Ravi Zacharias and the Moral Failure of Spiritual Leaders

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Update (2/16/21): Since the original publication of this article on January 18, the full report of independent investigation into the sexual misconduct of Ravi Zacharias has been released. A link is provided in the Open Letter from the International Board of Directors of RZIM on the Investigation of Ravi Zacharias.

In December 2020, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries released an interim report of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against their ministry founder Ravi Zacharias, world-renowned apologist and evangelist. Sadly, the report “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.”

When Leaders Fall

When I first heard the news of credible evidence that Ravi had sexually harassed several women who worked as massage therapists at a spa he co-owned, it was like a punch in the gut. This was a man I respected. I read his books and listened to his podcast weekly. Before smartphones, I listened to him on the radio. I even went to hear him speak in-person at a large Christian university. I’m not sure if a month has gone by in the last 20 years of my pastoral ministry that I haven’t been “fed” by him. I used his stories as sermon illustrations and quoted him often. Though I did not personally know Ravi Zacharias, I took his moral failure personally.

We easily forget that God’s blessing on a ministry or a person is no guarantee of their personal righteousness.

As I sat at my desk in my pastor’s study and first began to reflect on the news, my eyes drifted to some of the books in my pastoral library. I counted close to twenty books that have been written by men who experienced failure in ministry. Bill Hybels, former pastor at one of the largest churches in America, sexually harassed several women connected to his church over a span of decades. The sad irony is that he authored books on authenticity, character, and transparency. I also have several books written by James MacDonald, former pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, which I once visited. MacDonald was removed from his position for a pattern of bullying, accusations of sexual harassment, authoritarian behavior, and a lack of transparency in finances—including misappropriation of church funds. He even joked about planting child-porn on the computer of the CEO of a Christian magazine who had written articles that exposed him. I have another book on counseling written by a former pastor who was removed from his position due to accusations of child molestation. On and on I could go.

Only God knows if other authors whose books line my shelves have hidden sins that are deeply buried and just waiting to be exposed. As I sat at my desk glancing at these books and thinking about these men, I wondered what my response should be to the failures of others in ministry.

A Time To Lament

First, if someone in ministry fails morally, it is a time for lament. Biblical lament is mostly a lost art. Yet it shouldn’t be when one realizes that around a third of the Psalms are laments. The entire book of Lamentations is a lament in which the prophet Jeremiah weeps over the sin and destruction of the city of Jerusalem. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem and lamented their rejection of him.

Lamenting is far more than just weeping. Many of the laments in Scripture are prayers. The psalmist often pours out his emotions, fears, frustration, and struggles to God, sometimes breaking through to a clear expression of hope in him.

So I sat at my desk and lamented. I too began to pour out my emotions, fears, frustration, and struggles to God. I lamented for the victims of sexual abuse whose stories were not believed—or even worse, were believed but covered up. I lamented for the families and children of fallen pastors and leaders. I lamented for churches and ministers who will suffer due to the sin and hypocrisy of their leaders. I lamented for those whose faith may be shaken by the lack of integrity in trusted examples. I lamented that these leaders got away with their sin for so long. I lamented that their sin has put a blight on God’s name and the church’s reputation. I lamented because some churches and ministries that knew about the sin denied it, ignored it, and covered it up.

I found myself praying Psalm 119:13: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” And in the end, I simply had to place these situations in God’s capable and sovereign hands.

A Time to Pray

Prayer should be a Christian’s natural response to something so heartbreaking. The psalmists were moved often to prayer after national and spiritual tragedies (e.g., Ps. 44; 51; 60; 74; 85).

So in addition to prayers of lament, I prayed for the victims of spiritual and sexual abuse. I prayed for pastors I know of who have fallen and are still living. I prayed that they would experience a spirit of true brokenness and repentance. I prayed for their families and ministries. I prayed for myself, knowing my own weakness and tendencies. I prayed that justice would prevail, whatever the consequence may be. 

I found myself praying Psalm 7:9: “Put an end to the evil of the wicked, but establish the righteous, O righteous God who searches hearts and minds.”

A Time to Search Our Hearts

Furthermore, my prayer was a time of personal heart searching. Sadly, I am not exempt from the danger of moral failure and spiritual shipwreck. I too face the perils of money, sex, and spiritual power. I am often tempted to look when I should not look, to use my position and power as leverage to get what I want, and to embrace materialism.

If you have hidden sin, do not wait for it to destroy your life and legacy. Run to a trusted pastor or mature Christian friend.

I once heard someone describe a dangerous part of the sea that led to many shipwrecks. The ships that were wrecked on its rocks couldn’t be removed, so they remained like a graveyard on the waters. If other ships passing by the area would get too close to the danger, the captain would steer clear of the area. Those wrecked ships served as a warning to stay away. That story then reminded me of something that Charles Spurgeon once said: “One man’s shipwreck should serve as another man’s beacon.” So it is with us. If you have hidden sin, do not wait for it to destroy your life and legacy. Run to a trusted pastor or mature Christian friend.

With this in mind, I found myself praying 1 Corinthians 9:7: Lord, help me to “discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

A Time to Guard Our Hearts

Finally, it is a time to make sure our own hearts are guarded. As someone has said, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. In the Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” Even in the most courageous of all hearts, there remains the potential for great failure. Remember Saul? Even in the godliest of all hearts, there remains the potential for great evil. Remember David? Even in the wisest of all hearts, there remains the potential for great folly. Remember Solomon?

Unless we guard our hearts and establish safeguards in our lives, the same failure can happen to us. If I fail to guard my heart, then I am essentially saying that I am stronger than Saul, godlier than David, and wiser than Solomon. It sobers me when I remember that better men than me have failed. Thus it is imperative that I “guard [my] heart above all else, for it determines the course of [my] life” (Prov. 4:23, NIV). We must pursue holiness at any cost.

Humbled by these thoughts, I found myself praying 1 Peter 2:11, that I would “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against [my] soul.”

Sober Reminders

As I looked at the books in my office written by men who failed, I was tempted to throw them away. But I think I’ll keep them, for at least two reasons: First, to remind me that God works through flawed and fallen people. The moral failure and depraved conduct of others may bring God’s truth into disrepute (see 2 Pet. 2:2), but God’s truth never changes. The psalms of David were written by a polygamist, adulterer, liar, and murderer. Nearly all of the proverbs were written by Solomon, a man who rejected Yaweh’s laws and worshipped idols in his old age. We easily forget that God’s blessing on a ministry or a person is no guarantee of their personal righteousness. That is not an excuse to rationalize and justify sin, but it does serve to remind us that God’s truth is not changed by the flawed and fallen people who advocate for it.

If I fail to guard my heart, then I am essentially saying that I am stronger than Saul, godlier than David, and wiser than Solomon.

Second, to remind me that my life is not immune from the disease of moral failure. Every time I see these books on my shelf or hear their authors on an audio recording, I will be reminded of the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall” (NLT). I may write this verse on a sticky note in each book’s table of contents as a constant reminder for my own heart.

By God’s grace, we do not have to become another ship in the graveyard. We can finish the race well. God has given us his grace and the resources necessary to “keep [us] from falling, and to present [us] faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24). Let us live well so that we can someday hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21 KJV).

Travis Johnson
Travis Johnson is Lead Pastor of the Findlay Bible Methodist Church.