Making a Bad Situation Worse: The Ravi Zacharias Scandal and The Temptation to Whitewash Sin

Desolation and Resurrection: Living in the Saturdays of Life
April 1, 2021

By Walid Zailaa

Recently, many Christian thinkers, pastors, and church leaders have pondered over the shocking allegations of sexual misconduct against the late Ravi Zacharias. To help their congregations absorb the reality of what went wrong with the “great” Ravi, many rushed to either defend, attack, or try by any means possible to explain what happened. I do not intend to discuss the scandal but rather reflect on the language and key phrases some Christian leaders have used in this discussion. In particular, I will focus on three notions that have been widely used to preserve Ravi’s image and minimize the repercussions of the scandal: (1) certain people can be great; (2) some sins are not exceptional because we are all sinners; (3) someone’s failures can be mitigated by leading millions to Christ. These are making a terrible situation even worse by softening wickedness and reinforcing bad theology.

First, Ravi’s sacred “celebrity” status, which was well protected during his life, is well defended after his death. Some, in an attempt to whitewash his sin, would portray Ravi in a glorifying framework. Expressions such as “the great,” “the greatest apologist,” and “the famed evangelist,” have been broadly employed to elevate Ravi’s reputation. “Greatness” in this sense is synonymous with qualities like intellectual prowess, global celebrity, academic achievements, and charismatic leadership, to name a few. Most likely, we would not refer to those behind the scenes, who contributed to his so-called greatness, as equally great, nor would we even consider discussing any of them if they happened to morally trip and fall. What makes one member of the one body of Christ greater than another member? Is it biblically valid to compare members of one body?

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul uses the analogy of the one body to emphasize the equal significance of each member. The parts of the body personified in Paul’s example include the head (eye/ear), the hands, and the feet, which arguably imply a view from above. For the Corinthians, it was common to see in this analogy a reference to those who spoke in tongues as considering themselves superior to those who did not. But Paul says that appearances deceive. If one removed an organ because it appeared weak, the body would cease to be whole. All parts are necessary and equal no matter what one may think. Simply put, aspiring to greatness involves becoming what God intends us to be no matter how big or small the work we do, no matter the magnitude of our influence, and no matter the scope of our functionality. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you…’ Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:14-27).

Putting Ravi on the hallowed pedestal to preserve the image of greatness and restore his reputation is detrimental to everyone, including Ravi himself.

Second, expressions such as “we are all sinners” and “it could happen to any of us” have been widely used to minimize the severity of the accusations against Ravi. No doubt we are all sinners, but the way we respond to sin is what makes all the difference. The final act of sin is the product of what lies underneath. Sadly, some who defend Ravi under the pretense that “we are all sinners” are barely scratching the surface by shedding light on the final act of sin, without any attempt to investigate the facts or understand the layers of aberration that led to the act itself.

The accusations against Ravi show predatory acts that were well planned, shrewdly executed, and reveal that his leadership structure failed to provide any real accountability. It is too dismissive to explain the behavior with a sweeping statement that “we are all sinners.” This generalization is, unfortunately, a destructive oversimplification. Repentance and confession are two key traits of Jesus followers; it is part of our journey of growing and moving forward in faith.

Ravi’s actions clearly do not indicate someone who attempted to overcome temptation. He maintained unchecked power for more than a decade and rejected any type of accountability by shunning those who dared to question his actions. This does not correspond to someone who is committed to being transparent, vulnerable, and accountable; silencing a victim with a non-disclosure agreement does not suggest someone who confessed personal sin and repented. No, we are not all sinners in the sense that we cling tight to unrepented sin.

Third, expressions such as “he led millions to Christ” and “he influenced millions of atheists” have been largely applied to absorb the repercussions of Ravi’s abuse. The fact that someone led millions to Christ is a myth. No one can lead anyone anywhere. This is the work of the Lord through the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of people. Each one of us, including Ravi, is a tool that God is using to bring about His will in the lives of others. This is to say that God can and will reach out to His people with or without us. Can a plowshare claim that it caused the excessive harvest in the field to happen? Of course not. This is the holistic work of the farmer who used the plowshare to plow the land at a certain time of the year on top of other agriculture work. The simple fact is that the plowshare cannot cause or hinder the field to yield. If the plowshare is working in harmony with the farmer’s plan, it will contribute to the harvest at the end of the season. If not, it will be substituted with another one. In any case, the harvest will happen.

Jonah, the stubborn prophet, is a classic example. In his unwillingness to convey the Lord’s compassion for the nations, he was not hindering God’s will from being executed. God will reach out to the people of Nineveh one way or another; it is out of God’s love, mercy, and care that He wanted to teach Jonah a lesson and use him to communicate His message. The destiny of the people is not determined by the competency of Jonah. Had Jonah remained unresponsive, God would have sent someone else to deliver His message. In the end, through Jonah, the whole city repented, and he “led” more than 120.000 persons to the Lord. We do have a responsibility to work in God’s field but “what then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom [the Corinthians] believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:5). “Success” or “fame” in ministry is not ours to claim and, definitely, should not be an easy exit to whitewash our sins.

The destiny of the individuals that Ravi had led to Christ did not hinge on Ravi’s availability, skills, power, or ability to argue. It is not about Ravi, it is about the Lord who uses Ravi and others to make His will known. It is God’s world, field, ministry, and church and only He will lead people to Himself.

No one is great, we are all equal members of the one body as long as we are faithful to the talent that God has entrusted us with.  No, we are not all sinners in the same way, our motivations play a significant role in making the distinction. No one can lead anyone anywhere, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words: “so you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Luke 17:10.

The words of the Lord according to Ezekiel: “precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, say to those who smear it with whitewash that it shall fall!” (Ez. 13:10-11).

Woe to us when we try to smear the wall with whitewash! It shall fall.

Walid is the Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at ABTS.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff Schultz says:

    Excellent, sobering, biblical reflections.

    The other response I’ve seen is “Why tarnish his name? He’s dead and he can’t defend himself.” To those, I would answer 1) We are people of the truth and should not support clear dishonesty when accusations have been made; 2) We should care more for healing and helping the vulnerable and wounded than protecting someone’s (unearned) reputation; 3) It can be hard to admit that the person we admired and supported did horrible things. Ravi’s own ministry has (belatedly) acknowledged his and their wrong and the truth of the accusations. The desire “not to speak ill of the dead” can reveal a self-protection on the part of the speaker. My identity is in Christ, not the celebrity I’ve supported and admired.

    • wzailaa says:

      Thank you, Jeff, for your feedback and answer. Indeed, our identity is in Christ and only in Him. Appreciate your input.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: