Respected author and theologian Scot McKnight has added his voice of condemnation for Willow Creek Community Church’s handling of the Bill Hybels controversy, adding a theological response to keeping accusations “in house” that has far-reaching implications for evangelicalism in the #metoo movement.
In a recent blog post for Patheos, McKnight argues that Willow Creek’s pastors and elders have fallen short in providing full accountability for Hybels and the church before turning his attention to the belief that “going public” with these accusations is unbiblical. McKnight cites what he calls “prophetic action,” which he says is illustrated “all over the Bible.”
Prophetic Action Is Biblical
“Prophetic action is profoundly biblical,” McKnight writes. “It has been the agent of truth-telling, repentance and restoration time and time again in the history of the Bible and the history of the church. Prophetic action should never be the first thing someone does; and in this case the Ortbergs and Mellados very biblically waited and waited and waited before they went public. When interpersonal and behind-closed-doors in the church options are worn out and not finding the truth, then public, prophetic action is both warranted and biblical.”
Throughout the Old and New Testament, a spokesperson for God calls out the wickedness of those in power, from Nathan, to Elijah, to John the Baptist, to Jesus. In each case except Nathan’s, the prophet’s accusations are public, and with Nathan, there is an implication it remained private only because David immediately repented.
But how does “prophetic action” apply to Willow Creek, and a broader evangelical culture at large grappling with their own #metoo crisis? How should Matthew 18 be applied in cases of an abuse of power? Should a woman who is raped first go to the man who raped her privately and call him out? What does it look like for a victim to “go to the church” when the church’s own leadership are participating in, or covering up, the abuse?
In his post, McKnight references an obscure passage from Deuteronomy he believes is as close as the Bible gets to addressing the Hybels situation. The passage reads:
But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.
The Biblical Precedent to Believe the Victim
In this verse a man and woman are alone, the woman is raped, no one is there to witness it, yet her claim is believed. This passage also acknowledges the distinction between a sin committed between two believers, and a violation of the law. There is no expectation that the woman should confront her accuser privately, because there is a legal punishment that applies. Churches who either state or imply that a criminal accusation should remain in house are not just breaking the law of the land, but a biblical precedent that dates back to the early days of Israel.
When a Christian uses a position of authority to pressure victims into silence—as Paige Patterson was accused of doing for years—they are not protecting the unity of the church, but violating a victim’s biblical right to justice. And when church leadership refuses to listen to correction on this abuse, there is a consistent biblical mandate to “prophetic action” from followers of Christ.
A misguided, unbiblical twisting of Matthew 18 has been used at times by corrupt church cultures to protect the wicked and harm the vulnerable, which is why it’s more important than ever to listen to McKnight’s call to prophetic action, and God-honoring theology that protects the vulnerable in our churches.