Ravi Zacharias wrote over 30 books. Some may sit on our shelves at home. Now that his scandalous sins have come to light, what do we do with his works? Keep them? Purge them? What is the wisest response? Christians will disagree on the answer to these questions. The Bible tells us (in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8) that we can have different views on gray areas like this.
To help us think about Ravi’s case, I’ve asked two of our church members who are ministry/seminary students to share their opposing views.
View 1: Why It’s Better to Purge Ravi’s Books – Tyler Hutchins
In November of 1873, Horatio Spafford, a well-liked businessman, and lawyer sent off his wife and four daughters on a transatlantic voyage. Spafford planned to go with his family, but having many responsibilities, found himself delayed in New York. Four days into the journey the French ocean liner carrying Mrs. Spafford and her children collided with a Scottish shipping vessel. The ensuing crash took the lives of 226 passengers. Of her family, Mrs. Spafford alone was rescued. After what can only be an anguish-inducing telegram Horatio Spafford made the journey himself to collect his wife. It was during his journey that he penned the words that we all know and love, “When peace like a river attendeth my soul, when sorrows like sea billows roll … It is well with my soul.”
I’m sure that all of us are aware of this great anthem for the grieved. Some of us might even be aware of its moving backstory. But I don’t think many of us will know that Horatio Spafford would later become a universalist and heretic. I was shocked when I first heard this too! I thought: “surely there is something wrong with singing this man’s songs!” Upon closer inspection, however, it would seem that not only are Spafford’s songs theologically okay but, he and his cult have long since passed away. Spafford is not going to make anyone stumble anytime soon. At the end of the day, we still use “It Is Well With My Soul” to exult the glories of God in our hardest hours. (If you still struggle with this, here is a thought: All evidence points to Spafford being orthodox at the time he wrote his famous song.)
You are probably asking, “What does this have to do with Ravi Zacharias’ books?” When we inspect this topic similarly, we come across two conclusions. Like Spafford’s hymn, Ravi’s books are not theologically troubling. However, reading and advocating for his teaching raises some concerns about causing others to stumble.
Ravi is in the front of our minds and his scandal is widely known. His name is boldface on his books, reminding us of his legacy. I do not think we are getting away from this discussion anytime soon.
Among my secular friends, Ravi represents a smear on the title of Christian. This is my fear in keeping Ravi’s works around. That, by association, Christians will have an undue and untrue report among the vulnerable. (i.e., those who have not yet trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior, and spiritual infants) I’m afraid that the ‘spiritual milk’ of Ravi’s ministry has spoiled. We are all sinners saved by grace. I’m not expecting perfection. Who could stand up to that test? I am, perhaps, suggesting that Ravi’s prominence makes it unwise to hold on to his works.
In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we are given the qualifications for elders, both passages share a common requirement. A requirement that could sum up the rest. “[An overseer] must be above reproach.” (1 Timothy 3:2a) Paul sees the overseer as an example to the flock, so he must be of utmost character. Ravi Zacharias was not a pastor or elder. Indeed, to my knowledge, he had no home church. (As an aside: this fact is disturbing and, perhaps, was an early indicator of his fall.) Just because he was not a pastor, does not mean these qualifications should not have applied to him. This is where we may have failed as a global Church. Ravi seems to have been elevated to a position of spiritual authority.
Before recent events, if Ravi Zacharias had said, “it is okay to do such-and-such” or “it is not okay to do this-or-that” would you have listened to him? I think, unfortunately, by proxy, he was a functional overseer. He was made, by popularity, an example to the flock. We don’t know, he may have looked A-okay to those keeping him accountable. However, his actions have disqualified him from ministry, this much is clear. (i.e. He no longer fits the qualifications for an elder.)
The question is: is his ministry still alive in his writings? If so, in the spirit of Romans 14 which tells us to accommodate the weaker brother, maybe it’s time to rethink displaying and/or openly reading Ravi’s books. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we make an expensive bonfire out of his writings, or even throw them away. I am suggesting that; maybe we just stick him in a cupboard until such time that he (and his scandal) are as forgotten as Horatio Spafford.
Before I conclude, I’d like to address one final issue. I do not think, by acting in prudence on this matter, we are participating in “cancel culture”. Cancel culture is the name given to the ‘cancelling’ of individuals based on some societal offense. I believe it came from television, in which a show would be ‘cancelled’ after some revelation about a person’s past. (Its most recent victim is Dr. Seuss). If allowed to become normative in evangelical circles, cancel culture would mean the relinquishing of many great saints. Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few. I’m not suggesting we cease and desist on all things Ravi Zacharias. I think even his fall is useful in urging us to remain steadfast and faithful to the Lord.
We should rethink Ravi’s books not because of what he has done wrong, but because of the opportunity for harm.
