Many of you are probably familiar with Ravi Zacharias, a well-known and much-respected defender of the Christian faith. If so, you probably know that he died this past year. Some of you may be aware of the allegations surrounding his life in recent months, and a few of you may know about this statement that was just released by his organization, admitting that essentially all of these allegations were true.
Once again, Christians are faced with shock and grief at recognizing that someone we trusted, looked up to, and learned so much from was living a double life. Public Ravi and private Ravi were two different people.
In the wake of these grievous revelations, many people have been asking, “How can someone like Ravi fall like that?“ It seems that we still think that if someone is a famous Christian leader, they must be a better Christian than the rest of us.
In recent years I’ve come to realize that the question itself is a big part of the problem. “Famous Christian leaders” are increasingly more prone to fall than the rest of us because of the harmful leadership culture in so many of our churches and organizations, especially when it comes to a “celebrity” like Ravi Zacharias.
The report from RZIM confirms the pattern: Ravi was well-respected and highly trusted. He was given a very long leash. He was “held accountable” not by a local church, but by the organization he himself ran. He was surrounded by people who feared and revered him and who allowed him to do basically whatever he wanted. He used generosity to manipulate. When he began to travel with a personal masseuse, or spend weeks alone overseas, the only people who could question him were people on his payroll—people he had immense power over.
And we’re surprised at what happened?
Ravi didn’t go wrong the first time he started messing around with massage therapist. Ravi went wrong when people started treating him special because “he’s Ravi Zacharias!” Things went wrong when people assumed that his public gifts meant he was holier than the rest of us and didn’t need what the rest of us need. And the result is that he became insulated in a culture where he was above questioning, above suspicion, above accountability, and cut off from the normal means of grace that every Christian needs.
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). We should not be surprised when those who are isolated fall; we’ve been warned all along.
King David fell hard with Bathsheba, and every Christian should recognize the capability we each have for evil. Therefore, a wise Christian leader will embrace accountability, transparency, and humility. They will not assume that being a Christian leader means they are above the church. They will be a part of a church, regularly opening themselves up to the uncomfortable but wonderful fellowship and accountability that comes from recognizing we are all on equal ground at the foot of the cross.
As a pastor, I have actually been instructed by an older pastor that we are essentially above accountability because we’re supposed to just have it all together. Large and in charge, a pastor dare not be vulnerable with anybody “under” him because that could give them material with which to attack him. Vulnerability and transparency are for the common folk, I’ve been told; Christian leaders must be strong and never show any weakness to anybody.
These are the assumptions which pervade so many churches and “Christian” organizations, and these are the assumptions which create men like Ravi Zacharias.
This is why, in my first week on the job at EBC, I established a pattern of regular, deliberate, transparent, and often uncomfortable accountability between me and the rest of the elders. If I’m not doing well in any area, they are the first to know about it. It’s also why I look for regular opportunities to be appropriately vulnerable with people, honestly sharing what’s going on in my life and asking for prayer.
I’m not telling you this to toot my own horn—in fact, it’s the opposite. I know what we’re all capable of, and I’m no exception. I need others just as much as anybody else. Pastors are among, not above, the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5).
So what are we to make of Ravi? Ever since the days of Judas Iscariot, Christians have wondered how a man can do so much public ministry in Jesus’ name while hiding so much private wickedness. Years before Judas became a household name, Jesus Himself warned us about those who would do “many mighty works” in His name while inwardly being “workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:22-23). Lord willing, I’m going to get to preach on that passage at the end of March, and I’m looking forward to unpacking some of the answers Jesus gives us to our questions.
In the meantime, I’d encourage you not to let Ravi’s fall cause you to question the truth that he himself proclaimed. Rather, let us be disillusioned with the unhealthy leadership culture in so many churches and “Christian” organizations, where men like Ravi are treated like celebrities, act like CEOs, and think that their position gives them permission to disengage from normal, messy, local church life.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15–16).
This is how Jesus designed us to work. No Christian can survive without the local church, where we are meant to have close relationships with other “normal” Christians who will speak the truth in love to us. You need this. I need this. Pastors of megachurches need this. World-famous Christian speakers need this.
And so in summary, the real surprise of Ravi’s story is not so much that he fell, but that so many of us thought that someone could stand for Jesus without ever being a real part of Jesus’ body, the church.
My encouragement for you is simple: don’t make that same mistake with yourself. Come, gather with God’s people tomorrow, and when someone asks how you are doing, try offering an honest answer. Ask for prayer. Confess your sin. Ask how you can pray for them. “Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).