How Churches Can Be “TOV,” Not Toxic

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The Roys Report
The Roys Report
How Churches Can Be "TOV," Not Toxic

Toxic churches that wound and devour the sheep have become far too common. But how can churches resist toxic culture and truly become “TOV” or “good”?

In this episode of The Roys Report, Julie interviews well-known New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, and his daughter, Laura Barringer—co-authors of the new, best-selling book, A Church Called TOV.

Drawing from their experience at Willow Creek Community Church under former pastor, Bill Hybels, Scot and Laura identify the key characteristics of a toxic church culture. Then, using Scripture, they create a blueprint for building a truly “TOV” culture—one that resists abuses of power and promotes healing.

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. Scot has been a professor for nearly 40 years, is the author of many books, a preacher, and a blogger at Christianity Today. He is an ordained Anglican deacon and attends Church of the Redeemer in Highwood, Illinois. Scot has been married to his high school sweetheart, Kris, for 47 years and they enjoy long walks, gardening, and birdwatching. He is the father of two children and two grandchildren.

Laura Barringer

Laura Barringer is a teacher of first and second grade students. She is the co-author of Sharing God’s Love: The Jesus Creed for Children and wrote a teacher lesson and activity guide to accompany the book. She is also co-author of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (October 2020). Laura is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and currently resides in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Mark, and three beagles.

Show Transcript


JULIE ROYS, Laura Barringer, Scott McKnight


Abuse in the church has become all too common from Sovereign Grace Churches to Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel, the accounts of pastors preying on their sheep has almost ceased to be news. Something needs to change but what and how? Welcome to the Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today are Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer, authors of the new boo,k A Church Called Tov, and you may be asking, What is Tov? Well, Tov is the Hebrew word for good. And in a church called Tov, Scott and Laura explore what it means to have a church that is truly good, one that resists power, rather than using power to exploit and abuse. One that promotes healing, rather than inflicting wounds. This is a critically needed book today. So many Christians are hurting and scarred from their church experiences, and we need a way forward, we need to know how to create and preserve what Scott and Laura call a goodness culture in our churches. So I’m very much looking forward to talking with Scott and Laura. But first I’d like to just take a minute to thank my sponsors, Judson University and Marquardt of Barrington. Judson University is a top ranked Christian university providing a caring community and an excellent college experience. Judson has resumed in person classes for traditional, transfer and adult students. And you can choose from more than 60 majors and learn in a Christian community known for its spiritual values, leadership opportunities and strong financial aid. Judson is located on a beautiful 90 acre campus just 36 miles northwest of Chicago. Judson University is shaping lives that shape the world. For more information, just go to Also, if you’re in the market for a car I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of  Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity and transparency. That’s because the owners there, Dan and Curt Marquardt, are men of character. And I’m proud to partner with them for this podcast. To check them out,just go to Well, again, joining me today are Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer. Scott is a professor of New Testament at Northern seminary. He’s also a blogger and author of more than 80 books, including probably his most famous one called the Jesus Creed. So Scott, welcome such a pleasure to have you join me.

Scott McKnight  02:38

Well, Julie, good to be with you. Thank you for the invitation.


Well, always a pleasure. And also joining me again is your daughter, Laura Barringer. Laura is a teacher of first and second grade students, a very brave woman. And again, she and Scott, together have written this new book. So Laura, thanks so much for joining us.

Laura Barringer  02:57

Thank you for having us, Julie, good to be with you. 


I do wonder how does this work with father-daughter writing. Does this mean it’s a smoother process because you’re related? Or does it it become more difficult?

Scott McKnight  03:10

Well, this book can be blamed on Laura. I was trying to stay out of this story just watching and talking to Laura and Mark. And Laura’s passion for the situation got me more involved. And she can tell you a little bit about that. Then I happened to be reading a book on pastors after Hitler after the Holocaust and how the German Lutheran pastors responded to their complicity in the Holocaust and how they denied any complicity and blamed others. And I just sort of started taking notes. And I began to compare my notes to what I was seeing take place at Willow Creek and Harvest and Sovereign Grace and the Southern Baptist churches. And I thought, oh my goodness, this is all of a piece when people refuse to admit the truth. But Laura can tell you more about how we got involved in this.


Well, let me start there. Let’s start with Willow Creek because that’s where the book starts. And Laura, you start the book with when you first heard about this Chicago Tribune article, that really was, I mean, it almost struck me that this is not on the same magnitude, obviously. But I think for Christians in the Chicago area this is a little bit like when JFK was shot. Like we all remember, when we read this piece because it was such a bombshell That isn’t what it’s not like there were rumblings of things happening like Harvest was a little bit different. But Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, I mean, I always thought he was above reproach. And yet this article came out with numerous women alleging that he had sexually harassed or abused them. And it was a bombshell. But I didn’t even go to the church. but you and Scott did. So as somebody who was attending Willow Creek when the story broke, what was that experience like? 

