“We Are Just as Vulnerable”: a Response to The Gospel Coalition

The tragic Ravi Zacharias story

Friends, it usually takes me quite a while to process before I’m ready to comment on a horrific story.

Many others have already written, and written well, about the fall of Ravi Zacharias from his high standing in the Christian world. But for those of us who have been paying attention in the last 3 years or so, this latest revelation was a surprise not in fact, but rather in scope.

That is, I was knocked back by the vast numbers of women that Zacharias was preying on.

So then, as the report is released and some post it on social media, predictably others want to have none of it.

I understand. Zacharias was highly respected and trusted by many. (So much so that he and his family became millionaires on the donations of the faithful who thought they were giving to help the Word of God go out around the world.)

A young Ravi Zacharias

The predictable accusations and warnings

And so, those naysayers castigate those of us who talk about it. With predictable accusations—I’ve been hearing them since 2014, the days of the Bob Jones University sexual abuse investigation.

The Gospel Coalition published a factual article covering highlights of the RZ report. This factual piece was followed by Joe Carter’s effort to make sense of it. Though I take issue with a few things he said, there’s only one I want to focus on here. Here is what he finally concluded (emphasis mine):

For pastors and other ministry leaders, the lesson of Zacharias is not that “men like that” are prone to horrific crimes and moral failures. The lesson is that if we want to become Great Men who do great and mighty works for the kingdom, we are just as vulnerable to such sin as any celebrity.

Another way a friend told me it’s been put to her is “That could have been any of us.” That is, any of us could potentially commit any sin at any time.

My friend told me she countered this argument by saying that if you think any person could commit any sin at any time, then we’d better be warning good parents that they might become pedophiles if they change a baby’s diaper. She also asked, “Why don’t you say ‘that could have been any of us’ when you hear about serial killers?”

She introduced her friends to the term “sin levelling” and told them that was what they were doing, that is, claiming that all sins are essentially equal.

I’ve written a few posts about sin levelling and how destructive it is, some of which are here and here and here, but I think it’s time to talk about it again.

So first . . .

What is sin?

Sin is turning away from God, to value what He deems worthless (or evil), and to deem worthless what He values.

If you have a right understanding of the word “despise,” that sentence can be shortened, like so:

Sin is turning away from God, to value what He despises and to despise what He values.

Hear me now.

First, when people become followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, in faith, loving Him and being loved by Him, their hearts are changed, to be oriented toward God, to want to understand and know what He loves, what He values, and to be like Him.

They have the Holy Spirit of God, who is there to help them to increase in desiring those things that are in line with the will of God, and to whisper to them when their hearts turn away. This is the process of sanctification.

And we would expect leaders to be farther along in their process of sanctification than those they lead.

However, of course one who has loved and followed God can fall into grievous sin. But how does it happen?

Is it like the Gospel Coalition said?

The lesson is that if we want to become Great Men who do great and mighty works for the kingdom, we are just as vulnerable to such sin as any celebrity.

This conclusion completely ignores degrees of sin.

Yes, Christians can turn away from God. Of course we can.  We turn away from God, for example, if we dwell on a lustful thought.

But we can immediately turn back.

What are the degrees of sin?

When I talk about “degrees of sin,” you can think of it as actual degrees, the kind you used your protractor to measure in eighth grade. When you’re facing one way, it takes 180 degrees to turn completely away from that direction.

Let’s say you’re pointed to True North, toward the True God. You love Him with your heart, mind, soul, and strength, as much as you are able in this fallen world.

Then you turn away.

The first turn: thoughts

Ravi Zacharias’s sins started in his thoughts. I know that because that’s where all sin starts. It can be stopped there too.

You might turn away one degree, or five degrees, for even just a few minutes. Like when David saw Bathsheba on the roof and lusted after her.

He turned away from God, valuing what God despised (hypocrisy, lust, degrading the lives of others) and despising what God valued (honor, heart purity, valuing the lives of others).

