Content warning: sexual and spiritual abuse.
If you have just found out that a famous Christian leader has been systematically sexually and spiritually abusing women throughout his entire ministry, should you be defending:
a) The sexual predator, or
b) His books?
The answer, of course, is only this: the women. Nothing else.
An independent report was released a few days ago concluding that there was abundant evidence that Ravi Zacharias had abused multiple women over the years of his ministry, all the way up to the last year of his life, including a credible allegation of rape. To read more see Christianity Today recently and in September 2020, as well as the part his organisation RZIM played in failing to investigate. In the aftermath, I have seen Christians, particularly male Christian leaders, fall over themselves to in some way subtly speak up for either Zacharias or his work, even while acknowledging these facts.
I’m going to outline the five broad responses I’ve seen, but as you read them, bear in mind why this is so important:
The responses reveal that the church as a whole has been groomed by sexually abusive leaders into minimising the offence of sexual abuse. These responses make it easier for abusers to keep abusing.
A safeguarding trainer once told me that in order for a sexual abuser to be able to abuse, he must first overcome his own conscience. Once he’s done this, he must groom the victim.
(NB I’m going to be using ‘he’ for abuser throughout and ‘she’ for the abused, because five times as many women are sexually abused as men, and whether it’s men or women who are abused, it is extremely rare for a woman to be the abuser.)
What we sometimes forget is that in order to overcome other obstacles, and particularly to get over the risk of being caught, sexual abusers must groom the environment such that even if a victim does disclose his crime, the victim won’t be believed.
Others have been writing about ways that Zacharias groomed his immediate environment in terms of his staff and board, and there were clearly massive problems in safeguarding that are coming to light now. But I am talking here about the grooming that goes on in the wider church.
Here are five things I’ve seen prominent church leaders or popular speakers say about Ravi Zacharias’ or Jean Vanier’s abuse.
Five Things We Must Stop Saying About Spiritual and Sexual Abusers
1. The false equivalency:
“It is, of course, a terrible thing that Zacharias did, but there but for the grace of God go I. We are all broken people and cannot judge.”
This is a popular ‘go to’ for all scandals – we are all sinful, we cannot judge.
I find it quite alarming that a church leader’s reaction to learning that a man committed sexual assault was, ‘But let’s not be too hard on him – that totally could have been me doing that crime, after all.’ I noted that among the Christian leaders who said this, there were no women.
We all lie sometimes, we all lose our temper sometimes, we all fall short of the glory of God.
We do not all torture people. We do not all rape women.
We do not all so much as feel tempted to sexually abuse others.
There is a reason in our criminal justice system that serial murder carries a higher sentence than shoplifting. When most people, Christian or not, hear about a heinous crime, they react in a natural way: “This is awful and evil and justice needs to be done.” They don’t say, “That’s terrible, but I’ve done things as bad as that.”
It is part of our natural human moral compass that knows that some sins are worse than others and recognises them as such. God recognises that some sins are worse than others, and singles out several sins, like murder, oppression of the poor, as being particularly terrible. When Christians respond with a reaction like this, making sexual abuse the equivalent of other sins, even other sexual sins like adultery, it is not a godly response, nor is it a moral response. It is identifying with the abuser and saying how understandable it all is.
Remember that in order for an abuser to overcome his conscience he must first believe that what he is doing is not all that bad, and second that the other things he does are really very good. In the balance of things, therefore, he is a ‘good’ person.
The problem with statement #1 is that it seeks to minimise and normalise crimes that should still fill us with horror. It is not being ‘judge’ to echo back that horror that the survivors of abuse have gone through; it is truth-telling. It is playing in to the hands of sexual abusers to agree with them that their evil is understandable, that anyone would be tempted to it if they got half a chance and that it is the same as any other sin.
2. Blaming pedestals:
“It is not Zacharias’ fault for abusing – really, it is the church’s fault for putting him on a pedestal. Jesus is the only one we should trust.”
This ridiculousness is trotted out for every single fall from grace of a Church Leader, and in this case it’s extremely lazy thinking. Let me put this simply.
It. Is. Not. A. Pedestal. To. Expect. Christian. Leaders. Not. To. Be. Sexual. Predators.
Really, the bar is so very low on this one. It would be nice to have Christian leaders who really did model closely what Jesus was like, but we do also recognise that not everyone is perfect. We know that Jesus is the only person we can perfectly trust, but – come on! We put some of our trust Christian leaders and pastors and each other in the church – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a church community. When that trust is betrayed, we are entitled to feel awful and angry about that betrayal of trust, especially if that person was a spiritual leader.