Laura Barringer  05:03

I’ve had a number of people tell me that they’ve had the experience that you described. And I had it too, as I can remember exactly where I was when I read the news. And I happen to be in a local restaurant with my husband. My parents sent us the article. And I read the headline out loud to my husband, and we both just rolled our eyes at first. We thought, well, that is just completely ridiculous. There’s no way. We met at Willow Creek, we had attended Willow Creek for over 20 years. Now admittedly, had I ever had any conversation with Bill Hybels aside from he baptized me, and I said hello to him one time after a service. So what did I know him? No, but I was still shocked, and you use the words above reproach. So it was really difficult for us when I started reading the article, and the names were familiar. It was really stunning to see the names that were family friends, that were people Mark has known and my dad has known for decades. And that’s how it all started for us. We got home from the restaurant, we called my parents and my dad’s words were something like, there’s no way that this group of people, that all of them would be lying. And we wrestled with it. Because it was, for me, it was my first experience where a church would be behaving like an institution and covering up the sin. It was terrible. So that’s how it all bega. This conversation that we had as a family about the topic and knowing the women.

Scott McKnight  06:48

And those conversations occurred almost daily for a while. And then they got a little bit more serious. And I wrote something up because I had been reading some stuff and wondering, and then I was in Greece and Turkey with students. And when we got back, I called Laura, I think on the next day, and said what’s happening with the Willow story, and she said nothing. And that’s when I decided that I would take what I had written up previously at an airport, just to get my own thoughts together. I decided I would write a blog post about it. And that was really the beginning of my official involvement in that story. 


I had the same kind of reaction that both of you described, like at first, I’m like, what?! Bill Hybels? You know, I forget what the headline was, but you know, something about allegations of sexual misconduct or something. But then I’ve read the names. And even though I didn’t go to Willow Creek, at least at the time that the story hit back in the early 90s. We did go to Willow Creek for about five years. And we did know, not personally, but we knew of Vonda Dyer. My husband actually served on the the drama team. And so he had worked under Nancy Beach. I knew Nancy Ortburg, from Moody Radio actually. She had been in studio at one point, and I remember meeting her and I knew her work. And so it was like, when I began to read the names, I was like, Whoa, this is legit. There’s there’s no way all these women lie. There’s no way. And yet, what happened. And you describe this, and actually, it’s something I want to unpack. But the reaction of the church, and this is what happens within toxic churches, is that there was this completely false narrative. So, I know a lot of people listening know what happened. But I know there’s probably some people who may not. So describe what what happened in the aftermath of these allegations.

Scott McKnight  08:45

This is where our project actually began. I began to map the kinds of narratives that institutions, people, power, people of celebrity strengths, people who can control a narrative use to make themselves credible and make the other people unbelievable. But we developed these narratives and Laura and I went back and forth. And Laura found, I think most of the stories connected to them. But I had found basic theories of the narratives. And the general one is to discredit the critics is simply just make them look like they’re wrong. This was Willow’s trick at the beginning. I think it’s a trick. I don’t think there’s any other word. I can use stronger words, but to say that these women were all lying. And they were colluding together to bring down Bill Hybels’ career. I gotta tell you Julie, the worst moment of this entire story is when Bill gave that narrative, and the people at Willow Creek stood up and gave him a standing applause.  That was incredible. But we learned that people discredit the critics, we learned that they will go stronger and demonize the critics. And then we learn that they will spin the story whatever way they need to spin the story. And so that’s really all three of those go together. And they also use a method that is now pretty well known. They gaslight the critics by attempting to make the critics wonder if the experience that they thought they’d experienced was really the true experience. In other words, they try to psychologically confuse the people on what they thought they experienced. Did I really see that? Did he really say that? Maybe imagine that that sort of thing is happening with so many, especially female victims. This is the one that came to me so strong in the German pastors. We saw it with McDonald at Harvest, we saw it with MAHANEY with Sovereign Grace, and so many of the Southern Baptist pastors is they make the perpetrator the victim. They come off like, well look what these people are doing to me, and they draw people into their orbit for sympathy. And when you’re feeling sympathetic with a person, you don’t condemn them at the same time. You don’t think that they’re wrong, it’s a well known method of dealing with critics. And then they want to silence the truth, non-disclosure agreements, I did not know much about non-disclosure agreements, I knew nothing about it in churches. And I quickly contacted a half a dozen mega church pastor friends of mine, and I asked them, Have you ever done non disclosure agreements? Five of them said never. One of them said we did at one time with an absolute crazy situation. We have never done it since. We only did it because that was about the only thing we could do. The pastor told me, we’re against them. And membership covenants are a new thing that virtually written into the document are lines that you can’t go public, you can’t contact lawyers, and you have to work inside the church, as long as you’re a member, or you’ll get kicked out. And then of course, there’s just the general strategy of suppressing the truth, threatening, firing, robbing people of platforms. And our last method we learned this was from Wade Mullen, I know you’ve had Wade on, who’s very good on this, is that you learned issue of fake apology. And it sounds like well, we apologize. What more do you want out of us?  Well, I listened to that apology, and you didn’t really say diddly, you know. That’s what we are concerned about. Well, this is the sadness to me as a theologian, Julie, of churches, who are supposed to be proclaiming Jesus as the truth and knowing that they are to be witnesses of truth, who suddenly will use deceptive methods and lying words, instead of telling the truth about themselves. You know, we’re right back to the Garden of Eden.


