Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing

This was not the topic I was imagining I’d be writing about when I thought to get back into blogging. I’d much rather write some encouraging posts – and there are some in the works.

But during the past few days some revelations in the media were too big to ignore. Both relate to two men who took on the mantle of shepherds of God’s people. Two men who failed in different ways.

The first article from Vanity Fair details the fall of Hillsong New York lead pastor Carl Lentz, as well as some of the many systemic troubles within the church.

Here are a couple of lines that made me pause:

“In his last year of school, Lentz interned for [Brian] Houston, washing his car and picking up his dry cleaning.”

“Carl is like a Brian Houston mini-me,” the former employee says, observing the church leader’s Sunday routine: Taking a chauffeured car to the church’s rear entrance and then a private elevator to the greenroom; sitting in the greenroom watching sports, sometimes chatting with celebrities or athletes who dropped in. “When it’s time for the service to begin, he sits in a special section, surrounded by his people,” the staffer says. “Then he goes onstage. And then he leaves. He never actually interacts with the people he ministers to.”

I’m not keen to comment much further – it feels like an easy snipe at those not in my tribe and the lengthy article does enough of a deep dive into the issues.

The second big piece of news that came out is a bit more personally devastating, and I write this piece now partly as catharsis.

News broke over the past few days concerning Miller and Martin investigative report into allegations of sexual immorality by Ravi Zacharias.

But before I dive into the recent revelations about Ravi a bit of personal background.

I became a Christian in 2001 from a Buddhist home. It was through the reading of some apologetic material (The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel) and going through Christianity Explained that I found myself drawn to the beauty and wonder of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a new Christian, I began devouring whatever books I was given on Christianity.

On May 19th last year, on the news of Ravi’s death, I wrote this in tribute to explain Ravi’s impact on my fledgling Christian life:

“I had just finished a couple of books, and she turned to me and asked, “Are you ready to read something meatier?” She passed me ‘Can Man Live Without God?’ by Ravi Zacharias and I chewed it up. It was the fourth Christian book I had received after becoming a Christian only weeks earlier, and I devoured it. I had already become convinced that the Christian faith was tenable and trustworthy, Ravi’s book (and his subsequent works) also showed me that the Christian faith was also philosophically and logically rigorous and satisfying.”

Ravi’s book encouraged me profoundly. And it was his other works and lectures that also partly inspired me to enter full-time paid ministry. Part of me wanted to be able to help answer questions of the faith in logically rigorous and pastorally sensitive ways – just like Ravi had done for me, I wanted to do with others (albeit on a much smaller local scale compared to Ravi’s global ministry).

A few years ago I, along with many others, heard the news that Ravi had been involved in a sexting scandal. By this point I wasn’t reading much of Ravi’s work anymore – partly because I had less time – and I didn’t follow up much afterwards. I, along with others, took what the RZIM had said on the matter as the final word – they had investigated, and Ravi was cleared. He apparently made some errors and was seemingly repentant.

After his death further allegations surfaced. This time much more serious. Then a few months later the full report was released.

It is devastating.

The report is short but hard reading. Christianity Today has an article detailing some of the background and the current response of RZIM. RZIM has their own post about the matter, and the UK Board of the Zacharias Trust has released a statement as well.

I spent a good day rattled by the report. The details are horrendous. Ravi didn’t simply stumble in sin like we all do, and he wasn’t just a hero with feet of clay – he systematically took advantage of and sexually abused a number of women, using his position and power and authority over them. The manner in which he carried on this abuse and the way he covered himself up are beyond compare. I think it’s fair to say that our generation has not seen a higher profile Christian figure fall so far from grace.

One of my FB friends reposted this open ‘Letter to Christian Friends on Ravi Zacharias’ from David Deane. I want to quote at length some points he has made in response to some of the comments and criticisms of this report that he (and I) have read over the past few days:

I am weary from reading and listening to Christians responding to this report with non-Scriptural Christianese and empty platitudes like “sin is sin,” “Christians shouldn’t judge,” “look how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well,” and “no one is perfect, just look at King David!”

First – “sin is sin.” This is a nonsense tautology empty of meaning. And as it concerns the consequences of sin, it is simply false. God help anyone who thinks the sin of stealing a packet of gum is the same as the sin of rape.

Second – “Christians shouldn’t judge.” Not only is this self-defeating in its very pronouncement, which makes a judgement of certain Christians, it is antithetical nonsense. The Bible calls Christians to “seek justice,” “bring justice,” and “do justice” (Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8). How do you do that without judging rightly? We cannot condemn without judging, but we can judge without condemning. We must.

