When RZIM confirmed the reports that Ravi Zacharias was guilty of calculated, serial sexual abuse, I was gutted. I remember listening to Ravi’s program on the radio when I was in high school and hearing him hold a packed auditorium spellbound in college. I devoured as much of his content as I could. He seemed to me a modern-day C. S. Lewis, marrying reason and imagination, satisfying heart and mind, moving effortlessly between Malcolm Muggeridge and the Moody Blues.
Upon reflection, I realize that part of the pride I felt in hearing Ravi had to do with him looking like me. As a Filipino American who grew up in predominantly white spaces, Ravi, an India-born Canadian American, seemed to represent a best-case scenario of what I could become. Among other things, he gave me hope of being accepted by mainstream culture, a culture that could be conquered through education, erudition, and eloquence.
I recall Ravi once answering a questioner by quoting Francis Thompson’s poem, “In No Strange Land,” which imagines Jesus walking on the Thames River in London. He ended with a mic-drop moment: “He’ll meet you where you are!” But these years later, I’m devastated to learn where Ravi really was and what he was doing. It is equally crushing to learn how he had been insulated from accountability by an inner circle overwhelmed in part by his charisma and in part by outright intimidation.
As a pastor-professor who cares about the revitalization of apologetics for the sake of the gospel, the RZIM story sobers me a great deal as I look to the future of the broader movement. There is no question that Ravi’s depravity has irreparably damaged his legacy and the ministry that is changing its name and retiring from apologetics.
As CT reported recently, what was once the largest apologetics organization in the world will now downsize significantly and shift its resources toward repairing some of the damage by funding organizations that care for victims of sexual abuse.
To some observers, there is a troubling connection between the contemporary practice of apologetics and the potential for abuse. Our image of an apologist tends to be one of a sage on a stage—a rhetorician who is prepared for all possible objections. But lionizing oratorical brilliance may allow us to content ourselves with mastery of arguments while remaining unmastered by the Spirit. To detractors, Ravi’s fall is the final nail in the coffin of traditional apologetic practice.
Has Ravi’s fall revealed the folly and failure of popular apologetics? What effect, if any, will it have on the apologetics community more broadly?
Traditional apologetics, which is concerned with responding to objections to Christian belief, continues to have wide purchase within evangelical circles. Classic and contemporary works enjoy strong sales, worldview camps abound for students transitioning to college, and new voices are flourishing in online platforms like YouTube.
Most contemporary texts on the topic include a defense of apologetics against its cultured despisers. These authors maintain the problems are not so much with apologetics itself but rather with its poor execution. Some want to turn away from an over-reliance on rationality toward more revelational, relational, or imaginative resources. Others have advocated for approaches characterized by cruciform virtue: humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
But there are growing misgivings about the discipline, especially among younger evangelicals. Not long ago, I taught a class on apologetics at an evangelical seminary and was surprised by the number of students who sought an apology for the class. My students had some sharp questions: Isn’t it impossible to argue someone into faith? Isn’t apologetics only effective for the already convinced? Isn’t apologetics a poor substitute for relational evangelism and discipleship?
Ravi’s fall has brought new force to the criticisms of traditional models. It should humble us. As with the fall of other celebrity leaders, this story represents not just an individual failure but an institutional one.
Ravi’s former ministry is in the process of repentance and reparation. But as Christian thought leaders and members of the global church, how can we heal the culture of the larger apologetics community? How can we keep from perpetuating cycles of celebrity, complicity, and abuse? As we grieve and seek to be better, what lessons should we take to heart?
As I have listened to the conversations taking place among apologetics practitioners, four themes have emerged.
1. Demonstrate a commitment to truth even when the consequences hurt.
Apologists have traditionally presented themselves as fearless pursuers of the truth. But when questions were raised about Ravi’s personal character and conduct, some truth was off limits. And yet, as the late Dallas Willard used to say, reality is “what we run into when we are wrong, a collision in which we always lose.”
In a time of tribalism and political polarization, we’re tempted to seek out truth only insofar as it legitimizes our side as being right. If our only goal is to win, truth can become instrumental or even unnecessary to that aim. “Owning the other side” does not require our transformation, nor does it require truth’s two sisters, goodness and beauty.
“In a post-Christian West, which increasingly rejects the goodness and beauty of Christianity, we should own the fact that too often the empirical evidence supports this case,” Joshua Chatraw, director of the Center for Public Christianity, told me. “But perhaps this is also an opportunity. In a culture of spin, where most are flailing for the resources that would motivate sincere repentance, practicing public repentance is our first step to begin to make our case again.”
2. Distinguish (but don’t divide) the message from the messenger.
After Ravi’s fall, voices in the apologetics community processed feelings of grief and betrayal on their public platforms. A consistent chorus has emerged: Look to Jesus. Trust Jesus, who was never guilty of abuse of any kind. As Alissa Childers told the followers of her popular channel: “Don’t put your faith in your favorite YouTube apologist.”
