Celebrity Christians Leaders Need to Be Retired: Reflections on Ravi Zacharias

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Dear Friends,

 

Ravi Zacharias was a world-famous Christian speaker and writer. He wrote many books and had a huge global ministry. When he died last year, my social media was flooded with his pictures, quotes, and testimonies about how he changed people’s lives for Christ. It was like a Protestant saint had been canonized.

 

Since then, it has been revealed that Zacharias sexually abused many women in the United States and other countries. He had hundreds of female massage therapists’ numbers in his phone, which he used for extramarital sex. He had hundreds of images of women, including pornographic images, in his phone, which he actively requested from women. At least one woman has claimed that Zacharias raped her. He embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from his ministry to sustain and silence these relationships.

 

It turns out that Ravi Zacharias was a deeply broken, corrupted, harmful man, even as he was a beloved celebrity Christian leader.

 

These six observations come to mind.

 

 

  1. Humans are easily deceived. 

 

 

When Zacharias died, I saw many people praise him for his rock-solid integrity. Some of these people were also very influential ministers. It seemed Zacharias’s character was incorruptible and unquestionable.

 

To suggest that Zecharias might have been more complicated than the eulogies felt like the ultimate disrespect and betrayal of what was obviously true. Saying this openly would invite offense and attack.

 

What this shows is that humans are easily deceived. Zacharias had abusive, immoral relationships with several women for several years, and people either didn’t see it or chose not to see it. All too often, we see what we want or need to see, not what is really there.

 

We should learn not to be so easily deceived. Crowd opinion should have little influence over our views, even if disciplined nonconformity is unpopular and painful.

 

  1. It’s not all God. 

 

Alas, this point will offend some of my readers. But it is true nevertheless, and we need to wrestle with it.

 

When some of us hear a powerful sermon or read a powerful book or have a powerful encounter with a minister, we easily start talking about how that power was “all God.” We feel like our life was deeply touched or/or changed, and we attribute this to God’s unique influence in and through that person.

 

And thus that person becomes untouchable: if their work is really “all God,” then they must have a superior, God-like wisdom and character that shouldn’t be questioned.

 

But this is mistaken. Humans regularly attribute a person’s charisma, gift for language, and magnetic presence as proof of God’s presence and power: “all God.” But it isn’t necessarily that. It could just be a person’s charisma, gift for language, and magnetic presence. Power takes all sorts of forms.

 

Those qualities may be powerful and may influence our lives in out-sized ways. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God was personally whispering through their sermon, book, or conversation. Maybe God was; maybe God wasn’t. Discernment is needed. Even if God was speaking through them, that doesn’t mean they should be fully trusted.

 

The documentary “Wild, Wild Country” illustrates this in extremely powerful ways. Thousands of people became utterly convinced that the Indian guru Osho was a messenger of God; they would hang on his words, physically react to his presence, give everything they had to him. Was that “all God”? It turns out that Osho was deeply manipulative and badly corrupt; he also happened to be very charismatic.

 

We need to avoid mis-attributing whatever moves us to the power of God. We also need to work on the stigma surrounding this critical discernment of power in Christian circles, especially when people with less power or status raise an accusation or critique. We all know that if someone says, “That sermon was straight from God!” and you say, “That sermon was entertaining and clever; but I need to think about it more,” most people will think you’re unspiritual, you’ll be held in suspicion, and, if you express that opinion too much, you’ll probably be pushed out.

 

This is a cultural failure. People who care enough to ask questions should be welcome, and accusations of abuse should be taken seriously and investigated transparently.

 

3. Celebrity leaders are just like everyone else. 

 

This point builds on the previous one.

 

When a Christian leader becomes a celebrity leader — thousands of people are buying their stuff, showing up at their events, watching their videos, giving to their platform — we easily assume they have a “secret sauce.” Christians have different language to describe this. More charismatic-Pentecostal circles usually call it “anointing” or “grace.” Less charismatic-Pentecostal leaders often call it simply “ministry” or “vocation.” Regardless of the language, the assumption is that these leaders have something exceptional from God — something most of us don’t.

