Ravi Zacharias. Photo by Carlo Millan.
Bill Hybels. Carl Lentz. Jerry Falwell Jr. Now, sadly, we add the late Ravi Zacharias to the list of global Christian leaders whose sexual indiscretions have left their reputations in tatters.
Greater still is the damage done to Christian witness, and to the faith of many, whose journey as believers will have been signposted by sermons, seminars and books headlined by these names.
Christians are scrambling to take back Zacharias’ books given to pre-believing friends, extending apologies for once approving of the apologist.
The fallout from the news of Zacharias’ many indiscretions will add a further aftershock to this damage done. The church has not responded well to the revelations. An outsider looking in will find a house boisterously divided on many issues.
- How far should an inquest into a dead man’s past actions go?
- Should we be more outspoken with the castigation?
- What worth his literary (if not his moral) legacy?
- Was Zacharias even saved?
There are many lessons yet to be taken from this – with more sure to come as details continue to surface from investigators and those most affected by his actions.
For now, I look to the Apostle Paul for guidance on how we can respond to the news that someone who preached Christ for a lifetime ultimately did so concealing a double life of falsehood and moral failings.
The first chapter of Philippians finds Paul musing about the contrast between him – in chains in prison but daring to preach the Gospel (Philippians 1:12-14) to little personal gain – and others who preach Christ for all the wrong reasons.
LESSONS FROM PHILIPPIANS 1: HOW TO RESPOND WHEN FALSE TEACHERS ARE REVEALED
1. Is Christ aggrieved? Repent.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” (Philippians 1:15-17)
There are potentially many perks a successful preacher can eke out of his talents. Fame and fortune. Adoration and adulation. Prestige and power.
Without the right perspective on ministry, not to mention institutional checks and balances, there exists tremendous potential for abuse of these perks. The power to cow members into submission. The ability to threaten men and women into committing unspeakable acts.
All this happens when we forget our motivation: Only our love for Jesus Christ, only the humbling thought of Him crucified. When we allow our carnal desires a say in the proceedings – envy, rivalry, selfish ambition – we shift to serve a different lord. Self.
I write this with fear and trembling. I preach; I teach; I lead relatively prominent ministries.
It would not be difficult for me to bend organisations to do my unchecked bidding, let alone others who command even more attention and speakers’ fees. Keep me honest, O Lord.
Very little good has come out of the Ravi revelations so far, but if there is one good thing we can yet salvage from this, it is the disturbing idea that we are all susceptible to temptation, and we are only one ill-advised act – which becomes two, then three, until it’s a pattern and a pit we can’t climb out of – from incurring the wrath of God.
At my church staff meeting this morning, the usual operational proceedings were taken over by a 1.5-hour discussion on what we are doing, and what more we can do, to hold each other accountable so we do not fall.
We discussed accountability apps, strengthening our marriage programmes and confessional and restorative groups.
All good and needful. But we all agreed – the one overriding posture that must be the foundation of any response is the fear of the Lord. This includes the desire to pursue holiness; a disgust with sin; and the determination to do whatever it takes to please God.
Is Christ aggrieved by any aspect of our personal life or the way we do church?
Repentance must be not merely personal but institutional.
Any direct victims of Zacharias’ acts must be heard out and ministered to with the utmost compassion. Churches must adopt appropriate measures to ensure no one person can get away with such abuse of power.
Is Christ aggrieved by any aspect of our personal life or the way we do church? Zacharias’ fall from grace shows us the urgency of repentance.
2. Is Christ preached? Rejoice.
“But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18)
If you take Paul’s word literally, it means that even when someone with hidden agendas preaches the Gospel – well, that’s a good thing. Rejoice.
This may not be to everyone’s liking given the current cancel culture climate.
We are starting to see the erasing of Zacharias’ works and legacy from the Christian landscape. The British chapter of the apologetics organisation that bears his name has severed ties with the parent American organisation.
Now all past good that Zacharias may have done, indiscretions notwithstanding, is in the process of being invalidated.
What of the lives that were transformed by his teaching? What of the souls that were saved when he issued the call to salvation? Should those be negated too?
Surely not. Surely the power of the Gospel transcends the fallen, mortal vehicle that delivered it. Surely the name of Jesus should outlast that of Zacharias, who proclaimed it.
If anyone was significantly influenced by the words and work of Zacharias – don’t discount all that in the light of recent revelations.
As Paul says, what does it matter? Did you worship Ravi or Jesus? What is the important thing? That Christ was preached.
Pardon the random cultural reference, but I have the words of Oasis ringing in my head as I write this. “Don’t put your lives in the hands/Of a rock and roll band/And throw it all away”.
Surely the power of the Gospel transcends the fallen, mortal vehicle that delivered it.
If your faith in Christ was strengthened through Zacharias’ teaching over the years, that was the Holy Spirit speaking to you, not the man.
Sometimes God finds a donkey to get his point across. We don’t worship the donkey.
So, when Christ is preached – even with the wrong motivations – rejoice. Keep your focus on the Jesus being preached, not on the preacher.
3. Is Christ faithful? Rely on Him.
“Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” (Philippians 1:18-19)
If this feels like a dark moment for the Church, it is.
The witness of one of our leading lights has been forever tarnished, his voluminous archive of defences of the faith unlikely to ever again be referenced by seekers or scholars. He’s hardly the first to fall from grace, and sadly, he won’t be the last.
But this God of ours – redemption is His speciality.
Darkness overwhelmed by His marvellous light. Sin overcome by the blood of Jesus. Death giving way to eternal life.
I don’t know how He’s going to do it in this case. But I know He will turn to good what the enemy means for evil.
Maybe we can start having some deep and honest conversations about some of the issues rooted in celebrity church culture. Maybe we will be forced to learn how to defend our faith for ourselves, rather than pull quotable quotes from others.
Maybe this will be the start of a movement towards true accountability, a real hatred for sin and an honest pursuit of holiness. Maybe this will force the global church into a season of repentance – which always precedes revival.
God only knows. I can’t wait to see how He will deliver.
4. Is Christ worthy? Remain in Him.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20)
Sometimes Christ is exalted in how He shows up in someone’s life. Christlike behaviour, Christ-affirming choices.
And sometimes Christ is exalted in someone’s death. Maybe not in celebrating a life perfectly lived – but in the case of Ravi Zacharias, a death which shows up the true fallen state of man, even seemingly the best of us. This all the more reveals our need for a glorious Saviour.
Why search so hard for a hero of faith when Jesus stands right before us?
Don’t put your lives in the hands of a rock-star preacher. Only in the Rock.
In hindsight, one possible warning sign was the fact that the disgraced apologist’s organisation, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, was named after the man himself.
I’ve spoken to various staff in the organisation and even prior to these revelations they viewed the RZIM name with a certain ruefulness. They acknowledged that the name Ravi Zacharias drew the crowds, but said Jesus should have taken symbolic top billing.
There was similar fallout when Carl Lentz was removed from his position at Hillsong New York. Many left the church, disillusioned by this one man’s failings.
In our church, in our teachings, in the witness of our lives, who exactly is being exalted? Is it Jesus?
How stark and necessary a reminder: Don’t put your lives in the hands of a rock-star preacher. Only in the Rock.
Only Jesus Christ is worthy. Only Jesus Christ must be exalted in our lives, such that even come our death, the attention and the fame and the glory remain all His.