When Preachers Fail

I was in shock. Disbelief slowly submerged the hope I had in him. A few months ago, RZIM initiated an investigation and discovered the alarming truth behind the allegations of sexual misconduct by Ravi Zacharias. When the reports began to surface, I didn’t want to believe them. Having read many of his books and sat hours under his teaching, I couldn’t bring myself to believe the accusations. Even more painful is the memory of my discussion with Ravi when I met with him.

A few years ago, I flew to Atlanta to the newly built RZIM office for a conference on “Understanding Atheism.” My friend Eric and I enjoyed classes taught by Vince Vitale, Jo Vitale, Abdu Murray, and other apologetic leaders. Then, on the last day of the conference, I was honored to meet with Ravi’s assistant. He graciously introduced me to Ravi and gave me a few minutes to talk with him. The questions I had prepared were weighted with deep pain and confusion.

Let me give you the background. At that time, I was working with two missionaries. One served in the Middle East and the other in Southeast Asia. Both had notable ministries, but as their influence grew and their ministries exploded, the fractures of family strife and sexual misconduct were reported. Because I knew both of these men for years, my heart broke for them and their families. They were guilty of affairs, sexual misconduct, and money laundering. “How could they do these kinds of things? And how was I supposed to respond?” I posed these questions to Ravi. He looked at me with his familiar pondering glance and said, “all you can do is be a good leader. You can’t change them. Just love them at a distance.” Puzzled by his response, I fumbled out a “thank you,” took a picture with him, and returned to the conference. I couldn’t make sense of it. I wanted him to explain how one could be so effective in ministry and yet duplicitous in their personal life. Little did I know that Ravi had fallen into the same pit of sexual misconduct.

Too often, I’ve sat in the uncomfortable seat of confrontation with pastors concerning sexual allegation charges. It brings me no joy to see men or women in the faith fall prey to the ancient sins of perversion. The first question many ask is, “how can this happen?” It can happen very easily. When ministers are hyper-spiritualized and believed to be incapable of wrongdoing, they are set up for a fall. As Dallas Willard says, “power makes corruption apparent, and absolute power makes corruption absolutely apparent.” Zacharia’s scandal warns us that giving pastors a celebrity status in the Church can too often enable them to live like celebrities rather than servants of Jesus.

However, before you pick up the stones of critical thoughts toward those pastors whom you’ve always had a “funny feeling” about, it may prove to be a better exercise to look within at the areas of duplicity in your own life. You may say, “I didn’t do what those preachers did.” This may be true, but you must ask, “how did they reconcile regular sinful behaviors?” It began, as it does for everyone, with an unwillingness to confront minor sins. It starts with excuses for outbursts of anger, or a lustful glance, or a few white lies. Self-deceiving comments such as, “I’m too busy to talk about that,” or “God understands my heart” pave the road to the end of one’s character and the beginning of a deep-seated deception. When a leader excuses the little sins, their seemingly small oversights will accumulate, and before you know it, a few years of deception will pass. In the end, this will cause them to evaluate their life’s success by the works they have done rather than by the person they have become. Finally, when the anointing on their life carries them further than the character they possess, they will stand on the thin ice of public opinion, and the weight of denial will crack the ground beneath them.

Looking back, I regret not asking a few more questions in the short time I had with Ravi. Yet, I realize he was not accountable to me. I didn’t personally know him, though I would have loved to at that time. But moving forward, let me share a few safeguards to help you navigate your growth as a Christian leader.

  1. Be transparent with your inner circle. My family has access to all my digital accounts. From my Prime Video to Facebook to my Instagram feed, my wife and kids can access all my accounts through my phone. This keeps me accountable because I know I’m raising four young men in a twisted world. They need to see how I manage my purity. We have regular chats, and as a family, we frame our convictions on sexuality using the scriptures we read. I’m not implying that we are all perfect, but this means we work to be transparent.
  2. When you make a mistake, repent. This is a common occurrence in the Samuel house. I find that sharing my struggles with a repentant heart teaches my kids how to deal with their failures in a healthy way. When I lose my temper or get frustrated, I must do the humble work of asking for forgiveness.
  3. Refuse to treat your pastor or Christian leaders as if they can do no wrong. I have many great men and women in my life whom I hold in high regard, but they are not so high that I don’t question their behavior. This is not an excuse to critically view all leaders; instead, it is an encouragement to treat the leaders you know with accountability. What does this mean? It means you should feel the liberty to present the questions of accountability to the leaders who are teaching you how to follow Jesus.
  4. If a pastor or leader in your life can’t be questioned, you may need to consider if your trust in them is healthy. What do you do if you can’t ever challenge your pastor or leader? You find another one who can be transparent with you. As a pastor, I have to make opportunities for those who follow me to question me. Jesus gave this opportunity to His disciples. He often asked them to discuss how they felt about him and his teachings. (Matthew 16:13-15, Luke 9:18, John 10:31-38, John 6:60-63) If Jesus did it, we would be wise to allow close friends to question us.
  5. Don’t feed the wolves. When a leader falls, don’t feed them to the wolves. Forgiving those who have wronged you directly or indirectly is the essence of the gospel. In the case of the charges brought against Ravi, all I can do is honor the message of apologetics he taught to the Church. Some react by pledging to burn all his books and discard all his teachings. However, the message Ravi taught was not his; it is the gospel of Jesus. Though Ravi lived in contradiction to the unnegotiable principles of sexual purity and truth, those principles stand firmly in the person and work of Jesus. As Jesus lived and continues to live, so are we to live. (John 14:19)

I’ll close with this last point. There is something in our human nature that often is provoked when we see this sort of injustice. A part of us wants a resolution for those victims who suffered wrong. This desire is right and should be fulfilled. We should pray for the victims who suffered due to Ravi’s misuse of power and position. We should pray for his family and friends who are suffering in ways that I cannot even begin to understand. But if your heart takes this disappointment with godly leaders a step further into a disappointment with God, then you may need need to consider the liberty given to each one of us. If you say, “why didn’t God stop Ravi from hurting so many people?” I completely understand your frustration. However, God could no more stop a Christian leader from sinning as he can stop you from sinning against Him. He waits in the hope that you and I will yield our will to Him. This is how we see the completed and perpetual work of redemption in our lives. Should RZIM be held accountable? Yes. In reading their repentant response and plan to aid the victims, I can say they have walked this disastrous scandal out with great humility.

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