Willow Creek: Loyalty & the Oppressed

Willow CreekMark Galli, Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, wrote a piece entitled The Healing of Willow Creek: Misguided loyalty harmed this historic congregation. True loyalty can redeem it.”

I appreciate his work to present God’s grace and a middle-ground step forward. However, I would make two suggestions: Evil needs to be called Evil and Abuse needs to be better understood by those writing about the Willow Creek disaster.

Evil Needs to be Called Evil

There is a distinction between the Elders of Willow Creek and Bill Hybels. There is a biblical difference in how the body of Christ treats unrepentant destructive leaders and those who are complicit, but repentant. As noted in another article, the Elders have repented (to the best of our knowledge of what repentance looks like). Hybels on the other hand has seemed to refuse to take real responsibility.

Galli’s article gives good advice to the church as he encourages Willow Creek members to be of help:

Who will be approaching any who have erred and sinned and have wreaked havoc? Is there anyone offering them prayer and support, inviting them out for coffee and conversation, being willing to listen to their story—all the while prodding them to deeper repentance and righteousness?

I would suggest this advice should be taken in response to the repentance by the Elders. The evil that Bill Hybels has perpetrated must be called out and approached as Paul and John did in the early church. As a leader in the church, he must not be coddled. He must understand that he has done great evil and wrought destruction in the Name of Christ. You are the man! as Nathaniel calls out King David after his horrific sins of adultery and murder [2 Samuel 12:11].

As unrepentant (after multiple confrontations) he is to be treated as an unbeliever:

Matthew 18:17 (ESV) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This does not mean he is an unbeliever, it simply challenges the church to proclaim the Gospel to him as if he is not. Jesus tells the church his lack of repentance points to his condemnation.

Evil must be called evil. And this was a great evil he committed.

Do You Understand Abuse?

When people make public statements about such devastation as the Willow Creek affair, and do not understand abuse, they often fall unwittingly into the hands of evil men.

Galli uses an unfortunate word in seeking to encourage the women abused by Hybels. He says they had “apparently been bullied or sexually harassed.” Apparently needs to be stripped from his article. Doubt as to the veracity of their claims needs to be stripped from the article. The trauma these women have faced cannot be minimized by suggesting for a moment they are lying.

To those who have studied and experienced abuse firsthand, there is no apparently about their claims. Though we are a society that holds to “innocent until proven guilty,” as we should, abuse can be more often than not unprovable. Rarely is there physical evidence unless it is physical abuse. [Abuse Myths 101]

Psychologists who have lived and breathed abuse will tell you an abuser knows exactly what he is doing and can easily leave no trace. The stories these women have told of Hybel’s manipulation are indicative of an abuser’s ability to leave no trace. 

However, to those who know the signs, language, and responses of abusers, it is not particularly difficult (though not to perfection) to know when abuse has happened. This is one of those times.

Recently, there have been several news stories of abusers killing their spouses. One pilot flew his company’s plane into his house in the middle of the night (while his wife and children were in the house). Another man murdered his wife and children after she returned from six weeks with her family.

In both cases, it was apparent the news reporters, neighbors, and law enforcement did not understand abuse.

One was at a loss as to why a reported abuser would fly his plane into his house?

Payson police Sgt. Noemi Sandoval said Monday that investigators believe Youd hit his house intentionally. From CBS News

Believe Youd hit his house intentionally? Sandoval just could not come out and say, “Youd’s motive was to kill his family by flying into his house.” How does someone miss power lines and fly a plane directly into their house unintentionally? Of course he intentionally hit his house!

And what could possibly be the motive of a man killing his wife after she had been away with family for six weeks?

I don’t know why he would want to kill her, the wife and the two kids,” said Joe Beach, a neighbor of the family in Aberdeen. “Like I said, the two kids were nice kids. I don’t know. To me, it’s a senseless murder, and she was looking forward to that third child. Because she was pregnant with a boy.  From ABC TV

“Why would he want to kill her?” The question almost suggests she must have done something to make him mad. Why was she away for six weeks with family? It is common for women to escape to family for long periods as they wrestle with leaving their abusers.

If you understand abuse, there are zero surprises in these accounts of violence.

Nor are there surprises in accounts of leadership abuse. Abusers are evil, manipulative, and clever. Their targets hide in shame, fear speaking up, act crazy at times (in their fear and shame), and they need our help.

Our Loyalty to the Oppressed

We need to stand unswervingly behind the survivors of these senseless acts of violence (whether in the form of emotional, physical, or spiritual abuse). God does not stand behind the unrepentant oppressor.

Ultimately, as Galli says, our loyalty is to Christ. And just so you know, Jesus’ loyalty is to the oppressed, not the unrepentant oppressor. We must stand with Him and that means standing loyally with those women.

See Abuse Myths so you are better equipped to interpret abusive events.

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