John Piper has weighed in on the misdeeds of late apologist Ravi Zacharias and identified the “lessons” Christians can learn from his posthumous fall from grace after he was accused of “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.”
“There’s a lesson to be learned from Ravi’s manipulation of people — a lesson to be learned about the need for tethered sympathy,” Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wrote on his Desiring God website.
Piper explained that every time sympathy is called for, it needs to be “tethered to the truth, so that it is given lavishly when the truth calls for it and is withheld when the truth clashes with it.”
“How did [Ravi] manipulate people into sinfully providing him with sexual stimulation? He did it by demanding untethered sympathy. He portrayed himself as an embattled, burdened, wounded warrior in the righteous cause of the gospel. And ironically, he turned his position of power into a form of neediness and woundedness. And then he tried to coerce untethered sympathy under the guise of calling for ‘kingdom therapy for the wounded warrior.’”
Piper said he had seen this kind of “demand and manipulation for untethered sympathy repeatedly among fallen Christian leaders.”
“[They say], ‘The burdens are so great. The wounds are so many. Those who understand me are so few. The weight of faithful ministry — oh, it is so great. I deserve some relief. Have some sympathy on this poor, wounded warrior. Empathize with your embattled hero. I need your body if I’m to carry on in the Lord’s work,’” Piper paraphrased.
“To which the administrative assistant or the old college flame or the teenage boy in the locker room should say, ‘That’s disgusting. Don’t ever talk to me like that again. My sympathy is not for sale; it’s tethered to truth and righteousness.’”
To those who came to Christ under Zacharias’ ministry or who had their faith mightily strengthened by what he taught, Piper advised: “Don’t let the imperfections and failures of men turn you away from the perfections and the triumphs of Christ, who will never, never fail you.”
An investigation released earlier this year found credible evidence of a long pattern of abusive behavior by Zacharias, one of the most recognizable figures in American Christianity for decades.
The report found that the apologist, the founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, who died last May, coerced massage therapists at a spa he co-owned to perform sexual acts. It also uncovered a collection of explicit photos — many of them of much younger women — found in Zacharias’ possession.
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.”
She told investigators Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received.” Zacharias reportedly warned her that if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost if his reputation was damaged.
Following the release of the report, numerous publishers pulled Zacharias’ books, while RZIM was forced to restructure and change its name.
In an interview with The Christian Post, bestselling author and pastor Michael Youssef said Zacharias’ downfall is a sobering reminder that “accountability” must be a significant pillar of ministry.
“Accountability is a word that's almost a dirty word among some of the celebrity preachers, and that's got to come back,” he said. “Whether a church has 10 members, 100 members or 10,000 members, he must have accountability. This is a word that is lost in today’s churches and must be returned to our vocabulary.”
New York-based pastor Tim Keller told CP earlier this month that when pastors get to be “well-known,” the praise can turn their heads, the criticism can prompt self-pity and the overwork can cause them to neglect their prayer life.
“For all those reasons, very often, so-called ‘celebrity ministers and figures’ very often live lives less consistent with the Christian faith than Christians who are not so famous,” Keller said.
“It's the job of the so-called ‘famous Christians’ to just live ordinary, good Christian lives, and not overwork and burn out and get filled with self-pity and anger over all the people that are criticizing them. That’s the thing that sets them up for these things where they embezzle money, they have affairs or they do things like that.”
While Christian leaders who have “not been faithful or responsible with the platform God has given them” must be held accountable, Keller stressed their moral failure “doesn't mean that the Christian faith doesn't work.”
“A quack doctor doesn't mean that medicine is illegitimate. A quack evangelist doesn't mean that the Gospel isn't true,” he said. “So, on one hand, don’t make excuses for your heroes. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that everything they’ve ever said is illegitimate.”