The past decade has been quite traumatic when it comes to scandals involving prominent Christian leaders. One could argue that the two most significant of those scandals were the ones involving two titans of the evangelical landscape: Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias.
Both these men were huge; larger than life, in fact. For most of their ministries before their fall – in the case of Ravi, it was all of his ministry – they were held in the highest regard among most evangelicals worldwide.
But the moral failures came, and they weren’t small.
In Mark’s case, his downfall and the end of Mars Hill Church happened under some accusations around bullying, domineering attitude, and plagiarism. Since 2015, when the church was officially dissolved, many more details of this sad story have come to light, revealing the depths of the toxicity of Mark’s leadership style and even some problematic character traits.
In Ravi’s case, his prestige was brought down post-mortem. During his lifetime, Ravi had been accused of overstating his academic credentials and of behaving inappropriately towards another woman, but it was only after his battle against cancer ended with his passing that an independent investigation took place, revealing sordid details of his promiscuity and manipulative behaviour.
Watching those two terribly sad stories unfold hasn’t been easy for many, especially for those directly impacted by the circumstances. The level of hurt has been enormous and, for some who were genuinely blessed by God in his sovereignty under the ministry of these two broken men, there still is, rightly so, some level of grief and even confusion.
In hindsight, one cannot help but ask the question: how is it possible that people allowed such atrocities to take place without no one speaking up? Or were people silenced when they did speak up? Wasn’t there a leadership team around these men who were wise enough to notice that something wasn’t right? How could they not see so many flagrant red lights?
The answers to the questions above are very straightforward:
Some people did speak up and tried to stop the evil described above.
Yes, all those who spoke up were silenced and/or removed.
Yes, there was leadership around these men, but they were blind on this matter.
There have been multiple after-the-fact statements coming from leaders who have been involved in both ministries saying they actually saw some concerning signs and trends but there were a conjunction of factors that caused them to dismiss the clear warnings in front of them.
But what about the good being promoted?
Almost unanimously, the number one justification given by influential leaders involved directly and indirectly with the Mars Hill Church and the RZIM was anchored on the logic that stands behind statements such as “But look at the fruit! Look at what God is doing!”
Overall, most leaders were struggling to reconcile the fact that they were seeing God do amazing things through the astounding gifts these two men possessed with the shocking reality of the revelations they were witnessing about their evident character flaws.
In the end, in practice, according to the warped arithmetic going on inside of the majority of the leaders’ heads, the good things ended up outweighing the bad things. Is this single distressed employee complaining about Mark’s jerky behaviour more important than the thousands that are coming through Christ through his ministry?
Is this board member raising a red flag about Ravi’s habit of having a personal female masseuse with him on his trips more important than the tens of thousands of gobsmacked students that sit silently in the audience whenever Ravi speaks?
Now, we all know what the answers to those questions should’ve been, don’t we? Although this is more cliché than fortune-cookie wisdom, intrinsically, we all know that the end never should justify the means.
That is a lesson the Lord Jesus himself taught us during his temptation in the desert. The abandoning of God-given directions, even if it is for the “benefit of many” is never something God puts his seal of approval on and, long-term, the truth of the matter and the false piety of those in positions of power are always exposed.
But what about our submission to authority?
Most of us have probably heard the psalm of David, which says “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”, quoted to stop people from questioning Christian leaders who demonstrate and/or promote suspicious behaviour. Truth is, speaking against a person in a position of authority and influence is never easy and in both of those scenarios, it wasn’t any different.
Both Driscoll and Zacharias were almost untouchable, demi-gods, in their own understanding about themselves and in the understanding of the leaders around them as well.
Ravi was even found to be describing himself as a bruised man of God who needed to be taken care of when requesting sexual favours of uncomfortable victims. Driscoll, in turn, clearly believed that himself and Mars Hill Church were the solution to a world that needed Jesus.
Multiple times, for example, he recounted his own story about being called to ministry as he heard the audible voice of God telling him to preach the Bible, train men, plant churches, and marry his wife Grace.