We are and there’s so many things in what you said that, I mean, I could talk about this for our entire time. And I don’t want to do that, because I want to get to some of the good news. But, but the stuff that you’re saying, I mean, deception, I’ve been reading Diane Lambert’s newest book, and it’s all about how deception is so often at the core of abuse, and how you can get away with using power and really ways that it shouldn’t ever be used. But decption is so important. And when you say the NDA is, did I know about it? Well, I didn’t know about it, because I was given an NDA by the Moody Bible Institute, that they wanted me to sign when we severed my employment there. And I remember reading it, and I was like, I’m a journalist, I will never sign this. Are you kidding me? And I had to spend practically my entire severance, fighting the NDA. And so you end up with nothing. But this is what is become part and parcel to so many of our churches and big institutions. You say you called a lot of mega churches, where they don’t do this. And thank God, there are some but my experience in reporting with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, which is my latest story, all the past employees that I talked had signed NDAs. Harvest Bible Chapel. That’s why made reporting that story so difficult. So many of them had signed NDAs. This culture is just so bad that you can’t hardly believe that, that churches who are supposed to be committed to truth, right, and transparency, are behaving in this manner. And so let’s talk about the toxic culture. And again, we’ll get to the culture of goodness. But how do we get a church where they teach scripture, where you have pastors who are supposed to be shepherds? How does it happen, that you get these toxic leaders and then they create, and I thought that was so good in your book that you talk about that it’s not just about the leader. It’s about the culture that they create. So Laura, speak to that. How did we get there?

Laura Barringer  14:54

Sure. Well, something that we found over and over not just with Willow Creek, but Willow Creek is our primary example because of our connection to it. But we found it’s not just about the leader. Of course, it’s about the leader, but also it’s the others around the leader who are allowing it to happen. I remember being so frustrated with Willow Creek, with Heather Larson, with the elders and my dad said, well, they’re there because he put them there. They’re allowing the system to happen. And that is something that we feel needs to be looked at is the the leader and the people around the leader who are allowing the toxicity to occur, if that makes sense.


Oh, it completely makes sense. And this is why it’s so challenging, even after the leader leaves, for there to be change because it wasn’t just the leader. It was everyone around it was a culture.

Scott McKnight  15:48

Yeah, pastors have authority. And power and strength, and it takes character to be a person who can handle power in a Christ like way. It takes a lot of character. And the bigger the church, the more power, the more narcissistic the pastor can become. And furthermore, think about this, pastors stand up there and preach the Bible. When pastors preach the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – they identify themselves in their sermon with Jesus. When lay people read the same passages, they don’t identify with Jesus, they identify with the characters in the narrative. Well, if you stand up there every week, and represent God and stand for Jesus, you can become pretty easily intoxicated with power and authority. And to maintain that, this is exactly right where we were to create a culture, is you get retainers, you get people around you who support you who are sycophants, who are Yes, men and Yes, women. And before long, you’re immune to any criticism, because everybody’s there to tell you how great you are.

Laura Barringer  17:02

The Willow Creek governance report was very revealing. Some of the former elders said in that report that when they were in a room with Bill Hybels, they felt like they were sitting with a celebrity, and somebody would say something, and he wouldn’t agree with it. And I think the quote was something like they would all quickly fall in line. 


And that is so much of the problem, isn’t it, that we have elder boards, and we have people who are functioning, I mean, they have the title of elder, but they don’t know how to function as elders. They don’t seem to understand their job is to hold the pastor accountable. But this whole celebrity culture, and we’ll talk about that a little bit, because that’s one of the things that you talk about is resisting this celebrity culture. But let’s talk about this church called Tov, creating a church that is good. So obviously everybody would say, we don’t want to have a toxic church, we want to have a good church. But I think we’re struggling as the American church to figure out how to do that. It was really revealing that you said, when you first blogged about the church being good, you actually got pushback for that. Why were people pushing back?

Scott McKnight  18:11

Well, people thought, Wow, what a new idea. We’ve picked up to Romans, which is picking up on Old Testament text, that there is none good. No, not one. I think I’ve just quoted it in the King James Version. So we grow up in the evangelical Protestant wing of the church, a little nervous about thinking that we’re good. And yet the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, has this word Tov over, and over, and over, and over. It’s in the top five, if not the top three, moral words or moral descriptions of the entire Jewish tradition, and the Hebrew Bible. And it shows up in the New Testament that Jesus wants us to do good works. Paul wants us to have good works. And one of the fruits of the Spirit is goodness. And this word is used positively many, many times in the New Testament. So when I was looking at the Willow situation, and and at that time, Julie, your story about Harvest was out. And it was discomforting to me because he’s a pastor and I teach seminary students. Little known secret is that James McDonald was actually in one of my classes at one time, way back in the Trinity days. And I’ve thought of these situations, and I thought we need churches where people are good. We need people like Mr. Rogers, in that sense. In churches leading, whose character is such that you say they exude Christ. They’re kind, they’re gentle, they’re truthful. They know when to when to say what’s strong, and when to say what’s weak, but their character is humble before God. So I know I said that and there’s some people who immediately said you there’s none good. We shouldn’t be thinking about goodness. But I was overwhelmed by the number of people, pastors who wrote me and said Boy, would you say something more about goodness. And I went, Oh, yeah, well, to do that I gotta sit down with the Old Testament and investigate this word Tov and study goodness in this tradition. And so I did. I spent a lot of time working on what this word means. And there’s a lot more work that needs to be done there.


 It strikes me, I think there is a spiritual or theological foundation to some of this because I think it’s almost a hyper grace, that has seeped into our church. I actually grew up with my mother was Weslayan. So I had a little bit of a holiness camp in me, which has its own issues. But I understood very early on that we serve a holy God. I remember my parents used to say, the angels before the throne of God, don’t say love, love, love, they say, holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty. He is holy. And I grew up with that just ingrained into me that God was a holy God. And we were to be a holy people. And, you know, Ephesians 2:10: for we are God’s handiwork created in Christ to do good works, which were prepared in advance for us to do. I mean, that was ingrained in me that we’re to be a holy people. And I think we’ve almost become, to the point where we think of ourselves primarily as sinners instead of as saints, and we don’t understand who we are, once we’re in Christ. Yes, we’re, we’re saved, not by the good things we have done, but what Christ have done. I think we just leave it there. Like we don’t realize that we’re to be sanctified. We’re supposed to grow in goodness. And when you say, well, we’re all sinners, I hear that same thing. Every single time I write a story. And it exposes some Christian leader who has participated in sin. It’s like, and this is what I hear. And I’ll let you respond to that. Well, you know, David, David committed adultery and murder. So you know, how can we say that so and so who, who stole money or lied or committed sexual immorality as a pastor, can’t pastor? Because look, there’s David, what do you say to that?

Scott McKnight  22:09

Well, you know, I’m going to add an s, you said, we look at ourselves as sinners, and not as saints. Is that right? I think there’s another problem is that people see themselves as safe. So leave me alone. And I grew up in fundamentalism, and there was a lot of holiness, not very much love, in that tradition. But when I was in college, I discovered  Bonhoeffer and his emphasis upon following and sacrifice and cheap grace. So I’ve been in that camp for 45 years, at least. And so I think you’re right. We need to think that people who have been redeemed by God’s grace, become agents of grace through the transformation of their lives, so that they become good people, holy people, who are obedient people who do the right thing, who tell the truth about themselves, etc. So I’m with you. I think you’re right. The holiness tradition has a lot to offer us. 


I think so. I mean, I know I didn’t fully understand grace, until I became an adult, oddly enough at Willow Creek. That’s when I first began to understand the fullness of grace. I mean, I had an understanding, you can’t be a believer without understanding grace. But we need to understand both God’s holiness and His love and His grace. I just so appreciate this point that you bring out. And so that this actually brings us to some of these characteristics that you talk about in a church, that would be a good church, a Tov church, and you talk about these habits of goodness. So let’s start with the first one, which is empathy. Why is nurturing empathy crucial to creating a goodness culture?

