Last week Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, centered an entire article about the sexual harassment scandals that have beleaguered Bill Hybels—pastor of Willow Creek, a megachurch in the Chicago suburbs—on the importance of loyalty to leaders. While Galli wrote that he believes Hybels’ accusers, he went on to elevate the importance of loyalty, arguing that it is important to hire employees who will approach allegations skeptically, and that the obligation to be loyal to a leader continues even if that leader is found guilty of gross malfeasance.
Before we get into Galli’s framing, let me offer some background on Hybels. Allegations that Hybels sexually harassed women employed at his church and behaved inappropriately with parishioners, engaging in misconduct spanning back to decades, have been swirling for years now. The congregation and the board of elders have repeatedly questioned Hybels’ accusers and believed Hybels’ denials.
In March , The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today reported that Mr. Hybels had been accused by several other women, including co-workers and a congregant, of inappropriate behavior that dated back decades. The allegations included lingering hugs, invitations to hotel rooms, comments about looks and an unwanted kiss.
The accusations did not immediately result in consequences for Mr. Hybels. At a churchwide meeting where Mr. Hybels denied the allegations, he received a standing ovation from the congregation.
The church’s elders conducted their own investigation of the allegations when they first surfaced four years ago and commissioned a second inquiry by an outside lawyer, completed in 2017. Both investigations cleared Mr. Hybels.
When allegations against Hybels “first surfaced” four years ago, the board of elders investigated them internally and concluded that they were false. Allegations against Hybels continued to surface, however, and in 2017 the elders hired a lawyer to investigate the merits of the claims; once again, they were determined to be false. This whole time, the allegations were kept from the public.
The allegations against Hybels were not made public until the Tribune broke the story in March, 2018, at least four years after they were first made known to elders. The Tribune was able to report on the story because some of Hybels’ victims decided to make their allegations public, motivated by the #metoo movement.
Hybels went before the congregation and denied the allegations; he received a standing ovation. The congregation was angry when Hybels then decided to retire six months early rather than continue to face public scrutiny:
In April, Mr. Hybels announced to the congregation he would accelerate his planned retirement by six months and step aside immediately for the good of the church. He continued to deny the allegations, but acknowledged, “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” The congregation let out a disappointed groan. Some shouted “No!”
It’s not just the congregation that responded this way; the board of elders has for years disbelieved the allegations against Hybels, preferring internal investigations and lack of public scrutiny over true accountability. Some at Willow Creek have come to question the board of elders’ response to the allegations against Hybels:
On Sunday, one of the church’s two top pastors severed his ties with Willow Creek. After services, the Rev. Steve Carter announced that he was resigning immediately in response to Ms. Baranowski’s “horrifying” allegations about Mr. Hybels.
Mr. Carter said he had a “fundamental difference” with the church’s elders over how they had handled the allegations against Mr. Hybels, and had been planning to resign for some time.
The New York Times is extremely adept in pointing to the reasons and dynamics that undergird the actions of both the elders and the congregation—as well as the reasons Hybels’ victims remained quiet for so long:
In many evangelical churches, a magnetic pastor like Mr. Hybels is the superstar on whom everything else rests, making accusations of harassment particularly difficult to confront. Such a pastor is seen as a conduit to Christ, giving sermons so mesmerizing that congregants rush to buy tapes of them after services.
In the evangelical world, Mr. Hybels is considered a giant, revered as a leadership guru who discovered the formula for bringing to church people who were skeptical of Christianity. His books and speeches have crossed over into the business world.
Mr. Hybels built a church independent of any denomination. In such churches, there is no larger hierarchy to set policies and keep the pastor accountable. Boards of elders are usually volunteers recommended, and often approved, by the pastor.
But the most significant reason sexual harassment can go unchecked is that victims do not want to hurt the mission of their churches.
Three days after the New York Times article—with its scathing analysis and hold-no-punches approach—the board of elders at Willow Creek resigned en mass. As the Tribune reported:
Answering critics’ calls to let new leaders shepherd northwest suburban Willow Creek Community Church, lead pastor Heather Larson and other church elders resigned Wednesday and apologized for mishandling allegations that church founder Bill Hybels engaged in improper behavior with women.
