A while ago, a sister from our church suggested that I comment on the scandal surrounding the late world-renowned Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias. I understood her concerns and agreed to give a pastoral perspective on it when rostered. Ravi Zacharias is probably a household name for many Christians around the world, but especially in the US where he is based. He was a popular and prolific speaker and author well known for his work as a Christian evangelist and apologist. Intellectual and eloquent, he gave credible reasons for people to believe in Jesus Christ in an age where religion is increasingly regarded as regressive and irrational. His ministry had a positive impact on many Christians all around the world, and for a long time he was looked upon as a knight in shining armour defending the Christian faith from the onslaught of its detractors. Personally, I have heard him speak in person and online, and I am always amazed by his unrelenting verve and profound eloquence. It was not merely what he spoke, but the way he spoke that compelled one to take the faith seriously.
However, months after he died from cancer in 2020, two Christian news agencies (Christianity Today and WORLD magazine) published reports exposing a hidden chapter of his life. In 2004, Zacharias entered into the spa business with a partner. This was not clandestine but simply a lesser-known aspect of his life. What was completely unknown to the world was that during that time, he repeatedly sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, indecently exposed himself, and performed lewd acts before the massage therapists whom he engaged for treatment. All of them were young unmarried women.
According to his victims, Zacharias would first gain their trust through the conversations they had in private. Some of them knew he was a renowned and respected Christian leader and were glad to share about their lives with him. However, once he gained their trust as a pastoral figure, he would start taking advantage of them sexually—a classic case of sexual grooming. Most of his victims did not speak out because they felt they were nobodies while Zacharias was a well-respected man with money and clout; they thought no one would believe them, or feared repercussion and the loss of their jobs. At least one therapist was fired when she complained about his behaviour to the spa manager: when the complaint escalated to Zacharias, he got defensive and his business partner subsequently gave the therapist the sack.
After allegations of Zacharias sexual misconduct broke in Christianity Today and WORLD magazine, the ministry he founded—Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM)—hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation. What the law firm declared in their interim report was damning: “Combining those interviews with our review of documents and electronic data, we have found significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years. Some of that misconduct is consistent with and corroborative of that which is reported in the news recently, and some of the conduct we have uncovered is more serious.”
However, his flagrancy extended beyond the spas. After exiting the spa business, he had befriended and, again, groomed a married woman named Lori Anne Thompson between 2014 to 2015. After gaining her trust, he initiated an amorous long-distance relationship with her in 2016. She obliged, but eventually realised she had been groomed. When she decided to confess about the illicit relationship to her husband, Zacharias threatened suicide. She went ahead with her plan; he did not.
After picking up the pieces, the Thompsons felt Zacharias needed to be accountable for his actions. According to Lori Anne Thompson, “Given the expansive power differential and our desire for privacy, we chose to confront [Zacharias] with a lawyer.” They took legal action against him in 2017 but gave him the option of settling the matter out of court for five million dollars. In retaliation, Zacharias countersued them, accusing them of extortion and painted a false image of the couple as opportunists in dire straits who just wanted money. Pressured with a counter suit, they had little choice but to settle out of court with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
After silencing the couple with the NDA, Zacharias then released a statement to Christianity Today claiming it was in fact Lori Anne Thompson who initiated an inappropriate relationship. Then he said, “In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind. I love my wife with all my heart and have been absolutely faithful to her these more than 16,000 days of marriage, and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware. I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters—not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else.” Many believed him in 2017. Now it is clear he lied—something anathema for an apologist.
Zacharias was a great Christian evangelist, but he was also undeniably a sexual predator. While his life-long work had built up the faith of many, his unbridled concupiscence had also torn apart the lives of not a few women (and driven them and those who love them from the faith). What are we to make of this?
