Co-founder files defamation suit against Willow Creek

The co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church has filed a lawsuit charging church elders with defaming him in statements they made earlier this year.

Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian founded the church in 1975 with former pastor Bill Hybels, who resigned in April 2018 in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal. Bilezikian says elder board members defamed him when they said he engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with a female parishioner in a letter the elders sent to congregants on Jan. 28. That letter was subsequently read aloud to congregants during Feb. 2 services at the South Barrington church, according to the lawsuit.

Bilezikian, an author and former professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, denies the female parishoner's claims. His defamation lawsuit names Willow Creek Church, along with elder board members Shoji Boldt, Barb Butz, Jeff Choh, Silvia Escobar, Jeff Mason, Michael Roth, John Sleeting and Mary Square.

An email from Willow Creek acknowledged public statements made by elder board members.

“We believe those public statements were necessary to widely communicate Dr. B.'s restriction from serving and teaching at Willow, due to some of the behavior that was publicly disclosed in January 2020,” read the email.

“Sadly, now we have been drawn into litigation in Cook County, Illinois, and will have to limit further response or comment to that venue. Dr. Bilezikian will have no role, formal or informal, in any aspect of Willow Creek,” the email read.

According to Bilezikian's complaint, church elders published the initial letter against the “feverish climate” of the Me Too Movement then “rushed to judgment to condemn” him without investigating the accuser's claims.

The complaint further alleges the elders' statement “caused special damages” to Bilezikian who could lose book royalties, consulting fees and speaking engagements as a result.

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