Another scandal. We desperately need spiritual reformation

What can we learn after yet another prominent Christian leader falls to sexual temptation? Is there a problem in the way we preach the gospel? Here I argue that the church desperately needs another spiritual reformation.

The preacher and evangelist Ravi Zacharias died recently. It didn’t take long after his death for reports of sexual misconduct to come up. One example is that he sexually harassed some women working at one of the spas he co-owned. According to the article:

“He would expose himself every time, and he would touch himself every time,” one of the women told CT. “It was where he went to get what he wanted sexually.”

Zacharias masturbated in front of one of the women more than 50 times, according to her recollection. He told her he was burdened by the demands of the ministry, and he needed this “therapy.” He also asked her to have sex with him twice, she said, and requested explicit photos of her.

These deeply sad and troubling accusations are happening hard on the heels of revelations about Jonathan Fletcher last year. It seems that we’ve had a string lately of high-profile Christian leaders who have been embroiled in sexual scandals. I think this should trouble us as the church, particularly evangelicals: why is it that so many leaders have fallen this way?

Christian Leaders do not belong on a pedestal

One lesson that it’s very important to learn is that leaders are people, just like everyone else. Everyone has the same temptations – leaders are not immune from them. Christians should not put anyone on a pedestal, except for Jesus. Only he is sinless!

One of the problems with our society today is that we are very ‘celebrity’ obsessed. I think the modern media, especially social media, exacerbates this problem. We tend to flock around people who we like to listen to. The Christian world is far from immune. I can recognise it in myself: when I go on Christian conferences or teaching days, I like to recognise the names of the people who’ll be speaking. In itself I don’t think this is necessarily a problem – but the problem comes when we expect people gifted to teach and lead to be perfect. The Messiah complex!

So, let’s remember that Christian leaders are Christians. They can fall, and they need our prayers. As a Christian leader myself, albeit in a much smaller capacity than Ravi Zacharias – I hugely value people praying for me.

So, all Christians are liable to fall to temptation, and it’s good to remember that. But I think there is a deeper issue here. Does the fact that so many Christian leaders have fallen in this way suggest that there is a problem with the gospel being preached?

Is there a gospel issue?

I wonder if part of the problem is that many evangelical churches have come to reduce the definition of the gospel. I wrote about this before, and again recently when I wrote about grace. This is what I wrote back in July of last year:

One of the ways I think evangelical churches (including, and perhaps especially, conservative evangelical churches) subtly distort the gospel is by portraying the Christian life like this: it’s all about avoiding sin.

It’s a bit like one of those car-racing video games – every time you see a pothole or an obstacle coming, you have to move so you don’t hit it. I think we often unconsciously visualise the Christian life in this way: we live our lives day-to-day, trying our hardest to avoid sinning, and asking God for forgiveness when we fail and the help not to sin again. I call this view ‘almost the gospel’ – it’s so close, and yet not quite there.

This applies to sex and sexuality. Our culture says that our happiness will be found when we are most sexually fulfilled. But God says we will be most happy when we submit our sexuality to him. Only he can fill our deepest longings. This is something which I think a lot of churches don’t really focus on. Or at least, they may talk about it intellectually but it hasn’t really hit home emotionally.

I wonder if this is the problem when it comes to Christian leaders falling sexually. I mean, the things they’re accused of doing are not little slips. It’s not like accidentally switching on an adult channel in a hotel late at night. It’s directly abusive of others. It reminds me of 1 Corinthians 5v1: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate”. The kinds of things RZ and JF have done, or been accused of doing, would not be tolerated in our secular society.

We need spiritual reformation

Christian leaders are sinners, but they should be mature Christians. They should have a knowledge that God’s ways are best, that God alone can satisfy. I just can’t conceive of someone doing the kinds of things that Ravi Zacharias or Jonathan Fletcher are accused of doing without understanding that it’s deeply wrong and sinful. Someone who slips up and sins out of weakness is one thing. Someone who has an established pattern of sin over the course of several months or years – that’s another level.

I honestly think the real need of the church at the moment is for spiritual reformation. We need to learn deeply the truth of these words:

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Psalm 34:8-10

Over the last few months and years, I’ve begun to realise the truth of this Psalm in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been taught before. God is not some kind of arbitrary rule giver, who gives us rules to stop us being happy. One of the reasons we are so tempted by sexual temptation is because it promises us happiness beyond what we think God would give. But the truth is the exact opposite: only God’s ways can give us true happiness, in every area.

Is the reason that we keep on falling this way is because much of the church simply does not recognise the goodness of God?

