Weeping Willow: 3 justice lessons for hurting people


I live near Willow Creek Community Church where this week a series of disclosures rocked the church and broader faith community.  Sunday the New York Times reported on the 10th woman to accuse founder Bill Hybels of sexual assault.  The same day teaching pastor, Steve Carter, resigned indicating he could no longer stay silent in his disagreement with leadership.  Wednesday, lead pastor, Heather Larson, and the entire elder board acknowledged their failures and resigned.  The fallout is significant.  Here are three justice lessons for hurting people.

Lesson One – God weeps: Weep with Him

“Weep with those who weep.” Rom. 12:15b.  Can we pause to simply lament the pain of our neighbors?  Thousands are hurting.  Emotions run from anger and betrayal to confusion, distrust and disgust.  Jesus looked over Jerusalem in the same way He looks over Willow Creek.  His heart was broken for hurting people who failed to understand who he was.  He wept.  But he could not abide injustice in His house.  He immediately went and cleared the temple of oppressive practices (Lk. 19:41-46).  The elders and pastors were right to allow Jesus to clear His house.  Pray for them.

Let God be God.  There is only one Savior.  We wrongly put people on pedestals.  The elevation of some people over others is the heart of injustice.  All are sinners (Rom. 3:23).  The heart of justice is the cross of Jesus.  The very center of the word justice is a cross.  You might say it is the letter “t”, but I say it is a cross.  Only one Savior.  He came to rescue and restore all people – leaders, followers, abusers and abused.  He set an example to love others – even our enemies.

God is judge.  He will repay.  He disciplines those He loves.  Let Him do His job.  Ours is to seek restoration.  Come alongside those who are hurting.  Pray with them and for them.  Help them see that the failure of man is NOT the failure of God.  For those outside the church who use this as another illustration of hypocrisy, remind them we do not serve a church or a person.  We serve Jesus and He is worth taking a closer look at.  He was sinless.  We are not.

For further reflection, read Romans 12.


Lesson Two – God sides with the vulnerable:  Do the same

Introductions matter.  When someone ask you what you do, how do you respond?  Most of us identify with our job or our role as a spouse/parent.  God identifies himself as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling.” Ps. 68:5.  Jesus did the same.  He identified himself as coming to “set the oppressed free.” Lk. 4:18b.  The Bible says a good leader is to do the same.

“For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help… He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.”  Ps. 72: 12,14.

We must believe women.  Stop putting them on trial.  Our justice system is broken.  A woman courageous enough to come forward is cross-examined and every area of her life laid bare.  Our court deems that relevant, but not the history of the abuser.  Willow hired a law firm to tear apart details of stories to determine if there had been adultery.   That is the wrong approach.  Stand with women, remove leadership, and verify any inappropriate conduct.


Stand with women

Every 98 seconds in America someone is the victim of sexual assault.   Forty-five percent of claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involve sexual harassment.  At least 25% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.  75% have experienced some form of retaliation when they reported the harassment.  As a result between 87% and 94% of employees don’t report sexual harassment.

Rachael Denhollander challenges the church and us to not stand silent on the sidelines.  Rachel suffered abuse as a gymnast from Larry Nassar, the Michigan State trainer.  As she says,

“It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.

That obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”


Image: Jeff Kowalsky / AFP /Getty Images

Lesson Three – God sees:  So operate with transparency

One of the great lessons from Willow is the danger of power.  The elders had too little power.  They believed Bill and failed to exercise independence.  They failed to put in place systems to prevent being alone in hotel rooms, on a boat, or having a single woman live in his house.  Moral guardrails should be absolute so everything is done above reproach.

Consolidating power in a leader is dangerous.  Whether a priest or pastor, no one is above transparent accountability.   There is a downside to not having government regulation over churches.  I believe we should retain our separation of powers between church and state, but church boards must take on stronger roles of oversight.  Because the church files no tax return, finances are often hidden.  Churches often fail to have basic policies or systems in place for greater transparency and accountability.

Accountability and transparency are necessary.  Jesus modeled this and we must seek to follow His example.  If you are a leader immediately ensure that you have systems and policies in place.  If you are not then speak to leaders and ensure systems exist to ensure transparency and accountability.

Satan is the only winner when we fail to speak out, establish systems of transparency, and stand with the vulnerable instead of the powerful.  There is a creek that runs through Willow filled with the tears of hurting neighbors.  Pray for healing and restoration.  But also do justice.  Stand with women and take steps to ensure accountability.


About Bruce Strom

I am a lawyer, pastor, CEO, and author of Gospel Justice who builds communities of justice minded Christians to free people from legal burdens so they can flourish. I didn’t always care about justice. I was busy as the senior partner of a successful multi-office law practice. But I missed something. God was less concerned about me building my kingdom and more concerned about how I was advancing His kingdom. I left private practice to start Administer Justice to serve the least of these with their legal needs. Over 20 years later, churches, lawyers, and individuals across the country are joining a movement to Administer Justice for those in need.