In the mid-1980s, Ellen Maxwell (now Ellie Cowan) was a young and trusting student at the evangelical flagship, Wheaton College. So, when her professor, a well-respected author and near celebrity at the school, invited her to his office to collaborate on a writing project, she was flattered and unsuspecting.
What happened next shocked and deeply disturbed her.
Cowan and another former Wheaton College coed recently told me their stories of alleged sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, a prominent scholar and professor at Wheaton for more than 25 years.
Bilezikian also is a co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church. And these new allegations come in the wake of revelations last week that Ann Lindberg, a longtime member of Willow Creek, was allegedly abused by Bilezikian over a period of years, beginning in the 1980s.
Willow Creek last week confirmed that Lindberg had reported her abuse to the church 10 years ago. But the church said it failed to enforce a ban it had placed on Bilezikian serving and teaching at Willow Creek.
Similarly, one of the former students who told me Bilezikian had sexually harassed her, said she reported the misconduct to Wheaton in the 1990s, but the college never responded. Lindberg also says she reported her abuse by Bilezikian to Wheaton College in 2018, but felt the college mishandled her case and dismissed her accusations.
I reached out to Wheaton College for comment last week and Joseph Moore, Wheaton College Director of Communications, said that Wheaton is re-opening an investigation concerning Bilezikian. However, Moore added, “(W)e do not publicly share information on personnel matters.”
When I specifically inquired about a report of misconduct in the 1990s, Moore did not respond.
I also reached out to Bilezikian for comment about these new allegations, but he did not respond.
Despite last week’s revelations, Bilezikian’s faculty profile page remains posted at Wheaton’s website, naming Bilezikian as “Professor of New Testament Emeritus.”
Ellie (Maxwell) Cowan
Ellie (Maxwell) Cowan (B.A. 1984) said she first met Dr. Bilezikian when she took a New Testament class from him in 1983-84. She said that after writing an essay for the class, Bilezikian told Cowan that he liked her writing style and wanted her to write something for a book he was writing.
Cowan said she was flattered and agreed to meet with Bilezikian in his office. She said that when she arrived, Bilezikian immediately got up from behind his desk, closed his office door and locked it. Cowan said she thought that was odd, but dismissed the thought thinking that perhaps “this was a publishing thing—that you couldn’t let the information out.”
Cowan said Bilezikian then directed her to sit in a straight-backed chair and began asking her personal questions, saying that if they were going to work together, they’d need to get to know each other.
Cowan said Bilezikian then put his hand on her shoulder and began kissing her shoulder and neck. Cowan said she responded by saying “no” and pushing Bilezikian away. She said Bilezikian then “started putting his hands all over me,” touching Cowan’s breasts and starting to go under her shirt.
Cowan said she was flustered, but quickly got up, gathered her belongings, and started moving toward the door. She said Bilezikian also got up and moved toward the door. And Cowan said that as she was leaving, Bilezikian said, “This is just getting to know you.”
Cowan said she never reported the incident but instead “blocked it out.” “When you’re this sweet, little, innocent Christian girl at this Christian school and the guy that’s written all the books, and has all the accolades and everything, is just kind of a common perv, it’s just too contradictory,” she said.
Cowan said Bilezikian contacted her a couple of times after the incident and apologized, and even wrote her a note. Cowan said she threw the note away, adding, “It never even crossed my mind for evidence or anything like that.”
I spoke with two of Cowan’s classmates who shared a house with her when she was at Wheaton—Sally Nichols and Pam (Clark) Garringer. Neither say they remember Cowan speaking about the incident, though Cowan said she thought she had told them about it.
Even so, Nichols said she believes Cowan and “always got a bit of an uncomfortable feeling around Dr. B.” Nichols, who has red hair, added, “(Bilezikian) loved redheads apparently, and he made remarks to that effect to me.”
Similarly, Garringer said she believes Cowan whom she described as “very truthful.” Garringer added, “(Bilezikian) was always touchy feely—creepy touchy feely.”
Today, Donna Ray is senior lecturer at the University of New Mexico with an impressive resumé, including an M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master of sacred theology from Yale University, and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. But in the mid-1980s, Ray was a naïve college student, and Bilezikian was “royalty.”
Ray said that in 1986, she stayed after a class of Bilezikian’s and was in the room alone with him. (Ray said she couldn’t remember why she stayed late, maybe to ask Bilezikian a question.) Ray said Bilezikian came up behind her while she was sitting and began rubbing her shoulders.
“I was taken aback, but I let him continue,” Ray said, noting that in the 80s, “good, evangelical girls” weren’t encouraged to speak up. “(Bilezikian) apparently thought I was enjoying it,” Ray added, “and he said something along the lines of, ‘If you like this, I could do more to you that would really make you feel like a woman.’”
“(Bilezikian) apparently thought I was enjoying it . . . and he said something along the lines of, ‘If you like this, I could do more to you that would really make you feel like a woman.’”
Ray said at that point, she tried to “wriggle from under his grip and leave,” which she did.
For years, Ray said she didn’t report the incident to anyone at Wheaton because she didn’t think anyone would believe her word over the word of a star professor like Bilezikian. “He literally wrote the book on egalitarianism,” Ray said, referring to Bilezikian’s 1985 best-selling book, Beyond Sex Roles.
However, five to 10 years after graduating, Ray said she got a questionnaire in the mail from Wheaton College, inviting graduates to share prior experiences they had with their professors.