Scott McKnight  23:54

When we began to study Willow Creek, and Laura and I would go back and forth on emails and phone conversations and text messages, we began to see characteristics of toxicity, like narcissism and fear and power. Institutions are more important than people and telling false narratives. And you got to be loyal. No, don’t rock the boat. Don’t avoid dealing with the fact that we’ve got a celebrity and celebrities are special. I began to notice these characteristics and I thought, what does the Bible actually teach around those and connect those to Tov. So we looked at characteristics like empathy. Now empathy is the exact opposite of narcissism. The narcissist by nature, it’s sad to say, have no self insight and they don’t care about other people. They can fire people at will. It never bothers them. And so I thought, when the way Willow treated women, the way James McDonald got rid of people who disagreed with him, you know, I can just go up and down these stories. You know, the Catholic Church is just as bad, if not worse, at times. These leaders just don’t look at people as people. They’re units of giving; they’re units of applause; they’re units of numbers that could make their numbers look great. And when the church looks great, it’s them looking great. So we worked, I’ve worked hard on the idea of empathy and Jesus as an empathetic and compassionate person. And, oh, it’s the number of people who said, and you may know this from personal experience. When they got blackballed from a church, nobody contacted them.


Oh, that was the store at Harvest,

Scott McKnight  25:41

That’s unbelievable. These are people.

Laura Barringer  25:44

 I remember talking to Betsy Corning, who was the wife of Dave Corning, who was elder board chairman for over 20 years. And when they left Harvest, you know, this, this is a church they had poured their life into, but they couldn’t be a part of it anymore. And they tried to leave quietly, not really making a big stink, trying to just, you know, walk away. But she said, we lost all our friends, our entire social network for the past two decades, gone. And it’s just absolutely devastating. And I think with a lot of these churches too, the church becomes such an all encompassing culture, that that’s their whole friend group right there. So it’s like starting your life over. I think they were in their 50s, starting their life completely over and having to deal with this huge, huge loss. And  when we talk about empathy, though, and it’s not just the leader, you know, who’s a narcissist, which you say that there’s no empathy. But there’s also the people around them. In fact, you know, you guys write in your book about the effects that the power has on the human brain. That was just wild. Laura, maybe you’d want to explain that. Yeah, actually, my Dad found that research about the power on the human brain. It is fascinating. And it’s also very disturbing. And we were talking earlier about how does a person become like this? How does does the megachurch attract the celebrity? Or does the person become full of power and get corrupted because of the time that they’ve been there? But yeah, Dad, why don’t you share that research about what power does to the brain.

Scott McKnight  27:21

This scholar on it says, subjects under the influence of power, listen to this, acted as if they had suffered traumatic brain injury. Becoming more impulsive, less risk aware, and crucially less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. And one of the expressions they use is mirroring. These people can’t mirror, they can’t, when you have that much power, you are so addicted to the moment of your strength, that you can’t see that another person is being wounded by what you’re saying and doing or what the church is doing. 

Laura Barringer  28:00

And we kept hearing story after story after story of people that were like you guys were talking earlier, people that were let go, and their whole lives were shredded. And it seemed like nobody cared about them. 

Scott McKnight  28:14

They would get a letter from the church. You know, we we have number of people who showed us letters they got from the church and said, basically, you never to return to this church until we let you know. And it just, I read several of these letters, and it was formal. It was from a lawyer, so that there were many of these letters distributed. And I thought there is absolutely no pastoral care in this letter at all. It’s a legal document. And I thought, this is not what a church does. But a church driven by a narcissist, who operates with power and fear, is a church that will have letters of dismissal like this, that lack of pastoral care, because a narcissist has no empathy. They have no grace. They don’t understand. Of course, they might preach grace to get more numbers, but grace is also a response in life. If you have been invaded in a deep way, by God’s grace, you understand why someone else could sin because you see your own sinfulness. And you say, I understand that I can understand why they did that. But I’m now going to help them be restored to God’s grace. Grace is empathetic Grace is forgiving. Grace grows. It recognizes that people are transformed over time. That cultures can be transformed,  over time, when grace is allowed to have habits work, power works faster, the power doesn’t work deeper. 


I think this dovetails into one of the other characteristics that you talk about, and that is having a people-first culture instead of one where it’s all about the institution. It’s all about the mission. And I will say boy, Bill Hybels, man. I this is what I remember about going to Willow. And even now I’ll go back and listen to one of his sermons. And if you want somebody to rally the troops and inspire people towards a mission, it is Bill Hybels. I mean, that to me, when we attended that was like, that’s what I loved about Bill. I mean, he could really get people around the vision and make you realize, hey, we’re on a mission from God. And and this is the moat, we’re rescuing people from hell. I mean, what’s more important than that? And so he was he was outstanding at that. And yet, and I think the same thing happened at Harvest. That was all important. And people. Yeah, you know, I mean, we’re about the mission. And if some people get trampled, well, that’s what happens in war, you know, and you move on. So let’s talk about this. In fact, you brought up Mr. Rogers, which I loved. He’s kind of the antithesis of this. So talk about this, this value of putting people first.

