Dear leadership of the C&MA,
I approach the case of Ravi Zacharias with the perspective of a member of the C&MA. Four years ago, as a survivor of abuse myself, I found refuge in an Alliance church in Frederick, MD, where I discovered grace-filled preaching and the love of God. For over three years, this church has been my home.
I also approach the case with the perspective of one who has spent nearly a decade researching sexual abuse within the church. For years, the church in general has had a very naïve attitude toward sexual abuse—at best. Some of this, I believe, has been perpetuated by abusers who intentionally use Scripture to cover their evil deeds; some is perpetuated by those who can’t imagine that anyone could be so evil as to intentionally harm a child.
I applaud the Alliance for the steps it has taken over the years to guard children’s safety. I was encouraged to discover that my church had a decent child protection policy in place as far back as 1995, when many churches were completely oblivious. We recently updated and strengthened this policy to enhance the level of protection. I’m also aware that this policy was nationally implemented by the Alliance, and I’m grateful for those in leadership who instituted these things.
However, as we look back at how the Alliance handled accusations against Ravi Zacharias, there is more to be done. Statistically, there are more people like Ravi in our churches. Some of them are pastors and elders who use their positions to gain influence and access to victims. Some of them are laypeople. But the common denominator is that they don’t look like predators; on the contrary, they look like wonderful, Godly people. They can preach moving sermons, teach an amazing Sunday School class, and have beautiful families. Yet, in secret, they commit unspeakably evil acts.
If the church is to root predators out of their midst and protect the people, we must start with the understanding that there are vile people who intentionally abuse and hurt others. There are people who do not merely fall into sin by mistake. Instead, they carefully plan their moves and make calculated decisions to entrap and abuse those around them. They also manipulate and deceive non-victims to believe that they are godly people who would never commit such horrible acts.
Jesus warned us about wolves who come in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-20). Paul warned the leaders of the Ephesian church that wolves would enter into the church, even from among the leaders themselves (Acts 20:29). However, in my experience, we tend to look for wolves outside the church while ignoring the ones inside. Wolves can do incredible damage when allowed to roam freely within a trusted space, like the church.
This is why, for example, I was very disturbed to read an article by C&MA pastor Nick Stumbo, addressing the case of Ravi Zacharias, that stated, “And here’s a truth you might be missing: they aren’t doing this on purpose. These leaders aren’t trying to live a double life, not most of them anyway…”
I am not by any means trying to paint Nick Stumbo as speaking for the Alliance as a whole. However, I share his words as an example of the belief systems that allow predators like Mr. Zacharias to perpetuate their abuse within the church. This happens in three ways: first, we never notice “red flags” because we aren’t looking for them; second, we give too much benefit of the doubt to questionable behavior; and third, when abusive behavior is exposed, we chalk it up to “moral failure” or “falling into temptation” and allow the predator to continue to be a part of our church.
Additionally, we must realize that there is a world of difference between mere sexual immorality and engaging in sexually abusive behavior. Immorality is a sin, but not necessarily abusive; abuse is a crime and doesn’t happen by accident.
Do some people “mess up” and do things that they later regret? Of course! However, just like King David, a Godly person will genuinely repent and take full ownership of their sin. They will not try to downplay or excuse their behavior or paint their victim(s) as also responsible. And they will accept any consequences, such as jail time or sex offender registration.
This, unfortunately, was not the pattern of Ravi Zacharias. When exposed, he retaliated with a lawsuit against his accuser and legally forced her to be silent with an NDA that he immediately violated. He denied his wrongdoing and instead painted his victim as the perpetrator. He claimed that he was never alone with a woman, while we now know that he was spending much time alone with female massage therapists. And He went to his grave still covering up the evil that we now know that he perpetrated.
This is not the behavior of someone who slipped up and fell into sin. This is the behavior of a wolf.
It’s understandable that the Alliance, thinking that they could trust Mr. Zacharias, believed his story rather than Lori Ann Thompson’s. At the same time, I’m deeply disturbed by the Alliance’s statement at the time:
Mr. Zacharias has also been accused of engaging in an immoral relationship with a woman through the use of electronic communications. The C&MA recently completed a thorough inquiry of these accusations, including interviews with those involved and a review of all available documentation and records. While it is not appropriate to publicly discuss the nuances of these allegations, the available evidence does not provide a basis for formal discipline under the C&MA policy.
