“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
Ravi Zacharias is one of the most well-known Christian apologists and evangelists working from the United States. He was born and grew up in India, before immigrating with his family to Canada. He has established a very successful apologetics ministry called Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) which is associated with a number of other well-known apologists, including Nabeel Qureshi, Michael Ramsden, Abdu Murray, David Bennett, and Os Guinness. Zacharias has been diagnosed with spinal cancer and a few days ago he was sent home as doctors are unable to continue treating his illness. Especially from 2017, a number of allegations of immoral behaviour have been leveled at Ravi Zacharias, including dishonesty regarding his professional qualifications and what is being called “online infidelity.” Many ( though not all) of these allegations come from Steve Baughman, who is a Youtube atheist, lawyer and banjo player. Baughman has made a case against Zacharias based on these allegations which can be found in his book, called Cover-Up in the Kingdom. His website and his Youtube channel are other sources of information about his case against Zacharias.
Ravi Zacharias Allegations in Christian Media
If it were just Baughman, I would not have addressed it. However, a number of somewhat influential Christians in the blogosphere and social media more generally seem not merely to have accepted Baughman’s conclusions but have promoted his work (people who are more influential than Baughman himself). This includes Virtue Online: The Voice for Global Orthodox Anglicanism which posted an article on Zacharias called The Duplicitous World of Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias. This post also promotes Baughman’s book and website and seems to draw heavily on them for information. Randal Rauser, who is a fairly influential Christian apologist and theologian, published an interview with Baughman on his website about Zacharias. He published several other pieces that accuse Zacharias of wrongdoing or promote Baughman’s work on the subject. Also, Julie Ann Smith, who is a Christian abuse advocate, published a lengthy guest post by Baughman on her blog, and (according to him) provided Baughman with information to make his case. Following the news recently that Zacharias was sent home with terminal cancer, Smith published another guest post by Baughman claiming that evangelicals should not “canonize” Zacharias. Christianity Today and The Christian Post have also reported on Baughman’s claims. Warren Throckmorton has posted several blog posts about Zacharias with complaints similar to Baughman’s. Throckmorton quotes John Stackhouse, a Canadian theologian, implying that Zacharias’s ministry should initiate some sort of penalty against him, even though he and RZIM have apologized for reporting his credentials incorrectly or against custom, but they haven’t admitted to deceit or dishonesty. Stackhouse asks:
“What can and should be salvaged of a ministry whose leader has admitted that he lied, repeatedly, about the basic facts of his competence to perform that ministry?”
This is typical of what we might call the “Christian outrage culture” (a weaponized form of progressive Christianity) where, like the secular one, apologies are never enough. There are always calls for the person to be fired regardless of their repentance, often by constantly calling into question the genuineness of their repentance. They didn’t say exactly what you wanted to hear, therefore it can’t be valid repentance. This is not Biblical accountability per Matthew 18:15, especially in this case where it is not even clear that a moral wrong took place.
I’m not surprised that there are unbelievers who will use every indiscretion and error as a foothold to discredit a Christian minister or evangelist, but I am surprised that there are Christians who are so quick to believe it and to cooperate with it. It is worth asking why Christians have taken these claims seriously. After all, one does not take seriously claims by every unbeliever who believes that an evangelist is dishonest ( I’m sure there are many of those), or every person who has some grievance or personal dispute with a prominent Christian minister. As a result, this post is addressed primarily to Christians who know of these allegations. I will be appealing to Christian morality and the Bible, but the rest should be accessible to unbelievers as well.
The Sin of Partiality and Christian Outrage Culture
“You must not pervert justice; you must not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich; you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”
There are some people who think Zacharias is a scoundrel who will dismiss me as a star-struck fanboy trying to defend his idol. I’ve had this website on apologetics and other topics for about a year and a half and I don’t remember ever quoting Zacharias here. While I’ve heard him speak on Youtube clips a couple of times and have liked what I heard, I haven’t really followed his work. My concern in writing this is because I dislike the culture of outrage and scandal, which I’ve written about a couple of times. I’m especially concerned about the fact that the modus operandi of the secular outrage culture has infected the evangelical world, a phenomenon that seems have begun with the attacks on Mark Driscoll and the subsequent destruction of Mars Hill Church. I don’t think what happened there was the work of God. I believe that accusations are not enough, that people should be given the benefit of the doubt unless it is well established that they’ve done wrong, and that the fact that people are rich and powerful doesn’t justify applying standards to them that you wouldn’t apply to yourself. I also think there should be some clear thinking about which sins should be held publicly accountable ( or “exposed”) and should result in someone facing social and professional repercussions (with the concurrent recognition that we are all sinners and with the consideration of scriptures like Colossians 3:13 and John 8:7). Be careful how you answer this question, because depending how you do, it will necessitate that you must expose all your own sins to the public and should face repercussions for them regardless of whether you’ve repented for them or not. Also, the Christian outrage culture is often clearly motivated by feminist ideology, that holds men, but not women, accountable for adultery and unchastity. Apart from that, its concerns often seem to coincide with whatever wrong is most seriously regarded in the secular world.
So this isn’t just about Ravi Zacharias. This is about setting bad precedents that will cause trouble and strife in the future, a precedent that calls evil suspicions fact and that makes little to no allowance for the faults of our leaders and each other. Also, it mars the legacy of a life and ministry that was spent preaching the gospel, a legacy which is larger that Zacharias or his sins. Given that he is a human being, I have no illusions about the fact that he is sinful. I’m sure every minister I’ve heard speak has some black spots, as I do, and as every other person has. Creating a culture where we need to “expose” any and every sin and then hound these people in social media posses, is not biblical accountability. This spirit and attitude comes from the world and it must challenged.
