In Defense of Denominations

Hybels

Over at Religion News Service, Trish Harrison Warren argues that the sexual misconduct by former Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels should force evangelicals to rethink their commitment to denominations.  Here is a taste of her piece “Willow Creek’s crash shows why denominations still matter“:

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders (these measures do not rely on close friends or parishioners of the accused).

As merely one example, in my denomination, a bishop can “inhibit” a church leader from future ministry or an ecclesiastical court — comprising both ordained and lay members — can conduct a trial and decide to depose a clergy person altogether (more commonly known as being defrocked). His or her ordination would be revoked and there are systems in place to ensure he or she would never be a leader in any other Anglican church.  (If a leader is accused of a crime, he or she is also mandatorily reported to civil authorities for investigation.)

The point of church discipline is both to help bring the accused person to repentance and also to protect the larger, global church body from harm.

I wonder if the Willow Creek crisis signals a tacit end to nondenominationalism as a model for future church planting. Certainly, a conversation is brewing among evangelicals about the need for healthy institutions and older traditions as we navigate our future.

Clearly, there is a kind of denominationalism that is corrosive and corrupting. Likewise, institutionalism, the idolatry and self-protection of institutions, has produced massive evil. As allegations against several evangelical celebrity pastors came to light last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing large-scale sexual abuse of children and a massive systematic cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s utterly apparent that denominations and ecclesial institutions will not rescue us from sin and abuse of power.

Read the entire piece here.

The Willow Creek Mess

Hybels

A couple of weeks ago I was lecturing about George Whitefield to a group of K-12 history teachers gathered for a summer seminar at Princeton University.  I was rambling-on about Whitefield’s celebrity and his ability to attract large crowds.  I talked about his ability to unite Atlantic provincials in a common evangelicalism.  I described his relationship with Ben Franklin, his founding of an orphanage in Georgia, and his leadership of the First Great Awakening.

At one point in the lecture, an elementary-school social studies teacher who had never heard of Whitefield raised her hand and asked, “So what happened with this guy?  As I hear you talk I am expecting some kind of scandal or moral indiscretion.  How did Whitefield fall?”  This teacher seemed surprised that Whitefield never got caught-up in some kind of sex scandal.  She assumed that the Whitefield story ended badly.  We stopped and talked about Whitefield’s self-promotion, his ownership of slaves, and the way he divided local congregations, but as far as I know there was never an Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart moment in Whitefield’s life.

I thought about this teacher’s question as I read more about Bill Hybels and his moral indiscretions while serving as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.  She may have meant her question to be snarky or cynical, but I did not take it this way.  It seemed like she had just come to expect this kind of thing from popular and powerful evangelical preachers.

You can get up to speed on the recent developments in the Hybels case by reading Laurie Goodstein’s piece in The New York Times.  I also appreciate Scot McKnight’s critique of Willow Creek and Hybels at Jesus Creed.  McKnight once attended Willow Creek.

Here is a taste of McKnight’s post; “Willow Creek, Your Time is Now”:

The time is now to be guided by this independent council of wisdom to tell the truth about Bill, to tell the truth about the women and Bill’s inappropriate, sexual relations, to tell the truth about governance that protected Bill’s reputation rather than Willow’s congregation, to tell the truth about bullying by the leaders through the Human Resources and buying silence through NDA (non disclosure agreements), to tell the truth about how the WCA’s Board was told by the three who resigned when the WCA refused to investigate Bill Hybels, and to tell the truth about the need for an independent investigation. The investigators cannot choose those who have to be investigated. An independent leadership council must do the choosing. Willow must be willing to listen to the council.  It is also time to tell the truth, in spite of what has been said by leaders after his resignation, about Bill’s continued contact with leaders at Willow to shape decisions.

It is time now to find the truth, to be transparent, to investigate the governance, and to tell that truth honestly.

The women told the truth. The Willow narrative is a false and deceptive narrative.

Why was it so easy for the journalists at Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today to find stories from women but Willow’s so-called investigation turned up nothing?

The time is now. Willow, your time is now. Time to find the truth, tell the truth, and live into that truth.

Read the entire piece here.

