the gospel and to godly habits, but it’s not sufficient on its own.
Being a church member is not enough. Practicing regular habits of repentance and accountability in the local church is essential.
Drinking the rubbing alcohol
I once heard a story of a woman who was an alcoholic. Nobody knew. She was high functioning alcoholic, and didn’t drink much in public. But at night, alone at home, she was a sloppy drunk. Her pastors had no clue until one day when she was rushed to the hospital and they received a call.
Attempting to fight her addiction to liquor, she had thrown out all of the alcohol. But in an intense swell of craving, in the middle of the night, she drank medical grade rubbing alcohol. It nearly killed her.
What is your rubbing alcohol?
Long before anyone becomes an adulterer, or a hypocrite, or, in Ravi’s case, long before they become an abuser that willfully and repeatedly hurts countless others, they are tempted with sin.
In Ephesians 5:11, the Apostle Paul tells us, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”
Does anyone know your “rubbing alcohol moment”? Maybe it hasn’t even happened yet. I hope it hasn’t. But does anyone know you are tempted that way at all? For years I have tried to practice this kind of confession: “Brother, here is the thing I am tempted by that could destroy me if taken too far” or “Brother, here is the temptation I’m facing that I’m really afraid of gettin out of hand.” These things are not told in a large group or SS class. This isn’t the sin you confess on the microphone the last night of church camp. It can be painful. There may be tears. This kind of repentance will require you to bare your soul to another. It will require you to understand that you will need others to help you bear your great burdens (Gal 6:2).
When I have been tempted in this way, I don’t post it on a blog or announce it to the church. But with close friends, in the context of the local church, I bring the darkness to light. The group of men I meet with to talk in this way is often lighthearted, joking, and fun. There is always a time for confession the regular struggles of daily life as husbands and fathers. But from time to time, our confession becomes more somber as we take seriously the need to confess serious temptation. And it is utterly life-giving.
Have you ever taken part in that kind of confession of sin? If your godly friends who are close to you in your day-to-day life have no clue what the temptation is that could bring you down, may I suggest that you might want to reconsider your habits of confession, repentance, and accountability?
You’re not too good to fall.
I once heard a pastor* say that in pre-marital counseling he makes the couples write out a brief sketch of how they would commit adultery, if they ever did. I understand how that sounds at first. What a terrible pastor! But his point is this: not one of us is above a wandering eye! Not one of us is just so inherently holy that we could not fall into sin. Typically the respondents would talk about meeting someone on social media or meeting someone at the gym. Some would talk about old relationships, and other may talk about seasons of extreme stress and a friend begins to show them attention. What this practice does is teaches the individuals to be honest about where their weaknesses are, and it helps their future spouse to love them by seeing warning signs and by keeping them out of such vulnerable situations.
Christians can not flourish if they cherish their little sins. You are at grave risk if you do not know how you will fall. Sin is a liar. It is insidious. The moment you think you cannot fall is the moment you are most at risk.
I never knew Ravi Zacharias. I didn’t follow him. I haven’t read his books. I have watched maybe 5-6 clips of his on YouTube I my life. But if I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would wager that Ravi was missing that kind of soul-baring accountability and he has been missing it for a long, long time.
It’s not enough to be a church member. It’s not enough to be a regular attender. If we are going to avoid moral failure, if we are going to avoid a great fall into sin (or worse–abusive or harmful behavior to others!), we must be repenters. Our church membership but be a certain kind of membership: the kind that is ruthless against our own sin, confesses it, and seeks accountability. We must submit ourselves to systems of accountability—elders and pastors, D-groups, accountability partners, Covenant Eyes, or heart-rending confession to dear friends—that will expose our darkness and bring it to light.