Outside of the direct victims of Zacharias’ evil behaviour, there are those who benefitted from his teaching and leadership, whose work had helped their faith. They were lied to, and will be for some a devastating betrayal. He claimed to be something, and he was the opposite. The reason St. Paul makes strict recommendations of the character of a leader is that it matters. It matters. We have the right to expect Christian leaders to be people of good character, even if they are not perfect people. The Bible itself sets up this expectation.
When we say to people who trusted Ravi Zacharias or Jean Vanier to be good people, ‘You shouldn’t have put him on a pedestal’, it is subtle victim-blaming of both the secondary victims and the direct victims. It is a self-preserving habit of observers to tell ourselves that we would have spotted it, or we wouldn’t have been so damaged by the betrayal, because we know better. We tell ourselves we would know. We tell ourselves we trust only the ‘right’ people, and it’s celebrity that’s the problem.
However, in so doing, we are blaming the people who trusted the abuser rather than the abuser for abusing. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and it’s good to have some role models, as long as we recognise they’re not Jesus, they’re ordinary people and have their off-days. Remember, there are lots of people in this world who raise money for charity, inspire people with their preaching, help disabled people find justice, campaign for poor children who don’t sexually abuse women.
Celebrity is a problem, but it’s not ‘the’ problem here. Abusers like Zacharias and Vanier went to their graves without being discovered because they were skilful liars, bullies and manipulators. This is the fault of the abuser, not the abused.
3. The false silver lining:
“Well, his abuse was bad. But this is a great example of how God can use anyone – even sexual abusers and murderers.”
Again, I have seen this response by Christians this week.
Think about what this says to the victims. A skilfully manipulative abuser is not usually taken down on the first accusation. It is hard enough for women to come forward about sexual assault, even after the #MeToo movement.
The first abuse of sexual assault is the act itself. The second abuse is the gaslighting that follows.
The abuser will do anything to throw blame off themselves and onto the victim. Though straight out intimidation, power or threats can keep a victim from disclosing, sometimes a victim can be kept silent using another technique. The abuser will seek to make the victim believe from the beginning that it is in some way their fault. They pick their targets carefully to be vulnerable people, who are likely to be less believed.
That means that for a victim to come forward they will have spent a long time, often decades, blaming themselves for their abuse, as the only way to make sense of it when the rest of the world tells them what a good and trustworthy man their abuser was. It is a torture of the soul, and the survivors of abuse have to bear the consequences of that in their bodies, minds and spirits, for the rest of their lives.
If it does come out in public, it is easy to discredit their victim. In fact, the abuser will recast themselves as victim and the assault survivor as villain. This is exactly what Zacharias did when Lori Anne Thompson came forward in 2016, and he hounded her and castigated her, repeating the lie over and over again that he was the victim of a ‘satanic attack’ from people who would hurt the gospel.
I don’t know what it is to be abused, but I do know what it is to be gaslighted, and that in itself is a horrendous experience. You don’t know who you are. The world and God and the community you belonged to is no longer a safe place. You feel intuitively that you are in the right, but everyone else is telling you that you’re wrong. You would not be human if you didn’t begin to doubt yourself, even though you know the truth. You start to lose your mind. Everything seems pointless. This is what it is to be disbelieved about abuse.
Lori Anne Thompson, already a survivor of horrendous child abuse, describes in her victim statement how Zacharias’ wrongdoing affected her life and faith. Here are some extracts:
“Many survivors of childhood abuse have a profound spiritual wound and questions about God, myself not withstanding. RZ [Zacharias] appeared to be one of the safest, most well respected, and honourable persons in whom to confide and seek wise counsel. His position as a global representative of the gospel was one of extraordinary and unquestioned trust. I simply had no reason to suspect that he had nefarious intentions. I think this position of naive trust is equally understandable and relatable…
“…I tried to tell a Christian counsellor what was happening to me. He told me not to tell anyone, especially not my husband, that he could see RZ’s draw to me, and that if anyone ever found out, the kingdom of God would be irreparably damaged. I became suicidal…
“…RZIM [Ravi Zacharias International Ministries] as an institution took a prior abuse situation that had fractured my husband and I years previously, and used that information to publicly and falsely crucify us. The consequences of trying to hold RZ to account for his abusive and predatory behaviour was that my husband and I not only had to endure endless interpersonal atrocities — we were also widely publicly humiliated and vilified…
“When RZ sued us (victims) as alleged extortionists, my husband and I were still staggering under the weight of trauma and struggling with extensive PTSD symptoms…
“I knew the world to be an unsafe place before I met Ravi Zacharias — but I yet had hope that there were some safe and sacred spaces. I no longer live with that hope. I trusted him. I trusted Christendom. That trust is irreparably and catastrophically shattered. “
When we are talking about the damage that sexual abusers do, we are talking about a colossal amount of harm, which not only pushes people out of the church but can often leads to a victim’s death by suicide. It is horrifying to be assaulted, and it’s a slow poison not to be believed.
