It has been over three years since the disclosure of Bill Hybel’s sexual abuse of several women. My brother was in South Haven for a vacation last week and happened upon Bill bringing his sailing boat into the harbor. This, plus the experience of going to Willow Creek South Barrington for a recent family meeting, prompted me to write down some thoughts about where I see things at this point in the Willow saga. I have written in the past about Bill and his narcissism and how he had such a strangle hold of control over the church, and so has seemingly continued to control the response of the church in such a tepid way towards his abuse. What I have not focused on as much is the fact that what Bill did was sin. It was both Bill’s personal sinfulness, as well as the fact that he sinned against the women. The more I contemplated this, the more I realized that I have been analyzing his behavior from a psychological perspective, but have not drilled down to the core problem, which is sin.
Sin was a word not often used in the vocabulary of Bill, or, for that matter, other leaders at Willow Creek. Sin was referred to as “foul ups”, “mistakes”, or other tepid words that reduced the idea of sin to a comfortable, secularly acceptable concept that focused more on the behavior of people, and less on the idea of sin as an offense to a righteous God. This diluted notion of sin is really the explanation for Willow Creek’s leaderships pathetic response to Bill’s sin. He just fouled up, made a mistake, acted like any red-blooded man would.
As I have been thinking about it, the response of leadership at Willow Creek is consistent with the public minimization of what he did. The family meeting at Willow Creek that I attended continued this emphasis on suppression of bringing forward the absolute sinfulness of his behavior. Someone brought up the reality that Bill’s name had not been mentioned at Willow since he left. What followed in the answer of Dave Dummit and the campus pastor of South Barrington was disgusting. They basically planted the seed of rehabilitating Bill’s reputation by compartmentalizing Bill’s behavior into two camps. The first camp is to see him as fouling up and the second camp was the bringing forward of his many accomplishments.
The answer by these leaders was to say that we can hold in tension the diverse views of Bill. I am hesitant to bring this comparison up, but it is somewhat like saying what Adolf Hitler did good (rehabilitating the post WWI spirit of the German people, building extraordinary architectural wonders, retooling the German economy, etc.), while he had this bad part of him that resulted in the massive destruction of the Jews and the German people and the killing of millions in the war. Can we hold these two parts of him in tension? I do not think so.
If Bill’s sexual abuse of women came at the end of his leadership at Willow, then maybe we can more easily understand this as not congruent with his general character. But Bill began sexual abuse of women early in the development of the church. So, his character was driven more by selfish entitlement, and was there, not as a “shadow” (as the leaders attributed his behavior), but really informed his deepest motivations. His need for adulation cannot be discounted as a shadow of his character, but instead what was existent in his motivation to create this great reflection of his own accomplishments. In looking at Bill and Willow, can it be said that the ends have justified the means? The means, by the way, were in many ways the result of the adaptation of “best practices” of a church modeled after corporate structure.
It seems that the only people who have been horrified by what Bill did to women are those that have a background in a more Biblical model of what the church should be and how elders and teachers should act. This is the tradition of my early life. My father was a pastor who sought to build and maintain a Biblical notion of what the church is supposed to express to the world. There was no minimization of the concept of sin. Sin was defined as the core condition that created evil behaviors, in rebellion against a righteous God, and it was expressed in many self-centered expressions. These were not defined as “foul ups”, but rather the deepest factor in the motivation of selfish behavior that hurts others. My father started his ministry under the tutelage of A.W. Tozer, and then planted a daughter church from Tozer’s Southwest Alliance Church. My dad and mother were steeped in the wisdom of Tozer. I ran across a quote of Tozer that explains the deep divide behind a more Biblical view of man and the church, than the shallow and methodological approach that Willow followed. Here it is:
“The poor quality of Christian that grows out of our modern evangelistic meeting may be accounted for by the absence of real repentance accompanying the initial spiritual experience of the converts. And the absence of repentance is the result of an inadequate view of sin and sinfulness held by those who present themselves in the inquiry room”. A.W. Tozer
And another relevant quote:
“The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.”
― A.W. Tozer, Tozer on the Almighty God: A 366-Day Devotional
And one last quote that I think is relevant to the contrast between Willow and a Biblical model of the Church:
“We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals…The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies…the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities…. salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such of these are the symptoms of an evil disease.”
