Monday, March 03, 2008

Bill Gothard & ATI

Bill Gothard was born in 1934 and is a graduate of Wheaton College. When he was thirty Gothard developed a six-day seminar, which is now known as the Institute in Basic Life Principles (it used to be called Institute in Youth Conflicts). Out of this seminar grew Gothard's organization, known as ATI (Advanced Training Institute).

This organization has become so huge that it owns sixty-three million worth of assets, including four or five sky scrapers, a school for legal training, a school for medical training, a school for training counselors, a curriculum for home-schoolers, a training center for young men, a training center for girls, a boarding school for young men and women where they work in a publishing company devoted to Gothard's materials, and much more. ATI also publishes a quarterly journal called Life Purpose: A Journal of God's Power in Us. Gothard's seminars have expanded to include an advanced seminar in basic life principles, a childrens' seminar, a ministers seminar, a legislative seminar, a medical seminar, a seminar for public and private school teachers, and a seminar for mayors.

While Gothard is well known among a certain subset of the evangelical community, outside of that subset he is virtually unheard of, having successfully managed to stay out of the media's limelight. Gothard never directly promotes himself, and you will be hard pressed even to find his name on the literature produced by his organization. You cannot walk into a bookstore and order a book by Gothard, for all of his materials are published by his own company and can only be obtained by the alumni of his seminars. Gothard has been known to encourage those who attend his seminars not to discuss his teachings with 'outsiders.' All of this will perhaps explain why Gothard is unheard of by many despite being so popular.

In the seventies, the attendance of his seminars was growing so fast that, had it continued to grow at such a rate, the seminars would have reached an audience equivalent to the population of the United States by 1981. Obviously the attendance has tapered off since then, though Gothard's popularity is now growing on an international scale.

At most of the seminars Gothard is not actually present, but is viewed on a large screen from videotape. Between the years 1967 and 2001, the Basic Seminar has been attended a total of 5,835,218 times. Of this total, 2,678,524 are those going for the first-time and 3,156,694 are alumni returning for a second helping.

Not only is Gothard invited to present his teachings to businesses and corporations, but in 1991 after the Soviets had heard about the Advanced Training Institute, Boris Yeltsin, together with the head of Moscow Public Schools, requested that Gothard bring his character training program to Russia. The Soviets were so impressed that they granted the Institute use of a five-acre campus. To top that, the Russian Parliament adopted a declaration stating that Gothard's principles would be beneficial for all Russians to follow. Since then over 2,000 ATI students have visited Russia, where they are teaching in public schools, working with orphans, counselling delinquent teenagers, assisting pensioner teachers and involved in community service. Gothard has set up Moscow College of The Advanced Training Institute as well as a Training Center and refuge home for orphans and juvenile delinquents.

As the news of the Institute's success in Russia has spread to other countries, ATI have received invitations from Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, China, as well as numerous U.S. cities. The mayor of Indianapolis, for example, invited the Advanced Training Institute to come and work in a low-income, high-crime area. The Institute then set up a permanent facility in Indianapolis where they have a rehabilitation facility that works in conjunction with the county's juvenile court system. Entire cities can apply to become a 'city of character' by adhering to Gothard's principles and by the mayor attending the mayor's seminar. ATI is getting involved in American public schools as well. The state of Arkansas has mandated Gothard's character training program to be taught in public schools, where thousands of top high school men are enrolled in Gothard's program for young men called ALERT (Air Land Emergency Resource Team).
Rule Book For Righteousness
So, for those who don't know, what does this guy Gothard teach? The answer is that he teaches literally everything you could think concerning almost anything you could imagine. Gothard has been described as a 'collector' since in specialized fields of study he consults experts and then formulates his own teaching on those subjects, as in his seminar for lawyers and doctors. While Gothard is most associated with his teachings on character training, his literature gives advice on practical matters ranging on everything from how to write a will to how to prepare a shopping list, dental care, meal planning, home safety, how to hire a church secretary, and if you are a woman, how to select make up, how to choose a hair style and colours which will enhance the skin tone, how to wear accessories and the place of accents on the clothing, and how you should and should not stand (there are pictures to illustrate this), and on and on.

Gothard's 'basic seminar' lasts for a whole week, totalling thirty-two hours. In this seminar Gothard concentrates mainly on character training. On each of the points he covers Gothard gives what he believes to be the Bible's answer, which he presents in a series of steps. For example, we are taught things like six areas of basic youth conflicts, eight qualities essential for success, four basic steps to spiritual maturity, and so on through the entire gamut of a Christian's experience.

Gothard's seminars are like a 'how to manual' for Godly living, with everything spelled out for us. All one has to do is to follow the instructions, go through the steps, and then you achieve the desired result. This is typified in Gothard's booklet on the Advanced Training Institute, where there is a chart with a list of 'goals' underneath of which is a list of 'tools' for accomplishing those goals. The first goal is, "To find answers to struggles and become mighty in God's Spirit." The tools that are given beneath for accomplishing this goal are: Basic Seminar Follow-Up Course, Advanced Seminar, Financial Freedom Series, IBLP Publications. If you do those four things, you will "become mighty in God's Spirit" (and Bill Gothard will make a few more dollars for his organization in the process). As you progress in your Christian walk and have new goals, Gothard kindly provides more tools.

Gothard offers 'principles' which apply not only to the issues listed above, but also to every phase of a person's life. For example, he claims to offer "seven non-optional, universal principles which...teach people how to have successful lives, marriages, families, and businesses."

