Last week, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries released a 12-page report about its founder and namesake. It confirmed “abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.” From CT’s reporting:
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time, according to investigators.
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
As we’ve once again learned the flagrantly sinful double life of a prominent Christian leader, we wanted to discuss it in light of what we believe about grace, mercy, and sin. These concepts, of course, are the bedrock of our Christian faith, but they’re also the ones we grapple each Ash Wednesday.
Covenant College professor of theological studies Kelly Kapic joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss if all our sins are equally wicked to God, what it means to extend grace to a person you never met personally, and what it means to hold people accountable for their sins, especially after they’ve died.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #252
As a theologian, how did you respond to the abuse allegations against Ravi Zacharias?
Kelly Kapic: I was struck and heartbroken and yet, and I'm sure plenty of others can relate, not super surprised. Part of what makes me so sad is the predictability of some of this. Steve Brown used to joke that the only heroes are dead ones because they can't screw it up any more than they already have.
It's hard to hear this. I felt frustrated and angry at times. I hear about abuse from college students on a fairly regular basis and far too often, that abuse goes to an elder in a church or someone else in leadership. It’s just painful.
When you hear people processing this, what kind of words stand out?
Kelly Kapic: I heard words like sad and heartbroken, but I also heard words like relieved. I was talking to one of my students who's from Africa and has personally experienced some painful things. Her reaction about it was relief because she said the perpetrators of these things never get exposed.
There’s a strangeness to this because for a lot of Christians, there's an impulse and desire to cover up or downplay. But as a victim, she was just grateful that she saw this as a sign of health that the church is trying to finally take abuse more seriously. As painful as it is, it's only by exposing things and bringing them into the light that we can deal with them.
How do you define sin?
Kelly Kapic: As a Presbyterian, there's a shorter catechism answer: sin is any lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God. What does that mean? In a sense, sin is something that disrupts my relationship with God and distorts the Shalom, the good peace that God created for His people in His world.
Sin is rupturing those relationships. It's hurting. It's going against them. Law sounds very callous, like Let's just follow rules, but the law is about love. How do you love God? How do you love other people? How do you love the Earth? It's not like God just loves to make people follow laws. He wants people to love. Sin is the rupturing of love.
To better understand sin, what do we need to do? Do we need to listen to more liberation theologians?
Kelly Kapic: The sadness of the Ravi episode is significant, but it points to other things. You're right to raise questions about some of the inadequacies or incompleteness of our understanding of sin.
There is an overemphasis on the vertical. Evangelical scholars and others are raising concerns about the therapeutic culture that we live in. I think when we describe sin in vertical categories, what we mean by that is primarily psychological. We have reduced sin and thus, salvation too. Do you feel good inside? Do you feel calm? Do you feel at peace? Evangelicalism is struggling to make any sense of larger problems of sin that affect structures and relationships. If it's just about me and Jesus, that just means how I feel about something. We have created a false dichotomy between the vertical and the horizontal.
When God says “What does it mean to love God?” It means to keep His commandments, and what are His commandments? It's to love people. That's what it is. Augustus says, “What does it mean to love God? It means to love others. It means to love what He made. He's told you what that looks like. I do think we are hurting, and this is an example of reducing sin to purely psychological categories, which I think are insufficient.
Is it possible to sin with “good intent,” if the impact ends up hurting or exploiting other people?
Kelly Kapic: Absolutely. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sincerity matters. God cares what's in your heart and that's something evangelicalism cares about, but you can sin because you're ignorant and you have bad affections. You love the wrong things or in the wrong kind of ways. For good intent, you can worship an idol. You think you're doing something good and God doesn't think it's good.
Women can relate; sometimes the way men talk about women, thinking they're saying something positive and it's actually demeaning. We should care about motivations, but I do not think motivations or intention are the final arbiters of these things.
Is it helpful to talk about gradations of sin?
Kelly Kapic: The apostle Paul emphasizes that you're not a sinner, but a saint. The reason why we don't sin is because we're holy people; that's who we are. I'm in the Reformed tradition and sometimes people can hear so much about the doctrine of sin that they lose sight; they hear more about sin than about Christ. That's a problem.
Sin becomes personified. It's this thing coming after you and either you're going to be resisting it or it's going to own you. It needs to be emphasized: just because you were faithful in the past, is not a protection for the future. That can get discouraging as you get older. That can sound exhausting, but it's interesting we tend to solve it by talking about the theology more.
When I hear story after story about sin and abuse, I think none of these people have good friendships. It's just not friendships, but deep friendships. They have a lot of acquaintances, people who would say, “Yeah, Robbie is my friend.” But not friendships that ask the hard questions and part of the deceitfulness of sin is self-deception.
