I remember reading Ravi Zacharias’ book I, Isaac, take Thee, Rebekah many years ago whilst on vacation, and found the book to contain much-needed wisdom on marriage from a Christian perspective (despite me still being single then). One portion from the book has remained entrenched in my mind ever since:
“First and foremost, do not even flirt with the idea that there may have been somebody better out there or someone else with whom you may connect better. Infidelities are not always physical. Emotional vagaries of the mind can be equally dangerous to the health of one’s marriage.” (137)
How things can, and have, changed.
When the Miller & Martin report1 was released, the nature and extent of Ravi’s abusive behaviour left me and many others reeling with grief, disappointment and revulsion. The juxtaposition of the report’s graphic contents against the wholesome image that Ravi had portrayed has certainly betrayed the trust of thousands worldwide.
One would be well-justified in ruminating about how something like this could have happened. “How could such a prominent Christian evangelist do such things?” “How could he have led such a duplicitous life?” “Why wasn’t this picked up earlier?” Many questions such as these probably have crossed many of our minds.
What lessons, then, can we draw from this whole saga? I offer four brief thoughts (in no particular order of importance).
First, we should examine ourselves to “see whether [we] are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). Ravi’s scandals should remind us that it is easy to maintain a head–heart divide where what we know does not translate into influencing how we act; it is easy for us to be Pharisees. In practical terms, the quality of our Christian life or personal behaviour is not necessarily correlated to the number of books we read, the depth of Bible studies in which we engage, the hours we spend in Christian service or the number of sermons a pastor has preached. It is, after all, possible to preach a sermon in church without a belief in God. We need to ever so often remind ourselves that Christianity requires us to daily take up our Cross (Luke 9:23).
There is also no room for idols in the Church. It is undeniable that Ravi had built a strong following across the globe throughout his years of ministry, speaking at prominent events such as “Passion” conferences attended by tens of thousands. One can only wonder how many of us have put our trust in Ravi, seeing him as a “model” human being or Christian whom we should aspire to emulate. Perhaps this is a good time for churches and individuals alike to assess if we have fallen into the trap of idolising our pastors, church workers, or even the “brand name” or denomination of the church we attend. We would do well to remember that idolising humans can and will only lead to disappointment—the only “idol” we should have is Christ.
Third, laity and clergy alike should be encouraged to report cases of abuse (regardless of their nature), and we as the Church should fully support victims or whistleblowers through the process. A Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) insider, Ruth Malhotra, has criticised the organisation’s leadership for trying to discredit victims and silence those who spoke up.2 This is extremely unfortunate, and has arguably contributed to the present outcome.
We would certainly do well to ensure our internal accountability and reporting systems are robust. All reports of abuse should be thoroughly investigated by independent bodies, and the interests of a church or ministry should not take precedence over that of the victims or whistle-blowers. If systems for receiving reports of abuse do not yet exist, this may be an opportune time to begin thinking about setting them up. Conversely, if we have already reacted with hostility or disbelief towards victims or whistle-blowers who have come forward to report abuse, then perhaps this should be a springboard from which apologies and remediations come forth.
Finally, there are significant leadership lessons to be learnt. The RZIM International Board of Directors has itself admitted to negligence in maintaining “oversight and accountability” over Ravi as a result of their “misplaced trust” in him. Malhotra’s letter3 and another letter by Max Baker-Hytch4 (also an RZIM insider) have further revealed how the RZIM leadership failed by, amongst other things, remaining anonymous, applying a “different standard for the Zacharias family”, and by fostering a “toxic environment” within RZIM, all of which arguably allowed Ravi’s abusive actions to go undetected for extended periods of time. Pertinently, despite numerous calls for transparency from the RZIM US Board, the RZIM US Board has, to date, remained anonymous.
Scripture refers to leaders as “elders” (Acts 20:17) and “overseer(s)” who must be, amongst other things, “above reproach, faithful to his wife”, and “have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Tim 3:1–2). James also cautions that a teacher’s role is not to be taken lightly, as teachers will be “judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Quite clearly, leaders of churches and ministries wield immense power and responsibility, including that of maintaining discipline amongst the flock. Ravi’s scandals have spotlighted the ease with which individuals may, because of deficient leadership, evade existing accountability structures and lead duplicitous lives.
This episode is a significant reminder to all leaders that integrity, transparency and accountability are exceedingly important not just to Christians, but also to the world at large. In this regard, it may be apposite for current (and aspiring) leaders to reflect and be cognisant of their weighty responsibilities to those under their care so as to ensure sufficiency and efficacy of their leadership.
Ravi’s scandals have certainly cast a pall over not just RZIM, but evangelical Christianity as a whole. Many have been hurt and others shaken by the fall of a prominent minister. RZIM has effectively been shuttered. Sceptics may now see Ravi’s actions as being representative of the Christian God, and hence find more grounds to disbelieve Christianity’s claims.
For the Church, this may, moving forward, be a good time to establish or improve upon internal structures of leadership, discipline, and whistle-blowing so as to prevent recurrence of the same. For the individual, it would be appropriate for us to be pensive, not defensive. In the words of Michael L. Brown, we owe an apology to anyone who expects better of us because they have every right to.5 We need to seek God’s grace to show the world that “that tragic cases like this are the exception to the rule”, and that our moral failings “do not reflect in the least on the character of God.”
1 Lynsey M. Barron and William P. Eiselstein, “Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias,” 9 Feb 2021, https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/rzimmedia.rzim.org/assets/downloads/Report-of-Investigation.pdf
2 Julie Roys, “OPINION: Spokesperson’s Letter Reveals RZIM’s Spiritually Abusive Leadership & Consequences Of Protecting ‘Ravi’ & ‘Brand’,” 15 Feb 2021, https://julieroys.com/rzim-spokespersons-letter-spiritually-abusive-leadership-protecting-ravi-brand.
5 Michael L. Brown, “How Should We Respond to the Ravi Zacharias Scandal?” 15 Feb 2021, https://askdrbrown.org/library/how-should-we-respond-ravi-zacharias-scandal.
Tan Shangjun is a lawyer and a member of Foochow Methodist Church.