Readers may have heard of multiple sexual harassment allegations against Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek, a suburban Chicago megachurch. In August, Willow Creek’s entire board of elders resigned, confessing they failed to handle the allegations appropriately, failed to hold Hybels accountable, and had been “blinded by their faith in their founding pastor.” I own a number of Bill Hybels’ many bestselling books and have attended a satellite for one of his Global Leadership Summits. I believe many Christian Reformed pastors and leaders have done the same. We learned much from Hybels and were eager to apply his leadership concepts and seeker-friendly methods in our own contexts. Many of us are now asking ourselves, “How do we respond to this?” What do we do when someone we admire is tarnished by an egregious sin? Do we burn his books and boycott the summits?
Hybels is not the first Christian “celebrity” in history to be tainted. Martin Luther King Jr., John Howard Yoder, and Karl Barth, to name just a few, were all implicated in some sex scandal or other. And what about sins besides sexual sins? For instance, what do we do with Abraham Kuyper’s racist ideas? These Christian leaders were all influential theologians and thinkers. Do we reject all of their work as hopelessly tarnished? How do we deal with our disappointments? What do we learn from all this?
I am saddened whenever I hear of these tragedies. They tarnish our Christian witness, hurt people, and potentially create stumbling blocks to faith, including the faith of the victims of abuse. Do people find God’s message credible if the messengers are not?
These events remind me that we are all sinners. They are cautionary tales to take heed lest we fall. What preventative steps can we take to ensure they don’t happen again? How do we notice the signs of abuse of power? What kinds of systems, structures, or practices foster such abuse? How do we change them?
Such abuses are almost always abetted by others’ silence and by turning a blind eye. Do we perpetuate abuse when we have blind loyalty and trust for our admired “heroes”? We cannot have double standards, blame victims, or make excuses, even for one of our “good guys.”
We also need to avoid the extremes of defending or demonizing these fallen leaders, either by denying or ignoring their failings and blaming the victims or by denying anything good from their legacy.
Justice and mercy must always be held together in tension. Justice without mercy can be harsh, legalistic, and vengeful. Mercy without justice can be permissive, leave those in authority unaccountable, and abet injustice.
An all-or-nothing tribal loyalty feeds into both extremes. We cannot afford a tribal loyalty that only gives mercy to our tribe’s heroes or leaders when they fail and only doles out justice to our enemies. That is a recipe for abetting injustice and abuse of power. We cannot afford a loyalty that accepts all from our tribe and rejects all from the enemy, as if our tribe’s ideas are flawless. That is a recipe for tyranny.
Our primary loyalty should always be to God, not to any human being, institution, or country. Not even to any theological tradition. We must never confuse allegiance to God with allegiance to any of these flawed entities, good as they may be. God commands us to love our neighbors, enemies included (Matt. 5:43-48).
We are called to sift for golden truths from sinful mud. Sometimes we forget.