Biblical Studies Church History Early Church Fathers Moral Theology Politics & Social Issues Spiritual Formation The Problem of Suffering and Evil

A Warning to Women in The Church about Spiritual Abusers: A Lesson from Irenaeus of Lyon

For many Christians the Church Fathers are simply unknown. At best, they are a source of knowledge only about abstract creedal issues, like the dual nature of Christ or the coherency of the Trinity. Names like Origen, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Melito, and even Augustine, are lost to most Christians who are not directly involved in theological education or who are not trying to win a debate on some historical point of doctrinal difference: usually one between Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. However, when read with care, the Church Fathers are far more than just a source of dogmatic theology, apologetics, or even biblical interpretation, they are also a deep well of wisdom when it comes to pastoral and practical matters of the faith.

Recently, i.e. roughly the last 10 years, there have been some very public, very horrific examples of spiritual and sexual abuse of female believers by very charismatic Christian leaders. While it is true that not all spiritual and sexual abuse by men in authority has been focused on women,1 The vast majority of abuse in the Roman Catholic church over the past 30-40 years has been of an explicitly homosexual nature, with Roman Catholic priests preying on young men who felt same-sex attracted. The movie Spotlight highlights this demonic activity as it was exposed by journalists in the Archdiocese of Boston. in this post I will highlight two contemporary examples of what seem to be an ancient evil: the luring in of Christian women by spiritually powerful men for the sake of turning them into vessels of sexual pleasure.

The Contemporary Evil: Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharias

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 and evangelist, 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 be surprising to any true Christian who understands the depth of human depravity and the overwhelming grace of God. 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; although, again, not that I am excusing that.

Jean Vanier, a French Canadian Catholic, was for all intent and purpose on his way to canonization in the Roman Catholic Church before his darkest secrets were posthumously revealed in 2019. Theologians of high repute, such as 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 L’arche. Young says in the preface of her book God’s Presence, “The profound influence of Jean Vanier will be frequently evident in the following pages. My thanks to such supportive friends.”2 Excerpt From: Frances Young. “God’s Presence.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/gods-presence/id851055787. Other theologians had interviewed Vanier, shortly before his death, considering him a premier example of how Christians must go about engaging with contemporary culture and politics. My point here is in no way to call into question these scholars or their work. Far from it. My point is merely to show the incredible amount of deceit that spiritual abusers can exercise upon the Church, even upon the best and the brightest among us.3 I personally know Kyle Strobel and have met Frances Young on one occasion. I am certain that both authors were utterly stunned at the revelations of Vanier’s sexual abuse. Of course, why the Vatican missed this abuse, or sundry other scandals of abuse, is a question of great importance, but not one I will take up here.

The ability to deceive is likely the most terrifying aspect of the spiritual abuser’s power. He literally appears to be the kind of Christian that matches a true profile of holiness, only to later be revealed as a real devil in disguise. Of course, the passage that comes to the mind of most 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, for not only did he deceive audiences from a distance through his writing or speaking but also those who were up close and personal. The same applies equally to Zacharias.

But, here is where we must understand the true spiritual nature of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, a nature that our own forefathers in the faith were warning us about from the very start. For this kind of abuse has a legacy, one that, it could be argued, goes back as early as Simon Magus himself,4 see Acts 8:9-25 and seems to have been passed down through the generations. In Vanier’s case their seems to have been 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 Jan/Feb 2021

Vanier, as Jeremy Rios goes on to point 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.”5 Rios, “Vanier & Bikram,” 31. Vanier’s method was to use language of weakness and “entrusting oneself to another”6 Rios, 31. 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 described in language, but when carried out in reality, Vanier’s proposition that “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.”7 Rios, 31. And so it goes: the abuser now has his victim locked into a chamber of illicit “trust.”

