The Fall Of Ravi Zacharias: A Lesson In Leadership

Mar 20th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Pvt. Kathrin Forbes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pvt. Kathrin Forbes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A major premise of Scripture is that leaders are always called to a higher standard.  Indeed, spiritual leaders in the church and in ministry are called to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).    Leaders in ministry are to be servant leaders, modeling the biblical truths they espouse (see Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:21-30 and John 13:1-17).  Leaders are to avoid even the “appearance of evil” in their lifestyles and in their words (1 Thessalonians 5:22).  For that reason, when a spiritual leader falls its effect is catastrophic.  Followers lose trust and the mission of that ministry is called into question.  The history of the modern American church is filled with examples of leadership failure and its chaotic effects (e.g., Ted Haggard, Bill Hybels, Perry Stone, Earl Paulk, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell, Jr.).  For that reason, the fall of Ravi Zacharias, founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), is devastating and hurtful.  Zacharias, who died of cancer in May 2020, was one of the most revered evangelists in the United States.  An apologist for Christianity, he was one of my heroes; he had a profound influence on my life and in framing the ministry I have developed over the years.  His dreadful fall is a time for reflection and for application—a lesson on leadership.

In mid-February 2021, RZIM released a report, the result of a four-month investigation by the law firm, Miller and Martin, which RZIM had hired in October 2020 to investigate accounts of sexual misconduct by Zacharias.  Here is the introduction to the RZIM Board’s statement:

It is with shattered hearts that we issue this statement about the allegations against RZIM’s Founder, Ravi Zacharias.

Following allegations made in late August of 2020 that Ravi had engaged in sexual misconduct and abuse in connection with two day spas, we commissioned Miller & Martin PLLC, a law firm with experience in corporate and sex crimes investigations, to conduct an independent investigation. We gave Miller & Martin a broad scope to pursue any avenues that they judged to be relevant to the accusations, and we emphasized that our only purpose for the investigation was to ascertain the full truth.

Having received the results of the investigation, we are publicly releasing the investigation report in the exact form that we received it. We have been waiting to make an extended statement in the hope that the full findings of the investigation would allow us to speak more accurately and meaningfully. We also wanted to ensure Miller & Martin’s independence in their investigation, assessments, and reporting of the findings.

To be victimized by unwanted sexual contact, advances, and behavior is horrendous. It is diametrically opposed to everything we believe about the value and dignity of every single person. We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation. Tragically, witnesses described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape. We are devastated by what the investigation has shown and are filled with sorrow for the women who were hurt by this terrible abuse.

These women told their stories on conditions of confidentiality and anonymity, and we fully intend to respect their wishes by not disclosing their names or any other identifying information. We are deeply grateful to all of the courageous women and other witnesses who came forward in this investigation.

The 12-page report details that Zacharias engaged in “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.”  It also confirms 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.  A review of Zacharias’s electronic devices revealed contacts with more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked.  He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, “luring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations and offering funds straight from his ministry.”  Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death.  Zacharias also 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.  “It is therefore clear that the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable.”


RZIM hired Miller & Martin after a September 2020 Christianity Today report on allegations of abuse by three women who worked at Zacharias’s spas. Initially, the ministry leadership stated it did not believe the women. But the Board now admits: “We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation.”  The RZIM board released a statement alongside the investigation expressing regret and taking some responsibility:  “Ravi engaged in a series of extensive measures to conceal his behavior from his family, colleagues, and friends. However, we also recognize that in situations of prolonged abuse, there often exist significant structural, policy, and cultural problems . . . We were trusted by our staff, our donors, and the public to mentor, oversee, and ensure the accountability of Ravi Zacharias, and in this we have failed.”


Christianity Today reports that in addition to confirming previous reports of abuse at Zacharias’s spas, “the new report corroborated four-year-old allegations by Lori Anne Thompson, the Canadian woman who says Zacharias manipulated her into sending him sexually explicit texts and photos. Her case was the first sexual scandal related to Zacharias to go public, and it inspired other victims to come forward.  Zacharias had sued Thompson in 2017, claiming that her lawyer’s letter to the RZIM board alleging sexual abuse was actually an elaborate attempt at extortion.” The board wrote on Thursday that “we believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias.”  Investigators interviewed other witnesses who “recounted similar conduct” as Thompson’s allegations and found a six-year-long pattern of text messaging with other women before and after her.  “According to the investigative report, however, Zacharias continued soliciting sexual images of women as he settled the case with the Thompsons, defended himself publicly, and assured the RZIM leadership and staff he did nothing wrong and there was no need to investigate.”