Larson and the elders announced their resignations Wednesday evening during a packed congregational meeting at the church’s South Barrington campus. Audience members applauded the elders’ decision. But some people audibly groaned over Larson’s announcement, and one even approached the stage in protest.
All of this makes Galli’s approach in a recent Christianity Today article on Hybels profoundly odd. Rather than spend the article castigating the elders for what they failed to do—and outlining pitfalls—he begins by affirming the importance of loyalty, particularly to a leader whose mission you believe in. In doing so he undergirds and supports the very reasons the elders kept investigations internal—as well as the reasons Hybels’ victims waited to come forward—portraying both as rational and sound.
Have a look at this passage from Galli’s article:
The current pastoral leaders and the board have shown both courage and humility in resigning. That in itself is an act of repentance, and for that we can be grateful. Without excusing the leadership, we do well, however, to note why staff and boards who otherwise show signs of wisdom are tempted in a crisis to downplay accusations and protect their leader at all costs, for they do it often.
One reason for many is loyalty. Loyalty is an especially precious virtue in mission-driven organizations, especially in an age when missions are so easily undermined. We do not want to hire staff or form boards whose first instinct is to suspect the leader of the worst after every accusation.
This would have been a good opportunity to question loyalty, especially in light of what the New York Times pointed out about megachurches, and the cult of an individual charismatic leader. This would have been a good time to argue that one’s loyalty should be to God, or to God’s word as written in the Bible, and not to an individual pastor or leader. This would have been a good time to remind readers that the New Testament lays out very strict guidelines and conduct requirements for church leaders.
Galli does none of this.
Instead, Galli states it’s absolutely a good thing to hire employees who are loyal to their leader, even when that leader is a megachurch pastor in a climate with little accountability, a good thing to hire employees who react to allegations against their leader with doubt. Further, Galli validates fear that coming forward will undermine an organization’s mission—a concern he never directly confronts.
The whole piece comes off feeling tone deaf.
Galli does state outright that he believes the allegations against Hybels. However, he also argues against “simplistic” readings of events. In his introduction, he says his article will grapple with “moral and psychological complexities” of the issue, in order to work toward “deep redemption” (something that is never defined). Her his how he lays out the issue toward the beginning of his article:
Let’s ponder what has happened in the last few months and why, because a simplistic reading of the events will only tempt Willow—and any Christian institution in a similar crisis—to react in such a way that the fruitful season will wither away all too quickly. Many women have come forward and said Bill Hybels has abused his power and sexually harassed female colleagues. The current leadership, pastors and elder board, have failed early to take seriously the accusations being brought forth. We are wise to try our best to grasp the moral and psychological complexities of what has taken place, so deep redemption can take place.
Galli’s piece almost reads as though he is writing for an audience that he believes isn’t ready to hear what they really need to hear. It is possible that Galli himself is deeply wedded to the concept of loyalty—the framework he has chosen for this piece—but it is also possible that Galli believes it more effective to try to redefine knee-jerk loyalty to one’s leader than to question the concept, given his audience.
After affirming the importance of loyalty, Galli goes on:
And here is the rub, because loyalty is more complex than we first imagine. We tend to think that loyalty means always taking the side of the leader to whom we want to be faithful. Loyalty instead means doing everything in your power to make the leader not only a better one but a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s not unlike patriotism for one’s country. The true patriot loves his country; so much so that he will speak out when he believes the country is doing wrong, to call the nation to adhere to its deepest ideals.
In the face of substantive accusations, then, it is not a betrayal to look seriously at accusations in a way that the truth will come forth and not be covered up. It is an act of loyalty—for the sake of the leader’s integrity.
Do you remember when John Piper said that an abused woman should report her husband to the police, for the good of her husband—so that her husband could be held accountable and achieve repentance and become a better person? Remember how I questioned that framing, and pointed out that it is bullshit? That’s the exact same framing you’re seeing here.
Galli says that elders should take “substantive” allegations seriously, for the good of their leader’s “integrity” and walk with Christ. Not for the good of his victims. Not to prevent future women (or, in some cases, children) from being victimized. No. It’s all about what’s best for the leader.
You know what’s interesting? I learned a lot of scripture as a child—I’m looking at you, Wednesday night AWANA Bible club—but I don’t remember ever learning a verse about loyalty to one’s pastor. Is this concept actually scriptural? It’s odd the extent to which Galli treats it as something set in stone, when I don’t think it is.
Instead of questioning congregations’ centering of the pastor and his needs, Galli chooses to use that framework himself—and in so doing to participate in a de-centering of the victims in their needs. This does not end, in Galli’s article, even when a pastor is found guilty of gross wrongdoing or abuse:
Loyalty to the leader continues and drives even deeper when it appears that the leader is guilty of a shameful offense. That’s when the leader needs the loyalty of a true friend. This doesn’t mean denying or excusing wrong behavior. At such times, it means standing with them, praying for and with them as they begin to wrestle with wrongdoing and hesitantly, awkwardly try to repent. Because it is inevitable that in such crises, leaders usually do not have the spiritual wherewithal to confront every aspect of their sins immediately. Repentance is a hard and fearsome thing. We need God’s powerful grace to repent, and that grace is often communicated by patient and loving counselors who can help lead us to a proper and deep repentance.
Galli seems to believe that followers owe their leaders a debt of loyalty—a debt that does not end (but rather intensifies) when a leader is accused and found guilty of gross crimes and misconduct. Who is he talking about, exactly? Does the entire congregation have an obligation to come around a disgraced pastor? What about the victims—are they obligated by this debt of loyalty as well?
Do we owe any debt of loyalty to the victims? Why are only some individuals worthy of loyalty? What even is loyalty? How is Galli defining the term? He never makes this clear, and I can’t seem to find any dictionary definition that lines up with what he appears to be talking about here. This is certainly not how I’ve ever used the term. Who merits loyalty, and who does not? This framing is broken.
The victims’ needs are mentioned in Galli’s article, but only briefly. See if you can find the very small nod Galli gives them here:
One question now is who is going to be loyal to those who have just resigned? And to Bill Hybels and his family? And what does loyalty look like now for those who remain and those who will be called into leadership? 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?
Many are saddened and rightly angry at the way the initial accusers of Hybels have been either ignored or slandered. That is a terrible thing. But it would only make matters worse if those we believe who have acted disgracefully are shunned in turn.
More than anyone, of course, the accusers of Hybels—those women who have apparently been bullied or sexually harassed—need people to rally around them. This nearly goes without saying. But the gospel calls some of us to rally around the accused and guilty, as well. What loyalty and love looks like in each situation is different, but in the end it should be a combination of honesty and grace, tough love and tender mercy, that leads one and all into a deeper relationship with God.
Couched amongst calls for churchgoers to rally around those who slandered Hybel’s accusers and calls for churchgoers to rally around Hybels is a quick statement that it “almost goes without saying” that churchgoers should also rally around Hybels’ victims—“those women who have apparently been bullied or sexually harassed.” Apparently. (Quick note for Galli: It does not go without saying.)
This entire article was a huge missed opportunity. Galli centered loyalty to one’s leader—trying only to redefine it, and floundering at it—and centered the needs of the perpetrator. Meanwhile, he de-centered the victims to such an extent that they all but disappeared from the article altogether. Galli centered the institution, centered those who disbelieved the allegations, and failed to discuss the underlying dynamics—the cult of personality that can surround the founder of a megachurch.
There is also no discussion of false repentance, or of the danger a leader who claims that he is reformed can sometimes pose—especially in evangelical circles, where narratives of repentance are uplifted, and those with stories of sordid pasts changed through Christ gain large followings. There is no discussion of what accountability looks like—only talk of supporting, rallying around, and bringing to repentance.
Galli says that accused leaders deserve their day in court, and that in cases like Hybels that means an independent investigation. He does not discuss what such an independent investigation will look like, or what makes an investigator independent—problems that have plagued the evangelical world in the past. Galli does not mention that some allegations need to be reported to civil authorities.
It’s theoretically possible that Galli didn’t think his readers were ready to hear such straight talk. It’s theoretically possible that Galli believed his readers were so wedded to loyalty to a leader that the only thing he could do to improve their approach was to try to redefine loyalty. But if that is indeed the case, it does not speak well of the current climate of the evangelical world.
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