Introduction:- In the past two months I have noticed on increasing number of articles, comments, discussions on the Ravi Zachariah scandal in magazines and, social media platforms. In his blog, a well respected North American evangelical scholar, John Stackhouse suggested that Ravi Zachariah’s (RZ) attempts to inflate his academic qualifications and status may reflect Ravi’s Indian background of spiritual “Gurus”. India has given a significant number of ‘spiritual’ gurus to the west. Academics have rarely considered Indian Gurus as intellectual leaders. Ravi did present himself as an intellectual leader and was acknowledged as such by his followers and admirers, one even going so far as to call him a contemporary C.S Lewis. The Evangelical marketing industry in the United States puffs up intelligent, creative and excellent communicators of the gospel, especially if they have exotic origins and are photogenic. It inflates people beyond recognition and deflates and discards them just as quickly when scandals emerge.
My reflections express how I as an Indian Christian pastor attempted to process this international story with a subtext that challenges all Indian Christian leaders, especially those who have ministered internationally.
Called and Anointed by God to serve him.
Although I had very little interaction with RZ and did not know him personally I have thanked God for Ravi’s clear and powerful ministry of proclaiming and defending the gospel of Christ. The Lord used him to touch many lives all over the world. The calling and anointing of RZ by God was obvious to me and many of my colleagues. His ministry did not appear or sound fake or counterfeit. When the stories about his academic credential exaggeration and sexual immorality began to surface I began to have questions about his calling and anointing.
The Bible reminded me forcefully that the gifts and calling of God will not be recalled by him (Romans 11:25). As believers we are sealed with the Spirit; as those called to be evangelists, pastors and teachers we are gifted and anointed by the Holy Spirit and there is no suggestion in scripture that God withdraws gifts he bestows or his anointing. King David was called and anointed and fell into grievous sin with a willful disregard of God’s moral standards. God raised a Prophet to challenge him. He was chastised by God and restored.. King Saul was also anointed, failed morally, chastised but was not restored.
I do not know if the Lord raised a prophetic voice to call RZ to accountability and whether the Lord chastised him, but like David he used him for his purposes. The fruits of Ravi’s ministry will stand, and I wish to acknowledge that many people experienced God’s grace and received God’s knowledge through him. RZ was unable to resist temptation in one or two areas of his life and allowed himself to slip scandalously.
I believe the Spirit of God wrestled with him in the areas of his weakness. He died before his Church or the Christian community was able to discipline and restore him. RZ may not have persevered in holy living but the Lord who called and anointed him would have persevered with him. Our sanctification depends on the perseverance of God’s Spirit more than our own obedience. Who can ascend the hill of the Lord except by God’s grace and patience?
Evangelical Leadership Culture: strengths and weaknesses
The second area of my reflection concerns the change in evangelical culture in its attitude to leaders. Much has been written about the “celebrity culture” that pervades some parts of evangelicalism. We are also reminded of the great man/great leader culture that dominates political and religious cultures today. In politics or religion “Big” leaders attract unquestioned loyalty and support from many people.
I believe the change began when evangelicals focused on outcomes of evangelistic and mission activity and neglected the focus on the character and holy living of our leaders. Leaders began to be assessed particularly for their evangelistic and mission success. 54 years ago, when I came to Christ, evangelicalism was about evangelistic crusades, personal evangelism and about holy living. Keswick conventions and Holiness meetings were as important as evangelistic campaigns. A.W Tozer, Isobel Kuhn, and Borden of Yale were my spiritual diet. I was not judged primarily by numbers brought to Christ, churches planted, miraculous experiences and demonstrations of spiritual power.
Then management experts who were Christians moved into evangelicalism and were allowed to shape it to focus on strategy, outcomes, numbers, impact etc.
I acknowledge that all those were needed but they should not have taken the central place, and shaped our leadership culture, and even unintentionally making character of the leader secondary to his/her ability to produce impressive outcomes in mission and evangelism.
The idea of empowerment by the Spirit focused on empowered to achieve spectacular spiritual impact demonstrating the power of the Spirit in healing, prophecy, prosperity and church growth. The power of the Spirit to convict God’s people of sin, to cleanse, restore and renew their spiritual life was not stressed enough. Increasingly a leaders' ministry skills and impact appeared to confirm the power of the Spirit and spiritual anointing. The leader’s spiritual maturity reflecting humility and integrity was rarely highlighted.
If a leader can preach what thrills us, deliver what we want in numbers attending meetings, bring in the finances to fuel growth and impact, his/her lifestyle is not the object of scrutiny. On the contrary any hint of criticism is loudly pushed back.
For the past thirty years I am involved in equipping senior leaders for the global church. Most come from evangelical churches, denominations and mission organizations experiencing significant growth. All face the same challenge of supporting pastors and Christian leaders to live holy and humble lives.
The RZ scandal reminds us that we need to restore holiness of life to the center of the culture of evangelical leadership.
The turn to judge Christian leadership primarily through their ability to achieve growth in numbers and budgets developed in North America. It dominates evangelical leadership culture there. It is not present to any such degree among evangelicals in the United Kingdom or Europe. An evangelical scholar from South Africa suggests that it is spreading in Africa particularly after the rise of Trumpism and its connection to American evangelicals. RZ was a product of American evangelicalism and attempts to suggest that his failures had something to do with his Indian background are unfounded. American evangelical culture has vast resources and seeks to influence the church globally. This is one area in which I trust we will resist its weakness. In India we need to enable the building of accountability mechanisms to support Christian leadership, so it conforms more to biblical teaching than to a market-shaped world.
Originally published in the All India Magazine of the Evangelical Fellowship of India for March 2021 also in the Church of England Newspaper March 5 2021