Now, at last, there has been the investigation Lori Anne needed from the start. Now she is vindicated. There is perhaps a tiny hope that justice could begin to heal her and that the church could be ashamed of Ravi Zacharias instead of being ashamed of her.
And then Christians say this: “Isn’t it great how God used this man despite his sexual abuse?”
And Christians say, “Everyone is complex. He did some bad things, but his ministry affected so many people in wonderful ways. It’s really just an example of how we all have good and bad in us.”
And this is exactly what an abuser is counting on: that his good deeds will be measured and protect him from any lasting condemnation from the evil they have committed, and that the horrific evil will be counted just as any other sin. Although they have calculated that it’s unlikely that a victim will disclose, even if the victim is believed, the sympathy of the public will still be with the minister because they are seen as a saint with a few peccadilloes. By highlighting their good deeds, the sexual abuse becomes a footnote on their otherwise blameless record.
People puzzle why it is that so many abusers seem so good, or are so kind, or such a humble and devout Christian. They do good precisely because their conscience needs them to do this in order to overcome their obstacles to committing gross evil, and because it protects them from being suspected of abuse. When the church then echoes that same justification, ‘look at all the good he’s done!’, then it protects the abuser from future condemnation and eases his conscience so he can rationalise it to himself.
We expect people who do monstrous things to look like a monster, but Jesus warned about wolves who look like sheep. Sexual abusers are often the people who appear so good or talented that they are allowed to bend or push the usual safeguarding rules because we trust them.
(See also John Swinton’s chapter in Raging With Compassion discussing the ‘banality of evil’ and Heather Caliri’s experience of realising someone she trusted had sexually abused her friend here.)
Jesus did not look at the Pharisees and say, ‘Sure, they prey on widows, but they’re really hot on worship, so it all balances out.’ He was not moderate in his condemnation of them. When we seek to praise an abuser’s past ministry, even when we know about the abuse, we make it into a ‘false balance’, which retraumatises his victims. We trample on the oppressed.
4. Idolising the books:
“Sure, we can now condemn the abuser. But we can still enjoy, quote and revere his words because those are really good. It’s really sad that publishers are withdrawing his works.”
This one is so insidious and pervasive that even N.T. Wright vocalised this sentiment in a much-praised interview with Justin Brierly about Jean Vanier (watch the six minute clip here). It’s the logic that says, ‘his acts were bad, but his words were good, so God can use his words and we can continue to use his words, even though they come from an imperfect source.’
Christian theologians, apologists and preachers are not writing about how to fix a fuse. They are talking about the nature of God and how to relate to God. Again, we are not talking about theologians who were grumpy about doing the washing up, or said a sharp word for which they apologised. We’re talking about choosing to violate a woman’s body, an act that has a lifetime of consequences for that woman, the one thing apart from death that every woman dreads.
The latest statistics show at least 20% of women and 4% of men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives after the age of sixteen.
Even if you don’t think you know someone who has been raped, you know someone who has been raped.
They are your friend, your sister, your cousin, your pastor, your doctor. They carry that with them every day.
What message does this send to survivors of abuse?
It is often the case that abusers could tell them, ‘Don’t tell the church, because they won’t believe you.’
Now abusers can also say, ‘Even if you are believed by the church, they will excuse me because of my ministry. My ministry, my works, my books, my legacy is more important than your rape, and don’t you forget it.’ And every time the church quotes from their works, those victims are not allowed to forget it.
I don’t want to downplay the damage it does to ‘secondary victims’, who came to faith because of Zacharias or started work with disabled people because of Vanier. It can involve a tremendous amount of untangling and deconstruction when Christians who changed our lives turn out to be abusive of others. But however hard that may be, it is not as hard as the direct survivors of abuse, and our duty is to support them rather than avoid the pain of our own disappointment.
What does it say to survivors of abuse everywhere when the church quotes from sexual predators as authorities on human life or the things of God?
What does it say to the whole world that Christian academics will continue to read and promote the works of sexual predators as necessary as ‘important theologians’ – as though we can offer no better theology than that written by rapists? Do we hear how this sounds?
That the words of a secret abuser have helped people in the past does not mean we should continue to use those words once the abuse has been discovered.
I boldly proclaim that there are thousands of theological books in print and yet to be written that are not written by abusers; thousands of prophets, priests and philosophers already out there and yet to be called who aren’t sexual predators.
It is inconvenient to find another theologian who has said basically the same thing as someone else in a slightly less pithy phrase, but there will be one. I will willingly confess this as a writer myself, but bless us, we do not have a scarcity of pretty words in the church right now. We could do with a little more action.