Gothard is always pointing to his own success as an example of the results of living by these  principles. Recalling his experience as a child in school, Bill recounts how he was the worst student and had to pass every grade on probation. Then one day someone drew Gothard's attention to Psalm 1, where it says, "in His law he meditates day and night...whatever he does shall prosper." Gothard took this literally, concluding that to meditate on God's Word will "guarantee that everything you do will prosper..."

So Bill started spending seventeen hours a week memorizing and meditating on scripture. Believe it or not, he immediately started getting straight A's, without spending any extra time studying. When Gothard felt he no longer had time to spend seventeen hours a week meditating on scripture, his grades plummeted back down, but as long as he spent a minimum of seventeen hours meditating on the Bible, his grades remained constantly good. This experience had such an impact on Gothard that he has built his whole life around the idea that predictable results can be achieved by following the right steps.

Gothard is always asking his audience to make vows before God and then to raise their hands to acknowledge the vow. These vows range everywhere from promising to God that you will read the Bible for at least five minutes each day to vowing not to get married without your parents’ authorization. You are given pages in your notebook where you can sign your name acknowledging each vow in writing as a sort of pact between you and God.

The implementation of Gothard's 'principles' in practice often involves very strict and uncompromising regulations on matters that many people would consider petty and insignificant. For example, Gothard opposes everything from business partnerships, to women working outside the home, to men having beards (apparently beards tend to indicate a lack of humility), to drinking a little wine, to attending a movie, to using a cordless microphone, to hospital births, and the list could continue for pages. Further, anyone who wants to qualify to receive the ATI home-schooling materials must agree to abide by certain regulations. Such regulations include,

- Limiting all TV viewing to no more than five hours a week.

- Each morning the father must lead a family devotional time using Gothard's Wisdom Searches. This "demonstrates to a family the father's commitment to God and His Word."

- The father and mother must have morning prayer both together and individually.

- There must be nothing in the house which would "indicate a lack of commitment to your family's success" such as rock music, country music or jazz.

- The mother must not have outside employment. If you have a home business, you must write an explanation of how you plan to organize your schedule and submit it to Gothard's organization.

- All of the children in a home must enrol.

- " is necessary to hold a firm policy that others not live in the home of an ATI family."

- "...any ATI family considering an adoption is asked to consult the ATI staff."

There are twenty-four questions which the parents must fill out in the ATI application form, including an explanation of any divorce in the past and, if so, whether any family member harbors any continuing bitterness relating to the divorce. You must explain if there have been any arrests, multiple traffic violations, or current legal processes in the family. You must explain about both parents’ salvation experiences, and whether both sets of grandparents encourage enrolment. In addition, you must have attended Gothard's Basic and Advanced Seminar and the ATI Admission Seminar. Assuming you satisfy all the criteria, once you join there are certain mandatory gatherings of ATI families that you must attend yearly. You must also pay a yearly fee of $675 per family. Those who enrol may begin receiving Gothard's Wisdom Booklets, which involves 3,000 pages in 54 booklets, each one "amplify[ing] a section of Christ's Sermon on the Mount through practical instruction in linguistics, history, science, mathematics, law, and medicine."
The Gospel of Self
The goals which Gothard's basic seminar attempts to help people to achieve are clearly good goals. Who would dispute the need to conquer bad habits, or to overcome guilt, to have moral purity, or to transform bitterness into forgiveness? Gothard has tackled issues that are of concern to all of us, and there can be no denying that the Lord has used his ideas to help many people. Throughout Gothard's seminar, he is continually quoting testimonials from people who have been helped by him, who have been saved from divorce, or led to a salvation experience, or had their lives completely transformed as a result of his Basic seminar.
The Basic seminar draws a lot of shallow-minded evangelicals who come away feeling inspired to take their Christianity more seriously. They receive some good, helpful advice and are not bothered by the things they don't agree with. Most of these people never go any deeper into the system than perhaps a return trip to the Basic seminar, and so they are unaware of a lot of the more objectionable aspects.
However, it would be equally possible to compile a list of accounts of people who have been greatly damaged by Gothard's seminar. I have heard accounts of wonderful families being turned inside out by Gothard's authoritarian views on parenting. Some come away feeling that they must break an engagement with someone since Gothard teaches you must never - regardless of the circumstances - marry without the consent of every parent. Others come away from the seminar encouraged in the practice of extreme legalism, while others are troubled, upset, confused and burdened with a false sense of guilt. Counsellors and psychologists regularly say that after Gothard had come to town they have an increased case load.
It is insufficient, therefore, to evaluate Gothard's teaching on the basis of his 'fruit', since his fruit ranges everywhere from people apparently finding the seminar very helpful to people finding it very hurtful.
When the Indianapolis Training Center was being investigated on allegations of child abuse, Judge Payne, who frequently sends delinquents there, was interviewed. While he acknowledged that he was concerned about the reports of child abuse, nevertheless, he told the news, "The success rate, and the rate of completion with the young people, is an astounding rate given the kind of children that we send there. And the end result is what counts."

I would like to suggest that the end result is not what counts. Although results are important, what is even more important is the means. We must not only ask, ‘what has been achieved?’ but ‘how has it been achieved?’ The means are just as important as the end. Even if all of Gothard's 'principles' were correct, is it right for him to try to 'sell' these principles to his audience by appealing to their sense of fear? Often he cultivates this sense of fear through outlandish claims, such as telling young people that if they date instead of court, then all their descendants after them will be under a curse.

In the seminars I attended, though I was inspired to do good works, to read my Bible more, to memorize scripture, and to give up all my rights, the source of my inspiration was not Christ. In fact, I left Gothard's seminar thinking less about Christ and thinking more about myself, as we are constantly made to examine ourselves and contemplate what was needed to live a life that God would honour with success, happiness and predictable results. Thus, while Gothard may appear to achieve tremendous response through brandishing on his listeners fear and guilt, the result is that, while our outward lives may become perfected through resolution and strength of will, inwardly we become self-absorbed, proud and over-conscientious. Though Gothard gives lip service to the gospel of grace, the extreme focus on ourselves leads people to become imprisoned to the letter of the law, forgetting completely the freedom in the gospel of grace.

One person who attended Gothard's seminar observed how "There seemed to be a lack of teaching on God's acceptance, or on the spontaneous growth that comes from a loving, accepting relationship. Instead, consequences of principle violations are given as the sole motivation for growth. Personal moral failure is the prime motive for living a godly life. The system cannot stand unless the students are convinced that all pathology can be traced to moral guilt." This leads to a concept of God who is always ready to zap His followers as soon as they step out of line. The Christian life becomes like walking a tight rope, for unless you follow the right procedures, God will see to it that you are punished.

One gets the impression that the kind of God whom Gothard teaches his followers to believe in is a very small-minded, petty and pedantic God, rather exactly like Gothard himself. Or we might compare Gothard's God to Santa Claus, who, according to popular mythology, rewards good children with gifts in their stockings and punishes bad children by putting coal or switches in their stocking. While we may think it abhorrent the way some parents use the idea of Santa Claus to scare their children into good behaviour, Gothard uses God in the same way.
One of the ways to tell whether Gothard achieves his results through God's Spirit or through natural human energies is to look at the techniques he uses to motivate people. As I have already mentioned, Gothard highly emphasizes the consequences of not following what he believes to be "God's principles", while stressing that those who do follow these principles have achieved success and happiness. The motivation is, therefore, entirely on what I can get out of it for myself. Gothard encourages his listeners to analyse the frustrations caused by spiritual deficiency, in the hope that this will make us more determined to avoid sin. Along these lines Gothard produces a board game for children where the players role dice to move their pieces across a board. The object of the game (from what I can remember from being made to play it as a child) is that the players must avoid landing their pieces in the Pit of Bitterness, Greed or Moral Impurity. The pictures of these pits on the board are ghastly, no doubt with the attempt to instil a fear in children's minds which will motivate them to avoid these sins later in life.

Where Does God Fit Into The Picture?
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gothard’s heterodoxy is what it does to God. Not only does God plays little or no part in a believer’s life through omission, but Gothard actually teaches that God’s grace is bound to the limitations of our own abilities. It is not simply that God helps those who help themselves, but that God will not and cannot help anyone who is not already practicing the right principles.

The issue of rock music is just one example of this. Gothard says, "If you are a fan of rock music, you cannot have victory in your moral life until you change your music. It is sensual, and you can't combine the sensual with the spiritual." Gothard says the same about any area where a person knowingly or unknowingly violates 'Biblical principles' (as defined by himself). Hence, it is only after we have taken the necessary steps, and exercised sufficient self-effort, that we can qualify to receive God's sanctifying grace in our lives and have spiritual victory. This was described with alarming clarity by a former follower of Gothard.
"It made so much sense at the time. He had an answer to everything. I was having problems at work and Mr. Gothard pointed out that I had failed to submit to the authority of my boss and work the eighty hours a week he demanded. For an electrical engineer, I wasn't making quite as much money as I thought I should and Mr. Gothard attributed it all to a loan that I had taken out and I was receiving God's chastening for violating His principles. In college, I had trouble in some of the more esoteric mathematical and electrical engineering classes, was because I had gone to public school and state college and listened to rock music while doing so and God just couldn't help me because of that sin. Marital problems, chalk that up to rebellious music, television and failing to follow God's plan of courtship instead of dating. Mr. Gothard presented a world in which God had established principles to govern reality. These principles were such a strong influence in this world that Gothard teaches that we can come to know God by knowing His principles. His Institute also teaches that if we honour these principles, God is required to honour us. This stuff made perfect sense the first time I heard it. All of my problems could be attributed to my unwitting failure to honour these principles. If I had just gotten the formula right, God would have had to make me a success."
In this way, Gothard leads people to believe that to follow all of his steps and formulas will guarantee you will have zero problems in life, while if you fail to perfectly follow such principles then God will ensure that you suffer the consequences. Since every problem one could ever encounter in life can be traced back to a cause/effect explanation, all we have to do is to memorize the right procedures and then our Christian life will be sin-free and full of success. Essentially, it is what I call ‘cardboard-cut-out-Christianity’, made up of pat-answers and simplified formulas, but lacking in life and truth. Even when Gothard says something that is true, it is as if the very truth becomes dead rather than living because of where he is coming from.

