Bill Hybels is one of the most influential Christian leaders of the past generation. Earlier this spring he stepped down from his position at Willow Creek, the church he founded, in the wake of a number of allegations stretching back several years of inappropriate contact between Hybels and women connected to the church and leadership team of Willow Creek.
From a Chicago Tribune article from March:
The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true, the Tribune found.
This week, a story broke in the New York Times about a former secretary who accuses Hybels of inappropriately touching her on multiple occasions in the mid 1980s. Her allegations include mentioning an instance of sexual activity, something that previous accusers had not said.
In the aftermath of that revelation, Willow’s teaching pastor resigned on Sunday, effectively immediately. Part of Carter’s reasoning is Willow’s handing of the situation.
Since the first women came forward with their stories, I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and it’s ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.
The leadership of Willow had been informed about these allegations four years ago and did very little to take them seriously. They did an internal investigation, but internal investigations can be hard when their is an internally vested interest in clearing someone of wrongdoing.
Willow Creek was a trail blazing church. Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Chicago. He attended Willow Creek for a decade and has responded to these events.
Earlier this summer, McKnight said in a blog post:
I believe the women on the basis of what I have learned. I am, as I said at the outset, often asked about the Willow situation and I have done my best to discern the facts. What I do know is this: Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s leadership have undone forty years of trust for many. A church that has stood valiantly for women in ministry, that has always stood for Christian grace and truth and forgiveness for repenters, that has supported #metoo in various places, that then responds to women as they did to these women unravels the thread Willow has woven for four decades. Many of us are asking why Bill Hybels and Willow Creek’s pastors and Elders slandered the women, calling them liars and colluders, and still refuse to offer them apologies.
It’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for the women who were put in uncomfortable situations or approached inappropriately by someone they trusted. It’s unfortunate for this church and the many faithful attendees and people who have given of their time, talents, and treasures to help build this church up as one that has had a positive impact on so many lives. It’s unfortunate to the many young adults who are drawn to Willow Creek who had never previously been to a church that felt like a place where they could belong, and who are now left with more questions than answers as another church leader is brought down by scandal. It’s unfortunate for the Church. The failures of people within the church poorly reflect what the church is supposed to do to an increasingly secular and skeptical society. More ammunition is given.
May we not lose heart when people fail. People will because all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We are imperfect and willingly sinful. But we have a great savior who came and died so that all who believe in him would never die. So that those who are dead in sin can be made alive to God.
Aside from Jesus, the prominent people in the Bible all failed. Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times before Jesus was crucified. The Apostle Paul persecuted Christians and had them killed. David cheated on his wife and then had her husband killed to save himself. That’s not to justify any of these things. They were sins. But God still accomplishes his purpose with as sinful as humanity is.
But there are consequences. McKnight has suggested that Willow Creek will need changes in leadership going forward. That the people who showed poor leadership for the last few years and who made half hearted attempts to investigate the allegations cannot continue leading in the future.
Will Willow Creek be able to right the ship? Time will tell. If I had to make a prediction: with all of the bad publicity, with the poor leaderships, with the loss of their visionary founder, the ship will keep sinking until it’s swallowed up by the sea.
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.