Should we burn Ravi Zacharias' books? And how do we bind up the wounds he caused?
The shockwaves continue to reverberate about the revelation of Ravi Zacharias’ sin, with the recently released official report – commissioned by the board of RZIM, the ministry he founded – establishing the truth of the allegations and, in fact, uncovering more. His publisher Harper Collins has taken all his books out of print. Koorong is removing his books from their shelves and from the Koorong Website.
Eternity asked some leaders two questions:
- Should we burn Ravi Zacharias’ books?
- How do we bind up the wounds he caused?
Mary Elizabeth Fisher first met Ravi Zacharias in 1974. She describes herself as a person “encouraged over many years by Margie Zacharias and Ravi”. She spent 30 years overseas in Christian service among students, starting in China in the 1970s and then serving staff and students in universities in the USA and around the world.
Fisher speaks from a background of working with Zacharias. “Back in the 80s, he raised funding for me after he encouraged me to study in the USA. He had me speak in the early 80s and he flew me from England to the USA two years in a row to speak at conferences he was arranging in 1997 and 1998.”
Our priority must be the victims, the [Zacharias] family, the work colleagues. And as people are in great pain or extreme cynicism, we need to lovingly discern: do people need space or do we lovingly create situations of wise community?
There is a lot of potentially unwise response going on, in my opinion.
We need to be able to encourage people to look beyond the abuser to the wondrous truth of the exalted Jesus who is an historical person. If we are not helping people to understand who God is in the solid history of Jesus then we are in a real dilemma when people are confronted by horrific betrayal.
We must always go to the astonishing historical story of Jesus and remind those devastated by betrayal that the Jesus of history is now resurrected and exalted. Through sensitive fellowship we always must direct people to our Creator who has revealed who God is in Jesus.
If we don’t always direct people to the Jesus of history now exalted, we are setting people up to become harangued by discussions of moral outrage.
Many years ago someone said to me: “Your faith needs to be able to contend with the worst evil enacted by Christians and still be able to trust Jesus.” There is only one way to be able to do that and that is by solid teaching based in Scriptural history … If that is not occurring, then people are trusting in a Jesus who doesn’t exist. And when horrific sin occurs, enacted by Christians, then we have not assisted others at all.
Simon Smart, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity reflects on the scale of the damage.
The Ravi Zacharias scandal is a tragedy on so many levels. In his lifetime he influenced countless people, drawing them to God and nurturing their faith. The damage caused by what we now know of his behaviour is profound and incalculable – most obviously for the victims of his exploitative behaviour and also those who were devoted to Ravi and his ministry.
While no leader is perfect, I do think the scale, depth and longevity of the deception; the brazen dishonesty and cruelty shown to women like Lori Anne Thompson, does call into question Ravi’s work, such that it would be very hard to recommend books we might have, up until very recently, confidently offered to someone seeking the truth about Christ. Congruence between what we say and how we live is vital, and even more so in a leader of such influence and power.
This is not the only scandal of recent times that illustrates how treacherous is the cult of celebrity that has infected our culture and, unfortunately, the church. The elevation of individuals to the status of unquestionable or unchallengeable—because their “ministry” is so important—is poisonous for everyone involved and all too frequently ends in disaster.
Stephen McAlpine’s personal story formed part of the exposure of and removal from leadership of Steve Timmis, former CEO of Acts29 and founder of The Crowded House network of churches in the UK. McAlpine’s blog is here.
I tend not to read the books of a fallen leader because you just can’t compartmentalise life – it feels like they’re standing over my shoulder reading with me, and they cast a shadow that makes reading their work difficult. Perhaps that’s psychological as much as anything, in the same way that Michael Jackson’s music doesn’t get aired as much as it used to. Nothing wrong with the music, but the man?
And perhaps it’s to do with the disparity between what is said in the book and how the life is lived. For it’s the same with the likes of John Howard Yoder whose past sexual exploits taint a book with the title Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. In a sense ,that’s the same problem as with Ravi Zacharias – a public apologetic for the gospel in contradistinction to the private life. And what should we say about the great Karl Barth, who kept a mistress in the house alongside his long suffering wife? This is not “Oh King David sinned too.” Given the chance to repent, David did, and the repercussions went on – but going to your grave harbouring unrepentant sin on that scale (at least, without showing any public repentance commensurate to your public life) seems grievous. And sobering for us all.
And once again, as far as followers are concerned? Who are we following. Ravi, Yoder, and Barth would all tell us publicly to follow Jesus, who alone could not be accused of sin, as his resurrection proved.
Jordan Thyer, a former itinerant speaker for RZIM based in Australia says that despite betrayal we should not lose the ability to trust others.
Misplaced trust does not mean that trust is categorically wrong. We are creatures built to trust. Sadly, the fall has affected the whole human race and so people often abuse the trust placed in them. So much of life therefore involves discerning who in generally trustworthy.
