From Ravi Zacharias to Mark Driscoll to Mike Pilavachi it sometimes seems that there is a fresh scandal every few weeks when it comes to the Church. Bobby Conway explores why our cherished institutions seem to be riddled with abuse and misconduct – and how Christians can respond

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My heart broke in 2020 when rumours began to surface about Ravi Zacharias. The famed Christian apologist who had passed away earlier that year had led a double life, frequently engaging in inappropriate sexual activity.

I first caught wind of these reports while I was speaking at a conference in Sacramento, along with one of Ravi’s prominent employees. As we were hanging out after the conference, this associate’s phone began blowing up with texts about the matter. At the time, none of us believed the allegations.

Ravi Zacharias was the last person anyone would think could be guilty of such things. He had built a reputation of such impeccable character that he was given the benefit of the doubt by those who knew and admired him. Everyone was horrified by the very suggestion of impropriety. 

In the wake of these reports and the subsequent investigation, we saw Ravi’s legacy collapse and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries implode. And yet, sadly enough, the Zacharias scandal is just one of many in recent memory.

We’ve seen international paedophilia scandals rock the Roman Catholic Church; accusations of sexual harassment bring down Bill Hybels at Willow Creek; allegations of financial mismanagement and anger issues lead to the firing of James MacDonald at Harvest Bible Chapel; abuse of spiritual authority topple Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in Seattle; and accusations of misconduct lead to the resignation of Hillsong’s founding pastor, Brian Houston.

It’s no wonder the Church is in such a mess. Perhaps you, too, are curious as to why there are so many scandals involving Christian leaders?

If you say that the history of the Church is a long succession of scandals, you are telling the truth, though if that is all you say, you are distorting the truth.

Gerald Vann

Personal failings

If we are going to address this issue, we must begin by acknowledging the ugly truth of these scandals and recognising the deep pain of anyone confused, angered, or personally affected by them. Denying the problem, or defending bad behaviour – by minimising it, excusing it, or even explaining it away – won’t help.

When people ask: “Why are there so many scandals in the Church?” we can begin by validating their concern. For example, we might say: “That’s a fair question, and the situation truly breaks my heart. Many people have been hurt badly by the Church. I can only imagine the pain of those who have been directly affected. I’m very sorry if you have been hurt by any of these situations.”

So often in apologetics, we start with a defence. But I think it’s actually more effective to begin with a concession. Before you try to defend the faith, ask yourself, is there something I can first concede? We’re trying to build bridges, not burn them. We would do well to acknowledge points of agreement and then make our best defence. That said, here are some ways we can respond to questions about church scandals:

1. Scandals are not exclusively a Church problem; they are a human problem.

Where there are people, there will be scandals. Even among atheists, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and agnostics – you name the group, and I can point to a scandal. Unfortunately, we humans are a scandal-prone bunch. That doesn’t excuse it, but it gives some perspective.

2. Just because someone professes to be a Christian doesn’t mean he or she is living as a Christian.

Jesus could not have been clearer when he said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” The church is full of people who say they believe in Jesus, but their lives prove otherwise. I won’t pretend to know the human heart on such matters, but Jesus does – and he has already warned us that not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is one. So, what does all this have to do with scandals? Sometimes the Church gets a bad rap for the actions of pseudo believers. We have enough baggage of our own; but unfortunately, we also carry the unnecessary baggage of posers.

3. Just because someone is truly a Christian doesn’t mean he or she is exempt from sin.

A lot could be said about the specific causes of scandals in the church – such as hypocrisy, hunger for power, covetousness, greed, lust, abuse, addiction, etc. – and all these actions fall under the category of sin. Just because Christians are forgiven doesn’t mean they won’t sin. As the saying goes, becoming a Christian doesn’t make one sinless, but it ought to make one sin less. Even so, given our sinful human nature, there isn’t a single Christian who is exempt from the kind of sin that could lead to a church scandal.

4. Too many Christians are overly influenced by culture and not influenced enough by scripture.

In our society, we spend countless hours listening to music, watching programmes, and interacting with content that runs contrary to scripture, often failing to recognise how far we’ve drifted from God’s moral standard for our lives. It’s no exaggeration to say that many in the Church are lucky if they spend thirty minutes a week in the Bible, while taking in thirty to forty hours of cultural messaging through music, movies, social media, etc. If anything, I’m being conservative. For many Christians, Bible-reading is basically extinct, and the hours enmeshed with culture are probably double my estimate. It’s no wonder the church is ridden with scandals. We’ve neglected the source of wisdom for how to live the Christian life, and instead we are led by our feelings and intuitions and influenced by sound bites and social media.

Systemic issues

These first four points address the issue of personal responsibility. But problems in the church can also arise because of systemic problems – especially with how we treat our pastors and what we expect of them.

1. Deficiencies in training

Many pastors have a Master’s-level education but receive no training for how to handle the on-the-ground issues they will face in ministry: finances, working with a staff and dealing with personnel issues, counselling or referring people for counselling, setting boundaries etc.

2. Celebrity and self-sufficiency

We too often put pastors on a pedestal, such that they can feel above the need for counselling or accountability. The pastoral gift is only one of the leadership gifts mentioned in scripture. Some sort of eldership (which has different names in different churches) is also important to create a balanced, mature and godly leadership structure. When responsibility is shared among a group of wise and mature leaders, it diminishes the chances that any one leader will succumb to the pitfalls of celebrity and self-sufficiency.

3. Burnout

We often expect pastors to do it all (see point 1) and to always be available to everyone. But we’re not usually as good at providing them with support and resources. Here again, a balanced leadership structure can keep the burden of ministry from falling too heavily on any one person.

4. Lack of continuing education

We expect doctors, counsellors, teachers, social workers, lawyers, and many other professionals, to keep up with continuing education, yet our pastors often get little to no continuing education.

The bottom line is that we must create the proper environment in the church where scandals are less likely to occur – where accountability, preparedness and encouragement are baked in to the system.

Our hope was never meant to be placed in humanity, but in Christ. People will always let us down. Count on it. If we put too much hope and trust in other people, we will become hopeless in our faith when they let us down. It’s high time we traded in our disillusionment with Christians for deeper intimacy with Jesus.

Content taken and adapted from Does Christianity Still Make Sense? by Bobby Conway. Copyright © 2024. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved