Heartbreaking news about Ravi Zacharias’s abuses tops recent leader scandals. In some respects, this one hurts worse than most of its predecessors. When some leaders fell, I, at least, was less surprised; I had other questions about those other ministries. Some seemed theologically misinformed, self-centered, or sectarian. By contrast, Ravi seemed a gracious and careful thinker.

Yet despite his sharp mind in arguing for the truth of the gospel, which he apparently trusted intellectually, he did not trust it enough to let it transform a key area of his heart. The content of his public teaching was balanced—but it is possible to exegete Scripture, learn truth or reason rightly without letting the intellectual engagement transform us personally. As is often pointed out, God’s Word is true and can convert people, even if the devil himself were to utter it.


Will scandals kill the church? Hardly; the church has weathered harsher storms. While I’ll come to genuinely scandalous scandals like the present one in a moment, I pause for a moment to note that believers can expect criticisms of some sort no matter what. God’s people have faced contempt even when they were doing right. Imagine tabloids in the time of Abraham. “This crazy guy thinks that a god promised him descendants as many as the stars. In his old age, he has a couple sons, one of whom he sends off into the desert with the kid’s mother. The other one he nearly kills. Sure, that one survives and gives him a couple grandsons, but descendants as many as the stars? Who’s he kidding?”

Then there’s Jacob’s dysfunctional family. “Joseph’s own brothers sold him into slavery,” a Canaan tabloid reads. “Though nobody talks about it now that he’s next to Pharaoh, gossip says he fooled around with his master’s wife,” an anonymous Egyptian blog post reads. “Although he says he tested his brothers just to make sure they changed (so they won’t kill Benjamin too), it looks to me like he was just getting even.” Likewise, one might complain that, by making all the land in Egypt Pharaoh’s (conveniently excepting that of the politically powerful priests of other gods), Joseph sets up a system bound to lead to abuse someday.

Moses was a murderer who escaped justice only by living too long. His own people rejected his leadership time and again, and even priests of his god challenged him. Joshua’s leadership team made a bad treaty that drew complaints from righteous Israelites. And so on.


From a biblical perspective, most of the above cases (except the behavior of Joseph’s brothers) weren’t clear acts of evil. Even Moses striking down the Egyptian was meant to bring justice, even if we believe that Moses went about it the wrong way.

But what happens when some leader in God’s movement engages in behavior explicitly condemned in Scripture? What happens when a leader respected among many Christians turns out to be a fraud or at least struggling with a mostly secret sin that was hurting other people? Unfortunately, that’s not very new either.

Scripture reports plenty of frauds—sometimes the best-known religious leaders of their generations. Eli’s sons, heirs to the high priesthood, did not have sincere faith in God (1 Sam 2:12). They exploited their office for material goods (2:13-17) and sex (2:22). Exploiting God’s people for money continued with many priests and prophets in later generations, angering a just God (Jer 6:13; 8:10; Lam 4:13; Mic 3:11).

The Bible is also full of examples of leaders whom God genuinely raised up but whose moral failings harmed God’s people. Scripture celebrates the God who uses people, but also exposes the flaws of those he uses. One need look no further than Gideon or Jephthah who, after fulfilling God’s purposes in leading Israel, ended in folly. To celebrate his past victory, Gideon made a golden ephod and failed to destroy it even when it became an object of idolatry (Judg 8:27). To fulfill a foolish vow, Jephthah horribly sacrificed his daughter (against some interpreters, probably to death; Judg 11:34-39).

More shocking still, given David’s earlier personal history with God, David committed adultery and then murdered a loyal friend to cover it up. Solomon started wonderfully but finished awfully. When hard times came, Jesus’s own supposedly loyal disciples abandoned him, and his chief disciple Peter denied even knowing him.

Jesus’s movement had to address a leadership scandal immediately after his ascension: one of the twelve disciples Jesus had sent out to preach the kingdom and cast out demons turned out to be a traitor (cf. Acts 1:15-17). Judas was also, by the way, secretly stealing ministry funds while giving lipservice to caring for the poor (John 12:4-6). Talk about scandals!

It’s not enough to start well. We must finish well.


God is forgiving, but in the end his justice will not be mocked. Samson lost his God-given strength and his role as judge of Israel; he regained his mission only at the end, at the cost of his life. Elisha’s disciple Gehazi valued wealth above witness, and his sin cost him both his role in ministry and his health (2 Kgs 5:20-27). David experienced the consequences of his sins against Solomon’s mother and her husband for the rest of his life (2 Sam 12:7-12). In the Bible, God could discipline his wayward ministers and leaders pretty seriously.

Criticisms will come, but we need to make sure we get criticized for the right reasons. In the face of hostility on the verge of impending persecution, Peter warns:

“If you’re reproached because you bear Christ’s name, it’s well with you! It’s well with you because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. But don’t let any of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or a wrongdoer or as a troublemaker. If any of you suffers for being a ‘Christian,’ don’t be ashamed of that. Instead, give honor to God by this name. Be ready for such hardship, because it’s time for judgment to begin with God’s household. And if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who disobey God’s good news?” (1 Pet 4:14-17, translation from my commentary).

Will the Church survive this scandal? Certainly. God’s ultimate plans in history always prevail. But this does not mean that we should take such scandals for granted. While God’s long-range plan is guaranteed, he has not promised that all will be well for God’s people in every given place, generation and circumstance. Indeed, Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8, NRSV).


God protected David from Saul, but Saul’s sins brought defeat and death to many Israelites. Because he turned from obeying God privately, Saul failed in his calling to deliver Israel from the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16), and ended up dying at their hands (1 Sam 28:19)—and the entire Israelite army along with him. His sin destroyed the lives of others, including that of his godly son Jonathan.