If we set up some rules and try and be more honest, that can be helpful, but I think it's insufficient. Rules can actually be ways to insulate yourself from facing the reality of sin and from letting people see it and call you out on it.
All that is to say Christians are saints. That's who we are. We're not sinners, but the reality of sin is an ever-present threat. We don't graduate from having to deal with this side of glory.
Do we need close friends who are committed to helping each other live holy lives? What happens if your friend is also blind to something?
Kelly Kapic: There is a real danger of the blind leading the blind. I think we see this happen all the time. People say “I don't see injustice. Hey, do you see injustice?”
I don't see injustice, so there must not be injustice because I and my three best friendshaven't experienced it. If you look the same and you're in the same socioeconomic situation, it's the blind leading the blind. You need a diversity of friends.
One of the things that I think evangelicalism, at least historically, has done very poorly is for people to have friends. People kick back to people that have opposite-sex friends because they'll immediately say “No, you're setting people up for failure.”
I understand those dangers, but one of the problems is we have so many men who are friends or at least acquaintances with men and they're blind to one another. Often it has been women who've said something is wrong here and they get cut out of the inner circle. Their voice gets silenced.
The unwillingness for us to have friendships of the opposite sex actually sexualizes the thing. We often solve the problem by running away from people rather than running to them in healthier ways.
Friendships are crucial. They have to be diverse and they have to have some depth, but friendships alone are insufficient; we need accountability. Evangelicals like to bash Hollywood, but we have our own celebrity thing going on and we see the fruit of it. It's often unhealthy and problematic. I think structures in churches, like child protection policies, are really important. Only in recent years have they become more common. We need these kinds of things because of the depth and reality of sin.
How we might be willing to offer mercy or call on other people to extend grace?
Kelly Kapic: The reason why it’s so uncomfortable is so many of us have experienced the church not behaving well. We were never made to handle sin all by ourselves. We need the community to confess to, we need the community to be the voice of Jesus and offer us forgiveness. We need the community to keep us accountable. We need the community to keep us from lying to ourselves and downplaying things.
We have to be willing to call sin, sin, and church discipline is not. I've seen it done very poorly, but I've also seen it done well through para-church ministries, many of which I support. We need to call into account some of these things when you're vulnerable without any accountability, without any structures.
How do you define grace and mercy, and what do you find that Christians often misunderstand about these particular concepts?
Kelly Kapic: When we talk about grace, we often think of unmerited favor. The New Testament scholar John Barclay did this study recently on the apostle Paul and his use of grace. The book is called Paul and the Gift because grace is just the word for gift.
It's this unmerited unearned gift from God. Part of what we misunderstand is this is an unearned gift from God. It is unconditioned. It's not given based on anything we've done, but Barclay wants to say when you look at its context and how Paul uses it, whether or not you call it unconditional, God expects a response. The response is not work in the sense it's a relationship. This is a gift from God to be received and enjoyed and it is responded to through relationship. It's not you earning it, but it is you enjoying it.
It becomes a problem if we belittled the gift, if we ignore the gift, if we trample on the gift. You have to think through this without making the gift into work. It is grace, but that grace, that gift transforms us and should have an effect.
If we can show grace, can we show grace to people who did not necessarily sin immediately against us?
Kelly Kapic: I think we're called to be gracious. Grace as a word also gets linked to kindness. We show that, but grace does not mean ignorance. Some prisoners have talked to me about the reality of their sin and about the depth of experiencing God's forgiveness, and even as I'm gracious to them, the reality is they're forgiven. I'm gracious to them, but they still need to be in prison because of things they've done. There are still consequences of sin that affect the horizontal and we need to deal with them. Grace does not mean our ignorance of what's happened. People sometimes say, just forgive and forget. In these kinds of situations, that's often code for hurt and ignore the victims rather than recognize and deal with the victims.
How do we change our reaction to these stories so we don't make it just about personal piety? How should this prompt us to act on behalf of victims of sin?
Kelly Kapic: For example, whenever someone says to me, “Boys will be boys,” I'm almost positive I'm going to be offended by the very next thing that comes out of their mouth because I know it's going to be code for “Let's overlook this sin. Let’s overlook this behavior. Don't worry. They're just boys.”
Yes, we all are sinners. But that sober realization should not be a way to undermine accountability and the sobriety of what happens.
It’s like the Larry Nassar case. I remember watching this documentary on it and one of the journalists said at one point, he started to feel pity for Nasser. Then all of a sudden you realize What about all the victims?
