Bill Hybels’ sudden resignation from Willow Creek Church and the Willow Creek Association has shaken the evangelical community and has provided yet another reason for a disillusioned culture not to trust organized religion.
Many lessons can be learned from the Willow Creek debacle. Wise leaders have been offering good counsel about personal integrity, respecting the powerless, reporting abuse and providing safety for victims.
But another important lesson for the church is hidden within this story of offense, pain, and failure by church leaders. The lesson is this: There is no place for self-righteousness among God’s people. When wrongdoing happens within the church, it reveals the stark truth that church people are flawed. Followers of Jesus have no right to be arrogant. There is no possibility for self-justification in our broken and faulty lives. If you are a church-going, hymn-singing, committee-serving, pot-luck-eating, prayer-praying, doing-your-best-to-live-a-godly-life Christian, you can only bow humbly before God and depend on Him for His grace. You have no reason to boast and there is no room for finger-pointing.
The church, however, has become very skilled at pointing its finger at specific sins these days. More than that, it has intensified its outcry against a variety of people and practices—both inside and outside the church. While calls for repentance are essential, and prophetic words need to address destructive pathways, the voice of the church can never contain a hint of superiority.
The apostle Paul addressed this issue after he witnessed Peter back away from Gentile believers in the city of Antioch. Gentiles were “those people.” They were from the wrong bloodline, they engaged in ungodly practices, and they were looked upon with revulsion by church “insiders” at the time. Self-righteousness had reared its ugly head. So Paul offered clarity: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:15–16).
In other words, the playing field is level. No one can claim to be better than anyone else. No one earned God’s favor by being “less sinful” than the “really bad people.” The only reason anyone of us has hope is through faith in Jesus. There is no self-righteousness, only Jesus’ righteousness. Paul summed it up by saying, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26–29).
The pain and hurt caused by a prominent church leader may tempt us to become defensive about the church. A better response, however, is to see this tragic turn of events as a reminder that “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10) and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)—including us within the church. We live by God’s grace. Our conversation about issues, with the culture, and with one another must come from a place of humility, unworthiness, and gratitude for God’s grace.
Another public failure in the church teaches us an unlikely lesson: self-righteousness can never be our platform. We need to admit our failures and relate to people with humility, respect, care, understanding, and grace. That is the way of Jesus.