Editor’s note and update (October 14, 2020): In the years since this case surfaced, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) have each launched investigations into further claims of sexual misconduct by the apologist, following a September 2020 report by Christianity Today. Zacharias died in May 2020.
In October 2020, the Canadian couple Zacharias sued in 2017, Brad and Lori Anne Thompson, made their first public statement in response to RZIM, explaining their story and saying they regret entering the non-disclosure agreement that has kept them silent while Zacharias and the ministry continued to speak out about the case.
Ravi Zacharias built his career defending the Christian faith. Now the famous apologist is defending his own reputation.
Today, Zacharias and his eponymous Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) released their first statements specifically addressing a personal lawsuit involving a married woman who sent nude photos to the popular author and speaker, as well as accusations that Zacharias has misled supporters by inflating his credentials in his RZIM biography.
“I have learned a difficult and painful lesson through this ordeal,” Zacharias said. “I failed to exercise wise caution and to protect myself from even the appearance of impropriety, and for that I am profoundly sorry. I have acknowledged this to my Lord, my wife, my children, our ministry board, and my colleagues.”
An Indian-Canadian convert to Christianity, Zacharias has become one of the best-known living apologists and has authored dozens of books on faith. With almost $24 million in US revenue last year, RZIM sponsors dozens of itinerant preachers and apologists (such as the late Nabeel Qureshi); puts on conferences for Christian leaders; and holds forums on college campuses.
Last month, Zacharias settled a lawsuit with a Canadian couple he claimed had attempted to extort him over messages he had exchanged with the wife.
The federal lawsuit—which was filed by Zacharias, not the couple—alleged that his “friendly correspondence” with the wife evolved over the course of 2016 to her sending him “unwanted, offensive, sexually explicit language and photographs.” In April 2017, the couple sent a letter through their attorney demanding millions of dollars in exchange for keeping the messages a secret.
“In the alternative of protracted and public litigation, [the couple] will sign a release of you and your church and ministry in exchange for a certified check in the amount of $5 million,” stated the letter from the Bryant Law Firm.
Zacharias said he immediately informed RZIM’s governance committee of the situation and sought legal counsel.
The couple first met Zacharias in October 2014 at a conference in Ontario, and they kept in touch over email and BlackBerry Messenger. In Zacharias’s telling, the wife kept crossing boundaries in their communication, even after he asked her to stop and blocked her messages.
Zacharias, who has been married for 45 years, turned down the woman’s offer to treat his back pain and her request to accompany him on a mission trip to India. According to his August 2017 lawsuit, she eventually “began expressing her love for [Zacharias], and then began making sexually suggestive statements.” She sent him photos of her family; then of herself; then of herself in “very scanty clothing;” and finally, of herself nude.
“Let me state categorically that I never met this woman alone, publicly or privately,” said Zacharias in Sunday’s statement. “The question is not whether I solicited or sent any illicit photos or messages to another woman—I did not, and there is no evidence to the contrary—but rather, whether I should have been a willing participant in any extended communication with a woman not my wife.
“The answer, I can unequivocally say, is no, and I fully accept responsibility,” he said. “In all my correspondence with thousands of people in 45 years of ministry, I have never been confronted with a situation such as this, and God and my family and close friends know how grieved I have been.”
In the couple’s telling, Zacharias encouraged the relationship in order to take advantage of the wife. “As a result of your actions, she eventually opened up her life to you to the point where you exercised a controlling influence over her as one with spiritual authority,” wrote their attorney, Mark P. Bryant, in the demand letter. “Armed with that information and your excellent grooming skills, you chose to exploit her vulnerability to satisfy your own sexual desires.”
Zacharias’s lawsuit stated that “there was no confidential and/or fiduciary relationship” between him and the woman, as would exist between a pastor or counselor and a counselee. Lawyers emphasized that Zacharias is not a pastor or counselor, and that RZIM is not a church and does not provide formal counseling or therapy.
Georgia state law does not specifically address sexual misconduct by clergy, though it does declare it a crime for a practitioner of psychotherapy to use a “counseling relationship to facilitate sexual contact,” even with the consent of the victim.
