Guest Post: Dr. James Bedell on Willow Creek Community Church A Cautionary Tale

Dr. James Bedell from Willow Creek Community Church writes a guest post on the cautionary tale that Willow Creek represents. Bill Hybels has resigned and fled and there are credible accusations against him for sexual misconduct. Willow Creek Community Church has ignored Dr. James Bedell and this blog would like Willow Creek to meet with him and hear his concerns from the scandal. 

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

Ralph Nichols 

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

Bryant H. McGill

As a father has compassion on his children,  so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

Psalm 103:13 NIV 

Bill Hybels 

When it comes to the theological scene in Chicago this blog has been deeply invested in the Harvest Bible Chapel scandal.  I have not focused as much on the Willow Creek situation. I have been approached about running a Willow Creek post and that is on my to do list to get published. However, the other day I learned of the plight of Dr. James Bedell. James has called Willow Creek home for years. He is one of the people caught up in the Willow Creek scandal. He started a blog to write about his experience at Willow Creek however the mega church in South Barrington, Illinois has ignored him and refuses to meet with him. I find that deeply troubling. Talk it cheap and actions speak louder than words. If Willow Creek wants to right the wrong and help those hurt, they would sit down with Dr. James Bedell on his terms, and listen to what he needs to say. Then they would work to help him and do what needs to be done. At his blog Dr. James Bedell wrote a good post about the cautionary tale that Willow Creek represents. If people from the Willow Creek community need a platform in trying to get meetings or more with the church, they can try through this blog. This is going to be a long post but in my view its well worth the read.


The revelation of sexual abuses by Bill Hybels (BH) and organizational abuses perpetrated both by BH and multiple staff at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) begs an analysis of how did things evolve to the point at which we find ourselves? Was WCCC a church or a para-church organization that provided a range of Christian products, from evangelism to social services? If it is just an organization providing Christian focused programs, then our analysis of it as a church would be wrong. But it proclaims itself as a church, and as such, declares to the world that this is what the  Church of Jesus Christ looks like. It is against the measure of a Biblical view of the church that a critical analysis can be justified.

Wrong Rock

Was WCCC built on the right rock?

Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.

Jesus spoke in the language of wisdom, which was often cloaked in parables. The disciples were common men, fishermen mostly, who were grounded in the earthy elements of life, and so were able to follow the often nature based teachings of Jesus. The passage above shows the complexity of how Jesus challenged the disciples to grapple with the way that wisdom is portrayed, always in a process that involves pushing below the surface meaning of things to the deeper revelation of truth. In this passage we see this progression. The earlier verses  (Matthew 16:5-12) discussed bread and yeast. The surface focus was on bread and the disciples struggled with understanding what the meaning of this was.  But as Jesus continued to challenge them, they slowly descended to grasp the deeper meaning of what Jesus was teaching. They came to recognize that they must be aware of the penetration of “yeast” which, on a physical level, activated the process by which bread is leavened, but, on a spiritual level, represented allowing any teaching to penetrate their thinking about who Jesus was, and what His Kingdom was about. As with yeast and and how it causes bread to expand, if the “yeast” of false teaching penetrates the church, it could leverage the growth of the church in unhealthy ways. Jesus challenged them to be on guard and vigilant, so that they could first recognize unbiblical teaching, and then, resist its’ entry into their understanding of truth.

It is in this context that Jesus asks Peter to answer the question of who He was. Jesus was testing the disciples to see if they knew the truth that He had been teaching them. When Peter replied that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus knew that Peter understood the truth. It was upon the rock of his understanding that Jesus declared that His church would be built. It was not based on the biological lineage of Peter, but instead the spiritual lineage of all those who recognized that Jesus and His Kingdom would be the stone upon which the builders would erect the church.

Jesus called the disciples to be vigilant so that they could recognize any teaching that veered from the truth. The “yeast” of false truth could slip so easily into the minds of men that they must be clear first, of what the truth is, and secondly, to combat its’ influence in the church. The disciples so knew who Jesus was and what His character was like and what His vision was, that they could discern if a “church” were to be built that significantly varied from this model. They were, as I believe all leaders in the church are, given the responsibility to discern whether or not the church was progressing consistent with having Christ as the rock and foundation. 