Mark Silk: May 2018 Was a “Humiliating Month”

WeinstienOver at his blog at Religion News Service, Trinity College professor Mark Silk reminds us what happened this month as it relates to the #MeToo era:

  • The elders of Willow Creek apologized for casting doubt on women’s allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of departing senior pastor Bill Hybels
  • Paige Patterson, denigrator of women, was relieved of the presidency of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • “The judgment of God has come,” wrote Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
  • Harvey Weinstein left a New York Police Department precinct in handcuffs.
  • And then there was Morgan Freeman, the Voice of God Himself.

Click here to get the entire list.

The Number of Allegations Against Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels Appears to be Growing

Hybels

Bob Smietana reports for Christianity Today:

So far, at least seven women have accused Hybels of improper conduct and abuse of power. They include the first woman teaching pastor at Willow Creek, a former worship leader, several former staffers, two church members, and the former head of a prominent evangelical publisher. One other woman accused him of an affair—then recanted that claim.

Their accounts follow similar patterns: that Hybels pressured women into spending time alone with him.

During the April 10 meeting when he announced his resignation, Hybels apologized for his habit of meeting alone with women in private settings, including in hotel rooms and at his home.

“I placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” he said. “I was naïve about the dynamics those situations created. I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part. I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.”

Several women who have accused him of misconduct believe Hybels has mischaracterized these incidents, leading some to believe that he was talking about women who were pursuing him.

“People weren’t coming on to him,” said one to CT. “He was coming on to them.”

Read the rest here.

Click here for our previous coverage on Hybels.

Bill Hybels Resigns as Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church

Hybels

Sarah Pulliam Bailey has the story at The Washington Post.  A taste:

Prominent pastor Bill Hybels announced Tuesday he is stepping down from his Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek, just weeks after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of misconduct from several women. Hybels, who with his wife co-founded one of the nation’s largest churches in 1975, was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

He told the church publicly last year that he was planning to step down in October, but he resigned Tuesday, saying he would be a distraction to the church’s ministry. Some members of his congregation shouted “No!” and gave him a standing ovation following his address.

In March, the Chicago Tribune published allegations that he made suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to a staff member to hotel rooms. The newspaper also reported allegations of a consensual affair with a married woman, and the woman who said she had an affair later retracted her allegations. Hybels has denied all the allegations and said on Tuesday again that the church’s investigations found no evidence of misconduct. However, he told his congregation he felt attacked and wished he had responded differently.

Read the rest here.

Bill Hybels Doubles Down: “The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies”

Hybels

Last week we commented on a Chicago Tribune story on Bill Hybels, the pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, IL (outside of Chicago).

In a congregational meeting last Friday night, Hybels denied all allegations.  The Tribune reports:

The congregation of northwestern suburban Willow Creek Community Church gave the Rev. Bill Hybels standing ovations this weekend after he addressed allegations of improper behavior with women reported Thursday in the Chicago Tribune.

During worship services and a two-hour gathering Friday that the church called a “family meeting,” Hybels and elders walked members through three inquiries overseen by elders over the last four years, all of which cleared Hybels of misconduct.

Hybels rebutted additional allegations reported in the Tribune. Pam Orr, the church’s highest-ranking elder, told the congregation at the family meeting that the elders would decide together how to address those claims.

“The accusations you hear in the Tribune are just flat-out lies,” Hybels told a packed sanctuary Friday night. He said he’s not sure he will be able to repair the strained relationships with former leaders who are pushing for more scrutiny.

Hybels, who has said since May 2012 that he would step down in October of this year, said he still intends to stay until his planned exit.

“I was not afraid to come to this meeting tonight,” he said Friday. “I know the heart of this church. I knew that you would give all of us an even hearing. You wouldn’t rush to judgment.

“I will do my level best if you allow me to continue to serve here until October when I will retire,” he said, bringing the audience to its feet with applause. “I’m going to serve my heart out.”

Read the rest here.

A few people who I respect weighed-in on my Facebook page:

Here is a historian who is a Christian: “John you write frequently about the importance of historical thinking – any historian worth his or her salt would weigh the “primary sources” here and have a hard time finding Hybels to be completely credible…”

Here is a para-church minister on the credibility of Hybels’s accusers: “Very troubling-Nancy Beach, John & Nancy Ortberg, and Jim & Leanne Mellado?”

A Christian journalist says something similar:  “What motive would the Ortbergs have for trying to bring down Hybels?”

We will see how this unfolds.  I am actually waiting to hear Scot McKnight on this issue.  I believe he is a longtime attendee of Willow Creek.  (Perhaps he has already commented and I missed it).