Reflections: Chapter 9, “TOV Churches Nurture Truth”
In Chapter 9, McKnight and Barringer highlight how Tov churches nurture a culture of truth-telling which necessarily involves “knowing the truth, doing the truth, and surrendering to the truth” (137). Since “truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ” (138), “truth becomes our way of life” (139). Churches wanting to nurture truth-telling should commit to a regular Yom Kippur-like season with “a commitment to confession, repentance, sacrifice, purification, and forgiveness” (148). Confession should “become part of the fabric of [our] culture” (152). Tov churches must not suppress the truth but encourage the public exposing of evil everywhere in their midst—no matter what the consequences are to the organization. If individuals have been wronged, “it is profoundly biblical [for them] to go public. Anything less than bringing the truth to light would be profoundly unbiblical” (145).
I had a lot of “yes and amen” responses to the chapter and hope that our Canadian MB family can live out truth-telling. We must worship Jesus authentically “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), live out truth in all that we communicate inside and outside our church family, and to not suppress truth and create “false narratives” (142) even when it is a truth that we don’t particularly want to become known.
However, the second half of the chapter is full of details of the vast failures at Willow Creek Church and their inexplicably unwise decisions (like expecting a woman who alleged inappropriate behaviour toward her to meet one-on-one with Hybels and refusing her request to have a neutral third-party present [see p.144]). The authors have set up an absolute black and white contrast between a truth-telling culture and the response of Willow Creek leadership when Bill Hybels was there (e.g., a leader is abusive; victims courageously try to address the question; the leaders repeatedly deny the allegations and silence the victims; the victims end up having to find other means to have their stories told; finally, after all of these efforts, the abusive leader is removed from leadership).
While this incredibly sad scenario has played itself out numerous times (think Ravi Zacharias, Bruxy Cavey, etc.), thankfully, it is not the situation that most of our churches have ever faced. Columbia Bible College had a faculty member in the 70s and 80s who was involved in numerous sexual misconduct relationships. In an effort to express Columbia’s sadness over these events, our commitment to truth-telling, and our desire to never again having such events repeat themselves, Columbia hosted a “Church too” conference a few years ago where victims were invited to tell their stories. Chapter 9 is certainly very applicable to these sorts of situations.
However, most of our difficult church conflict situations are much more nuanced that the Willow Creek events described in the book. Most do not easily follow the script of truth-telling victims versus powerful silencing and truth-denying church leaders.
I have seen church leaders who wanted to be truth-telling in conflict situations (e.g., in situations where they ended a pastor or staff member’s employment). But they did not think that publicly telling the whole truth about the situation would be loving for that individual and respectful of their privacy. In response, I have seen terminated employees proclaim wildly speculative and fundamentally false narratives of why they were terminated. These narratives publicly maligned the Christian character of the leaders—who felt they could do nothing to respond to those narratives.
I have also seen church leaders who wanted to speak the whole truth about conflict situations, but their legal counsel threatened that any truth-telling statements would jeopardize their insurance coverage. Finally, I have seen leaders who actually did try to practice truth-telling to explain their actions, but the frenzy of social media outrage had no space for it preferring to believe other narratives. I have seen failures in truth-telling on all sides of these conflicts.
To conclude, becoming a church family committed to truth is not a simple juxtaposition between lying and truth-telling. It involves much prayerful discernment and the implementation of carefully created procedures and policies both to avoid the kinds of situations that occurred at Willow Creek—and to identify ways that individuals who have concerns can be heard. May we work together toward that goal, for the health of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God!
Reflection from Ken Esau, National Faith and Life Director