I do want to ask a few questions of these Christians who have been so quick to accuse Zacharias of wrong. As we will see, most of the errors here are ambiguous and they can plausibly be interpreted in both favourable and unfavourable ways. It is right to point the errors out and to say that it should be changed, even just for the sake of courtesy and to avoid giving offense or the appearance of wrongdoing. But these critics have gone much further than just rebuke. They have implied that there should be professional consequences against him. Why do they not give the benefit of the doubt as they presumably would want others to do to them? Do they believe it makes them righteous to be quick to accuse a member of their own “tribe”? Do they think it shows their integrity? There is a tendency in some Christian circles, to be very compassionate to unbelievers but very harsh with believers. This is not right and it exemplifies what we might call the sin of Christian sycophancy or being unequally yolked with unbelievers. Are we afraid that unbelievers will not think well of our integrity? If that fear guides our actions toward fellow Christians, then we are in the wrong. If we are eager for the approval of unbelievers, or act out of fear of their disapproval, we will not be effective Christians and we can be sure that God does not approve of it.
There can also sometimes be the impulse to say that because someone is powerful and successful, they should be held to a higher standard than you would hold yourself to. This is hypocritical and it is the sin of partiality. You must apply your standard of accountability consistently, to the poor and the rich, to conservatives and to liberals, to unbelievers and Christians, to women and to men, the powerful and the powerless, to the celebrity and the average joe. With God there is no partiality, and you will be held accountable to the standard that you hold others to. If a poor man steals, God sees and holds it accountable. If the rich man steals, God sees and holds it accountable. If the man commits adultery, God sees and punishes it. If the woman commits adultery, God sees and punishes it. It is not punished by public opinion and social media posses, dispensing vigilante justice through invective and shunning. Public opinion is not the arena of moral justice. Only God can dispense moral justice (Deut 32:35). We do not know what people deserve in a moral sense. Moreover, the local church is the primary locus of community accountability, not social media.
If you make exceptions for yourself, or your friends, where you have severely condemned others, there is a God who sees you doing this. If you do this often, it is not merely the sin of partiality, but the sin of hypocrisy and moral pretension. Christianity knows nothing of the teaching that someone’s wealth and success makes them an appropriate target for partial and special condemnation, and it knows nothing of the teaching that a man’s poverty and powerlessness excuses his immorality. This is Marxism, not Christianity. Many biblical heroes ( like Abraham and especially Job) were rich and powerful men. I say this, because one often finds this “Robin Hood” narrative in Christian outrage culture that seeks to tear down the powerful as much because they are powerful as the fact that they have done wrong. You will often find the fact that they are powerful is part of the justification for their condemnation and is supposed to make their wrongdoing exponentially worse. People are responsible only for what they did, not for everything they caused. If we were responsible for every single thing our actions caused, every causal train set off by our actions, our responsibility would never end. There would be no limit to what we could be blamed for.
What is Dishonesty And What is Required to Prove it?
Given that we are going to discuss whether Zacharias has been dishonest, it is useful to discuss the definition of dishonesty and what evidence we would need to prove dishonesty. Making a dishonest statement is making a statement you know to be false. Thus, making a dishonest statement is not the same as making a false statement, because people can make false statements without believing them to be false. This is important, because when trying to prove dishonesty, it is not enough to show that someone has made an error or said something false. You have to show that they probably knew it was an error when they said it. You might say that if it is something about yourself ( such as your professional history) is inaccurate, then you must be dishonest. But this is not the case. We frequently misremember things about ourselves, especially small details about things that happened long ago. We are also careless and we don’t pay attention, especially when we are speaking loosely and informally ( as Zacharias does in many of the cases we will look at). When what someone has said is made up, that is the best evidence of dishonesty. However, if there is a good deal of truth underlying the statement made, and a detail here and there is incorrect, the case of dishonesty is weak, as the errors can much more plausibly be explained as carelessness and lapses in memory. Making mistakes like these are not unusual. It is the norm, especially when speaking informally and especially when the person making the mistakes is not a native English-speaker.
There is a level of indeterminacy when it comes to obedience to a rule, whether moral or legal, and this is especially the case with a virtue like honesty. Anybody who has ever taken seriously a set of written rules ( such as the Bible) knows this well. That is why you can have rules to clarify those rules, and yet more rules to clarify those ones, and still there is vagueness, because every additional rule brings its own shades of gray. Those rules are subject to interpretation, which can be difficult, because it’s not always clear how each rule applies to each situation. That’s why there are whole schools of interpretation attempting to make sense of the law ( and of the Bible, for that matter).
Let’s take honesty as an example. I tell you I’ve read a book and I’m speaking informally in a conversation. I have read most of the book except for the last 10 pages. Is this dishonest? What if I left out the last 5 pages? What if only the final page? What if I skipped a page or a paragraph here and there? Would that make it dishonesty to say that I’ve read the book?
Another example. I tell you I worked for a company ( let’s call it Walnut Inc.) in an interview for a job. Later you find out that I did work for Walnut and had a position there but I was on the payroll of an employment agency, so I was technically employed by the employment agency. They paid me. Without knowing anything about my intentions or motivations, did I lie?
Another one. Let’s say you attended church on Sunday morning. Before going home, you stopped at a store. Informally, you say to someone when you get home “I just came from church.” Is that dishonest? You did come from the church, but most recently you came from the store. So perhaps it is more correct to say you came from the store? What if it was in your interest to say that you came from the church and not from the store. Is it dishonest then? But if it isn’t dishonest in the first case, why would it be dishonesty in the second case, with a vested interest added? If the statement is true in the one case, it doesn’t become false just because a vested interest is added and you need a false statement before you have a dishonest statement.
Indeterminacy problems combined with the fact of human error, along with the fact that dishonesty is more than just a false statement, but a deliberately false statement, means we should be slow to accuse people of dishonesty. These indeterminacy problems are important because many of the cases of alleged dishonesty by Zacharias are very much like the examples above.
Vested Interest Plus Mistake Equals Dishonesty?