Gothard’s definitions of key Biblical concepts such as grace and faith fit perfectly into this overall picture. The ‘operational definition’ Gothard gives for grace is "The desire and power to reproduce ourselves spiritually," while faith is defined as "Visualizing what God intends to do.” More recently Gothard has expanded his re-definition of grace in his disturbing paper "Definition of Grace". Gothard begins the paper by attacking the traditional idea that grace is unmerited favor, suggesting that those who teach that definition are ungodly individuals who have infiltrated the Church with false teaching. As an alternative Gothard argues that “those who found grace possessed qualities that merited God’s favour.” Gothard is careful to qualify that the only area this definition does not apply is with regard to the “initial grace” we need for salvation! Through a labyrinth of twisted reasoning, Gothard reaches the conclusion that the primary purpose of grace is to assist the Christian in keeping the Law. The primary purpose of keeping the law, on the other hand, is so that we can ay earn more grace! The believer is thus caught in a vicious, self-defeating cycle out of which there is no escape. (For an excellent critique of Gothard’s teaching on grace, see chapter 5 in A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and The Christian Life, 21st Century Press, 2002.)
Gothard's Approach To Scripture
A common feature in religious brainwashing is to hap-handedly dismiss all "'interpretations" of scripture while presenting teaching which claim to simply take the Bible at face value. The brainwasher will then say he is going on just what the Bible says rather than man's various interpretations, which immediately casts all opposition in a pejorative light. Bill Gothard frequently uses this technique, elevating his interpretation to a status where, to challenge it with a competing interpretation, is tantamount to challenging the authority of scripture. By thus construing opposition to his ideas as opposition to scripture, he can dismiss objections without ever considering content. This is exactly the same as the techniques used by Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious cults, though each group does it with a completely different set of interpretations.

In Gothard's hermeneutics it seems the application precedes interpretation. Gothard points out that with any Scripture there is one correct interpretation but many applications. Now that much is true, and is by no means original to Gothard, being a standard principle of hermeneutics. Where Gothard goes wrong, however, is in allowing his interpretation of a verse or passage to revolve around the application he wants to be able to draw from it, rather than the application following from a correct understanding of the verse. Beginning with a prior position Gothard will then go to the Bible to try to find anything that can be applied in terms of that position. He will then select a proof text for his view but rarely (if ever) devote time to careful interpretation/exegesis. When Gothard does engage in exegesis, it is post hoc since it is colored by what he has already decided is the application of the verse. This being so, factors that are so necessary for correct exegesis, such as an understanding of culture, meaning, language, genre, and especially context (both the context of a verse as well as the overall theological context of the Bible) are systematically overlooked.

Examples are abundant but space permits only a few. Before I give the first example, remember that Gothard and those who follow his ideas are after things that 'work.' Gothard has himself said that early in his ministry he found that teaching principles for success got more of a hearing and more 'results' than merely preaching doctrine. He even says the unbelievers who follow his principles will have success, while believers who do not follow them will not. It is not surprising, in light of this, that Gothard has trouble dealing with the passages in Scripture where righteous people suffer. He often tries to show how the suffering or blessing of Bible characters is a result of principal violation or adherence. Professor Metochoi has pointed out that this is a real slap in the face of all the godly martyrs in the Bible and church history who suffered and died because they just didn't figure out all those "universal non-optional principles" that Gothard has figured out.

Along these lines it is interesting to see what Gothard writes in his booklet How To Get Under God's Protection. In this book Gothard argues that the concept of authority is the key to having God's protection. He briefly outlines some principles for appealing to authority, pointing to Moses' 'appeals' to the authority of Pharaoh as an example of the right steps to follow. When Pharaoh doubled the Israelites workload, Gothard has to think of a way to explain this (since, remember, suffering only comes when we don't follow the right steps). So Gothard says that, "The extra labour that Pharaoh required turned out to be a 'national physical fitness program' to prepare the Israelites for their wilderness journey." Then he cites Exodus 12:35-36 as a proof text.

This is an example of a post hoc interpretation that is subservient to the application Gothard wants to be able to draw. The reader is simply told how to interpret the passage without any evidence being presented to show how that interpretation is the correct one. An even more outrageous example can be found in Gothard's distortion of the book of Job.

The book of Job is, among other things, a refutation of a Gothard-type view of life. Job's 'counsellors' held Gothard's view of suffering and therefore maintained that Job's affliction must have been the result of sin. So also does Gothard, who maintains that Job's suffering resulted from sin. In order to make a point about the need for balance in work and ministry, Gothard points to the book of Job, arguing as follows (to use R.T. Coote's summery):
Against the clear Biblical statement that Job was a righteous man and that he suffered because of no sin of his own, Gothard claims: 1) Job was overcomitted to Christian work and good deeds; 2) this led to his neglecting the family; 3) therefore, his sons became embittered against God & cursed Him at their parties; 4) this was the reason Job wasn't invited to join them; 5) Job had a wrong attitude towards the man-in-the-street. Instead of desiring to have a spiritual ministry in the lives of other men he evaluated them only in terms of their usefulness to his 'organization' working with his herds.
Again we see how Gothard's application of a verse leads to a faulty interpretation. In this case his desire to make a point about the need for balance in work and ministry has led him to an exegesis that is not only faulty, but exactly opposite of a correct reading of Job. This is hardly surprising, seeing as a proper understanding of Job would dismantle the chief foundation stone of Gothard's system, namely that all suffering can be traced back to moral guilt.

