The Ancient Evil of Abuse in the Church: Jean Vanier, Ravi Zacharias and Irenaeus’ Warning

The Ancient Evil of Abuse in the Church: Jean Vanier, Ravi Zacharias and Irenaeus’ Warning August 2, 2021

For many Christians the Church Fathers remain unknown. At best, they are a source of knowledge only on abstract creedal issues, like the dual nature of Christ or the coherence of the Trinity. Names like Origen, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Melito, even Augustine, are lost to most Christians not involved in formal theological studies. This is a sad reality for two reasons.

First, is that the apostolic teaching on essential Christian doctrines really does matter. The second, however, is that the Church Fathers’ wisdom on pastoral and practical issues of faith also matters. Since both doctrinal and pastoral problems repeat themselves with every generation, regardless of time and culture, it is vital to the Church today to know the Church voices of yesterday. If we do not heed the warnings of our spiritual ancestors, we will continue to be caught off guard when evil strikes.

Sexual Evil in The Modern Church

Recently, there have been some very public revelations about horrible spiritual and sexual abuse of women by powerful Christian leaders. While it is true that not all spiritual and sexual abuse by men in authority has been focused on women, in this post I will highlight two contemporary examples of what is, at heart, a very ancient evil, one that existed in the early church. I will then examine Irenaeus of Lyon’s account of spiritual and sexual abuse that was being practiced in 2rd-century Gaul by a supposed Christian leader. This practice, this terrible crime, consists of charismatic men luring in Christian women for the sake of turning them into vessels of sexual pleasure.

Although there are other examples of men utilizing their spiritual gifts and authority to damage women, two of the most astounding examples of late have been the Roman Catholic lay minister, Jean Vanier, and the celebrated Evangelical apologist, Ravi Zacharias. Before I give a brief sketch of each, I need to make one vital distinction. This is about a particular kind of spiritual abuse that goes beyond ordinary (not excusable, but ordinary) lapses into sin. This is not about pastors who fall in their battle against pornography or even their fight against adultery. That men of good faith will struggle with sexual purity and continence, and that they will sometimes fail in maintaining purity, should not surprise Christians who takes seriously human depravity and the overwhelming need for God’s grace.

Many pastors and church leaders who fail once or twice with sexual sin can usually be restored spiritually, even if they must forego returning to their original positions of leadership. What I am addressing here, however, is something far more nefarious than the 40-year old pastor who falls for his worship leader, or vice-versa. Again, not that I am excusing that. Nevertheless, what we are dealing with here goes beyond the mundane weakness of human flesh. Those who fail to see that distinction should take note of why they cannot understand my reason for pointing it out.

Jean Vanier: Founder of L’Arche

Jean Vanier, a French Canadian Catholic and founder of L’arche, was on his way to canonization in the Roman Catholic Church before his darkest secrets were posthumously revealed in 2019. Vanier, over the course of several decades, had used his spiritual authority to abuse at least six women (fortunately, none of whom were disabled). The Catholic world was once again stunned by sexual scandal. So too was the world of Christian theology.

Theologians of high regard, like Francis Young of Cambridge, had written masterful works indebted to Vanier’s spiritual practices and his care for the “least of these,” namely the severely handicapped, through his ministry. In the preface of her book, God’s Presence, Young states “The profound influence of Jean Vanier will be frequently evident in the following pages. My thanks to such supportive friends.” Other theologians who had interviewed Vanier shortly before his death, considered him a model of how Christians should go about engaging with contemporary culture and politics.

My point here is is not to call into question these theologians or their work. Far from it. If anything, my point is merely to demonstrate how incredibly deceitful the spiritual abuser within the Church can actually be. Even the best and the brightest among us, those who study Christianity as a living, can be fooled by the charm and cunning of such men. While there is the larger question of why institutions like the Vatican “missed” Vanier’s abuse, or sundry other scandals, it is not one I will address here. Many individuals who knew Vanier and Zacharias personally were, through no fault of their own, simply fooled.

Deception: The Prerequisite for Abuse

The ability to deceive is likely the most terrifying aspect of the spiritual abuser’s power. Of course we all deceive to some degree, in that no one other than God knows the deepest thoughts and contradictory intentions of our inner lives (a good thing at that!). However, the spiritual abuser literally appears to be the kind of Christian that matches a true profile of holiness. It is only later, usually too late, that the abuser is revealed as a true devil in disguise. The passage that often comes to the mind when these spiritual evils are uncovered is 2 Corinthians 11:14, where Paul admonishes the Corinthians to be aware of Satan, who can disguise himself even as an “angel of light.” Indeed men like Vanier would fit this bill. Not only did he deceive audiences from a distance through his writing, but he also tricked those who were up close and personal. The same applies equally to Zacharias.