It is also not enough to say that an error that benefits you must be a lie. In all three of the examples I gave above, it can be construed as in your interest for your reporting to be off a little. Even when the error or inaccuracy does benefit you, that does not imply it is dishonest. Also, it is very often that we speak and write about things that are relevant to us in some way. To find some reason to believe that we could be motivated to lie about it is not hard, because a lot of what we speak about does concern us and is related in some way to our self-interest. It is rare that we want to speak about things that are of complete indifference to us. Identifying some vested interest or motive, and then accusing people of making “errors” specifically to benefit themselves, is not hard. For example, Steve Baughman is an atheist and he believes that the sins of Christians are evidence against Christianity. He says:
“I consider it fair fighting to suggest that if Christianity were true, Christians would be different.”[i]
Is that a vested interest in finding sins in evangelists and Christian apologists? Sure seems like it. Does that mean that any mistake he makes that overstates or exaggerates his case against Zacharias is necessarily dishonest? No, clearly not. So does any mistake Zacharias makes that he has a vested interest to make, mean that he is dishonest? No. Remember the quote at the beginning of the article and consider throughout whether the “measure” applied to Zacharias is really fair.
The uncharitable standard that Warren Throckmorton, John Stackhouse, Randal Rauser, Baughman and others have applied to Zacharias would probably render anyone including themselves dishonest. They have not applied a just measure.
Guilty until Proven Innocent
“Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.”
1 Timothy 5:19
We also need to avoid the idea that “wherever there’s smoke there’s fire” which amounts to the claim that whenever someone is accused of wrong things, you must assume they are guilty or that they deserve it in some way. Perhaps you will even respond like the friends of Job, claiming that if people decided to target them, using small indiscretions against them, then this must be God’s judgment against them. An accusation is just accusation. It is quite easy to make one, relatively risk-free (it’s unlikely that you will be sued for defamation, especially in the US where the criteria for that tort is very high). And there are many motivations people could have to make them, apart from the fact that they are true, especially against a public figure, and especially against a public figure who champions something controversial. An accusation, without corroboration, should not be enough to damage someone’s reputation. In that case you must give the person the benefit of the doubt.
I have often heard people saying that the “innocent until proven guilty” principle should not be applied in non-legal contexts. But giving people the benefit of the doubt unless and until it has been well established that they are guilty is a good principle anywhere. Applying the benefit of the doubt, and not believing someone’s guilty based on suspicions is a good principle to apply in your own relationships. A lot of interpersonal conflict can be explained by people who believe their suspicions about someone immediately, and assigns sinister motivations based on any action that disadvantaged them in some way. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a good legal principle because it is first a good fairness principle in general. If there is doubt you must give the benefit of the doubt and there is definitely doubt in the cases that we will look at ( a whole lot of it). You would like people to give you the benefit of the doubt when the mistakes you make come to light, and not to assume you did it with some malicious or sinister motive, and so you must do the same.
English is Likely not Ravi Zacharias’s Native Language
Ravi Zacharias was born and grew up in India and only moved to Canada when he was 19 or 20. Even though he is obviously fluent and eloquent in English, he does speak with an Indian accent and his native language is likely not English. I haven’t been able to find any explicit reference to his native language and when exactly he learnt English, but his autobiography refers to him speaking Indian languages and struggling with English.
For example, he says that he learnt to speak some Tamil, Hindi and English as a boy.[ii] Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us which he learnt to speak first and which he spoke with his family. He does say the following, which may suggest that his native language is an Indian language:
“Being born in the South and raised in the North has presented unique challenges. My name and coloring are southern, but my language and accent are northern.”[iii]
This seems to suggest that the language he identifies with himself is native to Northern India. Later on, he again says that “my language is northern…”[iv]
Most significantly for our purposes, he reports struggling with English when he first came to Canada, because people couldn’t understand him:
“I also got quite frustrated because my English was difficult for some people to understand. I spoke very rapidly, with a strong Indian accent, so I had to force myself to slow down and enunciate every syllable. But that’s where my beloved English authors helped me. I found that C.S. Lewis was handy for much more than practical theology; as I read more of his works, my concentration on his command of language began to improve my own fledgling efforts.”[v]
It’s safe to say that his native language and the language he spoke with his family was not English. What’s more, he learnt to speak English in a country where it is not the language of instruction. You might say that Zacharias has spoken and written in English for a long time and so could not still make language-related mistakes. The types of mistakes that are required to explain the cases of alleged dishonesty aren’t grammatical or vocabulary mistakes, but mistakes in idiom, ways in which native English speakers refer to things.
This is not implausible at all when you consider that he still struggled somewhat with English, and making himself comprehensible to native Canadians, when he was already an adult (19 -20). When particular phrases are taken to have particular meanings, this can often be missed. Non-native English speakers will use the same phrases or words with the technically correct meanings. That is, you can justify that use, because the words do have that meaning, but it still sounds incorrect to a native English speaker, because it is not the ordinary way or the context for using those words and phrases. Idiom and colloquialism are recognized for being especially difficult for non-native speakers to learn about a new language. And there are some examples of this in Zacharias’s speaking and writing. For example, in a case I first noticed while reading an article by Steve Baughman, Zacharias refers to a close male friend of his as a “soul mate.”[vi] This is technically correct. It can refer to a close friend, but it normally refers to a romantic partner. Also, he speaks in his autobiography about being addressed by someone with a “term of reverence.”[vii] I’m sure you can justify saying it like this, and people will know what he means, but the usual phrase is “term of respect.”
