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Ravi Zacharias And The Sexual Binge & Purge Cycle of Evangelical Men

Ravi Zacharias And The Sexual Binge & Purge Cycle of Evangelical Men

By Jay Stringer
September 20, 2020

Sadly, we're here again. Another prominent male Christian leader abusing his power and squandering their reputation through their sexual behavior.

The The Roys Report released devastating news last week that Ravi Zacharias, the famous apologist who died May 19th, 2020 "befriended, groomed, and then initiated a sexting relationship with a married woman, Lori Anne Thompson. Then, when Thompson told Zacharias she was going to tell her husband about the illicit relationship, emails show Zacharias threatened suicide.

Months later, after Thompson and Zacharias had signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) confining them to silence, Zacharias publicly released a statement to CT, painting Thompson as the predator."

Although these qualified allegations are heartbreaking, they have become devastatingly familiar. For that reason, I want to address two themes from this latest scandal that are important for us to explore, particularly for men. The first is the sexual binge / purge cycle in the sexual lives of evangelical men. The second is a call for men to do their own work to outgrow problematic and abusive sexual behaviors. I name both of these as an evangelical male who has also had to confront these issues within my own life.

1. The Evangelical Binge / Purge Cycle

As a mental health therapist with over a decade of experience and a researcher of over 2,000 men struggling with compulsive sexual behavior, this latest scandal provides us with yet another front-row seat into the bulimic sexuality structure characteristic of many faith leaders and their followers. Bulimia occurs when someone indulges in a particular substance or behavior only to purge it out through excessive exercising or vomiting. Sexual bulimia is an agonizing struggle where someone engulfs themselves in a particular sexual behavior and then does everything they can to purge themselves from the sin and shame of what they've just indulged.

An example of sexual bulimia might be a pastor who is dealing with a number of crises in his church during the week, has fallen behind on his sermon and then stays up bingeing on pornography Saturday night. He wakes up Sunday morning, praying for God's mercy to be new in the morning and pleads with the Spirit to help him get through services. Then his sermon might go one of three ways:
1) He will never talk about unwanted sexual behaviors for fear that he might indict himself (denial).
2. He will preach about the ugliness of sin, the horrors of sexual immorality, and begin to scapegoat others for their sexual behavior (projection).
3) He'll begin to preach passionately (maybe even cry), about the goodness of the gospel for sinners (gospel purge). As you can see his binge on pornography (or an affair, buying sex, sexting, etc.) sets up his need to purge out his behavior through his prayer, avoidance, or preaching. While I have no problem with a leader finding passion and tears about the goodness of God, it's unhealthy when he does not see how his purge is connected to his binge from the night (or week / month) before.

As we continue to see, evangelical leaders sexually binge on particular behaviors in private. They watch a pool boy have sex with their wife while they masturbate in the corner, they solicit other human beings in prostitution, they groom married women for sexting, they enter "mentoring relationships" where the mentor invites the mentee over to their hotel room or boat. Sexual bulimia is one of the major reasons why faith leaders preach militantly against sexual sin, encourage "lust-management" resources, scapegoat sexual minorities and vote for politicians to legislate into law a righteousness they cannot achieve within their own hearts.

Ravi's sexting binge and apologetic purge

In the case of Ravi Zacharias, we see a leader who was bingeing with his sexual and emotional life with a woman 30 years younger than him. When she eventually calls him on his behavior, he threatens her with his suicide. She ends up entering into a non-disclosure agreement and Zacharias uses this to tell the public in 2017 that a woman was trying to extort him after she sent him a sext.

As you can see, Zacharias is a wildly manipulative man. Every good apologist knows the art of manipulating (from the Latin word manus, meaning using your hand to influence an outcome). Then, what do we see in his public life? He's known as 'greatest Christian apologist of this century.' One of Zacharias' greatest talents was to influence and persuade others. Tragically, he did not seem to address the shadow-side of this talent in his sexual life.

When we hear these allegations, we might be tempted to dismiss them as a leader merely having an extra-marital affair. Make no mistake though, this is a form of abuse. Leaders need to have their sexual lives attended to with care, but we also must name it as a form of abuse (especially when connected to other people they lead). When a leader is in a position of power and they use that role for sexual gain, they have moved into a sexual abuse of power.

