I interviewed Ravi Zacharias on radio in October of 1997. He could not have been more gracious. My show ran from 5-6 pm on Saturdays. I always called my guests a few hours before to make sure they were ready to go. When I called him, he sounded horrible. His obvious cold was getting the better of him. I told him we could cancel and rebook the interview. He would not hear of it and said it would be “a privilege to be interviewed.” I have been around many Christian leaders. Not all would be so accommodating.
Like many, I was in disbelief over the initial allegations. I assumed that these must be untrue. Zacharias was hardly the stereotypical self-promoting megalomaniac selling his brand to any unsuspecting dupe. Further digging into the sordid details made it clear that Zacharias had led a life none of us could have imagined.
So, what happened?
As people tried to make sense of the man they thought they knew, it became evident to me that several things were not being adequately considered. Though they hid in plain sight during Zacharias’s life, few seemed to notice them. Here are the ones that most concern me:
The Bible is clear that you can do impressive things and not know Jesus. You may cast out demons (Mt. 7:21-23) and even allow your body to be burned (I Cor. 13:3), but both (and much more) can be done apart from Jesus. I have no idea if Zacharias truly knew Jesus. I simply want to underscore how much we can deceive ourselves and others.
First, we heap praise on the gifted without asking how gifted individuals treat those closest to them, what they are like in private. I have done “free speech” at Stanford University and at the University of California, Berkeley. These are public areas the university sets aside for anyone to deliver addresses on just about any topic imaginable. In my own experiences, I have preached the gospel and then fielded questions at Stanford, while at Berkeley I gave an address on why it was reasonable to believe in Jesus. I have done similar sorts of addresses in the downtown areas of Boulder, Colorado and Dallas, Texas.
I can report that doing all these is much easier than loving my wife well and my wife is eminently easy to love, which of course only highlights my own selfishness. My behavior can mask my interior world, which is where it gets dangerous. You get little praise for loving your wife well, but many offered kudos for my zeal and courage in doing these speeches to largely secular audiences. Our disordered priorities with celebrity mean the spectacular is what receives praise. What people easily see is gladly applauded.
Second, Ravi’s travel schedule should have never been allowed. Among other things, it demonstrates the lack of accountability he had. Several times I thought about his schedule and was troubled by those who allowed it to persist. If you are single, such travel schedules may be admissible. If you are married, you have responsibilities that should keep you (mostly) at home (I Cor. 7). Billy Graham, for example, regretted that he travelled so much.
What is an appropriate amount of travel for a married man? Before we had children, I spent a year as a speaker for Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). One time I was gone five weekends in a row, but because we had no children my wife was able to go with me on almost all of the trips. Some of the times she was also speaking.
In the case of men who have wives and children, or a wife and no children, but the wife is not able to travel, I think 20-25% time away should be the outer limit. I do not see how anyone can be a faithful and engaged husband or father apart from being around most of the time for the regular rhythms of family life. And this does not just go for Bible teachers. Christians in the business world must consider these matters as well.
Third, Christian leadership carries some unique challenges. As a pastor, most people thought far more highly of me than they should. There was also a small minority who seemed to think I could do nothing of value. My real friends knew me. They brought stability and sanity to my life. In light of this, here are a few areas that are not probed nearly enough with Christians involved in various arenas of leadership. They seem especially lacking with those who occupy ministries of wide influence:
1. José Ortega y Gasset famously said, “Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” To riff on Gasset I like to say, “tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.”
2. Wives and older children ought to be asked what the Christian leader is like at home. My wife would have some nice things to say about me, but if she were candid, she would also underscore my ongoing battles with impatience and getting consumed with various projects I want to accomplish.
In the five interviews I did for jobs at various churches only two asked about my family or walk with God. Somewhat predictably, the only person who asked at one church was a professional counselor. Another church is a few hours outside of our hometown. It was a wonderful exception. All those elders showed consistent interest in every area of my life.
3. I would also like to know about one’s prayer life…in some detail. Sinclair Ferguson mentioned that the order of Acts 6:4 where elders are to give themselves to “prayer and the Word of God” convinced the Puritans of the priority with prayer, even though the Puritans famously were heralds of God’s Word (The Compromised Church, ed. by John Armstrong, p. 275).
We glibly sling around words as Christians, so in closing let me unpack a bit of what I understand to be “appropriate accountability.” I wish I did not have to modify accountability, but unfortunately there are abuses that take place with accountability, so it is prudent to do so. Appropriate accountability occurs when there is true give and take. Both persons (or a small group of persons) are committed to transparency, proper submission to others for direction (another necessary modifier for submission), and a growing understanding that accountability is a tangible expression of love. If your impression of accountability is harshness or being inappropriately controlled, then it is either time to find other friends or look more closely at what the totality of Scripture says. Scripture, of course, has many important things to say about accountability, not the least of which is that it is always undergirded by gentleness. (Gal. 6:1-3)
I grieve for what we learned about Ravi Zacharias. It is, as others have said, a warning to all of us. But there are ways of keeping oneself pure and faithfully loving one’s neighbors that we would do well to remember. There are means of grace like real friendship, a consistent life of prayer, meditating on God’s Word, and appropriate accountability that will protect us from being a spiritual casualty.