Zacharias has been accused of dishonesty based on a few inaccuracies in reporting of his qualifications, both in informal and more formal contexts. In every case of alleged dishonesty there is a good deal of truth to what is being said. The claim of dishonesty rests mostly on the fact that Zacharias incorrectly labels or reports it or that some detail in an otherwise real degrees, positions and awards, is inaccurate. There is no case of made-up qualifications in Baughman’s most promoted work. (However, Baughman has more recently made the allegation that he reported a BA at the University of New Delhi, but actually dropped out after one year. I have not thoroughly investigated this one yet and it would be difficult to do so without getting into contact with the people at SES or RZIM.) As we’ve pointed out already, it is not enough to prove error in order to prove dishonesty. You need to have more than a discrepancy in order to prove dishonesty. And to say something like, “I can’t see any explanation of this except dishonesty”, is not an argument. Most of the errors can be just as plausibly, arguably much more plausibly, be explained as small mistakes, or as different conventions in the use of certain words, and by appeal to the fact Zacharias speaks English as a second language, and was raised in a different country where he also learnt to speak English. Would it be just for someone who identified some discrepancies in your resume to immediately assume that you were being deliberately deceptive, especially if you are not a native English speaker? If you have had a public career for decades with loads and loads of talks, interviews, short bios, and representations of yourself all over the place ( not all created by you) and people noticed some discrepancies in all this content, do you think it would be fair to immediately think that person is dishonest? No, there needs to be something more. In some of these cases, I think Zacharias is trying to put his qualifications in the most favourable light possible, which is not necessarily dishonest. As we’ve seen, it is not always clear what is the correct way to report something and it seems to be assumed by the critics that putting your qualifications in the most unfavourable light is most honest (which is not true).
It is also worth pointing out that many of these errors are easily discoverable often from Zacharias’s own materials. A true liar, someone who really has an intent to deceive, would not lie about things that are so easily discoverable. The fact that it is/was easy to check gives evidence that these are not cases of dishonesty and the fact that they can be checked against his own resources is evidence against the claim that it was even misrepresentation, never mind dishonesty.
To summarize then, the question that I’m going to consider is not whether it was a problem to report his credentials in the way he did. The question is whether the way he reported them is good evidence of dishonesty. Given that
- The mistakes are small (mislabeling otherwise real qualifications);
- Indeterminacy problems in determining dishonesty;
- Human error such as mistakes in memory and some carelessness, especially when speaking informally or ad lib;
- Zacharias is a non-native English speaker who only came to North America at 19 or 20 and learnt English in India;
I think the most plausible explanation of all of these cases is not dishonesty. The critics of Zacharias take very little notice of the difference between a false statement and a dishonest statement and don’t seem to recognize that there is an onus on them to make the logical or evidential connection from the one to the other.
So now, with a number of false assumptions and wrong attitudes out of the way, let’s get to work on the actual cases of alleged dishonesty.
“Professor at Oxford”, “Senior Research Fellow” and “Official Lecturer”
Firstly, Zacharias is accused of being dishonest for calling himself a “professor at Oxford” while speaking in talks or interviews, and for saying he was an “official lecturer” and “senior research fellow” in bios. The contention is that he mislabeled a real position he had at Wycliffe Hall, a permanent private hall of the University of Oxford. Baughman confirms that Zacharias was an Honorary Senior Teaching Fellow at Wycliffe Hall. The specific phrase “professor at Oxford” did not appear on his bios as far as I can tell, but he said he was a professor at Oxford in his talks and in his interviews. Baughman contends that Zacharias said that he was a “Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University” and in an old bio that he was “a Visiting Professor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University in Oxford, England.”
I haven’t found evidence that he claimed in a written bio to be a “senior research fellow at Oxford” but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument. I did see a picture on Warren Throckmorton’s blog saying that he was a “senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University”. Ironically, if he claimed to be visiting professor or senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, then this gives evidence against the claim that he illicitly tried to represent himself as employed directly with Oxford and not with Wycliffe.
The way in which Zacharias uses “official lecturer” and “professor” and “research fellow” interchangeably, shows that he does not believe these to be official titles, but descriptions of his role. Also, to expect someone to report their qualifications with pitch perfect formal accuracy in an interview or a talk is unreasonable. It is natural to use short hand references.
According to Cherwell, the University of Oxford student newspaper, the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics ( OCCA) was jointly established by Wycliffe Hall ( a permanent private hall of the University) and RZIM ( Ravi Zacharias International Ministries). Wycliffe and the OCCA has since separated and the OCCA is now independent, because complaints were brought that their association with Wycliffe compromised the University’s commitment to “equality and diversity”, and the fact that OCCA admissions weren’t clearly differentiated from admissions to the University. As mentioned, it is uncontroversial that Zacharias held an Honorary Senior Teaching Fellow position at Wycliffe Hall until December 2015. This is is confirmed in Zacharias’s current CV. Baughman has an email from Wycliffe confirming this fact and Warren Throckmorton produces this email on his blog. You can see it in this blog post. Ironically, the person who wrote this email to Baughman also omitted the “honorary” in Zacharias’s position. Perhaps he was being dishonest too?
“And to say you are a ‘professor at Oxford’ while referring to Cambridge University (“my studies at Cambridge”) clearly implies that you are on the staff of the university—not on the staff of the apologetics institute you yourself founded in the city of Oxford, or a lecturer at an affiliated theological college, or anything else.”
I’m not really sure what he means with the first part of the quote. The claim about Oxford is not referring to his studies in Ridley Hall, Cambridge ( which we will look at later), but to his position at Wycliffe Hall. However, Stackhouse’s reference to the “apologetics institute” may imply that Zacharias only had a position with the OCCA. This is false. According to the email we have from Wycliffe to Steve Baughman referenced earlier, the position that Zacharias had really was with Wycliffe and it wasn’t ( or wasn’t just) with the OCCA. This is still in Zacharias’s CV as well.
This is important, because Baughman will also make claims that Zacharias was not on the payroll of Oxford or Wycliffe or that he didn’t hold a “formal teaching position” at Wycliffe. If it’s established that he held an honorary senior teaching fellow position at Wycliffe, then it’s irrelevant whether or not he was on their payroll. So is Zacharias’s claims true or not, taking into account the fact that he seemed to use “professor”, “lecturer” and “teaching fellow” interchangeably? Let’s evaluate each term in the phrase “professor of Oxford”. Whether he could have believed himself a professor at Oxford depends on whether Wycliffe Hall is part of Oxford University, which Baughman and Throckmorton seem to deny. So let’s address that first.