Third – “look how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well.” A more appropriate case for reflection would be to look at how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, because they, like Ravi, were the leaders of God’s people at the time. The woman at the well was not. Jesus directed some of His harshest words towards the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and that’s the issue here as it concerns Ravi. A basic expectation of New Testament believers is obedience borne out of a desire to honour our Saviour King for who He is and what He has done. Leaders in particular are called to live above reproach, meaning the stakes are higher and full and public exposition and repentance is necessary when failures are realised. Church leaders must be held to account for what has been entrusted to them (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1-16; Titus 1:5-9; Jas. 3:1f, etc.). Nothing about our doctrine of grace is soft on sin.

Fourth – “no one is perfect, just look at King David.” Yes, there are points of similarity between the sins of David and the sins of Ravi, but they are outweighed by some significant differences. For one, David’s crime was local, opportunistic, and compounded; Ravi’s was global, calculated, guarded, organised, stubborn, predatory, and enduringly cruel. “Blasphemy” – the carrying of God’s name for ungodly ends – is the summary word that came to mind when I finish reading the report. And for another, when Nathan confronted David and charged “Thou art the man!” David crumbled in brokenness and repented before the Lord. Ravi was confronted multiple times and we have no evidence that he ever repented and multiple instances where he doubled down and went on the offensive. The RICO lawsuit against Lori Anne Thompson is a case in point. Just three weeks after filing, he was receiving explicit photos, and just one day after his public statement on the settlement (12 Mar 2017), he received more photos. Add to all of this the fact that Ravi himself preached on the moral failures of David, and you have to ask the question: what degree of cognitive dissonance are we talking about here?

I hate that I’m writing this, but I feel compelled by the ugliness of my own heart to do so. Many Christians around the world are understandably hurt, shocked and disillusioned by this scandal that seems to defy everything we thought we knew about Ravi for so long. But these Christianese responses do not move us in the right direction. Part of the reason Ravi’s fall is so posthumously great is because he was placed in such a high almost untouchable position by Christians. We have a tendency in the Church to look up to the Ravi’s and the David’s but the notion of a ‘Christian celebrity’ is an oxymoron. Our culture cries for equality and at the foot of the cross we have it! Every single one of us is equal in our desperate need of Jesus. Don’t look to David – look to Christ!

I want to add a fifth point.

Fifth – “the man is not here to defend himself.” No, he is not. He will ultimately be held accountable to the perfect judge as he is, no doubt, being so at the present moment. But that does not excuse us from looking at this report carefully and listening to the various corroborating voices. The methodology of the report is sound. The witnesses gave credible accounts that verify the allegations. Multiple sources giving similar overlapping accounts must be taken seriously. As seriously as we take the multiple sources giving similar overlapping accounts of the resurrection that we find in the gospels.

Deane goes on his post to say that he will no longer be recommending Zacharias’ books. I feel like I am in the same position. This feels different to a Joshua Harris moment. Harris’ books are no longer in print, but at least when I read his stuff now I can, with sadness, still hear the words of someone who believed what he wrote at the time.

But Zacharias… I have his latest book on my shelf (‘The Logic of God’ released in 2019) but I cannot bring myself to read it, knowing that the truths in that book were written at a time when he was abusing women and covering his tracks.

In the light of all the reports, I’ve come to a sad and troubling conclusion: Ravi was not merely a lost sheep who acted hypocritically, he was a wolf in shepherds clothing.

May God have mercy on his soul.

 

 

P.S

Another comment in response to the question of whether or not we should get rid of Ravi’s books in the light of these revelations, and a great response from one of my friends:

Q: Do we remove the book of Psalms from the Old Testament because of King David’s act of adultery and murder?

A: Not the same.

David repented. The Psalms even contain his explicit statements of repentance. David didn’t gaslight Nathan when Nathan called out his act of rape and murder.

Ravi went to his grave perpetuating the lie that one of his victims — the one who dared to expose him while he was alive — was an extortionist; and conducting illicit relationships based on awful power dynamics around the world, betraying his Lord, the church, his various victims, his wife, his family and colleagues.

 

P.P.S

Another friend has asked whether the news that various Christian bookstores (like Koorong) have removed Ravi’s titles (and his publisher has stopped printing his works) amounts to cancel culture?

To that, I’d say no it does not. It’s a recognition that the teacher’s lessons and his life are inseparable in the biblical worldview. If my conclusion in this post is correct, that Ravi was a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, then his works cannot be recommended. Should they be burned? No. Should they be printed and sold ongoing? No. His works will survive. Records will be kept. But the memory of what he did must forever taint that work.

Published bySteven

Steven grew up in a nominal Buddhist home, was introduced to Jesus in early university and after lengthy debate and reading came to realise that Jesus made more sense of life, meaning, morality and our ultimate destiny. Graduating from Queensland Theological College in 2011, Steven is a Pastor at his home church, SLE Church, in Brisbane, Queensland. Steven is also husband to Steph, father to Jayden, Janessa, and Eliza, and part time blogger. He also loves a good New Zealand Pinot Noir, Australian craft beer, and coffee. Though preferably not mixed together.