Our first email arrived on October 3rd, from Marcus in Los Angeles. And since, over the past eight months, another hundred emails followed — all of them asking about the Ravi Zacharias sex scandal. Our emails can be basically boiled down into three questions. (1) Pastor John, how are you processing the tragedy yourself? (2) How should we think of his ministry legacy now? And (3) what would you say to those shaped deeply, or even converted, through his influence?
So, even though your ministries didn’t overlap much, you got a lot of emails, like this one, a representative one from Jonah. “Hello, Pastor John. With the substantiated allegations of sexual immorality in the life of Ravi Zacharias, how should we process it and respond to it? The initial impulse seems to be to delete him, to ignore him and never talk about him again. But that’s not what we do with David, a man after God’s own heart, who infamously committed sins of lust and adultery, leading to pregnancy, deception, and murder. David is a man of great faith that we talk about and celebrate today despite his serious sins. Is it wrong to defend contemporary spiritual leaders in spite of their sexual sin? Does the death of a teacher factor into this decision — as in, would it be more dangerous to defend a living teacher susceptible to greater failures? Also, I know a number of people who came to faith because of Ravi. What would you say to encourage a believer now enduring the trial of having their spiritual father torn down because of his own sin?”
Well, let me begin with a word about why I would be so slow to speak. One of the reasons is wanting to know everything I should know, and the other is that I just cannot imagine the sorrow that family members and very close associates must feel. And for people to publicly assess and criticize a husband, a father, a very long-term friend must be horrible. And so now I’m going to be a part of that.
But I get it. I mean, I think the person is right to ask this question, and those hundred people are right to ask, “Okay, Piper, you knew him, so how are you responding in your heart and mind to this?”
Three Ministers Who Fell Away
Let me begin with some biblical background of gospel ministers, who, for a season, spoke the truth in useful ways, and then made shipwreck of their lives — indeed, their faith. I’m using these illustrations from the Bible, and I’m thinking here of Judas, Demas, and Hymenaeus — all of whom are explicitly named by Jesus and Paul.
Judas: Son of Perdition
According to John 12:4–8, Judas was very critical of Mary’s anointing Jesus’s feet with an expensive perfume. And he said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). And John comments, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).
In other words, for a long time — about three years, say — Judas was abusing the Lord’s trust by stealing what others had given to the ministry. And I assume that during all this time, he was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, that he was sent out two by two with others, that he worked miracles, that he enjoyed the most intimate conversations with the Son of God, Jesus Christ — all the while being a “son of perdition” (John 17:12 KJV).
Judas’s deception was so exceptional that none of the other twelve even suspected him of sedition and betrayal — because they were stunned at the Last Supper when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me” (Matthew 26:21). They didn’t all look at Judas and say, “Oh, of course, it’s Judas.” He was a master of deceit.
And what if, among the many people who were converted into followers of Jesus, some of them had been healed by Judas, and had responded to his preaching with faith in Jesus? His preaching was so orthodox, so apparently authentic, that no apostles were looking at him saying, “Well, Judas never gets it right.” They weren’t. He was getting it right. He was preaching the truth.
And lest anyone think that a phony apostle can’t do miracles, remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:22–23,
On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
And those works of lawlessness would, of course, include things like pervasive deception; greedy, lavish use of ministry funds; harmful manipulation of other people for your own private pleasures; adulterous dalliances; continually making provision for the flesh against the explicit command of the apostle in Romans 13:13–14.
Demas: Infatuated with This Age
And then there’s Demas. Twice we hear from Paul that he is a faithful partner in gospel work alongside Paul.
- Colossians 4:14: “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.” He greets you.
- Philemon 23–24: “Epaphras . . . sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.” Demas is ranked as a fellow worker in the gospel alongside Luke, of all people.
And then, in his last letter, in 2 Timothy 4:10, come these horrible words: “Demas, in love with this present age, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” So, it appears that, for several years, Demas was a trusted gospel partner with Paul, just like Judas was with Jesus. And during that time, there’s no reason to think that he didn’t preach the gospel truly and that people came to faith, along with coming to faith through Paul’s preaching. Otherwise, Paul would have sent him home like he did John Mark (Acts 15:37–39). “You go home; you’re not ready, Demas.” And he never did that.
“A double life, lived contrary to the Christian conscience, is a shipwreck about to happen.”
But there came a time when Demas’s true colors were revealed — namely, what he really loved. It was not true spiritual reality, but only what this age was offering him through religious work: things like association with notable people, access to money, experiences of power, accolades for eloquence, commendations for courage. There are plenty of worldly pleasures to be had doing so-called “otherworldly work.” But Demas decided to stop playing the game, and he abandoned Paul.
Hymenaeus: Shipwrecked Blasphemer
And then thirdly, there’s Hymenaeus. In 1 Timothy 1:18–20, Paul says to Timothy,
Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this [namely, faith with a good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
They appeared to have faith. Well, what happened? They did not hold faith in a good conscience. What does that mean? It means that, over time, they began to do things for which their consciences condemned them. But instead of repenting, they found ways to dull their conscience, until their conscience was so seared that they could justify behaviors that were simply appalling, even to the point where Paul said they made “shipwreck of their faith.” A double life, lived contrary to the Christian conscience, is a shipwreck about to happen.
So, the lessons from Judas, Demas, and Hymenaeus are many. Here are three:
- Soul-saving, Christ-exalting truth may be spoken by hypocrites.
- Forsaking a good conscience is prelude to moral disaster.
- The amassing of money and the pursuit of lavish lifestyles in ministry are the alarm bells of the love of this age.
Loose Truth and Untethered Sympathy
Now let me make two observations about Ravi in particular.
First, Ravi’s way of publicly narrating his past personal experiences really troubled me. I always found him difficult to listen to for that very reason. His rhetorical style was very distinct in this regard. If you listen to any of his sermons, you’ll hear it. He would recall an encounter with someone, and then he would proceed to narrate the interchange with exact quotations: So-and-so said this. And then I said this. And then so-and-so responded with this.
And I don’t recall him cautioning the audience that, actually, these were approximations, at best, of his memory of what was said. I don’t like that kind of pretense of precision in remembered narration. It sounded careless to me at best, and dishonest at worst. At any rate, it really made me uncomfortable. And looking back, I can’t help but wonder if it was a symptom of looseness with truth about his experience.
Here’s a second observation, and it’s way more important than what I just said. There’s a lesson to be learned from Ravi’s manipulation of people — a lesson to be learned about the need for tethered sympathy. And what I mean is this: 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. And we usually think of this issue of tethered sympathy with regard to the victims of abuse who finally step forward at great risk and tell the truth. And at that moment, it can be very controversial to say that there should be tethered sympathy — sympathy that abounds and blesses and helps and heals, in accord with truth.
But it seems to me there is another lesson to be learned — namely, a lesson about the value of tethered sympathy — upstream from the crisis of revealed abuse, upstream from the point at which the abuse was happening. How did Ravi manipulate people into sinfully sending him nude pictures? How did he 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.”
“Don’t let the imperfections and failures of men turn you away from the perfections and the triumphs of Christ, who will never fail you.”
Now, I have seen this kind of manipulation, Tony. I have seen this kind of demand and manipulation for untethered sympathy repeatedly among fallen Christian leaders: “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.” 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.”
Jesus Never Fails
And I think the last thing I would say to those who came to Christ under Ravi’s ministry, or who had their faith mightily strengthened by what he taught, is this: 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.