What went on with Ravi Zacharias?

Ravi Zacharias died in May 2020. I paid tribute to him briefly in this New York Times obituary. Zacharias was a popular apologist for the Christian faith. But I had no idea that he was also in the day spa business until I read Daniel Silliman’s reporting at Christianity Today. It’s not pretty.

Here is a taste:

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) has opened an investigation into allegations that its late founder and namesake sexually harassed multiple massage therapists who worked at two day spas he co-owned.

Three women who worked at the businesses, located in a strip mall in the Atlanta suburbs, told Christianity Today that Ravi Zacharias touched them inappropriately, exposed himself, and masturbated during regular treatments over a period of about five years. His business partner said he regrets not stopping Zacharias and sent an apology text to one of the victims this month.

RZIM denies the claims, saying in a statement to CT that the charges of sexual misconduct “do not in any way comport with the man we knew for decades.” The organization has hired a law firm “with experience investigating such matters” to look into the allegations, which date back at least 10 years. RZIM declined to answer any further questions about the inquiry.

Read the rest here.

There is nothing new about what happened to conservative evangelicals this week. But how will they respond?

metaxas-at-party

It was a rough week for conservative evangelicals in the United States. The president of the largest Christian university in the country resigned after a sex scandal. A popular evangelical radio host and author was caught on tape punching an anti-Trump protester. The vice-president of the United States gave a speech in which he replaced the words of the New Testament with references to American nationalism. The president of the United States, in an attempt to appeal to his evangelical base, gave a speech that celebrated Christian participation in Manifest Destiny.

None of this is new. Evangelical leaders have been part of sex-scandals before. Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and Bill Hybels come immediately to mind. Fundamentalist churches have a history of sexual abuse. In the early 1970s, Billy James Hargis was accused of having sex with male and female students at his American Christian College.

Evangelicals and their fundamentalist heirs have acted violently toward their enemies before. Texas fundamentalist J. Frank Norris was charged with murder when he shot and killed a lumber worker who came to his office to complain about something Norris wrote in his religious newspaper.

Ministers and politicians have been twisting scripture to serve political ends since the American Revolution. I wrote an entire chapter about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Finally, presidential candidates have often blown racist dog-whistles, sometime disguised as history, to rally their white supporters. Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon all come to mind.

How will conservative evangelicals, especially those who support Donald Trump, respond to all this? Rather than seeing what happened this week with Jerry Falwell Jr., Eric Metaxas, Mike Pence, and Trump as part of a long history of hypocrisy and moral failure,  I am afraid most conservative evangelicals will ignore these issues, fail to see the continuity between past and present, and reject any claim that these events reflect deeper, more systemic problems within evangelical Christianity.  Instead, they will continue to believe that another four years of Donald Trump, a president who has exacerbated and exposed the darkest parts of American evangelical history, will somehow bring revival to the church and restore America to a golden age that probably never existed in the first place.

*Christianity Today* Weighs-In on the Independent Baptist Sex Abuse Scandal

First Baptist Church

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut covers recent independent Baptist sex-abuse scandal as reported on Sunday by the Forth Worth Star-Telegram.  I tried to offer some historical context on this movement here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and I am happy to learn Shellnut found it useful for her piece.  Here is a taste:

Around 2.5 percent of Americans identify as independent Baptists, according to the Pew Research Center—more than belong to the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, or Episcopal and Anglican churches. Yet independent Baptists, by design, are less familiar to outsiders than other Christian traditions.

For one, they lack a unified presence since individual churches largely operate on their own. The label can be used by a range of autonomous, Bible-believing Baptists (“fundamental” being a reference to the core doctrines of the Christian faith). Independent fundamental Baptist churches include those loosely affiliated in fellowships—more common in the North—as well as those whose pastors may share particular networks—more common in the South— Central Baptist Theological Seminary professor Kevin Bauder told Quick to Listen.

Additionally, many independent Baptist fundamentalists practice “second-degree separatism,” distancing themselves not only from “the world” but also from fellow Christians who do not share their fundamentalist beliefs, noted Messiah College historian John Fea, who researched 20th-century Protestant fundamentalism in America.

