By L.L. Don Veinot, Jr. and Ron Henzel
(This originally appeared in the September/October 1997 MCOI Journal)
In 1991 1, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. began receiving phone calls from some residents in Oak Brook, IL. They were concerned about a group in their upscale community who, they said, were holding young people against their wills in “some kind of commune.” The callers were sure this was a cult and wanted to know what the community needed to do. When we asked the name of the group, we were told it was called “The Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” (IBYC). At the time, we assured the callers that, although Bill Gothard (the founder and president of IBYC) was very legalistic, to our knowledge, the group was not a cult.
My wife, Joy, and I had attended one of the basic seminars in the mid ‘70s at the urging of some church members. There were many things we did not agree with, particularly the legalism, which came about as a result of using Scripture out of context, and either not realizing or disregarding the grace of God as a result of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We didn’t attend any further seminars or recommend them to anyone else. In fact, we didn’t think much more about it until Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. began receiving calls in ‘91.
About two years ago, we began receiving more calls about Bill Gothard and what he now calls his “Institute in Basic Life Principles” (IBLP). Since Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., is a research and education ministry, we decided to look into the Institute’s teachings to see if they had changed, and if the reported abuses were, in fact, true.
We are aware of a number of people who feel the Institute has helped them turn their lives around. We do not want to invalidate any real benefits, but rather point out that God is able, and often does, use people with bad motives and/or teachings for His good purposes – even (Philippians 1:15-18). On the other hand, error begets error, which also begets heartache.
As we have read Bill Gothard’s material and continue to receive more calls for help, we are compelled to share the findings with our readers. This is not meant as a personal attack on Bill Gothard, but rather as a look at the history and teachings of an organization that has affected the lives of more than two-and-a-half-million people.
We will present a four-part series that will:
• Review Gothard’s teachings that ignore the grace of God and favor putting believers under a Galatian-type of legalism.
• Inspect Gothard’s “Umbrella of Authority,” which Gothard does not seem to be under himself, though he insists everyone else should be.
• Evaluate Gothard’s anti-biblical teachings about ancestral demons and redefining of terminologies
IN THE BEGINNING
The 1950 ‘s were an ideal time to begin a career in the fledgling youth ministries movement. World War II had resulted in millions of absentee fathers, and society watched with alarm as the violence of youth gangs began to rival the tales of Al Capone and John Dillinger. In response to this problem, youth ministries went forth and multiplied “Youth For Christ” (YFC) was founded by Torrey Johnson in 1944 (who hired Billy Graham as YFC’s first full-time employee that same year). Bill and Vonette Bright started “Campus Crusade For Christ” at UCLA in 1950 and developed The Four Spiritual Laws tract as an evangelistic tool in 1952.
Youth ministry was not a new concept. The late 19th century had brought forth “InterVarsity Christian Fellowship” and the “Young Men’s Christian Association” (YMCA). But what made the second half of the 20th century so unique was a phenomenon unparalleled in American history; the fabled “Baby Boom.” Following World War II, the rate of live births in the U.S. accelerated sharply until, between 1954 (just after the Korean War) and 1964, it exceeded 10-million annually. (This is the period officially designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as the “Baby Boom,” although most people use that phrase to roughly denote the two decades following World War II, 1946-1965.)
Along with a skyrocketing birthrate came mounting fears about a generation that was being raised in a “permissive society” and that seemed to be getting out of control. By 1967, fully one-half of the U.S. population was less than 21-years old, and by 1968, it had become frighteningly obvious just how much damage these youths could do! Aside from the Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations and the subsequent riots—none of which could be blamed on Baby-Boomers — 1968 also witnessed the Manson murders and mounting campus unrest about the Viet-Nam War. These would eventually produce major explosions, both literal and figurative.
The vast majority of these young people were among “the best and the brightest” of their time and would have been so in any generation before or since. But, if tomorrow’s leaders were brawling with the local “fuzz” in the streets of Chicago, blowing up college buildings, burning draft cards, inciting to riot, taking drugs, challenging traditional sexual morality, listening to raucous music, and making a general nuisance of themselves, what hope was there for the future?
Poised at the brink of this social tidal wave was a man who promised order in the midst of chaos, peace in the midst of conflict, sanity in the midst of psychedelia. To the cynical, politically-correct unbelievers of today, he would have been considered merely a spiritual pied-piper who offered to bring the children back from darkness, only to lead them there. But, to the churchgoing, God-fearing parents and grandparents of the ’60s and ’70s, he was a Godsend armed with overheads and three-ring binders. His name was Bill Gothard.
WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?
