The Story: A new report details the allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct by the late evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias. In the “What It Means” section below, we consider three factors that can lead pastors and ministry leaders to fall into such sin.
The Background: Last September, Christianity Today published a news report citing allegations by three anonymous sources that Zacharias sexually harassed them at two spas he co-owned. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) hired Miller & Martin PLLC to conduct an independent investigation into these allegations. RZIM also hired Muller Group International, a private investigations firm composed of former federal law enforcement officers, to assist with the investigation.
RZIM released the 12-page report Thursday. Here are some of its key findings:
- The scope of the investigation did not extend to finances of RZIM, possible retaliation against employees, or other aspects of the organization’s culture. The conclusions in the report were “based solely on conduct for which, in our judgment, there is credible evidence.” Investigators did not find evidence that anyone within RZIM or on its board of directors knew that Zacharias had engaged in sexual misconduct.
- More than 50 individuals were interviewed, including more than a dozen massage therapists who treated Zacharias, who had more than 200 therapist contacts in his phones. The investigators did not attempt to find witnesses in Asia, where many of these contacts lived. Some of those they contacted refused interviews.
- Several massage therapists confirmed Zacharias’s frequent efforts, in the words of one massage therapist, to “try for more than a massage.” A number of reports were by therapists who would not have known each other and who treated Zacharias in different contexts.
- Zacharias would reportedly start a massage either completely nude or would remove the sheets during the massage. Six therapists reported that he was always or almost always physically aroused, while four therapists reported that he either touched himself, or asked to be touched, in a sexual manner. Five therapists reported that he touched them sexually.
- Only one witness said Zacharias engaged in sexual intercourse: “This witness reported details of many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape.”
- One witness reported that after Zacharias arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he demanded sex from her:
According to this witness, Zacharias used religious expressions to gain compliance, as she was raised to be a person of faith. She reported that he made her pray with him to thank God for the “opportunity” they both received. She said he called her his “reward” for living a life of service to God, and he referenced the “godly men” in the Bible with more than one wife. She said 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.
- Some therapists describe Zacharias as setting the women at ease by asking probing questions about their background, including “financial struggles or emotionally broken backgrounds.”
For example, one therapist reported that Zacharias spent the first half of their first massage session asking about her spiritual journey and prior abuse. This set her at ease and made her feel that he cared for her as a person before he later asked her to massage his genitals. Another woman reported that he would talk about her career plans and efforts to improve her financial situation while he was massaging her breasts. She never came forward because she thought, “who would believe me” against a famous Christian leader. Some therapists also reported that Zacharias paid well or would leave large tips and gave gifts that were at times lavish, such as a Persian rug or a Louis Vuitton wallet with $500 inside.
- Zacharias used ministry funds to support some of his long-term therapists. A significant portion of a discretionary funds of RZIM provided money to four different therapists.
- A woman often accompanied Zacharias to provide treatments during his travels. When a high-level RZIM staff member expressed concerns to Zacharias and encouraged him to stop traveling with a therapist, he “grew angry and barely spoke to this staff member for a long period of time.”
- Zacharias often traveled alone to Bangkok and other parts of Southeast Asia for substantial time. He owned two apartments in Bangkok. Between 2010 and 2014 he spent a total of 256 days in one of these apartments and sought rent reimbursement from RZIM for those stays. The other apartment, in the same building but on a different floor, housed one of his massage therapists.
- Zacharias used multiple phones and email addresses over time, and he had at least two phones at any given time. He insisted on remaining separate from official RZIM communication platforms, and his phones were separate from RZIM’s account. He used private email addresses rather than an RZIM account, and while at RZIM headquarters he used public wireless access rather than RZIM’s virtual private network. He used encrypted communications platforms, including BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp, from which deleted messages cannot be retrieved.
- In notes applications on his phones, Zacharias kept translations of certain words and phrases in Thai and Mandarin. The Thai phrases included “I miss you so much. I want to see your face” and “little bit further.” The Mandarin phrases included “softer, lighter”; “U R beautiful”; “not enough”; “I hope our love lasts forever”; “I love you from the bottom of my heart”; “I’d like to have a beautiful memory with you”; “Life is so wonderful bnecause [sic] I could meet you”; “Your lips are especially beautiful”; and “I love you darling.”
