Ravi Zacharias was best known for the apologetics ministry that bears his name, but he spent his 46-year career licensed as a national evangelist with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA). The denomination has now revoked the ordination of its highest-profile minister after its own limited investigation confirmed a “pattern of predatory behavior.”
Zacharias is believed to be the only person in the CMA’s 134-year history to be posthumously expelled from ministry.
The decision was announced to all CMA ministers in a February 12 email from vice president Terry Smith, sent the day after Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)—which is not affiliated with the denomination or any CMA church—released the findings of its independent investigation.
The CMA did its own investigation, but the results are not being made public. Two investigators hired by the CMA spoke to 15 to 20 people, but that total includes massage therapists who declined to be interviewed and the CT news editor. However, the limited findings corroborated RZIM’s report, Smith said.
In a public statement, the CMA acknowledged “with great sorrow” that Zacharias “engaged in a pattern of sinful behavior that has caused enormous pain to many and undermined the witness of Christ’s Church.” The CMA also announced that itinerant ministers will now report to a district office rather than be licensed nationally, a move intended to offer more accountability.
Because Zacharias maintained his license as an Alliance worker and was considered a minister in good standing from 1974 until his death in 2020, the recent revelations around his abuse raise questions—particularly among victims and advocates—over the CMA’s response.
How the CMA dealt with accusations
The CMA received one accusation of sexual abuse against Zacharias in 2017, when news broke that Zacharias had settled a lawsuit with a Canadian woman he accused of attempting to blackmail him with sexually explicit texts and photos. The woman, Lori Anne Thompson, had contacted RZIM’s board saying Zacharias had groomed her for abuse and manipulated her into a sexting relationship.
In 2018, the CMA said it “completed a thorough inquiry of these accusations,” including “a review of all available documentation and records” and found no basis for discipline. RZIM leadership went on to cite the denomination’s response to defend its own determination at the time that Zacharias had done nothing wrong.
In an interview this week with CT, Smith clarified that the CMA did not do an investigation. It did a preliminary inquiry and then decided not to investigate. Smith also emphasized that the inquiry relied on available documentation and records, meaning publicly available. Two CMA staff members interviewed Zacharias in 2017 about the allegations but did not see phone or email records. Smith would not say whether the CMA asked to see evidence.
“They had an extensive conversation with Ravi,” he said. “The evidence was not made available to us at that time nor was it made available to RZIM.”
In 2020, investigators paid by RZIM found Zacharias’s phones contained hundreds of photos of young women, some of them nude. The report says Zacharias was soliciting sexually explicit images with women in the United States and abroad at the same time he was assuring people in his denomination there was nothing to investigate.
Thompson told CT that she called CMA leaders twice but they never followed up to retrieve evidence from her before concluding the inquiry.
“Our team did talk with her and did seek whatever evidence she could provide,” Smith said. “For whatever reason, none was provided.”
The denomination’s conclusion that there was no basis for discipline was held up by leaders at RZIM and Zacharias’s many supporters as evidence the allegations against him were false. Smith said that isn’t an accurate assessment of the CMA’s 2018 conclusion.
“We weren’t declaring him innocent. We simply didn’t have evidence to support the accusations—part of which may have been related to the NDA,” he said. “It was an inquiry. It could have led to an investigation had adequate evidence been presented at that point or if additional accusations had surfaced. That was the only accusation that had surfaced in 40 or 45 years of ministry.”
The CMA opened an investigation into allegations against Zacharias in October 2020, following reports that the apologist had abused massage therapists at day spas he owned in the Atlanta area. RZIM also launched its investigation at the time.
“The evidence that was made available at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 is a whole different set of evidence. Had we had that evidence at that time, then obviously we would have had corroborating evidence to believe the accusations,” Smith said.
One of the CMA’s investigators told CT they had not interviewed anyone with firsthand knowledge of the abuse. Smith said they “sought to speak to every victim,” but some were not willing to talk.
Even without the personal accounts, investigators “got more than enough evidence to corroborate the RZIM investigation,” he said.
‘I wouldn’t say we didn’t hold him accountable’
The denomination maintains that it is not responsible for what Zacharias did nor for the conditions that contributed to his sexual abuse or allowed it to happen.
“If ‘responsible' means we caused it or put circumstances in place where he was enabled to do that, no, I do not believe we were responsible,” Smith said. “Certainly we bear some level of responsibility for all of our official workers, but no more for Ravi Zacharias than any of those other official workers. We certainly regret what he did.”
The CMA includes 700 workers in the US, including 12 national evangelists or “ministers-at-large,” who aren’t salaried but are paid for preaching appearances. Smith said that because Zacharias was required to follow the same rules as other national evangelists, the denomination was doing what it was supposed to do, despite the evidence of predatory behavior stretching back to at least 2004.
“I wouldn’t say we didn’t hold him accountable. We require reports from those who have held the license that he held, which was national evangelist,” Smith said.
CT reporting found that Zacharias was not a member of a church and did not submit to a local pastor. Smith said he didn’t know about Zacharias’s church membership.
“We do want people to go to church. We want everyone to go to church. He should have been attending church. I don’t know if he was or not, but he should have been,” he said.
Changes coming to the CMA
The CMA announced one policy change in the February 12 letter. Evangelists will now all be licensed at the local, rather than national, level. According to Smith, this will heighten “connectivity and accountability.”
The denomination will also tap the Sensitive Issues Consultative Group to review the CMA’s response to allegations against workers and do an internal cultural review. Conversations about the specifics and the scope of the group’s review have not yet begun at the CMA.
Smith is nonetheless confident that the denomination followed its protocols, did a good job responding to the accusations against Zacharias, and is effectively holding its ministers accountable today.
“Part of sin is deceit. So is it possible for someone to cover up sin? Obviously it is,” Smith said. “But I can tell you when we do discover it, and clearly discover it, we don’t look to find a rug to sweep things under.”