 

And the built-in assumption to that assumption is that these celebrity leaders are somehow different than the rest of us. They’re less horny or probably not horny at all. (Some people would be offended to put the all-too-human word “horny” in the same sentence with one of these anointed leader’s name!) They don’t masturbate or look at porn or flirt with women outside their marriage or have sex or rape. They’re not hungry for power or influenced by the needs of their ego, like envy, insecurity, or raw competition. They don’t need as much sleep, can travel constantly, and can always be “on” without breaking down. They don’t really need close accountability. Why? God is exceptionally at work in them.

 

But this is wrong. Christian celebrity leaders are just like everyone else in the diversity of our needs and drives — for sex, for power, for money, for status, for rest/distraction. (Rest and distraction are very different, but we often confuse them, including our celebrity Christians.)

 

And this takes me back to my first point: we want to believe that some people have this secret sauce relationship with God, so we project that onto our celebrity Christian leaders, and that satisfies some need we have for innocence or influence or impunity. Maybe we don’t have it, but they have it.

 

But that’s false.

 

We need to reset our assumptions. Our celebrity Christian leaders may have good hearts and good intentions, sometimes at least. But they’re horny just like the rest of us; most struggle with the complexities of human sexual appetite. They’re hungry for power and not incorruptible. They have issues with money and sleep and burnout and self-esteem. They wrestle with addiction.

 

We should doubt our Christian leaders — not as an act of condemnation but as an act of mercy. They’re just like the rest of us, and so they shouldn’t be expected to be more. As my mom would say, “They put their pants on just like the rest of us.” Surprise, surprise, they’re also tempted to take their pants off just like the rest of us — and many do, including the anointed Ravi Zecharias.

 

Take the celebrity leader off the pedestal.

 

4. Celebrity leaders should be retired.

 

This observation takes me to my next one: we should all retire celebrity Christian leadership.

 

It shouldn’t be a thing. (This is painful for me to say, because deep inside of me, there is still an undead part of me that wants to be a celebrity Christian leader.) It’s bad for the leaders; it’s bad for the followers; it’s bad for everyone, because it mass-popularizes this binary between Christian “leaders” and “followers” as if we’re not all called to be both together on equal footing.

 

Think of a guy at the bar. After a few drinks, he reaches his limit. In bar parlance, he needs to be “cut off” and “tap out.” If he drinks more, he’ll be intoxicated, and that’s bad for him, bad for his family, and bad for the people on his drunken path. It could be deadly.

 

How many drinks are too many? What’s the grey zone between tipsy and hammered? I don’t know. What’s tricky is that it’s different for everyone.

 

Similarly, how many members should a Christian leader’s church or ministry have before it reaches the celebrity danger zone and needs to be “cut off” and “tap out”? How many talks given? How many trips taken? How many books written and sold? How many projects and products? How many texts, emails, calls? Who should have access to all of these devices and platforms?

 

Again, I don’t know. It’s different for everyone. But what we know for sure is that Christian celebritiation/intoxication is a real thing, and it’s bad and dangerous, and it should be retired.

 

This requires leaders having deeper, more transparent relationships. It also requires stronger, more formalized and functional structures of accountability like boards, coaches, spiritual directors, and also real friendships.

 

It feels like death for some of us, but no one should aspire to being a Christian celebrity leader. If that starts happening, rather than saying, “Wow, God is at work!” we should start to feel uncomfortable, ask more questions, and see what we can do to help our sister or brother be a more normal, semi-healthy follower of Jesus. (All of us are only semi-healthy, and claiming otherwise is self-deception.)

 

5. Never accept spiritual manipulation.

 

Ravi Zacharias kept the women he abused silent by telling them that God had blessed them with the “opportunity” and “reward” to have sex with him. He also said that if they spoke about it, “millions of souls” would go to hell because his ministry would be discredited.

 

Hey, who wants to reject an “opportunity” from God? (All Evangelicals know how loaded this word “opportunity” is in our circles; it means something that God himself has engineered and wants to happen. This is an extremely important and dangerous idea that should be more openly, humorously, and critically talked about.) Moreover, who wants to send people to hell?

 

But as my dad would say, this kind of manipulative talk is “horse poop.” It is inherently scam-like, claiming that God has given me exceptional privileges and that others’ eternal destiny hangs on the fragile string of my reputation.

 

If any leader ever starts talking to you like this, your sirens should start blasting, you should step away, and you should report this to whatever accountability this leader may have.