This is vital for the health of the church

A few days ago I read a helpful article by Jay Stringer about Ravi Zacharias. In that post he said:

When a man will not engage his sexual brokenness, the inevitable outcome is a system that heavily polices cross gender relationships.  We don’t honor women by refusing to extend relationship or leadership to them. We honor women by doing everything possible to locate the sexual brokenness and manipulation that exists within. Being like Jesus means that we learn how to have close relationships with female friends in a way that is marked with humility, honor, and delight. The image of God is both male and female (Genesis 1:27). If you want to know who God is, but you want to “protect” yourself from women, you’re excluding a whole lot of God.

I think this is spot on. We live in a society which is going made about sex and sexuality. I just think so many people, especially young people, don’t know which was is up any more. What the world doesn’t need right now is the church failing in exactly the same area! In fact, we as the church should be like a city on a hill – showing the world the light and life that comes from knowing Christ.

We should be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1). We should start treating each other like family, as that is in fact what we are. And we should be walking in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), rather than trying to use our own personal version of the Billy Graham rule to stay pure. This means men and women treating each other like brothers and sisters, like true friends. God has the power to overcome the idols of our society and remake us in his image.

Can men and women be friends after all?

A couple of years ago, Aimee Byrd wrote a book called “Why can’t we be friends?” Subtitled – “avoidance is not purity”. This sums it up for me: I think many churches teach a kind of ‘avoidance’ strategy when it comes to purity. This isn’t going to work, and I think this is why too many Christian leaders have fallen.

If you think of the Christian life primarily as being about avoiding sin, then your greatest enemy is temptation. It’s only a matter of time before you fall – even more so for Christian leaders. This is a particular problem when our society seems to be so sex-obsessed. One effect means that we will only see members of the opposite sex in terms of temptation.

If, on the other hand, we see the Christian life as being about seeking after the Lord, his goodness and his ways, then it will be a different story. We can start to see others as people made in God’s image, given his beauty. We can start relating to them with the love given by the Spirit, beyond merely human love.

I believe we in the Western church right now need to seek after the Lord like we haven’t done in a long time. It’s time to stop talking about doctrine and instead to start believing it.

Lord, please send a spiritual reformation upon your people.


2 responses to “Another scandal. We desperately need spiritual reformation”

  1. Joe Byrne avatar
    Joe Byrne

    Thanks for your thoughts and reflections Phill – I’ve been reading and watching a lot of content reflecting on the whole RZ scandal and just how shocking, tragic, heart-breaking it all is and how much hurt and damage has been caused – both to those women who have been used and abused but also in general how the gospel, the church, Christians and even the name of Christ has been tarnished in the eyes of many by this whole thing.

    I thought your point about the “almost gospel” was a really helpful one – when it is seen to be about avoiding sin … It reminds me of something that really struck me a few years ago when reading the Genesis 2 and 3 and the account of the Fall. Several times, in Gen 3, it talks about how the “forbidden” fruit was pleasing to the eye and good for food. Satan plays on the idea that God is not good – in fact, Satan says God is lying and is deliberately holding back good things from Adam and Eve, therefore the implication is that God is mean, unloving and out to prevent Adam and Eve from becoming like Him* and “discovering their true potential”. However, back in Genesis 2, it says that all the fruit on all the trees in the Garden were pleasing to the eye and good for food. And presumably, that also included THE TREE OF LIFE!!! The evidence for God’s goodness, his generous provision, his blessing and love was literally all around them in a beautiful, unspoilt garden full of trees they were free to eat from. They were free to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in this perfect, beautiful world. The problem with sin is that, as well as being evil, wicked, arrogant and deeply offensive to the God who made us and extremely damaging to those around us … it is also stupid, tragic, self-defeating, self-destructive and completely illogical, as it usually involves settling for infinitely/immeasurably less than what we could have in knowing our Lord, Creator and Heavenly Father. It is not just about saying “No” to things that our Heavenly Father says are not good, but instead trusting and finding in Him our joy, our satisfaction, our treasure, our worth, our identity, our acceptance, our desire to be both deeply known and deeply loved. In Christ we have all these things and so much more … more than we can ask or imagine.

    (*On a level this is correct, God didn’t want Adam and Eve to “become like Him” because they were not God … Trouble is, God also knew that they couldn’t become like Him … because they were not God!!!)

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for your comment and I agree 100%. I think your points about Genesis and God’s goodness are spot on.

      Why is it that we seek our desires in things *other* than God? James 4:2-3 comes to mind: “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

      You do not have because you do not ask God. Why don’t we ask? Because we think God is not good, that we have to twist his arm.

      I’ve just finished rereading “Communion with God” by John Owen (the abridged version!) and one of the things which struck home with force this time was his focus on God’s love and goodness. Trusting in God means we must trust that he is loving and good to us.

      Anyway really helpful Joe, thanks.

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