Ravi Zacharias Faces Criticism for Exaggerated Credentials and Settling a Lawsuit with an Apparent Extortionist

November 27, 2017

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), a well-respected teaching ministry in evangelical circles with a global reach, has recently been criticized by a self-proclaimed atheist who has devoted considerable time and energy to discrediting many of Ravi Zacharias' claimed academic credentials. His name is Steve Baughman and he describes why he has focused on Ravi Zacharias on his website (see http://www.raviwatch.com/about/ for his detailed description of how he came to critique him).

Baughman focused initially on the various academic credentials Ravi Zacharias claimed. He noted while Zacharias referred to himself as Dr. Zacharias, the only doctorates he has received were honorary doctorates. In responding to a request for a comment on this issue, RZIM provided the following explanation:

The convention on honorary doctorates varies from institution to institution, but the degree is often conferred in recognition of an individual's contribution to a particular field. Furthermore, one can use the title without claiming that it is an earned academic degree.

MinistryWatch has learned there is no set convention on whether it is appropriate for someone who has received an honorary doctorate to refer to themselves as "Doctor". Given the academic nature and depth of Zacharias' teaching ministry, his referring to himself as "Dr. Zacharias" does not seem inappropriate to us at MinsitryWatch.com. Nevertheless, the ministry no longer refers to Zacharias as "Dr." Zacharias.

Baughman goes on to dissect a variety of Zacharias' other academic claims and his research is thorough. You can find it fully described on his website (http://www.raviwatch.com/documentation/). In reviewing this research and the response from the ministry about it, it is our view Baughman does reveal an unfortunate pattern of Zacharias, at a minimum, exaggerating his academic background. While we do not believe this determination in any way undermines the excellent teaching material that RZIM has produced over the years, we took note of it in case additional information ever arose which would indicate these exaggerations had begun to reveal a more consequential character issue at RZIM. Unfortunately, new information has arisen which does raise hard questions for donors to RZIM, but there are not many good answers to those questions and it now appears there may never be any.

Recently, Baughman highlighted a court filing by Ravi Zacharias in relation to an apparent extortion attempt against himself. To quickly summarize a complex situation, a married couple posing as potential donors to RZIM allegedly sought to put Zacharias in a compromised position by having the wife provide nude photographs of herself to Zacharias via e-mail and/or text message. The couple then had a lawyer draft a letter asking for a $5 million payment to prevent disclosure of the matter to the public. Ravi Zacharias (personally, not the ministry) responded with a civil complaint against the couple. We would urge RZIM donors to read the letter to RZIM from the couple's lawyer and the civil complaint filed by Ravi Zacharias. It certainly seems to be a pretty straightforward extortion attempt against Ravi Zacharias. The couple has a history of using litigation against a previous pastor of theirs to gain financial remuneration for an alleged financial scheme that had gone bad. Additionally, RZIM provided MinistryWatch with the following written response to our inquiries about this news:

Thank you for your inquiry. The lawsuit filed by Ravi Zacharias is a response against a Canadian couple that has made egregious false claims against him and have attempted to extort a large sum of money from him based upon meritless allegations.

Ravi Zacharias will vigorously defend himself against these harmful mistruths and extortion attempt. It is our prayer that these false allegations will stop, but because previous actions by the couple have indicated that may not be possible, Ravi Zacharias will seek all available remedies in the legal system.

Since this a legal matter, we are not at liberty to speak further about it. However, Ravi Zacharias has always maintained a high level of personal and professional integrity. False accusations against his personal character and biblical leadership are not a matter he takes lightly, and his decision to pursue legal action was made only after thorough prayer and consideration.

Upon our following up with more specific questions generated from the evidence he provided in his court filing, RZIM provided this further written statement:

We understand your questions and appreciate you reaching out to RZIM for context. Since Ravi's federal lawsuit against the Thompsons is currently being litigated in Court, we have to allow the legal process to disclose all the evidence in the filing, which limits how much we can discuss with other parties.

