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The Character Gap Between Willow Creek and Jimmy Carter

On July 25, 2018

The Bible’s Warning to Leaders

From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture speaks emphatically about character alignment in leaders. It’s impossible to miss God’s point. Leaders have an impact on lives—sometimes for good and sometimes for harm. We will be held accountable by God when our actions are inconsistent with God’s expectations of leaders (Gal. 5:22-23, 1 Tim. 3:1-14).

Passages like Matthew 18:6, Acts 20:28, Romans 2:21-23, and James 3:1 give sober caution to anyone eager to become a teacher or leader. Choose wisely, because the Bible also makes clear that those with power rarely manage it well. That’s why successful leadership depends on systems of accountability.

Without accountability, bad leaders do enormous damage to decent people, to struggling communities, and to important reform movements. Because of this, many of us are outraged by accounts of inappropriate behavior by Willow Creek Church founder Bill Hybels. We’re disappointed because WC’s prominence as a leading egalitarian megachurch demands greater accountability.

The Impact of WC’s Failed Leadership

We owe the women who came forward to expose Hybel’s ungodly behavior our support and gratitude. With them, I grieve WC’s silencing of accusers and their centering of image over repentance and responsible change. I also thank Scot McKnight for carefully tracing these failures in his recent blog.

Over the years, WC leaders heard stunningly similar testimony from multiple sources that Hybels had repeatedly violated women’s boundaries and trust. These circumstances should have provoked a vigorous and independent investigation for the sake of WC’s soul, its influence in the world, and all it represents for believers (and egalitarians).

But rather than admit failure and work to create systems of accountability, WC leaders externalized blame and sought to control the narrative. They circled their wagons and neglected the obligations their influence demands. These are the very challenges women survivors continue to face in churches, communities, and work places around the world when they expose abuse.

Yes, we feel betrayed.

Consider also that many Christians have worked for decades to earn enough trust to have an opportunity to teach biblical gender equality in non-egalitarian communities. WC’s influence as a leading evangelical church and their prominence as an egalitarian voice come with an obligation to demonstrate character alignment in their treatment of women. To whom much is given, much is expected.

They’ve also placed at risk the egalitarian advocacy of Christians in countless other communities. The damage done to the gospel, God’s family, and to the egalitarian cause is inestimable. As McKnight observed, WC has squandered forty years of trust.

Their failures press us to ask difficult questions about power, fame, and the responsibilities that accompany influence. We can’t change what’s happened nor can we direct the future of WC and its leaders, but we can learn from their mistakes. And thankfully, there are other prominent egalitarians who have modeled character alignment throughout their public and private life, like former president Jimmy Carter.

The Fully Aligned Character of Jimmy Carter

One of the most admired US citizens in American history, Jimmy Carter’s life of public service moves in one direction—elevating women’s voices. Carter identifies “women’s rights as the fight of his life” and his organization—the Carter Center—is focused on championing women’s global equality through programs like the Human Rights Defender Forum.

Carter and his wife of seventy-two years, Rosalynn, work long hours together each week fighting disease, ending violence, and amplifying women’s voices and experiences. In my time at the Carter Center, I witnessed the Carters arrive hours before the meetings began, work hard throughout the day, and then entertain international delegates through dinner and into the evening.

President Carter has consistently centered women’s experiences and worked to expose and challenge patriarchal policies and practices. In his meticulously researched book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, he said: “the most serious unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence…”

A devout Christian and unashamed egalitarian, Carter broke company with the Southern Baptist Convention when they marginalized women leaders on mission fields, in hospitals, prisons, the academy, and churches. For Carter, the treatment of women is one of the truest tests of a leader’s character.

Carter’s life is a testament to the “long obedience in the same direction” that God requires of leaders. Those of us beleaguered by disappointment with failed leaders can look to Carter and men and women like him for inspiration. Even as we lament mistakes made, we take heart in the examples of other leaders who are worth our admiration and imitation.

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CBE advances the gospel by equipping Christians to use their God-given talents in leadership and service regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class. Together with supporters and ministry partners from 100 denominations and 65 countries, CBE works to inspire and mobilize women and men with the Bible’s call to lead and serve as equals.

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