The scandals surrounding Hillsong Church, an evangelical megachurch with a number of affiliates worldwide, never seem to end. And you know things are bad when a megachurch feels the need to formally apologize for the behavior of its leader.
The scandals surrounding Hillsong Church
For much of 2021, Brian Houston, the founder and global senior pastor of Hillsong was dealing with a number of controversies. There were the “moral failures” of hipster pastor Carl Lentz of their New York affiliate. And the financial and leadership failures of Reed and Jess Bogard of their Dallas affiliate. And the COVID-related death of a church member who happened to be an anti-vaxxer. And the 60 Minutes Australia segment that documented even more allegations of sexual abuse by Hillsong leaders so egregious that reporter Tom Steinfort said the church was guilty of “indifference to the victims’ suffering so heartless it would surely make Jesus weep.”
But things got worse when a major scandal centered around Houston himself.
The scandal surrounding Frank Houston
Back in August, police in Sydney, Australia (where Houston is from) arrested Houston on charges that he concealed child sexual abuse that he knew about. The allegation was that his preacher father, Frank Houston, sexually abused a boy in the 1970s. Brian Houston was allegedly made aware of the incident in 1999, and Frank Houston confessed to the crime on his deathbed in 2004, but Brian never did anything about it. He didn’t tell authorities. He seemed content to let the secret die with his father… without any closure offered to the victim.
That’s what the criminal allegation was about and, in September, Brian Houston stepped down from all of Hillsong’s various boards. He was still the face of the operation, but he was no longer involved in making key decisions. By January, however, Houston announced he was stepping down from all things Hillsong, at least through 2022, so he could focus on the trial which reports say will take place in November.
The new scandals surrounding Hillsong Church’s founder
That’s where things were at… until Friday, when the church released a statement announcing that Brian Houston was the subject of two additional allegations that required further investigation. The Hillsong Church board says they were looking into the matters privately (which doesn’t say much, given the lousy track record of churches and ministries investigating themselves). But now that the issues were public, they felt compelled to offer more details:
The first issue was approximately a decade ago and involved inappropriate text messages from Pastor Brian to a member of staff, which subsequently resulted in the staff member resigning. At the time, Pastor Brian was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence. He immediately apologised to the person. We also worked closely with Pastor Brian to ensure he received professional help to eliminate his dependency on this medication, and this was achieved successfully.
To this former staff member, we again apologise and would welcome the opportunity to provide further assistance if this is needed.
The second issue involved a complaint received in 2019. Following an in-depth investigation, it was found that Pastor Brian became disoriented after a session at the Hillsong Conference, following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol. This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant.
So… if I have this right, Houston was hooked on sleeping tablets, which caused him to sext a staff member, which is not at all a symptom of sleeping pills, but don’t worry, the church helped him get off of that medication “dependency.” Except then, a few years later, he overdosed on new medication, which he apparently downed with alcohol, only to—whoops!—walk into a random woman’s hotel room and just… hang out for a while.
What the board did not say—and what the public now knows—is that the text messages in Incident 1 included one that said “If I was with you, I’d like to kiss and cuddle you” (or some variation of that). Which, again, is not the sort of thing sleeping pills cause you to write.
We also now know he spent 40 minutes in the hotel room of that “female occupant.” She has not said that anything sexual happened, but given that these are the kinds of Christians who abide by the Billy Graham/Mike Pence Rule, where men shouldn’t be alone with any woman who’s not his wife, it’s cause for alarm within their circles. If lower-level staffers did what Brian Houston did, they would not be getting this many chances at redemption.
Whoever writes the press releases for Hillsong needs to find a new career, because this one’s just pathetic. The people giving Brian Houston medical care need new jobs, too, because he’s obviously not cured of anything. And let’s fire the entire Hillsong leadership team while we’re at it since there’s no actual oversight taking place.
The board said that Houston promised to step away from leadership duties as part of his punishment… but he didn’t live up to all the expectations set for him. Which, again, is a ridiculously vague way of putting it. Whatever the case, Houston currently “remains on a period of leave.” Which means he’s still not officially fired. There’s a wide open door for him to make a comeback.
The sleeping pills weren’t the problem. The anti-anxiety meds weren’t the problem. Even the alcohol wasn’t the problem.
Brian Houston was the problem.
What the scandals say about evangelical Christianity
Is it really even news anymore when a prominent religious leader covers up abuse or is revealed to be a complete hypocrite? It’s not that Houston committed some heinous crime. These are mostly ethical breaches we’re talking about. He was more concerned with damaging the credibility of his name, the reputation of his church, and the supposed goodness of his faith than taking steps that would have benefitted the victims. Honestly, I’d be far more surprised if Houston did the responsible thing. But you just can’t expect church leaders to take the moral route or live up to the standards they set for everyone else. They don’t deserve that assumption of decency when their actions routinely make other people’s lives worse.
Hillsong may want to distance itself from Houston, but his fingerprints are all over that place. He still hasn’t been technically fired either. If public pressure dies down, he may well be back next year. All the more reason for reporters and commentators to keep bringing up the moral black hole that is Hillsong.