- The phones also contained extended communications with and photographs of women who were not his wife. For example, to a massage therapist in Bangkok he wrote, “I know more than ever that you have become the love of my life. I’m waiting to hold you close to my heart again. Please be safe my angel. I Love you and goodnight from here.” He told her to keep him “as the only one in your heart. I love you my dearest xxxxxx.” This woman received significant financial support from the RZIM discretionary account.
- Zacharias was accused by Thompson, a Canadian woman, of “engag[ing] in sexually explicit online conversations.” According to the report, she claimed that he “groom[ed]” her as he “gained her trust as a spiritual guide, confidante, and notable Christian statesman,” after which she “opened up her life” to him to the point that he “exercised a controlling influence over her as one with spiritual authority.”
He used this influence, she claimed, “to exploit her vulnerability to satisfy [his] own sexual desires.” While they were never physically intimate, Thompson alleged that they engaged in an emotional relationship through electronic communication and that culminated in him asking for photographs of her, including nudes, which she sent.
Investigators were not allowed to corroborate Thompson’s allegations because of a nondisclosure agreement she signed in a legal settlement with Zacharias. Other witnesses interviewed for this investigation recounted similar conduct by Zacharias that is consistent with some of Thompson’s allegations.
- In addition to communications, Zacharias’s phones contained more than 200 photographs of women much younger than him—including six of Thompson—and dozens of photographs he took of himself. While in most of the photos the women were fully clothed, in some they were at least partially nude.
- Before his death, Zacharias had claimed, “In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind.” He had also claimed he had long made it his practice “not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters.”
The international board of directors of RZIM has issued an open letter about the investigation.
What It Means: This horrifying report of the crimes and sins of Ravi Zacharias inevitably leads us to ask how this could happen. How could a man who was so beloved and respected commit such acts against these women and against a holy God? I believe it was because of a dangerous mix of inflated entitlement, unwarranted secrecy, and cheap grace.
First, the exposure of Zacharias and similar well-known ministers can lead us to the false assumption that the problem is “celebrity Christianity.” While there are indeed dangers that come with celebrity, it does not automatically lead to abuse. What renown can do, however, is inflame a person’s sense of entitlement.
The church owes numerous benefits to its leaders, such as financial compensation (1 Tim. 5:17–18), obedience and submission (Heb. 13:17), and even the benefit of the doubt against accusations (1 Tim. 5:19). But the deference and respect that come with the position can lead some to think they deserve such deference because of who they are, and not because of the role they serve.
They begin to think the sacrifices they make for the job should be offset by making allowances for their behavior—including sinful behavior—because they are “Great Men.” They begin to develop a sense that their great achievements for the kingdom entitles them to the spoils that are due all such Great Men.
It is this Great Man mentality, not celebrity (which many disgraced leaders don’t have), that tends to lead to their downfall.
Second, the Great Man believes his ability or achievements exempt him from the conventions and restraints of common folk. But because their congregants, followers, and fans will not understand them, they recognize their behavior—though self-justified because of their Great Man status—must be kept from public scrutiny. And so they pervert their role as keepers of secrets.
Because not all information should be made public, ministry leaders are often required to maintain the confidence of individuals or organizations. We are entrusted to keep the secrets told to us in counseling sessions or in business meetings from being exposed in ways that are not helpful to those we serve. But this justifiable need for confidentiality can lead to furtive habits—a disposition to be sly and stealthy and to do things surreptitiously.
The need to keep the confidence of others turns into a self-serving need to keep the Great Man’s actions from public view. An exaggerated entitlement fuels the need to be furtive. After all, if they are expected to keep the secrets of the lowly, why should a Great Man not have secrets?
Third, undergirding both of these flaws is a foundation of cheap grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The denial of cheap grace in our words and the acceptance of cheap grace in our actions is one of the most fundamental aspects of American Christianity.
Like other disgraced leaders, Zacharias knew, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3), These Great Men know God is watching, but they also know he is gracious and merciful. They trust Jesus as a benevolent Machiavellian: since the ends justifies the means, as long as they do good, God will overlook their sins.
Cheap grace is why we allow such leaders to not only get away with their sin but to also justify it. We cite their accomplishments and say, “But if their sins were acknowledged, would this good thing have happened?” We know they did wrong, but we look at what they achieved for God’s purposes.
Perhaps we find it easier to justify such behavior when we are not the ones being abused, molested, or raped.
For pastors and other ministry leaders, the lesson of Zacharias is not that “men like that” are prone to horrific crimes and moral failures. The lesson is that if we want to become Great Men who do great and mighty works for the kingdom, we are just as vulnerable to such sin as any celebrity.