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Failure and Power at Willow Creek

Willow Creek Community Church sign
image via Wikipedia | CC0 1.0

I haven’t wanted to write about the situation at Willow Creek. I have no special insights, no particular connection beyond gratitude for its prominence as an egalitarian congregation. I was thrilled a year ago when Willow announced that their new lead pastor, the successor to Bill Hybels, would be a woman.

But the slow-moving train wreck at Willow Creek over allegations that Bill Hybels acted inappropriately towards multiple women is a painful reminder that egalitarian theology isn’t enough to protect women from men willing to abuse their power.

I would like to think that egalitarian theology automatically creates a better atmosphere for women. Because as much as I grieve for the many women hurt by the actions of leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s easy to see these abuses as the natural outgrowth of theologies that treat women as subordinate to men. It’s much harder when the abuses occur in churches with the “right” theology.

I do think that complementarian theology creates a culture ripe for abuse. And I believe that egalitarian theology, a theology that maintains the full equality and humanity of men and women, can help protect against the abuse of women.

But the difficult reality revealed by Willow Creek is that no theological system can fully protect women. While complementarian theology can hide abuse under the veneer of biblical faithfulness, egalitarian theology can blind us to abuse because we imagine that this right theological framework automatically translates into the right treatment of women.

As Willow Creek demonstrates, though, someone like Bill Hybels can simultaneously believe that a woman is fully qualified to succeed him in ministry while also, allegedly, treating some women as objects for his own sexual gratification.

In the wake of the resignation of the entire elder board and the lead pastors of Willow Creek last week, Katelyn Beaty argued that the problem is not, at its core, about misogyny or sexual misconduct; instead, the problem is the blindness of the American evangelical church to power.

I agree with Beaty that power is the elephant in the room, and that any way forward for Willow that refuses to address power will fail to prevent similar problems in the future.

The events at Willow Creek should be a sobering reminder for all of us who hold egalitarian theology. If our view of women in the church does not address the power structures — the powers and principalities of the world — that elevate men over women, we end up with an empty theology, pretty words that cannot accomplish their promise of equality for women.

Addressing the power of patriarchy is a far more difficult task than inviting the occasional woman to preach or even hiring women to lead. But unless we are willing to do that hard work, egalitarian theology will never be able to fully liberate women to serve alongside men and freely use their gifts to build up the church. Egalitarian theology will become yet another “biblical” mask under which women are still treated as less than men.

I highly recommend Scot McKnight’s blog posts outlining the events at Willow over the last few years that have led up to this scandal, here and here.

Tagged: gender | theology | church