Scott McKnight  30:58

I remember as a very young professor in an elevator at an academic meeting where there were 5000 professors. You know, a lot of heady stuff going on. And I said to the other professor, when we got in the elevator, I said, What do you teach? And he looked at me, he was like, 65, 70. He said, I teach students, what do you teach?


That’s what my husband says, because he’s a math teacher.

Scott McKnight  31:23

I remember thinking, Oh, my. Well, that really sunk in to me. And I thought, you know, I think I’m teaching the Gospel of Matthew, and I think I’m teaching Jesus, but I’m actually teaching students. And this really, when I went to North Park, and I started teaching college kids, it really changed my attitude toward teaching. But, the first thing you learn when you have a student, is their name. You learn how to pronounce it, and you learn their story. And when you do that, everything you do in relationship in that classroom, and with that student, is that, how is this person with that story, going to respond to this text in Paul? That changes everything. And a people-first culture can only spread oneself so far, because you care so much about the people that you just can’t bring in 10,000 people and think that you’re actually caring for them. That’s entertainment. That’s bringing people in to see saw spectacle. But Laura, do you remember the story about Nancy Beach?

Laura Barringer  32:26

Well, there’s lots of stories about Nancy Beach,. Nancy Beach is a person of goodness, even when she just smiles you can see it. Go ahead Dad.

Scott McKnight  32:39

When she when she left, it was like forever before anyone from the elders who contacted her.  After her story came out, you think, these are people that she pastored.  They knew that she loved them. She treated them as people and they did not reciprocate. What’s going on here? There’s a culture of insiders and outsiders and pegging someone as a betrayer. As a trader, and therefore unworthy of being a person in my life. That’s a huge red flag of a toxic culture that you just have to get rid of. You gotta. You got to try to repent from that and work out of it.


Well, and let me ask you, Laura, because you grew up at Willow Creek, right? 

Laura Barringer  33:24

This is actually funny. I begged my parents to take us to Willow Creek, and they said, No, you’re gonna love it. And we don’t want to drive that far.


Oh, that’s funny! How old were you at the time?

Laura Barringer  33:37

I wanted to go. I was in junior high, in high school. We always wanted to go to Willow Creek, but my parents said, we’re not going to be driving you 45 minutes a couple times a week for these. We’re not going to do that. So I grew up, evangelical free church.


Okay, so when did you start going to Willow?

Laura Barringer  33:53

I started attending Willow Creek after I graduated from college. I went to Wheaton, and then I started attending Access, which was their program for young adults.


 Yeah, I remember. 

Laura Barringer  34:03

And, yeah, so I attended from the year 2000. for 20 years. We were there.


Interesting. And is that when you started going too Scott?

Scott McKnight  34:12

I just don’t remember.

Laura Barringer  34:14

You took us a couple times when I was young, and then you wouldn’t take us back.


Don’t want to start a family fight here!

Scott McKnight  34:24

Laura’s dating Mark, and Chris and I thought we would go down on Saturday nights and go to church with them, and go out to eat and get to know him. Because our daughter’s interested in him. We want to get off this is a good match. And we were so overwhelmed by the powerful messages. John Ortberg was preaching at the time, and Bill Hybels and Nancy Beach, and I remember thinking, Wow! These are really good services. It’s fun to go to, and and we got to see Lauren and Mark. So that’s when we started going and we stayed for, I think we were there for about a decade. So yeah.


Services are definitely powerful at Willow Creek. Did you become members at any point?

Scott McKnight  35:11


Laura Barringer  35:12

Yeah. Mark and I were members.


Alright, so let me let me ask you then Laura. I mean, did you feel like you were cared for and that you were that you were important? 

Laura Barringer  35:22

We left for a time. Mark and I were actually searching for another church for a period of time, because we felt like it was really hard to build community there. And then we return to help build Willow started this new ministry called the Section ministry. And they divide the auditorium into sections and you build community, it’s like a small church within a big church. And during that time, that’s probably my most fondest memories of Willow is the section community in that ministry. And now that I think about it, looking back, the section ministry was called small church within a big church.  And I really did feel known and loved by the people in that community. 