David’s own sin did not affect himself only; it tore apart his household and led to revolts that cost many lives. Further, it set a tragic example followed by Solomon himself, who multiplied wives against Scripture’s command. This became a seed of apostasy that split Israel in the aftermath of Solomon’s death and continued to infect God’s people for generations. David’s sin began weakening the revival brought through Samuel’s lifetime of ministry and David’s own devotion.

Even more quickly, the corrupt religious leaders of Judah’s final generation, challenged by Jeremiah alone, led their nation to its doom.

And while ancients may not have had the internet or supermarket tabloids, God’s name could be shamed by the behavior of his people (Rom 2:24). The way of truth is maligned, Peter warns, because of the sexual exploits of false teachers (2 Pet 2:2). Even in today’s scandal-prone world, the sins of Christian leaders provide excuses for those who choose not to believe.


Why did it take so long for Ravi’s sin to come out? Samson, Israel’s judge and God-empowered deliverer in his generation, had a weakness for pagan women, one of them a prostitute. What seems more remarkable is that God continued to grant Samson power for a time while he was living in sin, so that it seemed that Samson’s power was automatic (Judg 16:1-3). Although the Bible emphasizes that God is slow to anger, reckoning must come for those who persist in sin. Samson eventually had to learn his lesson the hard way (Judg 16:20-21).

Samson, David and Peter, all repented, but this is not always the case. Some continue to delude themselves into excusing their behavior. Of them Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter Heaven’s kingdom, but only whoever does my heavenly Father’s will. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and perform many miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I never knew you! Get away from me, you breakers of God’s law” (Matt 7:21-23).

From all appearances, Ravi ended up living a double life, separating intellectual arguments devoted to God from private sins that harmed others. Full repentance should include attempts to make restitution to those wronged, but perhaps Ravi realized the seriousness of his sin and began repenting at the last. Whether or not that is the case, even unrepentant sin ultimately comes to light. (Another apologist who knew Ravi but who himself has also been a victim of sexual abuse shares his thoughts here:

Fair protocol means that we start by giving people the benefit of the doubt, the presumption (as in law) of innocence until proven guilty. That sometimes leaves us in the uncomfortable position of accepting as potentially true two contradictory narratives until we have explored the evidence. (That is, we take the victim at her or his word and help them, while also initially suspending judgment against the accused. Marriage counselors and others have to start by listening nonjudgmentally to both sides of a story.) First Timothy offers these instructions explicitly: “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19, NRSV).

Lately, however, as in Ravi’s case, evidence has proven many leaders guilty. In such cases, the church is right to practice church discipline—though we ought to grieve when doing it, and seek to restore the person to repentance. When I was about twenty years old, I objected when some colleagues practiced discipline against an erring minister. I protested, “But he’s sorry!” My colleagues, however, were right. When a leader’s sin is clear, reproof should be public for the sake of the church: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20), “without prejudice, doing nothing on the basis of partiality” (5:21). Just as our children sometimes need restorative discipline, so do many adults, for both their own sake and the sake of the community.


But what happens when someone manages to conceal their sin from us throughout this life? First Timothy goes on to warn that the sin will not remain secret forever. “The sins of some people are conspicuous and precede them to judgment, while the sins of others follow them there” (5:24). The promised day of the Lord will right all wrongs, exposing the secrets of human hearts.

When we set people on a pedestal, some will inevitably disappoint us, whether in this life or on the day of judgment. Paul warned Christians in Corinth against celebrity cults, against setting him and Apollos up against each other (1 Cor 3:4). Each were merely God’s instruments through whom the Corinthians came to faith and grew (3:5-9, 21-23; 4:1-2). The one ultimately at work is God, and the foundation is Christ (3:9-11). To Christ our Lord, and not to any of us, belongs the honor.

Only in the day of judgment, when God reveals the secrets of human hearts, will we see who served God most genuinely. That is when what is hidden in darkness will come to light (1 Cor 3:12-15; 4:3-5). Since humans have the potential for self-deception, Paul says that even though he is unaware of ongoing sin in his life, it’s God alone who will have the say on that (4:3-4). In this life, we thus must correct others humbly, recognizing our own human vulnerabilities (Gal 6:1). Since Scripture notes sins of the heart (e.g., Exod 20:17; Matt 5:22, 28), even those of us not guilty of sins that others consider heinous recognize that we too depend on God’s mercy in Christ.

In summary, leaders should neither accept all accusations against fellow leaders uncritically (1 Tim 5:19), nor ordain leaders without careful examination (5:22). We must avoid prejudice and partiality (5:21). When we discover a Christian leader continuing in sin, we must, after the appropriate steps to treat fairly all parties involved, address this sin publicly. We must do so not only for the leader’s sake, but as a warning to others (5:20). Even with all such precautions, however, some sins remain hidden until the judgment, when they will finally be exposed (5:24).


The failure of some to live up to a message that did not originate with them does not discredit that message, especially when it continues to be lived by others. While in Roman custody Paul wrote, “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. …” (Phil 1:15-18 ESV). Truth remains truth regardless of individual preachers’ motives.

Can the Church survive such scandals? The Bible’s answer is a clearly resounding yes. We’ve been there before. In the long run, the church will prevail, as it has through scandals and suffering for two thousand years. The gates of death itself cannot prevail against Jesus’s church (Matt 16:18).

Nevertheless, that’s just the big picture. One can win a war but lose battles and lots of troops along the way. Jesus warns us plainly:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matt 18:6-9).

In our generation, the faith of some people will hang on us taking sin and church discipline seriously. Let’s all run the race diligently, and endeavor by God’s grace to finish well.

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