Another faulty hermeneutical principal that permeates Gothard's exegesis - or rather his lack of exegesis - is that he treats the Bible as an authority on certain subjects merely because it contains some mention of that particular topic. For example, when Gothard's organization needed to contract some workers for a job, they followed the example of Solomon who told Hiram's men what he would pay and then sent his own workers to work along side those of Hiram. Gothard decided to follow that pattern and consequently saved $25,000 on a construction bill and $10,000 on a printing bill. Now there's nothing wrong with doing that, nor is there anything wrong with getting the idea from the Bible. What is inappropriate, however, is for Gothard to suggest that the success of the venture was "because we did it according to principles outlined in the Bible." To thus treat the Bible as a manual for successful business involves arbitrarily assuming that certain descriptive passages are prescriptive. Gothard applies this inconsistently, however, for he is not prepared to apply the year of jubilee to his business-model and give all his property back to the original owners every forty-nine years.
Gothard's hermeneutical system also involves a mechanical approach to language. Before explaining what this means in practice I'd like to point out that the Bible is no different than ordinary human communication insofar as it is never completely literal. We do not need our language to be totally literal for friends to understand what we mean; in fact, if we tried to talk like that, no one would understand us. So we say things like, "I got up from bed this morning," even though we really got down from the bed. I say to my children, "now while I'm away I want you to remember to always take your vitamins," not meaning of course that they have to literally be doing it always, every single second. The Bible is similar. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, He doesn't just mean the person living next door. When the author of Hebrews says, "these all died in faith", (Heb. 11:13) this 'all' does not of course include Enoch who "did not see death." (Heb. 11:5) By being attentive to the context, we can grasp what is meant without having to be pedantic.
Unfortunately, Gothard is not attentive to the context. Where it suits him to do so, Gothard comes to the Bible like a lawyer coming to a legal document, simply to analyse the literal and explicit words and then apply them categorically to every eventuality. As one person put it, "He apparently believes that every Scriptural truth can be systematically tied-up with a neat ribbon, without any exceptions. He then selects a Scriptural illustration that makes it all look airtight..." For example, when Gothard comes to a passage like Psalm one, where it says that those who meditate on God's law will prosper, he turns this into an equation that if we spend enough minutes each day meditating on the Bible, then we will have success in whatever we do. Gothard has even created 'meditation worksheets' to give a structured format for scriptural meditation, and these worksheets must be filled in daily by all the children whose parents subscribe to the ATI curriculum. This is to help them achieve success in their studies.

In other places Gothard diverges from this kind of literal, mechanistic exegesis to go to the complete opposite extreme where he will infer all sorts of extra-biblical assumptions into a verse. He does this in his argument that Christians should fast every seventh day. The two scriptures Gothard uses to try to prove this are, first, when it says that God rested on the seventh day. That should be our example to let our bodies rest from eating every seven days. Secondly, Gothard draws our attention to the fact that when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness the Lord only provided manna for them every six days. While Gothard does acknowledge that the Lord provided double the amount of manna on the day before the Sabbath, he contends that this was for those who would not agree to fast, because the Lord did not want to force anyone to fast against their will! Such twistings appear on nearly every page of Gothard's booklets I have seen (although I have only looked at a small percentage of the thousands of pages he has produced).

Unfortunately Gothard is closed to those who would help him see the error of his ways. One person who tried to reason with Gothard said that "even when finally confronted with an objection, Gothard...doesn't show how his position is more reasonable, but merely falls back on his interpretation of scripture. Then he takes any further objection to be an attack on the Bible, not a questioning of his own interpretation." This is very similar to what we find with the Jehovah's Witnesses and other cults.

Why So Popular?
All of this leads to a very puzzling question: why does Bill Gothard attract such a large following? Why do his seminars seem to pull literally millions of people like a magnet? Why do thousands of home-schooling families willingly allow their lives to be micro-managed by a man who even demands you even ask his permission before you adopt a child, and who tells married people at what times they are allowed to have sex? How has one man been able to rise to such prominence and be regarded as a sort of evangelical pope?
To answer this question, let us remember that Gothard's ministry grew out of the sixties. At first this may seem an unusual combination - Gothard and the sixties? The decade of the sixties brings to mind the cultural tidal wave that swept our society, especially the youth. It was a time when the final strings of restraint were cut, and our culture has been living in the growing wake ever since.

But not everyone was satisfied with the direction our society went in the latter half of the 20th century. Many who desire to raise their families with high standards just don't know how to in today's world, and they are left feeling alone in a foreign world.

That is where Bill Gothard steps in. When a certain section of society is desperate for a complete swing of the pendulum, Gothard's rule-book-for-righteousness offers a solution. There is a security when our entire walk with the Lord can be spelled out for us, and we have the support of thousands following a similar path. No longer do these people have to be alone, or struggle to find God's will in the problems they encounter in life, all they have to do is to consult the 'answer man', who has a formulaic procedure for overcoming just about any and every problem under the sun.

Because our society has lost any sense of absolutes, Gothard's heavy emphasis on this theme comes like a drink to a man dying of thirst. In a world of spiritual upheaval and chaos, Gothard appears as a rider on a white horse claiming to have answers to those who will follow his dictates. Those who follow Gothard's trumpet call are not given the freedom that Gothard promises his votaries, but are instead handed a yoke of bondage, and many accept this willingly. For this reason, some have been compelled to compare Gothard to the pied piper of Hemmelin luring the youth into the darkness by his sweet sounding music.

Another part of the answer to why Gothard is so popular is, to put it bluntly, his personality is simply irresistible. This is not, however, in the usual way that one would expect. Bill is not an outgoing extrovert that wins people by impassioned speeches and a sanguine personality. If that were the case he might be easily seen through. Bill is a bit shy, a quiet man that one feels would rather not have to be speaking to thousands. He is doing it because he cares for you. His relaxed and gentle face, together with his quiet sense of humor, make one feel instinctively that Bill understands me. He has an atmosphere of quiet wisdom about him, so that anything he says tends to feel right simply because he has said it.

People are often surprised when they attend one of Gothard's seminars for the first time, for they come expecting Bill to be harsh and strict like his teachings, and instead he seems more like someone who's just walked out of Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood.

This is one of the reasons I said earlier that we cannot evaluate Gothard based on his results, for many of the seemingly positive results may actually be a direct effect of Gothard's skill at being a silver-tongued, scripture-quoting confidence artist, who is able to use his powerfully hypnotic personality to make people do what he says, for both good and ill.

"It seems", writes Ronald M. Enroth "that we have a need to create evangelical gurus, Christian celebrities, superpastors in megachurches, and miscellaneous 'teachers' and 'experts' that we place on pastoral pedestals. What is it about people, including evangelicals, that explains this apparent need for authority figures, the need to have someone co-sign for our lives? As David Gill noted years ago: 'We want heroes! We want assurance that someone knows what is going on in this mad world. We want a father or a mother to lean on. We want revolutionary folk heroes who will tell us what to do until the rapture. We massage the egos of these demagogues and canonize their every opinion. We accept without a whimper their rationalizations of their errors and deviations."
I quote the above words because they describe an almost universal tendency within human nature. At any time in history when cultural or spiritual factors create a situation whereby large numbers of people are desperate for a solution and need the stability of having a leader to follow, there will almost inevitably be someone who rises from the crowd to fill that void. At that point, it is crucial to see whether the leader gathers crowds to himself in order to point them to higher realities, leading them to Someone beyond himself, or whether he creates a system of dependence whereby his followers would be unable to function if he were removed. Does he teach people to look to him for the answers, or does he motivate them to find the answers for themselves and to follow their own convictions even when those convictions may differ from his own? Does he spoon-feed his followers the answer to every problem, or does he help them to hear the still small voice of the One who alone is the Answer? Does he present a concept of reality that is exclusive to anything outside a narrow orientation, a reality that does not stretch beyond the confines of his teaching, or a reality that is open-ended, expansive, dynamic, non-static and exciting? In practice, does he encourage people to put their trust in him, or in the Lord?

Such are questions that must be asked of any teacher, and of any person who occupies a position of authority.

Two thousand years ago, Paul warned the believers at Colossi to beware of those who would deprive them of the freedom in Christ and cheat them of their reward through unnecessary regulations. These regulations, Paul said, had the appearance of false humility but were really nothing other than the striving of the flesh. "Therefore," wrote Paul, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations...according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:20-23)
In the days in which we now live, Paul's words are just as relevant. We know that history has seen no lack of teachers rising to popularity who claim to be the sole arbiter of truth, presenting lists of do's and don'ts that form a criterion for a consecrated life. Those who have high ideals, and who want to live a life of self-sacrifice and service to the Lord are especially prone to this kind of abuse. They can fall into the trap of thinking that because they are living a life that is difficult, and keeping to lots of rules, that they must be pleasing God and maturing in their Christian walk. Subconsciously the human mind associates that which is difficult with that which is meritorious. This can lead to a religion that is all drudgery, robbed of the life, spirit and joy of New Testament Christianity.

It is always good at these times to be reminded of the entire point of the gospel, which is that we do not have to do anything at all to gain acceptance with God since everything has already been done for us by Jesus when he died on Calvary's cross. Out of gratitude and love we should abound in good works, not so that we can qualify to receive God's blessings and grace, as Gothard teaches, and not for anything to do with ourselves at all, but because our hearts are set on Him who has loved us and freed us from the curse of sin. Unfortunately, observes Kreeft,
"To this day millions of Christians simply can't believe it. They persist in thinking of God as a stern judge and of their road to heaven as the onerous piling up of good deeds for the day. They've read the New Testament a dozen times and missed the whole point. If they hadn't missed it, how could they go around with long faces and worried consciences all the time? It wasn't worrywarts who won the world. Nor was it iron wills. It was doubting Thomases and foot-in-mouth-disease Peters and persecuting Pauls who became little Christs by believing the good news of the big Christ..."
Isn't it reassuring? Isn't it a relief to remember that the great men in the Bible, like Peter, Paul, David, Elijah and all the rest, were just as imperfect as the next man - just as full of weakness, selfishness and bad habits as you and me? Although these Bible characters wouldn't have come up to the standard that legalists like Gothard set (and most of them would probably have been disqualified if they applied to receive the ATI curriculum) the Lord was able to use them to shake the world. If Jesus could build a church on such an imperfect rock as all of them, then don't you think He's big enough to be able to help us without our having to constantly worry about ourselves and analyse the deficiencies brought about by our spiritual failures?

Paul wrote to the Philippians exhorting them to focus their minds on things that were true, noble, right, pure, lovely admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. If our minds are full of these things, and focused first and foremost on our wonderful Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, we will not have any room left over to think about ourselves and to worry about whether we are following the right steps to overcoming this or that problem. If instead of dwelling on our own weakness, we center our minds on God's greatness, then our lives will reflect his Life, for we will be turned towards Him which is away from ourselves.

See also:

The Way of a Man With a Maid

Emotional Purity and Broken Heart Syndrome

Betrothal and Emotional Purity: is it Biblical?



When It's Too Late to Govern By Rules

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  1. I'll admit that I didn't get through the entire post (most of it though), but I've known too many who've been effected by the leaglistic ministry of ATI.

    I am also seeing too many grown homeschool children who are walking away from everything because of the form of Christianity that has been handed to them by their parents.

    All I have to say is Mr. Gothard has never been married or have children of his own!

    Great post!
    ps I will say that ATI bought my book on Emotional Purity where I stress the importance of a walk with the Lord that would aid in helping in the process of marriage. I was surprised when ATI requested my book and sold it because I give no lists of how to do "courthship".

  2. I just attended the Gothard seminar (June 2008). I have 4 very normal kids. All dress comparable to their peers, are fun-loving and personable. They enjoy Christian rock and contemporary music and watch movies (we do check content).

    We all benefited greatly from IBPL. I don't consider myself to be a Gothard follower, or to be self-absorbed. His teachings have encouraged me to rely totally on the Lord, to walk in humility, to seek God's Word and expect His direction, to be loving to everyone in my path.

    I thoroughly enjoyed his personal examples, and never considered them to be self-exalting or presented as a formula for instant success. They were presented as guidelines. His references to clothing were brief comments of being modest and being an example of godliness. His references to television & music were brief comments on guarding what we allow in our homes, and to recognize the influence they may have on our hearts. They were brief comments with no guilt or bondage attached. They were mentioned once or twice, and no more. His viewpoint on young women remaining in their parents' home was a suggestion, not a command. He only warned that leaving as an act of rebellious independence could be stepping out from under God's protection. My daughter will be leaving for college next year, and I would never demand she stay under my wing rather than begin the life the Lord has designed her for. However, I agree that as parents, we have insight and wisdom that she would be wise to follow.

    I came away feeling refreshed and equipped to glorify the Lord. My kids loved the teachings as well, which is saying a lot when we are considering teens and young adults. I have not seen any weird legalistic tendencies or self-imposed bondage, just daily quiet times and kindness to one another, as well as discussions on learning to accept others where they are and see them through God's eyes.

    I would recommend the Basic Seminar to everyone. It is an excellent tool for healing past hurts and seeing ones' self through the Lord's eyes. I have found complete acceptance of myself, that God created me and loves me as I am. I have seen the same benefit for the other 4 families that attended with us.

    We have to realize that there are people in the world that feel compelled to live a life of legalism and impose it on others. Christ and Paul both warned against this tendency. I can see that there may be people that take Mr. Gothard's teachings and make them a law. I think that these people would likely use someone else's teaching if not his. It is their nature to do so.

    What a shame that these people did not hear what Mr. Gothard was truly teaching. His message was nothing more than knowing God and obeying His Word.

  3. I think this post is very helpful as a balanced critique of what Mr. Gothard teaches. I have been familiar with IBLP since the late 1980's, enrolled in ATI for at least 10 years during the 80-90's, and have not been able to pinpoint the problems with the teachings succinctly until reading this article. I've sent it to several of my friends who also grew up in ATI. Thanks for your careful comments.

  4. In the early 1980's God used IBYC (as it was then) to get ahold of my dad and bring him back into fellowship, bring him back to our family, and that was instrumental in the early days of my walk with Christ. For that I thank God. But I think it was a case of Him using a crooked stick to beat a straight path.

    Another man whose review of Gothard I read today said that he recommends ATI to those who can "chew the fish and spit out the bones." I think God allowed my dad and I both to do that without choking in the process.

    In my adolescent passion for the Bible I was reading through the lists of scripture at the back of my workbook and began to find that there was absolutely no correlation between some of the references and the topic under which they were listed. That really ruined Gothard's credibility in my eyes.

    Having read your post I wonder if these are examples of links only Mr. Gothard would make because of how he approaches language? Part of me would like to believe that he hadn't padded the lists intentionally.

    After that, and continued reading of scripture, I began to see that the formula for "good" and "bad" music was simply the teachings of one man. His few appeals to scripture couldn't justify his strict grid for evaluation.

    I hope Donna's family will continue to be blessed by the experience they had and not be one of the scores I've encountered in the last week who have been hurt by application and misapplication of Bill Gothard's teachings.

  5. If you believe in God and His Word, stick to the Bible. I believe having a real, ongoing relationship with Christ and realizing His love for you is the power you need to truly free you to live the standards of the Bible. Even when living by rules and regulations, it does not keep you if love is not involved. Everything in life involves balance. At times, we need a miracle that does not come from following rules. We need to see the miracle of God in our lives. When His love rescues us, then our lives can become examples to those who may not know Him. If the Bible says " Preach the Gospel to the World (Mark 16:15,Isaiah 61:1,Luke 4:18)then spread the good news for it is hidden to those who are lost (2 Corinthians 4:3). A life of love through Christ wants to see His love and words shared with others.

  6. I, too, can attest to the legalistic tendencies resulting from a severe application of the IBLP program. Our family never mastered the ability to allow children to transition into adulthood -- and the decision to marry (all wonderful, committed Christian spouses) created a huge chasm. What an unnecessary mess.

  7. Anonymous5:05 pm

    My family was in ATI for several years, and I served on staff at his headquarters in Oak Brook for a while in the early 90's. This is perhaps the most informative, accurate, detailed, and non-malicious account of Mr. Gothard that I've ever read. Great job!

    My adulthood has been a continual journey towards understanding God's grace and the love relationship he wants with me. I still spend nights crying over the pain I caused others through my legalism and criticism....and relationships that were broken because of it.

    I respect Mr. Gothard as a man. I've never felt the need to try to damage his reputation. He just doesn't have much accountability. All of us would be a mess if we felt we could run with every theory we ever came up with, and not have any checks and balances.

    I'll be forever grateful to ATI, though, for instilling in me a passionate love for God's word.

    "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.Yes, and I will continue to rejoice," Philippians 1:15-18

  8. I was born and raised in Soviet Union. I was lost going to hell without knowing Christ. It wasn't Bill Gothard himseld, but committed Christian homeschooling students who visited my school in 1992 and shared the Gospel with me very clearly. Bill Gothard himself led the seminar that November and the clear presentation of the Gospel was given each night. They had other seminars once a week on Saturdays where they sang hymns and shared God's Word in a basic form for people like me to understand.
    To make it short I gave my life to the Lord Jesus Christ and I was discipled by the students and leaders of IBLP in Moscow, Russia. It was one of the most wonderful things that happened to me.
    It was another 5 years before other American missionary organizations got to Russia to spread out. Praise the Lord that Bill and those Christian students heard the voice of God calling them to the strange land to bring the Gospel who never heard! I was lost and now I am saved. God used Bill as a springboard to bring salvation into my life before it was too late!

