On calling out the sin of leaders: Responding to the Ravi Zacharias Scandal
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
1 Timothy 5:20
A few weeks ago the news came my way that Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) had commissioned a law firm to prepare a report concerning the somewhat sordid dealings of its late founder, Ravi Zacharias (RZ). It then released that report to the public. Since that revelation most evangelical commentators have given their piece on the man and his sins. Some are damning. Some are marginally exculpatory, usually after being damning.
It is not my aim to add to the commentary on RZ and his sins specifically. Rather my purpose is to examine the sin at the root of this and many other such scandals. I write today about pride, not sexual sin.
Because of the report prepared by his ministry, however, RZ provides one of the best sources for examining this sin and comparing it to others. That the man sinned is all but certain. The evidence presented is bad. For perhaps the most measured take, Mike Winger gives a curated reading of the report on his youtube channel.
In short, RZ did egregious things under the cover of being a man of God, a safe individual. He has, most likely in criminal ways, victimized those women whom he abused. He has possibly defrauded his organization. He has victimized his family and friends in vile and doubt invoking ways. And he has victimized anyone else who has ever believed in him in morally reprehensible ways.
Mike Winger, in presenting the report, stated 1 Timothy 5:19-20 as his reason for doing so, where Paul gives Timothy the protocols for addressing the sins of an elder or Church leader. Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Mike says that the report provides the witness testimony and since RZ is now deceased, as well as having been a public figure, his rebuke needs to be carried out before his congregation, which would be the world as a whole. Again I will say that Mike’s video is worth watching in that respect. He soundly rebukes RZ.
What jumped out at me, though, was the last part of the second verse: so that the rest may stand in fear. Mike has a reasonable assessment of this, which I will touch on more in a moment. But some further analysis would be useful.
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Since this is in the presence of all, one could see the rest as referring to the all of the earlier clause, and interpret that as the Church as a whole, but vs. 19 tells us the sin here is specifically of an elder in the Church, that this sin stands out as different from other sins based on that fact. It is possible then and even likely that a better interpretation of the word translated here as the rest is the rest of the leaders, i.e., other leaders. Even if we take it more broadly as meaning the present assembly of believers, that is the pool from which future leaders are drawn. Regardless, it is reasonable to see this as saying that leaders of the Church are those who should stand in fear.
What should they fear? There are four main interpretive possibilities: the sinner, the rebuke or punishment, the sin itself, or the fact of the sin.. We can rule out the first, since the rebuke would do more to relieve the sinner of power than to give it to him, taking away any reason to fear him. The second, if they fear the rebuke itself, they avoid sin simply to avoid punishment. Paul generally preaches that Grace saves, not fear, and Fear not is a running theme through scripture, so that explanation is also out.
Should they fear the sin itself? There is a certain allure to that explanation. Beware lest your inner lecher comes out as well. But the problem is that this really falls back into fearing the power of the sinner, as if he still has power to influence your mind. This interpretation might be true if you struggle with the same sins, but we like our sins like we like our ice cream, in 31 flavors. While some people might be his unholy disciples, statistics says more would be indifferent or likely even antagonistic. And the text here has the rebuke going out in front of all, not just his acolytes.
That leaves one interpretation, that what they should fear is the fact of the sin. What does that mean? It might be even better put as, the fact that someone with the Elder’s obvious wisdom and spiritual grandeur could sin in such an atrocious manner. Such an interpretation would leave this text meaning something along the lines of: rebuke him in the presence of everyone, in order that those who are watching will fear that such a one as this should need to be spoken to in this way and wonder if they too might go wrong.
They should fear because this fallen leader proves others might up and do something just as bad someday.
The evidence supports that interpretation. How many examples are there in recent history? From Catholic priests to Hillsong’s Carl Lentz. RZ is just one of the most recent to come to light. You could practically say it is a given that at least some of those watching will make deeply hidden ugly mistakes.
That is a good reason to fear.
