Bill Hybels and the “Billy Graham Rule”

The Chicago Tribune published a lengthy exposé about sexual misconduct allegations that have been made against Bill Hybels, the founder and Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. I don’t want to repeat them here, but I encourage you to read the story and Willow Creek’s and Bill Hybels’ response.

I’m very familiar with this congregation. I had many friends and serve at the church in South Barrington, IL (a suburb northwest of Chicago) when I attended Trinity International University. I attended their youth ministry conference when I was a youth pastor. I’ve attended their services in the past.

I’m personally not a fan of the seeker-sensitive worship model and I don’t agree with all of Hybels’ or the church’s theology (doctrines of grace, women as elders and pastors, etc.). That said, I do appreciate their heart for the lost, I did come away with some great ideas through their training, and I have zero doubt that God has used that church in Chicago and beyond.

I am also concerned when any church encounters trouble like this. Churches with the impact and visibility that Willow Creek has is even more troubling because of the impact it can make throughout the global Church.

The news story also just makes me sad. It is disappointing if true, and I’m familiar with some of his accusers (Nancy Beach, John and Nancy Ortberg) so I can’t envision what motive they would have to lie. A number of the claims seem credible and at least one, not so much.

On the other hand, if this isn’t true, I would be equally disappointed in the accusers. I find it sad all around.

I think what is definitely clear in the article, whether or not anything inappropriate took place, was that he did not truly practice the “Billy Graham rule” like he encouraged others to do.

The “Billy Graham rule” comes from the late evangelist’s policy to not spend time alone with women he was not related or married to. It served him well.

If he had there would have been no side trip with Nancy Beach. There would not have been any one-on-one meetings with women that could have put him (and the women!) in potentially compromising situations. Following the “Billy Graham rule” would have guarded against false accusations and prevented potential sexual misconduct.

I wish that Hybels would admit to failing in this way or that Willow Creek would call him out on it.

While the church should not assume the allegations are true, they shouldn’t assume they are not as well.

The Bible says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses,” (1 Timothy 5:19, ESV).

If the Chicago Tribune story is accurate (and I think they were fair in getting both sides of the story) we are well beyond that threshold.

It’s important that we don’t put leaders on a pedestal, so high that we think they can never fall. Because when they do fall it reverberates through the church.

The Apostle Paul added in his instruction to Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear,” (1 Timothy 5:20, ESV).

I do commend Willow Creek Community Church’s elders for investigating the allegations.

My prayer is that Willow Creek will reconsider whether the investigation they instigated was thorough enough. Three former board members of the Willow Creek Association, one of whom I know personally, resigned because they believed it was not.

I also pray that there will be transparency (they have not released the investigator’s report). Even if Hybels did not engage in sexual misconduct, it’s important to disclose whether or not he put himself in compromising situations. It’s also important for the church to know how thorough the investigation really was.

Also, let this be a lesson to all in leadership. Lead and live above reproach. The “Billy Graham rule” is a great policy to make your own.