And that just affirms what I’ve seen at other churches, like, I mean, Harvest, again, is probably the one I’ve seen the most up close. Is that despite all of this going on, at the leadership level, there still were beautiful pockets of people loving each other, and being the church, despite all of this awful stuff that now we know was happening at the top, there was this beautiful community still happening. Almost like, you can’t, you can’t keep the Holy Spirit and his people from not ministering to each other and forming church and, and becoming, you know, a good church. And I think that’s why in some cases, it’s just really hard, because there there was beauty within these, these churches where there was also toxicity. So let’s move on to some of the other characteristics of a good church. And this one, you talk about justice being important and resisting the loyalty culture. Let’s discuss that, unpack that a little bit. What does it look like at a church when justice becomes important?

Scott McKnight  37:17

The word justice in a church is a term, when we use it in the Bible, is a term that measures a person’s conformity and consistency with the will of God.  So justice, according to the gospel of John, is to believe in the Son of God. What’s happened in the United States is that we use the term social justice for things that measure up to, let’s say, the western standards of liberalism and the US Constitution. But biblical justice is to do the right thing. But the right thing is determined by God, by scripture, by Jesus, by the kingdom vision, etc, by the Spirit. Not by what we would like to have in the world of economics. So what I noticed is that loyalty in toxic churches is more important than doing the right thing. You can ignore the right thing, if it furthers the agenda of the leader, the leaders retainers, and the culture around the leader. And we totally agree with you that Willow was filled with good people who were transformed by God’s grace. And it was painful to have to say things that hurt the whole church, when we knew that a lot of people in that church were good people. But there are pockets in churches where, if people don’t do the right thing, toxicity can take deep root and one person after another and Julie, you investigated Harvest. I know all kinds of churches where this has happened. Where a group of people decided that they would ignore that this pastor was a total narcissist, that this pastor had a drinking problem, that this pastor was violent and his words . . . how long did Mark Driscoll exist with the kind of temperament that he had? And people around him, Gospel Coalition people?  People at his church. They had to know what he was like. And they said nothing because of the larger good. That’s the loyalty culture that Jesus snapped in half. That the Holy Spirit wants no part of. We don’t want a loyalty culture. We want a culture that does the right thing that therefore pursues justice as defined by God.


And can I expand that out? It’s not just in individual churches. It is in the larger evangelical complex that again, knows about these things. Like you said, you can’t know Mark Driscoll well and not know the kind of person he was. I think Bill was a little better at hiding it. 

Scott McKnight  39:55

He was.


 But certainly in James MacDonald’s case. No, you could not and yet he had no problem staying on air for, you know, 30 years. He had no problem continuing to publish books. I mean, I talked to his assistant at Walk in the Word who said she actually had to go down, that Moody Publishers would actually ask, would you would you come down instead of James, to talk with us? Because he was so difficult to deal with. So people knew! Everybody knew! It was like, it wasn’t any secret. When I when I published my first world story. It was interesting, people were like, Oh, those who knew him really well, we’re like, oh, we thought there was gonna be stuff new in here. You know, they were really disappointed. For the rest of us were like, Oh, you know, most of the rest of the shocking thing. Yeah. But they all knew! It wasn’t news to them.

Scott McKnight  40:46

Right there is the point. There are people around who are not doing the right thing. Now part of it is they’re afraid. Some of them are financially strapped. If they tell the truth, they’re gonna lose their job. Some of them are living the dream. They’re getting to do what they were called to do, and they love it. They don’t want to jeopardize it. But they see what’s happening. And they don’t do the right thing.  That’s a loyalty culture.

Laura Barringer  41:11

It trickles down too. This one became really personal for me. I remember I had several friends who either confronted me about the things that I had said about Willow Creek, or they cut me off altogether, because they chose, in my mind, they chose loyalty to Willow Creek over being friends with somebody who was criticizing it. Mark and I, my husband, walked into a Willow Creek service one evening. It was before the leadership summit. And I don’t believe that I had even said much up to that point. But my dad had been blogging about Willow Creek at that point. I didn’t think much of it. Walked in; people that we had known for decades, would not look at us, they would not talk to us. It was like we got shunned that evening, and I thought it upset my husband more than me. This is what we’ve been researching and talking about, we’re seeing it live out right here, is we are outsiders, because of what we’ve been saying. This is a loyalty to the institution experience that’s happening to us.