Mike Winger touched on the edge of this in his video, asking how to safeguard an organization from this sort of difficulty. Many other commentators seemed almost to respond to Mike, pointing out that obviously RZ did not put enough priority into his safeguards such as accountability groups and partners and various plans and orgs, such as Billy Graham’s Modesto Manifesto.
Mike did attempt to lay out a plan, but before he went there, he outlined the biggest problem with any plan. How can you make a plan that can defeat the person who made the plan? A liar will always pass an accountability check with flying colors. Someone who has put the sin above their integrity will easily override the mechanisms designed to limit his abuse, just like RZ did. Against such a man, his being removed from the picture may be the only viable defense.
Mike’s question stands. How do we plan for that? Do we need an overarching organization to police the Church and make sure that it never does any wrong? Honestly, that’s basically Catholicism and everything is always golden for them, right? Maybe we should take another page from Catholic history, a roving doctrinal inspection group with judicial powers? Inquisition anyone? Church history actually seems a little bit more depressing than helpful.
Is there no solution? Is the Church destined to keep running into this kind of wretched corruption as long as Jesus tarries in his return? In short, yes, it is. There is a reason that the early Church was so quick to say “Come Lord Jesus.” The human side of the Church will always thwart institutional solutions. People will always screw it up.
1 Timothy gives us as much of a church level solution as we are likely to get, but instead of reason to cry, that may in fact be as much of a solution as we really need. Those who are in positions of leadership are exhorted to watch as their fallen coworkers are rebuked, and then in reflection, fear knowing “I could be next.”
Do they all fear becoming sinners just like him? Because RZ was a sexual predator, most of the commentators have focused on his sexual sin as the problem, and it is a big problem. Many others have fallen hard in the struggle against sexual sin, but that might have as much to do with it being a high-profile issue in contemporary society as anything else.
1 Timothy 5:19-20 deals not specifically with sexual sin, but leadership sin in general. Many leaders do not struggle with sins of the body. Paul’s exhortation, though is to fear the presence of sin in the other, and specifically the pride that pushes them to resist confrontation, to continue to sin. Vs. 20 says, “For those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all…”
Pride is a constant temptation for anyone with power, influence, or authority, precisely because it is not always a sin. I may look at RZ’s sexual struggles with confusion not understanding how anyone would fall to that or why I should fear such a fate, but it is natural that were I in a position of leadership I would desire more power or influence. Ambition is no sin, but the ambitious often become more powerful and influential, which fuels more ambition, which grants more power.
As this wheel turns, a sense of accomplishment sets in, “Look what I have done.” Even that is not wrong, but when I begin to use my power to pursue my vices and overlook them, then something has changed. The leader who is there but in his pride refuses to see it, his state is to be feared.
To illustrate where RZ exhibited such pride, I would point out one element from the report. It states that one of the women he raped repeatedly said that he “warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”
I would speculate that with these forceful words he pushed this woman into compliance using the mature form of an argument that in his pride somewhere around the beginning of his fall into a double life he likely originated to justify himself. Unless we argue that his ministry and testimony were all simply a cover for his predation, then we must believe that there was a period in which, even if he struggled with sexual sin, it had not yet pushed him into the lies and crimes that riddle the report. If we accept that such a period existed, then there was a point where that changed, and it is at that point that I would contend a form of the line from the report was the lockpick that laid bare RZ’s defenses leading to everything that we see in that report and much more that will never come to light.
RZ sinned in some way, likely sexual, at that crucial point, and in his pride, instead of enacting the defenses he and his organization had in place, confession and accountability or the like, he decided not to, reasoning in a way that I would speculate sounds remarkably like the line he used against that woman.
I will end this section of this post here, as it would be very gauche to speculate further into RZ’s life and sins. While RZ himself might still warrant some shame in this regard, there are too many other people who could be hurt by such indelicacy. If you really want more details, please go to the report.
In the next post I will examine further the notion of pride being central in this situation by looking more closely at the story of King David and Bathsheba.