 

6. Doing no harm is an accomplishment that should be cherished and celebrated as much as “impact.” 

 

Deep inside myself, I am slowly recovering from an addiction to influence and impact. This was hardwired into me by my mega church. Spiritual leaders often and easily measure the worth of our existence by our perception of our influence on others, culture, the world. We want to make a positive difference.

 

This good intention often gets weaponized to justify “collateral damage” in Christian ministry. Collateral damage is a military term that refers to the tragic but supposedly necessary effect of killing innocent people while trying to kill the “enemy.”

 

I remember hearing this term early in my ministry experience, and I have always despised it. The idea is that people who ask hard questions should be marginalized or pushed out, so the church’s leaders and reputation are not disrupted. Or volunteers should be overworked so more God-ordained “ministry” can get done. Or a pastor’s charismatic charms should be flexed so more people are motivated to show up and give. If people get excluded, burnt out, or twisted — harmed — in the process, that’s just the “collateral damage” of fighting for God.

 

Augustine writes in Book 19 of the City of God, “The basis of [loving God, self, and neighbor which produces peace] is the observance of two rules: first, to do no harm to anyone, and, second, to help everyone whenever possible” (19.14). Of course, August was merely building on Paul, who wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10).

 

I remember reading Augustine’s City of God in graduate school at the University of Chicago and thinking his first principle of morality was extremely lame. Doing no harm to others struck me as a low, very unambitious bar. Really, Augustine (and Paul)?

 

But the longer I live, the more profound I think Paul and Augustine were on what’s required for God-loving, neighbor-loving character. There are deep drives inside of us: lust for power, sexual lust, anger, greed, envy, fear, anxiety, arrogance, cruelty. These drives are real and powerful. Each of us easily does harm to ourselves and others, knowingly and unknowingly, as these drives war inside us.

 

By making doing no harm the basic standard of loving God and our neighbors, the Christian justification of “collateral damage” is abandoned. Cutting corners, stepping on people, using and abusing people is not acceptable, especially if it is being done in God’s name for God’s work (“opportunity,” “souls”). The basic requirement of real Christian living is not harming other people.

 

And this standard is not easy to live up to. Excluding people, using people, manipulating people, sexually and psychologically abusing people is much easier, especially once you’ve become a celebrity and can conveniently silence the critiques of the “critical spirits,” “cynics,” and “unbelievers” that dare to question you.

 

We need to re-establish Paul and Augustine’s two rules: first, do no harm to anyone; after that, if you’re able to help, then help as much as you can. What this means is that doing no harm should have a higher priority than impact, change, influence in Christian circles. The leader who does their best to do no harm and has less visible “impact” should be held in higher esteem than the celebrity-type leader that is setting themselves up to harm people, intentionally or unintentionally, while claiming to change the world like our brother Ravi.

 

And this, again, means that we need higher standards of accountability. The Christian community has known sexual predators who are celebrated — “celebritiated” (think inebriated=drunk) — as bishops, apostles, prophets, “men of God.” At least ten women have told me virtually the same story of sexual abuse by one of the most famous Christian leaders in my community. But everyone I know says he’s untouchable. He has thousands of followers; he’s charismatic; he’s funny; he appears on TV; he has powerful friends; he’s known to take revenge against people who challenge him. How sad, and sick.

 

Doing no harm should be celebrated. More basically, it should be demanded of Christian leaders. Whenever a logic of “collateral damage” has been accepted, even if its packaged in holier language like not sending people to hell, we know the corruption is deep. We need to reset our priorities. God bless the “small fish” leaders who “only” serve a few people but who are actively committed to not harassing, using, and abusing other people.

 

***

 

My basic argument is simple: Christian celebrity leadership should be retired. It should be culturally de-celebrated and held in suspicion. Human-sized agency and responsibility should be the norm, with all of us actively seeking and sharing God’s grace. When leaders become celebrities, we should expect them to crash and burn in one form or another, rather than being shocked when they do. Loving them as we love ourselves requires helping them transition to a healthier leadership culture.

 

May God have mercy on Ravi Zacharias’s soul. May God have mercy on the numerous women he exploited and abused. May God have mercy on me and all of us, sinners in need of grace and accountability, as we attempt to do no harm to anyone and help as much as we can.

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