Five years ago I eagerly shared with readers that internationally known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias was speaking in Bangor. The event, Why Jesus?, sold out, packing Maine’s Cross Insurance Center with 6,755 people. Among them were a load of high school students I’d helped wrangle onto a bus.
And so it was with outrage this week that I read news reports alleging decades of unwanted sexual contact by Zacharias against women. The response in the Christian community has been divided, from the dismissive “We are all sinners,” to yanking Zacharias’s name, books and image from store shelves and airwaves.
Zacharias, who died in 2020, is not here to answer the accusations, but last week the ministry he founded, RZIM, released a report by an independent law firm chronicling evidence of his abuse. I didn’t read the report. I’d already read enough about it to make me sick. I’m also no stranger to Christian abuse. Yet I find myself asking, “How could this happen?”
RZIM’s international board of directors has been grappling with the same question. On the ministry’s web site, the board responded to the report with remorse, releasing a statement which said, “in situations of prolonged abuse, there often exist significant structural, policy, and cultural problems. It is imperative that where these things exist in our organization, we take focused steps to ensure they are properly diagnosed and addressed.”
The problems are not limited to RZIM. Author and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Karen Swallow Prior, who grew up in Maine, responded on Facebook to the Zacharias accusations by recalling times she has seen something suspicious in Christian organizations and said something only to be “ignored, dismissed, or placated.” She then vowed to continue speaking up and listed five red flags that serve as warnings of abuse:
- Fake degrees and titles (dishonesty, abuse of power)
- Plagiarism (dishonesty, stealing, false witness, coveting)
- Boards made up of family and friends (nepotism)
- “Sexy” pictures on social media (c’mon!)
- Gaslighting in all forms (trying to persuade someone that their memories, experiences or perceptions are false (my definition)).
Perhaps that is why Jesus said that whoever wanted to be great, should become a servant (Matthew 20:26)—not a president, not a pastor, not a person in power. Because a servant doesn’t need a fake degree or fancy title. A servant isn’t known for words, but for deeds. A servant doesn’t need people to do what they say, because their job is to listen. A servant isn’t there to attract attention. And a trustworthy servant doesn’t need to hide their actions.
Still, I am left with questions, like: How could a man who spent his whole life defending the scriptures, violate them so horribly? How can Christians expect the world to walk into our churches when this is what they find inside? And what do I say to those teens I wrangled onto a bus to Bangor?
First, don’t be afraid to address the structural, policy, and cultural problems you find in church. It’s time to diagnose the problem and make changes. Second, when you see warning signs of abuse, say something, even if people ignore, dismiss, or placate you. And finally, as my mother once told me, “Knowledge cannot save us. Theology cannot save us. Only Jesus can save us.”
And so as we begin Lent, a season of inward searching and repentance, may we – the church – stop calling out the sin we see in the world and repent of the sin we are so blind to within our own walls. Then when the world asks, “Why Jesus?” maybe we will have an adequate answer.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture book The Backward Easter Egg Hunt and four other books celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith. Connect at www.meadowrue.com