Zacharias, unlike Vanier, was a powerful public orator. His charisma was not so much behind the scenes as Vanier, but out in the open; a veteran itinerant evangelist whose reach was global and message entirely orthodox, to include his frequent teaching on biblical morality and human sexuality. This more recent scandal broke in 2020, when it was revealed that Zacharias had had multiple sexual affairs of various kinds and in a variety of places.8 Most, however, seem to be connected to massage parlors or masseuses who he knew in the United States and in places like Thailand. The bulk of the evidence can be found here on his former ministry’s website. Many Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, myself included, who had listened with deep admiration to Zacharias’ gifted messaging of the Gospel stood shocked at these discoveries. While there is still some debate about there validity, the evidence appears overwhelming that Zacharias was a similar practitioner of spiritual abuse like Vanier. Again, my intent here is not to accuse others who were around Zacharias or who worked for him or 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.

Like Vanier then, it appears that Zacharias specifically utilized his position as a spiritual leader in order to influence the emotions and actions of his victims, many of whom 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 and then by assuring them that what they were doing, or about to do, would be acceptable in God’s eyes.

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, becomes a powerful tool in the abuser’s hand. This posture and approach is, unfortunately, one that many women long for, often from their own husbands. And that is usually the place that they should find it, not from their pastor or church leader. Women long to see vulnerability in men, as it opens them [the men] up to a more emotional expression of themselves that 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, potentially even life giving. Outside of its right context, i.e. marriage, it can at best be tempting, and, as we have now seen, utterly destructive.

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 has not yet been fully grasped. However, the victims of the sexual abuse first and foremost, but also the much larger set of followers and friends and colleagues who have suffered because of the deep deception of Vanier and Zacharias,9 One wonders how many faithful Catholics or Evangelicals named their sons after Vanier or Zacharias, for example. should know, or perhaps should have known much earlier, that this is nothing new to 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 actual 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.

The Ancient Evil: Marcus the Magician

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, finding some psychological or sociological component to explain Vanier and Zacharias’ actions. The casual religious might do the same, seeing both as typical men driven by normal physical desires, and 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.10 See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 644-645. While these analyses may have partial validity, the student of Christianity will see something more penetrating than the 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 Marcus, a gnostic Christian who lures women into his inner sanctum through nefarious and deceitful spiritual practices.11 see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.1-7 Marcus uses an altered version of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in order to trap women into serving him, promising 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,”12Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 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.13 Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.4 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.”14 Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.3

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, travelled 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 also points out that this happened to the wife of “one of our deacons,” so clearly a woman connected to the church. So too were Zacharias and Vanier’s victims all Christian women, connected to the church either in virtue of their professing an evangelical faith, or in Vanier’s case, even women who had taken the vows of a religious order.15 See the full report here.

In sum, to know that this particular version of sexual abuse, again, one quite different from more mundane sexual failings,16 I want to emphasize the uncanny nature of this kind of abuse. This should not be conflated with #metoo kinds of abuse which are just typical of the unrestrained male sex drive. These abuses within the church are of a distinctly demonic nature and have profound impacts on the life of the church. has been around since the earliest days of the church’s existence should warn us and make us alert to its reality. 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,17 As a former Catholic, now Evangelical I hold to a sola Scriptura view of authority. but also that we might know how to safeguard the sheepfold in each generation.

Very practically speaking, 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, are crude in their use of sexual language or innuendo (see Ephesians 5:3-5). Counter to intuition, it may very 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 to chasten oneself when, and if, praise is ever given, especially 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 lupine lurking 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. However, this redemption is not for all, it is partial. This is a sobering testimony, 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, “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.

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. Aside from outright forced rape,18 I am using rape here strictly in the legal sense which seemed not to be the case for Vanier and Zacharias,19 There is one allegation against Zacharias that may have reached the level of legal rape there may have been instances where some degree of participation of their victims was needed in order for the abuse to be realized. The contemporary charge of “victim blaming” when one points out that there might have been voluntary participation by the victim may be a hindrance to the victim actually coming back to a full knowledge of Christ and His redeeming power. Those who recognize that some part of their will may have been involved in the decision to be with the abuser will ultimately fare much better than those who place all the blame only on the abuser. 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 this account by Irenaeus for the first time many months after these contemporary revelations of abuse had been 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 really want them back in.

