Three well known leaders within Christianity were in the news recently. Two because of their passing away from this earthly life, one because of his resignation as leader of a well known mega church: Billy Graham, R.C. Sproul, and Bill Hybels.
Billy Graham is a world renown evangelist. In February, we published a short article on this website in which we referred to a blog post of Rev. Wes Bredenhof about Billy Graham. Billy Graham is known as a great man. He also had his weaknesses. He was a driven man. But his drive to preach the gospel kept him away from his family, sometimes even for months on end. Once he was in Australia for a preaching tour which took him six months, away from his family. His wife was a father and a mother for their children. His children didn’t really know him. Christianity Today writes an well balanced article in which his children describe their life with/without him. They are not negative. They love him. They also missed him. They all struggled a lot. Three of the five have been divorced. The two boys openly rebelled. Now they are all involved in active ‘full-time ministry’ and they do honour and respect their parents.
It is sometimes moving how they describe their experiences and how they speak about their father. An article that is worth reading, even if it were only for the fact that it shows us the struggles and weaknesses also great men are dealing with. It makes him so much more human for us. And I can assure you that a lot of ministers, and also elders and deacons, who are passionately dedicated to their offices, struggle with finding the right balance between family and their responsibility in the church. Church leaders need your prayers. They are also weak human beings who need to depend on God.
The second man I mention here is R.C. Sproul. In December we published an article about him, a few days after his passing away. R.C. Sproul was Reformed in his theology. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church of America. The PCA is a member of NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) of which also our Canadian sister churches are a member (the Canadian Reformed Churches). R.C. Sproul has written a lot of good books, which can be very helpful and edifying for readers within the Free Reformed Churches as well. I certainly recommend these books. He also wrote a series of booklets which deal with essential questions which we may encounter in discussions with ‘seekers’ as well as those who are still young in the faith. He was the General Editor of ‘The Reformation Study Bible’ (English Standard Version), which I strongly recommend for use in Bible Study clubs. He was the founder of Ligonier ministries. On their website, Ligonier ministries made available a large number of videos of courses about many Biblical topics. You can check out a few of them, but will have to pay for the entire course. There is a large number of recordings available also on YouTube, if you search ‘R.C. Sproul on YouTube’, you should be able to watch them.
I believe that R.C. Sproul is one of the greatest Reformed theologians of this time.
For more information about him and his work, please read the article we published four months ago.
The third person I mention here is Bill Hybels. Even though we disagree with important parts of the teaching of Billy Graham and we recognise weaknesses in his life, we can learn from his zeal for the spreading of the gospel. We can certainly learn from R.C. Sproul and be thankful for what God gave to the Church in this formidable man. However, the reason for mentioning Bill Hybels is a sad one, and serves as a strong warning for us. The Washington Post reported that Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek Church after he was accused of misconduct by several women. Now there are several fundamental differences between Reformed churches and a church like Willow Creek. Willow Creek is so far removed from us, and it is also in America, the other side of the world. We know that. But the world doesn’t see it that way. They see it as another Christian church, one of the many where leaders are hypocrites and don’t practice what they preach. It brings dishonour to the name of Christ.
Let it be clear: the allegations against Bill Hybels are still just allegations. Nothing has been proven. Let us not condemn him without evidence. It is not my point now to show how bad either Bill Hybels or Willow Creek Church is. However, whether these allegations are true or not, this does teach us that for those who are (considered to be) leaders in Christian churches, it is extremely important to be very careful in how they conduct themselves. Especially leaders of megachurches which are highly visible in the world, are closely watched by the world. It is extremely unfortunate and regrettable that Bill Hybels is not the only one who is accused of sexual misconduct. The Washington Post published another article in which it mentions the names of several other leaders of mega churches who are or were embroiled in sex scandals.
Megachurch pastors have the temptation of being a celebrity of sorts and have an aura around them.
Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, warns that megachurch pastors have the temptation of being a celebrity of sorts and have an aura around them.
Megachurches not Biblical
The whole idea of megachurches is, in my opinion, something that is not supported by the Bible. In the Bible we read the emphasis on communion of saints, on teaching and admonishing one another, on encouraging one another. The Bible also teaches us that churches should, as much as possible, be organised locally. Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). The church must be part of the local community. Within the local community it makes visible the body of Christ, the holy catholic church which Christ gathers from the beginning of the world to its end. This local church is there to call the world to come to Christ and be saved by Him.
A Megachurch makes going to church an experience that is totally separate from our daily life. In another article I wrote about this, as being one of the reasons that Christianity is not growing in western countries: we make it a hobby, for Sunday, and it is not part of our daily life.
A Megachurch can so easily become the glory of the one ‘pastor’ or ‘televangelist’ instead of the body of Christ. It is the name of Bill Hybels which is connected with Willow Creek Church. And now with the name Bill Hybels, another sex scandal is connected.
Even though the allegations are not proven, Bill does admit that he “placed myself in situations that would be far wiser to avoid. I was naive … I commit to never putting myself in similar situations again.” So often, when people become powerful or famous, it becomes hard for them to stay within proper limits. Being adored by so many followers can make men arrogant and they bring themselves in situations which should be avoided. A Christian leader should always remain humble and aware of his own sinful nature. In their contact with those entrusted to their care, they should observe ‘professionalism’ and keep their emotions in check. They have to lead those under their care in God’s ways and not lead them into temptation or sin. A Christian leader must not want to be ‘popular’ but must want to be approved by God (2 Timothy 2:15).
Billy Graham stated that he would avoid being alone with any woman besides his spouse. This practice became known as “the Billy Graham Rule.” Vice President Pence reportedly follows this same rule, even though he was in the past mocked and ridiculed for it by the secular media. This certainly is an issue that we also must consider within the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Especially ministers often make visits on their own. Several churches have implemented or are in the process of implementing an abuse prevention policy. Some of these policies have the rule that no church leader, volunteer or any member in a position of authority will arrange to meet with a child alone, in a closed room, without the prior approval of the parent or guardian of the child (under 18) nor with an adult member of the opposite sex alone, in a closed room without the knowledge of the member’s spouse, relative or friend. This may seem burdensome and overly restrictive. Can a minister still visit the widows in the congregation? Or the single sisters? Does he always have to take someone (his wife or another office bearer) with him at these visits? There are some practical ways to deal with this requirement. A minister who wants to talk to a catechism student in private, after catechism, can do it while leaving the door open. Or he can meet with a single woman, in a room with door or windows open and people around. Create a situation in which others can see you, even though they cannot hear you.
I do believe that the ‘Billy Graham rule’ is a good one and we should very seriously consider implementing this in our churches as well. Not only to prevent our office bearers to fall into temptation, but also to show to the government and others that we take very seriously what we preach, and what the Word of God teaches us: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
That may mean that certain practices and certain expectations will have to change. That does not need to be bad at all. Doesn’t Paul say to Titus, that ‘older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.’ (Titus 2:3-5). It was in obedience to this rule that in the first centuries many overseers made use of sisters in the congregation to care for the female members in the church. They reported to the overseer (‘bishop’). This is certainly something worth considering for our churches as well. Rev. C. Bouwman wrote a good article about this topic, which I certainly recommend! His conclusion: let the older sisters get into the homes of the younger!