Baughman claimed on his website:
“I have also confirmed that RZ was instead an HONORARY Senior Research Fellow at a place called Wycliffe Hall, a religious training school that is an “affiliated institution” of the University, but not one of the colleges that comprises Oxford University.”
Similarly, Warren Throckmorton says that Zacharias did spend time at Wycliffe Hall “a ministry preparation school which has an affiliation with Oxford”, seeming to imply that it is not really part of Oxford but only affiliated.
In one of his videos, Baughman seems to present evidence for this claim from the student handbook. I couldn’t find his reference for this student handbook, but the screenshot in his video appears to be from the 2014/15 student handbook. I’ve highlighted the relevant text here:
The claim on Baughman’s website may suggest that Oxford University is only made of up of colleges. By saying that it is colleges that comprise Oxford university, this may suggest that nothing else comprises Oxford University. But the 2014/15 handbook does not say that. In addition, all the student handbooks after the 2014/15 handbook do not describe the permanent private halls’ relationship to the University in that way. The subsequent handbooks only say “there are also six permanent private halls” while staying silent on what their relationship to the University is. So it just introduces the permanent private halls by saying they are “there” and they aren’t designated as “affiliated institutions”, and therefore seem rather to present them implicitly as part of the University. See below for a picture of the same section in the 2015/16 handbook:
The same is true of all the subsequent student handbooks.
The Church of England review of Wycliffe Hall ( from May 2015), starts with the following:
“Wycliffe Hall(WH) has been a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford since 1997. The operation of the PPHs is overseen by the PPH Supervisory Committee of the University.”
So here the PPHs are presented as being under the authority of the University, because they are overseen by it. This is not the relationship of an affiliated institution. An affiliated institution would govern itself and would not be overseen by its affiliated institutions. So is it an affiliated institution as it says in the 2014/15 yearbook or is it under the authority of Oxford University as it says here? So when considering whether Wycliffe is part of Oxford University it becomes a bit of a definitional problem, because the University of Oxford as a whole consists of “independent” and “self-governing” Colleges and the University itself is just a federal system of smaller institutions. So how independent or how connected do the colleges and the PPHs need to be in order to qualify as “part” of the University or not? That seems largely arbitrary. How bald does the bald man have to be to qualify as bald?
But not only this, everywhere apart of the 2014/15 student handbook, including Wycliffe Hall’s website, Oxford University’s website section on the Colleges, the Church of England report just considered, and the press, always seem to present Wycliffe as part of Oxford University. The University of Oxford does seem to explicitly represent the permanent private halls (of which Wycliffe is one) as Oxford Colleges in the “Colleges” section of their website and includes them in the A-Z directory of Oxford Colleges. See the below images:
“The Hall became a Permanent Private Hall in 1996 within the University of Oxford in recognition of its established reputation as a centre of high-quality education.
As a result, Wycliffe is an integral part of the University and all our students are enrolled on a wide variety of University degrees and courses.”
So here Wycliffe claims that they are “within” the University of Oxford as a permanent private hall and that they form an “integral part” of Oxford University. In addition, all applications for study at Wycliffe Hall go through the University of Oxford (except for “ordinands and CTS students”).
A Wycliffe Hall Prospectus says the following:
“Today, the University consists of 38 independent colleges, and 6 permanent private halls. Wycliffe is one of these permanent private halls.”
The claim here is clearly that Wycliffe is one of the institutions which comprise Oxford University. It is clear that the people at Wycliffe Hall believe themselves to be part of the University of Oxford.
When Wycliffe Hall is mentioned in the press, it is always with a suggestion that it is part of Oxford University. It will typically say “Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University” or Wycliffe Hall, a permanent private hall of Oxford University” or something like that.
Also, Wycliffe Hall’s website is located on Oxford University’s website home and is represented as being a part of Oxford even in the search results when its name is searched.
So in almost every place where Wycliffe is mentioned, including Wycliffe’s own website and Oxford’s brief explanation of the college system on their website, the Church of England report, press releases that mention Wycliffe, and the recent student handbooks, it is represented as being part of the University of Oxford. Saying that Wycliffe Hall is part of the University of Oxford, even in 2014, does not seem unreasonable at all. And to believe that you can declare your association with Oxford based on employment at a constituent part of Oxford seems like a very natural thing to believe given how Wycliffe is represented, even if it is not technically correct. The case for dishonesty here is very weak.
So Zacharias held a position at Wycliffe Hall until December 2015 according to an email that Baughman has, referenced earlier. Does that mean we should judge Zacharias’s claim by the 2014/15 handbook, which says that Wycliffe is an “affiliated institution” or do we judge it by the 2015/16 handbook which does not say it is an affiliated institution, but seems to present it as part of the university? Zacharias was there partly during the 2015/16 academic year. Remember that dishonesty is a claim about a person’s state of mind, by what they believed to be the case when they said it. Should we judge him then by what is claimed in a student handbook that he probably didn’t read or see, or should we judge him by the countless instances where Wycliffe is represented as part of Oxford University, on official websites and the press, including on Wycliffe own website and materials? The answer to that is clear. Warren Throckmorton appeals to the same email that Baughman got from Wycliffe which says that a position with Wycliffe does not automatically give one a position with Oxford. I don’t know why this is treated as significant. Do we have reason to believe that Zacharias saw this email before he made his claims about his association with Oxford? Do we have evidence that he did verify his position with a Wycliffe admin before making his claim? Once again, dishonesty is a claim about someone’s state of mind, not about what is technically true. Again, I would say that given how the relationship portrayed everywhere, I don’t think this is any significant evidence at all in favour of the idea that he was being dishonest. As usual, the critics here seem to take very little notice of the difference between a false statement and a dishonest statement and seem to treat them as identical. ( I hope they are ready for that measure to be applied to them by others).
