The Christian church is no stranger to scandal. Tragically, when we hear of Christian leaders falling into moral failure, we are hardly surprised anymore. I decry my own cynicism in this regard, but the sad truth is, these kinds of stories are far too common. However, one of the more recent scandals to come to light left even me shaking my head. How could the great Ravi Zacharias be nothing more than a fraud?
Over a 40 year career as a Christian minister, Ravi Zacharias built a reputation among Evangelicals as the world’s leading Christian apologist. He was the author of over thirty books wherein he boldly defended the merits of the Christian faith. He was the founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), an organization that proliferated his work across the globe. At the time of his death, in May 2020, it was widely believed that Ravi Zacharias selflessly gave his life for the cause of the Christian Gospel.
But did he really?
It turns out that Ravi Zacharias had a rather dark secret life that only came to light following his death. In late August of 2020, it was alleged that Zacharias had engaged in sexual misconduct and abuse in connection with two-day spas with which he had an affiliation.
In light of these allegations, the board of RZIM commissioned Miller & Martin, a law firm with experience in corporate and sex crimes investigations, “to conduct an independent investigation, giving them a broad scope to pursue any avenues that they judged to be relevant to the accusations.”
In February 2021, the results of this inquiry were laid bare for the world to see, and it was not pretty. The four-month-long investigation found that the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation to exploit and abuse multiple women. The full report can be found here.
Those interviewed as part of the investigation described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape. Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the USA and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, some of them naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
According to Christianity Today: “When he died in May, he was praised for his faithful witness, his commitment to the truth, and his personal integrity. Now it is clear that offstage, the man so long admired by Christians around the world abused numerous women and manipulated those around him to turn a blind eye.”
Immediately and logically, people began to ask the most obvious question: How could this happen? How could a man who was accountable to two different governance boards — RZIM and the Christian Missionary Alliance (from whom Ravi Zacharias received his ordination until it was posthumously revoked) — manage to commit all of this evil without someone noticing?
Since Ravi Zacharias will never face up to the music — at least in this lifetime — blame was apportioned elsewhere — most of it quite fairly — at the feet of the organizations that were supposed to be holding the man accountable. “How could we have known what this man was doing secret?” They pleaded.
And perhaps they are partly right.
Or maybe this whole sorry saga and the many church scandals of days gone by point to a more systematic problem. Maybe — just maybe — something has gone awry at a cultural level in the Christian church making these sorts of episodes as predictable as they are despicable. Let me explain.
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The Making of Hypocrites
Let me share with you a quote from Ravi Zacharias that has not aged well:
“I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.”
No kidding, Ravi!
This quote is from an aptly titled book: Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend. The irony of this particular title is not lost on me, given the staggering lack of integrity displayed by Ravi Zacharias. He has taken us all for fools, and we join a chorus of many voices when we cry, “Hypocrite!”
The word hypocrite comes from the ancient Greek word “hypokrites” — “an actor” or “a stage player,” or “one who wears a mask.” That seems to describe Ravi’s actions quite well, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: At some point, Ravi was given a mask to wear and a stage to stand on. Where did he get his mask? Where did he learn to act? Without condoning his behavior in the slightest, I propose that Ravi Zacharias learned these skills from the church itself. In fact, the church is fertile soil for producing hypocrites — those who act and pretend. Here’s why:
Our need to belong
People want to belong. It’s in our nature. We want to believe that we are part of a system that loves us and accepts us. Church, for many people, is a belonging system.
The thing is, belief, in any system, is a social exercise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the evangelical church. If you want to fit in, there are a bunch of so-called, not-negotiable “truths” that you must ascribe to. Many of them are extra-Biblical and have more to do with tradition and dogma than the actual practice of following Christ.
You will quickly find yourself frozen out if you begin to question certain things like Scripture’s inerrancy, for example.
Don’t talk too loudly about how you support gay marriage. And mention that you do not believe in a literal seven-day creation narrative at your own peril. Anyone on the liberal end of the spectrum is treated as an object of suspicion.
When it comes to free-thinking, there is very little room to move in the evangelical church. People who hold to views that deviate from what is considered orthodox are most certainly shamed — both behind their backs on the gossip circuit and from the pulpit when the alarmed Pastor seeks to correct your wicked heresy before it takes root and leads others astray. You can sense the concern in your well-meaning Christian friends when you express your doubts and difficult questions.
Most of us care so much about belonging that we suppress and bury these uneasy feelings for the sake of fitting in.
After all, we have seen what happens to people who refuse to conform: They always end up on the outer.
Our need to belong often trumps our better nature — even when it comes to church — ironic though it seems.