  • 1
    The vast majority of abuse in the Roman Catholic church over the past 30-40 years has been of an explicitly homosexual nature, with Roman Catholic priests preying on young men who felt same-sex attracted. The movie Spotlight highlights this demonic activity as it was exposed by journalists in the Archdiocese of Boston.
  • 2
    Excerpt From: Frances Young. “God’s Presence.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/gods-presence/id851055787
  • 3
    I personally know Kyle Strobel and have met Frances Young on one occasion. I am certain that both authors were utterly stunned at the revelations of Vanier’s sexual abuse.
  • 4
    see Acts 8:9-25
  • 5
    Rios, “Vanier & Bikram,” 31.
  • 6
    Rios, 31.
  • 7
    Rios, 31.
  • 8
    Most, however, seem to be connected to massage parlors or masseuses who he knew in the United States and in places like Thailand.
  • 9
    One wonders how many faithful Catholics or Evangelicals named their sons after Vanier or Zacharias, for example.
  • 10
    See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 644-645.
  • 11
    see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.1-7
  • 12
    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I.XIII.3
  • 13
    Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.4
  • 14
    Irenaeus, AH, Book I.XIII.3
  • 15
    See the full report here.
  • 16
    I want to emphasize the uncanny nature of this kind of abuse. This should not be conflated with #metoo kinds of abuse which are just typical of the unrestrained male sex drive. These abuses within the church are of a distinctly demonic nature and have profound impacts on the life of the church.
  • 17
    As a former Catholic, now Evangelical I hold to a sola Scriptura view of authority.
  • 18
    I am using rape here strictly in the legal sense
  • 19
    There is one allegation against Zacharias that may have reached the level of legal rape

2 thoughts on “A Warning to Women in The Church about Spiritual Abusers: A Lesson from Irenaeus of Lyon

  1. R.H. (Rusty) Foerger – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
    R.H. (Rusty) Foerger says:

    I appreciate you writing to this topic openly, and for providing a wealth of historical context to the ongoing problem of sexual brokenness expressed through abuse, and even possibly mentoring this along the way. There is no escaping that Vanier and Zacharias are cautionary tales that prompt us to look at at our own context with some renewed humility. After the Weinstein revelations a number of years ago that prompted the #metoo movement, there also began writing on #churchtoo: https://moreenigma.com/2018/02/14/from-metoo-to-churchtoo/.
    “As common people find they have #metoo in common, so must people of faith confess #churchtoo when it comes to how sexual predatory behaviour has somehow been allowed to anchor in the safe harbour of authority.”
    Let there be light.

    1. Rusty,

      Thanks again for this. I have received some serious push back on this post (as expected), as well as some very encouraging responses. More positive than negative,to be sure, but I knew this one would be quite controversial. I do think Irenaeus is witnessing the same kind of thing we see today; of course I believe that human beings have a fixed nature and that the Bible is transcultural and transtemporal, so this is a given for me. I also believe the church fathers understood the Bible better than we do, at least in some very relevant ways, and not just doctrinally, but pastorally.

      Interestingly enough I was attacked for this post from two very different perspectives. Some accused me of letting Zacharias and Vanier (and all abusers, I suppose) off the hook when I suggested that maybe some of the female victims (like some of Marcus’ victims) might have had a degree of culpability in their abuse. Others claimed I was judging Zacharias unfairly, saying that his accusers are at fault, and I shouldn’t have poured fuel on the fire (considering both men are dead and not available to defend themselves).

      Perhaps that is some evidence that I hit the mark.

      God bless,
      Anthony

Leave a Reply

%%footer%%