If it is the case that Oxford University is unclear or even a little inconsistent about the relationship between itself and the PPHs, there is clearly going to be confusion about what status the teaching fellows at the PPHs have with the University, and whether they can present themselves as having an association with the University. If we don’t know whether PPHs are part of Oxford, we by implication do not know what relationship the people in the PPHs have with the University. The point is that if it’s unclear, the University administration can change their minds at the drop of a hat without needing to face issues. I would not blame anyone who mislabels their association with Oxford University based on involvement with a PPH, given how unclear that relationship is. Also, it is clear that Wycliffe got into hot water with Oxford University about its association with RZIM and Zacharias, so the Hall would want to distance itself from Zacharias. See how the responder in the email says that honorary positions “are under review”. This tacitly suggests that there was something wrong with how it was done before and this is being said specifically in discussing Zacharias’s position with Wycliffe. This seems like an attempt at damage control. I think one should take that into account in determining whether Zacharias said something false and especially when determining if he lied. Getting emails from people there long after the fact is not good evidence of his dishonesty or even that he said something false.
So is it plausible to believe that Zacharias believed himself to have a position with Oxford based on his position with Wycliffe? Very plausible, much more plausible than the idea that he was being deliberately deceptive.
The second concern is that Zacharias called himself a “professor” at Oxford rather than just a lecturer. Critics take this to mean that he was claiming to be a full professor, so they are interpreting him as reporting an official title in places where he is speaking in talks or interviews. As we’ve already covered, the way that he uses “professor”, “lecturer” and “teaching fellow” interchangeably in his speaking shows that he is speaking loosely and does not believe these to be official titles. When I was at university I often addressed all my instructors as “professor” even those that did not have a PhD or were not full professors, believing as I did that “professor” was anybody who taught at an institution of post-secondary education. This is absolutely correct and it is one of the ways the word is used. That is one of the definitions of “professor”, especially in more informal contexts. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of a professor is “a teacher at a university, college, or sometimes secondary school.”
I do not find it strange at all that Zacharias would use the word this way, because I often use it that way myself, to refer to any teacher at a university-level. So this is not a lie, because his statement here that he was a “professor” is not even incorrect. Surely, it must be false first because it can be lie? Would Baughman and Stackhouse accuse me of dishonesty if I said that “one of my professors” at a university said this and that, and it is subsequently discovered that this instructor is not a full professor and does not even have a PhD? By the standard that they held Zacharias to, it seems like they would. Perhaps I called my instructor a professor to hide the mediocrity of my education? Even if they claim that he did not use “professor” word here rightly, it is still very weak evidence of dishonesty. All that you can claim is that he used a word with multiple meanings with the wrong meaning given the context ( at most). That is not a surprising error for anyone to make especially for a non-native English speaker. As I’ve already said, I don’t think it is even an error. The very fact that I have to argue about the different meanings of a single word shows how tenuous this accusation is. This is incredibly weak as evidence of dishonesty.
Since he was listed as a honorary teaching fellow and did lecture at Wycliffe Hall while a honorary teaching fellow there, I’m not sure what the problem is with calling himself an “official lecturer”? We’ve established that he’s speaking loosely and is using various words to refer to a teacher at a post-secondary level. He is describing his activity in his position there. Is a professor emeritus an “official” professor? Yes in a sense. No in a different sense. Yes because he really is a professor and really holds that title with the university. No because he doesn’t teach classes anymore. Would it be wrong for a professor emeritus to call himself an “official professor”?
Baughman claims on his website:
“Here is an explosive admission of deceit by RZ. In a February 2013 interview with a Christian blog he said “If I’m in an academic forum, then the fact that I’m a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall Oxford University, that’s a credential with which I work in the academy.” Apologetics315 interview (my emphasis.)
Here RZ admits to deceit; he presents an honorary credential as an academic one in an academic forum.”
This is not an admission of deceit. An admission of deceit is to admit to dishonesty. Also, he is speaking in an interview here. It is alleged by Baughman that this implies that he is specifically meaning to claim that this is an academic and not an honorary position. It is possible to have an honorary position and yet to be involved in that academic institution ( which is what he seems to mean by “academy” here). The honorary position title is the title of the position he had at the academic institution where he lectured. When he lectures at this institution, as an honorary teaching fellow or not honorary, it is still an academic forum. He does lecture with that credential in an academic forum. I’m not sure why Baughman thinks this so clearly implies that he is specifically meaning to claim that it is not honorary. The inference is unreasonable, nor has he shown that Zacharias would have believed that inference, which is required for dishonesty.
So there is more than enough doubt here for me to justify giving the benefit of the doubt and to not assume that Zacharias was being dishonest in his claims about his position with Wycliffe. Do I think given the above that Zacharias could have thought himself a professor at Oxford, given that Wycliffe is everywhere ( except the 2014/15 handbook) presented as part of Oxford University, or the multiple and legitimate usages of the word “professor”? Yes absolutely. This is especially the case if he is sometimes blind to idiomatic usages as a non-native English speaker. I think the case that he was dishonest here is extremely weak.
“Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University” ,“Cambridge Educated” “My Professor in Quantum Physics”
The claim that Zacharias was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University purportedly appears widely in his promotional materials and Throckmorton highlights a place in his book, Can Man Live Without God, that repeats the claim. It is uncontroversial that Zacharias was a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge which is a theological college with an affiliation to the University of Cambridge.
Let’s first consider an RZIM response to this issue, which was made public by Steve Baughman. The letter itself was written to Michael Anthony. I have quoted the portion of the letter that is relevant here. This can also be found on Baughman’s website.
