The Miller and Martin report published on February 11 last month found renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias guilty of sexual misconduct.
None of us are perfect or righteous. We all have our own battles. But what we wanted to try and do was get our heads around the revelations of this report and see what lessons we could learn from these events.
Four teachers of God’s Word — Nate Bramsen, George Mattackal, John Sypert and Charles Mathew — joined us earlier this week for a live panel discussion. Excerpts below:
Tobin: When the Christianity Today article was first published, a lot of folks initially reacted with irritation. People asked “Why slander a dead guy?” or “Why are all these women coming out of the woodwork now?”. Even now, a month on, people want to know why we’re still talking about this. How would you weigh in on the need for the church to have these difficult conversations?
Nate: First of all, I want to say thank you for what you initially said, Tobin, because we don’t come from a position stating that we have all the answers or somehow we’re some qualified men to speak on these things. The truth is in the Word of God. I want to encourage every listener to take everything we say back to the Word of God.
As we think about this topic in this forum, I want to challenge you that this isn’t really about Ravi. Yes, it’s the catalyst for our discussion. But it’s not about him. My question, instead, is this: what would the Holy Spirit have us take from this? I want to draw your minds to 1 Corinthians 10:6-12.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
That’s where I start this discussion: in my own heart… The other thing I want to encourage about this discussion comes from 1 John 1:7. To walk in light as Christ is, ultimately, the Light. And when you think about John 3, we see that men love darkness because their deeds are evil. After this whole thing broke out, my wife and I got together and asked this question: where is there darkness in our life? We’re not just asking: where is there sin? That’s one thing. But, where are we living in darkness?
So the conversation today, I would suggest is to bring things to light. It’s so that we, as followers of Christ, can live in the light. So, we can have deeds exposed, whether it be sin that we can confess and repent of, or whether it’s areas of ambiguity of areas where we’re not above reproach. So, let’s just make sure that our focus is not on Ravi, but on responding to the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Tobin: The timing of these revelations has been especially stunning. So many are asking: why did God allow these things to surface only after his death? Is there any way to answer a question like that?
George: There’s certainly not any way for me to answer a question like that. That’s something that’s known only to the sovereign God. And only He knows why He allowed things to unfold as they did, and in the time that they did. But one thing I can say is, as I look into the Scriptures, we can be assured that in some mysterious way, everything about this fits into advancing the overall plan of God — for the church, for believers, and for history.
Of course, God is never the author of sin. I’m reminded of James 1: 13-15, that says,
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
In ways we cannot understand, God is using our obedience and our disobedience — all of our actions — to advance His larger purpose. It may be a purpose of purifying the church. It may be to get us to take our eyes off of man and focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you are struggling to understand the Ravi situation, be assured that God is doing this for good — to sanctify you and me, to make us more conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29).
If you are struggling to understand the Ravi situation, be assured that God is doing this to make us more conformed to the image of His Son
John: We might wonder why it didn’t come out earlier. So much good could’ve been done. So many women could’ve been rescued and protected. So much evil could’ve been avoided. Jesus says, nothing is hidden that won’t come to light. So we know that everything that’s in darkness will come to light.
We don’t necessarily know when it will come to light. It could’ve been that none of this came out till judgement day. But on that day, it would come to the light. And be rest assured, not just in the sovereignty of God, but also in the reality that God will bring everything to light — in this life or the next.
Leave it to God to avenge, Paul says in Romans 12. He will repay. He will give everyone exactly what they deserve, when the time is right. And He, better than any of us, knows exactly what everyone truly deserves. We don’t see, know, or understand everything. We don’t have all the facts. God has all the facts. And He will mete out justice with utter perfection on that last day.
Sometimes, that justice comes now. And again, we might wish that it would come earlier. I think it’s a good Christian impulse to want justice to be done, wrongs to be righted. But when it doesn’t, we trust in God’s sovereign will, which is good. We trust that He knows what He’s doing and He has good plans for those who love Him.
Tobin: Is it possible for someone to be an effective advocate of Christ, yet systematically practise sin?
John: The short answer is yes. Because, let’s be honest — Ravi was an effective advocate for Christ. He did a lot of good. He taught us through his teaching and preaching, his radio programmes, books, seminars, and website not only in defending the faith, but also understanding the faith. And none of us knew that any of this was happening. So, yes, you can be. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should attempt to be or that you should not care about your private life if you have a publicly successful ministry. But at the base level, there are many examples of people who were effective for Christ even though they had hidden sin.
Nate: Let’s take another step forward. I want to ask, “Are we asking the wrong question?” And by that I mean: are we supposed to be just an advocate of Christ, or is it more effective to abide in Christ? Yes, I am a witness of Christ, and I am to speak of Him.
But what is the command? In John 15, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…” The point is that God wants us to be in an intimate relationship with Him. I think we can focus too much on, ‘How effective am I as an advocate for Christ?’ But really, my question is, ‘How closely am I abiding in Christ?’
Now, the question was about systematic sin. And what does it say in 1 Corinthians 11? It talks about confession of sin. And it says, “… for this reason, many sleep among you…” In other words, at some point, the Lord simply removed people from the picture. It’s not that they weren’t part of the church. It’s not that God wasn’t using them in some way. At some point, there was this final consequence for them, where God just took them out.
I pray that we will never be satisfied with where we are in our walk with God, but will always be satisfied with the Person of Jesus Christ.
Tobin: When sin enters our lives, it hardly ever announces itself with flashing neon signs. This is especially true in the case of sexual sin. Are there principles or guardrails that Christians can set up to avoid falling into such pitfalls?
Charles: So, one verse that came to mind is in Genesis, where God is speaking to Cain. God is telling Cain, “…sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, …but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Now, coming to sexual sins, no one suddenly decides to jump into bed with anyone. No one. It all starts first in your mind.
Let’s take the most quoted example when it comes to adultery in the Bible: David and Bathsheba. The first command David broke was not, “You shall not commit adultery.” He coveted. He saw this beautiful lady, and coveted. What do we learn from this? This is a sin which really starts in your mind. It starts with coveting. And when your mind convicts you about it, you must heed the voice of your conscience. The key is to keep sensitivity to sin high.
We can rationalise saying [things like], “I’m a spiritual guy” or, “I’m a married guy”. But this is a sin that cuts across all segments. So we must admit that we have a problem. And each one of us knows our weak areas. We should not still that voice that’s convicting us. Heed the voice of the Holy Spirit. And put up boundaries for ourselves after we’re aware of our weak areas.
The other bit is to keep ourselves accountable. Secrecy is very, very dangerous. This is why God has given us elders and mentors. And for those of us who are married, we have to be accountable to our spouse. Because sin is crouching at your door, and it is so dangerous to let our guards down.
George: There are a lot of guardrails we can set up, but they can ultimately collapse. As human beings, we want a formula. We want a checklist.
But I just want to look at a verse: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). When you step back and think about this, it seems like he’s talking about much more than a guardrail. He’s saying he has made a covenant with his eyes.
Now, the eyes, they are controlled by the mind. Your mind directs your eyes. I think what Job is trying to say here is, “My mind has been transformed to where my eyes don’t act like they normally would.” What he’s saying is that he doesn’t even have reason to look at a woman. And I think this is really where we want to get to.
Guardrails are good. We need them because we’re in the flesh. But, ultimately, we need to focus on that internal transformation. We need to get to where these desires dissipate. There’s no shortcut to that. [It] comes by dwelling in the Word of God. It comes by fellowship, by prayer, by breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).
Guardrails are good. We need them because we’re in the flesh. But, ultimately, we need to focus on that internal transformation
Tobin: The epistles to the NT churches are full of warnings against sexual immorality, but this is not a subject we touch in our churches today. In your experience as pastors/elders, is this not a problem in modern-day churches? And if it is, is it more of a Western issue?
John: I think it’s probably not talked about enough. If I could come at it in a little different direction, I think that when it is talked about, often, it’s a one-way conversation. The message is often this: sex is bad. Now, sexual immorality is bad — there are ample Scriptures for that. What I fear is that there is an imbalance. A lot of young people are growing up with the kind of belief that sex is inherently bad, because of the messaging of the church. And so, if and when we do address it, we should address it as a good gift of God, just as everything God created is inherently good, but under the curse of sin.
George: “Is it more of a Western issue?” I would say absolutely not. I can tell you, having been an elder for more than 11 years in a church with a lot of young people, we have had to deal with multiple problems over the last few years that involve sexual immorality among the people in the church. If we are thinking that it’s not there in our churches, brothers and sisters, we’re living in denial. We’ve got our heads in the sand. And we need to wake up and talk about this.
Tobin: Many of us are part of relatively/highly conservative communities though, which would explain why this subject is taboo. To flip the question, is there anything to gain by encouraging churches to be more open or vocal about these matters?
Charles: I think we need to facilitate an environment where people come and talk to us about their various struggles, because it is in the church that we can show them things from Scripture — show them Jesus, show them the cross. And it is in the church where we challenge them to pursue holiness. And for that, the church should be equipped to deal with the questions of the growing generation.
The simple answer to your question is that we have all to gain and nothing to lose by addressing some of these issues in the church. And the greatest gain would be to have a flock that would pursue Christ and Christ-likeness.
Tobin: What can the church do to better support victims of abuse?
We have all to gain and nothing to lose by addressing these issues in the church
George: A few realities we need to understand is that there are a wide range of reasons why people who go through abuse, especially sexual abuse, don’t report their experiences. There’s a lot of self-blame. There’s a lot of shame. There’s a lot of guilt. There are a lot of cultural messages that trivialise situations. And there’s a fear of not being believed.
I think it’s important that we, as a church, should be evaluating this: are we creating a situation that sends dangerous messages as it pertains to abuse? Are we aware of situations of physical abuse in families in our churches? And are we keeping quiet about it? Do we have an environment where people feel comfortable sharing such issues with the elders? This takes time to establish.
And it comes from highlighting that certain behaviours are wrong, and not acceptable. If we don’t talk about it, people will never feel comfortable raising these issues. People should have the confidence that, ‘If I bring this problem up, I know that my elders will deal with this from a Scriptural basis, no matter who it is that’s involved.’ And if they’ve broken laws, we’ve got to report it.
Also, we may not know how to help victims of abuse. And so, it’s important that we seek qualified assistance to help these victims to show them love, mercy, and protection, and to rehabilitate them, and show them the love of Christ and the grace of God to come out of that situation.
John: Dan Allander wrote a book called, ‘The Wounded Heart’. He says, “Sexual abuse is the one crime that makes the victim feel more shame than the perpetrator.” And that has to stop. Someone being taken advantage of sexually is a victim. And they need to be treated as such. The Lord Jesus Christ went hard after the oppressed. His merciful heart pushed him with a passionate zeal towards those who are marginalised and oppressed, downtrodden, broken people.
If we’re going to be His under shepherds, then it starts with us. We have to say from the pulpit, “We see you, we hear you, and we’re here for you.” We don’t have all the answers. Most pastors aren’t equipped to walk through the counselling that needs to happen, but we certainly start that process.
“Sexual abuse is the one crime that makes the victim feel more shame than the perpetrator.” That has to stop
One aspect that the report seems to repeatedly highlight is a seeming lack of accountability. But that’s a culture that tends to be absent among leaders in several church communities. What does accountability look like in a church/ministry context?
John: Accountability looks like church membership. The end.
Church membership brings you, by definition, into an accountable relationship with a group of believers, and a set of elders. It puts you under the authority, the authoritative care of shepherds — elders, pastors — and to put you in accountable relationships with the flock to the congregation. The way that play plays out is: not only are there these mechanisms called membership and discipline, but we have relationships in the church. People know us in the church.
And so, I was actually surprised to learn that Ravi wasn’t an active member of a church — which I think is a contradiction. To be a member of a church means you are active in the church. But he wasn’t in a church on a regular basis.
Tobin: The fallout has been intense, with chapters of the RZIM ministry shutting down and book publishers moving to take him off their titles and their shelves. RZIM itself has completely erased their website and social media and his denomination has posthumously withdrawn his ordination. What do we do with RZ’s books and other resources?
John: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t agree with everything in any book except the Bible. However, there are certain books that I find helpful and I want to put in someone’s hand, and I trust the source. So, when this happened with Ravi, I took those books out, not because I now disagree with the material, but [because] I don’t want to put him out there as a trusted source — for his character. It doesn’t change the truthfulness of what he wrote.
So, I’ll still read… I don’t have any personal conviction to not read his books. But I won’t be quoting from his books and sermons. I won’t be putting his books in people’s hands. Because his life has brought reproach upon the name of Christ. And I don’t want to heap up more reproach by putting him out there as a trusted source.
Tobin: For decades, evangelicals have been thrilled to have an ‘intellectually gifted representative of Christ’ in RZ. The ongoing loss of face, therefore, is not just for the RZ family and RZIM, but for Christians everywhere. How can we respond when those outside the faith confront us about RZ today?
Nate: First of all, I don’t think it’s going to be a negative thing when they confront us about this issue. I think it’s a great thing, because it really brings up the gospel.
And the question really is this: in what was our confidence? Is our confidence in some human, or is our confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
In Psalm 11, there’s somebody talking to David that David’s not agreeing with. He says, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” And the very next verse points to God’s throne in heaven.
My encouragement is this, that it’s not just if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? Every foundation needs to be destroyed, that we’re putting our confidence in, ultimately, except the one foundation that will stand — and that’s the foundation of Jesus Christ.
Every foundation needs to be destroyed, that we’re putting our confidence in, except the one foundation that will stand — Jesus Christ
I’m not talking about rejoicing that anybody fell into sin. But when people ask me about this, the reality is Ravi has no part in my foundation whatsoever. I’m thankful for the things I learned, but the reality is that my faith — my hope — is in the unchangeable Word of God.
And so in these conversations, I encourage you to do two things. One, point them back to the Word of God. Talk about Christ’s righteousness, not somebody else’s righteousness, and how we can be righteous before God, and that this is a perfect example of the sinful, broken, messed-up world that we live in that victimises lives.
And then the second side of this is a warning. It’s a warning that we can refer back to ourselves, even as the world is saying: we sinned. How did we sin? We put people on pedestals. But the Word of God says so clearly in Isaiah 42 that He shares His glory with no man. And when we are giving glory to men, we are not giving the glory that is due God.
It does not mean don’t appreciate or don’t respect or honour. 1 Timothy 5 talks about honouring those who are worthy of honour. And in this context, the fallout has been so great because of the glory that has been associated with man’s titles, prestige, positions, and his articulate nature in preaching. But God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, not in our strength.
So, when the world asks these questions, don’t be fearful of it. We don’t have to go around apologising. Preach Jesus. He’s the only source — the only foundation — that anybody can rest in. And on that last day, He is the only foundation that will stand.
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.