Apologists are at their best when they point people to Jesus. Paul told the Corinthians that “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). There is a difference, however, in making this distinction before and after a scandal has been exposed.
When leaders fall, it’s tempting to separate message from messenger for the sake of image management, but distinguishing the two cannot be a public relations maneuver. The message is always embodied in the life of a person (or a community) who makes that idea believable. If we’re part of an organization or a church where darkness is uncovered, distancing ourselves from an abusive public figure doesn’t let us off the hook. Character counts. For this reason, leaders should be removed from office and their toxic institutional culture exposed.
And yet, for those who wonder about the help they received from disgraced leaders, the distinction matters. Students of church history will remember the Donatists, who argued that the value of pastoral acts depended on the purity of the one performing them. An unworthy minister would invalidate the grace that came through the sacraments. The question was clear: How good is grace when it comes through the hands of fallen ministers?
In response, the church rejected the Donatist line of thinking and took the position that grace is not dependent on the worthiness of the minister but on the God who works through the weak and unworthy. Moral failure may invalidate a minister, but it can never invalidate God’s grace, which comes to us through Christ.
As the church recovers from the fall of Zacharias and of RZIM, leaders who care about the Christian apologetics movement can carry it forward by clinging to this truth: We do not commend the faith because we have found all the answers but because we find ourselves in desperate need of the Savior that we commend.
3. Reclaim faith as a community project rather than an individual achievement.
Questions about apologetics are worth raising, not just for those who speak from a stage but also for those who address multitudes through screens. Indeed, what sort of character formation is required for the online apologist? A medium that privileges views and virality tempts leaders to develop an increasingly wide split between their public and private personas.
Yet any content creator will tell you that building an audience has as much to do with dedicated engagement as it does with production value. To the degree that real community can be cultivated in online spaces, online apologists can remain organically connected to those they seek to serve.
But even this is no substitute for embodied fellowship in a local congregation. In his recent book, After Doubt, A. J. Swoboda pleads with doubters not to replace the local church with disembodied voices.
“Order your pizzas and books online,” he writes, “but don’t take your deepest doubts and questions there. Bring them to us, God’s people on the ground. Please don’t replace us. Question the assumption that a PhD is the same as being wise, or the assumption that ‘most viewed’ or ‘viral’ has anything to do with veracity.”
In other words, Christian persuasion must be grounded in the thickness and concreteness of the Christian community. As church leaders and lay leaders, we often underestimate how important it is for our own faith to be intertwined with the faith of our communities. They can hold on to us when we have difficulty holding on for ourselves. But danger comes when we’re content to exchange our concrete rootedness in a local believing community for the seemingly unassailable faith of a strongman. We allow an authoritative public figure to do our thinking and believing for us.
By contrast, the best place for belief to become believable is in local, embodied fellowship. The sage on the stage (or screen) can supplement and prepare the way but must not replace the guides at our side.
4. Support both “uppercase” and “lowercase” apologists in context of the local church.
About ten years ago, the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa brought together 4,200 evangelical leaders from 198 countries and produced the Cape Town Commitment, which included a call to “the hard work of robust apologetics.” Part of the invitation was to equip and pray for those “who can engage at the highest intellectual and public level.” I’ll call those “uppercase apologists.”
Uppercase apologists come equipped with answers, philosophical proofs, and compelling insights into difficult questions. Though sometimes despised, they play an important role in the wider world and often clear the road of intellectual barriers so that a person can move further along in faith or faith exploration. For example, I am thankful for the ministry of people like William Lane Craig, who has served the church in this space for years.
But on the whole, taking the uppercase apologist as the preferred model of Christian persuasion sets a dangerous precedent. If everyday practitioners have the potential to become addicted to “having all the answers,” then we can imagine the danger for those who offer answers professionally.
“Ravi was on the road often 200, 250 days a year; he wasn’t a member of a church,” said Sam Allberry, a well-known speaker for RZIM. The strain of being untethered and always on the move is risky for any leader, but especially so when you’re a public spokesperson for belief. Managing an aura of invincibility too easily becomes part of the job description.
In that way, uppercase practitioners need prayer and accountability. They need friends and colleagues who know them well enough not to be impressed by them—people who love them enough to tell them the truth. Individual apologists must be rooted in and under the authority of local congregations precisely because apologetics and faith are essentially communal endeavors.
The Cape Town Commitment included a second component in their apologetic commitment: “to equip all believers with the courage and the tools to relate the truth with prophetic relevance to everyday public conversation, and so to engage every aspect of the culture we live in.”
Mercifully, most of us are not and should not strive to become uppercase apologists. Rather, we seek to be lowercase apologists who are engaged in everyday conversations. We seek to bring the questions, hopes, and griefs of our neighbors—together with our own—before the Savior who calls us to follow him.
Justin Ariel Bailey is assistant professor of theology at Dordt University and the the author of Reimagining Apologetics (IVP Academic, 2020). He is also an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and has served as a pastor in Filipino-American, Korean-American, and Caucasian-American settings.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.