18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Romans 1
Hiding And Vulnerability To Immorality
Although the above passage is usually thought of in the context of unbelievers, it can also apply to believers, who move away from the Wisdom and Truth of Scripture. When a church suppresses the Truth, verse 18, they open themselves to all forms of immorality. Truth is like light, it seeks to be revealed. All attempts to suppress it will fail and the efforts used to keep it secret will be exposed in time.
Sin festers in the darkness, in the hidden things of this world. Organizations like Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) have created a culture of hiding. This church is one of the most secretive organizations with which I have personally been associated. Even today, after two years of the traumatic revelation of sinful sexual behaviors, that were suppressed until the church was forced to acknowledge them, the church culture is still one of hiding. You would think that after years of hidden immoral behavior on the part of the senior pastor and others, the church would go overboard in the opposite direction, revealing things to the congregation in real time. But no. Even as recently as a few months ago, at least three immoral sexual behaviors on the part of former staff members and the visionary co-founder of the church, have been revealed. One of these was forced by the coming forward of a victim, the others have not been publicly acknowledged by the leadership of the church.
A former senior staff member of WCCC, in assessing the situation at the church, came up with the concept that a “culture of immorality” may exist that has not been addressed and changed. From his perspective, this is a spiritual battle, in that the church may be captive to the deceiving spirit of the Evil one. After all, scripture clearly states that Satan is the father of lies and operates in the currency of deceit and truth suppression. He is in fact a thief and a liar. So only his influence could guide an organization into suppressing the truth. God wants authenticity and transparency, so His grace can abound. Satan’s goal is division and secrecy, because he in fact knows that this is the fertile soil where sin breeds best. So when the siren sound that beckons to protect flaws and sins by deception and suppression is listened to, hiding becomes the fabric of life. Any organization that shows such a high focus on external image and suppression of truth is not following the guidelines of scripture. Satan’s great lie is that of promoting looking good, but not being good. At an organizational level, this in fact is what WCCC’s culture has created. It is in this kind of vulnerable culture, of secrecy and darkness, that immorality flourishes.
Truth Suppression Strategies (TSS)
WCCC has for years operated on the assumption that a few elite leaders and managers are the ones that control the flow of information to the rest of the congregation. And, as has been developed elsewhere, the church operates on a high degree of control of information that threatens the perfectionistic image of the church. Any problems that risk breaking through to the congregants or the outside public’s awareness of sin or flaws must be met with Truth Suppression Strategies (TSS). TSS are implemented when there is a red alert to the possibility of negative information getting out to the public. It reminds me of the storm troopers of Star Wars that come to attack whatever is a threat to the rule of the dark forces.
As a 30 year attender at WCCC, I have witnessed the church going from looking so outwardly good, to slowly but surely peeling back the veneer to reveal years of TSS that operated in the deep state of the organization. What is incredible is the fact that for so long WCCC was able to prevent the revelation of multiple sinful problems due to well orchestrated TSS. The most prominent forms of the TSS range from the heavy handed power consolidation at the top of WCCC, whereby the ruler, Bill Hybels, had such control over the elders and leadership structure that he, by force of personality, could prevent anything negative about the church or himself, from seeping out. Bill Hybels is the architect of the TSS at WCCC. As has been identified in earlier blogs, it is the dualistic pathology of his inner life that laid down the blueprint for the organizational suppression of truth. He has such an intense need to look good that he built a church structure around this model of perfection. Anything that threatened this outward facade had to be met with the TSS storm troopers.
TSS are a collection of approaches with the same objective- to get around potential negative information and either prevent them from seeing the light of day, or destroy the sources of potential bad press. Kill the messengers and victims. Kill their reputations, kill their legitimacy, and never allow the potential image destroying reality of their message to surface! These approaches are pretty standard ways of controlling the narrative of a person or organization. See the NBC, Fox News, and Harvey Weinstein, stories.
As I have analyzed the TSS that WCCC has used in responding to the revelation of sinful immorality on the part of Bill Hybels and other leaders, specific approaches have been uncovered. One of the primary TSS has been that of discrediting the very realities of the experience of victims. Elders supported the attacks on victims by colluding with the perpetrator to call the women liars and colluders. Although the elders later gave a tepid apology, they never entered into accepting the level of pain they had inflicted on these women victims or one of the elders, Betty Schmidt. That approach worked initially. The elders themselves lied when they presented a rationalization that they had gotten in front of information about Bill Hybels’s sexual immorality by hiring a bogus attorney connected to the church and biased in favor of finding Bill innocent. A weak foundation was then laid to justify saying they had done their due diligence, and could confidently support Bill Hybels’s innocence. They used TSS by not going outside the church to find a truly objective and unbiased investigator of Bill’s behavior. But this Truth Suppression Strategy is so clever! Find a biased investigator who concludes in favor of the perpetrator, so elders can get behind the conclusions of this prejudiced person, and seek to steer, like a red herring, the focus of the congregation away from the truth. See everyone, the Emperor does have clothes!
Another TSS is to gaslight the victims. In short, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse “in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Essentially, gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize your understanding of reality, making you constantly doubt your own experiences.
Most of the time, this tactic is used to further uneven power balances with abusive partners, making you second guess yourself when you feel as if you are being abused or attacked. (from everyday feminism).