What kind of church member are you? Does anyone know what’s really in your heart? Are you active in “catching the foxes that spoil the vineyard” (Song of Solomon 2:15)? Christians are not called to white-knuckle it to the finish line. We also do not have the power to stop things from spinning far beyond our control. Instead, we have the gospel of grace. Because of Jesus, you are free to confess. There is nothing to fear: there is grace. Stamp it out now. Catch the foxes. Don’t befriend the cunning serpent. There is mercy at the cross. Christ is greater than all of your sin. If you don’t have this kind of accountability, find it as soon as possible. Storehouses of grace await you as you pray for one another, offer forgiveness, point one another to Christ, and help one another resist the big fall.
* I am almost certain this pastor was Russell Moore, but I can’t seem to find anything online about it.
Addendum: My friend Samuel James offered some pushback privately on one aspect of this piece, and I think it’s more than valid: it’s good and needs to be said here as well:
“What Ravi did was not just “falling into sin,” as if he ran off with his secretary or texted a lewd picture to someone who wasn’t his wife. What Ravi did was horrific abuse of the most unimaginable kind. It was far more comparable to Larry Nassar than Carl Lentz. And I don’t think we would talk about Larry Nassar’s crimes as a kind of sin that we could all “fall into.” There is a kind of othering that we need to adopt when it comes to predatory sexual abuse, not to comfort ourselves that it could never be us but to encourage the moral outrage necessary to not let ourselves be empathetic with someone who was cooperating with extraordinary evil, not just his flesh…. My fear is that if people are encouraged to see their own sin as part of a general continuum with stuff like Ravi or Larry Nassar, they will 1) feel less outrage toward sexual abuse qua sexual abuse, and will sanitize moral language to make what is fundamentally abuse more about “sin” (which is bad for establishing accountability and consequences for those in authority), and 2) they will interpret their own struggles not in the light of the gospel that creates safe place for regular confession and repentance, but as something grievously wrong with them that probably disqualifies them from normal life in the assembly of God’s people (thus, driving them deeper into sin).
He’s right. When I wrote this post I was primarily focused on those who were saying “this wouldn’t have happened if he had been part of a church.” My point was that church qua church isn’t enough, as so many have claimed: an ongoing pattern of repentance is required to stem this kind of sin before it ever spirals to anything remotely close to that point. I have updated the language of this point throughout to try and clarify that point. However, let me add to that now, in light of Sam’s comments, and say this.
- Ravi’s actions appear to be more than a mere fall from grace. It was a years-long intentional act of abusive behavior. It wasn’t a slip up, as if one day he was tempted and the days later he fell into a temptation he longed struggled with of privately harboring desires of being a manipulative abuser. Whenever his fall happened, it was long before he became an abuser. His actions are far more akin to that of a wolf, than the fall of a brother. It’s not oh, he fell into sin just like I could any old day. What Ravi did was far worse because it happened over a long range of time, in a well-planned manner, with institutional coverup, and a web of lies. That’s not a temptation, that the fruit of sin fully embraced.
- As such, this post is relevant to Ravi only in that there was a time as some point, early on, that I suppose he could have engaged in habits of ongoing repentance such that he never what he ultimately did become. What Ravi did goes beyond an accountability group, and abusers as such often groom such groups to deceive them to hide behavior as extreme as what he engaged in during his lifetime.
- In the case of Ravi, I am convinced his actions warranted the response of 1 Corinthians 5. He didn’t need to be restored to ministry. He didn’t need to be in an accountability group. His actions are so heinous, according to these well-documented allegations, that if he belonged to a church, he needed to be put out of it utterly and treated as an unbeliever until he utterly repented. If he had repented, he should never, ever be restored to a public facing ministry and should be welcome back only into the church with a close eye on his future behavior, lest their be any sign of more grooming or abusive behavior. Likewise, his actions should face the full force of the justice system if any of it was in violation of law. If you are tempted, repent and find grace before it ever gets this far.
- If you have been abused, I hope your church will a) call the cops with you, b) support you entirely, and c) not try to handle it merely internally as if the answer to horrible crimes against victims is a small group or prayer time with the pastor. Do not stay with your abuser. Do not blame yourself. Get out and get professional, qualified help as soon as you can.