One of the most devasting blows a person’s faith can suffer is finding out that a trusted spiritual leader has been living a double life. When I became a Christian, I found myself looking to several trusted teachers for guidance and instruction. We all need nurturing in the early stages of our walk with Jesus. What was not good, however, was my developing an unhealthy admiration for one preacher in particular.
He was a “powerful,” “authoritative” evangelist who was preaching on a trusted Christian television channel called 3ABN late in the year 1999. I became a fan and devout follower, to the exclusion of other pastors who had impacted my life. Long story short, years later I discovered that this particular evangelist I had admired so much was sexually preying on women. I was shocked. Thankfully, my faith was settled enough by then and no serious damage was done, at least not to me. Other devout followers of this particular individual were not as fortunate. I know several who left the church and God altogether as a result.
The scandalous moral fall of another popular faith leader has also had a devastating impact on many admirers. Ravi Zacharias was an Indian-born Canadian-American who was involved in Christian apologetics for more than forty years. When Zacharias died of cancer in May of 2020 at age 74, he was one of the most revered Christian leaders in the world. Mike Pence, vice president of the United States at the time, lamented the loss of “the greatest Christian apologist of this century,” comparing Zacharias to C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), whose mission was to help “the thinker believe and the believer think,” resonated across diverse cultures and denominations.
Within four months of the obituaries bearing his name, the venerated image of an anointed preacher came crashing down. In September 2020, three women came forward accusing the leader of sexual misconduct. All worked in spas frequented by Zacharias. After initially denying accounts of sexual misconduct, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries announced that an investigation had found credible evidence of sexual misconduct spanning many years and multiple continents. Sadly, this was just one of many well-known (and lesser known) Christian leaders who have used their position of power to prey on the vulnerable; who have abused influence, power and trust to their own advantage; who have sinned sexually and financially; who have bullied those who work “for” them.
The danger of placing one’s faith in human leaders is not only that people can lose faith in God with the moral fall of their favorite preacher. Paul’s desire that the faith of the Corinthians “might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:5) was expressed in the context of partisan factions that threatened to tear the church apart. Divisions existed among Jesus’ followers in Corinth because of an unhealthy admiration for and loyalty to leaders such as Paul, Apollos, and Peter. This weighed heavy on Paul’s heart as he wrote 1 Corinthians. For Paul, the unity of God’s people was a huge priority.
This unity will consist of every member focusing on Jesus rather than on human leaders. People will disappoint us, but God never will. May we all keep our attention focused on him, and not ever “be puffed up in favor or one [spiritual leader] against another” (1 Cor 4:6). After all, what is Apollos or Paul, but “servants through whom you believed” (1 Cor 3:5).