A symbol of what seemed to have gone wrong in many-people’s minds was the arrest of “The Baby Book” doctor, Dr. Spock, for assisting in the destruction of draft cards. Millions of mothers in the ’50s and ’60s had raised their children on the instruction Dr. Spock had given — which included the advice that children should not be spanked. Now here was that same baby doctor aiding and abetting many of those same children in break¬ing the law. Could it be the whole essence of the ‘60s youth problem was that an entire generation had been turned into a bunch of spoiled, narcissistic brats because their parents listened to the wrong “experts”? Maybe we needed new experts! Bill Gothard was more than happy to present himself and his teachings as the solution to the problems of youth conflict.
Now, it would be unfair to caricature the ’60s as one, long, Hippie love-in. In the early ’60s, youth rebellion had pretty much been limited to the occasional street and motorcycle gang. With a president who mirrored their own youthful idealism, the Howdy Doody generation exchanged their Mickey Mouse ears for membership in the Peace Corps, and the future was full of hope. Young people were able to isolate American political demons and send Freedom Riders to exorcise them. But, with the JFK assassination, youthful idealism began to fade, and with the troop buildup in Viet-Nam, it seemed ready to disappear altogether.
It helps to remember that the discovery of the German con centration camps and the Jewish Holocaust was only about 20 years old back then—about as recent as Viet-Nam is for us today. And the post-World War II, Nuremburg, war-crimes trials had left the world to ponder the haunting refrain that was used to justify six-million, savage murders: “We were only following orders.” In light of this monumental horror, it was only natural that the next generation should recoil from the dangers of unquestioned authority.
Added to this was the rediscovery of America’s own heritage of civil disobedience for the cause of liberty and justice — which re-established a place of honor for protest and the confrontation of abusive authority in American life. By all accounts, the “Free Speech Movement” on the campus of Berkeley University in 1964 (a symbol of student protest in the ’60s) was almost a religious experience for those in attendance. The violence that later came to characterize the ’60s can be seen as youthful idealism turned angry.
And yet, in the middle of it all, there Gothard stood — holding out one, simple word as the center of his world view: authority. It was not a message designed to appeal to those youths who were at the forefront of society’s problems at that time, but that, in itself, did not make Gothard’s message wrong.
One of the more popular youth slogans in the’ 60s was, “Never trust anyone over 30.” For the first time anyone could remember, kids stood right in the face of their elders and shouted “Hell, no! We won’t go!” And yet, there Gothard stood: a thirty-something (born November 2,1934), ordained, evangelical, Christian minister (when he founded the IBYC) who dared to tell young people their basic problem was a failure to submit to authority. (Note: It’s difficult to pin down exactly when Gothard’s organization was “founded”; today it prefers to date itself back to Gothard’s first seminar in 1964.)
Thanks to Cold-War politics, not only were we losing thousands of young people in Southeast Asia, but we were also spending billions to beat the Soviets to the moon in order to demonstrate our technical superiority. America was on the cutting edge in space, the economy was buzzing along smoothly, and it seemed as if science had discovered just about everything short of the meaning of life. So millions left the church in search of answers elsewhere. And yet, there Gothard stood, quoting verses from a Bible that predated the scientific method in order to prove something many people were actively rejecting: that authority was their friend.
FROM OUT OF NOWHERE
Gothard had graduated from Wheaton College with a B. A. in 1957 and an M.A. in 1961. His Master’s thesis was entitled, “A Proposed Youth Program for Hi-Crusader Clubs.” According to those who remember him from those days, he was reclusive through¬out his college career, seeming to shun the limelight; his picture appearing in only one college yearbook, atypical of students at that time. Some were impressed by the amount of time he spent in solitary prayer. At one point, he devoted 35 hours per week to youth work with a Chicago missionary society while still a full-time student at Wheaton, 25 miles away.
Gothard also seemed to have a tender conscience. One day some of his fellow youth workers confronted him, saying they detected “spiritual pride” in him, perhaps due to his success in youth ministry. Gothard became convicted this was true and confessed it to one of his fellow workers. That person dealt harshly with him and advised him to confess the sin to several others, including the head of the missionary society for whom Gothard worked. Gothard’s boss fired him shortly after he made the confession.
Many people have been discouraged right out of the ministry by incidents such as this. But, despite this negative experience, Gothard kept pressing on. He would also later counsel thousands of young people to follow his example and confess such sins to others.
It is difficult to gauge just how “successful” Gothard was in the early ’60s. We were able to interview only one person who had been a teenager in a church where Gothard had served as a youth pastor. This woman remains convinced that Gothard was not very effective at dealing with young people on a one-to-one basis, and not very capable of seeing real problems in a young person’s home life when they existed. If this is true, it may help to explain why Gothard began gravitating toward larger audiences, where individual problems are more easily painted over with the broad brushstrokes of general “principles.”
Sometime around 1964, Gothard was invited to teach a course on youth ministry at his alma mater, Wheaton College. Forty-five students attended, including pastors, youth workers, and educa¬tors. The materials he presented at that time became the foundation for his seminars.
In 1966, Gothard presented a seminar for 1,000 people in the Chicago area. He repeated the performance in 1967 and held his first out-of-town seminar in Seattle for 42 people-in 1968. Gothard’s new organization, the IBYC. was born.