We do, however, stand by our claim that the Thompsons are unjustly attempting to extort money from Ravi and that he has not had any inappropriate activity with Ms. Thomson online or otherwise, including never meeting privately with her or soliciting photos from her. I can also confirm that our board stands unanimously with Ravi Zacharias; affirms his character and integrity; and fully supports his decision to move forward with a lawsuit against the Thompsons for harassing him.

Unfortunately, this is yet another example of people hostile to the Gospel and the stand the organization has taken on certain issues, who want to specifically discredit and mislead others about Ravi Zacharias.

At RZIM, we will continue to follow Jesus' commands to pursue holiness and proclaim the life-giving message of Christ in diverse arenas. We are confident that God will guide us at each step, praying that the truth will be revealed and hopeful that His name will be glorified as He reveals his redemptive purpose.

Thank you again for your expressed concerns; I hope this helps explain the situation.

We subsequently asked RZIM if the ministry's board of directors, which includes Zacharias' wife and daughter, had seen copies of the e-mail and text communications sent between Ravi and the alleged extortionists, as this would give us greater confidence the board's strong backing of him was based on the information and evidence we would like to see, but cannot. RZIM's response indicated the board has not yet seen the e-mail and text evidence that would support Zacharias' claims in his court filing but had been "briefed" about it. Of course, the alleged extortionists have also not provided such evidence either. Here is the response we received from RZIM:

As I mentioned in my last email, the RZIM Board of Directors is completely supportive of Ravi as he pursues the truth in regards to these false allegations of which they have been briefed.

In our view, the principal issue in this case is whether Zacharias solicited the nude photos or not. The couple naturally claims he did. Zacharias, of course, claims he did not and neither side has yet provided evidence to support their case. So it is a classic "he said, she said" case. One charge by the alleged extortionists which Zacharias did not refute in his filing, however, was that Zacharias threatened to commit suicide if the woman told her husband about their online relationship. We doubt the absence of a rebuttal to this charge was an oversight by Zacharias or his lawyers and it suggests the alleged extortionists do have some evidence to back at least this one claim up. While this is disconcerting, as it seems to imply some guilt on Zacharias' part, it seems appropriate to give the benefit of the doubt to Zacharias rather than a couple with a litigious history seeking a $5 million extortion payment from him.

Even so, Zacharias' own explanation in his court filing of how this situation developed over a period of two years raises questions about his judgment in this matter. He allowed a professional relationship with a prospective donor couple to develop into an online friendship with just the wife. This led to the woman giving Zacharias exercise advice for his bad back including photos of her apparently performing the exercises. These photos apparently progressed from normal photos to scantily clad pictures to eventually nude snapshots. It is hard to see how Zacharias allowed this progression to occur although he claims to have sought to block her messages to him and to cut off all communication with the woman. Nevertheless, communications at some level clearly continued and the filing does not offer an explanation as to how or why this happened. Nor did Zacharias attempt to involve his board of directors in this situation at an early stage of its development, allowing the situation to escalate. And RZIM is not willing to share any additional details to address the concerns we raised about how Ravi handled this unfortunate extortion attempt. We have asked why the court filing did not include more evidence of Zacharias' e-mails or text messages to the woman that would back up his case about not soliciting the pictures as well as other matters, but RZIM stated they could not respond due to the case being in the courts at that time. The only evidence of an e-mail from Zacharias to the alleged extortionists included in Zacharias' court filing was an edited e-mail to the woman's husband which seems to include an admission of Zacharias' guilt regarding letting an online relationship with the woman go too far while simultaneously denying he ever requested nude photos. Here is that section of Zacharias' court filing:

Specifically, on January 24, 2017 (Plaintiff's {Zacharias} last direct communication with the Thompsons {Alleged Extortionists}), Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Mr. Thompson that stated, in part:

"Let me answer your question as best as I can without risk of seeming to avoid the full force of the responsibility. Whatever the reason the blame is real and inescapable. But to answer your question--I can say from my conscious that I never initiated or proposed that action . . . . Once that came about I can also say that I repeatedly made every effort not let [sic] it continue and suggested that I even block my mail, which I did. Each time I asked for no further contact, agreement was made [sic], and never once did I ever initiate it again . . . . By the way, with the determination to not continue what was wrong, I purposely never met her even once. When she paid a visit to Atlanta for other reasons, I deliberately was out of town . . . ."

