How Christian leaders Johnny Hunt and Ravi Zacharias used key alliances to combat allegations
- After the first sexual abuse allegations emerged against Ravi Zacharias in 2017, Zacharias relied on support from powerful allies, such as former SBC pastor Johnny Hunt.
- Hunt, now facing his own allegations, recently returned to ministry in a moment reminiscent of the controversy over Zacharias five years ago.
- Newly uncovered history between Hunt and Zacharias illustrates larger struggle in the SBC, in which calls to deplatform credibly accused abusers clashes with powerful alliances.
After the emergence of the first sexual abuse allegations against Ravi Zacharias, the late Christian apologist and his ministry were scrambling.
At the time, Zacharias was hugely influential across many evangelical Christian groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. At its height, his ministry employed 250 people worldwide.
Zacharias settled a lawsuit with the woman raising the allegations, Lori Anne Thompson, who signed a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of the settlement. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries then largely denied the allegations in a December 2017 statement.
“He (Zacharias) had to show the world he was not rifled,” said Steve Baughman, a California attorney who investigated Zacharias and published his findings in a blog. Baughman publicized Thompson’s allegations in filings from the lawsuit.
“He had to plow on and look like he was not wounded at all,” Baughman added.
Hunt's 'restoration' sparks controversy:Leaders denounce former SBC president Johnny Hunt’s return to ministry amid abuse allegations
Zacharias realized it was vital to protect his upcoming speaking gigs and for powerful friends to vouch for him. One of the earliest and most consistent allies was former SBC president Johnny Hunt.
Hunt is currently facing uproar for returning to ministry amid his own abuse allegations. He preached for the first time in eight months after four pastors vouched for Hunt's "restoration."
The refuge Zacharias sought in Hunt and other SBC leaders five years ago, according to a newly uncovered sequence of events by The Tennessean, and Hunt’s return to ministry illustrate a larger struggle in the Nashville-based SBC, in which calls to deplatform credibly accused abusers run up against limited enforcement and powerful alliances.
Alleged abusers returning to ministry or the spotlight, and church leaders and denomination officials not taking allegations seriously enough are part of the SBC’s present crisis to address abuse. In some of the highest-profile examples, that happened with Zacharias in 2018 and is happening with Hunt.
It signals how some of the same forces are at work despite recent changes in the SBC to hold abusers accountable including a resolution disqualifying ministers who are credibly accused of abuse.
Hunt did not respond to a request for comment.
“These are patterns of behavior where women are ignored or dismissed, or the allegations are dumbed down and explained away, while the men are promoted," Thompson said in an interview. "It is classic. It’s almost cookie cutter.”
Thompson was long barred from sharing her story by the NDA, though Zacharias continued to defend himself publicly and largely retain his globally revered status until after his death in May 2020. Then-Vice President Mike Pence even spoke at his memorial service that month.
Ordained by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Zacharias became famous for apologetics, or the intellectual defense of Christianity.
Months after his death, reports from Christianity Today and a law firm’s independent investigation detailed allegations from more than a dozen people against Zacharias, including sexual harassment, assault and rape.
Thompson said it doesn’t surprise her to learn Hunt vouched for Zacharias in 2018 given the allegations against Hunt.
A May 2022 report from Guidepost Solutions said Hunt assaulted another woman in 2010. Hunt denied assaulting the woman in a May 2022 statement and said he was in a “compromising situation with a woman who was not my wife” and that it was “a consensual encounter.”
“When you’re lending your credibility to someone who’s not credible, then that’s a red flag for me,” Thompson said.
Outcry versus ally
The first test was a January 2018 pastors conference at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where Zacharias was set to receive a prestigious award.
The weeks prior, outcry was building over allegations that Zacharias groomed Thompson for years and solicited sexually explicit photos from her.
There were questions about evidence that emerged in filings from Thompson and Zacharias’ lawsuit. One was a copy of an email from Zacharias to Thompson appearing to threaten suicide if Thompson went public about Zacharias’ behavior.
When RZIM responded in a December 2017 statement, it denied Zacharias solicited photos from Thompson and dodged the suicide email.
“Is it appropriate that this gentleman will be addressing a community of pastors while a cloud of unacknowledged transgressions hovers over him?” said Baughman in a January 2018 email to organizers and speakers at the FBC Jacksonville conference.
The pastor of FBC Jacksonville at the time, Donald McCall “Mac” Brunson, gave little credence to Baughman’s letter. Still, Brunson followed up on the allegations by calling Zacharias, a Zacharias ministry board member and Hunt.
“I did everything I could possible to get at ‘what’s going on? What is this? Is there anything credible going on here?’” Brunson said in an interview.
Brunson called Hunt because of his well-known friendship with Zacharias.
The church Hunt long pastored in Woodstock, Georgia is 13 miles from the headquarters of Zacharias' ministry. Zacharias called Hunt a friend in a review for one of Hunt’s books.
According to a video, Hunt attended the 2009 grand opening of a spa in Alpharetta, Georgia that Zacharias co-owned (and as later revealed by Christianity Today and independent investigators, where Zacharias abused massage therapists). Hunt told Baughman in 2020 he was a regular customer at Zacharias’ spa, Baughman has said in blogs and in an interview.
After talking to Hunt, Brunson was more confident about Zacharias.
“Johnny says that there is nothing to this,” Brunson said in a December 2017 email to Paige Patterson, a prominent SBC leader scheduled to speak at the FBC Jacksonville conference, according to a copy The Tennessean obtained.
