Willow Creek: Why We Need More Church Discipline

May 22, 2018

It was confounding to hear that Bill Hybels had insisted on meeting with the female president of Zondervan Publishing on his private jet—without her husband. In Chicago, home to Willow Creek Community Church—the influential megachurch that the Hybels founded—this accusation and a handful of others have created major headlines.

The reactions have varied from dropped jaws to rolled eyes. Those who followed, loved, and admired Hybels for his ingenuity and creativity were utterly disappointed by the abuses of power that have taken place over his tenure as pastor. People outside of the church whom I have talked to are not surprised at all. “Of course, he had a private jet,” they would say. “Of course, he invited women to his hotel room.” The stories of pastors (almost always men) abusing their power has become so routine that it no longer surprises people.

When asked to think about the word “discipline,” I initially shudder. Too many people have experienced church discipline in manipulative and dishonest ways. In a sense, the last thing the church needs is more discipline. Yet, the story that is currently unfolding at Willow Creek—along with the many others like it—makes me think that perhaps more discipline is needed, not less.

Perhaps a new sort of discipline.

My daughter is seven months old, so I don’t know anything about disciplining children yet. At this stage, she can do no wrong. She is unaware that her fingernails can inflict serious pain and that inflicting serious pain on her grandmother is wrong. When I was recently asked how I would discipline her down the road, I was thrown off. My mind went to words like “chastise,” “punish,” and “rebuke.” They are ugly words that, according to Google dictionary, peaked in popular use during the mid-1800’s.

But of course, I will provide discipline for my daughter. In the context of family, it becomes obvious how much broader and deeper discipline is than punishment, rebuke, or judicial process. Discipline guides a child in the way that he or she should go. It is more expansive than punishment and always has an end in mind. As a parent, I am tasked with providing discipline for my daughter. That means establishing a set of habits for her: brush your teeth, say thank you, don’t steal from another kid on the playground. It means setting boundaries in which she can still run and taste and feel.  Unfortunately, punishment and rebuke will be a reality in my parenting life. However, I hope that they represent a small fraction of the formative discipline of my daughter and that encouragement, affirmation, and the creation of healthy habits will play much larger roles.

Maybe we can learn something about church discipline in contemplating parental responsibility. Because when taken out of its proper relational context, church discipline has often been reduced to a judicial process wherein church leadership offers correction and rebuke to members of a congregation. Top down. Usually, it is under the auspices of keeping the purity of the church. Though many books on the subject walk through Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, elaborating on how to execute each step in this judicial process, we miss the mark if we leave it there.

What we need is a broader approach to church discipline.

The current situation surrounding Bill Hybel’s impropriety is too typical of church discipline. You can read a full account of the story at Christianity Today. Hybels has apologized and the elders at Willow Creek have said that they will “methodically examine our church culture, enhancing policies and informal practices that support healthy and valuable working relationships between men and women.” Another possible way to phrase this response: we will adopt a new approach to discipline in the church. With the benefit of hindsight, they can see how their habits and rhythms of discipline were meager and insufficient.

Churches have been learning from Willow Creek for decades. There are lessons for our own practices of church discipline that we shouldn’t miss.

