Two weeks ago the firm hired to investigate the sexual misconduct of Ravi Zacharias’ ministry released their official report confirming years of sexual and physical abuse and psychological trauma that he inflicted on women he hired, ministered to, and groomed.
When the story first broke in 2017, I was deeply saddened to hear that this man who had impacted so many had in fact been hiding his sin and its long reach; but I was not shocked.
I was not shocked in 2018 when Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church was accused of sexual misconduct against many of his female staff and co-laborers. An investigation found him guilty.
I was not shocked when I received word in 2019 that a former youth pastor in my hometown had been brought up on sexual misconduct charges and also found guilty.
I could go on. We are all well aware of many faith leaders who have fallen from grace in the last decade. I was not shocked by any of these situations because the abuse of power leading to sexual misconduct in the Church is not a new story, at least not for me.
As a woman in the Church and a leader in ministry I have seen firsthand the mistreatment and inaction that often follows when someone exposes abuse and misuse of power.
I have been the woman who reported such actions and watched (and waited) for leadership to act in a way that aligned with God’s justice, mercy, and righteousness. It never came.
I have been the woman who has had to call out interns whose behavior was not “worthy of the gospel they received.”
And I have been a leader who had to acknowledge and rethink the way I show care and affection to my students because not all are comfortable with hugs and high fives.
It is right for me and for anyone in leadership to look at the actions of Mr. Zacharias and confess that we too have enough sin inside of us to wreck many lives.
However, it is also right for us to call out his actions and deem them reprehensible and unfit for one who proclaims the name of Jesus Christ as their king. Mr. Zacharias preyed on women who came to him in a ministry context as well as those he hired for his businesses. While we leave his eternal judgement in the hands of God, it is right for us as the Church to consider how to lovingly and humbly seek out and care for those who have been hurt by him. Abuse of any kind not only makes victims of those who were in direct connection with the abuser, but it also makes victims of the families and generations who will be impacted by the original trauma for years to come. It is the role of the Church to seek justice for the oppressed.
When a pastor’s sin is brought to light, we often turn to the story of King David and the prophet Nathan. David gives in to his selfish desires and then tries to protect himself by covering it up. It isn’t until the prophet Nathan comes to him and exposes his sin that David confesses and works to step back into his role as a king and his calling as an image-bearer of God. There are many sermons and blogs and books dedicated to becoming like a man like David who can confess his sins, experience remorse for the pain he caused, and turn back to God for forgiveness and a path forward.
But what about Nathan? Nathan is chosen by God to go and tell the highest authority in the land that he is in the wrong – that he has caused harm – that he has sinned and is still sinning against God. The Church doesn’t normally talk about the Nathans or the Deborahs or the Esthers who do the will of God by standing up to leaders who are in the wrong, calling them into repentance, into action, or into protection of the vulnerable (respectively).
As youth ministers we are often the first to see the workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our students, calling them to be future Nathans and Deborahs and Esthers. Ephesians 5: 1-21 teaches us that the Holy Spirit moves us into being men and women of character who courageously shine a light in the darkness of the world. That includes the darkness of the Church as well – where sin lives and grows when ignored or covered up.
Raising up the next Nathans requires us to help our students grow and steward their whole humanity. This includes their sexuality, but it also includes their character and their ability to be courageously bold in the face of sin. These are the two things we should be encouraging and teaching our students constantly throughout their tenure in our ministries:
Godly character must be taught and nurtured.
Ephesians 5:1-21 is a gold mine for teaching our students how God builds their character in line with the heart of the Gospel through imitation of Jesus. Spending time walking through this passage with your key student leaders (or your whole ministry) will give them a roadmap to pursuing Christlike character, and it’s helpful to show them qualities of that character alongside a narrative.
Often we teach David’s repentance and neglect the courageous character of Nathan. He doesn’t get a lot of play in scripture. But to teach about Nathan or Deborah or Esther along with Ephesians 5 helps our hearts to grow and understand how these people of godly character chose to live in the world. Often the stories of men and women who have to stand up to abuses of power focus on the repentance of the abuser, but it is just as important to spend time looking at the character of the one who turned on the light in the darkness of sin.
It takes gospel courage to turn on the light of truth in the darkness of sin.
Anytime you walk into a room and it’s pitch black, you immediately throw your hand against the wall and fumble for the light switch. Gospel-motivated courage is a bit like our hands fumbling for the light switch. We won’t always handle it perfectly, but when we see darkness in the life of someone we care about, our immediate reaction should be to shine the light of God’s truth. Even if that person is our leader, we can help them see the path to confession, forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation with God and anyone else they have brought into the darkness with them.
Let’s teach our students that the courage to speak truth in the face of sin comes from the gospel working in our lives. The gospel gives them permission to not act in their own power or to wait for the perfect words. The gospel tells us that Jesus acted as the one with perfect character and perfect courage to enter into the darkness for us and shine the light that would bring salvation for us all. It is this same gospel motivation that helps our students to stand with the friend who is being bullied, to point out to a trusted parent the wrongful actions of a coach, to even confront us as youth ministers when our jokes cause hurt or our actions bring division.
Friends, our world needs Nathans and Deborahs more than we do kings. Let’s be a part of raising our students to be this generation of prophets who can see the darkness for what it is, who are willing to throw their hands against the wall in imperfect courage, seeking for the switch to turn on the light of the gospel.