If you find yourself within Christian circles, you have likely heard about the sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in northern Illinois and one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.
I attend a church in a neighboring suburb to Willow Creek. Bill Hybels was the pastor to my pastor. Our church was, at one time, part of the Willow Creek Association of Churches.
When the news first broke about Hybels this past March, the first reaction from most of my friends was disbelief. It was my first instinct, too. None of us wanted to hear that someone who has been a spiritual leader and guiding figure would do the things he was accused of.
For me, however, the story quickly reeked of irresponsibility and dishonesty. These allegations had been rolling in for years. Willow’s Board of Elders covered them up, hired an “independent” investigator (who conveniently cleared Hybels of all wrongdoing) and kept everything secret from their congregation. What initially seemed impossible now looked like one of the biggest scandals in Evangelical history.
My friends and I disagreed on that point. While I erred on the side of believing the accusers, no one else seemed to.
These are snapshots of Facebook comments from my feed (with names and profile pictures redacted for privacy.)
In addition to the outright dismissals, there were plenty of “you can’t prove he’s guilty so therefore he must be innocent” comments.
What was particularly painful was a discussion I had with two friends regarding how this information was brought to light.
I struggled with so many aspects of this conversation. It was hard to hear that people thought the church was right to keep this situation hidden. It was hard to hear that people viewed the words of victims as gossip. It was hard to hear that people thought Willow’s response was biblically accurate.
A few weeks later, Hybels resigned, all the while maintaining his innocence. Those who stood by him when the allegations broke maintained their stance and clung to it even tighter. The tone of people’s comments became angry and dismissive, as if anyone who believed the victims was siding with liars.
I can agree that grace and repentance need to be in abundance and consistent. Unfortunately, Hybels was given all the grace without any expectation of repentance.
So much of this viewpoint lacks nuance and empathy. To imply there’s no way to discern between abuse and discomfort? To imply there’s no way to discern between biblical truth and self-truth? It’s all women versus all men? It’s individual responsibility or nothing? We should be able to, in a healthy church environment, have an open conversation and individual accountability and be open to the fact that an overhaul of the church may be necessary to to restore trust and unity.
Now, months later, Willow has reached the point of the overhaul. More women came forward through national media, which led the teaching pastors and the entire Board of Directors to step down. Along with their resignations, they admitted to enabling Hybels’ behavior and misleading the congregation.
Suddenly, the tone of the comments on my feed changed:
The most striking comment was from the same person who, mere weeks ago, said “this is gossip, plain and simple.”
So now that the whole Elder Board and teaching staff has admitted wrongdoing, now it’s not surprising? Now it’s not gossip, and now the public nature of the accusations is okay?
Reading over these comments, reading the stories of Hybel’s victims, and reading the statements made by Willow Creek’s resigning staff, I can come to a few conclusions:
Churchgoers need to look at what causes them to pass judgement and what causes them to pray. When the victims came forth with their stories, they judged. When the man in power was brought down, they judged. When the rest of those in power were brought down with him, they prayed. Prayer should have come first. The entire Christian community should have been praying for wisdom and discernment from day one — for Hybels and his family, for the Willow Creek staff, for the accusers, and for those in the media bringing the truth to light.
Starting with prayer and following with action, systems of authority within churches should be evaluated with a critical eye. It is all too common for stature to magnify abusive behavior, and trust is hard to come by without impartial accountability and consequences for untoward behavior.
Enabling and ignoring allegations against church leaders only proves how far the American church has to go in its treatment of women and abuse victims. If a church is functioning in accordance with the gospel, its first instinct should always be to care for those who are marginalized before those who hold positions of power.