Well, I think anybody who’s blowing the whistle on any organization like this, you do find out who your friends are. And who aren’t, you know.  I remember sitting down next to somebody who had been at Moody for a long time after I blew the whistle there and she said, You know, this our relationship, this is more important. And boy did that mean a lot to me. Because I know there are lots of other people that it wasn’t, and you know, you just you move on. But it’s painful, and it’s shouldn’t happen in the body of Christ. There’s other things that we’re just going to have to skip over for time sake. But I do want to hit on what you said, Scott, was the most important, you know, all encompassing characteristic that a church should have. And that is to be like Christ. And yet, we’re not necessarily in our churches, encouraging people to be like Christ, but to be leaders and to be strong.

Scott McKnight  43:19

And Julie, the leadership culture developed, I don’t know exactly who was first. But I know that Bill Hybels was a major catalyst in building a leadership culture in churches. And I can tell you as a seminary professor at the time, this was way back in the 90s. When I was still at Trinity, I would hear that and I think, hmm, something’s off here. Then I realized they were getting their ideas from the best practices of leadership and leaders in business world. I’m thinking church is not a business. Yes, there’s a business dimension, you gotta, you know, you got to be responsible. But I became convinced that over time, the leadership culture mentality distorted what a pastor’s calling is. And when a pastor’s culture is distorted, the people around him who are retaining his strength, or her strength, it’s usually a male, they’re going to distort it toward the same things. And in my opinion, we need to recover the Christ like nature of pastoral life, and we need to recover what Christ likeness, I often call it crystal formity, is being formed into the image of Christ, which is our destiny, according to Romans eight. And so we need to study Jesus. We need to read the Gospels to look at how he responds. And this doesn’t make him a milk toast. He knew when to speak up and when to sit back. But he had all these perfect virtues that we’re talking about connected to Tov and goodness, and that’s what we need. We need to raise up and I tell my students all the time, you know what matters? Is character, and a great word for Christian character is Tov. It’s all about being Christ like. Jesus was good. And we need to, we need to strive for being like Christ. I mean, I’ve been in churches where you go, Wow!, this church is so Christ like. You meet person after person who has been transformed by God’s grace. I’ve been in other churches, I felt like I was in a IBM place. It was efficient, it was, I don’t know anything about IBM, it was business. It was just so routine and categorized. And then you’re with others, and they they want to know your name. They want to know your story. And you say these, these are my people. These are the my brothers and sisters in Christ. So Christ likeness is the whole issue for me,

Laura Barringer  45:46

Dad, I thought it was so interesting when you talked about how many times did Jesus and Paul talk about leadership? 


They talked about serving a lot.

Scott McKnight  45:56

That’s right. Now there is a little bit of this term, the Greek word is protestominoi, is to stand in the front. There’s a little bit of this. But the mentality that Paul and Jesus were creating with his followers was not ‘now you’re going to be a leader of people. And leaders do this, and leaders do that.’ It was ‘you’re going to become a servant like I am for you. You’re going to serve people, we’re going to call you a minister, because you minister to others,’ which is the English translation of the Greek word servant. The dominant word of Paul, for Christians is not church people, or Christians, it’s brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings> That’s his dominant word by far. And we are family and family doesn’t sit around saying ‘who is the leading child’. they they don’t even operate with those categories. You know? Tthey operate with with love categories. How do we relate to one another? 


Well, this is a fantastic book, and I think it has the power to transform. And I just want to say we’re be giving away five copies of A Church Called Tov. For anybody who wants to enter to get one of these copies, just go to But at the end of your book, you close with a prayer. And so I just want to ask you, Laura, could you say a prayer for our church? Because I think it’s desperately in need of prayer, that we would become this kind of church.

Laura Barringer  47:28

I would love to do that. Lord, we lift up our churches to you, all over the world, not only here in the United States, but all over the world. And we pray that they would become places full of light and grace and truth, and that they would be places of Toe here on Earth. We pray that you would build pastors of character, that love their congregation, the way Jesus loved his church .We pray that a culture of Tov would be unleashed in churches across the world. Amen.


Amen. Well, Laura, and Scott, thank you so much for taking the time today. I just really appreciate it. And so enjoyed your book. So thank you.

Scott McKnight  48:19

Thank you. Julie, it’s good to be with you again.

Laura Barringer  48:21

Thank you so much, Julie.


Oh, you’re very welcome. Well, and thanks so much for listening to the Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And if you’d like to find me online, just go to Also, make sure you’ve subscribed to the Roys Report on Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then if you would, share the podcast on social media, we would appreciate that is well. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. Hope you have a great day and God bless

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2 thoughts on “How Churches Can Be “TOV,” Not Toxic”

  1. So confirming! Thank you Lord for bringing this toxic authoritarian leadership into the light… So Your people, Your bride can be reined and transformed into the Church You intended for us to be… For Your kingdom for Your Glory forever and ever amen..

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