Some thoughts on fallen Christian leaders:
I have been asked by some Christians for my thoughts on the recent report that came out about the late Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. Plenty has already been written on this issue by others. In one sense, I do not have much more to add to it. While I have not yet written directly on the matter, I did pen two pieces recently that indirectly and generically cover my thoughts on similar sorts of things.
Those two articles do present some of my overall views. On the one hand, we all want to keep ourselves and others up to the highest of standards. But on the other hand, we are all still involved in sin and selfishness, and we all fall in various ways.
The Biblical balance involves seeking to do as Jesus commanded us (“be ye perfect” — Matthew 5:48), while also realising that sinless perfection in this life is not fully achievable. Two extremes need to be avoided here: We should not be making cheap excuses for sin, and we should not play down the seriousness of sin — especially in our own lives. Often those who defend some sin the most vigorously are those who also struggle with it as well.
But we also need to be careful about prideful Pharisaic attitudes: the idea that we could never fall, that we are immune to such things, and that those who fall are somehow so very far below us, spiritually speaking. The truth is, we all could fall spectacularly, given the right circumstances. We are all vulnerable, we all can fall to temptation, and we all need to be very cautious.
As Paul said, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Or as he said in 1 Timothy 5:24, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” Or as we read in James 3:2, “we all stumble in many ways”. So we all need some real humility here.
Overall, my heart grieves whenever I think of this situation. It brings me no joy whatsoever, and it bothers me greatly. He seemed to be such a good public Christian in so many ways: intelligent, articulate, yet humble, respectful and caring. He was a role model to many, including myself. So these new revelations are very hard to take.
As I said, so much has already been penned on this. Let me quote from a few of these pieces, and then I will offer some closing thoughts. Many of these folks said the obvious but still much-needed truths that we need to hear afresh: we need to keep close to God and to others, and we need to be in some sort of accountability arrangement.
One writer who I had not heard of before, Kevin Simington, wrote this piece on his website: “Tear Down Those Idols!” Among other things, he speaks of the pitfalls that we all face, but especially leaders and high-profile Christians. He then says this:
These seductive factors have brought many Christian leaders undone. In recent years we have seen too many high-profile Christian leaders and mega-church pastors disgraced by the eventual unveiling of their sexual sins. It is a tragedy that rocks the faith of many people and brings the Gospel into disrepute.
Of course, not everyone who reaches the giddy heights of Christian fame falls prey to its associated temptations. I am told that the great evangelist, Billy Graham, whenever he was conducting a crusade away from home, would insist that the organisers booked him a twin share room which he would share with another trusted Christian man on his team. In this way, he kept himself accountable so that he would not be led into temptation during the long, lonely hours between speaking engagements. He did this because he was fully aware of his own sexual drive and his potential to fall into temptation.
I honour Billy Graham for this. He did not let his fame go to his head or give him a sense of infallibility. He remained very aware of the dangers of temptation and undertook stringent measures to protect himself from his own sinful desires.
His concluding paragraphs are these:
We must stop idolising our Christian leaders and viewing them as untouchable saints who exist on some kind of unreachable higher spiritual plain. Their great giftedness in a particular area does not magically remove sexual drive and their propensity to sin. We need our high-profile leaders to stop believing their own press and refuse to be placed on the pedestals that their adoring fans build for them. They need to agree with the Apostle Paul’s brutal self-appraisal regarding their own weakness and propensity to sin. And they, like Billy Graham, need to put in place structures and policies that will protect them from being led astray by the evil desires that are common to us all (James 1:14).
It is time to destroy the idols, to tear down the ‘high places’ (2 Kings 23:8-9) that we have built in our modern ‘rock-star’ church culture. It is time to hold each other accountable as brothers and sisters, for the sake of the gospel and the good of Christ’s church on Earth.
I thought the piece by Randy Alcorn was also quite helpful and gave all of us important food for thought. He offers a number of practical pointers which I list here (but only the first sentence of each):
Let’s be quick to confess and repent.
Let’s “finish well.”
Let’s not trust ourselves too much by putting ourselves into temptation.
Let’s not act as if we are spiritually or morally stronger than we are.
Let’s decisively run away from sexual temptation.