The investigation did not find any evidence that RZIM leadership or staff knew about Zacharias’s sexual misconduct. But, it also shows the ministry provided little to no accountability for its namesake and founder.  The RZIM board’s statement acknowledges that it has “fallen gravely short” and expresses regret “that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving.”

Unbelievably, in a span of eight months, “RZIM has gone from having to reimagine the work of its global ministry following the death of its renowned namesake to having to restructure entirely, as Christians inside and outside the organization lost trust in its longtime leader.”  Christianity Today reports that “Staff members inside RZIM say the ministry—the largest apologetics organization in the world—plans to dramatically downsize to as few as 10 US apologists and a few international speakers, supported by a small staff.”

Christianity Today further reported that Ravi Zacharias spent his 46-year career licensed as a national evangelist with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA). The denomination has now revoked the ordination of its highest-profile minister after its own limited investigation confirmed a “pattern of predatory behavior.”  Zacharias is believed to be the only person in the CMA’s 134-year history to be posthumously expelled from ministry.  The decision was announced to all CMA ministers in a February 12 email from vice president Terry Smith, sent the day after RZIM—which is not affiliated with the denomination or any CMA church—released the findings of its independent investigation.  In a public statement, the CMA acknowledged “with great sorrow” that Zacharias “engaged in a pattern of sinful behavior that has caused enormous pain to many and undermined the witness of Christ’s Church.” The CMA also announced that itinerant ministers will now report to a district office rather than be licensed nationally, a move intended to offer more accountability.

The RZIM Board statement concluded:  Our prayer has been that the truth would be known. For this answer to prayer we are thankful, even though we express this gratitude through tears. The humbling process of seeking counsel from survivors and advocates and of writing this statement has made us profoundly aware that even what we say now is vastly insufficient and merely a starting point for all that needs to be said and done in the days ahead.

In light of the findings of the investigation and the ongoing evaluation, we are seeking the Lord’s will regarding the future of this ministry. We are learning much through this time and hope to have the chance to apply these lessons in the future. We remain passionate about seeing the gospel preached through the questions of culture. We will be spending focused time praying and fasting as we discern how God is leading, and we will speak to this in the near future.

The findings of this investigation have convinced us more than ever of the necessity and sufficiency of the gospel. No one is without the need for a savior. Sin resides in the heart of every human being. Jesus is the only person who is exactly who he says he is and the only savior worthy of our ultimate trust and worship. Jesus is fully committed to truth and to justice, and he unqualifiedly stands with victims.

In concluding this tragic Perspective, it is critical that all of us in ministry foster an entrenched culture of accountability, something so clearly missing in the RZIM organization.  Zacharias apparently resisted all such efforts and the results were devastating.  When I was in leadership as president of a Christian university, I annually reviewed the “accountability questions” below with my leadership team.  In my retirement, I have used them in the church where I serve as part-time staff member.


These are questions we should have the freedom to ask one another, as brothers in Christ.  [Adapted from Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Colson, Steve Farrar]

  1. Have you been with a woman this week in a way that was inappropriate or could have looked to others as if you were using poor judgment?
  2. Have you been completely above reproach in all your financial dealings this week?
  3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material this week?
  4. Have you spent daily time in prayer and in the Scriptures this week?
  5. Have you fulfilled the mandate of your calling this week?
  6. Have you given priority time to your family this week?
  7. Have you just lied to me?

HEDGES FOR MORAL PROTECTION [Adapted from Jerry Jenkins]

  1. Whenever I need to meet or dine or travel with an unrelated woman, I make it a threesome.  Should an unavoidable last-minute complication make this impossible, my wife hears it from me first.
  2. I am careful about touching.  While I shake hands or squeeze an arm or shoulder in greeting, I embrace only friends, or relatives, and only in front of others.
  3. If I pay a compliment, it is on clothes or hairstyle, not on the person herself.  Commenting on a pretty outfit is much different in my opinion, from telling a woman that she herself looks pretty.
  4. I avoid flirtation or suggestive conversation, even in jest.
  5. I remind my wife often—in writing and verbally—that I remember my wedding vows.
  6. From the time I get home from work until my children go to bed, I do no writing or office work.  This gives time for my family and for my wife and me—to “court and to date.”

See Daniel Silliman and Kate Shellnutt, “Ravi Zacharias Hid Hundreds of Pictures of Women, Abuse During Massages, and a Rape Allegation”;  Daniel Silliman, “Ravi Zacharias’s Denomination Revokes Ordination” in (11 and 19 February 2021); “Open Letter from the International Board of Directors on the Investigation of Ravi Zacharias”; and Ruth Graham in the New York Times (12 February 2021).

Comments Closed