Loving Others Well: A Lesson from a Crisis at Willow Creek

April 30, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Bill Hybels

For a year, from the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2003, I lived in a small town about 60 miles northwest of Chicago, where I served in a rural congregation as part of my studies to become a pastor.  During that time, on Wednesday evenings, I would regularly travel about half an hour east to attend the midweek service at Willow Creek Community Church.  Though the church and its model of ministry have raised certain concerns and garnered frequent criticism over the years, much of what I experienced there impacted me in positive ways.  I heard preaching that was full of Scriptural insight from pastors who not only preached the gospel, but saw the gospel in the text of Scripture in ways I had never before noticed.  I got to participate in moving worship, led by expert musicians, who were not only proficient, but humble.  Above all, I was captivated by the picture that Willow Creek painted of the Church straight from Acts 2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

“This was the Church,” I heard time and time again, “and this is still the Church.”  It was a message that was both timeless and timely.

Willow Creek blessed me as I was studying to become a pastor.  This is why I was heartbroken when a story broke about a month ago in the Chicago Tribune that its senior and founding pastor, Bill Hybels, stands accused of making inappropriate advances toward females both inside and outside of his congregation.  While Pastor Hybels has denied many of the accusations leveled against him, he did admit that he placed himself “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”  In some cases, he met alone with women in hotel rooms during his extensive travel on behalf of the congregation and the Willow Creek Association, an organization dedicated to resourcing the Church-at-Large.

In an article for First Things, Aimee Byrd takes on the scandal at Willow Creek and tries to lay out a way forward.  In her piece, she takes aim at the so-called “Pence Rule,” named for the current vice-president, who has publicly announced that he never shares a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex.  Ms. Byrd objects to the Pence Rule, writing:

To this rule Christians have added other prohibitions, such as sharing a car ride or an elevator, or even sending a text message to the other sex without some sort of chaperone… 

By putting up fences, we foster an individualistic, self-protective morality … We need to protect one another from abusers, not from godly friendship. That likely requires case-by-case boundaries, promoting the exercise of wisdom in different circumstances, rather than coercion both from predators and from imposed moral systems. The church should model real friendship, as well as call out predators. An expanded Pence Rule, with its basis in fear, won’t help us develop the discernment to know the difference.

As a man who follows the Pence Rule, I am less skeptical of the motivations behind it and more sympathetic to the benefits of it than Ms. Byrd is.  I have the privilege of working with many smart, kind, and godly women.  Yet, I would never put myself into a situation with one of these ladies where I was in a private setting that isn’t in my office during regular business hours.  This is not because I am scared of any of them, but because I deeply respect all of them and I want to guard not only my integrity, but theirs as well.  Just an appearance of impropriety can not only destroy reputations, it can confuse and burden a church that has to try to figure out whether or not an appearance of impropriety was, in fact, actual impropriety.

The crisis at Willow Creek reminds us that no person is immune from the wiles of human sinfulness.  Anyone, given the right opportunity and the right temptation, can self-destruct and deeply wound others in the process.  This is why guarding our actions and our interactions is so important. Guarding our actions and interactions can also have a way of deepening our love for others.  When we guard our actions and set boundaries, our hearts do not necessarily drift from people.  Instead, they can actually be propelled toward people.  After all, when we take the time to set appropriate boundaries in our relationships, we are saying that the people with whom we are in relationship mean so much to us that we are willing even to endure certain inconveniences – like refusing to be alone in private settings with them if they are of the opposite sex – out of respect and love for them.  We would never want to put them in any situation – even innocently and unknowingly – that would somehow compromise them or us.

When you love and care for someone, sometimes, it’s not just about what you do.  It’s about what you refuse to do.  It sounds like Bill Hybels may have lost sight of this.  Let’s use his loss as our lesson – for the sake of each other and the Church.  And let’s pray for Willow Creek, the women who have come forward to tell their stories, and Bill Hybels.  This scandal, with all the attention it has received, has wounded not just Willow Creek, but the Church.  The Church, however, has as its foundation a wounded Savior who endured.  It will endure too.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mona  |  April 30, 2018 at 7:06 am

    Whether this all REALLY HAPPENED OR NOT I think it’s SATAN at work to cause this confusion & this kind of situation! I appreciate my pastors fidelity in their marriages and pray this NEVER happens at Concordia.

    Reply

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