Let’s realize Satan has targeted us for destruction.
Let’s lean on each other for moral strength and support.
Let’s remember we can’t keep dark secrets from God, the Audience of One.
I encourage you to read his entire piece, along with the many Scriptures he utilises.
Another commentator, Ray Comfort, said this in part:
The big lesson we should all take from this tragic situation with Ravi is to listen to our apologists and ask, “Are they preaching sin, righteousness, and judgment? Are their hearers being impressed with eloquence, or have they been awakened to their terrible danger? Do they tremble, as did Felix, after hearing Paul preach?” (see Acts 24:25)
Intellectual preaching produces intellectual converts who name the name of Christ, but are strangers to the new birth. Each of us should be asking if we were talked into our faith or if we had an encounter with the living God. If we came through the door of argument, then all it will take is a better argument to cause us to leave by another door. Take to heart Paul’s warning about such so-called conversions:
“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
We are called to be witnesses of Christ. No judge wants an eloquent witness. He just wants to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And the truth is in Jesus. It is in Christ crucified for the sin of the world. Fail to preach that ultimate truth, and we are not true and faithful witnesses.
And on social media, James White reminds us that pastors and teachers are biblical giftings and offices, but not apologists. And care is needed when being on the road so often:
I have been mentioning in my private conversations with people that there is no “office of apologist” in the NT. I have warned for years about apologists who are constantly on the road, constantly in the bubble produced by being “that guy.” I have not been scouring the net for articles on this situation. It is what it is. But I have seen a representative sample, and there is an element missing, importantly, from what I have in fact seen. Apologists have a tendency, a fatal tendency, in my observation. They are not churchmen by and large. They are often on the fringes, often away from the fellowship, often aloof….
I have no idea what church Ravi Zacharias was a member of, or if he even held membership formally anywhere. But reading the report showed me that he was very rarely in whatever fellowship that would have been. He was not a churchman if he was spending weeks and months alone in Asia.
Some questions remain. As to the eternal destination of Ravi, only God knows for certain. Whether he was in any way sincerely repentant at the end of his life remains to be seen. I thank God both for His mercy and grace, but also for His holiness and righteousness. The Judge of all the earth will do right.
All Christians struggle with sin and self — be it sexual sin or whatever. The issue is our approach to it: do we make excuses for it, continue in it without any remorse, and try to defend it? Or do we know it is fully wrong, repent — even often if need be — and let God know we are not happy with this besetting sin (Hebrews 12:1), and really do want His help to overcome?
Two final questions remain. One, should his organisation, RZIM, close down? Probably. It really was built round Ravi, and now that he has passed on anyway, along with these new revelations, it might be best for those still working there to continue their ministries in some other form. But that is up to them to decide.
Two, should we never use his materials again, as some have suggested? That is up to you — and it depends on what you mean by using his stuff. If one were writing or speaking on the topic of integrity for example, then one should steer clear of quoting from Ravi in that regard.
But there is much of value in his books and videos. I will not burn my collection of his books. The truth is, God can use every single one of us believers in various ways, and we are all still sinful and selfish. When I look at my own life, I marvel that God still chooses to use me. (Just ask my wife if you foolishly think I am so perfect!) See more on this here.
I am very sad about the whole thing. I am sad for Ravi, for his family, for his victims, for the Gospel, and for the Lord’s reputation. It is not the first time a noted leader has fallen from grace, and it is not the first time the name of the Lord has been dragged in the mud.
All we can do is look prayerfully and carefully into our own hearts, and seek to be all that God wants us to be, so that we too do not disappoint Him, even if in much less spectacular and much less public ways than Ravi did. While this phrase is often misused and over-used, it still has some truth to it: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
I for one will not rejoice in his downfall, as some folks seem to be doing. It breaks my heart greatly that this has happened. And I know that without the moment-by-moment grace of God in my life, I could just as easily be in the same boat. We all need to stay on our knees in humility and in the fear of God.
I pray for Ravi’s wife and family, and for those who have been his victims. And I pray for all those who may be tempted to turn from their faith because of this. And I pray for myself: “God, by Your mercy help keep me faithful to You, keep me humble, and keep me close to You. I am lost without You.”