Held to account

Can a spiritual abuser be a spiritual advisor?

I’ll begin by saying that the revelations about the behaviour of Ravi Zacharias made me sick. Others have told me they feel the same way. Christianity Today and other news outlets have covered the story.

As a young teenager, I used to listen to Ravi Zacharias’ Let My People Think broadcast in the backseat of our four-door blue Ford F350 on our way to Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Ohio. Every week, we’d get to about the same curve in the road when the talk ended and the voiceover told us we could send money to Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) in Mississauga, Ontario. Ravi Zacharias’s messages on that drive to church were as much a part of Sunday ritual and routine for me as the church service itself.

What is one to do now with the writings and audio recordings of a man who we’ve discovered to be so deeply flawed? My initial response was to go back in Christian history to Athanasius. Athanasius wrote a book called On the Incarnation, which says, “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word.”

In other words, we cannot understand the truth about God without living a virtuous life. Did Zacharias know the truth about “God the Word?” That’s the painful question here. Did this man, who I listened to on the way to church when I was 14, know what he was talking about?

Unreliable guides

As it turns out, Ravi Zacharias is not the only influential Christian teacher who fails the Athanasius test. It is well known that Karl Barth lived for years with his mistress and his wife in the same house. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and leading advocate for those with developmental disabilities, was found to have abused women. There are others.

Reports of sexual abuse came out in February, putting the legacy of Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020) and the future of his organization on shaky ground.

So is the issue of moral failure distinct from the issue of a person’s writings having merit? What do we do with their books, YouTube videos, sermons?

Let’s assume for a moment that the issue of moral failure is distinct from a person’s writings having merit. My high school Algebra teacher told the class that she and her husband did not have credit cards because they kept overspending and getting into debt. One can be a good math teacher and also not be able to balance your cheque book at the end of the month.

Math is one thing. But my expectations in someone who is going to teach me about God are different. I am not looking for theory or propositions. Rather, when it comes to theology or apologetics, and especially evangelistic apologetics, I am more interested in the practical question: So how is that working out for ya?

The apologist doesn’t merely want their listeners to believe truths about the world. They are after conversion – a change in you, the listener. They are the Virgil and you are the Dante, going down before you can begin to go up again. It is not good to have an unreliable Virgil. Ideally, you want a Virgil who’s walked those paths you must walk, already.

The sins that become habit

I remember a preacher once saying in a sermon, “If you want someone to become a Christian, you are asking them to become like you.” And that’s the point really. That’s why we can’t separate the issue of moral failure from the merit of a person’s writings. Ravi Zacharias was asking hundreds of thousands of people to be like him. And when the doors of his massage parlors are thrown wide open, we look with horror because we don’t want to be like him, not at all.

So how can I recommend his books? How can I quote his stories in my sermons? How would the woman he told would endanger 100,000 souls if she ever told anyone, feel about me bringing any glory to Ravi’s name?

Someone might bring up King David, that Patron Saint of Adulterers everywhere. But King David, when confronted by Nathan, repented of his sin. Ravi was confronted with his sin publicly, at least once. He was no King David. The woman was silenced with a non-disclosure agreement and Ravi went on to malign her character.

There is a difference between a sin and a vice. One is habitual, the other is not. David committed a sin, and a few more sins to cover up the first one. David then repented. Taking the wives of his servants was not David’s usual practice. The vice is something different, a habitual sin. Ravi had a vice, and the vice had him. We can’t right away know who has a sin and who has a vice. My friend from Cocaine Anonymous used to say that not everyone who came to meetings had the disease of addiction. Some people can walk away from the drugs, say their prayers and apologies and carry on. Other people need meetings for the rest of their lives.

Fruit of repentance

We can’t know initially, when the pastor runs off with the choir director, if he has a sin or a vice. Time will tell. We hopefully treat the ones with a sin and those with a vice the same way, initially. We remove them from ministry. Those who sinned and repented, and seem to be living rightly afterwards, may get restored to ministry. Others, those with the vice, are likely to continue down the destructive path. Making this determination is not easy. Both those who sinned and those who have a vice can express sorrow. But Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that there is the godly sorrow that leads to life and the worldly sorrow that leads to death. They both look like genuine sorrow. The fruit of repentance is what we are looking for. And time does tell.

Ravi had a vice: he was a serial abuser. He made arrangements so he could seduce women. And I am left wondering if he ever knew the Jesus he spoke so eloquently about. Those familiar with the biblical languages know that there are different ways of knowing. I can know what the Bible says about sin and repentance. I can know what the Bible says about forgiveness too. But, to quote David Foster Wallace, “the truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.” What do I do with someone like Ravi, who spoke about a grace and forgiveness, that he did not seek for himself? He spoke about truths, but did the truth grab him, shake him and not leave him alone until it was done with him? It seems like he spent a lot of energy trying to make sure that didn’t happen.
And this makes him an unreliable guide. There is, ironically, a story Ravi told himself that illustrates this quite well. A man was walking on a tightrope across a deep ravine, he would say. The man took a chair, an empty chair and asked the crowd, “do you think I can walk across with this chair on my shoulders?” The crowd cheered. “Do you think I can walk across with someone sitting in this chair?” The crowd cheered again. “Who wants to sit in the chair?” Silence.

A Christian leader, an apologist at that, should be willing to sit in the chair.

Mind & body

I worry that we can be too quick to dismiss the sins of those whose ideas we like. Is it a bit gnostic of us to assume that what we do in the body has no impact on the meditations of our hearts and minds? People like Ravi Zacharias and Barth have brilliant minds, but those minds were enfleshed, not disembodied. When it comes to spiritual things – our theology, our faith – can the idea really be separated from the person? Or should we expect one who follows the Word made Flesh to be, in a sense, an enfleshed word whose speech and actions align?

Christianity is facing a serious credibility crisis right now. Part of this crisis is rooted in this very issue. People are less willing today to separate the idea from the person with the idea. The instinct behind that is similar to the instinct that Athanasius had. Good ideas come out of virtuous lives.


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