The Great Compromise – Is Willow Creek Community Church Still Egalitarian?

Since I will be writing extensively on the patriarchal elements of my church, Willow Creek, here I present a short summary and comparison of egalitarianism and patriarchy as it relates to my church.

“Willow Creeks says it’s egalitarian, but it doesn’t act like it.”

I had no idea at the time what the warning meant, a warning given to me by a fellow Chicagoan and CBEer (Christians for Biblical Equality). I decided to become a member of Willow Creek anyway; I was hoping the warning was misinformed. At the time I was looking for an egalitarian church and I placed my hope in Willow Creek’s egalitarian roots. I was also drawn by Bill Hybels’ teachings, he not only regularly spoke egalitarian principles and invited egalitarian men and women guests to preach, but he also spoke compassionately about immigrants, that is undocumented immigrants—a rarity among evangelicals. Bill and Lynne’s compassion toward the poor and vulnerable—including the undocumented immigrants in our neighborhoods and in our country—gave me comfort to make Willow Creek my home church. But, the warning still lingered in my mind. The year was 2007.

In time, I have come to find out for myself what the warning meant.

Willow Creek was founded as an egalitarian church—meaning both men and women are full participants in community and in all levels of church leadership. No leadership position was denied to a woman on the sole basis that she is a woman. We’ve had many women as Teaching Pastors, the most recent was Nancy Beach. Nancy is no longer Teaching Pastor nor member of Willow Creek.

Today, Willow still has egalitarian founding members leading the church. Our church has women in all levels of leadership, we have women elders and women in senior positions such as Executive Pastor. Women are always on stage, we have women speak and we have women participate and lead worship. We have women teachers and pastors. We have a strong ministry for local and international dis-empowered women that runs under the umbrella of our Compassion & Justice ministry. All of which communicate to our audience our strong pro-women value.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the patriarchal core.

Patriarchalists differ in the role of women at home and in the church. Some patriarchalists have a more restrictive view, they don’t let women on stage at all nor allow women to hold any type of teaching position. Other patriarchalists have a more expansive view on women in leadership, the women are allowed to teach, lead worship, and hold senior leadership roles alongside the men—as long as the women are not ordained nor hold positions of authority; Tim Keller’s church falls under this type of patriarchal church.

The one restriction that all patriarchalists adhere to is that women cannot have any position of authority over men regarding doctrine. This translates to women denied positions of Senior Pastor, Elder, Teaching Pastor, or any other position that carries with it authority and decision-making responsibly of doctrine over the whole church. This core belief is non-negotiable for patriarchalists, this core belief is what defines modern day patriarchy, this core belief puts men over women in defining and settling disputes regarding scripture—in many cases, it puts men over women in settling any dispute what so ever. Defining and settling what scripture states and ultimately what God says and who God is on behalf of the community of believers, and respective biological families, becomes a decision made only by men.

The patriarchal core within Willow Creek

Despite our pro-women advocacy, Willow Creek has a patriarchal core in its leadership. We have no women Teaching Pastors. The women teachers are in children, women, care or financial ministries—all ministries which are acceptable to the patriarchalists who adhere to the expansive view. We have one woman in one of the satellite churches who teaches bible and doctrine to adult women and men, she has a master’s degree in biblical studies. However, she has no title and is a volunteer, she is not a paid staff member. At another satellite, and in the last year or so, a woman has been hired to oversee discipleship. However, her title is not “teacher” nor “pastor”. Her title is “director”, which is an acceptable title for expansive patriarchalists. The women who speak from the South Barrington stage speak only to give administrative announcements and to participate in drama and music ministries—all ministries acceptable to expansive patriarchalists. We have one or two women each year give a weekend message. For the last three years that Midweek bible teachings have been under the supervision of our new Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter who replaced Nancy Beach, and under his leadership we’ve had no women teachers at Midweek. However, he has brought to Midweek patriarchal guest teachers who lead patriarchal churches, some of which are his friends and one of them is scheduled to speak at the Global Leadership Summit in 2015.

Our Executive Pastor is a woman, but her responsibilities are administrative, not doctrinal—an acceptable role for expansive patriarchalists. We have women pastors in the Compassion & Justice ministry—also another ministry expansive patriarchalists are accepting of women in leadership since they categorize this ministry as a care ministry with no authority or decision-making responsibilities over the church’s doctrine.

The only women in our church who have doctrinal oversight are our women elders. However, their role is limited and weakened when “ensuring the church’s teachings and practices reflect accurate biblical theology“. The elder board runs as a governance/policy board and they “delegate to qualified others” many of their responsibilities, including doctrinal responsibility, to paid staff members. Expansive patriarchalists are accepting of women as advisors but not as decision-makers when it comes to doctrine; so, moving to a governance board appeals to expansive patriarchalists because it removes decision-making responsibilities from the elders, specifically women elders, and places those responsibilities on the paid senior staff members who currently are all men who address church doctrine. Even if the board were to not delegate it’s doctrinal responsibilities, the only woman elder who has the gift of teaching is someone whose experience in teaching is financial stewardship, not church doctrine. Based on the brief biographical portraits made public for each elder, it’s impossible to recognize which, if any, elder has the capability to address heresy, specifically heresy propagated by [some] patriarchalists such as the Heresy of [Christological] Subordinationism.