2. A Call To Men To Outgrow Our Unwanted Sexual Behaviors

The sexual problems we face as men are opportunities to grow. They are also the very behaviors that block women from leadership roles. When men refuse to engage the wounded and entitled places within us, the inevitable outcome is to locate the blame outside of ourselves. We blame our hyper-sexual culture, we blame the beauty of women, we blame our loneliness. In the end, we attempt to control the world around us rather than asking ourselves the question: "What do I need to heal so I don't use other people for sexual gain?"

One of the major consequences of this type of sexual behavior among Christian men is that it reinforces the notion that women are far too dangerous to be in relationship with. Rather than address our sexual behaviors, evangelical men move to quarantine themselves from women. Again this is part of the binge and purge cycle. He might be bingeing on porn or a fantasy about a person in his ministry, but in public, he purges from women to a very great extent. This separation from male to female relationships is seen as wisdom, but it's too often used to shield men from engaging their power and fantasy structures.

Evangelicals, "The Billy Graham rule" can't be used as a hall pass to prevent us from doing the deeper work of healing and growth.

I want to share a Facebook post from Dennae Pierre, the Executive Director of Surge Network. Her brilliant insights corner us as men as to see how every one of our sexual failures and misuse of power furthers the leadership and gender divide. Here is her her post (partially abbreviated):

"You know what is super discouraging to me is every time a story breaks of a prominent Christian leader abusing power or having an affair is the fear it breeds among men with positions of influence or authority. That fear contributes to the challenges it is to be a female leader in a male dominated space...

I don't know how we ever create equitable space for women if men's main way engaging with sisters is trying to protect themselves from having an affair. I say that also having my fair share of creepy & painful experiences, so I'm not dismissing the fact that men unaware of their inner life with God can behave terribly toward their sisters.....but what I'm saying is the response I want more often from men is less fear of women and more just growing in the ability to deal with your crap.

Every time a story like this breaks, often I find that men reinforce the narratives around why they are so careful around women... but you guys have almost exclusive rights to all the power, positions & money when it comes to influencing the institution of the church.... so figure out a way to do better that doesn't also involve reinforcing the barriers that make it so hard for us to get to the table to begin with. Sometimes it feels like for every person like me trying to make it a little healthier for women leaders, too many are locking the door or making it harder.

The culture between the genders in evangelicalism is soooo broken that when just one of you mess up.. dozens or thousands (depending on your prominence) respond with legalism. Neither legalism OR abusing power/ sexualizing women is working out too well for us."

Physician, heal thyself

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.

Here we are in September 2020 if we're honest, church leaders haven't moved the needle too much further with our ability to celebrate, honor, and live in awe before other sexual beings. The rates of unwanted sexual behavior among clergy and the reality that we rarely ask for the wisdom and direction of women in our churches is central to why we've wandered so far from home.

If the church is not addressing the way we actively devalue women, we leave open the high probability that we will continue to excuse our consumption of them in pornography. A man's abuse of power doesn't just exist due to the lust we have for sex. Sexual assaults and pornography use allow men the opportunity to degrade and reduce the image of God. If the church isn't on the frontlines of prophetic witness against gender-based violence, we are colluding with it.

Redemptive models for addressing unwanted sexual behavior exist, but it will require those in the Church who are struggling with unwanted sexual behavior (the vast majority) to acknowledge their hypocrisy and find their own journey to healing. If you are an evangelical leader or organization who needs help with this before a crisis strikes, please let me know.

Leaders Face Their Emptiness Too

The best leaders face the biggest obstacles in front of them, even when that is their sexual life. We desperately need leaders not just addressing apologetics, how to exegete a text, or how to lead an organization. We need leaders addressing their emptiness too. Ravi Zacharias' legacy leaves me wondering how his apologetics and the effectiveness of his ministry might have been if he had the integrity and a context to address his sexual manipulation. I'd ask the same thing of you. As a leader, your gifting is so clearly seen. But how much more effective could your ministry be if you were attending to the untold stories within you? When we put the problems in the foreground and then work to overcome them, we not only protect our legacy, we also lead men to do the same and create a more just world for women.

"Preachers (or leaders) must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all." -- Frederick Buechner

Jay Stringer is a licensed mental health counselor, ordained minister, and author of the award-winning book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing. Stringer holds an MDiv and master in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and received post-graduate training under Dr. Dan Allender while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Allender Center. Jay lives in New York City with his wife Heather and their two children.

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