Preamble: The Book Sale
Around Christmas my parents and I were just bopping around the local thrift stores when we came across one of the things I love most—a good sale on books. I love reading and books and bein’ thrifty (and on top of that Christian books are usually dang expensive) and so I get excited.
I came across a Christian book called “Simplify” written by Bill Hybels. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the name rang a bell. Even when I buy books dirt cheap, I still try to do a little screening before I buy to find out whether the author is credible and the book worth reading. I looked at the author bio on the back cover: “…pastor at Willow Creek Church”—again, it sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite recall whether it was for good reasons or for bad. I wanted to look into it there and then, but time was short (and the sale was good) so I just went ahead and bought it.
When I got home, I did a little digging. (Okay, here comes the point of this whole story.) It turns out that Bill Hybels has been long admired as an influential Christian leader and a giant in the faith. He planted Willow Creek Church in Illinois in 1975 and was the senior pastor up until April 2018. By that time, a weekend service had about 26,000 attendees making this non-denominational evangelical church one of the largest churches in USA. Many of today’s evangelical Christian preachers, teachers and writers have attested to Hybel’s teaching and writing (over 20 books published) to have been of influence in their own lives.
However, if you search for “Bill Hybels” now, most of the results will be related to a recent scandal. In 2018, a woman who worked as his secretary from 1984 for about eight years claimed that over the course of her employment he repeatedly initiated inappropriate sexual conduct. She didn’t come forward during that time because she feared hurting Willow Creek church and felt ashamed. A number of other women have made similar accusations. Hybels has consistently denied all accusations of misconduct. He has since resigned.
As I read about Bill Hybels—first, pre-scandal articles about his faithfulness, church growth, and outreach focus; then, about the recent accusations and fallout—I was deeply saddened. There have been too many similar cases coming to light recently.
Then, I thought about “Simplify” sitting in my stack of books and this question came to mind: knowing what I know, should I still read this? Now that Hybels’ grave sins have been exposed (and not repented of) should I still read his book?
This is not the first time I’ve wrestled with this kind of thing.
I had always loved the solid bible preaching and teaching of Pastor Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I often listened to his sermons online. Although some people found him abrasive, controversial, loud (he could get a bit yelly) or just didn’t like his style much, I really enjoyed his preaching. Pastor Mark was honest, hard-hitting, had memorable illustrations and anecdotes, addressed issues of dating, relationships, and sex, and kept the focus on Jesus. True enough, he had his faults, but overall I was grateful I could learn from him.
However, in 2014 there was a “scandal” of sorts involving Pastor Mark. Accusations included plagiarizing in his books, misuse of church funds, and mistreating/bullying staff members. Admittedly, I get a little lost reading through cases like these, especially with all the “he said, she said.” But it was clear that there were some major problems, many of which were not handled well. Mark resigned and there was lots of fallout at Mars Hill. As someone who had greatly benefited from Driscoll’s ministry, I was really sad.
When it all happened, I remember thinking to myself, “now what?” Could I still listen to his sermons? Should I still listen to his sermons? Does the wrong he has done discount the good? Where is the dividing point—the teaching from before he started behaving badly?
Since then, Pastor Mark has got back on his feet and began preaching again. He was producing podcast sermons from his home for a time, and now he pastors a new church in Arizona. Which raised more questions. He has repented? Should he be preaching now? Is the content he’s producing good to learn from?
I don’t have answers.
I did listen to some of Pastor Mark’s sermon podcasts after his resignation from Mars Hill. He did a series on Ecclesiastes and it was pretty good. I sometimes return to a few favourite sermons on Proverbs and on marriage and give them another listen. They were helpful and true and I suppose they still are.
But I still don’t know quite how to feel about it all.
If, for most of his time as a leader and teacher in ministry, a man is living in unrepentant sin, what is the value of his teaching? Is it somewhat hypocritical? Is it still valuable to learn from someone who is not living in obedience to God? Of course, no one is perfect. No pastor or preacher or leader should be “put on a pedestal” so to speak. No man is immune to sin. No one is perfect. The Christians we admire are just human. They are just like you and me.
But. What should we think, knowing that someone has been removed from leadership due to some glaring sin, past or current? Surely we can’t follow them as we once did. We want to imitate and learn from godly and righteous leaders. Paul said, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 4:16, Phil 3:17).
King David sinned, but he was still a man after God’s heart, and a leader. He committed adultery and had an innocent man murdered. Yet he repented, God forgave, King David was restored, and he continued to rule. God did bless and prosper Him and His people.
What if the sinner repents and reforms? Where is grace and forgiveness in the equation? Should he then be restored to his former position, authourity, and influence? Their books, sermons, etc. may have have helped so many Christians grow in their faith, but should I now take their teachings with a grain of salt?
True biblical theology and doctrine are still true, even if they are proclaimed by an ungodly person. Sinners, by God’s grace can surely still produce work that reflects Him in truth and beauty and goodness. Surely I am not qualified to even write half the things I may write on my blog because, honestly, I can’t live up to the ideals I hold. Should I just approach the works of these fallen leaders with grace? We always need to think critically and evaluate what we read and listen to. We can even find something of value or learn from the literature and art of those who reject God.
Thinking through all this makes me a little dizzy. I hope you could make sense of my ramblings, dear reader, and perhaps I created food for thought.
I still don’t have a sure answer. I think I will read my new book, though.