“Additionally, while he was registered at Ridley Hall, which was at that time affiliated with Cambridge University, all of Ravi Zacharias’s courses were at the Cambridge University colleges and with University professors, under the supervision of Jeremy Begbie. Many of the students at Ridley Hall, as is the case with many of the private halls at both Cambridge and Oxford, take course work that is accredited through the University and under university faculty. So the statement that he was a visiting scholar at the university is a totally accurate statement. Ridley Hall is where he was registered. All courses were at various colleges of the university.”
The letter also quotes Professor Jeremy Begbie confirming what Zacharias studied:
“I can confirm that Ravi Zacharias was a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall Cambridge in 1990, under my supervision. His courses included guided research with Dr. Begbie, lectures from resident and visiting instructors in the Romantic writers, lectures at the University’s Divinity School from Don Cupitt, additional courses in quantum physics with Dr. John Polkinghorne, and studies in world religions with Dr. Julius Lipner and others.”
This concerns a number of relevant facts concerning the claims of dishonesty:
- RZIM and Jeremy Begbie say that Zacharias did attend courses at the University of Cambridge as part of his visiting scholar stint at Ridley Hall.
- Begbie confirms that Zacharias did take courses in quantum physics under John Polkinghorne.
- Ridley Hall is a theological college that is affiliated with, though not a part of, the University of Cambridge. ( We will look at this affiliation in more detail later).
Baughman attaches a great deal of significance to correspondence he’s had with people at the University of Cambridge long after Zacharias was there. Zacharias was there in 1990, which means that about two and a half decades had passed before Baughman started contacting them to verify Zacharias’s stay there. These people that Baughman speak to just seem to confirm standard procedure and policy to him and how that would have applied to Zacharias. There are administrative changes especially after long periods that are not necessarily well documented. Also, universities do not always follow their own policies. The value of these emails as evidence even for misrepresentation, let alone dishonesty, is weak.
The Affiliation between Ridley Hall and Cambridge University
Unlike Wycliffe Hall, which is with very little inconsistency represented as part of Oxford University, Cambridge and Ridley are not represented in the same way. The Cambridge University website does not say that Ridley is one of its colleges and Ridley Hall’s website does not claim it either. Also, mentions of Ridley in the media do not as often associate it with the University of Cambridge.
However, on going through this myself, I found that there is a good deal of ambiguity about the nature of Ridley’s relationship to the University of Cambridge. For example, Ridley Hall is under the Cambridge University website home. Cambridge University’s website address is
Ridley Hall’s website address is
In other words, it is connected to the Cambridge University website home in the same way that Oxford colleges’ websites are connected to the Oxford University website home. In addition, the search results sometimes seem to represent Ridley Hall as part of the University of Cambridge.
Also, it is true that Ridley Hall is affiliated with the University of Cambridge through the Cambridge Theological Federation. It is true that Ridley Hall students take University of Cambridge courses ( as Zacharias did ) and some Ridley Hall students are matriculated through the University of Cambridge, since Ridley Hall is not capable of matriculating students on their own. I’m not sure why, if Ridley Hall is not capable of matriculating students, it is referred to as an “independent theological college”. Wouldn’t the fact that they are not able to matriculate students mean precisely that they are not independent? The credentials for all the degree programs at Ridley Hall are awarded by the University of Cambridge or the University of Durham. The courses taken by students toward these degrees are offered through a mixture of institutions in the Cambridge Theological Federation ( which includes Ridley Hall staff). For example, information on the Bachelor of Theology at Ridley gives us the following page:
In other words, the Bachelor of Theology degree at Ridley Hall is awarded by Cambridge University and the courses of the degree are offered by the institutions of the Cambridge Theological Federation. So do students say they studied at Ridley Hall or at the University of Cambridge? Both? A recent profile of an episcopal priest who studied at Ridley Hall, said that he took a program at “Ridley Hall, Cambridge University.” The same is true for all the degree programs at Ridley Hall. The actual credentials are awarded by either the University of Cambridge or the University of Durham:
In order to put this in perspective, say I tell you I studied for a short while at the University of Durham, when I actually did a short certificate program through Ridley Hall. Would you say I was being dishonest? Probably not. The only reason Zacharias is being suspected of dishonesty here is because of the prestige surrounding the University of Cambridge, and the critics need therefore to assign a good of deal of vainglorious motives to him in order to get the charge of dishonesty on strong footing. So the accusation of dishonesty rests on a suspicion of wrong motives, not really on any objective feature of his representation of this qualification.
Given all of this, it would be easy for someone to assume that the relationship between Ridley Hall and the University of Cambridge is the same as the relationship between the Oxford Colleges and Oxford University, especially if they only spent two to three months there and were not really familiar with how things worked. This is especially the case if they did take University of Cambridge courses through Ridley Hall as was confirmed by RZIM and Begbie. The actual representation can plausibly be explained as an understandable confusion about the relationship between these institutions ( I still don’t entirely understand it) along with some carelessness (or not verifying what has been assumed). So, there is enough doubt here for me ( and for you) to justify giving the benefit of the doubt and not to assume that Zacharias is guilty of dishonesty. Remember, this is not a claim about what is true or not, after have considered in detail the relationship between Ridley Hall and Cambridge. This is a claim about what Zacharias could plausibly have believed given his 3-month long stay at Ridley Hall, when we don’t know that he did any research on the relationship between the two institutions.
We have already established, and Baughman confirms, that Zacharias did attend courses at the University of Cambridge while a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall, but was not enrolled at the University of Cambridge. Disregarding the system at Ridley is going to misrepresent the nature of the education.