How can one argue against that? Such gifted “men of God” enjoying unquestionable authority resulting from their “successful” ministries, right? How can you not submit to that? How dare you even question that?
Let us be clear, the Bible does command Christians to submit to their leaders in the Lord and even to other leaders in some other spheres of authority. Having said that, is that submission always unquestioned?
Is authority ever given by the Lord to an individual or institution to claim the right to, like Ravi did, for example, coerce its victims into allowing him to exploit their bodies according to his will and pleasure as the anointed one of God? Aren’t those who are under the influence of such leaders free to ignore commands and coercive/manipulative measures that go beyond any leaders’ scope of authority?
Once again, it sounds even silly to try to answer these questions, so obvious are the answers. Of course, people in positions of authority should hear a big fat “NO” when they try to abuse their powers. It is obvious that that particular masseuse should feel as free as a bird to say “NO” to Ravi without fear of retaliation and/or professional repercussion.
No one would question that Tim Smith should’ve felt the freest man in the world to say “NO” to Driscoll when he was being coerced to sign a non-compete agreement at the end of his time at Mars Hill, instead of hearing that if he was going to plant a church in the area, Mark was going to tear it down brick by brick.
And, once again, the evangelical leadership is failing.
One would think that, with such glaring examples of failure in leadership among evangelicals staring us in the eyes from a not so distant past, we would be wide awake, waiting for the opportunity to show we had learned our lesson and we were ready to do better.
But the truth, to this point, has been much different than that. Once again, most evangelicals lie silent in the face of abuse and coercion. The only difference is that the proportions of the current scenario around COVID-19 make the awful stories surrounding the Mars Hill and RZIM scandals sound quite tamed.
Just this last week I was involved in a conversation among church ministers where someone painted a mental image of an unborn baby, with Jesus, giving praise to God for what God had accomplished through the sacrifice of that unborn baby and the subsequent use of the baby’s foetal cells in the production of vaccines.
It is hard to get blinder than that, but I better not jinx this, as Christian leaders keep going beyond in terms of their insanity to try to justify the unjustifiable. One must be very blind to see abortion as a noble sacrifice. One must be very blind to ignore all the biblical accounts that describe the blood of all kinds of innocent people crying out to God for justice and vindication, even after entering the eternal rest of God.
But how do we, leaders, can become so blind? How do so many people in positions of leadership in churches prove to be so prone to blindness?
As most people have already realised by reading this article to this point, my arguments were already spelled out above.
The truth is, we would all like to think that we would be the one member on the RZIM’s board crying out against Ravi’s obvious inappropriate behaviour. We would all like to think that we would be that one elder from Mars Hills Church who would think it was not ok for Mark to be a bully towards those who don’t agree with him. Nevertheless, truth is, most of us would probably not be that one person.
May I suggest that those Christian leaders who, so far, have been silent in the face of coercion and/or violation of basic bodily autonomy by the state when it comes to COVID measures would probably not be that one courageous person.
May I suggest that, those Christian leaders who, so far, have toed the official line against their own conscience in order to keep their jobs and or statuses would probably not be that one courageous person.
May I suggest that those Christian leaders who, so far, proved to be unwilling to side with fragile church members who were being coerced by the powerful would probably not be that one courageous person.
May I suggest that those Christian leaders who, so far, have lived as if the end justifies the means would probably not be that one courageous person.
May I suggest that those Christian leaders who, so far, thought this was not their battle would probably not be that one courageous person.
And I could keep on listing suggestion after suggestion. The list is long. Very long. The ways in which we, shepherds, have failed our flock are many. There is no way around it; repentance is needed.
If we, as shepherds, continue to ignore the call of the Lord trying to wake us up out of our slumber, we too will be judged and we too will witness the Lord remove his candlestick from our midst.
Just ask yourself this question “where is Mars Hill Church and the RZIM now? Inexistent or almost completely irrelevant would be the appropriate answer to those questions.
May that not be us, fellow shepherds. There is still time. Let us turn to the Lord in faith and obedience and may the Lord have mercy on us.