This biblical teaching informs the evaluation of what happened at WCCC. Essentially, WCCC was built on the wrong rock, the wrong person, and the wrong vision of what Jesus’s Kingdom was all about. It was built upon the personality of a flawed human being, and it unfolded around the limitations that were inherent in a broken and sinful humanity. And the cautionary tale is that the leadership, who were essentially like the disciples, did not recognize the “yeast” of untruth. They either did not see or were powerless to alter where this leader was creating a vision that unpacked the brokenness of his life more than the understanding of how Jesus was to be the rock around which all things in the church were erected. They have a level of culpability around their failure to adhere to Jesus’s admonition to be vigilant in order to identify and stand against the “yeast” of false teaching,  If current and past leadership individuals were honest, they would publically repent of their failure to either recognize the false truth of a church built around the personality of a man, or their timidness in confronting the sin that should have been evident in their midst.

 

Flawed DNA 

Another way of looking at how a church can be formed around the brokenness of a man verses being constructed with Christ as the center, is the example of DNA.

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:11    

The twin towers have fallen. Although this writing is about Willow Creek Community Church, the same dynamics apply to Harvest Bible Chapel. Two charismatic leaders with deep character flaws have steered the construction of their churches around the pathology of their personality disorders. Two churches  were successful in having  individuals buy into a narcissistic leader driven picture of church and served as the attendants to the deeply flawed vision of celebrity pastors. The falling was inevitable if you believe scripture, which, as the verse above clearly establishes, declares that the church can only last when it is built on its’ founder and architect, Jesus Christ.  

The heavens declare the glory of God… Psalms 19:1. We can see God’s design in nature, where He reveals his awesome creativity. When DNA was discovered, it was like science had peeled back the deep mystery of God’s plan for the unfolding of life.  DNA reflected the way that God shows that life and design occurs before its unfolding, consistent with the blue print of how life gets revealed. DNA determines, with some exceptions due to environmental factors, what the fully unfolded image of life will look like.  

For the most part, DNA as the deep mystery of God’s imprint on life, determines what gets revealed. In the body, the genetic blueprint guides the building process of the biochemical structure of formation. If, for some reason (this is where we understand original sin as having penetrated even the biochemistry process) a person’s DNA has chromosomal damage, the external unfolding of life will reflect the unique mutation of the genes. All manner of characteristics can unfold that veer the manifestation of life from the perfection that healthy DNA would reflect, to the limitations we see in people with physical or intellectual deficits.  

This understanding of DNA can inform one as to how WCCC unfolded. If Jesus Christ was the foundation of the construction of the church, it would unfold as the pure and perfect reflection of all the vision and values that Christ had for the church. Ephesians 2:20 further illustrates the concept of how the unfolding of a building or organization is based on foundational guidelines.  

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Eph. 2:20 

The cornerstone can be likened to the idea of DNA. It guides the construction of the building that unfolds. Cornerstones set the direction of the building, keeping it level and square, so that what rises above is solidly anchored and strong.  

When it comes to the church, scripture clearly says that Christ alone must be the foundational stone, or DNA, used for the construction of the church. If it is faithfully used as the blueprint, the unfolding of the church will look consistent with the original creative intent of the founder. It will, in a deeply spiritual way, be the incarnation of Jesus, living out publically the character and behavior of Jesus. Interestingly this verse also talks about the apostles and prophets who, as they are faithful to building the church on the Christ centered DNA/cornerstone foundations of the church, will steward the design and construction of the church to be a reflection of the intent of the architect and founder. Those with discerning wisdom, will look at whether the formation of the church is varying from the blueprint, or the spiritual DNA of the architect, Jesus Christ.

 

Any church built upon a flawed and broken person is destined to fail. Only Christ’s church will prevail. The gates of hell will not prevail against it and achurch built on the flawed spiritual DNA of a man or woman will not be allowed by Christ to succeed long term. The church is the most evident concrete manifestation of who Christ is and how Christ followers are to live. Because of this, a church built on the wrong foundation, cannot and should not continue.   