When this happens, the one who loves God can turn back! “Lord, my heart went away from You just now. I want to come back. I want to turn from that lust [or whatever]. I want to be with You. I love Your presence, Your nearness, Your gladness to be with me. I’m so glad to be with You too, Lord, and I want to turn away from that which drew me aside. I know that is a way of death. I want to be with You.”

This kind of turning back to God, when the sin is at the thought level, is something every Christian can and should do many times a day. We turn away from sin and run quickly back to Him.

If David had engaged in thirty seconds of true repentance when he saw Bathsheba from his rooftop, he would never have needed to write Psalm 51.

What is it that tempted you? Lust? Pornography? The adulation of others? Increasing wealth? A position of power?

The way to keep from being “vulnerable” to great sins is to stop the sins when they are at the thought stage.

This is not impossible—in fact, in the Kingdom of God, it is expected. We are given all the spiritual “equipment” we need to do it.

The length of time a person needs to spend repenting is probably related to the length of time that has passed since the last time he did.

The second turn: actions

But what if you don’t turn back? What if you allow the thing that tempted you to continue to draw you in more and more so that the sin works out from thoughts into actions? You’ve pivoted yourself farther away, in valuing what God despises and despising what He values.

Jesus called lust “heart adultery.” This means that heart adultery is in fact a sin; it doesn’t mean that we are to think that lust—the thought/heart sin—is in degree as bad as physical adultery—the action. (To the religious Jews of Jesus’ day, His words came as a bombshell because they had no concept of “thought sin” or “heart sin,” only that which was outward.)

Did Ravi find out that in receiving “massages” in other countries, if he chose to go too far he could go undetected? (In some countries, these things are “normal” and expected.) After all, he was very trusted. And perhaps he thought of women who worked massage parlors in other countries as “less than.” (I have no inside information here—I’m only surmising.)

But still, for each one who does this, the message is the same: repent and turn to Christ! Receive His forgiveness and His power to overcome that sin. Recognize all people as equally valuable to God! Make humble, penitent restitution in whatever way is necessary to anyone who has been affected by your sin. Get help if necessary to get back on the right track, facing toward True North.

The third turn: practice

There’s yet another movement of degrees away from God. This is allowing the action of sin to work out into practice, more and more and more. More and more thumbing one’s nose at what God values and embracing what God despises.

This could be the stage at which Zacharias began using his mesmerizing power to increase the number of women he corresponded with regularly and draw them in, hiding all his contacts on various phones. And more. Considering his victims as commodities with no regard at all for their welfare, and apparently considering himself invincible.

Without a doubt there is hypocrisy involved in these second and third steps, in covering one’s tracks, considering oneself invincible, and having no regard for the lives you are harming. King David’s actions with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah were indeed horrifying.

But one can yet turn back from that.

The fourth turn: astonishing hypocrisy

The 180 degree turn has one more step that I’m aware of. That step has to do with the degree of hypocrisy.

This stage is indicated by how the hypocrite responds when he is confronted with his sin.

At this stage, when David was confronted by Nathan, when all his terrible sin was exposed, he repented.

It was terrible, yes. But he did repent.

What is an indicator that the person has turned 180 degrees away from God, no matter how good he may sound from the pulpit or on the stage?

He has made himself such a god to himself (invincible) that he becomes stiff-necked, stiff-backed, and stiff-kneed, with no compassion at all for anyone he harmed. He will not bow when the truth is revealed.

At this stage, for some, it means loudly preaching against what they themselves are secretly practicing, and publicly humiliating those who try to bring their sins to light. This is a flavor of sin that those of us in my kind of work have seen over and over.

Though Ravi Zacharias’s stage preaching was about apologetics, still he did plenty of “preaching” about those who tried to call him to accountability and repentance. The details of the last two to three years of his life shocked those who had no idea how toxic the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries workplace actually was, the manipulative ways he spoke to the women he abused, and the stage of “invincibility” he had reached.

He stiffened his neck against calls to repentance from true God. Even when he knew he was dying.

What are we to make of this?

The response of Jesus to that last level of turning away from God

These words paraphrased from Jesus apply to stiff-necked hypocrites who refused to turn to God.