If Zacharias did have a guided study that included courses at the University of Cambridge, then this is “education.” The critics here have to insist on a very narrow definition of “educated” and that he specifically intended to mean that he had a degree from Cambridge. That insistence doesn’t work well when you’re trying to accuse someone of dishonesty, given that you have to give good reason to think that he believed that narrow definition while claiming what he did. If I have a few courses without graduation from a university, I can legitimately say that I was educated at that university. The claim is not even clearly false, so it cannot be dishonest. Also, if Zacharias were trying to present himself as having a degree from the University of Cambridge, as “Cambridge educated” might lead one to believe, he would have detailed this as part of his CV and other materials, and would have explicitly made the claim to a degree. But he never does so. Once again, the claim must be that Zacharias used a word with multiple legitimate usages in a way that is not quite right or not what you expected ( which is not surprising for a non-native English speaker). Again, the case for dishonesty here is weak. It only becomes plausible if you uncharitably assign vainglorious motives to him.
“My professor in Quantum Physics”
In his autobiography, Zacharias says the following:
“My professor in quantum physics was Dr. John Polkinghorne, a latecomer to Christ, who provided me with some powerful ammunition for my ministry in the years to come.” ( p. 205)
Baughman says that he could not find any record of a physics class being taught by John Polkinghorne, only a science and religion course, at the time when Zacharias was here (1990). The book that he refers to in the YouTube video I linked to is the Cambridge University Reporter which is only available online back to 1997. Years before that are only available in printed editions in British libraries. I will assume it is correct.
However, as we’ve seen, Jeremy Begbie, under whose supervision Zacharias was a visiting scholar at Ridley Hall, confirms that he did take courses with John Polkinghorne in quantum physics. So we have Zacharias’s claim and we have the confirmation of his superivor that he did complete at least a course in quantum physics.
“Three doctoral degrees” ,“Dr.” and “PhD”
Again, the claim here cannot be that Zacharias invented degrees that he doesn’t have, but that he inappropriately labelled degrees that he did have. Zacharias has a number of honorary doctorates. According to Baughman, “PhD” appears after his name in some materials and “Dr.” appears before his name in some other materials. I have seen “Dr.” before Zacharias’s name, although I haven’t seen “PhD” after his name. RZIM also notes that “Dr.” sometimes appears in promotional materials for his speaking engagements without these promotional posters necessarily being run through RZIM’s approval. First, honorary doctorates and positions are real positions and degrees. They are not made up or “just for show”. They are awarded by a university based upon recognized accomplishment. So there is nothing wrong with wanting them to be part of your promotional materials. So the only way you can claim that he was dishonest here is if you claim that Zacharias was trying to represent himself as having an academic PhD ( and not an honorary one).
It would be easy for anyone to see his PhD, to wonder what his PhD is in and then search it, to find out that he only had honorary doctorates. If Zacharias wanted to present himself as having an academic PhD, it is reasonable to think that he would have explicitly claimed that he had an academic PhD in his CV, but he never does so. A person who is truly trying to misrepresent themselves would not lie about things that are so easily discoverable, and not just easily discoverable, but discoverable from Zacharias’s own public resources (his CV). This gives evidence against the claim that it is dishonesty, because the correct representation comes from his own resources. This is strong evidence that the misrepresentation is not deliberate. In fact, it gives evidence against the notion that even was misrepresentation. If I’m trying to describe something that you can also see in the distance, and I know you can also see it, it would be unreasonable for you to say that some incorrect description on my part is dishonesty.
Honorary doctorates nominally suggest an equivalence to academic Phd’s, which means that they invite confusion when not labelled carefully. Given that Zacharias himself is not an academic ( or not a conventional one), it isn’t strange that he would fall afoul of academic conventions. The nominal equivalence may make it easy to think that there is nothing wrong with labeling them the same as academic PhD’s, even if it’s not customary. Disobeying a custom may not be seen as serious, and in many cases, it is not.
Asian Youth Preacher Award and “Chair of the Department of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought at Alliance Theological Seminary”
According to Baughman’s website, Zacharias claimed to win an international youth preaching award:
Ravi tells us in his autobiography that in 1965 he won an international youth preaching competition.
According to Baughman’s research, he really did win the award but it’s scope was not international, only India. But is it true that Zacharias claims that the award was international? Baughman uses the quote that “young people gather from all across India and Asia” for this event as the reason for thinking that Zacharias is claiming that it is international. Let’s look at the place where he describes it:
In May of 1965, when I was nineteen, YFC held its Youth Congress in Hyderabad, historically a predominantly Muslim city, with Christian young people gather from all across India and Asia.
The claim here is that people from all over Asia attended the event, not that the event was officially international in scope. “International” also may suggest the whole world, while the claim here is clearly only referring to Asia. This claim seems quite trivial, saying that there were other Asians, besides Indians, at the conference. Also, it seems unreasonable to take him literally here in saying that people from every country in Asia were there. When you say that there are people “from all over the world” you don’t mean there are people literally from every single country in the world. You just mean that there were people from different countries.
Also, Baughman confirms that Zacharias did hold a credential called “Chair of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought at Alliance Theological Seminary” though he says it was “non-academic” by which I think he means “honorary”. You have to look closely to spot the error between what I reported and what is in bold above. Zacharias included “department” when reporting it in his autobiography.[viii] I will assume that Baughman’s investigation and correspondence is accurate regarding this.
This is very weak as evidence of dishonesty. Once again, it is not clear that he is even incorrect in how he has used the word. One of the definitions of “department” is “an area of expertise or responsibility.”
According Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “department” also has these meanings:
Since he is writing in his autobiography, an informal definition is natural, even if it would lead to understandable confusion. The claim at most can be that he uses the word too informally, whether here or in other biographical statements.
[i] Steve Baughman, Cover-Up in the Kingdom: Phone Sex, Lies, and God’s Great Apologist, Ravi Zacharias, (Book Baby, 2018) P. 9
[ii] Ravi Zacharias, R.S.B Sawyer, Walking from East to West: God in the Shadows, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) 30
[iii] Ibid., 33
[iv] Ibid., 34
[v] Ibid., 145
[vi] Ibid., 114
[vii] Ibid., 20
[viii] Ibid., 188