Like some of you, I was grieved (and a little surprised) to read the recent news about Ravi Zacharias. The accusations about the sexual misconduct of the Christian apologist, which surfaced after his death, have proven true.
Zacharias died from a battle with cancer last May. He was well known and respected for his ability to engage with atheists and promote the intellectual side of Christianity. He wrote over 30 books and founded RZIM, a ministry that has “met millions of questioners with thoughtful answers concerning faith and God.” According to their website, a full investigation about the scandal is under way and will be shared with the public later this month or early February.
The Zacharias scandal is one among many that have surfaced within the Church in recent years. I can think of several leaders who have fallen from their position due to various forms of misconduct. There is no denomination or theological tribe that has not been grieved by the fall of one of their beloved leaders. Sin runs nightmarishly deep in us all.
How should Christians think about their leaders in light of such behavior?
When I shared the news about Ravi Zacharias with my wife, her response caught me off guard. It didn’t surprise me because of what she said, in fact, it sounded perfectly like something my wife would say. It surprised me because I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. More times than not, she’s more intuitive than I am. She’s also the best theologian I know who has never studied theology. Basically, upon hearing the news, her response was: “Duh.”
As far as I know, the only thing my wife knows about Ravi Zacharias is his name. She didn’t say “duh” because she recognized some lapse in his character before the rest of us. Her comment came because of her understanding of Scripture, which says, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sadly, many of us forget this truth when it comes to our favorite leaders. We assume they have mastered temptation and so become disoriented when that fails to be the case.
All leaders sin. In fact, your favorite leader most likely sinned today. Perhaps the only difference between them and any number of fallen leaders is that they have not been caught.
Please hear me clearly. There are two things I am not suggesting. First, I don’t believe every Christian leader is involved in sexual misconduct. The temptation to sin sexually is very real for lots of leaders; however, not all leaders are drawn in by it. Some leaders allow their eyes to wander even if they keep their hands to themselves. Some leaders have a problem with gossip or slander. Others eat too much. The particular sin will look different for different leaders. What we can know for sure is that all leaders sin because all people sin.
Secondly, I am not suggesting that because all people sin, sexual misconduct and other heinous offenses should go unpunished. Sin does not justify bad behavior. There must be a consequence every time a human life is devalued. Sin of any kind must be taken seriously. Thankfully, God takes sin seriously. He does not let it go unpunished. Just look at the cross for proof.
Some Less Than Others
All leaders sin, but some leaders sin less than others. I think the reason for this difference is because of what theologians call sanctification. According to Wayne Grudem, sanctification is “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and more like Christ in our actual lives.” As we carry on in our Christian faith, we will find ourselves being transformed into Christ’s likeness. For instance, by God’s grace, I am more like Jesus today than I was 10 years ago. So are you.
Admittedly, the process of sanctification is slow, sometimes frustratingly so. But God is making us more like His son. Every time we say no to a temptation that would cause us to sin, we become more like Jesus our savior, who was tempted in all the ways we are, but never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). Some leaders are further along than others, but only God knows precisely where a person is in their sanctification process.
Moving Toward the Cross and Sinners
Instead of hiding from our sin and others, we should confess our sin and move toward the cross, where Jesus freely forgives. The prophet Isaiah said, “let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). I love the way the English Standard Version translates that last line. It says God will “abundantly pardon.” That’s more grace than we know what to do with.
In his recent book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund says, “when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.” We are often so unlike Christ. Many of us disown the leaders and teachers we have followed for years the moment their sin is exposed. We don’t move toward them in mercy, but away from them in disdain. We worry more about our reputation than our call to be Christ-like. We think being associated with sinners will ruin our influence. We fear no one will support our ministry if they learn we are hypocrites.
Amazingly, Jesus never disowns us. He died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). He moves toward us, sin and all, and disregards his tarnished reputation. He took on the curse of the cross because of his heart for sinners and suffers, and he is the most influential person to ever walk the earth.
What the women affected by Zacharias’ sin had to deal with is not ok. We can’t ignore that fact. No one should ever be treated as a sex object. The image of God in us dignifies us too much for that. Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised when leaders sin, because, duh, they will.
At the end of the day, our hope is only found in the person and work of Jesus on our broken behalf, today and forever. His Spirit has begun a good work in us and will carry it on to completion until the day Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). We can become the people we know we should be but cannot be because of sin if we submit to the power of his Spirit. So carry on, Christian. Your Lord and King provides all that is necessary for you. His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).