Woe unto you, hypocrite, blind fool! You’re shutting up the kingdom of heaven against others. You will not go in yourself, just as you’re blocking the door for those who want to enter. You will receive the greater judgment.

If you are causing young believers to stumble and go astray, and in some cases to leave the faith entirely, then it would be better for you if a millstone were hanged around your neck and you were cast into the depths of the sea.

If you find that “looking good” is more important than dealing with sin in your midst, lest you lose your “show window” image, then you’re cleaning the outside of the cup, but the inside is full of extortion and excess. Serpents, generation of vipers!

The response of The Gospel Coalition

Many have spoken about this topic, and many have issued an uncertain sound. One of those is the aforementioned The Gospel Coalition.

The lesson is that if we want to become Great Men who do great and mighty works for the kingdom, we are just as vulnerable to such sin as any celebrity.

And I say no, that is not the lesson.

And besides, those who were vulnerable here were the women, his victims. They were exceedingly vulnerable to the charms of a “great man of God.”

The “vulnerable” one was not the perpetrator.

If every “Great Man” who loves God and others is just as “vulnerable” to taking advantage of hundreds of vulnerable women as Zacharias was, then we as God’s people are completely lost when it comes to any sorts of leaders at all.

At every stage of “vulnerability,” if Ravi Zacharias was actually a true follower and lover of Jesus Christ, he had the armor of God available to him. He had the firm foundation of the solid Rock of Jesus Christ to stand on.

He could have stopped the sin and turned to God when it was a thought.

He could have stopped it after the first action and repented.

He could have bowed his knee before the Lord even after it worked into practice.

And when his sin was exposed by the Thompsons and others, he could have, like King David, written a full repentance along the lines of Psalm 51. He would have watched his little kingdom crumble, but his heart would have been right with God.

But instead, his hardened heart, his astonishing hypocrisy, the kind that lashes back at the accusers, kept him from repentance, apparently until his death.

What TGC’s response could have been

The Gospel Coalition could have done leaders everywhere a favor by not saying this:

The lesson is that if we want to become Great Men who do great and mighty works for the kingdom, we are just as vulnerable to such sin as any celebrity.

Instead they could have said something like this:

The lesson here is that if we want to be great leaders who passionately love God and love others, who want to bring souls into the Kingdom of God, we can learn from the “fall” of Ravi Zacharias. We can see how his sin was not really because of “vulnerability” but was because of choices that included his own exalted view of himself and his lack of regard for vulnerable others. That is, his love for God and others was not in evidence, and he appeared to be simply going through the motions in his ministry.

Instead of repenting at the thought level—the level of sin that all of us struggle with—he moved from thoughts to actions to practice to breathtaking hypocrisy.

But by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ we are all able to avoid walking into a snare like that. When we live and move and breathe in the Spirit of God, we can have love and regard for all other people on this planet, just as He does. Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ is powerful against sin, and He can keep His people safe from sin. When they do sin, He can give them the humility to turn to Him, bringing them deliverance.

We never need to be “vulnerable” to the kind of blatant disregard for human life and vicious hypocrisy that Ravi Zacharias committed. Where he ended up is the result of a step-by-step process that all of us are given the power to resist and overcome.

No ministry, no matter how large, is worth the price that Ravi Zacharias’s victims—and he himself and his eternal soul—paid to keep it afloat until his death.

Every true Christian—and by that I mean every true believer in Jesus Christ, who lives by faith in Him—can honor all humans, all eternal souls, as equal to ourselves and can avoid turning away from God with hardened hearts, in this progression of sin.

 

 

*****

Another note

In their article, The Gospel Coalition says that we owe “obedience and submission” to our leaders according to Hebrews 13:17. I’d like to offer a different perspective based on the Scriptures.

My analysis of Hebrews 13:17 makes up one of the chapters in this new book that came out last week.

Natalie Hoffman, author of Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage says:

“Three big cheers for the second (and long awaited) Untwisting Scriptures book! Rebecca takes some of the most prevalent beliefs surrounding patriarchy and authority and turns them on their head – using Scripture. Written in a conversational, easy to understand format, this second book will unhook the human casualties of a rotting system and set them free with faith intact.” 

Click on the photo below to read more about it.

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TS00
TS00
3 days ago

To be honest, I find my anger rising when I hear Christians referring to the wicked, predatory and abusive behavior of Ravi Zacharias as ‘falling into sin’. Perhaps at some long ago time, Zacharias ‘fell into sin’ from a genuine, God-honoring place – but if so, that was long, long time ago.

One of the huge issues which the evangelical industrial complex needs to face is that when you build a complex, you will always attract wanna be celebrities. And the recipe for success, as we have seen repeatedly, involves charisma, charm, intuition, persuasiveness and a great ability to schmooze. A genuine heart for God may or may not be involved, as false motives are difficult to separate from sincere ones.

I do not claim to know the full history of Zacharias, or any other of the many ‘fallen’ evangelical leaders, but I can tell you one thing – many of them were not simply men of God who happened to sin.

There is a huge difference between a man who is tempted by and succumbs to temptation in a weak moment and a man who for years, decades even, targets, grooms and preys upon weak, trusting victims. This is the sort of ‘sinner’ Zacharias was.

He used his position, reputation, power and his institution’s funds to enable a sick, evil double life. This is one of the many problems with celebrity ‘pastors’ and ‘teachers’. And if we wish to not enable such hypocrisy and abuse, we would be wise to follow a couple of simple steps.

One, check into the financial setup of any religious organization with which you are considering becoming affiliated. If a ministry which is not a church takes the step of having themselves classified as a ‘church’ for tax purposes, that should send up a huge red flag. I would go so far as to say that if even legitimate churches refuse to make public detailed financial information, including salaries and accountability for all funds, I would refuse to associate with them. And make their practice of hiding financial information well known, so that others may be protected.

Believers must throw off their naiveté and acknowledge that simply getting the stamp of approval from some so-called financial accrediting organization (ECFA) provides no meaningful financial accountability. I will leave it to others to explore the reason for this failing, but it is past time to admit that no genuine assurance of fiscal responsibility is being proven by what appears to be a token gesture. One might ask, ‘Who is holding the accountability organizations accountable’?

Then there is the glaringly ascriptural and unChristlike practice of piling up personal fortunes – tax free – from what is supposedly a ‘ministry’. I’m all for not muzzling the ox, but there appears little risk of starvation on the part of modern religious celebrities. I’m proposing no particular legalistic rule, but it should be obvious that there is a problem when a religious principal and his associates acquire vast fortunes from the well-meaning contributions of countless supporters, whose gifts are often sacrificial in nature. How many mega mansions and private jets will it take for us to question the heart of a ‘servant’?

As for Ravi Zacharias? I have no words. The man was a manipulative, narcissistic predator, a serial abuser who remained unrepentant to his death, continuing to receive photos of young victims in his last weeks of life. He was not merely a ‘fallen sinner’, he was a fraud. His crimes must be acknowledged and condemned and his organization, its board members, the ECFA and all who enabled his horrific abuse should be identified and held accountable.

Sally Sprague
Sally Sprague
3 days ago

Your article helped me articulate my feelings. I’m reminded of a saying, “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a lifestyle.” Ravi’s lifestyle was one of deliberate perversion and hypocrisy. He was more concerned about these women’s bodies rather than their souls. Heartbreaking!