Citing such concerns about “clergy sexual misconduct,” blogger Julie Anne Smith on Friday published emails given to her by Zacharias’s accuser back in February, before the settlement. Smith explained that she was greatly troubled that “a victim’s voice is silenced” while Zacharias was “able to give his narrative” in the lawsuit. “Nothing is preventing this from happening again,” she wrote. “... Unless someone speaks out publicly, this case will be lost in the shuffle.”
The images included an October 2016 email in which the woman told Zacharias she was going to disclose their “secret and its soul-searing shame” to her husband; in another image showing four short emails, the apologist appears to reply mere hours later by threatening suicide. “If you betray me here, I will have no option but to bid this world goodbye, I promise,” he wrote, according to the image, later calling it “the most dark and accursed day of my life.”
Smith removed the two posts the following day, upon the woman’s request, but not before “thousands of people saw the emails.”
Zacharias’s lawyers claim that the woman’s husband knew all along. “Conspiring together, [the couple] labored relentlessly to foster a relationship with [Zacharias] in hopes of manipulating him into a compromising position,” they alleged in the suit, which states:
As part of the current scheme, [the couple] decided that evidence depicting an inappropriate relationship (in person, online, or otherwise) between [the wife] and a prominent, pious individual like [Zacharias] would enable them to force the individual to pay an exorbitant sum of money under the threat of the disclosure of such relationship to the individual's employer, wife, and the public.
Zacharias’s lawyers noted that the couple previously sued an Ontario pastor and his Christian Reformed church, alleging he had coerced them “into making certain ill-advised loans and investments” and seeking $1 million in damages. Their 2008 lawsuit was dropped; the pastor was temporarily suspended, but his church and denomination ultimately stood by him.
CT called the couple’s attorney for further comment, but did not receive a response.
Zacharias declined to comment to CT on the image of the emails showing the apparent suicide threat, citing the nondisclosure agreement.
Zacharias dropped his lawsuit on November 9. He said Sunday that the couple requested mediation instead of going to trial, and the parties reached a private settlement.
“All communication with both of them has concluded, and the legal matters have been resolved,” said Zacharias. “However, at this time, unfortunately I am legally prevented from answering or even discussing the questions and claims being made by some, other than to say that each side paid for their own legal expenses and no ministry funds were used.”
According to an email Zacharias’s accuser sent to Smith last week, she also was unable to answer further questions about the matter due to the settlement’s confidentiality agreement.
The case follows a landmark year for Zacharias’s ministry. RZIM raised $19 million toward the launch of the Zacharias Institute in 2016, nearly as much as its regular revenue which rose 13 percent to $23.7 million. The new evangelism training center is based in RZIM’s Atlanta-area headquarters.
Zacharias concluded his Sunday statement by saying he “bears no ill will toward anybody,” and advises fellow Christian leaders to take more precautions with their communications.
“I now realize that the physical safeguards I have long practiced to protect my integrity should have extended to include digital communications safeguards,” he said. “I believe—and indeed would counsel others—that the standards of personal conduct are necessarily higher for Christian leaders.”
In the weeks following the undisclosed settlement, bloggers also resurfaced claims that Zacharias has overstated his academic background and falsely implied that he had earned a doctoral degree.
The apologist joins a number of Christian leaders who have used the title of “doctor,” despite only having honorary degrees.
According to the biography currently posted on RZIM’s website, Zacharias received a master of divinity degree from Trinity International University and “has conferred ten honorary doctorates, including a Doctor of Laws and a Doctor of Sacred Theology.”
Up until earlier this year, the RZIM bio had not used the phrase “honorary doctorates;” instead, it had stated that Zacharias had been “honored with the conferring of six doctoral degrees.” The site also previously referred to him as “Dr. Zacharias” through 2014, as did multiple press releases, news features, and event postings.
“In earlier years, ‘Dr.’ did appear before Ravi’s name in some of our materials, including on our website, which is an appropriate and acceptable practice with honorary doctorates,” stated RZIM in its own statement, also issued Sunday. “However, because this practice can be contentious in certain circles, we no longer use it.”
Zacharias’s biography has also evolved on other sites, including publisher Penguin/Random House, which within the past week replaced a line that said he “holds three doctorate degrees” with a reference to the honorary doctorates instead.
“Neither Ravi nor his ministry has ever claimed he had an earned doctorate,” stated RZIM, reiterating what publicist Mark DeMoss recently told Patheos blogger Warren Throckmorton. DeMoss said the references to “Dr. Zacharias” were confined to other contexts and that RZIM notified sources to correct them.
