When the news first broke that the late Ravi Zacharias had been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour, my first response was — I don’t know if this is true but it is definitely plausible. Having been in church-based ministry for more than 35 years and, indeed aware of the darkness in my own soul, I knew the accusations were plausible. Subsequent investigations confirmed that Ravi had indeed been guilty of sexual misconduct, a fact confirmed by RZIM, his own ministry.
Some Christians were not happy when I tried to discuss the matter. They felt it was unfair to discuss a man’s failure after he had died and was no longer able to defend himself. They said that maybe the ones raising the complaints wanted fame and/or monetary compensations. I said that a lot hinged on the question of whether he was in fact guilty. If investigations proved that he was innocent we should indeed put the matter to rest and clear his name and reputation. But if he was guilty, his victims and their families deserved justice, and his organisation, and all of us, need to learn from what happened.
It is very sad and unsettling when a key church leader falls, but the Bible has warned us. The key hero of the Old Testament is David and he was guilty of horrendous spiritual failure, from lust, adultery, murder, and the abuse of his God-given royal power, among others. One hero of the New Testament is Peter, yet he denied Christ three times, the last of these with profanities and curses. These people were the best that God’s people could offer and they both fell spectacularly. Reading through the Bible there are many examples of other leaders that fell. Maybe the lesson here is if even the best of us can fall, how about us?
The reason I thought the accusations about Ravi were plausible didn’t come from any holier-than-thou position. The older I get the more I understand why in his later years, Paul would understand that he is the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15 ). The reason why I thought Ravi’s misconduct was plausible was the set of circumstances that surrounded him and others like him. The following reflections are not about Ravi per se but those in similar situations.
First, fame. I have long believed that failure is less dangerous than success. By any account, Ravi had been mightily used by God. His teaching and books had touched many lives. Few matched his ability to think through complex issues and to communicate his ideas clearly and cogently. He was held in high regard by many and hero-worshipped by some. If this is your regular fare, at some point you begin to believe your own press. Pride begins to grow. The enemy is just waiting for that entry to hijack your soul. And here I blame the celebrity culture in many of our churches as much as I blame any leader. I also suspect that those in platform ministries, like speakers and worship leaders, are more susceptible to the sin of pride that comes from fame.
Second, fatigue. Because of your effectiveness and the fame that results from that, you are in high demand to minister. You receive many invitations to serve. Increasingly, these are invitations to speak at major conferences and consultations. These are strategic events and those who invite you take pains to tell you that only people of your stature are invited to such events and that they really need your input. Most of us are in church-based ministry to serve. And while many of us know the danger of fatigue and burn out, it is very hard to turn down such invitations. Fatigue numbs your spiritual discernment.
Third, loneliness. The irony of those who are highly involved in ministry is that they are surrounded by people but really connecting with few. When we relate to people, we relate to them with our ministry persona. And often we are giving but these exchanges are rarely mutual. Our own relational, emotional and spiritual needs are not met. And even when we come home and are with family and friends, we are emotionally empty and unable to muster the energy we need for the relational connections we desperately need.
Finally, there is the lack of accountability. When you are a leader of a certain stature it is hard to receive the spiritual accountability we all need. Sometimes it is not because we don’t want this accountability, but it is hard to find people who feel qualified to ask you the tough questions. Where does a spiritual super hero go to to confess his or her sins? Most major moral meltdowns don’t happen overnight. Temptations brew and stew in the darkness for a long time before they give birth to sin. A mentor or a mentoring community could have helped to nip such temptations in the bud. But pastors and church leaders are some of the loneliest people I know.
Therefore when a leader like Ravi Zacharias falls into sin I am deeply saddened but my first response is: “Look to your own heart Soo Inn”. In my next article, I will look at some things we all can put in place to increase our defences against temptation. In the meantime, let us pray for the victims of Ravi’s misconduct and their families, and for the members of the RZIM ministry and their supporters. We thank God that He is a God of grace. But if we have sinned we must repent. And we must learn our lessons.