NOTE: I also wrote a follow-up post that you should read after this one for further clarification.
I’m thinking about the complete mess that is the Ravi Zacharias situation. Quick primer for the non-aware: Zacharias was a Christian apologist, a formal philosophical and theological argument maker of the first degree, who recently died. Some accusations late in his life that were originally treated as slanderous have subsequently been proven true, and his ministry is taking steps to repent and repair. The answers for what to do are simple to find and hard to live out.
Believe women and other marginalized people.
Ask why the church is marginalizing so many people.
Set up mutual accountability and frameworks to allow parishioners to challenge power without power closing ranks to protect itself and slander earnest complaint.
I believe in primus inter pares complementarianism, where there is a first among equals, a chair of the joint chiefs. Someone’s got to make the call in a two-person decision. But that lead should be based on skills and gifts. My wife is better at reading people, so I defer to her on those decisions. I’m better than her at procedural thinking, so she defers to me on that. But we’ve earned that from each other through trust building and sometimes through our mistakes. I can only lead well by recognizing and engaging the full capabilities of my partner. Leadership is a service role, not a dominance role.
There is a deep theological shift, however, that needs to happen in our Christian understanding of women and their role in the human story that we assert God is supervising and allowing us to co-write. Too many strains of Christianity have women as second-class, valued for childbearing and holding up mighty men of God, but otherwise useless as productive citizens. The hardcore complementarians among you will dispute this and say that women’s roles are Very Important. And yes, child rearing and supportive marital roles are critical. Women who have the desire and gift to do those things should do them with joy and pride. (There is a whole other conversation beyond the scope of this discussion about how the dissolution of the extended family and village model combined with our brand of corporate capitalism and history of sexism has created the need for the harried homemaker who does it all alone, because it doesn’t have to be that way either.) But what happens when the desires and gifts the women in our lives receive are not designed to be part of a man’s story? What if they prophesy, or exhort, or shepherd, or strategize better than anyone we know?
We are fools if we throw half of God’s bounty away because we don’t like the container God shipped it in.
No one, not me, not you, is immune to the selfishness that causes what Christians call sin and everyone calls wrong. Zacharias may have had his sin play out in a different way if he had come to prominence in a different kind of Christian culture. Or maybe his particular temptations wouldn’t have fired. We can’t know.
What we do know is that the kinds of things he was accused of that have now been validated are individual manifestations of systemic problems. Purity culture creates a poor theology of the body that makes us hate our bodies and our desires yet gives us no place to put them into context. As a result, our desires leak out in perverse ways. Sexist teachings encourage and reinforce a secular objectification and devaluing of women so they are not heard or believed. And we end up here.
There is one more thing to say, and this is in defense of Zacharias’s contributions, even though I am not convinced I agree with him theologically. The man can have done all of the horrible things he did, for which he should face the full consequence to his reputation and ministry, and still have contributed to the faith. Whether churched, unchurched, or dechurched, we tend to operate in a kind of dualism, where the evil one does negates the good, or where the good one does blinds us to the evil. There is not a scorecard that can be balanced. All the good is there, and all the evil, occupying the same space in a kind of metaphysical quantum superposition. And we have to hold both, uncomfortably, and together. That holding, that opening opens us to other possibilities and more expansive, whole ways of being.
I am thankful that the organization he founded expressed a commitment to unqualified repentance, cultural analysis and change, and actual, meaningful repair and restitution to the harmed people. That is all that can be done for what has passed. For the future, all we can hope is that they become the kind of entity that does not allow this to happen anymore. May that be so, and may God tear it down if it is not.
And as Ravi Zacharias’s soul flies on to wherever is next, I hope he finds repentance, repair, and wholeness, even as he faces whatever unknown cosmic consequences there are for our unresolved sins in this life.