Zacharias’s organization also stated that other cultural contexts—including his home country of India—embrace honorific titles, making it harder to discourage the use of “Dr.” before his name.
An atheist blogger named Steve Baughman, who has launched a campaign to investigate Zacharias, claims credit for RZIM revising its leader’s resume. He has also accused Zacharias of overstating his role at institutions including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Alliance Theological Seminary.
Zacharias’s 2015 bio described him as a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University,” but was amended to clarify it was at “Ridley Hall, Cambridge (then affiliated with Cambridge University, now more recently allied with Cambridge and affiliated with Durham University).” A line about him serving as “Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University in Oxford, England” has also been removed.
“I've been worried for 20 years about someone finally doing exactly this: calling Ravi Zacharias to account for inflating his academic credentials,” said John G. Stackhouse, a Christian scholar at Crandall University in Canada, in a Facebook post. He told CT that Zacharias’s questionable biography has been “quietly mentioned” among fellow evangelicals for decades.
“He’s certainly not the only one who has done it. … But just as God has used RZ to bless people in positive ways, may his shortcomings also stand as instruction to the rest of us who, apparently like him and certainly like me, are tempted to make more of ourselves and our little accomplishments than we ought.”
“We will be more vigilant about editing and fact-checking at every stage,” stated RZIM in its response.
“Ravi’s desire and our desire as an evangelistic ministry is to engage the honest skeptic, to take questions seriously, and to be as clear as possible in our communication,” the organization stated. “We therefore have restructured Ravi’s biography to better reflect his 45 years as an itinerant evangelist and apologist with a passion and a calling to reach those who shape the ideas of culture with the beauty and credibility of the gospel.”
Throckmorton has previously blogged about other Christian leaders who have adopted the title of “doctor” without having earned doctorate degrees, including WallBuilders founder David Barton, evangelist Joyce Meyer, and Donald Trump appointee Darrell Scott. Beyond raising issues of misrepresentation and character, doing so is illegal in some states.
But evangelists and apologists also prove their expertise with their work, Stackhouse wrote. “An audience generally is impressed with one’s credentials for about the first two minutes one speaks—and then you are what you are, baby,” he said. “If you’re good, the audience appreciates it; and if you’re bad, no amount of credentialing will make up for it.”
Here is the full statement Zacharias gave to CT regarding the lawsuit and the sexting allegations:
In October 2014, I spoke at a conference in Canada. At the conclusion of my talk, I met a couple who expressed an interest in our ministry. The wife asked if I would reach out to her husband because he had questions about the Christian faith. As requested, I followed up by sending an email and a book to him, and invited him to consider attending one of our educational programs at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).
Some months later, I traveled with my wife and one of our daughters to another part of Canada for a speaking engagement. The couple attended this event and invited my wife and me to dinner at a local restaurant afterwards. That was the second and last time I was ever in the same room with either of them.
Subsequently, she began to contact me via the email address I had used to contact her husband after first meeting them. My responses were usually brief. Then, last year, she shockingly sent me extremely inappropriate pictures of herself unsolicited. I clearly instructed her to stop contacting me in any form; I blocked her messages, and I resolved to terminate all contact with her.
In late 2016, she sent an email informing me she planned to tell her husband about the inappropriate pictures she had sent and to claim that I had solicited them. In April 2017, together they sent me, through an attorney, a letter demanding money. I immediately notified members of my board, and as they advised, I personally engaged legal counsel.
In response to the demand for money, my attorneys filed a publicly available lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The other side requested mediation rather than going to trial. We agreed to mediation and we reached an agreement in November 2017 to resolve the matter and dismiss my lawsuit. All communication with both of them has concluded, and the legal matters have been resolved. However, at this time, unfortunately I am legally prevented from answering or even discussing the questions and claims being made by some, other than to say that each side paid for their own legal expenses and no ministry funds were used.
I have learned a difficult and painful lesson through this ordeal. As a husband, father, grandfather, and leader of a Christian ministry I should not have engaged in ongoing communication with a woman other than my wife. I failed to exercise wise caution and to protect myself from even the appearance of impropriety, and for that I am profoundly sorry. I have acknowledged this to my Lord, my wife, my children, our ministry board, and my colleagues.