What can happen in these cases is you see or hear from this significant figure and you feel pity, but you often don't see or know the voices of the victims. They get lost We need to not only diversify our ends. We need to know these stories. We need to know people who can tell us about these things, who have gone through these experiences because otherwise, they're just so abstract. We reduce it to an abstract doctrine rather than real life. To understand the theology, you have to have the experiential side.
Do we sometimes deem our sins and shortcomings to be of a better variety?
Kelly Kapic: We are all sinners. James talks about when you break one part of the law, you're breaking the whole law. We need to take this seriously. James also says greater accountability, expectations, and forgiveness can happen, but that doesn't mean you get to keep doing what you were doing. The ramifications are big.
So yes, we are all sinners, but there still can be appropriate and healthy consequences. Ravi is dead now, but it's a tragedy that we didn't deal with this with the first reports. It hurt the victims who were affected after.
It’s a comfort and a grace to know that people are exposing the truth when the utter pain and shame that goes with being on the receiving side of this abuse is so significant. When things are quickly set aside or brushed under the rug, it is very painful for victims. If Christians really care about the truth, let's be wise about how we do it. If you listen to the praise that was offered about Ravi at his funeral, how could we not in equal regard, bring these things to light, given that praise?
In other words, one of the principles of church discipline is you need to make public the confession and restoration as the sin were. If no one was affected, it was private. That can be one thing, but the more public it becomes; the more people are hurt by it, it's structural and you need to deal with it more publicly.
How do we hold someone accountable when the person has died?
Kelly Kapic: It is hard to navigate because the reality is the church's littered. We don't have an option; everyone is a sinner. Whether we're dealing with Luther later in his life and the antisemitism that shows up, whether we're dealing with Jonathan Edwards and slavery, sin gets brought up. Martin Luther King Jr. Has been accused of sexual impropriety that the white evangelical audience knows about.
It's interesting the sins that we pay attention to, which also reveal our blind spots. Listening to Edwards on anthropology can be a problem. We have to be aware of what he says about what it means to be human. In Ravi’s case, the sin happened over years and potentially decades; to be honest, I would find it difficult to include a quote from Ravi in anything I was writing in the future in a positive, referential way. Cancel culture is very politicized, but I'm not required to bring attention to everyone.
What difference does the Cross of Christ make in dealing with our sin, between us and our neighbors?
Kelly Kapic: First, the cross is absolutely vital to this discussion, particularly for the victims. We rightly affirm that God is sovereign and that He is not ignorant. He has power. He is the Almighty, to use the language of Scripture, but the sovereignty of God can get confusing when you're a victim and think, “Did God care?”
What does He think about this? Did He do this to me through His servant Ravi? Part of what's stunning about the Cross is it’s the perfect manifestation of the sovereignty of God. It's surprising because it's shown in weakness. If you are a victim and you want to know what God thinks about you — if you were raped, if you were hurt, if you were abused — you look and you see Jesus bleeding and weeping, and He thinks it's wicked and awful.
He takes it so seriously, He's going to go into the grave to deal with it. There is a solidarity there that we never want to lose sight of. That's important. Part of all of us being crucified with Christ is that we share in the sufferings of Christ. Part of that is sharing in one another's pain and suffering.
Often, that pain and suffering are related to people's sins: how we've received or been victims of people's sins and how we have sinned on others. With the resurrection being raised with Christ, we, as the church, are meant to provide a taste of Shalom in the midst of this broken world. We are the risen people who have this vision of a new life. We are supposed to be different. We're supposed to treat one another as brothers and sisters in light of the Resurrection that changes everything.
I think that connection to Christ being crucified brings solidarity. It allows us to tell the truth about the world. The Resurrection says that badness isn't the only thing; we can bring life in the midst of the darkness and through the Spirit.
Is there anything that you would like to say in light of Ash Wednesday?
Kelly Kapic: On Ash Wednesday, one of the powerful realities is having the cross put on the head and the statement of “From dust and from ashes, we come and we go.” It is an affirmation of our humanity.
I think part of what is plaguing evangelicalism is this denial of the reality of our finitude and our humanity. We need rest, we can't be superheroes; we shouldn't be able to do and be everything. If we are taking our full humanity more seriously, we probably need to raise some questions about superstars. What does it mean to affirm our humanity and to say maybe you shouldn't do everything that you're doing. Even the little that I could tell from reading these stories, I thought, This guy's exhausted. You can hear him talk about it, how he’s manipulating and using people.
In our exhaustion, we give into sin more easily. Part of addressing some of this is reaffirming our humanity and the goodness of our limits; stop trying to do so much, stop trying to be so much. We need to capture the goodness of just being human. You don't have to be a star.
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