In a nutshell, the spiritual DNA of both WCCC and Harvest, unfolded around the flawed design of broken men.  

DNA As A Metaphor for Personality Development 

Since I am more familiar with WCCC and its leader Bill Hybels, I will focus on it versus Harvest. As I mentioned, doing a deep dive into the spiritual DNA of James Macdonald would reveal similar dynamics. Think of personality elements as similar to DNA when it comes to the construction of the church. Much like a physical organism unfolds faithfully around thebiochemical code of DNA, so organizations who have a leader with flawed personality DNA will unfold the church around the vision and values of that person.  

It is clear to most of those who served close with Bill Hybels (BH), that he was a man driven by a need for perfection, both for himself, and for those around him. This drive enabled him to appear extremely disciplined and productive. Being a leader put him in a position to drive WCCC to unfold its’ structure and governance around the vision and values of his flawed spiritual DNA. The DNA imprint that BH would inflict on WCCC  wasformed early in his life. From glimpses into his childhood from individuals that were close to him, and what he has revealed,  BH had a stern and demanding father who was bigger than life to him and set up almost impossible expectations for Bill to attain. Those early influences began to form his values and his ideas about what his success should look like. One element that is crucial to a narcissistic development was that of his father giving him challenges that were difficult, and yet he generally succeeded in completing them. This resulted in two significant lessons. First it resulted in him then being risk oriented, and second he developed a strong sense of self-confidence and a belief that he could do new and different things. He transferred this to WCCC, as the organization in which his flawed spiritual DNA would unfold.   

Creating a physical body in the image of one’s DNA generally unfolds faithfully, short of environmental influences, consistent with the blueprint structure coded in the genetics. Creating an organization, such as a church, from the flawed spiritual DNA of a broken man, is a little trickier. Some leaders who drove the development of their churches around their own flawed DNA have been confronted and either changed or left leadership. So how did BH manage to get a complex organization like WCCC to so faithfully follow his clearly narcissistically formulated image of the church? Why, at multiple intervals over the course of a 40 some year history, did not other leaders in positions of influence over the church not call him out on values and behavior that so clearly deviated from what the church would look like if Christ was the DNA/Cornerstone of the church?  

Power, Charisma, and Force of Personality 

Narcissistic people appear on the surface to be extremely self-assured. They deeply believe in their own superior ideas and visions, and they drive them forward with high intensity. People around the Narcissistically Driven Leader (NDL), shrink back from these kinds of leaders because they often do not have the same level of self-confidence as the NDL. They easily draw the conclusion that their ideas or judgements about things are not as valid, so that they slowly, but surely, give ground to the charisma of the seemingly self-assured leader. They give ground and the NDL takes ground. The people who support the NDL get smaller while the NDL gets bigger.  

The only people that survive around the NDL, are those who compliment his narcissism by supporting his vision, values, and the behaviors used to sustain them. NDLs cull the ranks of anyone in their organization that represent a threat to their absolute need for power and control.

Since the NDL gets bigger and bigger, and begins to take on an aura of celebrity, people that serve around them bask in the glory of this leader’s “importance”. Those people supporting the NDL must either subjugate their values and ideas to the leader’s, or leave. These supportive people have their own “buy in” if they stay. They are part of the inner circle of the NDL. They have a sense of “specialness by proxy” and do not want tojeopardize this privileged, inside status. Nathans, who might point out the sinfulness of the NDL, do not survive.  

NDL leaders in the development of a church, insidiously form the kind of support process that allows them to unfold the unhealthiness of their flawed spiritual DNA. They cannot do this by themselves. They collect and retain people who are loyal to their vision. Because they often drive organizations forward intensely, people who support them either get on the train or get out. Speed of the leader, speed of the team. NDLs criticize, intimidate, cajole, power up on, and generally bully anyone who represents a threat to their pathological vision of the church. Their seemingly impressive “successes” further solidifies their power, and so allows them to continue abusive policies to control outcomes favorable to their vision.  

