The evidence is in. Ravi denied it and his friends supported him and attacked those who made accusations, but now there is incontrovertible, undeniable, factual evidence that Ravi Zacharias was a sexual predator – a despicable man who leveraged his ministry position for sexual favors from women. It is an ugly story.
A friend asked a question today that we are called on to answer often in other contexts. “What do I do with all my Ravi Zacharias materials?” (A paraphrase.) It isn’t an issue for me since I do not believe I have any books or materials from Zacharias. I didn’t dislike him, I just never got into his materials. I have, however, faced this conundrum often in recent years. Several of my ministry heroes have fallen into sin and it always puts me into a tailspin. We have argued the question of how we should deal with those who seemed to preach a true Gospel, but owned slaves and were enthusiastic racists. How much of a pass should we give the blatant and unrepentant Founders of the SBC because their racism was part of the zeitgeist of the South?
As long as celebrity pastor culture continues in the SBC, we will continue to deal with these issues. How do we respond when our celebrities, those we have placed on pedestals, show their feet are made of clay? Perhaps Marty Duren had the best take on this.
Make “not having celebrity pastors and theologians” great again.
— Marty (@martyduren) February 12, 2021
While I agree with Marty’s idea, we are who we are. We have a tendency to put our heroes on pedestals and fight for them to the very end. Anyone who even questions the pristine reputation of that hero is an enemy of the gospel. We may have different heroes on our pedestals, but the tendency to deify them and defend them to the end is common.
Every one of us is going to face the question my friend was asking. I have always loved the story of Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening but the knowledge that he was a slave owner cannot be discarded. What should we do about the writings of the SBC”s racist Founders and the fact that buildings are named for them? If someone falls into sin, does that nullify their books and sermons?
I am finishing a sermon series this Sunday on the Book of Job. One of the questions debated by commentators is the role of Elihu, the young man who appears in chapter 32 and delivers 4 messages to Job and his friends. Is he just another one of Job’s friends with a retributive theology? Are his messages extraneous? Or is he the one who delivers the truth of God to Job? I took the view that he was imperfect, cocky, bordering on arrogant (I would joke about him being a recent seminary graduate but people would call me a boomer), who in spite of his imperfections was God’s spokesman delivering truth to Job whose thinking had become badly skewed.
I told my people that Elihu was what every single preacher that they’ve ever heard was – a sinner. Imperfect. Flawed. We sometimes try to convince our people that we are not what we are, but we are weak and fleshly. Hopefully, men of God in the pulpit are committed to Christ and in the process of sanctification, repenting regularly of sin, and seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of God. We are not perfect, but in the process of being perfected. We all fail.
There is a huge difference between being imperfect and being a predator. There is a difference between being men of flesh and blood and walking in the flesh without regard to the things of God. Obviously, there is a line we must not cross. I am imperfect and so are you, but hopefully, we are seeking to grow in Christ and the Spirit is making us more like Christ. Whether Ravi Zacharias was a wolf among the sheep or a sheep who went astray, he crossed a line. He was a sexual predator and we cannot just ignore that because “no one is perfect.”
1. There is a line that is hard to define.
Each of us is imperfect, but God’s grace sustains us. There is a line that we cannot cross. Ravi Zacharias crossed it. Being a sexual predator is not just a “nobody’s perfect” thing. Sexual abuse, abuse of power in the ministry, racism, theological liberalism, these things are not just minor foibles that should be ignored as we move forward. We instinctively know there is a line of disqualification.
In our evangelical cancel-culture, there are some who want to obliterate the ministries of anyone who has a divergent viewpoint on any issue. We tend to extend almost unlimited grace to our friends and heroes while we are quick to shout “gotcha” to anyone on the other side.
Defining the line is always tough and it can be done easily. We are to be a people of grace and also a people of standards, two goals that tend to conflict.
2. We can learn from the failed and fallen
I had an Old Testament commentary from a man who later in his ministry went spiritually and theologically haywire. Did his later foibles render his commentary any less helpful? I love the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” The fact that Horatio Spafford later embraced some theological weirdness doesn’t negate that song for me. I still love it. I heard a song a while back and thought it was wonderful – theologically sound and beautiful. Then I looked at the source. It came from a place I consider horrendous in every way. Can I sing a wonderful song from an opposite-of-wonderful place? Tough questions.
We do not have to cancel every person who strays.
3. There is a time to lower the boom.
There comes a time when a line is crossed that negates the spiritual value of a ministry. Ravi crossed that line in my mind. I would not read, listen to, or quote a man who actively preyed on women. If the choice were mine, the names of our racist Founders would be removed from buildings and ministries – we shouldn’t honor unrepentant racists. A man who preys on women or covers for those who preys on women ought to be out the door. Obviously, denial of fundamental truths of the faith also crosses that line.
Each of us is going to draw that line in a little bit different place, but we need to draw that line.
4. We need to stop putting people on a pedestal.
I say this warily since so many of you have me up this pedestal…wait, I dozed off there.
There are few things less healthy in American Christianity than the celebrity, “Pastor So-and-so can do no wrong” mentality. When we did the Pastor’s Conference, there wasn’t a famous voice on stage, yet each handled the word of God carefully and ably. The SBC has become a celebrity-driven culture and it hurts us.
We criticize the Catholics for venerating saints but we do THE SAME THING. Our icons are less formal but our passions are strong. Criticize John MacArthur or Al Mohler or Paige Patterson and watch those who venerate them squawk. I pick those three because I have seen such extreme passion defending them, but the tendency is much more widespread. Remember the pastor accused of abusing a teenage woman who confessed his affair publicly and the church gave him a standing ovation? They offered NO ministry to the woman but stood and loudly applauded their predatory pastor!
The celebrity pastor culture creates an ungodly and unrealistic view of “men of the cloth.” None of us is worthy of the veneration that some receive. We need to strive to be more real and less ideal, to be more biblical and to manage appearance less.
5. We must draw this line, but will never agree 100%
I am willing to sing a biblically sound song from a group I think is not. Some of you disagree. Fine. I think the names of racists should be removed from our buildings and ministries. Some of you disagree. Okay. Let’s have a healthy debate on it.
We have to draw this line but we are not going to agree on the line. Two things we know.
- “No one is perfect” is a poor excuse to ignore holiness and to refuse to set standards of righteousness.
- The tendency to anathematize people who choose a different toothpaste is also not of God.
We need to draw the line and accept that drawing that line is difficult. Grace is a good thing.