Patriarchalists infiltrating Willow Creek

For years we’ve had patriarchalists infiltrate our church in staff and even in senior leadership positions. I will be writing extensively on those senior leaders I know who teach and advocate patriarchalism and will provide public information by referencing sermons or documents on Willow Creek’s website. I will not disclose information given to me in confidence, which means I will not be writing about all the patriarchalists I am aware of, only of the ones I am able to publicly speak or write about. I have plenty of public information and personal experiences which I will write about that point to patriarchal aspects in our church’s leadership.

Shane Farmer, our former Director of Discipleship, was one of those who deceptively subverted our church’s egalitarian position and taught patriarchalism. Fortunately, he is no longer at Willow Creek; unfortunately, he is senior pastor of a church in Denver, Colorado. I will write a few observations of his subversive methodologies which he employed to teach and model patriarchalism; his methodologies are important to observe because they are actually common among patriarchalists who try to subvert-ly and deceptively infiltrate egalitarian institutions. I am aware of a few egalitarians who raised concerns over Shane’s patriarchal teachings and coupled with his disregard of corrective measures and lack of submission to his superior(s) no doubt played a role in his departure.

Starting with the departure of Shane Farmer and more so in recent months, I have observed that Willow Creek’s senior leadership is increasing its efforts to recognize and correct patriarchalism in our midst, starting from the top. Currently, patriarchalism and even forms of scriptural inaccuracies are traced to our current Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter. As stated previously, in the three years Steve has been at Willow Creek and overseeing Midweek teachings, he has not invited any women teachers but has invited several male patriarchalists to teach. And even though Steve has corrected many of his own patriarchal and inaccurate teachings—no doubt under instruction and correction of his supervisor(s)—he manages to continue to promote forms of patriarchalism in his messages. As Teaching Pastor he plays a significant role in the teaching of doctrine and appears to be first in line to take the senior pastorate after Bill Hybels retires. His position as Teaching Pastor, patriarchal tendencies and deficiencies in understanding scripture have made Steve Carter the primary person I will be writing about in this website.

If Willow Creek were perceived as a patriarchal church, then I would not be writing about Steve Carter nor any other patriarchal aspects at Willow. I would not even be a member of this church. It is because Willow Creek is perceived as an egalitarian church and because I became a member with the understanding that it still is an egalitarian church, despite the warning, that I will be writing extensively about Steve Carter and other patriarchal elements at Willow Creek.

We as egalitarians must come to terms that a church that is egalitarian in perception and on its cover but is patriarchal at its core, is a church that is not egalitarian, but patriarchal. It is a pro-woman and benevolent patriarchal church, at best; but not an egalitarian church.

By accident or by Choice?

Did the current patriarchal core at Willow Creek come about by accident or by choice? Both.

By accident, the lack of discernment and training among staff to distinguish between egalitarian and patriarchal, specifically hierarchical-complementarian, teachings and practices has allowed patriarchalism to infiltrate Willow Creek and even be accepted as ‘egalitarian’. Such is the deceptive aspect of benevolent patriarchy known as hierarchical-complementarianism as advocated by gender-hierarchicalists among the New Calvinists and also most recently among the emergent.

By choice, Willow Creek believes in the fellowship of egalitarians and patriarchalists to worship together as one church. However, to patriarchalists women in senior leadership who have authority and decision-making responsibilities regarding doctrine that affects adult males is a serious offence to their patriarchal doctrine. It’s an offense they are not willing to bend on. Having a patriarchal core at Willow Creek’s leadership is an appeal to patriarchalists as a way to avoid offending their patriarchal doctrine. But as stated earlier, an egalitarian church on the outside with a patriarchal core is not an egalitarian church, but a pro-woman and benevolent patriarchal church at best—and that is an ambiguous and deceptive concept.

Composing a patriarchal core in an egalitarian church in order to appeal to patriarchalists is what I refer to as “The Great Compromise” at Willow Creek.

This is the message, in my own words, that Willow Creek is sending to the women by us having a pro-women and benevolent look with a patriarchal core:

Girls, ladies, women,

We at Willow Creek love you. We love our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. We know the pain and suffering you are going thru. The world has been violently cruel to you. You can find safety and encouragement in our church from the harsh reality of your everyday life. We seek to empower you and release you to do good works God has prepared for you in advance, here and abroad, for his kingdom and for his glory. And, we will do everything we can to teach the men to cover you and protect you.

However, none of you, not a single one of you, will ever be good enough, mature enough, righteous enough, knowledgeable enough, worthy enough to stand next to our men in a position of authority and decision-making over church doctrine. When it comes time to decide what the bible says, who God is, what God wants us to do as a body of believers, and to disseminate that information to the whole church, and your respective biological families, that decision will be made by only men. You women, not a single one of you, will be part of that decision-making process.

Edited: 6.17.15

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