Culpability Of Those Who Enabled BH 

Matthew 7:17- .Even so every good tree bringeth forth good. But a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,… 

Consistent with the idea of flawed spiritual DNA, this verse clearly shows that if the foundation of something is wrong, it will produce bad outcomes. Here is a list (not exhaustive) of the bad fruit that was evident in the management of WCCC. If we need a counterbalancing list of good fruit, we can use the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The sources of this information are many current and former staff at WCCC as well as multiple people that have come to my office after years of abuse in the Willow environment.

-BH would bully people who opposed him. 

–BH would belittle people who had differing ideas than he did. 

–BH would, through the use of the Human Resource department of WCCC, get rid of employees that he felt did not support his vision or values.  

–BH manipulated the elders and executive leadership team to get his way. He would use such tactics as saying that if there was a disagreement, he would threaten to leave if they did not go with his ideas. 

-If BH was confronted about his behavior, he would rage and demand to know who would say such negative things.

-BH consolidated his power by appealing to his influence, saying things like WCCC would not survive without him. This is clear evidence of self importance and the fact that he had built WCCC on the foundation of his own broken spiritual DNA. 

-When those who were supposed to oversee him confronted him, he would disagree with them and say “If I brought this to the congregation, who do you think they would believe?” 

-BH used his force of personality to get his way and deceived the elders and leadership. I have confirmed one incidence of this is (via a former elder). When he invited Bill Clinton to speak at the leadership summit, per their request, he promised the reluctant elders that he would have Clinton admit to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and apologize. He also  agreed he would not let Clinton talk about anything political. Clinton did the opposite of what BH had promised to the elders at the time. The Clinton situation was a clear reflection of BH’s narcissism, showing that he had the clout and influence to pull in a president of the US. Although he knew there was deep opposition to having Clinton come to the church, given his involvement in the sexual abuse of an intern, BH pressured to get him to the leadership summit. In light of BH’s sexual abuse of women, it is now not surprising that he would allow a sexual predator to come teach on leadership.

-BH claimed to believe in the equality of women in the church, but when strong women confronted him, he powered up and demonstrated that he really thought he was superior to them. He objectified women by approaching them for his own sexual gratification, revealing the ugly core of entitlement that NDLs often reveal.  

-BH culled the ranks of experienced employees, keeping a cadre of young, impressionable, and adulating staff that guaranteed that he would not be challenged.  

-BH allowed the formulation of the Elder Response Team, who, although possibly doing some good, were primarily used to eliminate any person who was a threat to the image of the church. They used unbiblical means of intimidating and often traumatizing people who, when they were kicked out of the church, were never followed up on to minister to their pain. He placed a person who had little pastoral experience as the head of the Pastoral Team. This, by the way, is further evidence of what a NDL leader tends to do. This man was a Medical Doctor by profession, not experienced in pastoral care of a congregation. BH favored recruiting people that had success in the marketplace or professional positions, because this enhanced the appearance of the staff who were high profile recruits. The narcissistic elements of this are essentially the ability to say “see, people who are highly successful in other areas of life are willing to sacrifice that and work for me”. 

-BH used lawyers to scare and intimidate people. Here is further evidence of BH’s deep hypocrisy- During one of the family meetings when he was defending himself against all the “bold faced lies” of the women who had come forward to expose his sexual sinfulness, BH was asked, “why don’t you call them and talk about things with them to seek to reconcile”. His response was, ”There are lawyers in the way of me doing that. You know how lawyers are. I wish that we did not have to deal with lawyers”. But there is evidence that he would have highly threatening letters sent from lawyers telling people they could get arrested if they set foot on WCCC property. The attorney that signed the letters rubber stamped them, not doing the due diligence to verify what the person was accused of doing.

-BH caused extreme anxiety in the lives of those who produced the services at WCCC. Many can relate that they developed physical, stress related problems, due to the fact that BH would scold or criticize them if some aspect of the service went wrong (microphones were off when they should have been on). 

