Willow Creek Community Church, a Chicago-area megachurch, is scrambling under the light of the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against its lead pastor, Bill Hybels. Last night, Hybels announced that he was resigning from Willow Creek due to the controversy, although he continues to claim that the allegations against him are false.
The Hybels are a well-connected and influential evangelical family and their supporters have rallied around them. Both the church itself and Hybels’s daughter Shauna Niequest have posted publicly in social media spaces, receiving thousands of comments in support of the Hybels family. This is understandably a difficult time for Bill Hybels’s wife and children and anyone else who has been influenced by him, and their feelings matter. But what matters more is a fair investigation into the disturbing patterns of behavior and cover-ups Hybels is being accused of.
The responses from churchgoers and fans of Hybels’s books and ministry are beyond problematic. They are everything that is wrong with evangelical culture and the reason these things are allowed to happen in secrecy for so long. They demonstrate blind support of their leaders and disregard for logic or facts, with a generous side of victim blaming. Here are some of my favorites:
- “Willow Creek changed my life therefore these accusations must be lies.”
You can be grateful for the way a church or pastor has shaped you and still be open to the possibility he may be a womanizer and abuser of power.
- “Spiritual discernment is more important than investigation or logic.”
You are an intuitive person? Awesome for you! You still don’t get to control the conversation or discredit logic. God might speak to you, but she doesn’t speak to me so let’s just stick to the facts surrounding the investigation.
- “Accusing people is the worst sin ever.”
I kind of feel like I could list some other behavior that’s more “the likeness of Satan.”
- “These allegations should not be taken seriously.”
Um … excuse me? I mean at least Willow Creek Association is pretending to take them seriously, right? You can hold on to hope that the accusations aren’t true while remaining open to the possibility that they are. Maybe this guy should work for Willow’s PR.
- “I don’t like the manner in which the victims and accusers are coming forward so we should focus on that instead of the content of their message.”
This is a classic case of deflection. Also, what is it with evangelical’s obsession with keeping things insular? They can quote Matthew 18 all they want but it’s this kind of insular thinking that has allowed these cases to go on for so long under the radar.
The “why can’t we all get along” argument falls apart when the accusations of conduct are serious. This isn’t a water-under-the-bridge type of situation. Peace isn’t actual peace if there is injustice. Speaking up is not a sin.
- “It’s a conspiracy.”
Just because you don’t like what the news says, or what the victims say, it doesn’t make them evil. Also, newspapers don’t pay for stories. If they did, they wouldn’t be going out of business at the rate they are.
- “My experiences with him are good therefore he cannot be bad.”
This type of response was by far the most common. Your memories of Bill Hybels can be true and these women’s experiences can also be true. It sucks to do the hard work of deciding whether the good memories you have of a person were true, or if you knew a façade all along. I’ve had to do this recently in my personal life, and it was awful. But I never once didn’t believe the victims. I only grieved over loss of the person I thought I knew. People who do good things can also do very bad things.
- “He’s funny so he can’t be a womanizer.”
Wait, are we talking about Bill Hybels or Bill Cosby now?
You can add policies and procedures and processes, but until the evangelical church deals with these deep-seated mindsets, the impact will be minor. This is the culture that must change.
About Carly Gelsinger Carly Gelsinger is a writer and editor living in California. Her first book, Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith is forthcoming October 2018. You can learn more about her at CarlyGelsinger.com.