No evangelical pastor in America has been more influential in my lifetime than Bill Hybels.
In 1975, he founded the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, now one of the largest congregations in America. The Willow Creek Association he launched has become a global network of strategic pastors, churches, and ministries. His name has been synonymous with vision, leadership, evangelism, and integrity.
Now he has been accused of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct by former church leaders.
Christianity Today is reporting that John and Nancy Ortberg, former teaching pastors at the church and very well-known ministers and best-selling authors, are among the group asking that accusations against Hybels be investigated. Leanne Mellado, a former Willow Creek staff member who is married to the former head of the Willow Creek Association, is also in the group, as are several others.
Hybels completely denies all accusations, stating clearly that “all charges against me are false” and calling them “lies.” Willow Creek’s elder board conducted a “thorough and independent investigation” into Hybels’s conduct and cleared him of all charges. The board is accusing Hybels’s critics of making a “coordinated effort to undermine Bill’s reputation.”
Church leaders have sent an email to the entire membership describing the allegations as “false” and calling a “church family meeting” tonight, during which Hybels and the elders will directly address the accusations in the story.
This story will likely make headlines around the world. You may be asked about it by friends and colleagues this weekend and at church. If you’re a pastor or Bible study leader, you may feel the need to address the issue as well.
In that context, I would like to suggest four biblical responses.
Do not judge what you do not know.
I have no idea whether Hybels or his accusers are telling the truth. Unless I had been a leader inside the church when the alleged misconduct took place, I could have no independent or objective knowledge regarding these accusations. Most of us know only what we read on this issue.
It is therefore urgent that we do not condemn what we do not know. Jesus was blunt: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). He added, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). And we are warned, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James 4:11).
The church, its leaders, and Hybels’s accusers will all likely be slandered by media and others in coming days. We must not join them.
Do not downplay the significance of these allegations.
While we do not know if Bill Hybels is guilty of sexual misconduct, we know that sexual misconduct is a grave sin. Any of its victims deserve our heartfelt sympathy, support, and ministry.
The more we hear stories of Christian leaders caught in sexual immorality, the easier it can be to conclude that such sin must not be so evil. We can even use the sins of leaders to legitimize our own.
These are temptations we must resist.
We are ordered to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Jesus warned that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). I know of no sin more damaging to the body of Christ than sexual immorality committed by her leaders and members.
This fact leads to a third principle:
If you’re a leader, be even more vigilant about protecting your integrity.
All sin is sin, and all sinners are sinners. But the more visible we are in leading God’s people, the greater a target we become for the enemy. And the more our sins affect others and the reputation of the church in the world.
Hebrews 13:7 urges us to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” It is vital that we live in a way others can emulate. We are called to “show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (Titus 2:7).
We must pray for our pastors and churches to model the character of Christ.
Paul taught us to pray “for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). The apostle asked his readers to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me” (Ephesians 6:18-19). If even Paul needed the intercession of others, how much more do we?
These are challenging days for the church in a post-Christian culture. Skeptics are searching for reasons to accuse believers of hypocrisy so they can dismiss our message by dismissing the messenger.
It is urgent that we pray for Bill Hybels and all those affected by the accusations he faces. And it is urgent that we pray for ourselves and each other to live with godly integrity in the power of the Spirit.
Would you stop and pray, right now?