In Sydney this week, Hillsong megachurch founder and senior pastor Brian Houston resigned in light of a pending court case and following revelations of pastoral misconduct.
The court case pertains to Houston’s alleged concealment of his father sexually abusing a boy in New Zealand in the 1970s. Although Houston removed his father from ministry, reported him to denominational authorities, and has publicly acknowledged that the abuse took place, New South Wales state police claim that Houston “knew information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s and failed to bring that information to the attention of police.”
The trial is scheduled for October this year.
More recently, the Hillsong global board wrote an email to members about two complaints against Houston. The first, which took place ten years ago, “involved inappropriate text messages from Pastor Brian [Houston] to a member of staff, which subsequently resulted in the staff member resigning.” This indiscretion was explained as the accidental result of Houston being “under the influence of sleeping tablets.”
The second complaint took place in 2019 when Houston knocked on the door of a hotel room with a female occupant and spent a significant amount of time in the room. Similar to the other case, his behavior was explained away as the unfortunate result of anti-anxiety medication mixing with alcohol in his system.
Hillsong has made a significant international impact by planting churches all over the world and taking Pentecostalism into the digital age. But with success comes the temptation to do anything to keep the machine running, protect the minister and the ministry, and maintain the rivers of money flowing in—even if it means turning a blind eye to indiscretions or giving excuses for the inexcusable.
What I find disappointing are the explanations for Houston’s actions. While medication can adversely affect a person’s mental state, it is never a justification for inappropriate behavior. These excuses ring hollow, especially for victims of sexual harassment.
One obvious issue, rightly noted by the Hillsong board, is that “Hillsong’s governance model has historically placed significant control in the hands of the senior pastor.” Freighting one person with authority is not indicative of a healthy leadership culture. We would do well, then, to reflect on which model of church governance and which style of leadership are more conducive to transparency and accountability.
As biblical scholar Andy Judd suggests, we should always ask, “Where is power distributed? how are decisions made and reviewed? and what happens next when a leader is forced to move on?”
But more important than leadership structures is a person’s character. The biblical qualifications for a pastor don’t rely on clicks, downloads, book sales, revenue, conference circuits, the number of bums in pews, or how many celebrities attend your church.
Instead, they require a pastor to be “above reapproach” and “self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2–3). Jesus taught that “the greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:11–12).
During my time in seminary, I joined a wonderful Bible-believing church, and when I was being considered for a place as a pastoral intern, I met with one of the pastors. Having known me only for a little while, he was optimistic about my potential but wisely cautious about my character.
He said, “I know you’re gifted, but I don’t know if you’re godly.” Those words have stuck with me ever since.
There is a difference—a big one—between being gifted and being godly. It’s the difference between the show you can put on and what desires you harbor in your heart, between what you do on stage and what you do when you think nobody is watching you.
The events surrounding Houston are a reminder that the evangelical world needs leaders who demonstrate Christlike character, not simply public confidence; who grow disciples, not groom sycophants; who see themselves as naked before Christ, not robed in the prestige of their platforms. We need leaders who know that when success becomes an idol, cover-ups become a sacrament.
Michael Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is academic dean and lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne.