Willow Creek's Bill Hybels Had Too Much Power: Scot McKnight on Scandal

Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, speaks to the congregation in October 2017.
Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, speaks to the congregation in October 2017. | (Screenshot:

Responding to Willow Creek Community Church's recent apologies for the way the leadership handled sexual misconduct allegations against founder Bill Hybels, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight argued that the victims had no choice but to go public and expose misconduct. 

McKnight, who attended the South Barrington, Illinois, megachurch for 10 years, argued on his Jesus Creed blog that autonomy may be largely to blame for how the church's leadership failed the women.

"What the power brokers think of first is protecting the institution, which is (sad to say) protection of the power at the top," he wrote.

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Willow Creek, founded by Hybels in 1975 in a rented theater, is an independent church with no affiliation to any denomination. "They are an island to themselves," McKnight described. 

"Autonomous churches therefore have autonomous pastors, and that means these pastors have no one to whom they answer other than the Elders/Deacons," he noted. "When pastors become autonomous and authoritative and when they are as big as Willow, the church can easily become a top-down organization and become a centralized institution."

With autonomy, McKnight argued that there is usually "too much authority in the inner circle  at the top and voicelessness for too many."

So when a problem arises, such as accusations of misconduct against the lead pastor in Willow Creek's case, there's more concern to protect the church and its leaders than the victims, he noted.

"The 'Team' doesn't like criticism because it damages the institution. So such institutions want to keep things 'inside' so they can be controlled by the power brokers," he wrote.

"They fear populist criticism, they fear going to the media, including social media, because media can damage the institution." 

Though multiple women — who have accused Hybels of suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms — reached out to the church leaders with their accusations, they ultimately felt forced to go public.

"When people know their stories are being diminished or devalued or ignored, there's only one thing to do if the Boards (Church Elders and Association) doesn't respond according to truth (I assume the women are telling the truth, and Steve Carter and the Elders agree and Heather seems to as well). What are they to do?

"Go public.

"So, Willow's (autonomous, centralized with an autonomous pastor and Elders who supported the) Church and Association made public prophetic speech the only option," McKnight wrote.

In April, Hybels resigned prematurely after multiple accusations were made public through an investigation by the Chicago Tribune. He denied each woman's accusation and maintained his innocence in his resignation announcement and was backed by the church's elders whose investigation cleared him of any misconduct. 

Last week, elders of the evangelical megachurch admitted that their approach had been mistaken, however.

"We apologize and ask for forgiveness that the tone of our initial response was not one of humility and deep concern for all the women involved. It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story," read a statement on the church website.

"We are grieved that we let Bill's statement stand for as long as we did that the women were lying and colluding. We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth."

While Willow Creek Lead Pastor Heather Larson, who acknowledged the "mistakes" that they made, said she "did not agree with how the information came out in the media," McKnight noted that the church was to blame for that.

"Willow has itself to blame for the electric media and social media that brought the story to the public. Unchecked autonomy always results in a populist revolt," he write.

After months of silence, McKnight, who is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois, decided to speak out last month on the controversy, after at least 50 different people asked him to comment.

"Bill Hybels and Willow Creek's leadership have undone forty years of trust for many," McKnight wrote in June.

"A church that has stood valiantly for women in ministry, that has always stood for Christian grace and truth and forgiveness for repenters, that has supported #metoo in various places, that then responds to women as they did to these women unravels the thread Willow has woven for four decades."

In his Monday blog, McKnight argued that what happened at Willow Creek "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," he predicted.

McKnight noted that there are many "noble" Christians who attend Willow and have given "their heart to the gospel work of that church." The recent controversy, he said, has "blindsided" them.


Follow Stoyan Zaimov on Facebook: CPSZaimov

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