The most surprising thing? … I’m not convinced I’m right. … I’m not convinced I’m wrong. But, for now, this path seems most prudent to me.
I don’t actually own any of his books. I think Paul has a helpful exhortation for us. We stand or fall before our Master. If there is no right answer, [whatever you do], “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom 14:5b)
View 2: Why It’s Better to Keep Ravi’s Books – Jared Lockhart
Mere months ago, Ravi Zacharias was hailed by the Vice President of the United States as “the greatest apologist,” but today many rightfully think of him as a great fraud.
For the sake of his victims, I am glad the truth of Zacharias’s life has come to light, and I hope they find comfort in the fact of God’s just judgment.
Now what? How do we handle the works Zacharias produced in his life that, in the past, have been beneficial for the faith of many?
First, I want to be clear that this is a wisdom issue and not a sin issue. If you disagree with my conclusions, neither of us are in sin. This takes careful discernment and Christians can certainly come to different conclusions, but I think there are a few good reasons why faithful Christians can still read and benefit from books written by Ravi Zacharias.
The nature and content of his books matter.
Ravi Zacharias wrote primarily in the vein of apologetics and defending the truth of the Christian faith. The methodology for most of his writings was to use reason to argue for the truth of the Bible and the plausibility of theism. These are the kinds of arguments that can be judged as true or false regardless of who speaks or writes them.
Is there a sense in which the arguments may not be as convincing when paired with a life that lacks virtue? Yes, I think so, but I also think we need to slow down and think about a few other issues involved before entirely writing off books that contain truth.
There are no perfect resources.
If we are looking to refer to perfect resources, the Bible is the only one available. All books, sermons, and articles (including this one) are written by sinful, fallen human beings. This is just as true today as in past Christian history. Martin Luther was shockingly anti-Semitic. George Whitfield infamously campaigned for slavery in Georgia. Jonathan Edwards and Whitfield both owned slaves. Karl Barth kept a mistress. Martin Luther King Jr. was unfaithful to his wife repeatedly. This list could go on and on. My point? There are no resources written by perfectly moral individuals and yet I would still advocate the reading of Luther, Whitfield, Edwards, and yes, even Zacharias.
A couple of distinctions to be made.
(1) There is a difference between a book on my shelf and a book brought to my desk.
Daniel Akin has said, “In my own life there are some books that now remain on my shelf and not at my study table.” There are books that are worth reading and then there are books that are worth mining for the many riches within through careful study. It may be that Ravi Zacharias no longer fits in the latter category, but there are few books that wouldn’t fit in the first.
(2) There is a difference between reading and recommending.
There are certainly books that are worth reading that I would not necessarily recommend to particular individuals. From a discipleship perspective, it would perhaps be unwise for a libertine teenager to spend a lot of time in the writings of post-modern philosophers. Likewise, it would be unwise for a legalistic father to frequently listen to sermons from a preacher who speaks little of grace.
Active, reasoned, and thoughtful reading is required for all written works.
When reading any work by any author, we should be aware of their historical and social situation and how that may affect their writings. One can read a commentary on a biblical book written by a liberal scholar who does not acknowledge, for example, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch but is particularly good on other scholarly issues; we just need to be aware of where the author is coming from. We can read a sermon preached by Whitfield on “The Great Duty of Charity” if we are aware of how his support for slavery may affect who he thinks are the afflicted. Similarly, I think we can read Zacharias on apologetics if we are aware of his moral failures.
I would also commend action beyond simply being aware. I do not advocate a kind of whitewashing where we ignore the sins of human authors; we should absolutely call out the sin, but then track the possible effects of that sin in their writings while reading.
The truth of the content of books must certainly be weighed against the life of the author and individual Christians must come to a conclusion about the wisdom of reading their books.
John Piper says the following about processing the moral failure of historical and present heroes: “We must be prepared for the worst but hope for the best.” In other words, we must be willing to acknowledge that someone whom we looked up to had great moral flaws (and even admit the possibility that they did not truly know Jesus). But we must also be willing to hope for true faith and be slow to pass final judgment.
I am not saying the moral virtue or vice of an author does not matter. I am saying that their relative virtue or vice should certainly affect the way we read their works, but that we should still read them. There is great need for Christians to read deep and wide and to expose themselves to a vast range of ideas but filter them through a biblical and critical lens. With this perspective, instead of shutting our eyes, a Christian should be encouraged to engage with works such as Ravi’s to clearly see what is beneficial and what is not.
I think a writing’s usefulness can be primarily judged by its truthfulness and not by the author’s life. Moral failure of an author should not negate the spiritual effect of the truth in the work if there is genuine biblical warrant for that truth. We can spiritually profit from any writing, regardless of its author, to the degree that it conforms to the truth of scripture.