There have been multiple stories of victims being labeled as psychologically unstable or even ill (ie. Pat Baranowski), thereby discrediting their realities about how they were abused. Another gaslighting technique used was to reverse the culpability from the perpetrator to the victim, by suggesting that the victim was angry at the rejection of the perpetrator and so decided to accuse him or her. Incredibly, at WCCC, a church that supposedly has an egalitarian view of women, female elders entered into this process. The goal of this TSS is to annihilate the credibility of the victim by attacking their legitimacy. This form of the TSS is particularly cruel, since it has no regard for the traumatic damage inflicted on the victims who are not believed. It’s’ only objective is to PROTECT PROTECT PROTECT the church! Protect its founder.
A clear motivation for the level of protection of the senior leader is the concept of the Key Man. Bill Hybels, at WCCC, was the Key Man in the insurance structure of the church. When a church is covered for liability or other forms of insurability, a Key Man is identified who is so important that they must be treated in a different way. That is why, I believe, that Bill Hybels was restricted from high risk activities such as piloting his own plane. The assumption in a mega-church of WCCC’s size is that if the Key Man goes down, the financial implications are huge. Therefore, at all costs, the Key Man must be protected against culpability. The attendants to the Emperor must create a veil of impenetrability around the Key Man. As a result any threat to the image and power of the Key Man must be eliminated at all costs! Anyone that threatens the power or prestige of the Key Man must be neutralized in some way.
As an aside, although the policy of the Key Man concept is to limit risk, the reality is that Bill Hybels engaged in the high risk behavior of sexual behaviors toward women in the church and elsewhere. This can only be explained by the fact that individuals like him, who believe in their own celebrity, become so entitled that they believe they can control risky situations. He made a calculated decision that he could control and suppress the truth getting out. In this sense, he not only put himself at risk but the whole church as well. I have always said that entitled people hold within themselves the seeds of their own self destruction. They combine being risk prone with entitlement. At some point, they make decisions that they cannot completely control and so get exposed.
Can any real Christian imagine that Jesus would endorse the Key Man concept of the current mega-church model? The very concept bakes in a motivation to protect the financial value that the key man represents. It therefore adds an incentive to suppressing information that could damage his ability to keep the church functioning at the financial level that it has attained. Would Jesus endorse the concept that any man or woman is so financially important that we should give him or her a pass on morality? The ends do not justify the means. I attended a service at Discovery Church in Orlando last Sunday and was refreshed by hearing its pastor, Don Cousins, former pastor at WCCC, say emphatically that there are no celebrities in the church except Jesus. He is the only Key Man!
Then there is the concept of the “key men or women” to the Key Man. Enter the Elder Response Team (ERT). The task of the ERT in the structure of TSS is to get around negative information and do whatever is necessary to eradicate its potential damage to the Key Man and therefore the church. Discrediting the stories of victims continues in this process. As I have blogged elsewhere, the ERT created a “Star Chamber” court that stacked the power imbalance clearly in favor of the ERT over any potentially harmed individual. Multiple stories of intimidation exist about how the ERT used TSS to catch and minimize the damage to the church’s reputation. The head of the ERT, who was a clone of Bill Hybels, was the “key man” for the Key Man. He helped clean the messes. Things from destroying evidence (ie. shredding evidence of a relationship shared by victim Ann Lindberg), to powering up on vulnerable individuals in intimidating ways was the MO of the ERT.
The question at this time in the history of WCCC is have the TSS been eliminated? The reason that immorality flourishes in organizations that hide and suppress the revelation of sin is that at some level, individuals who sin in the organization will not be exposed. So the underlying message is that one can sin, or act out sexually, and they will either get by with it, because of their power, or if found out, will not be exposed publicly. WCCC should publicly call out Bill Hybels for his sin and call him to repentance. Why? As a signal to others that sin will be exposed. But because the culture of WCCC was formed and is still sustained around the TSS of the past, there is still a commitment to protecting the truth in ways that the leadership believes will not do damage to the image. The current elders, in many ways, are no different from previous elders and leaders. They do not share the truth in real time. There have been affairs among high profile leadership staff, some as recent as a few months ago, that have not been exposed to the people of the church. WCCC is like a dysfunctional family that looks good on the outside but works hard to suppress damaging truth.
Transparency Supports Healthy Moral Choices
Going back to my opening thoughts about immorality, I believe that even the current culture of limited sharing of truth keeps WCCC vulnerable to continued immorality. When secrecy is endorsed at an institutional level, as it is at WCCC, then, by implication, the message to individuals is that secrecy is acceptable. But every sinful behavior is sustained by secrecy. Every affair that occurs is done in secrecy. Every sexual acting out behavior that exists in an organization is supported by threats to victims to maintain secrecy. Secrecy is the petri dish in which the cancer of sin is free to metastasize. The current elders have just replaced the former elders by being the gatekeepers of truth. They have resisted, by mainly passive aggressive efforts to look like they are addressing the secrecy issues, becoming a transparent organization. And because of this they are culpable in sustaining a culture that is vulnerable to ongoing immorality. All the behind the scenes decisions they are currently making, without sharing openly with the congregation, are simply a continuation of the elitist view of leadership, that a select number of people can know or suppress the truth. Elder updates are so bland and so insufficient as a source of real information, that they are offensive.
Luke 8:17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.