    Maria (Sokolova) Robertson

  9. I worked with BG closely everyday for 10 years. Ask me what I know well about this man in his private life. This man does NOT walk his talks. Lulu

  10. Was this really written in 2008? I'm wondering why the recent attention all of a sudden.

    A great post though! Thanks for putting everything in perspective. I was one who lived with IBLP and ATI most of my growing up years. I was never emotionally "damaged" as many I know and I did benefit from a lot of the teachings, but there has always been a nagging thought of "what was wrong? Something wasn't quite right..." I did meet my wonderful husband while working at IBLP headquarters, so it's hard to say my time there wasn't beneficial. But I too, saw a lot of spiritual abuses and chaos that should not have been.

    I do find it interesting that most of the people I know who grew up in ATI now attend churches that have a strong emphasis on grace. And they comment on the transformation of thought since leaving IBLP and God revealing His abundant grace to them.

  11. Thanks for this very thorough article. From the comments it looks as though you are spot on in your observations and analyses.

    Unfortunately, my spouse's family was very influenced in a destructive way by BG's false teaching (notwithstanding the many Scriptural truths inserted therein). I went to his basic youth seminar when I was a teen with my mom, and thankfully, neither of us got very into it. I was already starting to study my Bible more in depth in a Christian youth group, and I remember not being overly impressed with BG's weak and often out of context "proof-texting" approach. To this day, my spouse struggles with the after-effects and scars of the family's legalistic and fear/guilt-ridden spiritual dynamic, while members of my spouse's family continue in their own tailor-made version of this sort of approach to Scripture and the Christian life--refusing to trust themselves in accountability to any formal Christian church, and having set themselves up as the only reliable judges of other professing believers as to the quality of their beliefs and Christian lifestyle. In their more extreme view, all the churches are corrupt (even Bill Gothard is too liberal for them in many areas!). I cannot stress enough the heartache and oppression that results from this sort of approach to Christian faith. BTW, I credit my own experience of this sort of dynamic from a variety of sources within various strains of Protestantism as being one of the factors that drove me eventually to question many of my Protestant and Evangelical assumptions about ecclesiology and the role and interpretation of Scripture. I wound up becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian. There are, of course, legalistic Orthodox very much trapped in their own version of this game, but I find Orthodoxy has, within itself, its own correctives, especially in the teachings and examples of her Saints. Needless to say, the revelation of God's grace and mercy in the true gospel and the freedom that results from their embrace are very precious to me and my spouse.

  12. 12/31/11: I attended Wheaton Academy, affiliated with Wheaton College (on and off over the years), from 1963-67. Somehow, we became Gothard's guinea pigs in the Institute on Basic Youth Conflicts days, as he was allowed massive access to our chapel services and we even went on a retreat that I believe he led.
    "Unaccountable" he was then, and it's plausible that he is still. "Unaccountable" is so pandemic in Evangelicalism as to scarcely be remarkable.
    My experience with his IBYC in those early days was neither formative nor destructive of my spiritual life so far as I can tell. The few things I can remember of it (try to pray yourself to sleep routinely, for instance) are not inconsistent with what I now believe as an Orthodox Christian.

  13. Our family was profoundly affected by IBLP/ATI - and while it had both positive and negative effects, I think we all sort of walked away with the idea of "eat the meat and spit out the bones". My sister and I both served in Training Centers (I in Indianapolis, she in Moscow and Dallas) - we were a bit more deeply affected by the ministry - in a negative sense.

    I do appreciate all that you have shared here. It was balanced and not inflammatory. Yet truthful and very enlightening. Thank you for this!

    I also poked around your blog a bit and read a number of other articles - I can honestly say, it is one I will be referring to often.

    Blessings! A Little R & R

  14. Hmmm. Interesting read.

    Isn't it peculiar how you can have two different people under the same teaching/church/doctrinal theology/(fill in the blank) and one will love it, while the other will hate it. One will follow, the other will not. One will bear fruit, the other will feel stifled.

    I see this so often not just in regards to Christian teachings and doctrins, but even just in families. One child does well, the other doesn't. Take a look at some of the prophets' and kings' children. Some flourished, some didn't. Look at Adam and Eve. Cain and Able had the same parents with the same rules and the same love and the same upbringing, and the same teaching, yet they responded differently. Hmmm.

    All that to say, I am so sorry for those who were ruined spiritually by the legalism (and it does appear to have some legalism in some areas) while at the same time and glad to hear that others were blessed. If we do go, I will explain those things that are amiss to my daughter, and grab hold of what is good and true.

    Funny thing, if you look at the book of Revelation, all of the churches, with the exception of one, had *something* to be rebuked for. Even the one that was not rebuked was warned.

    The sad truth is that I come from the 'other side of the tracks', meaning that the teachings I have had have been so sloppy-graced. Sort of like this: 'Well, we're never going to be perfect and we will *always* fail, 'cause we're just sinners, so just do the best you can and don't judge each other". It was sickening to me. Complete opposite of what I read here...worldliness in every aspect. Total 'freedom' misconstrued. Yikes.

    Anyway, we will see what happens. They may not accept my application for the Texas conference because my husband will not be going. ;)

    Thanks for the eye-opening article. I will keep it in mind.