Ray said she wrote a two- to three-page response, documenting what Bilezikian had done to her, and returned the survey by mail, which she believes was addressed to either a dean or the chairman of the Bible department. Ray said she never received a response from Wheaton College.
I talked to one of Ray’s colleagues at the University of New Mexico, Sharon Erickson Nepstad, about Ray’s allegations. (Ray and I connected because Nepstad had reached out to Ray and encouraged her to tell me her story.) According to Nepstad, Ray told her about Bilezikian’s alleged sexual misconduct sometime between 2004—2011. However, Nepstad said Ray didn’t give her details about what Bilezikian had done to her.
Lindberg Says Wheaton College Mishandled Her Case
Ann Lindberg said she contacted Wheaton College to report her abuse in advance of the GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Violence in December 2018, whic was sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and led by Ed Stetzer. “I wanted to know, since (Wheaton College) is going to be talking about sexual abuse and survivors, are you going to be talking about what happened on your own campus?” Lindberg said. She added that she was hoping for evidence showing, “Here’s why (Wheaton) is reputable enough to have this conference.”
Lindberg said she called the college and asked to speak with President Philip Ryken or Provost Margaret Diddams but was referred instead to Karen Tucker, director of human resources.
Lindberg said that at the beginning of her phone appointment with Tucker, Tucker told Lindberg that “Diane” would be on the call to take notes. (Lindberg said Tucker had previously promised her that the call would just be between the two of them.) Lindberg said she later learned that “Diane” was Diane Padilla, an attorney and Wheaton’s Title IX Coordinator.
Lindberg said that during the call, Padilla asked a lot of probing questions and even suggested that Lindberg had enticed Bilezikian into sexual situations. Lindberg said Padilla also suggested that the relationship was fueled by Lindberg’s “craving for approval” and “need to be around a powerful person.”
“It seemed like she kept twisting anything I said,” Lindberg said. “I was really shocked . . . I thought, ‘What the heck did I say that would give her that impression?’ and ‘What secretary asks questions like this?’”
“It seemed like she kept twisting anything I said . . . I thought, ‘What the heck did I say that would give her that impression?’ and ‘What secretary asks questions like this?’”
At the end of the call, Lindberg said she asked Padilla if she believed her account and Padilla responded that it was an “interesting story.”
I reached out to Wheaton College and asked specifically about the phone call with Lindberg, but Wheaton said it could not discuss personnel issues.
Lindberg said Tucker and Padilla denied on the December 2018 call that they had any knowledge of any other victims of Bilezikian.
However, according to a letter Wheaton sent to Bilezikian in the fall of 2019 (and Bilezikian recently forwarded to me), Wheaton opened an inquiry concerning Bilezikian in August 2018, following allegations made by an “anonymous blogger.”
That’s the same time that anonymous blogger, E.S. Martin, began publishing multiple accounts of Bilezikian’s alleged misconduct on her blog. I spoke with the author of the E.S. Martin blog, who asked that I identify her as someone who was a “well known volunteer leader at both Willow Creek Community Church and Christians for Biblical Equality International.”
I asked this person if Wheaton College ever contacted her through her blog or otherwise. She said the college did not.
According to the letter from Wheaton, the college closed its inquiry concerning Bilezikian on September 19, 2019, because it “did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that misconduct occurred.” At that time, Wheaton said it also reinstated Bilezikian’s faculty page on Wheaton.edu.
Lindberg said neither Tucker nor Padilla contacted her after the call to report the results of their inquiry.
However, last week, after Lindberg’s story of abuse made national news, Lindberg said Tucker left a voicemail asking to speak with her. Lindberg said she responded by telling Tucker that she’d be willing to talk with her under the condition that I be on the call and Lindberg be allowed to record. Lindberg said Tucker never called back.
Student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Reports Misconduct
One other woman, Kristin Tremba, reached out to me with a story of sexual misconduct involving Bilezikian. Tremba said she got to know Dr. Bilezikian when he spoke at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2004. At the time, Tremba was a student at Gordon-Conwell and the Boston chapter president for Christians for Biblical Equality International (CBEI)—an organization Bilezikian helped found.
Tremba said she and another seminary student went out to dinner with Bilezikian during his visit. Tremba said that a couple weeks later, Bilezikian, who was married, sent her a short email, professing his love for her.
Tremba said she was surprised, especially given Bilezikian’s standing in the Christian community and his age. (Bilezikian was 77 at the time.) Yet Tremba said she never reported Bilezikian, deleted the email, and responded with something like, “Thank you so much. I have great admiration for you too.”
“Sadly, and to my shame, when I covered for him, I was covering for myself, too,” Tremba told me, noting that her CBE chapter was trying to convince people that God had a place for women’s leadership and preaching in the church.
“The knowledge that Bilezikian was using his platform to proposition women put a huge stain on what we were trying to do. It would have shamed and embarrassed us and we would have had to hear . . . ‘See, women are prone to deception and have no place in leadership, etc.’”
Tremba added that she had a good friend who once reported abuse by a seminary professor to a dean, but her concerns were never taken seriously.
Below is the letter Wheaton College sent Dr. Bilezikian regarding its inquiry into alleged misconduct:WheatonCollegeToBilezikianClsgInvest_Redacted
Correction: The original article incorrectly stated that Bilezikian had sent the email to Tremba the day after they had dinner, rather than a couple weeks later.