The Ravi Zacharias scandal exposes far more than the moral failure of a celebrity leader, it metaphorically unmasks the state of Western Christianity.
The recent revelations surrounding noted Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias’ secret moral indiscretions, have deeply wounded and embarrassed many Christians. Of course, what makes Zacharias’ fall from grace particularly devastating, is the fact he has been generally perceived as a pillar of doctrinal integrity; a man whose theology was so sound and well thought-through, that he was perceived as being beyond reproach.
I guess ‘good’ theology doesn’t protect one from bad morality.
Like me, you probably have read numerous social media posts from Christian organizations ( publishers etc.) and individuals, who previously traded on Zacharias’ credibility, falling over themselves in any attempt to distance themselves or their organizations from the shame of this scandal. Some going as far as feigning repentance on Zacharias’ behalf; attempting to maintain credibility with their respective constituencies by creating the impression this is simply the failure of ‘one man’.
But, I believe the problem is deeper than an individual Christian’s failure.
This scandal may serve to uncover a deeper malevolence, exposing fundamental flaws in a religious system that allowed Zacharias’ celebrity to grow, flourish, and consequently be shielded from critique.
In fact, I want to posit the thesis, that Zacharias’ fall from grace represents far more than the demise of a random leader, but actually serves as a poignant metaphor, drawing us to look closer at the widening cracks in the Western church; a religious entity that so many believe is sound, but is actually flawed–in many ways.
Firstly, Ravi’s fall from grace serves to expose the cult of the celebrity that has been allowed to develop and flourish. There seems to be a natural predisposition in humans to follow celebrities and worship heroes. But, for the genuine Christian, the only ‘celebrity’ to be adored is Jesus, all others who serve in his name are merely workers, servants of Christ. Was not the Apostle Paul at pains to point this out in Corinth? ‘ …One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 1 Cor 1:12-13 (NIV)
We need to seriously ask ourselves, ‘How is it that people like Ravi Zacharias could gain such a following and develop an entire ministry independent of local Church accountability?’ What malignant ethos allowed this man, and others like him to gain such notoriety? Now, I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I can guarantee, that if the Apostle Paul was alive today he would harshly rebuke this toxic practice.
Secondly, the Zacharias scandal reveals our false reliance on allegedly ‘good’ theology, whilst not paying careful attention to the attending morality. Indeed, this has been a problem endemic in the Western church for centuries. Prominent leaders like: Augustine of Hippo, who were brilliant theologically, but persecuted the Donatist Christians for critiquing the purity of the Roman church; Martin Luther who revived the key doctrine of Justification by Faith, but was mercilessly anti-Semitic; and John Calvin, who is held up as a theological genius in Reformed/Evangelical circles, yet in his theological zeal oversaw the killing of Christians who didn’t share this theological convictions or religious agenda. Why have these men gained notoriety, despite their moral stance toward others? Just because someone’s theology makes sense, is logically sound, can be validated biblically, or can be formed into a cogent theological system, does not excuse their bad morality; not at all–not even with the passage of time.
Indeed, any theology that allows bad morality, is bad theology. And, to this end much closer attention needs to be paid to fundamental doctrines and how they actually allow morality to be divorced from belief–especially doctrines like the Protestant view of justification.
Thirdly, this scandal exposes the futility of trying to be publicly credible, when simultaneously committing adultery with the world. This became clear as I noted the response of the publishers of Zacharias’ books. They were happy to make money off him when he was in favor, but now he has fallen from grace, they cannot get his books off the shelves quick enough. Of course, these are publishers are quite happy to profit from the cause of Christ when it suits them, and have commercialized Christian doctrine in much the same way as the money-changers in the temple–in Jesus’ day! Maybe they need to be exposed?
Oh yes, and don’t forget the huge industry of Christian education, music, and therapeutic service, also trading on Christ’s name. Indeed, whole industries have grown up and profited from celebrity Christianity, but has Christ got the glory, has his kingdom really grown from it? The declining nature of Western Christianity would suggest not.
Ironically, the church is growing fastest in countries where Christianity is outlawed and religious entities have no financial interests, no celebrity preachers, no formal theological education, no Christian music industry etc. It seems that Western Christians have become so acculturated to commercialism they simply don’t see the ‘elephant in the room’.
Fourthly, this sordid event challenges us to question, ‘How prolific are the secret sins of Christians, whether they hold positions of influence of not?’ Yes, Ravi Zacharias’ sins came to light exposing him as a fraud, but how many other Christians are secretly crippling the cause of Christ, whilst maintaining a veneer of respectability? And, I am not just referring to sexual sins, but sins of covetousness, greed, jealously, anger, unforgiveness etc. Yes, these sins may be hidden from view, ignored on account of a tacit acceptance of ‘sound doctrine’, yet their real influence on the health and life of the Christian church would be great indeed. Just because a sin does not come to light publicly, does not mean it cannot damage the cause of Christ.
Yes, these secret sins may not grieve the non-Christian public, but they do grieve the Spirit of God; they do hinder the Spirit from powerfully using the church to advance the Kingdom of God. Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God. Again, ask yourself, ‘Why is the church in the developing world flourishing, whereas Western Christianity is dying?’ I would suggest that the malignant power of secret sin may provide an answer to this penetrating question.
Finally, the Ravi Zacharias’ revelations serve to remind us that Christianity is not a religion of the educated elite. It is, primarily, a simple, relational, grass roots faith. It is not the religion of the celebrity orator, or philosopher, or revered academic; true Christianity is the religion of a humble carpenter, uneducated fishermen, and those not considered wise, by the standards of ‘this world’. God is not interested in intellectual cleverness, rather, he seeks humble obedience, moral conformity, and a willingness to deny oneself and suffer the shame of Christ, for the cause of the gospel. Christianity is the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, not Plato of Athens!
We are not called to judge Ravi Zacharias, that’s God’s job. But we are called to learn from his fall and turn our attention to ourselves and the church culture we inhabit. This scandal serves to shine a powerful spotlight on the Western Church, and gives cause for deep reflection and repentance. We must not keep looking at the moral failures of individuals, and say, ‘There for the grace of God, there go I’, or feign repentance in order to garner public credibility–that’s just avoiding the issue. No, we actually need to repent to God, for God, because of God.
Serendipitously, this fiasco may have done the Christian cause a great service, by offering a sobering challenge to reconsider the very nature of the Christianity we have come to accept as normal in the West, but, in reality, is actually ‘far’ from normal. Time to forget diverting the issue toward people like Ravi, and take a hard look at ourselves and the religious system that allows people to fall from great heights, in the first place.