― A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine
My father would say that “Tozer would roll over in his grave” if he saw the dilution of the sanctity of the church and the diminishment of the righteous demands of God on our lives that Willow demonstrates.
It is a truism, that Tozer would support, that one’s view of sin is connected to one’s view of God’s awesome righteousness. I thought about what Tozer might say in response to the way that Bill’s sin was diminished. He, consistent with the concept of God’s righteousness, would likely call both for repentance by Bill for his sin, but would also admonish the leadership, on behalf of the people of Willow, to show clear and visible expressions of repentance (such as in the Old Testament where sackcloth and ashes symbolized the deep remorse felt by those who sinned). Why is a more public demonstration of repentance so important? Let me try to explain view from scripture.
Jeremiah called out to the people of Israel Daughter of my people, clothe yourself with sackcloth, and wallow in ashes! Mourn, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for the destroyer shall suddenly come on us. Jeremiah 6:26
People who identify with their own potential for sin see brokenness and mourning as both a reverence for the righteousness of God, that was broken by the person who sinned, but also identified that sin as something they themselves could commit. Believers are called to restore those who are caught up in sin with a spirit of gentleness knowing that they themselves are vulnerable (Galatian 6:1). That is why true repentance is not judgmental of others, but reminds one of the fact that sin is an offense to God and a reflection of not just the individuals sin against God, but their own potential for sin. So repentance was a communal thing, calling the people to recognize the offense as against a righteous God and each person’s culpability in sin.
Elders and pastors are the spiritual representatives of the people of God. They are supposed to be so spiritually attuned that they can detect and protect against the intrusion of sin into the midst of the people of God. They sit at the gate of wisdom, protecting the church from the infection of sin. But if they have a diluted view of sin, they will not recognize it. Willow’s elders have been more qualified for governmental issues in their model of organization, and not so focused on their spiritual maturity. Why is the spiritual maturity of elders so important? If they were spiritually mature and astute, they would, as Tozer states, have a reverential understanding of the righteous expectations of God, and they would be able to detect it and protect the people. In the Old Testament, over and over, if the leaders of the people of Israel were not protecting the spiritual condition of the people, they would allow all manner of idolatry to penetrate the body.
It is clear in looking back on the actions of Bill Hybels, that the elders, especially towards the end of his ministry, did not protect the church from both his hubris driven controlling behavior, and his sexual impropriety. They failed to sit at the gate of wisdom to hold accountable his sinful behavior. Bill has chosen to stay silent about the sinfulness of his degrading behavior towards the women that he used for his own sexual gratification. Consistent with his view of sin, he may have only seen it as a foul up or mistake, although he has not even admitted even this view of his behavior.
How a church responds to sin shows how much they respect and fear the righteousness of God. When, as Tozer would state, the church has a low view of God and His righteous demands, it has a cheap view of sin. The response of the elders when all this sinful behavior became public shows this diminished view of sin. The elders and leadership of the church should have come out with a public admonishment to Bill to confess, because they had a view of sin that indicated how horrific and destructive Bill’s sin was to the women who were used and abused. The church as the Body of Christ is called to live in such a way as to accurately reflect the righteous character of God. Willow failed to reflect that Bill’s behavior violated the character and reputation of God. The weak and almost non-existent response of the leadership and elders was complicit in failing to declare that Bill’s behavior did not protect the reputation of the Bride of Christ. We, as believers, are called to be the incarnation of Christ, seeking to closely reflect the very righteousness of God (II Corinthians 3:2).
God absolutely hates the sexual abuse of women. As a psychologist, I can attest that there are few things that are more devastating and traumatic than sexual abuse. God loves women and sees them as daughters who must be treated with the utmost respect and understands the devastating effect that abuse can inflict on them. When the church takes the sin of sexual abuse lightly, since they are to reflect to the world who God is, they are effectively saying that God does not care that much about the abuse of his cherished daughters. I would conclude that those (the world of non-believers) who have observed the apathetic treatment of Willow’s abuse victims should rightly conclude that God, and the Willow leadership, has a low view of His righteous expectations and abhorrence of sin. And how tragically ironic, that Bill Hybels, who said that he elevated and valued the importance of women, was secretly showing his real view of women as objects of his own predatory selfishness.
Willow, consistent with scripture, should not believe that they will flourish without repentance, and the re-establishment of the high view of God’s righteousness and abhorrence of sin that Tozer describes. Beware of the destroyer.