The inconvenience of having to change our lectures, alter our talks, the sadness of having to put aside books that have meant a lot to us and the deep disappointment of learning that teachers we revered were wolves in sheep’s clothing is significant – but it is absolutely nothing in comparison to the stab of pain that survivors have to carry each and every time they hear a sexual predator revered in the church or academe.
5. The Biblical get-out-of-jail-free clause:
“Well, if you’re so anti the words of a sexual predator, what about David? He was a sexual predator with Bathsheba, and a murderer, God used him powerfully, and we still read his words today in scripture. This is why it is a sad thing to be throwing out Ravi Zacharias’ excellent books.”
While this seems like the ultimate ‘GOTCHA!” card to play, theologians’ words, however much we may like them, are not the same as the Bible.
If you are wondering about why the model of David is not a fair comparison, Mary de Muth, herself a sexual abuser survivor, has written an excellent comparison of David and abusers like Zacharias and Vanier who went to their grave unrepentant, having denied all accusations. Do read it in full.
What is fascinating to me is why David is the only place in scripture that some want to appeal to in a case like this. Glen Scrivener has pointed out that a better parallel is from 2 Samuel 13, the story of the rapist Amnon, King David’s son. Here there are parallels to the ways that Amnon overcame the barriers that stopped him offending and the whole household of David was implicated in this. It did not end well, and was an illustration of David’s failings as much as his son’s evil.
The whole Christian Bible – Old Testament and New – has a recurring refrain of God’s concern for the oppressed and vulnerable and a love of truth and justice.
Jesus reserved a particular level of anger for religious leaders who oppressed the vulnerable.
Jesus warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In Matthew 25, Jesus warns that there will be those who do miracles and wonders in his name who will not be recognised by him after their death because of the way they treated vulnerable people.
If we’re going to appeal to the Bible, let’s appeal to the whole Bible, in all its complexity.
It is so important for the survivors of spiritual abuse to truly know that though Zacharias and Vanier claimed that God was on their side, God was angry with them, deeply grieved by their sin.
God does not sit as a neutral observer to evil. God takes sides.
Throughout the Bible, God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor, over and over again, and we are called to defend not the latter but the former.
These five responses are all evidence that the church has been groomed by sexually abusive leaders into minimising the offence of sexual abuse. We absolutely need to recognise this and stop saying them.
So when you next hear of a male Christian leader who assaulted women, what should we focus on? The women, the women, the women.
This report, and the L’arche report on Vanier are the long-awaited moments of vindication, if not full justice, after extreme vulnerability and enforced silence. It is our chance to listen carefully to their story and echo the horror of it truthfully, without seeking to paper over any cracks. It is a chance as a church to honour them and apologise to them and lament with them and ask for their forgiveness. It is our opportunity as part of the wider community that hurt them to begin to earn back the trust in order to be a place of healing. It is a chance to ask them what they need and what we can learn from them.
I would love for all women and men who have survived abuse, both inside and outside the church, to know that God hates sexual assault, violence and rape, God hates hypocrisy and those who use religion to oppress the vulnerable. I want them to know Jesus’ anger burned against it and called people who acted like Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharias ‘whitewashed tombs’. I would to be part of making the church a place that is safe from abuse and helping those who have been abused to heal, not a place that rushes to defend, forgive and reinstate the abuser. We can’t stop abusers preying on vulnerable people, but we can decide to stop making it quite so easy for them to target people within the church.
Tweetables:'Let me put this simply. It. Is. Not. A. Pedestal. To. Expect. Christian. Leaders. Not. To. Be. Sexual. Predators.' // @Tanya_Marlow on #RaviZacharias - 5 Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Sexual Abusers… Click To Tweet 'God does not sit as a neutral observer to evil. God takes sides.' // But his books are still good, right? 5 Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Sexual Abusers - @Tanya_Marlow: https://tanyamarlow.com/5-stupid-things-christians-say-sexual-abusers/ Click To Tweet 'These five responses are all evidence that the church has been groomed by sexually abusive leaders into minimising the offence of sexual abuse.' // 5 Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Sexual Abusers @Tanya_Marlow:… Click To Tweet 'Jesus did not look at the Pharisees and say, 'Sure, they prey on widows, but they're really hot on worship, so it all balances out.'' // But his books are still good, right? Five Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Sexual Abusers by @Tanya_Marlow: Click To Tweet 'Can we offer no better theology than that written by rapists?'// But his books are still good, right? - Five Things Christians Must Stop Saying About Sexual Abusers by @Tanya_Marlow https://tanyamarlow.com/5-stupid-things-christians-say-sexual-abusers/ Click To Tweet