Many undoubtedly will analyze the breakdown at Willow Creek, but here’s at least one misguided takeaway from Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary. Thumma told The New York Times: “It challenges the idea that a group of elders internal to the congregation can truly be a healthy check and balance on leadership and direction and accountability.”
I’d submit the problem isn’t with having elders who come from within a congregation. But serious problems can arise when those elders have no accountability beyond themselves.
Any board of elders can fail, so it’s important that church members have recourse to an outside body (like a presbytery or a synod or some other system) with authority to check local elders when necessary. (It’s true that outside bodies can fail too, but that’s not an argument against layers of accountability.)
I’ve seen it in similar stories I’ve reported on in the past: It can be hard to get elders to challenge a charismatic leader, and when there’s no one else to go to, the problems grow far worse.
Of course, scandals can and do happen within every form of church governance and denomination, and it’s important to remember that good systems alone won’t save us: We need God’s mercy and the help of a whole community of believers willing to speak early and truthfully, even when it’s painful.