The lead pastors of Willow Creek Community Church have resigned. So have the church’s elders, after admitting that they made mistakes in their handling of allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Bill Hybels, the megachurch’s former leader. But if there is anything unusual in this tragic saga, it is only the prominence of those involved and the scope of the church’s influence. There is a name for this sort of collective leadership failure. It is called denial and it happens to all of us.
In family systems, denial is usually a result of misdirected love combined with self-preservation. It is a distortion of love’s natural inclination to hope and its desire not to keep a record of wrong (1 Cor. 13:5, 7). Denial is a misguided attempt to shield ourselves from pain. We shut our eyes and pull the covers over our head. We refuse to accept the evidence that is presented to us because we do not want to face the implications that come with it.
In organizations, denial is expressed as blind loyalty. In Christian organizations, this blindness is often spiritualized. The conditional skepticism which 1 Timothy 5:19 advises when it comes to accusations made against leaders is inordinately expanded. Instead of requiring that accusations be validated by credible witnesses, no criticism is deemed warranted. Critics are branded as troublemakers. Those who accuse are considered to be emotionally imbalanced. The person who points out the problem becomes the problem.
The larger the organization, the easier it is to slip into denial. If a ministry is perceived as being “too big to fail,” often its senior leader is viewed the same way. Anyone who is obliged to the leader is especially vulnerable. If the leader hired, promoted, or acted as a mentor to you, your initial response to a criticism or accusation against that person will be disbelief. If the criticism continues, disbelief will eventually turn to anger that is directed not against the accused but the accuser.
The biblical prophets were slain. They were stoned to death or put to the sword. One was even sawn in half. The Christian organization has a more civilized way of silencing those who challenge its leaders. Their weapon of choice is contempt. When denial becomes a feature of an organization’s culture, its critics are marginalized. They may be removed from important committees or even fired. But more often they are simply allowed to remain in place while their opinions are dismissed. “Oh, that’s just Mary,” someone says with a condescending smile. The implied message is clear. Mary has issues. There is no need for us to listen to her. Perhaps Mary does have issues but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to her story.
Denial lends itself to the kind of ad hominem rationalizations that allow us to dismiss criticisms we don’t want to hear. When 1 Timothy 5:19 warns that a criticism against an elder should not be “entertained” without multiple witnesses, it does not counsel the church to silence those who criticize. It means that an accusation should not be accepted as fact without evidence. This evidence takes two forms. One is narrative in nature. The standard of 1 Timothy 5:19 is a credible account of two or more people. We may not like the one who criticizes but we owe to it to them to take their story seriously. By this, I do not mean that we automatically accept it as fact. Whatever is said needs to be verified. But we can at least assume that the critic has a reason for leveling charges. The first step to addressing the problem is the act of respectful listening, no matter whether the problem lies with the leader or the accuser.
The second form of evidence is behavioral. Once the standard of credible testimony is met, the church has an obligation to confront a leader who has sinned. What is more, this action is supposed to be carried out in public (1 Tim. 5:20). This stipulation implies a pattern of behavior. Actions have been taken. Behavior or its consequences has been observed. There is more going on here than a bad feeling about someone. One contributing factor in Willow Creek Community Church’s crisis was that observable patterns of behavior were overlooked or explained away.
Denial’s most insidious feature is its power to make the evil which is in plain sight seem invisible. When we should pay attention, we do not. Instead, we ignore and then excuse. Even though the proof is right in front of us, we deliberately turn a blind eye. This may be the worst aspect of denial because it means that if we are suffering from it, we probably don’t know it. We need to be alerted to denial’s presence by someone else. Probably by the last person you want to hear from. Maybe from the person you least respect. No wonder the Psalmist prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way (Ps. 139:23-24).