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 days ago

Thank you for this post.
I grew up in a conservative church in which this kind of thinking is prevalent. I am no longer in attendance there, but I occasionally go with my family when I visit my hometown.
In my most recent visit, when the congregation read from The New City Catechism, the answer to Question 29 made me do a double-take. It said, “…we are guilty of having disobeyed God and are still inclined to all evil.” It seems to be saying that even after salvation, you are still not just still able to commit sin, but inclined toward all sin. To this inclination there is no solution but that the grace of God will cover your evil in the end.
If you are incapable of resisting a constant desire for sin, what can you do but give in? The only answer I have heard from that church is that you must discipline yourself to not fall into that behavior. The power of the Spirit and the weapons of warfare are rarely – if ever – acknowledged in their teaching. Nevertheless, if you do sin and have any shred of a conscience, you will probably feel bad for your wrongdoing. In this case, the key is to comfort yourself with the idea, “As long as you’re sorry, God’s grace will cover it.”
If becoming a Christian does no more than give entrance to heaven on Judgment Day, how miserable it is to endure a temptation-filled life! How difficult it is to ever obtain victory! Does a real internal change not take place when God saves us? Is discipline the only way to avoid sin? Do we not have the Spirit to lead us into all truth, and do we not have His power to conquer temptation? After being saved, are we really still inclined to all evil? Are we really just as prone to sin now as before we were saved? If so, it makes sense to completely seclude yourself from the world and create some semblance of a “holy” atmosphere to try to keep yourself from the terrible evil out there.

Last edited 2 days ago by Anonymous
Sandi Wilson
2 days ago

In reading through pages and pages on the Ravi story, I am struck by where the conviction of the Holy Spirit was in his life. In this journey of following Christ we are well aware that when we have a wrong thought, a wrong motive or commit a sin, we immediately know it is wrong and immediately have a conviction in our heart/spirit from the Holy Spirit. You cannot get away from that if you really know Christ! He keeps you on a short leash, as-it-were. So that leaves me to wonder if Ravi really knew the Lord. Was his ministry like a line of business for him where he knew the scriptures well enough to expound on them externally as you would know the ins and outs of your business or work so well you can speak it but never live it? Perhaps like a professor who studies his subject to such a degree it becomes second nature, but in this case, there is no indicator that he lived by the scriptures and personally followed their teaching. I don’t know Ravi’s early life as a believer, but the fact that he used a Hindu practice of Ayurveda in his salons tells me that he never left his old life behind. Was he ever truly “saved” as we believe and teach salvation? I understand fully the points you make of how we fall away from the Lord in degrees of hardening our hearts towards sin and can see how that can happen. King Saul comes to mind here. However, I am wondering if this depth of harming others can be possible for someone claiming the name of Christ. Deception on so many levels, to his family, his followers, his staff and on and on. I have not heard one author of an article broach the possibility that he never truly knew the Lord. I think this is a real possibility.

TS00
TS00
2 days ago
Reply to  Sandi Wilson

Sandi, this is the unavoidable question, and a very important one. We will remain vulnerable to deceivers as long as we are ignorant of the very real possibility of false teachers, who NEVER were children of God, simply going through the motions while preying upon the trusting sheep. I neither know the complete history of RZ’s life nor had access to his true motives, but I do not discount the possibility that he was a fraud from the start. A close inspection of all of his actions throughout his “ministry” (I shudder to even use the word for the deeds of this man), as well as an invitation to all victims to speak out, may well shed some light on that question.

Donna O'Scolaigh Lange

In my church circles, I’ve heard “one sin is as bad as another”-there’s no difference to God-thanks for clearing up fuzzy thinking!

TS00
TS00
2 days ago

I think there has been some very faulty teaching on the concept of sin and redemption within the Institutional Christian Church. Jesus provided atonement for all ‘sin’, all of our inevitable falling short of the perfect will of God. We also see in the gospel narratives his compassion and willingness to mingle with common ‘sinners’, including tax collectors (thieves) and adulterers.

I tend to believe that there are very separate catagories for the sins we do in ignorance, or even a moment of weakness, and the sin we do when we have Spirit-led understanding. Kicking the dog in a moment of heated passion is in a different category than scheming, over a period of years, to take advantage of innocent women whose previous trauma or abuse made them easy prey to a ‘Man of Gawd’ father figure.

I would have a much different reaction had RZ fallen in love with his secretary, admitted to an affair, confessed and repented, than I do to the intentional, premeditated, serial abuse he was guilty of, along with serious fiduciary abuses, all of which were denied to his death.

No, all sin is not the same, and he who knowingly, deliberately, willfully rejects the leading of the Spirit into a continually more Christlike pattern of behavior, or does not respond to his calls for repentance, is not, in any sense of the word, a child of God.

Last edited 2 days ago by TS00