Since we are so shaped by our social environments it can often be hard to recognise unhealthy patterns of behaviour in our social circles if other people aren’t recognising them either. Having a wide range of friends and listening to input from those outside our usual social circles can help us recognize things we wouldn’t otherwise. This isn’t a guarantee but it is an act of conscious humility to listen to those who aren’t in your ‘tribe’.
There is a healthy kind of faith in others – but this faith should not be blind faith. Indeed faith / trust is a necessary ingredient in loving relationships. C.S. Lewis makes the insightful observation that, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
So we must not react to our trust being abused by ceasing to trust anyone; otherwise we’ll miss out on good, healthy and life-giving relationships that we all need in order to live well in God’s world. The right remedy to abused trust isn’t to cease trusting others, but to be careful in discerning who we trust.
Our care for those wounded by misplaced trust must be patient, gentle, gracious and consistent. Recovering from a betrayal takes time and so we can love people by not trying to rush that process of restoration.
I’d encourage people to look for gentleness in leaders. Ray Ortlund recently tweeted, “the longer I live, the more I respect gentleness and the less I respect swagger.” To that I say a hearty ‘amen’ as I consider those leaders who’ve modelled a gracious, generous and kind attitude towards others. As leaders pointing to Christ we should endeavour to embody those two features exhibited by the Lord Jesus – the one full of grace and truth. In fact, these characteristics of grace and truth embodied in Christ have had such an impact on me personally that my wife and I just recently named our second daughter ‘Alethea (truth) Grace’.
The apostle Paul contends that our witness is intimately connected to our conduct. In writing to his ministry apprentice and new church leader Timothy, he urges him to watch his “life and doctrine closely” so that he might save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim 4:16). Keeping a close watch on our conduct then isn’t merely about our witness, but also about our own assurance of salvation.
John G. Stackhouse, a Canadian apologist, writes on his blog:
A friend grieves the news of a report on Ravi Zacharias’s awful sins. And there are more on the public record now that don’t show up in this report (such as his absolutely disqualifying lies about his academic credentials, accomplishments, and positions, detailed in Steve Baughman’s well-researched and unjustly overlooked book).
How can he read Ravi Zacharias anymore? Worse, he knew RZ personally and was blessed by knowing him. What, now, about all that, in retrospect? Does he just rewrite his memories and throw away RZ’s books in the shadow of Zacharias’s wickedness?
None of the grace God passed to us through such people excuses their sins, of course …
What I wrote on his Facebook stream I put here, too, in case it can be of some small help:
What remains truly astonishing to me is the undeniable and enduring value in the work of notorious sinners such as Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, and Jean Vanier.
To be sure, I’ve been on my guard for a long time with Barth (and Paul Tillich, similarly) to see whether their theology is actually bent in such a way as to accommodate their sin. (I have yet to come across someone who has taken this hermeneutical approach to either theologian, but hundreds of scholars study them, so maybe someone has.) Same now with Yoder. But still: so much blessing from such toxic streams …
Yet we know Martin Luther was capable of both great blessing and hair-raising cursing. John Calvin and John Knox made terrible decisions as leaders accompanied by invective harsh even by sixteenth-century standards.
None of the grace God passed to us through such people excuses their sins, of course, as none of what little good I’ve been able to do as a teacher and writer excuses one jot of my own considerable transgressions.
I’m just wondering aloud at how God has been somehow able (and, yes, mysteriously willing) to truly bless many others through people who were demonstrably very, darkly wicked. These aren’t isolated cases.
And doesn’t God do the same strange thing every day through me, through you, if only on a smaller scale? It’s all very odd, and disquieting.
(But whom else has God to work with? There aren’t that many saints around …)
Did Eternity get this story wrong?
In the interests of transparency, we report a request that we issue “a retraction of [an earlier Eternity story] in which you called supporters of Lori Anne Thompson ‘detractors’ who were mounting an ‘attack’ on Zacharias, and in which you claimed categorically that Zacharias was not a serial abuser like Jean Vanier?”
The story in question is this one: “Detractors mount an attack on Ravi Zacharias.” This story was published in the week Zacharias died. We felt it necessary to report that the claimant Lori Anne Thompson – in a sexting case against Zacharias – asked a court to be released from a non-disclosure agreement.
The term “detractors” in our headline, referring to those who raised or reported claims against Zacharias, was questioned.
We have been asked to retract the following: “One common meme has been to compare the situation to that of Jean Vanier (founder of the L’Arche communities which support people living with disability). But there was a detailed examination by Vanier’s L’Arche ministry into his background that took a couple of years – and definitively established that he had abused a number of women.”
“Investigations into Zacharias by his denomination, the Christianity and Missionary Alliance, have resulted in a decision not to discipline him.
“So, in the absence of further information, we do not have a Jean Vanier situation.”
Since that story was written in May 2020, the Baughman/Christianity Today report about Zacharias’ ownership and sexual misconduct at massage spas was revealed in September 2020, with the first RZIM report on December 23. We reported all these developments.
Sadly, we clearly do have a Jean Vanier situation now.
This is an example of journalism being the “first rough draft of history”. In this case, several rough drafts.
Eternity stands by its coverage of this story, but we are willing to make readers aware of criticisms.