On 19 May last year, I wrote:
‘Thankful for the life of Ravi Zacharias, and for the thousands who first heard the good news of Christ through him. Thankful that the resurrection he preached in Christ is now sight for him, and faith no longer.’
What now? Should I take it down? What should I think of my words in the light of recent scandal?
I never met Ravi Zacharias. But I found his preaching engaging, his arguments for faith compelling, his illustrations appealing, and know of many saved and helped through his teaching. Yet his public and humiliating posthumous fall has a lot more to teach us.
1. No preacher should be above accountability to his local church
Many ‘big name preachers’, so valued by conference organisers and publishers, are unaccountable to the local church. In recent confrontations with witnesses, where was the ‘tell it to the church’ phase of correction (Matthew 18:17)? If there is no church and we deal with nameless and faceless boards and corporations, no wonder sinful behaviour cannot be resolved.
Think about ministries you support and ask, ‘To which local church are they accountable as a member?’ You’d be surprised.
2. No preacher should be maintained at extravagant expense
1 Timothy 4:20: ‘I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus.’ If people have chronic illness, God’s providence dictates they should be left behind, not maintained with accompanying medical staff at great expense.
There seems to be a great difference between ‘take a little wine for your stomach’s sake’ (1 Timothy 5:20, practical medical treatment) and ‘take along a personal masseuse on your ministry travels’ (highly questionable practice).
Paul implies that if a minister takes along a helper comparable to his needs then it should be his wife (1 Corinthians 9:5).
3. No preacher should be allowed to continue doing questionable things
Romans 14:16: ‘Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.’ This goes well above, ‘Do not let what you know is downright evil be spoken of as evil.’
In all things, a minister is to maintain a good conscience before God and men. A minister should have ‘renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways,’ because we ‘commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Are we so locked into evangelical self-congratulatory echo chambers that we fail to hold one another to this higher standard? If a man is beyond admonition, he is beyond usefulness.
4. No preacher should have a ministry in his own name
2 Corinthians 4:5: ‘For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants.’ Even Christ’s Apostle reasoned, ‘Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’ (1 Corinthians 1:13).
No. All things are to be done in the name of Christ. Zinzendorf’s noble maxim, ‘Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten’, is hardly helped by own-name ministries, which are again brought into disrepute.
5. No preacher should represent ‘big money’ and be irresistible
A man’s financial momentum in ministry must not be allowed to influence his usefulness and recognition. If cancelling a preacher’s ministry would have massive financial implications, one has to wonder whether it is legitimate. If a man cannot be challenged because he has this publisher, that conference, or this ministry colleague in his corner, alarm bells should ring.
6. No preacher should be viewed as infallible
Everyone ever used by God in ministry – Jesus Christ excepted – is a sinner. If God didn’t use sinful instruments, there would be none used at all. What made Paul, ‘the chief of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15), increasingly useful to God was continual repentance, consecration, and humbling (2 Timothy 2:21).
Men on a 24/7/365 ministry roadshow, with no time for devotional worship, soul care, accountability, and rest are heading for a crash.
When evaluating anyone’s public ministry, remember, ‘Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it’ (1 Corinthians 3:13).
Our contribution will be rightly evaluated in the light of Christ’s judgment seat. There will be surprises, and ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’ (Matthew 20:16). ‘The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later’ (1 Timothy 5:24).
Pray for grace to sustain your ministers for that stricter judgment, that they may hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (James 3:1; Matthew 25:21).
7. No preacher should be seen as the foundation of anyone’s faith
If your faith goes to pieces because so-and-so has fallen, your faith was in them instead of Christ. No foundation for our faith can be laid except Christ. ‘This is how one should regard [gospel ministers], as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God’ (1 Corinthians 4:1).
If you can’t imagine practising your faith without so-and-so, then perhaps so-and-so has become an idol-shepherd to you (Zechariah 11:17, KJV).
Our faith does not rely upon great preachers, whatever gratitude we owe them. Remember: ‘You have been made complete in Christ, who is the head over every ruler’ (Colossians 2:10).
8. No preacher should ignore the impact his sin would have on many
If Paul could say, ‘Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?’ (2 Corinthians 11:29), how much more Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep! Doesn’t Jesus warn us all, ‘It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin’ (Luke 17:2)? Paul rightly urges, ‘Let us … decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother’ (Romans 14:13).
We should pray for those exploited and hurt by Ravi’s unfaithfulness. We should pray for Ravi’s wife, Margi, and the family, close friends, and associates who will all be reeling at this time. Pray that their faith in Jesus would be upheld. Pray for those who trusted Christ because of Ravi’s teaching, that they may remember: their trust is in Christ.
Many a straight line is drawn with a crooked stick. Pray for those who opposed Ravi’s gospel, that they may not be emboldened in disbelief.
9. No preacher should cause us to doubt the grace of God
Speculation about Ravi’s condition is futile. ‘God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”’ (2 Timothy 2:19a).
We do not know the limits of God’s saving grace. But we do know that his saving grace brings about repentance: ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’ (2 Timothy 2:19b).
Let us never ‘presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience’, being ignorant ‘that God’s kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance’ (Romans 2:4). I pray that Ravi was able to repent in truth and depart from sin.
Charles Spurgeon once said, ‘There may be some sins of which a man cannot speak, but there is no sin which the blood of Christ cannot wash away.’
There are many things that were wrong. Many things that should have been corrected in the here and now. But if we believe it is beyond God to ultimately save such a one, let us remember: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand’ (Romans 14:4).
If God makes Ravi stand in the judgment, it will be by his grace – the exact hope that you and I have of standing when we face God.
May we learn these final lessons that Ravi taught.
And may God’s grace be with all who read this, leading us to repentance and salvation forever.