On November 9th, however, the case was settled without going before a judge and/or jury and therefore, we may now never get answers to the questions that naturally arise from that which we do know at this point. As part of the settlement, all parties to the suit are governed by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which means none of the parties to the case can comment on any aspect of it to the public. This is unfortunate as it leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the ministry. Using NDA's in cases like this are essentially a way for the guilty to make sure their mistakes are covered up. The only reason we can see why Zacharias would settle this case before It went to trial and use an NDA is that the trial would bring out damaging evidence against him. If Zacharias had evidence which would prove those seeking to extort money from him were lying, it is hard to imagine he would not pursue this even if the legal costs were high. It was our sincere hope the legal process would completely exonerate Zacharias and MinistryWatch delayed sharing anything about this case for months on the hope evidence would be presented clearing Zacharias. Due to the settlement, which one can only presume was achieved by Zaharias personally paying the alleged extortionists some sum of money, it now appears clear he was likely guilty of something in this situation which would cause him significant reputational damage, above that which is already known about this case, had it become public. At the same time, it needs to be remembered his alleged extortionists also never presented evidence to confirm such misbehavior on his part (naturally, since if they made the information they had public, there would be no reason for Zacharias to pay them for their silence) and their background and actions in this case easily leads one to question their truthfulness. Still, the onus is on Ravi Zacharias to more fully explain what actually occurred. Outside of one helpful call from a RZIM UK board member (a separate legal organization than RZIM US), RZIM has only communicated with us via e-mail and has often not answered many of the questions we have asked, claiming they could not do so because the matter was before the court. Most of those questions were also posed before the NDA was in place. As noted earlier, RZIM claimed in their e-mails that Zacharias was going to fight this extortion attempt "vigorously", but then Zacharias settled the case before it went to trial where RZIM's assertions of the "false claims" made against Zacharias could have been proven to indeed be false. One can reasonably conclude, therefore, the couple extorting Zacharias actually did indeed have damaging e-mails and texts from him.

While RZIM has stated to us the ministry made no payments in the settlement of the case (presumably any payments made to the alleged extortionists came directly from Ravi Zacharias), they did not answer our question if Zacharias has received any unusual compensation from the ministry recently which may have assisted him in making payments to settle the case.

Meanwhile, while quite disturbing, none of the above undermines the solid, biblically-based teaching for which RZIM and Ravi Zacharias have become well-known around the world. In MinistryWatch's view, the ministry's teaching materials are excellent and the roughly 80 RZIM staff traveling the world to share this teaching are very effective. However, both the credentials exaggeration issue and the unfortunate online relationship with the couple, which led to their seemingly successful extortion attempt of Zacharias, raise legitimate questions about Zacharias' character and judgment. In MinistryWatch's opinion, these troubling developments are significant enough to warrant making donors to RZIM aware of this situation.

In situations like this, donors look to the ministry's board of directors to take appropriate actions to protect both the ministry and donors. We have been told the board of RZIM has instituted new policies in an effort to protect against any reoccurrence of such problems. Leaders at RZIM, including Zacharias, we have been told will now be provided with traveling companions to provide additional accountability and protection for them (similar to Billy Graham's longstanding practice) and the ministry has made increased efforts to make sure all biographies of its leaders are those approved by the ministry for accuracy. The ministry has also shared a new policy document describing how staff should respond to situations similar to what the founder recently faced so that they can be dealt with immediately. While these steps are helpful, the RZIM board should also examine its own response to these developments as they originally offered a strong statement that the claims made by the alleged extortionists were false when we were told they had actually only been "briefed" on the situation and had not yet seen any evidence which would exonerate Zacharias. Now that the case has been settled while employing the legal tactic of an NDA to prevent any further evidence from being made public, it seems the board of RZIM may have too quickly rushed to defend their ministry's founder and perhaps misguided others in the process. Indeed, the RZIM board may now be in the same uncomfortable position as everyone else interested in the success of the ministry as they too are unable to see the evidence necessary to determine the full extent of the predicament Ravi Zacharias got himself into.