This has been a tough week for the Body of Christ and for me. Along with many others, my heart is broken by the ruinous reports concerning Willow Creek Community Church. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Bill Hybels on a few occasions (What a nice guy!). I’ve also attended many events on the Willow campus in Barrington, which is just a short drive from my home.
It is undeniable that God has used Bill and Willow Creek for His glory, to give hope to many hopeless individuals. People around the world are significantly better off because of Bill’s vision to start a ministry that would make a difference in the world. In light of the most unfortunate recent news, I believe it is important to remain balanced in our conversations about Bill and Willow Creek Church. We all know how the courts of public opinion are often void of truth, and do not take into consideration the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23).
However, the countless testimonies of the wonderful things accomplished by the Willow Community, must not be leveraged as bargaining chips to dismiss the vile nature of sexual misconduct. What has happened is shameful. Willow Creek has grossly misrepresented the One it exists to proclaim. Sin is sin anywhere you go, and must be accounted for regardless of who commits it.
Along with the historical abuses within Catholic churches and many independent churches, these are the kinds of incidents that cause non-Christians to think that Christians are hypocrites. These are the reasons many people use to justify why they don’t attend church anymore and don’t believe that church is relevant. Willow’s challenge is the challenge of every pastor and church leader. It’s hurtful to us all, but most hurtful to the eternal salvation of those who still need to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Why I’m Speaking Out
I am not writing to simply add my thoughts to the copious conversations already happening concerning Willow’s plight. I am not writing to criticize the leadership of Willow, although I vehemently condemn sin, their oversights, and the victimization of women in all forms. It is not my intent to posture myself as being any more righteous than Bill or any Board member at Willow.
I am writing for two reasons. First and foremost, to defend the honor of the holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And secondly, to encourage and strengthen Christians and non-Christians who are deeply disappointed, discouraged, or disillusioned by the moral implosion of one of America’s most influential evangelical churches. Willow is a ministry that has become a spiritual and social icon. A ministry to which so many global leaders have looked as a model of what to do, but has now become a model of what not to do.
Strike the Shepherd
Similar to Bill, I too am the founder and Pastor of a great church in the North suburbs of Chicago. Despite his apparent grievous mistakes, as far as I know Bill has not renounced his Christian faith which means he’s still my brother in Christ. In dealing with these matters, I am frequently reminded of David’s noble attitude toward King Saul, even when Saul’s actions were ignoble (1 Samuel 24:6-7). I want to be careful in what I say concerning Bill and the Willow Community, and I would caution us all to do the same.
Just prior to His crucifixion, Jesus tells His disciples:
“All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (Matthew 26:31).
Jesus clearly explains the repercussions of the shepherd’s demise and how it affects the sheep. Throughout Scripture, God uses the metaphor of shepherds and sheep to represent His relationship with Israel, Christ’s relationship with the Church, and a Pastor’s relationship with his/her congregation.
The fastest way to devastate the flock is to strike the shepherd. To eliminate the one who carries the chief responsibility of protecting and caring for the sheep. I want to remind you that the devil knows this and is not an innocent bystander in this ordeal.
Jesus was referring to His own ensuing death on the cross. But notice, when He would be taken away, His followers would be made to stumble and would scatter. Sheep are rather helpless and defenseless creatures, incapable of feeding themselves, leading themselves, or protecting themselves. When He ascended, Jesus left shepherds or pastors according to His own heart to feed His people with knowledge and understanding (Jeremiah 3:15).
In contrast to a shepherd being taken away, Jesus also explains what happens when a good and faithful shepherd remains.
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep (John 10:10-11 NKJV).
As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep (John 10:15 NKJV).
A good and faithful shepherd exists to ensure that the sheep under his care experiences abundant life. The shepherd is not only willing to risk his own life to protect his sheep, he will gladly sacrifice his life for them even if it means death.
This is exactly how Jesus leads His people, and is the kind of leadership He requires for each of us as pastors, as opposed to being hirelings. This is the kind of pastoral leadership congregations deserve and should not be without. Caring for the souls of people is a humbling privilege and not an entitlement.
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James E. Ward Jr. is a pastor, author, and entrepreneur who speaks nationally and internationally on cultural and spiritual issues. James is pastor and founder of INSIGHT Church in the north Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL.