The Evangelical world was rocked recently when it learned that one of the world’s leading Christian apologists, Ravi Zacharias, engaged in years of sexual misconduct.
This is the conclusion his own ministry came to after hiring a group of independent investigators to examine the charges against him. In a public statement the ministry released they said that they “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.”
Not surprisingly, many were devastated by the news that a man like Ravi led a double life. And we should not be surprised at the immediate fallout. Whenever a Christian leader is exposed for failing to live in accordance with what he or she preached it discredits the Gospel. If Satan can cause a man such as Ravi Zacharias known throughout the world to fall, he scores a significant blow against the truth. Those who hate the Gospel are only bolstered in their belief that all Christian leaders (as well as most churches) are full of hypocrites.
The moment I first heard about the tragic news regarding Ravi I had two immediate reactions. My first one (which I hope will always be my first reaction) was to remind myself that I can in no way stand as Ravi’s judge for the simple reason that ‘apart from the grace of God there go I!’ As a friend reminded me, we are like the two thieves who were crucified with our Lord; we deserve exactly what we got! But the second thought was to call to mind a statement Paul made to his young son, Timothy that he must “keep a close watch on yourself and your teaching” (I Timothy 4:16). This word from Paul to Timothy is perhaps the most important advice a young leader can receive from a seasoned veteran such as Paul. If leaders are to avoid the scandal of failing to live the Gospel, it goes without saying that they must keep a close watch on two things—their teaching as well as their personal lives.
I will not deal in this blog with our need to closely watch our teaching. It is a vital topic, especially in a day such as ours when people seem willing to abandon sound doctrine. Yet as important as this topic is for the Church in this hour there is something even more important. it is stewarding ourselves! Before a leader pays close attention to the teaching, he or she must first be careful to pay close attention to themselves.
It is relatively easy to keep watch on the teaching, but much more difficult to keep a close watch on ourselves. I know a lot of men who know the condition of their financial portfolios down to the dollar yet haven’t a clue about the true condition of their hearts. They live surface lives, unaware of the change of attitude towards God and the things of God when it happens. Instead of dealing with it at root level, they let it fester until sin sprouts into a harvest of evil fruit. New Testament writer James points this out:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,”
for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by
his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,
and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
James 1: 13-16
Christian leaders are often the most susceptible to the temptation to live surface lives, ignoring the admonition to closely watch ourselves. They can be mere ‘formal professors’ who continue the outward practices of spiritual life when the inward reality is long gone. Charles Spurgeon points out the danger such formal preachers face:
“A formal preacher is mischievous while he preserves his outward equilibrium,
but as he is without the preserving balance of godliness, sooner or later
he is almost, sure to make a trip in his moral, and what a position is he in then!
How is God blasphemed and the gospel abused!”
Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon
A man once asked me what I thought to be the most important thing a pastor must know to be effective. Without hesitation, I said they must always remember they are first sheep before they are shepherds. What I meant is that leaders do not play by a different set of rules but must first be true Christians before holding an office of ministry. That means they must always be careful to receive the life transformative grace of God before giving it out to others. Richard Baxter, author of the book The Reformed Pastor, makes this point:
“Take heed to yourselves lest you should be void of that saving grace of God which
you offer to others and be strangers to the effectual working of the gospel which you preach;
and lest, while you proclaim the necessity of a Savior to the world, your hearts should neglect him,
and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits” (Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter).
Notice the phrase “miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits.” This is a real danger that many do not take seriously. A dear friend of mine, Pastor Mark Freer, reminds us that the only safeguard against sinning is to constantly remind oneself that he or she is a sinner in need of the grace of the Gospel. That keeps the heart humble and ready to receive the grace of God.
This danger of failing to apply God’s grace to our own hearts while standing and ministering to others is a problem every leader faces. Knowing our need of grace saves us from the deception of judging our lives by the apparent outward blessing on our ministry—numbers of people coming to meetings, monies coming in, people getting saved, etc. rather than by godly character produced by grace. Compromised leaders are often deceived into thinking that since God has continued to bless their ministry despite their sinful lifestyle, He (God) overlooks their personal foibles. Such leaders should remember the frightful words Jesus spoke near the end of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,
but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons n your name,
and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them,
‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
How fearful it will be for many leaders on that Day when the Savior declares that He did not know them, despite the evidence of fruitful ministry. The tragedy of Ravi’s failure to live the Gospel which he so powerfully preached reminds us of how important it is to take Paul’s exhortation to “keep a close watch on yourself” seriously. By God’s grace may we all learn to first apply the Gospel to our own lives so as to ensure that we are being changed by it to the glory of God before offering it to others.