Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Gathering the Weeds

“No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

In a post entitled “Who was Ravi Zacharias?” one of the anonymous writers of the evangelical online answer-blog GotQuestions courageously exhumes the rotting corpse of a subject I’ve steadfastly avoided discussing here, except with generalities and allusions. But maybe now that the dust has settled, the Zacharias scandal can at least serve to illustrate a scriptural principle.

You’d like to hope we can use it for something.

Guilty Beyond Anything …

If you have been living under a rock and don’t know the name, Ravi Zacharias was a highly influential apologist, writer and evangelist, the head of a $35-40 million international Christian empire ... er, ministry. His books sold two million copies and it was not unusual for his YouTube videos to receive hundreds of thousands of views. He died in May 2020, shortly following which allegations surfaced of repeated sexual misconduct over many years — or really, they resurfaced; employees of his organization had been deflecting and covering up credible accusations against Zacharias for years. A lengthy investigation confirmed Zacharias was “guilty beyond anything that we could have imagined”, as his own daughter put it. The resulting scandal resulted in an abrupt drop-off in donations, an organizational name change, the removal of all Zacharias-related material from the ministry’s website, layoffs of 60% of staff worldwide, and the closure of RZIM Canada, one of the organization’s 12 international offices.

Considering the sheer number of confirmed victims and credible accusations against him, it’s astounding Zacharias managed to make it into the ground before the chickens came home to roost. His wife, family, associates and employees should have been so fortunate. Really, what Christian wants to talk about something like that? It’s just a big downer. So I haven’t. May Ravi’s name quickly disappear from our collective memory and may whatever bitter lessons he taught us bear better fruit.

Crisis? What Crisis?

But the fallout from the Zacharias scandal created a minor crisis for the leadership of a local church I know that had previously invited a member of the RZIM team to speak at a large public event. The church was now looking to stage a sequel to the original event, and there was no overwhelming reason not to invite the same man back: he’s a compelling speaker with a fascinating personal testimony and an unusual ability to handle tough questions without advance preparation.

Well, no reason apart from his former association with RZIM. This individual hadn’t the slightest involvement in either the scandal or its coverup, and he wisely left the organization following it. Any concern about his public testimony would have been very much in the eye of the beholder and not at all related to the character or history of the man himself.

The question “How do we handle that?” was quite reasonably bandied around by church leadership prior to the event. Transparency in Christian service is vitally important to both credibility and good conscience. So do you address the former RZIM association right up front, as you’re introducing your speaker? Do you ask him to do it? Do you just grit your teeth and hope and pray the subject doesn’t get raised? Do you let sleeping dogs lie but prepare yourself to discuss the subject if it comes up? There are reasonable arguments to be made for all options. A lengthy Q&A session was planned after the opening message. Saying nothing about RZIM might look just a little too coy in the event a member of the audience happened to raise the subject; who needs another “coverup” after everything that had already gone on? On the other hand, the speaker had moved on. Sufficient time had passed that mentioning his former associations would serve no real purpose, and might well become a distraction with the potential to eclipse all other subjects on an evening that was supposed to be more about audience than the person fielding their inquiries.

Anyway, prayer happened, discussion happened, and the consensus was to leave the subject of Zacharias alone, but to be prepared to respond forthrightly, faithfully and without equivocation if it became necessary. Thankfully, the event went off without a hitch. I watched it and found it quite profitable.

Weeds Among the Wheat

But you see the potential problems one weed among the wheat can cause, right? Imagine thousands of those suckers. That’s what Satan has introduced into the visible, earthly expression of the kingdom.

In the Lord’s parable of the wheat and weeds from which the quotation at the top of this post is taken, the master of the house explains to his servants why they should not go out and immediately root up the weeds that an enemy has distributed throughout his field right alongside the good seed.

Reading the parable repeatedly but without a lot of thought over the years, I have wondered from time to time whether that line was just in the parable as a sort of excuse or placeholder. After all, to make the allegory work, the master of the house had to have some explanation for waiting rather than acting immediately, though the one he offers doesn’t sound terribly plausible to me.

Think about it: the course of action he’s commanding is not at all what you and I do in our back gardens or with our lawns, is it? The moment we identify a dandelion or a thistle, we pull or trowel it up and get rid of the little pest, concerned that one weed will seed yet more weeds, and before long, the air out back will be full of flying pollen and our garden will shortly be entirely overgrown. Experience also teaches us that the difference between weeds and desirable growth is perfectly obvious, something that may not have been the case with wheat and the particular species of weeds that grew in Israel in those days. If you left it to me, I’d be inclined to pull those things right now.

A Little Credit

But let’s give the master of the house a little credit here. The parable is, after all, an allegory concerned with the public testimony of the “sons of the kingdom”. That’s the wheat. Here we are out in the world trying to preach the gospel to every creature, make disciples, baptize and do all in Christ’s name and for his glory. Satan’s answer to that glorious mandate is to seed the world with fake wheat to confuse the message, blur the image of Christ we are trying to project and bring the public testimony of his servants into disrepute. He wants as many unsaved as possible to be able to say, ingenuously or otherwise, that they couldn’t possibly acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord when he has so many dodgy, questionable people — or even outright frauds — claiming to be his disciples.

Given the sort of individual the weeds picture for us, the master’s reluctance to go out and pull them up before the due time seems perfectly reasonable. Yes, we must be honest about sin. Yes, we must clearly condemn hypocrisy, phoniness and secretive self-indulgence. When we know something is being done under false pretenses or covered up, we have a duty to speak out. The Lord did. His servants did.

But what pleasure can we take in yanking up yet another weed, exposing it to the light, and yelling, “Hey, look, I found another one!” to the world? Not very much. Pointing out the fakes and phonies is a grim job, and we would all vastly prefer that when every bit of potential growth in the field is closely scrutinized, it would turn out to be wheat after all … even the scraggliest, slowest-growing little bit of real wheat is better than a handful of thistles.

The danger of doing too much weed-gathering in the here and now is that we may root up the wheat. Even the Christian media articles I linked to about Zacharias were depressing to read. They didn’t do me any good; I can only guess how they made Christians feel who had donated to RZIM, bought Ravi’s books or recommended his videos. Worse, how many young Christians found their faith shaken, sorely tested or even destroyed by the Zacharias revelations? I would estimate the number is not trivial.

We know we’re going to find weeds if we start looking closely at what’s in the field. But spending an excessive amount of time staring at our fellow professing Christians while pondering the question “Are you for real?” seems to me like one of the least productive things believers might be doing with our time. Examining our own walk is difficult and painful enough. Examining the walk of others, unless it can’t be avoided, should be a rare event. Wherever possible, we should prefer to say concerning those who claim allegiance to Christ, “To his own master he stands or falls.”

The End of the Age

The Lord Jesus taught that “nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light”. I don’t think he meant all the dirt (or all the good stuff either) will come out into the open in this lifetime. That’s too much for any of us. In the latter case we might be tempted to pride. In the former, we’d be inclined to throw up our hands in despair at what, given the circumstances (fame, money, power, available women, lack of accountability ... in short, endless temptation), is entirely predictable. The Lord himself predicted it, and the apostles repeated his warnings over and over.

No, the harvest is the end of the age. Much of the hidden stuff, I believe, awaits the judgment seat of Christ and the great white throne of Revelation.

At which of those two judgment venues will Ravi Zacharias appear? I have no idea. I’m glad nobody’s asking me to make that call. When the end of the age comes, if it’s the least bit important, we’ll know.

In the meantime, maybe the master of the house had the right idea.

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