I can go on about the bad practices that were essentially ways that BH managed the church in deceptive and manipulative ways. Why did so many shrink in deference to him? If Christ was the foundational DNA of WCCC, would any of the above behaviors have been tolerated? The truth is that BH had a powerful, mesmerizing influence over the church. When discussing WCCC one did not think of a church that Christ has built, but instead thought of BH. One could not separate WCCC from BH. Wrong rock.

I have not heard many  leaders at WCCC publicly acknowledge that they participated in maintaining BH’s ability to rule the way that he did. If they cannot acknowledge this how can we trust that they have the current wisdom to know what Biblical leadership is all about?

Culture Repentance 

The poisonous spiritual DNA of BH was the basis for the unfolding of a church that focused more on appearance, program, numbers, money, and worldwide notoriety. The values and vision of this church were never meaningfully vetted against what a church and what a pastor would look like if the DNA was that of Christ. The great reveal done years ago at WCCC is that the church was severely under-focusing on discipleship and the deep growth of the believer. It was no surprise to me that this was the case. Believers who have a mature understanding of their spiritual growth would likely be more inclined to identify and confront the deeply immature and image-oriented focus of WCCC.  

Did the army of staff that signed up, sublimate their understanding of a Christ centered church to the power and bigness of BH’s vision? I know personally and professionally, that  there are a number of integrity based individuals who tried to confront sin and seek change and got crushed by  BH’s power and control. Many people are still on staff at WCCC that either did not have the spiritual maturity or the strength to recognize and confront the deep schism between the vision, values, and management behaviors of BH and what a true and authentic Biblically founded church should look like. Do we need to call out all staff at all leadership levels that co-opted BH’s vision of the church and then fell in lock step to the image developed around a diseased DNA model of Christ’s church? It seems to me that now that BH is no longer at WCCC, the heat is off all of those who had to at some level adjusted and adapted to what it took to stay at WCCC and to support the deeply flawed organizational vision, values, and behaviors used to sustain what was really just the external clothes of the narcissistic emperor. Does God want a public confession from all those who created the scaffolding by which WCCC was erected? I believe so. 

Fair And Balanced 

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. I Corinthians 3 

To be fair, WCCC has born good fruit in many areas. It looks to me like that which was not of Christ needs to be dismantled so that it becomes Christ’s, not BH’s church. The verses above focus on the fact that the building (church) will be tested, and what is not of Christ will be exposed and burned up. But even those who do things with misguided motives can be doing things where Christ is being communicated. I will leave with these verses that show that God is at work, even in our brokenness. His church will prevail! My next blog will be about what I believe needs to be done to create a Christ-centered culture at WCCC.  

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  Phillipians 1:15-18 

The Most Important Biblical Advice For Leaders In The Church

It is unconscionable that BH birthed and then developed the Willow Creek Association, whose goal was to equip leaders and had a global leadership conference to teach what leadership was to be all about. And yet, the shocking reality of his own personal life and leadership was so fraught with sinful visions and motivations and unbiblical characteristics of leadership. Why has no one shouted out the hypocrisy of all this? The WCA, now called the something else, has left the hypocritical legacy of its’ founder float like a dark shroud around all that it does. Why do those who claim to be experts at leadership, not lead? Lead! Point out the obvious contradiction of a man and ministry that violated the tenets of good biblical based leadership. Are the faithful supposed to draw their own conclusions? Why does the leadership of the leadership group not have the guts to point out the obvious. Who wants to follow someone who cannot point out the elephant in the room, deal with it with honesty and transparency?

11 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. I Corinthians 11

Simple. In essence Paul says that follows should only follow a leader who follows Christ. If a leaders vision, values, and behavior do not reflect those of Jesus, do not follow him or her. They are not worthy of being emulated nor are they to be obeyed. Strong Nathans are to call out the behavior of leaders in the church who do not follow hard after the life and leadership of Jesus.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. I John 4:1

A mature church, established in the Word, should have the discernment to determine if its’ leadership is following Christ or their own broken agenda. Leaders who, like BH, are aloof and disconnected from the body of believers, do not allow themselves to be held accountable. As mature followers of Jesus, we must not allow a church to have elitist or celebrity leaders, because they can thrive and drive the church off a spiritual cliff.

 

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