Fallen Idols

Just before Christmas, a surprising announcement acknowledged that famous Christian preacher and apologist Ravi Zacharias was guilty of longstanding sexual harassment and misconduct.  The announcement came from the multimillion dollar ministry that he left behind when he passed away in May 2020, which is what makes it so surprising (at least to me).  Even this small honesty is sadly uncommon in recent years.

When Zacharias passed, I was still on Facebook fairly regularly, and my feed was full of adoring eulogies for this man.  This morning I poked around on Facebook a little bit looking for public reactions from those same eulogizers.  I found mostly silence.

Then again, what do you say?  The guy evidently duped a lot of people.  If you were a fan and believe the allegations, you have to feel at least a little gullible, and if you still don't believe the allegations, it's hard to argue with the ministry he left behind admitting that he did it.  It's hard to scream "fake news" at that.

A few thoughts crossed my mind though, foremost among them:  Christian celebrity culture is idolatrous.  Over the past decade or two, I've watched thoughtful discourse wither and die, replaced by tribalistic social media reactions.  We "like" or "dislike" people and claims based entirely on tribal loyalty.  Logic, evidence, loyalty to truth and to Jesus Christ seem to come second far too often.  Everything is interpreted through that tribalistic lens, and whatever doesn't conform to the tribe is rejected outright.

The result is that famous Christian leaders who become more brazen in their sin can successfully rely on their own personally cult to cover them.  Christianity Today quotes a former director from Ravi Zaccharias International Ministries, "The culture of RZIM is adulation and unquestioning loyalty. You praise Ravi all the time and never hold him accountable."

Well, that's idolatry, and fallen idols remind us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.  No one should be revered in that way.  No one is above accountability.  Fallen idols also expose our own idolatry.  Our unconditional allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ alone, not to people, no matter how good those people seem.  After all, if we really care about them, we want them to come to repentance, especially of their grossest sins.

One good thing coming out of this is that God is on the move, purging the wickedness from among us.  I think too often we feel only betrayal, embarrassment, and sorrow at the exposure of sinful leaders, but we should also be grateful to see God still working among his people to challenge idolatry and lead them back to true faith in him.

As a person of leadership in a ministry, stories like Zacharias' chill me to the bone.  I don't want anyone revering me like that.  I hope that anyone who follows me can see that I am a broken sinner just like everyone else.  I need God's grace just like everyone else.  If you've found any encouragement from my work, you should thank God for that, not me.  Because I'm a stubborn, petty, far-too-sensitive little man, and I don't deserve anyone's accolades.  I keep reminding my board that we're not going to become a personality cult and that we need a plan to pass the leadership of Core Academy to someone else.

I just keep thinking back to Jesus' words in Luke 13:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

We're all sinners, and the choice is pretty clear.  Repent and live.  Cover it up, and die.

There is much more to be said about this, especially how Christian celebrity culture enables toxic leadership and therefore shares responsibility and condemnation.  And we could talk about the leadership crises of other ministries like Liberty University.  Don't forget to take seriously the red flags either.  Zacharias and RZIM had a history of troubling allegations and behavior that the ministry tried to ignore.

We need to do better.  We all need to do better.  We need to accept and celebrate what God does through people, but we need to hold them accountable when they fall away from God's path.

God help us all.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

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