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Our inability to measure up
Not only are there a bunch of so-called, not-negotiable “truths” that you must ascribe to if you wish to belong in the church, there are also standards of behavior. Many Christian churches place such a burden of behavior on their attendees that Jesus Christ himself would have a hard time living up to them.
It is a great irony that the church preaches a message that says, “Come to God as you are and receive full acceptance,” while simultaneously promoting a performance-based religious system with obvious boundary markers about who is “in” and who is “out” and what is and is not acceptable behavior.
Some of the behavior that is expected amounts to nothing more than common decency, but in many churches, there is a burden to be somehow better than the average human, denying and repressing our normal human actions, emotions, and reactions as if they were shameful to God.
Good Christians don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t get angry, definitely don’t engage in pre-marital sexual activity, and pretty much don’t sin. Good Christians are always patient, always generous, always loving, and above all, always nice.
Parishioners are subjected to weekly sermons which, when you boil them down, are simply a message of condemnation: “You’re doing it wrong! Get better, do better, do this more, do this less, have more faith,” and so on.
The weapon used to make people conform to these standards of behavior is ‘shame.’ If you fail to meet the standard, you will be made aware of it — either explicitly through the confrontation of concerned parishioners implicitly by being shunned.
Guilt-based religion and shame work well to keep the troops in line because shame certainly is a powerful motivator — but only in the short term. It does not result in real, lasting transformation.
Sinning behind closed doors
At some point, most people realize that the kind of behavioral standards espoused and expected by the church are both impossible to reach and exhausting to try to reach. We grow weary.
And yet, we don’t drop the ball because we still have an insatiable desire to be loved and accepted by our “family of faith.” So what do we do, instead? Our fear of rejection causes us to take our sins and vices behind closed doors. We hide all the parts of ourselves that we deem unacceptable to our church community — our doubts, sins, and insecurities.
The church becomes a place where people sin privately and then present on Sunday as if everything is well. It is not a safe place to “come clean” to share doubts, to confess sin, to question, to admit that one has got it wrong. It’s not even a great place to find forgiveness. To do something as brave as confessing one’s sins in the church would be akin to placing oneself before a firing squad and hoping for the best. Why would anyone want to “be real” in church when their very sense of belonging is at stake?
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The logical end
In every sense, it feels like, in a church, you cannot be both fully known and fully loved — for to be fully known would be to be rejected based on the invisible and unspoken expectations placed on Christians by the church that everyone is, in fact, struggling to meet. This perpetuates the very problem that harkens back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve felt that they had to hide their nakedness from God. They believed that if God saw them fully, he would reject them outright.
As a result, so many who attend churches pick up their fig leaves and cover their own shame and sense of not measuring up. Christians are forced to pretend, repress, deny, or become hypocrites because nothing they do will ever be good enough. It is not so much that hypocrites join churches, but that the evangelical church’s very structures encourage people to act and pretend.
So, what does this all have to do with Ravi Zacharias?
Well, there is absolutely no way that Ravi Zacharias was ever going to come clean about his vices. Legalities aside, the thought of being rejected forever by the very system in which he found his meaning, identity, purpose, importance, and sense of belonging, was far too painful. So, the charade went on and on.
What a great pity that there was no safe person and no safe place for Ravi to go to where he could say: “I am struggling with temptation,” or “I have a sex addiction” or even “I have done a terrible thing, and I need help.”
This is not to downplay the seriousness and the vileness of his actions, but only to say that we ought not to be surprised when “great men of the faith” fall into moral decline and find them to be hypocrites, because the church system, by its very nature, does not give one any confidence or reason to be vulnerable and transparent.
Is there hope?
It would be reasonable to suggest that, to varying degrees, one needs to conform their actions and beliefs to fit within any belonging system, so why should the church be any different?
I’ll tell you why.
The church purports to represent an all-loving God. That God, if he be God, neither acknowledges nor gives any weight to the games we play and the masks we wear in order to fit in. It would be pointless to pretend with a being that knows the truth in any case. His is an unconditional love and acceptance, that does not need to be earned and striven for. His love is so vast and expansive that all of our sin, our vices, our doubts, and our inadequacies are abe to be accommodated within it.
As long as ‘belonging’ in the church is conditional on performance, then people within its walls will continue to hide themselves, to fake it, to pretend to act, and present the veneer of righteousness that covers the ugly truth. There will be others like Ravi Zacharias.
But, could we create a church where people could really come as they are and find acceptance and love regardless of who they are, what they’ve done, and what they are struggling with? Could they find the help that they need without the judgment that they fear?
I can only hope.
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This post was previously published on medium.com.
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