Here is where we must understand the true spiritual nature of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, a nature that our forefathers in the faith warned about from the very start. This kind of abuse has a legacy, one that, it could be argued, goes back as early as Simon Magus himself (Acts 8:9-25). It is a form of abuse that might even be intentionally passed down through the generations (as we will see below).

In Vanier’s case, it appears there was even a kind of training in the abuse of spiritual power by his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe,

In Becoming Human [Vanier’s] most famous book, Vanier credits Father Thomas Philippe as a key model and influence in his life. Philippe was similarly condemned for engaging in acts of sexual manipulation under the guise of facilitating ‘mystical experiences.’ At the time, Vanier denied all knowledge of Philippe’s activities. This, it now appears, is patently untrue. He was a fellow practitioner.
Jeremy M. Rios, “Vanier & Bikram: A Strange but Illuminating Comparison” in Touchstone Magazine

Vanier, as Rios points out, was known for his emphasis on “vulnerability” and “weakness,” to the point of making it the center of his spiritual message. Rios explains, “In Becoming Human, it is not difficult to see how Vanier spiritualizes, even romanticizes, weakness” (Rios, “Vanier & Bikram,” 31). Vanier’s method, perhaps learned from Phillipe, was to use the language of weakness and “entrusting oneself to another” to prey on women who desired genuine relationship and spiritual fellowship.

A most malicious tactic indeed since, as Rios points out, the trust of which Vanier speaks in his book sounds beautiful when written or spoken. However, when carried out in reality, Vanier’s proposition “Trust is a beautiful form of love” devolves into “Be vulnerable with me. I’ll trust you with my secrets. I’ll be vulnerable with you. Trust me with your secrets. Let’s remove that barrier. Let’s keep this our secret” (Rios, “Vanier & Bikram,” 31). And so it goes: the abuser now has his victim locked into a chamber of illicit “trust.”

Jean Vanier: Founder of L’Arche

Ravi Zacharias: International Minister and Apologist

Zacharias, unlike Vanier, was a powerful public orator. His charisma was not so much behind the scenes as Vanier, but out in the open. He was a veteran itinerant evangelist whose reach was global and message entirely orthodox. This orthodox message included frequent teachings on human sexuality and the biblical ethic. I consider myself one of those who was fooled by Zacharias, both from a distance and, on a few occasions, more up close and personal.

The Zacharias scandal broke in 2020, when it was revealed that Zacharias had had multiple sexual affairs of various kinds and in various places. The bulk of the evidence can be found here on his former ministry’s website. Many Evangelicals, again myself included, who had listened with deep admiration to Zacharias’ gifted messaging of the Gospel stood shocked at these discoveries. I, like many, had also turned a blind eye to earlier reports that had emerged in 2017 and 2018. Clearly these accusations couldn’t be true, or so one thought.

While there is still some debate about their validity, the evidence appears overwhelming that Zacharias practiced spiritual abuse similar to Vanier. Let me caveat this whole essay by saying again it is not my intent to accuse others who were around Zacharias or worked for him. It most certainly is not to judge or condemn his family. Just as with Vanier, I think it is plausible that many who were with Zacharias (maybe not all) were legitimately deceived. That the human heart (and mind) can be that deceitful, I have no doubt.

Using God To Abuse His Children

Like Vanier then, it appears Zacharias specifically utilized his position as a spiritual leader to influence the emotions and actions of his victims. Many of these unfortunates were South Asian women and massage therapists. In most of the cases that have been uncovered, Zacharias seems to have tried to disarm his victims by getting them to be vulnerable with him. He would assure them that what they were doing, or about to do, would be acceptable in God’s eyes.