Let me state categorically that I never met this woman alone, publicly or privately. The question is not whether I solicited or sent any illicit photos or messages to another woman—I did not, and there is no evidence to the contrary—but rather, whether I should have been a willing participant in any extended communication with a woman not my wife. The answer, I can unequivocally say, is no, and I fully accept responsibility. In all my correspondence with thousands of people in 45 years of ministry, I have never been confronted with a situation such as this, and God and my family and close friends know how grieved I have been.
In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind. I love my wife with all my heart and have been absolutely faithful to her these more than 16,000 days of marriage, and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware. I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters—not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else. Upon reflection, I now realize that the physical safeguards I have long practiced to protect my integrity should have extended to include digital communications safeguards. I believe—and indeed would counsel others—that the standards of personal conduct are necessarily higher for Christian leaders.
The Lord rescued me at the age of seventeen, and I promised to leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth. He entrusted me with this calling, it is His; any opportunities I have been given are from Him. My life is not my own, it belongs to God. As long as He gives me life and breath I will serve out this calling He has given me. I am committed to finishing well, using whatever years He grants me to share His love and forgiveness, truth and grace, with people everywhere who are looking for meaning and purpose and hope. I bear no ill will toward anybody. God is the God of healing, and He promises a new day. May that be true by His grace.
Here is the full statement RZIM gave to CT regarding the critiques of Zacharias’s credentials:
The veracity of some of the educational credentials—specifically the use of the “doctorate” designation—of our Founder and President, Ravi Zacharias, have been called into question. While Ravi personally does not brandish his credentials and routinely asks not to be referred to as “Dr. Zacharias”—even by employees—our organization bears his name and, as such, we would like to take this opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding.
Neither Ravi Zacharias nor Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) has ever knowingly misstated or misrepresented Ravi’s credentials. When it has been brought to our attention that something was stated incorrectly with regard to Ravi’s background, we have made every effort to correct it. Sometimes other entities—such as publishers or institutions where Ravi was speaking—have incorrectly presented aspects of his credentials. We were not aware of these errors when they were made; however, in some instances RZIM should have caught them and sought to have them corrected. We regret any and all errors, as well as any doubt or distraction they may have caused.
Currently, eleven RZIM team members have earned doctorates. Ravi is not one of them, nor has he ever claimed to have an earned doctorate. In fact, Ravi often states that he wishes he had done more formal studies, as he values and understands the importance of higher learning. Ravi has a Masters of Divinity from Trinity International University, and has also been conferred with ten honorary doctorates. Ravi is grateful for and humbled by where the Lord has taken him during his 45 years of ministry thus far.
In earlier years, “Dr.” did appear before Ravi’s name in some of our materials, including on our website, which is an appropriate and acceptable practice with honorary doctorates. However, because this practice can be contentious in certain circles, we no longer use it.
In addition, some confusion may have arisen from a difference in cultural norms, as we are a global organization with staff members based in sixteen countries. In Ravi’s homeland of India, for example, honorific titles are customary and are used frequently out of respect for elders, including by the RZIM India team when addressing Ravi. Still, it is Ravi’s custom to request for the inviting parties not to use “Dr.” with his name in conjunction with any speaking events. Despite this, on occasion it has been our experience that we arrive to find promotional banners and materials welcoming “Dr. Ravi Zacharias.” We will continue to do our best to ensure consistency; however, we recognize that certain aspects are sometimes beyond our control.
The nature of our work at RZIM can evoke criticism, sometimes fair—in which case we address it—but sometimes completely unfounded and without merit. For example, recently a couple of inquirers claimed to have information that Ravi was facing discipline from his denomination. This is simply false and has never been the case, and it serves as an example of why we choose not to address certain accusations that come our way.
We will be more vigilant about editing and fact-checking at every stage. Our hope is that this will enable us to focus on our primary calling of helping people to encounter the claims and person of Jesus Christ, and will enable others to focus on the strength and merit of our message.
Ravi’s desire and our desire as an evangelistic ministry is to engage the honest skeptic, to take questions seriously, and to be as clear as possible in our communication. We therefore have restructured Ravi’s biography to better reflect his 45 years as an itinerant evangelist and apologist with a passion and a calling to reach those who shape the ideas of culture with the beauty and credibility of the gospel.