This post isn’t pretty. Consider yourself warned.
Ravi Zacharias, a well-known evangelist in Evangelical circles who died back in May/2020, has been in the news lately for unsavory reasons. The magazine Christianity Today (CT) reported that three women accused him of sexual misconduct.
“Accused” is not the same as “convicted”, but a couple months later, Zacharias’ own organization did their own investigation and found not only credible evidence that what these women said was true but that it was probably worse than CT had originally reported.
It takes a lot of courage for a Christian magazine and a Christian organization to come out with the truth like this, and I applaud them for it. What else can you do but admit the truth, do what you can, and then move on to continue the work of God?
But for me, it hurts more than usual with Dr. Zacharias. I’ve actually seen him speak in person and read one of his books. I’ve shaken his hand. I am not an Evangelical anymore, but I still sympathize with that community. It is painful to see one of our own fall from grace.
I have been a bit sarcastic and condescending in the way I address the failings of popular celebrity preachers, which, in retrospect, is probably not the right tone to strike. I’m of a culture that makes jokes about things that are too depressing to cry over. It’s how I muddle through things, I guess.
But lately I’ve been having another sort of emotion rise from the deep. I’m angry.
Why Do People Come to Faith?
There is this theory that the reason America and so many other Western Civ. countries are becoming post-Christian is because we’ve dropped the ball intellectually. We didn’t prepare the flock for the onslaught of New Atheists with their posh British accents and clever turns of phrase. We got blindsided by the Sexual Revolution without good Catechesis.
There is evidence for this. If you ask a large swath of people who left the faith or never wanted it to begin with why they reject organized religion, most will probably give you intellectual answers. They will say the church is outdated, or maybe it goes against science in their view.
So some evangelists go the beautiful, philosophical, and intellectual route. Persuade people that Catholicism can hold it’s own in the life of the mind, and we win. I’m all for doing that, and I believe it is important. But I have my doubts that that’s the real problem.
If you asked me a few years ago why I didn’t want to be Catholic, I might have given you some of those same intellectual answers. But the real issue, when it came down to it, was that I had never met an actual Catholic person that I knew well and respected. It was only when my brother-in-law, who I looked up to, decided to convert that I began taking it seriously. Then the intellectual arguments began to matter to me.
Why Do People Leave the Faith?
In the same way, what starts the journey away from the faith for many are folks like Ravi Zacharias. It’s not intellectual. It’s relational. Spiritual leaders we thought we could trust let us down. Spiritual neighbors who claim to be Christians look like anything but.
There is at least one woman I know who, for awhile, could barely bring herself to go to church because of a priest who had taken advantage of other women and almost took advantage of her. He had not done anything nearly as bad as the things Dr. Zacharias has been accused of, but the damage was still lasting.
Maybe the core membership of the church will remain firm through these storms. Some of us may even think, “If only these victims had their faith in Christ and not some man! They would not be so shaken.”
But who is supposed to stand in persona Christi at every Catholic Mass? Which person do we turn to every Sunday to speak God’s Word to us? The same man who one day was God’s mouthpiece to these women or children became the voice of a sexual predator the next. Is it any wonder these victims have a terribly hard time discerning the difference between the two voices?
A Special Place in…
This might be a big reason why Jesus spoke so forcefully against the religious leaders of his day. If a prostitute, a mob boss or your average guy on the street doesn’t live up to the Gospel message, it’s not a surprise. No one loses faith because of that.
But so many of these celebrity pastors and evangelists try to have it both ways. They claim the fame, fortune and favor of the world while appearing full of sanctity and holiness. All the while, they gratify the lusts of the flesh in secret.
When they do this, it is not just themselves that they tarnish. In the eyes of the world, they blacken the entire church. They tarnish the body of Christ. They tarnish the reputation of God himself. Just as my brother-in-law brought me closer to the Catholic Church because of his character and love for God, so these leaders push people away from him. All the work they did preaching to thousands of people ends up turning the masses against the church as they see the stark contrast between what these men preach and what they live.
Am I being too harsh? No harsher than Christ himself.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea… woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!Matthew 18:6,7 (NRSVCE)
This has to Stop
As a conservative Catholic living in very liberal California, I feel the weight of my witness before a watching world. I have been yelled at in public by a stranger for simply talking about homosexuality with a friend. A friend of mine is careful to never post anything on Facebook that gives away that he is a man of faith. He is looking for a job right now and knows that in his field, an employer may quietly never consider him because of it – especially in our locale.
I say this to you religious leaders who think you can fool around while pretending to be pure: you are killing us. You are the reason every time I get into a debate with someone who hates the church, the battle is uphill. No one cares that you have air-tight Aquinas arguments for the existence of God when there are living testimonies of your abuse walking around in the world.
You may be able to repent and be forgiven. You may be able to experience God’s mercy. Good for you. How many hundreds did you turn away from that same mercy with the double life you lived?
Be boring. Be monotone in every homily. Be simple. Wear unfashionable clothing. The church can deal with that.
Just be holy. Goodness, be holy. That is the one thing the church and world cannot do without.
©2021 Catholic Anonymous