Some Men They Follow After

The discovery that celebrated apologist Ravi Zacharias was a predatory fraud has occasioned much hand-wringing among the American Church. The lesson most commonly drawn seems to be that individual Christians must be diligent in their devotions lest they yield to similar temptation. A columnist for The Christian Post goes so far as to reprove those commentators emphasizing instead questions about the culture of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries:

“Concentrating on organizational misdeeds or ineffective internal processes affirms that as modern American Christians we have lost our appreciation for a robust spiritual life [and reveals] a serious problem in American Christianity – a secular mindset and a spiritually weak church, vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks.”

Rather than query how such a man gained a position of trust and respect, the author continues, we should ask: “What was Ravi’s personal spiritual life like? What were Ravi’s devotional practices?”

In order to assess this argument, let us consider the following paragraph from the report commissioned by RZIM:

“This witness told us that their relationship began as a normal massage therapist-client relationship, and she came to think of him as a father figure. He elicited information about her faith and her financial situation. She reported that after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her. According to this witness, Mr. Zacharias used religious expressions to gain compliance, as she was raised to be a person of faith. She reported that he made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received. She said he called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God, and he referenced the ‘godly men’ in the Bible with more than one wife. She said he warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”

This is not a picture of a Christian, grown somewhat lax in his devotions, who yields to the “enemy’s attacks,” but suggests a predator, assiduous in religious observance as a means to manipulate genuine believers, who prays in order to prey. To all appearances Zacharias’ piety was not inadequate, but counterfeit. To inquire how his devotions might have been improved, is to ask how his deception might have been made more convincing. 

The priorities of pietism, devotion and emotion, because easily and cheaply faked, are poor criteria by which to judge a leader’s character. The Bible is not naive in this regard. In the two Epistles to Timothy, for example, we find Paul issuing the following pertinent warnings: 

“Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. 

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof…of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts.”

Why is the American Church duped by the “form of godliness”? Why does it lionize celebrity leaders whose character it is in no position to evaluate? An inclination to pietism suggests part of the answer, and the concept of “social proof” another. 

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini tells how a group of social scientists infiltrated a small Chicago cult expecting the imminent destruction of earth by a flood. This group anticipated also an ark of salvation in the form of a UFO, which would rescue true believers, provided their persons were free of metal objects which would interfere with the UFO’s operation. The secret scientists were surprised to observe that, when disappointed by the failure of the flood, and of the UFO, the cult members did not revise their doctrine, but promptly became, for the first time, zealous missionaries. In the absence of proof of the senses, we will energetically seek justification of our beliefs in the opinions of others, in what Cialdini calls “social proof.”

When an individual believer is incapable of providing a rational defense of his faith, social proof will take on greater significance. If his faith is fundamentalist, that is, if it explicitly denies that it can be either proven or disproven by argument, it will have little other support. In either case, a celebrity co-religionist seems a powerful argument for the reasonableness of his opinions, and to question the genuineness of the celebrity’s faith risks delegitimizing his own.

Even when the Church is willing to risk scrutiny of its leaders, it can be doubted whether it has much opportunity to do so. As the parochial model is abandoned, and lengthy commutes to churches of preferred style and doctrine become typical, it is to be expected that relationships among congregants will be less intimate and provide fewer occasions to prove character. Moreover, the senior leadership of these churches is seldom elected from among the congregation, but is rather self-selected: young men with some inclination to study enroll in Bible college, and, if they can graduate and endure the Christian equivalent of a thesis defense, become eligible to lead any church that will have them. 

So long as the Church is satisfied with posturing and credentials as proof of character, a Zacharias is a scandal, but hardly a surprise.

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