Because this is an accusation of absolute gravity, I must quote the evidence at length:

This witness told us that their relationship began as a normal massage therapist-client relationship, and she came to think of him [Zacharias] as a father figure. He [Zacharias] elicited information about her faith and her financial situation. She reported that after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her. According to this witness, Mr. Zacharias used religious expressions to gain compliance, as she was raised to be a person of faith. She reported that he made her pray with him to thank God for the “opportunity” they both received. She said he called her his “reward” for living a life of service to God, and he referenced the “godly men” in the Bible with more than one wife. She said he warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the “millions of souls” whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.
A number of aspects of this account involved similar behavior and escalation as the accounts of other therapists who would not have known each other and who treated Mr. Zacharias in different contexts over time. The therapists he reportedly targeted for “more than a massage” discussed a similar modus operandi of building their trust and making them feel at ease. As one put it, he “wasn’t frisky initially.” Some therapists described a process that began with probing conversation and him asking about their families and backgrounds, often delving into deeply personal issues such as financial struggles or emotionally broken backgrounds. For example, one therapist reported that Mr. Zacharias spent the first half of their first massage session asking about her spiritual journey and prior abuse. This set her at ease and made her feel that he cared for her as a person before he later asked her to massage his genitals.
Miller & Martin Report on Ravi Zacharias, Feb 9, 2021.

Probing conversations into family backgrounds and personal and financial struggles, and a keen interest in the emotions of the victim, as well as a validation of those emotions, become powerful tools in the abuser’s hand.

This attentive posture and approach is something that many women long for, usually from their own husbands. And it is there that they normally should find it, not necessarily from their pastor or church leader. Women long to see this kind of vulnerability in men. It is a vulnerability that opens them (the men) up to a more emotional expression of themselves, which is easier for women to understand and embrace.

Moreover, the deep questioning into one’s experiences makes women feel known by their spouse or lover, the way we perhaps all long to be known by our God (see 1 Cor 13:12). In its right context this vulnerability is fine and good, even life giving. Outside of its right context, i.e., a faithful marriage, it can at best be tempting, and, as we have now seen, utterly destructive.

The Fallout of Spiritual, Sexual Abuse

Neither Vanier or Zacharias are here to defend themselves. Both died shortly before the full brunt of their actions became known to the public. This seems to add even more poignancy to an already tragic saga, a saga the damage of which, in my opinion, has not yet been fully grasped. It is doubly unfortunate, as it nearly eliminates the opportunity for transparency and reconciliation, let alone for legal retribution.

Further, even with the needs of the actual abuse victims foremost in mind, there is still the collateral damage that these men leave behind. The larger set of followers and friends, supporters and colleagues who have suffered because of the deep deception of Vanier and Zacharias is difficult to calculate. One can’t help but think, for example, how many faithful Catholics or devout Evangelicals named their sons “Zacharias” or “Jean” after these men. What does one say to these?

But, we should have known better. We should have known in advance that this kind of behavior is nothing new in the Church. Seeing these atrocities as part of an ongoing battle, a persistent and pervasive war, can give us two insights that might help us process these severe defeats. First, it can help us to prepare for future attacks and hopefully allow us to defend against them before the vulnerable become victims. Second, it can remind us that even amidst the most wicked of spiritual attacks like these, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is yet greater. As such, we can now look at our lesson from history.

The Ancient Evil: Marcus the Magician & The Vulnerable Women of Gaul

Many who read about the events surrounding Vanier and Zacharias will likely see them as “modern problems.” Secularists might chalk it up to the inherently inhumane, and impossible, sexual ethic of biblical Christianity. Perhaps they will find some psychological or sociological component to explain Vanier and Zacharias’ actions. The casual religious person might do the same, seeing both as typical men– men whose attempts to adhere to an overly restrictive, and antiquated, sexual ethic while desiring spiritual piety made for an unholy brew of contradictory, confusing and irreconcilable inner forces. While these analyses may have partial validity, the student of Christianity will see something far deeper than a simple psycho-social analysis can muster.

In the late 2nd century, the bishop of Lyon in Gaul, Irenaeus, tells his congregation the story of a particular gnostic Christian named Marcus. It is Marcus’ practice to lure women into his inner sanctum through nefarious and deceitful spiritual practices (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.1-7). Marcus even uses an altered version of the Lord’s Supper to trap women into serving him. He promises them the gift of prophecy if they accept his teaching and become his followers.

While Marcus preys mainly on women who are “well-bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth,” (Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.3), he clearly seeks out those who are not mature in the faith. The mature women, i.e. the “most faithful women, possessed of the fear of God,” as Irenaeus says, are on to Marcus’s stratagem and they “abhor” and “execrate” him. However, these others, who fall to his charisma, make the effort to reward him “by yielding up to him [Marcus] her person, desiring in every way to be united to him, that she may become altogether one with him” (Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.3). This is obviously the language of sexual union.