From such meager beginnings, it was difficult to see where things would eventually head. His combined attendance for all his seminars in 1968 was actually around 2,000. But then, things really took off! As Wilfred Bockelman later would report in his book Gothard- The Man And His Ministry: An Evaluation (Quill Publications. 1976), “In 1969 there were 4,000; 1971, 12,000; 1972 over 128,000, including 13,000 in the Seattle Coliseum; in 1973 more than 200,000” (p, 15). Before you could say “post-Watergate, social malaise,” Gothard’s public career had outlasted that of most major rock-and-roll stars, including the Beatles (as a group at least), and his live audiences were at least as huge as those at rock concerts. Churches in every city, town, and hamlet in America were sending their young people to his seminars by the busload. Little bands of three-ring-binder-touting, Gothard disciples sprang up on college and university campuses across the country.
In the early ‘70s, toga parties began to replace campus sit-ins. In the shadow of the Kent State University Massacre, the Woodstock generation woke up to the fact that radicalism could cost some of them their lives. And seeing as how the prospect of being killed was a big reason why they were protesting Viet-Nam in the first place, getting shot on campus seemed to defeat the pur¬pose. When the war finally ended, there seemed little left worth caring about for many young people, aside from where to take their next toke on a joint, or where to have their next sexual encounter. So, while the older generation was relieved its children were no longer about the business of tearing down “the Establishment,” new fears dawned of a directionless generation with declining scholastic aptitude, addicted to instant gratification.
In this environment, Gothard could be assured that hundreds of thousands of parents would continue to send their kids to his seminars, and IBYC soon grew into a multi-million-dollar organization. In 1976 alone, Gothard held 32 seminars at $45 per attendee ($35 if part of a church group; $55 per married couple). It was not unusual for Gothard to pack out auditoriums with capacities of 8,000 to 20,000 people. Society’s continuing problems with its youth virtually assured IBYC’s growth for the foreseeable future.
JUST WHAT WAS IN THOSE THREE-RING BINDERS?
When your home is on fire, you don’t ask the fireman to what denomination he belongs. During the ‘60s and ’70s, many Americans thought their home was on fire, and it was their children who were burning. So, maybe that’s why so many parents and pastors
did not get overly critical, or exercise a great deal of discernment, with respect to the actual content of Gothard’s seminars. They seemed satisfied knowing he professed to be an evangelical Christian, and had the confidence, and even the endorsement, of Christian leaders whom they knew. Besides, what they did hear sounded good! Obey the authority figures God has ordained! Follow biblical principles in making every decision! Why should they worry about Gothard when the Timothy Learys and Abbie Hoffmans of the world were advising their kids to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” get high and enjoy “free love”?
But, some people were paying attention, including people who study and teach the Scriptures for a living. One of them was Ronald B. Allen, Th.D. As Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He committed his thoughts to writing in a 1984 paper entitled, “Issues of Concern — Bill Gothard and the Bible,” which begins as follows:
The week that I spent at Basic Youth Conflicts in 1973 (Portland) was one of the most difficult of my life, In this seminar I was regularly assaulted by a misuse of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, on a level that I have never experienced in a public ministry before that time (or since). All speakers, myself included, fail to interpret and apply the Bible rightly from time to time. But in the Gothard lectures, Old Testament passages were used time after time to argue points that they did not prove. I was as troubled by the errors made from the lectern as by the seeming acceptance of these errors as true and factual by the many thousands of people in attendance
It would be tempting to think of this description as an exaggeration based on misunderstanding; but, if that was the case, then Gothard had every opportunity to correct the misunderstanding. When Dr. Allen attempted to arrange a meeting with Gothard through his seminary president, Dr. Earl D. Radmacher, in order to discuss these problems, Gothard told Radmacher that “he had no interest in meeting with me [Allen] to discuss these issues.”
This unwillingness to be confronted biblically — apparent resistance to being under authority and lack of consistent biblical hermeneutic—has given birth to some very strange and, in some cases, harmful teachings. As we move through this four-part series, we will be dealing with the specific areas of concern raised by Allen, Bockelman, and others with respect to Gothard’s doctrinal teachings and his method of handling the Bible.
*The Talmud is the body of oral traditions that were written down in the 2nd century A.D., considered authoritative by Jews. These were the same oral traditions that Jesus opposed in his rebuke of the Pharisees (e.g., Matthew 23)
Our evaluation of Gothard’s teachings shows they consist largely of Christian oral traditions, which,like the oral traditions of the Pharisees, have been given a level of authority equal to that of Scripture. Just as Jesus condemned the Pharisees for elevating oral tradition to the level of Scripture, so would He condemn evangelicals for practicing the same thing today. We will provide concrete examples of how Gothard does this as this series unfolds.
- This was 4 years prior to our legal incorporation on April1, 1995 ↩