  • Discipline in the church needs to start with the leadership. Someone recently said in a conversation that pastors are above reproach. The phrase sounded immediately familiar, so I nodded. But as a pastor who knows he shouldn’t be above reproach, I also winced. Later, I looked up the passage in 1 Timothy 3 in which Paul tells Timothy that a leader must be someone who is above reproach. Paul isn’t telling Timothy that the church ought to trust a leader without the possibility of reproach because they are divinely appointed and unshakably moral. Rather, in choosing a leader, there should be no outstanding accusations of conduct contrary to the gospel. This prerequisite for leadership implies that after receiving their call to lead God’s people, great care should be taken to ensure that they continue living above reproach. In doing that, leaders will need the help of the congregation. They will need, in particular, the help of people who don’t look or think like them in order to see their blind spots. Rather than being above reproach, leadership in the church needs to open itself up to reproach.
  • Discipline within the church needs to be more than a reactive judicial system to deal with sin. Discipline needs to begin proactively with rhythms that promote honest conversation. Like parenting, most of our discipline ought to come from encouragement, affirmation, and habit-forming. When we see the Fruits of the Spirit being born in the life of the church, we need to name it and say amen! As a pastor who works for a consistory, I can’t tell you how valuable and encouraging it is when a deacon or elder commends me for something done well. In turn, those affirmations open me up to receive critical feedback.  Too many churches simply don’t have methods of feedback or threads of dialogue to create the sort of relationships that hold leaders accountable.
  • We need more church discipline, not less. It is 2018, and if the church has learned anything in the last few decades, it is that we must remove the plank in our own. Discipline is the tool that the church has used to keep itself pure. When the gospel that is preached on Sunday mornings is not good news to the poor, we need discipline. When voices on the margin are not heard or listened to, we need discipline. When we choose love without justice or justice without love, we need discipline. We need elders, deacons, pastors, and lay leaders who recognize that the stakes are too high for anyone to be above reproach. We need a broader, bigger, and better approach to discipline that produces the Fruits of the Spirit and prunes the branches that don’t bear fruit.

“For lack of discipline they will die,” warns Proverbs. In parenting, it is easy to see the truth in this verse. The flourishing of my daughter will depend on a multifaceted approach to discipline that will guide her in the way she should go. The same can be said of the church.

About the Author
  • Caleb Schut recently moved to Australia with his family. He graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 2016, served as the associate pastor at Grace Chicago Church in Chicago, IL for six years, and currently is an Assistant Pastor at an evangelical church in Sydney. Additionally, Caleb and his wife run a non-profit called Beautiful Response in partnership with leaders in Uganda and Haiti.

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  1. I can’t speak specifically to Willow Creek, but in my experience, having grown up in a large church of over 1,000 families, what was missing foundationally was relationship. Without effective relationship and community between pastors and congregation, between congregants, between consistory and congregation, discipline will likely not have a positive effect. My experience in a church that large was one of anonymity. If a member didn’t take the step of getting involved in a small group study, it was easy to have little or no contact with others in the church beyond Sunday morning. Elder visits in the home were nonexistent, unless a member specifically requested a meeting. The only pastor who knew me by name was our mission pastor, and he rarely got my name correct (always the correct first initial letter, the rest was variable…). I would assume the average congregant’s experience at Willow Creek is similar. As with parenting (I’m a mom of three teenagers), a positive relationship is the foundation of effective discipline. It’s difficult to guide people you don’t know.

  2. There is nothing wrong with the things you suggest, but I do believe they fail to identify and address the core problems.

    What we see in the details of abuse cases like this again-and-again is a consistent set of profiles, of a male leader and the environment he works in. Some of the traits include a leader with far too much unchecked, unanswered-to power to control the work environment and isolate potential victims, even insinuating himself into their private lives. If a pastor is an executive running a business and a workplace with employees, he cannot also be their confidant, confessor, or spiritual guide.

    Traits in Warren’s own psyche are also typical, especially for a man of his age/generation: unsatisfied sexual desires and perhaps a sense of having “missed out” on some things as the culture became more permissive, less repressive, and Warren’s work with Dobson on pornography (a project that was, in itself, a very bad idea) gave Warren an education in things he hadn’t considered or allowed himself to consider before. It does not take too much reading between the lines about the things Warren has said and what has been publicly exposed to see this. Warren’s excuses and justifications for his inexcusable actions were a marriage that had gone cold, but perhaps there was a lack of communication with his wife or other, appropriate confidants about things he found too shameful to discuss. Had those things been addressed in an appropriate way, he might not have acted out in an immoral, unethical, and pathological way that suggests a degree of compulsive behaviour had set in.