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Willow Creek: Missing ALL the Red Flags

Willow Creek: Missing ALL the Red Flags February 5, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Last week, yet another sex scandal broke out in right-wing Christianity. But this one erupted from a megachurch famous for a slightly-less-sexist approach to women in leadership. So today, we’ll see how everyone in power at Willow Creek Community Church ignored a whole bunch of red flags that could have alerted them to an alleged predator operating in their midst–but didn’t, because of their utterly dysfunctional culture.

a painting of a bunch of people at a brothel having a great time
Merry Company, Gerard van Honthorst, about 1622. Also called The Prodigal Son and Celebratory Party. The young women may have been intended to be sex workers, and the setting a brothel.

(The allegations discussed are just that: allegations. I make no accusations of my own against any person discussed in this post, only relay the allegations as I’ve heard them.)

Everyone, Meet Willow Creek Community Church.

Willow Creek Community Church is a basic fundagelical megachurch based in a Chicago suburb. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels founded it with Dave Holmbo in 1975. Since then, it’s grown to many locations and offshoots and boasts tens of thousands of attendees every weekend.

When I look over the church’s beliefs, I see a lot of buzzwords that sound mighty familiar after that big Toronto Blessing series we just finished. They’re way into anointing and think pretty much everyone in a church should be a “servant” using “their spiritual gifts” for the good of the community. Those ideas all figured prominently in that movement.

Beyond that, they’re just basic standard-issue fundagelicals. They go in for inerrancy and literalism, subscribe to the grotesque and pernicious doctrine of Original Sin, and think their imaginary friend will condemn anyone who disagrees with them to eternal torture forever and ever without mercy or reprieve or escape or hope.

As one might guess, they’re culture warriors–but careful ones. In 2011, they dropped formal ties with Exodus, the anti-gay “reparative therapy” group that broke up a couple of years later. But they made sure to stress at the time that their feelings hadn’t changed and they weren’t making “a social or political statement,” but rather had spent “a season of reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations with outside organizations.” They stopped short of declaring outright that marriage was only for straights, but a 2017 report by Church Clarity sure didn’t list them as LGBTQ-affirming. So check that box.

Their Big Point of Difference.

Willow Creek does boast one point of difference from the standard-issue fundagelical starter kit. If you checked out that statement of beliefs link, you might have noticed it, even.

From the get-go, it sounds like, they decided to do one thing that instantly set them apart from the fundagelical crowd. They decided to allow women into leadership roles in their organization. Then, as fundagelicals must, Willow Creek church leaders came up with some appropriately Jesus-sounding reasons for this decision.

Of course, other fundagelical leaders tore them apart for it. (Stuff Fundagelicals Like: Infighting!)

Female leadership has been a hot-button topic for fundagelicals for decades. Women made a lot of progress in the 1970s and 1980s by tackling leadership roles even in evangelical churches. That progress likely led to the entire Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Nothing riles fundagelical misogynists quite like the idea of following a woman’s lead.

So complementarians, like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW–truly awful people), have never tired of criticizing Willow Creek’s stance.

Now Let’s Meet Gilbert Bilezikian.

Back in 2000, Christianity Today (CT) called Gilbert Bilezikian “the man behind the megachurch,” further proclaiming that “there would be no Willow Creek–no small groups, no women in leadership, no passion for service–without [him].”

Their puff-piece introduces him as a onetime professor from Wheaton College. As a student, Bill Hybels took one of his classes there. At the time, Bilezikian emphasized community-building. But in the area around Wheaton, Hybels didn’t think any churches were trying to do that. So he decided to start a church that would. The piece tells us,

“We built that porch a few years ago, right where Bill Hybels drove his motorcycle the day he came to see me in 1975,” Bilezikian says of his former student, who would become the church’s senior pastor. . . “Right here,” says Bilezikian, standing in the middle of his lawn. There Hybels, then no more famous than any other recent college grad, roared up on his bike and said, “Dr. B., you and I are going to start a church.”

There, we also learn that Bilezikian sees himself as a “servant.” Even while he worked at Wheaton, he’d wash other people’s dishes and pick up trash that students left behind themselves. It was Bilezikian who convinced the originally-complementarian Hybels to allow women into leadership roles at their new church. And he claims that if Hybels had refused to adopt that position, Willow Creek wouldn’t have come into existence at all.

I suppose that’s possible. Either way, hang onto this guy. We’re coming back to him in a moment.

2018: The Year of Scandals, Part I.

Willow Creek’s been in the news for a couple of years–and not for reasons they’d like. Despite this egalitarian stance toward female leaders, Bill Hybels himself allegedly turned out to be a very, very bad man. In March 2018, he faced accusations of a longtime affair. Over the next six months, journalists added groping and harassment accusations from many women who attended and/or worked for Willow Creek. And those accusations went back decades.

In response, Bill Hybels quit before he could be fired took early retirement. The wording here is important. He didn’t resign. Instead, he retiiiiiired. He had originally planned to retire anyway in October 2018, so he simply moved the date a few months closer. He has always categorically denied the accusations against him, but independent reviewers concluded that the accusers were in fact credible. So take his denial however you like.

As more and more accusations pounded Willow Creek, both their co-pastors (a man and woman, incidentally) and the entire board of elders simply resigned together in August 2018. The next month, an investigative committee discovered that poor handling of these allegations had cost them a lot of money. That in turn forced them to lay off a lot of staff. And without staff and programs and all that fun stuff megachurches can offer, of course, attendance fell–sometimes precipitously.

It wasn’t a good year at all for Willow Creek.

False Egalitarianism.

I’ve often noted that the beginning of the end of misogyny looks like equal female representation in leadership.

The more women in leadership that a group has, the less likely it’ll be that misogyny affects that group. (The beginning of the end of systemic racism looks pretty similar, I’d guess.) However, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule by any means. Sometimes a group has plenty of women in leadership–and yet a culture of misogyny rules them all the same. I’m not just talking about Christian groups here. I mean all groups everywhere can go this route. I saw it in gaming many times, and I’ve noticed it in other secular groups as well.

In this case, despite having a long-established tradition of women in leadership, women speaking from the pulpit, women leading small groups, and women being part of the discussions in so many ways, Willow Creek still acted really complementarian.

In 2015, E.S. Martin, a member of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE, an anti-complementarian, egalitarian group) wrote about receiving a warning about Willow Creek. The warning came from a fellow CBE member, who cautioned:

“Willow Creeks says it’s egalitarian, but it doesn’t act like it.”

That warning came in 2007, at a time when the blogger searched for a church to join. Hoping the warning was simply misinformed, Martin joined Willow Creek anyway.

Not Misinformed.

In retrospect, one can easily understand why E.S. Martin cherished that hope. One of the founders of CBE was none other than Gilbert Bilezikian! But it didn’t take long to discover what Martin called “the patriarchal core” of Willow Creek. Yes, indeed: this church claimed to be egalitarian, but didn’t act like it.

Behind that big talk about women holding leadership positions, Willow Creek appeared to have a very thick glass ceiling:

Despite our pro-women advocacy, Willow Creek has a patriarchal core in its leadership. We have no women Teaching Pastors. The women teachers are in children, women, care or financial ministries—all ministries which are acceptable to the patriarchalists who adhere to the expansive view. We have one woman in one of the satellite churches who teaches bible and doctrine to adult women and men, she has a master’s degree in biblical studies. However, she has no title and is a volunteer, she is not a paid staff member.

So this supposedly-egalitarian church getting so much heat from their fellow fundagelical leaders wasn’t actually doing much that those critics would have found all that objectionable. Even the very few women who actually held anything close to real power over any men soon discovered that the rules and culture of the church kept them from effectively wielding it.

Making matters worse, E.S. Martin also noticed that several complementarians had already infiltrated the church’s leadership and were creating and enforcing extremely sexist policies. Again, Martin wrote this essay back in 2015–and it doesn’t seem to me that much at all changed in the church’s overall culture between then and 2020.

The Cruelty of False Egalitarianism.

False egalitarianism is even worse than outright sexism for so many reasons. Men like that operate behind a mask, which makes calling out their behavior all the more difficult–and reforming and correcting their mistakes almost impossible. When false egalitarians limit women’s power on the basis of gender, or somehow avoid putting women into positions where they might one day possibly maybe veto or override a man’s desires or plans, women get put into a real bind in how to deal with it. Gaslighting women in these circumstances becomes painfully easy.

These men can’t be meaniepie sexists! Look, they’re sO EgALiTaRiAn!

Even worse, if a woman does raise the problem to public awareness, that might cast a shadow upon egalitarianism itself. Willow Creek was very much a sort of live social experiment for fundagelicals. If it had problems, then their enemies could paint Willow Creek as a failure. (It’s a valid fear, really.) I can easily see women in that church maybe not wanting to deal with something like that.

Whatever the cause, anybody who felt concern about Willow Creek’s level of egalitarianism didn’t talk much about it. E.S. Martin’s blog was one of the few I saw that were willing to publicly discuss the problem–and even then, Martin felt very constrained about exactly how to do it. Instead, egalitarian fundagelicals used a sort of whisper network to warn their friends and peers about the church–just as someone had tried to warn Martin back in 2007.

More Red Flags.

Oh, but the red flags didn’t end there. Not by a longshot. See, there’s another very serious problem that erupts under a system of false egalitarianism: abuse.

About 6-8 years after my deconversion, I discovered that there were men who called themselves feminists but who did not actually subscribe to the idea that women are people. And those men often snowed feminist women into relationships under false pretenses. By the time those women realized the ruse, they were roped into the Second Shiftwomen’s work housework distribution model that those men vastly preferred. And that’s if they were lucky.

Sometimes, these false feminists actually used their high status and street cred in feminist groups to seek out women to sexually abuse. In the early 2000s, a few very high-profile feminist men got caught in exactly such scandals. It was all LiveJournal could talk about for months and months for a while there.

That’s when I learned that men who wanted to commit dark deeds against women could use talk of equality as a cloak over themselves–just as an organization that wished to maintain a patriarchal/complementarian culture could. As I learned to look past the pretty words to their actions and behaviors, I think women in general did the same. Still, men like that still exist, and they still find prey under this cover.

Willow Creek women might not have gotten the word, however.

A HUGE Red Flag.

What I’m about to tell you blew my lid clean off.

It shocked me so bad. I couldn’t even believe that this guy could do this and nobody else in charge said a word about it to put a solid, firm, definitive stop to it. I can’t overstress this point enough: this is a what in the actual WHAT moment. It concerns that “man behind the megachurch,” Gilbert Bilezikian.

Let’s look back at that 2000 Christianity Today puff piece for the deets that shocked me so much (emphases theirs):

Egalitarian gallant

Walking the halls of Willow Creek with Bilezikian is like walking through a shopping mall with a movie star. People stare, and he can’t complete a sentence without someone waving and calling, “Hey, Dr. B.!” Women of 83 and girls of 6 rush up to him, knowing he will kiss their hand and compliment their ravishing beauty.

Bilezikian chalks up his effusive appreciation of female beauty to his mother’s early death. “I idealized her. As a young man, I was always searching for that elusive perfection in womanhood, which was such an enigma, for someone growing up with no sisters and no mother.”

WHAT.

ALL MY WHAT!

JUST WHAT?!?

The Red Flag Nobody Cared About.

CT didn’t say a single critical word about this. They were all tee-hee, he’s so “gallant!” OMG, he’s just so “French!”

Then again, nobody else did either.

Not one single person in Christian leadership said:

Hey dude, most of us loved our mamas, and some of us lost our mamas at an early age too. It really sucks, yes. But we sure ain’t scouring our churches’ hallways looking for little girls to treat like they’re on a Tinder date with a vampire.

The reason this situation strikes me so hard is that now, of course, this same guy turns out to have allegedly been fishing off Willow Creek’s dock, so to speak. Last week, Willow Creek’s current pastor (Steve Gillen) confirmed that someone had made an abuse allegation against Bilezikian.

The accuser said that some years back, Bilezikian had groped, pawed, and kissed her against her will, all in pursuit of an absolutely inappropriate relationship with her when she was very young and vulnerable and newly-converted.

When she went to Willow Creek’s leaders to tell them what had happened, she felt they didn’t take her seriously at all. Worse, she felt that the leaders set spies upon her and kept her out of leadership roles. And Bilezikian continued to serve the church in various capacities as if nothing had happened.

So vErY eGaLiTaRiAn!

(Later, the leaders at Willow Creek conceded that it was wrong of them to have allowed Bilezikian to go on like that. FWIW.)

And Bilezikian’s Oh-So-Gallant Reply.

When the accusation broke, Bilezikian wrote a pissy letter to Steve Gillen. In it, he complained that Willow Creek hadn’t followed the Bible’s instructions in how to properly raise concerns with fellow Christians. Seriously. That was his response.

He’s talking about a model that fundagelical abusers love to take cover behind. It comes from Matthew 18. And it largely exists to silence accusers and protect the guilty. See, what this lady should have done–according to fundagelical misogynists–was go to Bilezikian privately to talk about matters. Then and only then, if he didn’t clear things up, she could then go to the church leaders. They’d then go to him privately. If he still didn’t make things right, then and only then would Jesus allow anyone to take the matter publicly.

But she’d actually tried to resolve the matter internally. I read all about it. She’d already told him she didn’t like what he was doing. She’d resisted his groping. When she finally went to her trusted church leaders, Willow Creek blew her off and made her feel alienated.

Yep, this is definitely one of the most disgusting muck-of-clusters I’ve seen in a very long time.

Cuz, see, the worst part? She shouldn’t ever have had to deal with him herself. She shouldn’t have been alone in this. Her church should have had her back the whole way. And it just didn’t.

Maybe it’s cuz she was just a newly-joined-up woman, and Bilezikian was the “man behind the megachurch.”

“Gallant?” More like “Hunting for Prey.”

That’s the red flag that Willow Creek absolutely ignored: an extremely powerful church leader was trolling their halls and doing creepy sexually-tinged things to the women and little girls of his church, and nobody thought this was bizarre and weird. He’d gotten it totally normalized in their eyes. Oh, that’s just his way. He’s so French! and Poor dear, he lost his mother so he’s all sweet to women now.

The imbalance of power between Gilbert Bilezikian and the woman he allegedly abused was so great that it could easily have risen to a level of coercion in her eyes. And it doesn’t take much to imagine that quite a few women at his church didn’t like being kissed and pawed at, but dealt with it as best they could.

People in power need to be acutely aware of that power differential when they deal with those below them on the totem pole. Teachers have to be extra-careful not to do anything that could be interpreted as flirtatious with students. Managers and CEOs need to exercise caution around employees and assistants. When I was in online gaming administration, I exercised that exact same caution around players. It’s just part of the gig–for ethical people anyway, I guess.

(The Extra Burden Placed on Christian Victims.)

When the abuse happens in a Christian group, victims are put into an even tighter bind. That’s what infuriates me so much about this situation.

When it’s church-based abuse, all kinds of other considerations come into play that secular women don’t have to that same degree, usually: sexual purity, getting victim-blamed even worse, worrying about what the news will do to the group’s reputation, feeling ashamed that Jesus didn’t stop it, and more. It’s just sickening. The women joining Willow Creek trusted this place to be different. They trusted this place to put right what fundagelical culture wars had made so wrong.

But when the people in power want to use their positions to get their jollies, to feel powerful at others’ expense, their gloves come off and “Jesus” doesn’t help even his beloved followers escape what happens next.

What this guy was doing wasn’t about him being “gallant.” It was about him allegedly flexing his power as a man at women’s expense, and allegedly doing it in a way that his alleged victims couldn’t effectively fight. When he finally got called out, his sole response was to whine that his victim hadn’t tried to resolve the situation in a way he could easily defeat.

Speaking of which…

Accountability… There’s That Word Again…

Not only that, but people in these loftier positions need to understand that people below them often feel afraid even to express concerns or criticisms. Consequently, small problems can ferment and bubble beneath the surface for years before busting loose. The people suffering from these problems and suspicions would rather have that tension than risk retaliation from those much more powerful than themselves.

(Remember Thom Rainer trash-talking church members who made anonymous complaints? Yeah. Same thing. This is why Thom Rainer is a terrible person behind that simpering Jesus smile.)

Abusers in positions of power often put the burden of avoiding predation and dealing with leader-caused problems on the shoulders of the people least-equipped to handle them: those utterly lacking power in the system. We see the same demand put on Christian laypeople to create “change from within” instead of leaving their groups. It’s an impossible demand–and one made by people who completely reject any suggestions of accountability.

It comes to this:

If I’d never known anything whatsoever about Willow Creek except that “Gallant” puff piece from 2000, I’d 100% still have expected to hear some day about a big, deep-rooted scandal from them that went all the way to the top. I wouldn’t even have questioned that expectation. I’d have just wondered when that scandal would finally come into the light.

Apparently it takes about 20 years.

I hope that any other victims of Willow Creek’s leaders find justice. My heart and sympathies are with them. They deserved so much better than this.

NEXT UP: Remember that silly Biola online course Natasha Crain took to become an official professional apologist? I want to listen to it and see for myself what it’s all about. If you want to join me, here’s the link! (If not, that’s fine too–you can enjoy my pain vicariously; I’m cool with that.) See you soon!


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And One Last Thing I Noticed: That co-pastor at Willow Creek who resigned in 2018 over the Bill Hybels scandal, Heather Larson, now barely even mentions the church on her official biography page. In light of what that one blogger saw at Willow Creek, I wonder just how much leadership her church actually allowed her to provide.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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