However, the most recent statement from the Alliance says that “At that time, hindered by a nondisclosure agreement signed by both parties, there was not clear and sufficient evidence to proceed.” It’s plausible that the Alliance could not access enough information to make a clear decision. But it was incredibly misleading to state that “The C&MA recently completed a thorough inquiry of these accusations, including interviews with those involved” when, in reality, there was much that they were unable to access and multiple individuals who could not legally be interviewed. It would have been far better to state that the C&MA was not able to complete a thorough inquiry and remained deeply troubled about the allegations, but could not actually make a decisive case against Zacharias.
I call on the leadership of the C&MA to publicly apologize to Lori Ann and Brad Thompson for clearing Ravi Zacharias without conducting a proper investigation. The latest statement expresses grief for their pain, which is good; however, it stops short of apologizing for adding to that pain, even unwittingly. The dishonest representation of the C&MA’s investigation as “thorough” gave credence to Zacharias’s false claims of innocence and further victimized Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. It also helped enable Zacharias to continue his abuse of other women.
It’s deeply concerning that the C&MA did not censure Mr. Zacharias in any way three years ago. It’s equally troubling that the C&MA is still not acknowledging its part in perpetuating his falsehoods and allowing his abusive behavior to continue for another two and a half years.
The Gospel must be spread to all nations. We also must not be bringing new converts in the front door while losing people out the back door because they have been abused in the name of Jesus. The Alliance has an opportunity to use this terrible time to redouble its efforts to protect the church and to bring healing to the hurting. Don’t let it slide.
May God grant you much wisdom and guidance as you move forward.
Member, New Design Church, Frederick, MD
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4 Replies to “Ravi Zacharias: An Open Letter to the Christian and Missionary Alliance”
Ravi Zacharias was not a one-of-a-find criminal, but rather merely one of the most recent well known sexual predators that was hiding behind a sanctified front. That he now stands rightfully soundly condemmned by those left behind is only part of the story, as there are eternal consequences for unconfessed and unrepentant sin, without remedy of any kind.
But Joel is right, there is much more about why there is not a stronger self-critical evaluation of the denomination’s investigations and findings. One thing for sure, it does not seem that the official reactions of C&MA adequately equal the actions and nature of the criminal betrayal of the offender. We are all shocked, but we must not be self protective or defensive. It is up to us to do our level best to learn hard lessons with a view to stopping it from happening again. May God help us all to keep a far better eye out for the well disguised wolves among us.
Thank you, brother!
Thank you for wrestling with this difficult topic. I feel you are covering ‘the other half’ of this topic, and my heart is with you. We need to take matters like this very seriously and do absolutely everything necessary to expose abuse, stop abusers, defend and care for victims, and create healthy leadership systems.
I believe my blog is an attempt to ask, “How do we keep this from happening to more and more leaders?” By the end of Ravi’s life it is clear: he WAS doing this on purpose. He was hiding, lying, covering his tracks, and living as a monster who continued to hurt, abuse and damage people whether directly or indirectly. We should all be devastated and horrified by what he has done. What I want to suggest is that had a system existed early in his life that did just what you suggest- identify the red flags, deal with them thoroughly, and investigate deeply, perhaps his life trajectory could have been changed. AS for him, we’ll never know. But for future leaders, we can still make a difference. Rather than waiting for someone to be exposed as an abuser, we can work within leadership systems early on to help men and women face their brokenness.
The question might be posed this way- and I would be interested for your thoughts- is a leader who is found to be an abuser ALWAYS an abuser from the beginning? OR, do leaders who end up as an abuser start out with other issues of sexual brokenness that go unaddressed (pornography, lust, etc) and they become an abuser over time? If the first is true, then our focus needs to be as you suggest- identify them, deal with them, and get them out of leadership positions. But if the second is true- as I suspect- then we need to put our attention on helping early and dealing with the ROOT issues far before we have to deal with the FRUIT issues.
Grace and peace-
I’m not Joel, and I don’t propose to provide a definitive answer to your questions. However, as a child abuse prevention educator and victim’s advocate, this is a topic I have long paid close attention to. Pastoral abuse of adults is on my radarl, since the patterns are so similar to predators who abuse children.
I think there is no easy cut and dried answer for every single predator. I personally suspect that some actually seek out positions of leadership/power so they can abuse. It’s also possible that some slide on into abuse as they realize that it gives them feelings of power and control that (temporarily) sooth the emptiness in their lives that should be filled by God. My personal opinion is that there ARE red flags either way . . . and it’s important that we learn to watch for and identify those red flags, and move to action, whatever that action is.