That Marcus’ spiritual efforts are focused primarily on dominating women sexually is crystalized in this explicit report by Irenaeus:

Moreover, that this Marcus compounds philters and love-potions, in order to insult the persons of some of these women, if not of all, those of them who have returned to the Church of God-a thing which frequently occurs-have acknowledged, confessing, too, that they have been defiled by him, and that they were filled with a burning passion towards him.
A sad example of this occurred in the case of a certain Asiatic, one of our deacons, who had received him (Marcus) into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a victim both in mind and body to this magician, and, for a long time, traveled about with him. At last, when, with no small difficulty, the brethren had converted her, she spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession, weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from this magician.
Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.5

While philters and love-potions may sound silly to us today, they were very real in Irenaeus’ time, and likely very powerful given that culture. “Gifts” of endearment or enchantment have always acted as supplements to the arsenal of the spiritual manipulator, and both Vanier and Zacharias gave gifts to their victims, and, at least regarding Vanier, the sexual abuse was explicitly connected to some kind of “mystical practices.

Irenaeus points out that this happened to the wife of “one of our deacons,” so clearly a woman connected to the church. So too were many of Zacharias and Vanier’s victims Christian women, connected to the church either in virtue of their professing an evangelical faith or, in Vanier’s case, women who had taken the vows of a religious order (See the full report by L’arche here).

In sum, to know that this particular type of spiritual/sexual abuse has been around since the earliest days of the church’s existence should alert us to its continued practice. God did not have the early church fathers leave their testimonies to us and allow those testimonies to be preserved only that we might have an additional guide to right doctrine. We have the resources to know how to safeguard the sheepfold with each passing generation. The sins are ancient and so is the wisdom to prevent them from occurring (or at least mitigate their effects).

Conclusion: Irenaeus’ Warning and Some Practical Guidance for the Church

Practically speaking then, it may be wise for women in the church to be persistently on guard against those pastors, elders or church leaders who appear either too sensitive to their needs and emotions, or, alternatively, who are crude in their use of sexual language or innuendo (see Ephesians 5:3-5). Counter to intuition, it may well be that it is the very dry, somewhat off-putting, doctrinaire curmudgeon of a pastor who really has your best interests in mind.

For men in positions of authority, one should start early and often to chasten oneself when, and if, praise is ever given. This should especially be the case if one receives praise from a sister in Christ, lest she be tempted to confuse your messaging of the Gospel with the Gospel itself. Also, fashion and physical appearance should not be something of concern to the pastor interested in protecting his flock from the wolves, particularly when there is something wolf-like in his own soul.

Finally, however, we can take away from Irenaeus’ ancient warning that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is even more powerful than the demonic manipulations and deceptions of men. There is redemption, even amidst such evil. However, this redemption is not for all, it is only partial. This is a sobering fact– not discouraging, but realistic. Irenaeus is clear that some women who were deceived by Marcus have come fully back to the house of God and the communion of the saints. The Gospel has won them back to Christ.

Others, however, apostatize altogether, torn somewhere between anger and shame. Still others, perhaps like many of Vanier’s and Zacharias’ victims today, remain somewhere in between. They are “neither without nor within” as the good bishop writes:

Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they have deluded many women, who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron. Some of them, indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of [attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses, and incur that which is implied in the proverb, “neither without nor within;” possessing this as the fruit from the seed of the children of knowledge [i.e., the Gnostics].
Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.7

It is worth noting that those victims who are fully restored, are restored in part through their own repentance and confession of sins. There may have been instances of abuse where some kind of victim participation was needed in order for the abuse to be realized. The contemporary charge of “victim blaming,” when one points out there might have been some degree of voluntary participation (i.e., some sin) on the part of the victim, may actually hinder the victim from total healing and full redemption in Christ. Those who recognize that some part of their own will may have been involved in the decision to be with the abuser, might fare much better than those who place all the blame entirely on him. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the abuser is not the abuser, nor that the victim is not his victim.

We must learn from those who went before us. Admittedly, I read Irenaeus’ account for the first time several months after these contemporary abuses were made public. But, now we know, even if only in part. To that end let us all pray for those victims who are “neither within or without,” because we know Jesus truly desires to have them back in His Church.

Ravi Zacharias: TMDrew, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Jean Vanier: by Kotukaran, cropped by Gabriel Sozzi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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