During the movement’s formation in the 1940s, and its growth in the decades following, voices such as Jack Hyles and Bob Jones contrasted with “neo-evangelicals” (think Billy Graham) as they remained committed to fundamentalism and separatism, Fea wrote.

These leaders and their institutions—Hyles-Anderson College and Bob Jones University—have come to represent a loose subset of independent Baptists sometimes referred to with capitals or an acronym: Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB).

Read the entire piece here.

Hundreds of Sex Abuse Allegations Found in Fundamentalist Baptist Churches

First Baptist Church

The independent fundamentalist Baptist movement emerged sometime in the 1940s as an attempt to continue the legacy of the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s.  It upheld what it believed to be the true spirit of fundamentalism amid changes in the conservative Protestant landscape.

Much of this movement was a response to the so-called “neo-evangelical” movement. When in the 1940s and 1950s former fundamentalists such as Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, John Harold Ockenga and others sought to separate themselves from the label “fundamentalist” and seek out a more irenic, culturally-engaged version of conservative Protestantism, some descendants of the original fundamentalist movement of the 1920s were not very happy about it.  They believed that the neo-evangelical emphasis on cultural engagement with the world, and especially liberal or mainline Protestants, was a mark of unhealthy compromise that would eventually undermine true biblical faith in America.

Pastors of large churches and leaders of fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and Jack Hyles still identified with the label “fundamentalist.” (Carl McIntire was also part of this movement, although he was a Presbyterian).  This movement was characterized by a staunch commitment to biblical orthodoxy filtered through the King James Bible, an adherence to “second-degree separation” or that idea that Christians must separate themselves from both unbelievers (“the world”) and fellow conservative Protestants who did not separate sufficiently enough from unbelievers (Billy Graham and the rest of the neo-evangelicals fell into this second category), and a propensity for strong white preachers who ran independent congregations that were not accountable to denominations.

I wrote a bit about this group back in the 1990s.

The conservative fundamentalist movement probably reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. (Although more research is needed).  While neo-evangelicals read periodicals like Christianity Today, fundamentalist Baptists read John R. Rice’s The Sword of the Lord.  While neo-evangelicals sent their kids to Wheaton College or Fuller Theological Seminary, fundamentalist Baptist kids went to Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College.  Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University, came out of this tradition, but he was quickly disowned by his fellow separatist Baptists when he decided to get involved in politics.  During the 1970s and 1980s, Falwell seemed to operate in a space somewhere between the independent Baptist world of his upbringing and the neo-evangelicalism of Billy Graham and Christianity Today.

One of the flagship churches of the separatist, independent, Billy Graham-hating Baptist fundamentalist movement was First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana.  Jack Hyles served as pastor of the church from 1959-2001.  He claimed that First Baptist had the highest Sunday school attendance in the world. Hyles gained fame for his fleet of over 200 buses that his congregation used to pick up kids for Sunday school at the church.  At one point the church had a weekly attendance of 20,000 and ran several schools, including Hyles-Anderson College. In 2001, Christianity Today reported that Hyles-Anderson College was growing.

First Baptist buses

Hyles was a fundamentalist Baptist power-broker.  He was also accused, multiple times, of sexually abusing the girls who attended his massive Sunday School program.  His son David Hyles was a chip off the old block.  While serving as youth pastor of the church he abused multiple young girls.

david-hyles-greatest-men

In this era of Me-Too, the media has caught-up with Jack Hyles (he died in 2001), David Hyles, and dozens of other independent Baptist clergy like them.

Investigative reporters at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have uncovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct at 187 independent fundamentalist Baptist church in the United States and Canada.  I have a hunch that this story, which dropped today and features David Hyles, is going to get some attention.

Here is a taste:

Many of the allegations involve men whose misconduct has long been suspected in the independent fundamental Baptist community. But most of their victims have not publicly come forward, on the record, until now. Even pastors have for the first time — in interviews with the Star-Telegram — acknowledged they moved alleged abusers out of their churches rather than call law enforcement.

From Connecticut to California, the stories are tragically similar.

Read the rest here.