Willow: Why The Women Went Public?

The women want Willow’s elders and WCA Board to be examined, not least for its most recent announcements.

We need to remind ourselves of the significance of what we are watching: this case will be a textbook case for decades on the failure of a church — its Elders, its Boards —  to listen to women, to evaluate accusations, and to have policies in place for handling a one-of-a-kind world-influencing leaders. How the Elders handled this case will be subject to intense discussions. Seminaries around the world will discuss the “Willow Creek Case” for years.

 

The two narratives, as I described here, that shaped everything about Bill Hybels and the women accusers were these: Willow’s narrative was that Bill was innocent of all charges, the women were liars and those acting were colluding to tarnish Bill’s reputation before his retirement. The Women’s narrative is that Bill crossed lines morally and sexually, they want these actions admitted, they want confession by Bill Hybels, admission of complicity on the part of any Willow’s Elder’s involved, confession of being wrong about calling people liars and colluders, and a genuine 3d party investigation into (1) what happened between Bill Hybels and the women as well as an investigation into (2) how Willow (church and association) governs itself and governed these accusations. In other words, the women want Willow’s elders and WCA Board to be examined, not least for its most recent announcements.

Before I proceed: We need to remind ourselves of the significance of what we are watching: this case will be a textbook case for decades on the failure of a church — its Elders, its Boards —  to listen to women, to evaluate accusations, and to have policies in place for handling a one-of-a-kind world-influencing leaders. How the Elders handled this case will be subject to intense discussions. Seminaries around the world will discuss the “Willow Creek Case” for years.

The genuinely surprising element in this case happened when Steve Carter, lead teaching pastor, apologized to the women. Then Heather Larson offered a softer and very general apology but that was followed up with a written apology on the part of the Elders who publicly stated that Bill Hybels entered into “areas of sin.”

By any account, these apologies and admissions at least call into question the counter-accusations by Bill Hybels (of women lying, of collusion) and these apologies get close to admitting complicity of Willow (Elders and WCA Board) as an institution in the public statements about the women.

Why This Post?

In her apology, Heather Larson raised once again her difficulty with people going to the news media and social media instead of privately to Willow leadership (behind closed doors). The Why? of public statements is what this post is about today. In a previous post I called the public statements of the women “prophetic” and I stand by that description, but in today’s post I want to explain why it is that in a church like Willow Creek Community Church this kind of prophetic action was both necessary and inevitable. I will proceed slowly to my point because there are some elements of the Willow Creek Case that need to be understood clearly first. I will sketch the importance of goodness, the meaning of autonomy, and then what happens when a problem arises in autonomous churches.

Some of what I write below is theoretical rather than a specific description of specific people at Willow. Nor is there any suggestion that what follows describes all the leaders of all times at Willow. It manifestly does not. Still, the big ideas are worthy of our serious consideration to explain why some “did not like how the information came out in the various (news, social) media.”

Goodness

All churches require goodness among leaders to flourish in love, unity, and holiness. Churches can “succeed” without goodness but to flourish in love, unity and holiness requires some goodness. (I don’t mean sinlessness but I do mean by “goodness” what Dallas Willard made popular with the term “Christlikeness.” I want to use this term “goodness” because it is so rarely used and therefore can awaken us in a new way of thinking.) Both leaders and the people must be marked as well by goodness. Churches don’t work well without this kind of goodness. Leaders, it needs to be noted, are always tempted away from goodness in the seductions of relishing celebrity and exploiting power. The people are tempted to turn leaders into heroes and believing so much in their leaders that they surrender power to the leader.

Churches that are filled with goodness flourish no matter what the structure (denominations and independent churches). Churches marked by goodness develop the instincts of goodness; these instincts are often inarticulate and even unknown to those acting out the instincts. Success in a church does not correlate automatically with goodness. Success and Christlike flourishing, then, are not the same.

No church is perfect; no leader is perfect; no church is completely good and neither is any leader. Scripture and the wisdom of the church are our guides to goodness through thickets of corruption and sin.

What follows is absolutely essential to understand to comprehend why the Women had to go public.

Autonomy

Willow is an independent church, which means it is self-ruled (or autonomous).Some don’t know this but Willow is not part of a denomination. The church is on its own.

Autonomous churches, like Baptists and many independent non-denominational churches, have no one or organization above the pastor or elders. They are an island to themselves. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean that goodness is especially needed because each church has to re-create its own infrastructure and each church then also has to monitor itself.

Autonomous churches therefore have autonomous pastors, and that means these pastors have no one to whom they answer other than the Elders/Deacons. Goodness is beyond needed for such pastors because the temptations of a pastor away from goodness are toward power and toward celebrity. It is not uncommon in autonomous churches with autonomous pastors that Elders or Deacons are “on the side” of the pastor. If goodness is present, no problem; if not, enter problems.

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