I grew up at Willow Creek, and while I have a complex relationship with them now, I can’t deny that the church got me through some difficult parts of my past. It kills me to see this tearing apart the community that I needed and loves so much. No matter how any investigation shakes out–as is usually the case with sexual misconduct claims, there is a lot of he-said-she-said going on, but both he and she are prominent members, past and present, of the Willow Creek extended family–this is bad for Willow, and it’s so painful to watch, even from afar.
Even though Willow is a megachurch, I never thought of it as a cult of personality, like some other megachurches are, at least from the perspective of outsiders. I know it has that reputation to some people, and I can understand why, but I never felt very attached to Bill Hybels himself even though I called his church my second home. A #ChurchToo movement has been needed and true for so long; I remember when the Ashley Madison leak happened and that rocked so many evangelicals to their core. But now it feels personal, and it feels awful.
I am still a strong Christian, and my faith is in God not in His children. This doesn’t shake my faith. It does, however, shake my identity. And I’m sure it’s affecting Willow Creek. Whatever the results of an investigation, this has brought home to every member of Willow just how pervasive sexual misconduct, corruption of authority, and abuse of power actually are. They can reach inside your home and manipulate and hurt people you’ve personally trusted and loved.
Generalized thoughts on Sexual Misconduct in the Church
As a Christian, I believe that a person’s sin is between them and God. I believe the security of their immortal soul rests not on their moral and ethical perfection throughout their lifetime, but on their faith in Jesus, whose moral perfection is unmatched and unmatchable by any other human being. I believe the same of any of Bill Hybel’s many, many sins.
I do, however, believe that a person’s wrongdoing is between them, God, and their victims. God’s justice and the world’s justice, for better or worse, are different, separate things. As a church body, Christians worldwide may forgive Bill Hybels for any indiscretion he was a part of, as many have forgiven the Catholic church and even the individual priests and leaders who have been found to be abusive, destructive, and terrible forces of evil in the church. But somehow, I think forgiveness by your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are perhaps indirect victims of your sin, has to be a separate thing from forgiveness from the direct victims, the people you wronged, the people whose trust you broke and whose lives you disrupted.
I don’t understand that difference, and I don’t even know off the top of my head if it is Biblical. I’ve never really considered it before. I would be interested to talk with someone who has extensive knowledge of the epistles, and of the Old Testament laws, because I think if the Bible speaks of collective forgiveness for a single person’s sins, it is probably in those sections.
Forgiveness is also between a person and God. Forgiving someone for their wrongdoing against you is not something anyone can coerce you into doing. It has to be a choice, and it is a choice you can only make with God’s help.
And regardless, forgiveness in the spiritual and religious sense, forgiveness by other flawed humans, shouldn’t have a bearing on the worldly consequences of your actions. Forgiveness relates to the soul, to your relationship with God, and to your relationship to God’s kingdom and its citizens. But we have been separated from God by sin, and we still await the perfection of the coming kingdom: God is sovereign, and yet we still have to have human laws, rules, mores, and breaking those has to have a human consequence. Those consequences are between more than a sinner and God, while still not existing outside of God’s will. God is sovereign in them, and His will is done regardless.
What comes next?
- Nancy Beach, the Ortbergs, and the Mellados are credible and trustworthy sources and Christian leaders in their own right. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain by pursuing the truth in this situation. What would be their reason for lying?
- By contrast, Hybels and the Willow Creek apparatus have everything to lose and nothing to gain by admitting wrongdoing. This doesn’t make them by default wrong, but church cultures built up around an individual, charismatic celebrity are precisely the types of environments in which misconduct can fester due to lack of accountability.
- Some Christians will read all this and ask why we need to “air dirty laundry” and “spread gossip” and the like. But reports like these–well-researched, often involving months of interviews and fact-checking–are a gift to the body of Christ, for the ways they can expose what we want to keep secret.
I knew the Ortbergs and Mellados more directly than I did other Willow Creek leaders, because they had children close to me in age with whom I was involved in activities both in and outside the church. I find it hard to believe that they would lie about something, that they would collude to ruin Hybels’ reputation, like he suggests. Beaty asks, and so do I, very earnestly, what do they stand to gain by lying? What does he stand to lose by fighting these accusations? How has and hasn’t the church and its governing members done due diligence in seeking the truth in this matter?
And if these allegations are false, as Hybels suggests, then they are elaborate lies told by people who also built that church, are also people I trust, and these people I actually know personally, unlike Bill.
All of this affects me so tangentially, so indirectly, that it almost feels silly to put all of these thoughts into words on a page. It doesn’t seem necessary or particularly useful. But now, more than previously, I want to have conversations about these difficult topics, about hypocrisy in the church, about sin and leadership, about corruption and faith, about forgiveness and justice. If you have insights or musings or resources for me, or if you also want to have these conversations, please let me know. While I do intend to study my Bible and further explore the resources already at my disposal, I don’t think these topics are things one person can simply tackle on their own. These are conversations for communities, not questions with obvious answers.