Perhaps it is easier to know what not to make of it. On social media, many Christians have responded along the lines of “we’re all sinners but God works through sinners.” Dan Paterson, a former speaker for RZIM Australia observed that such responses are problematic as they make it “almost as though what we’re talking about doesn’t matter.” They diminish the trauma, suffering, and shame experienced by the victims, as if the evil perpetrated matters less because the perpetrator had done a lot of good. Furthermore, his misdeeds were not merely indiscretion. Horrible as it might sound, they were premeditated acts of violence committed against another for self-gratification. Nor is it appropriate to excuse him by comparing him to King David in the Old Testament. At least King David repented when confronted by the prophet Nathan. As far as we know, not only did Zacharias not confess and repent of anything when confronted by the Thompsons, he denied the allegations and turned the tables on them. Some Christians even questioned the motivations of those who reported on Zacharias. This is most troubling because Christians are supposed to care deeply about truth, after all, we profess Jesus Christ is Truth. We need to face the truth even if it concerns the sordid deeds of a beloved Christian leader. In any case, facts are facts, regardless of the motivations of who report them, and we ought to do better than passive-aggressive ad hominem attacks on people who care about truth.
Carson Weitnauer, a former employee at RZIM, had since spoken out against Zacharias and wrote that “Ravi Zacharias was not the greatest apologist of his generation—but rather one of its greatest frauds.” As someone had greatly admired Zacharias and worked in his ministry, he was shocked at the extent of what he did to the massage therapists and the manner he responded to the Thompsons. He felt intensely betrayed at how “Ravi had personally and repeatedly lied to me and others in the ministry about his relationship with [Lori Anne Thompson],” and wondered if all the uncovered misconduct suggested that such sexual sins were “part of an ingrained pattern of life stretching over a decade or more.” This is an understandable response, although it is difficult to imagine how Zacharias could sustain a high octane speaking and writing ministry that produced great spiritual fruits if he was a complete fraud—it is hard to do what he did if one has no true conviction of faith. Furthermore, it is hard to deny the genuineness behind what he had spoken and written all these years.
There are no straightforward answers as we have no insight into Zacharias’ heart. Perhaps, even he would have difficulty coming to grips with the deep division within himself. As St Paul himself observed in Romans 7, the fallen human is a creature of contradictions: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We know we are divided persons, and the different spheres of our lives may be lived out in contradiction. We may be a wonderful colleague at work but a horrible spouse at home; we may be warm and friendly in church but cold and nasty to our neighbours. Hence, Acklin and Hicks in their book on spiritual direction writes, “An important goal in life is to integrate all these spheres, interior and exterior. We should strive to relate what is happening inside ourselves with what is happening in our relationships, our work, and our prayer. We strive to integrate what is happening in our thoughts with what is happening in our feelings and with what is happening in our actions across all the spheres of our lives.” Zacharias’ double life seems to suggest he lacked that integration, and his resulting interior contradiction, magnified by his religious clout, resulted in him using his God-given intellect, charisma, and passion for good in the open and for evil behind closed doors.
This is a cautionary tale for all Christians. It is high time we stop making superstars out of Christian leaders by virtue of their ministry success as that makes the stakes too high for them to admit moral failure. When too many see a leader as a paragon of faith, the pressure for him to keep up appearances despite moral failings is high—he gets too big to fail. The only person whom unreserved adulation should be reserved for is our Lord Jesus Christ; before him we are all sinners saved by grace. Furthermore, there should always be an environment of pastoral accountability in churches or ministries to permit leaders to share and confess their moral failings freely. Nobody is perfect, and imperfect people sin. That much is certain.
What should we do about Zacharias’ works? Should we still read his books and watch his videos? The evil he did does not diminish what he had spoken or written. Truths are truths no matter who delivers them, and that applies to Zacharias as well. Personally, I have no qualms reading his books or listening to him speak as I am able to objectively separate his message from his moral failings. However, I would henceforth refrain from publicly quoting or citing him out of respect for his victims and for anyone else who might have experienced sexual violence, lest I be glorifying a sexual predator. Perhaps you may think this an inconsistency, but I too, am a man of contradictions.
Pr Png Eng Keat
February 14, 2021