Brunson added: “What a sick and wicked day we live in. if you have any name recognition at all, you are subject to attacks – and the tragic thing is, it is coming from inside the church.”
Dismissing doubts, enlisting support
Though Brunson seemed reassured, Patterson had his doubts.
“If there is any truth to the allegation of an email threatening suicide…then for Mac’s (Brunson) sake, simply ask not to come,” said Patterson to Zacharias in a January 2018 email, according to a copy The Tennessean obtained from former RZIM spokesperson Ruth Malhotra.
Patterson was undecided about the allegations himself, but still worried about a “cloud” over FBC Jacksonville if Zacharias attended the upcoming conference.
Like Hunt, Patterson was hugely influential in the SBC and an important ally for Zacharias. His wavering support disconcerted Zacharias.
“Mean-spirited and cruel people are doing everything to hurt and attack me,” said Zacharias to Patterson in a January 2018 reply, according to a copy The Tennessean obtained from Malhotra.
Denying what he called “perverted hate and untruth,” Zacharias said he was determined to attend the FBC Jacksonville conference. “Not to come would be handing the enemy of our souls the victory of lies and slander,” he said.
It was an unfiltered message Zacharias didn’t vet with his PR task force first, who expressed concern in an email after they found out.
The PR task force gently coached Zacharias on a better way to communicate with Patterson, a sign of the seriousness with which they saw Patterson’s allyship. Ministry staff saw Hunt a similar way, according to a different email correspondence The Tennessean obtained from Malhotra.
In a second try with Patterson, Zacharias sent an email with a more measured tone and talking points from the PR team.
“I am trusting God for our best years ahead, strengthened by learning through this,” said Zacharias in a January 2018 email to Patterson, according to a copy The Tennessean obtained.
“In an information age like the one we find ourselves in, you and your organization are susceptible to opposition or controversy you may not have wanted and certainly don’t deserve,” Zacharias added.
Newer, relevant Patterson discovery:Southern Baptist seminary admitted registered sex offender during high-profile leader's tenure
Patterson would face his own controversy months later for mishandling reports of abuse at SBC seminaries where he was president. It would cost him his job and cause his withdrawal from speaking at the 2018 SBC annual meeting.
The same fate wouldn’t befall Zacharias.
'Lauded and applauded'
Zacharias’ fight for allies and allies’ fight for him paid off when FBC Jacksonville honored Zacharias with an award for a lifetime in ministry that January.
When Baughman and fellow detractors were unsuccessful at persuading FBC Jacksonville conference organizers with emails, Baughman coordinated with Jim Lutzwieler, a former archivist for an SBC seminary, to protest the event in-person.
Lutzwieler arrived for the day of Zacharias’ award ceremony and saw an opportunity to express his concerns during a Q&A session.
“I would have posed the question, ‘This conference is about how to pastor. So how do you pastor if you know your upcoming speaker has been embroiled in sexual misconduct,’” Lutzweiler said in an interview.
But the opportunity never came after an FBC Jacksonville pastor, who knew Lutzweiler was there to protest, intercepted Lutzweiler and threatened to call security if he asked his question. Lutzweiler stood down, only for security to find him later and escort him out.
The FBC Jacksonville conference set the tone for subsequent events.
“He was lauded and applauded and promoted around the world,” Thompson said.
Zacharias was honored and spoke at other major events led by prominent Southern Baptists, including the National Day of Prayer and the SBC annual meeting. Zacharias spoke at the SBC annual meeting after then SBC President Steve Gaines invited him.
Gaines said in an interview he vetted the allegations against Zacharias through a board member at Zacharias' ministry. Gaines said he might have also talked to Hunt but doesn’t remember.
The week after the SBC annual meeting, Zacharias spoke at Hunt’s church.
There was at least one major cancellation. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm, disinvited Zacharias from speaking at its “MLK50” event in April 2018.
“He (Zacharias) was angered by that and made that very clear. He then had mutual friends call to seek to get me to change my mind. I said no,” former ERLC President Russell Moore said in a post online.
In a statement to The Tennessean, Moore named Zacharias' mutual friend.
“Johnny Hunt was the main person to call to attempt to persuade me that Ravi Zacharias was innocent of any wrongdoing and that he shouldn’t be disinvited from MLK50.”
An uncanny resemblance
When Zacharias addressed more than 9,000 Southern Baptists at the 2018 SBC annual meeting in June, he delivered a message on persecution and tribulation.
“We all go through the dark nights of the soul,” Zacharias said.
Amid the perilousness, Zacharias talked about the importance of transforming “an arena of persecution into a platform of opportunity.”
The message and circumstances bear an uncanny resemblance to two weeks ago, when Hunt preached for the first time in eight months.
“You don’t know what God’s up to until you press into those difficult situations and see what God may bring out of you,” Hunt said at Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida.
Hunt plans to speak about similar ideas at his resurrected men’s conference this March. He’s also scheduled for other conferences and church services and is planning to lead a tour of Israel.
Hiland Park Baptist Church is Hunt’s new home church and its pastor, Steven Kyle, was one of four who vouched for Hunt in a video announcing Hunt’s return to ministry.
Hunt, in his recent sermon, and Zacharias, in June 2018, said it was God from whom they derive their strength to stand again.
But it was also their friends. For Zacharias, that was Hunt, and for Hunt, that was four others.
Making his own point, Hunt exclaimed: “You can’t revive yourself!”
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @liamsadams.