Yesterday, for reasons unknown to me, someone came on this blog looking for information about the Willow Creek church. Now, I have not read or reviewed any books by the founding and former leading elder of that church, Bill Hybels, but rest assured that I have made myself familiar with what has gone on. The particular scandal involving this church is one that is all too familiar–a superstar pastor becomes lax about his personal life, is involved in ungodly behavior, defends himself and has others defend him by blaming those whom he victimized, and then there is the slow release of news that ends up confirming a good part (if not all) of what was originally claimed, and in shame the pastor has to resign and the church tries to move on. Enough people have piled on the Willow Creek church and its leadership team, and I do not think it is right to add to this. There are certainly many churches where the behavior of leaders is questionable and where the laxity of morals in our corrupt age puts ordinary members in danger from those who have a high reputation because of their writing or speaking abilities but whose personal lives are not being properly self-disciplined. I do not feel comfortable throwing stones in such a situation. What I would like to do, though, is comment at least somewhat on the ways that God is not done with this situation and others like it, and what future lessons can be drawn from lamentable situations like this one.
Let us note that God is not done with the people who have been hurt, who had their reputations attacked after they had been abused and taken advantage of by an ungodly but well-known leader. Such people may find it difficult to trust organizations again–and that is well and proper. Given my own personal experiences, I think it is best not to trust organizations and institutions. One can and should support those who preach biblical truth, and those who live biblical lives and set godly examples of lovingkindness, but even the best human being is deeply flawed. God and Jesus Christ alone deserve our full trust and confidence. Anyone else is only going to let us down if we trust in them absolutely. That said, those who are hurt by ungodly behavior can and should led God root out any bitterness that would keep us from loving and respecting others. At some point we who have been wronged by others need to let go and let God do whatever avenging is necessary, seeing as we too are beings in need of mercy and grace from God and others.
God is not done with Bill Hybels and those other leaders who (wrongly, it appears) stood by him and sought to defend him from the true allegations that were made against his character. There are some obvious lessons and takeaways from a situation like this from all of those who were involved in leadership in this church. For one, having a title and having a great deal of respect in the wider world for one’s writing and speaking and having positions within churches does not mean that we are living our lives as God has commanded. It is very easy for people to compartmentalize their lives so that they serve God part of the time with part of themselves while living in terrible and unconfessed sin with other parts of themselves other parts of the time. As common as it is, this is not an acceptable way for Christian leaders to live. Nor is it acceptable for the innocent or wronged to be blamed in order to spare the reputation of those who are in charge. Let this be a lesson that the honor of God’s church is harmed when leaders behave dishonorably, and that no one has the right to pervert the truth in order to defend a leader who has gone astray. The truth will set us free, as our Lord and Savoir said, and sometimes the truth sets us free from the power we have sought through ambition and the reputation we have gained through our works, when it is revealed that there is more to our lives than we presented before others as a model for them to follow. There is always a chance for repentance and reconciliation, but it may require some time in the wilderness and a lot of proving oneself in the harsh light of skeptical eyewitnesses.
God’s not done with the ordinary members in the pews at Willow Creek who were trying to live godly lives and had no idea what was going on in their midst. We are not always aware of the great evil that is around us, even if we feel the shame that results when leaders fail. If the leader of your church has ever been on A Current Affair or any other tabloid show or website involving some sort of tawdry and ungodly business, that leader has brought shame and a bad name on all who share that name and that identity. As followers of Christ, we are harmed when anyone who professes to follow Christ is shown as being as wicked as any of the heathen around us. It may be possible for new leadership to show that things have changed and to rebuild a better reputation in the future. It may be necessary for the name to be changed because the reputation has gotten too toxic as so many other institutions and organizations have found out before. But God isn’t done with you either, even if you were not involved in the situation itself or its repercussions. Perhaps there will be some lessons of awareness, of comforting those who were hurt and abused, of releasing one’s own frustrations in prayers to God, and in one’s own gracious dealing with others who may be less than generous.
God’s not done with the rest of us either. Whether we are critics of church abuses, leaders of congregations that seek to benefit from the turmoil affecting Willow Creek, or ordinary believers simply seeking to encourage the best behavior of everyone involved, all of us can stand to learn lessons and take heed of situations like this. We can wonder if we too have (whether knowingly or not) been a stumbling block to other believers through our own conduct or conversation, and repent. We can hope and pray that God will reform His Church so that we may be a better example to a world that needs all the good examples on how to live that can possibly be mustered in our corrupt and ungodly age. We can seek to live live that are above reproach in the knowledge that it is quite easy for others to seek to discredit our message because of the lack of moral probity of the messengers, and that may include we ourselves. To point fingers is to invite the pointing of many at ourselves as well. Let us deal with this and with all over examples of this kind with as much grace as we can muster in the knowledge that judgment begins at the house of God, and if the righteous are scarcely saved, what is to be the fate of the wicked?