For the past two weeks, allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian have appeared on blogs and in news reports. These circumstances require a response from CBE, given Dr. Bilezikian was an early egalitarian thought leader not only in CBE’s circle of influence, but he was also a prominent theologian at Wheaton College and a lead teacher at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC). If you’ve been involved in the early egalitarian movement, then you probably know that his work emerged early on and gave significant momentum to CBE’s mission. Because of this, we believe it is necessary to provide some history on his relationship with CBE, past and present.
During my seminary studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS), I was privileged to meet Catherine Clark Kroeger. She and I shared a vision for egalitarian advocacy at GCTS and also at a newly formed CBE chapter in Boston. For nearly three years, we invited speakers to address Boston audiences based on the half-dozen books available during the mid-1990s, which included Dr. Bilezikian’s Beyond Sex Roles, alongside others like Elaine Storkey’s What’s Right with Feminism and Gretchen Gaebelein Hull’s Equal to Serve.
Like many of the early evangelical egalitarian writers, Dr. Bilezikian was associated with CBE’s efforts, including our earliest Statement on “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” of which he was one of seven authors. Though he was never employed by CBE nor was he a member of our board, because of Dr. Bilezikian’s prominence as a scholar, his leadership at WCCC, and his contribution to the aforementioned Statement, he is often perceived as a CBE founder. However, CBE founder is an identity reserved for three women: Cathie Kroeger, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, and Alvera Mickelsen. These women served on our board. They gave oversight to our incorporation as a nonprofit and our bylaws, they ran our publications, and they directed our finances, policies and practices, and staff. Even so, Gilbert Bilezikian was involved in CBE events in our early years.
Here we had observed Dr. Bilezikian’s eccentric flattery of women in comments like, “To be surrounded by so many beautiful women is a French man’s dream come true!” At the time, his fondness for commenting on women’s appearances did not seem to cross a line. However, eight years ago, I learned thirdhand of an alleged inappropriate comment Dr. Bilezikian had made to a woman, decades back, that did cross a line. While the woman was not reachable, and her allegation was uncorroborated, we began distancing CBE from his influence, limiting his voice in our journals and on our international platforms. I was hoping that this allegation was a one-off event.
Late in 2018, we learned of two additional allegations of inappropriate physical contact by Dr. Bilezikian from women associated with his leadership at WCCC. As a result, CBE severed all collaboration with Dr. Bilezikian. However, due to the fact that the allegations were not public or corroborated, and did not involve allegations during which he was acting in any capacity on behalf of CBE, our board of directors unanimously decided that it was premature, and even irresponsible, to issue a statement at that time. As new allegations are appearing in the news, we are grateful for competent investigative professionals and journalists who discern what constitutes reliable news—skills CBE does not possess given our calling as an egalitarian think tank.
While these allegations will (and should) limit his future influence, Dr. Bilezikian’s prominence has been waning for years, especially among younger Christians. Several years ago, I asked members of the Christian Feminists Club at Wheaton College if they had heard of his work. The answer was no. Many other theologians and activists have stepped in to lead the movement. While his publications remain in print, hundreds of other books stand on equal footing beside his. Thankfully, a movement never rests on the shoulders of one fallible human. Many more women, people of color, and international communities now play leading roles in the egalitarian movement, a shift we believe is God’s intention.
What will be the impact of a thought leader who exploits the very people they are committed to uplift? How can we account for this within the egalitarian movement? Unless we do what is right, sin is crouching near both egalitarians and complementarians alike (Gen. 4:7). Both complementarian and egalitarian leaders have been complicit in #MeToo abuses. What must be made right? For complementarians, they must work harder at elevating character over maleness. For egalitarians, we must not allow theological charisma to eclipse character. People may write influential books, but this in no way demonstrates an author’s character. Often it tends to foster a personality cult that is accompanied by dangerous power imbalances, especially between men and women in church culture and exceptionally in megachurch culture, whether complementarian or egalitarian.
Our reaction to the allegations against Dr. Bilezikian is one of deep sorrow for and solidarity with the women who have come forward as survivors. That any egalitarian scholar, educator, or church leader would use their influence to exploit women’s trust through abuse is a deep betrayal with devastating consequences. These allegations demand our lament, our prayers, and a response from Gilbert Bilezikian. I pray and request that he remembers his obligations to these women.