Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud – Part 2

(This originally appeared in the November/December 1997 MCOI Journal)

ITalmud-pt-2-01-small1n part one of this series, we traced the history of the rise of Bill Gothard ‘s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), the fact it grew during a very tumultuous time in American history (especially for the youth of this country), and that thousands of parents and church leaders sent their young people to these seminars without adequately evaluating the content. This does not mean voices of concern were not raised. In this installment, we will listen to what one concerned Christian was saying and examine Gothard’s specific teachings from their beginnings in the 1960s through the end of the ‘70s.

For the first 20 years or so of Bill Gothard’s seminar ministry (from around 1964 to 1984), his teachings received little public scrutiny, A notable exception was Wilfred Bockelman’s book, Gothard – The Man and His Ministry: An Evaluation (Mlford. MI: Quill Publications, 1976). As far as we know, this has been the only book-length treatment of Gothard’s ministry ever to be marketed to the general Christian public. (There have been some other substantial published works, but they have had a very limited circulation.) While Bockelman worked hard to be evenhanded and found positive things to say, he also had some serious theological disagreements with Gothard, especially on the subject of God’s grace.

Nonetheless, Bockelman’s book does not appear to have had much impact on the evangelical community. One reason for this might have been that his publisher was not exactly a major force in the evangelical community, and the book probably suffered from poor distribution. Another factor might have been the immense popularity Gothard was enjoying in the mid-’70s (especially among parents and grandparents), and so anyone criticizing him naturally would have been viewed with suspicion.

Another thing to consider was Gothard’s unique strategy for marketing his own books and materials: you could only get them by attending his seminars. Gothard sold nothing over the counter at Christian bookstores or anywhere else. His was the original, “This Offer Not Available In Stores” approach, except operators were not standing by. You had to get in your car and go to one of his public seminars.

As Bockelman wrote:

And if you think you’d like to slip away an extra copy to a friend who could really use one, forget it. This book [the seminar notebook] is intended only for the use of those who go through the whole program.

During the week there will be twelve times when portions of the book are distributed. In the front of the book is a little card that lists all twelve times and the name of the material to be distributed then. When you receive yours, that card will be checked off, so you can’t go back and get a second copy (pp.39-40).

One effect of this was that no one, who had not actually attended a seminar, had access to what Gothard was teaching. Thus, very few had the opportunity to privately and objectively scrutinize his materials outside the arena of his seminars. Not only that, but at his seminars Gothard publicly discouraged attendees from even discussing the materials outside of the seminars. As Bockelman, who actually did attend a seminar, wrote:

Bill Gothard is perfectly justified in saying, “If people want to know what the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts is all about, let them come to the seminar.” He even has the right to say, “You can’t form an opinion unless you’ve attended the whole Institute.” He has reason to be dissatisfied with those who have never attended one of his Institutes, but who nevertheless pontificate on them.

Still, I don’t think Gothard is being particularly reasonable when he suggests that people attending the seminar not even discuss the handbook outside the meetings, (pp. 19-20)

To many Christians in the 1970s, Bockelman’s book was probably reminiscent of someone “crying wolf.” But now, reading his comments from the post-Jonestown, post-Waco perspective can be rather troubling. True, Gothard did not set up a hermetically-sealed, cultic community along those lines, but there is one feature he appears to have in common with them: the avoidance of accountability through the control of information — specifically, the control of information about himself and his teachings.

The absence of Gothard materials outside of his seminars (and the ironic suppression of their content by Gothard himself) meant that objectionable portions of his teachings were kept out of the Christian public’s view. Since attendees (whom Gothard dubbed “alumni” after they attended) were discouraged from discussing them, outsiders knew of no reason for alarm.

Since you could not just go out and buy a Gothard book at a Christian bookstore, Christian book reviewers could not read them and point out any problems found with them. Therefore, no one would read any critical reviews of Gothard’s work. It also meant his books generally were unavailable to Bible professors, theologians, and those engaged in apologetics ministries. Thus, as thousands of Christian college kids filed into Gothard’s seminars, their instructors were unable even to comment on this alternative source of teaching, unless they, themselves, took time out of their busy schedules to attend. And, since Gothard was so widely praised (frequently by those who, themselves, had never been to his seminars), there seemed to be no reason to check up on him.

Gothard materials understandably are difficult to track down these days, unless you actually know some “alumni” who will let you borrow their copies. But, some copies of seminar materials from the ’60s and ’70s have found their way onto library shelves and into used book stores, and we used these as the basis for evaluating the content of his early seminars.

How Gothard Says He Interprets the Bible

An examination of Gothard’s materials, from their earliest days, shows there was a great deal about which to be concerned. Gothard knew how to disarm his audience, assure them of his competence, and allay potential misgivings. Thus, in his large, red, Basic Seminar Textbook from 1979, he seems to lay out a sound foundation for what follows in his book:

WORKING THROUGH THE TEXT: Before any application of Scripture can be made, there must be a thorough understanding of what the text is actually saying.

Why was it written?
To whom was it written?
What were the conditions at the time?
What is the precise meaning in the original language?
What related Scriptures explain it further? (p. 3)

These are, of course, standard procedures for Biblical interpretation — indeed for any kind of interpretation.

But, it’s one thing to know the rules of interpretation and to be able to quote them, it’s quite another thing to practice them. Not very far into the Textbook, we begin to encounter uses of Scripture that fly in the face of the very sound procedures Gothard himself advocates. For example:

Undue concern for clothes may be an attempt to cover up or compensate for unchangeable physical features which are rejected. Jesus linked these two thoughts in Matthew 6:27, 28 “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment?’ (p. 12)

Gothard makes it sound like Jesus was addressing the problem of shame over unwanted blemishes, a big nose, etc. A glance at the context, however, reveals that He had nothing of the sort in mind, but instead was addressing the sin of habitual worrry:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,- or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25, NIV)

Jesus by no means was linking the two thoughts of clothing and a poor self-image. By teaching that Jesus was, Gothard also commits the error of anachronistic (chronologically misplaced) reasoning by projecting, if you will, the assumptions of 20th-century psychology into the teachings of Jesus.

How Gothard Actually Interprets the Bible
Examples like this are not very disturbing at first and seem to be offset by other examples of correct Scriptural application. But, over the course of nearly 200 pages, the errors begin to multiply, especially in areas where Gothard’s views tend to be the most unique. For instance, on page 20, when Gothard begins discussing his favorite subject of “authority:”

The essence of submission is not “getting under the domination of authority but rather getting under the protection of authority.” Authority is like an “umbrella of protection,” and when we get out from under it, we expose ourselves to unnecessary temptations which are too strong for us to overcome. This is why Scripture compares rebellion to witchcraft-“Rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft.” (I Samuel 15:23) Both terms have the same basic definition -subjecting ourselves to the realm and power of Satan, (p.20)

Here a pattern emerges not only of citing Scripture that does not prove his point but also of not giving any Scriptural support for something Gothard considers essential. His citation of 1 Samuel 15:23 is not related even tangentially to his definition of “submission” as “getting under the protection of authority,” And, instead of providing us with a Scripture verse that does prove that point, Gothard diverts our attention to another issue entirely. He smoothly glides into a comparison of rebellion to witchcraft that is designed to establish the following thesis: Rebellion is evil; therefore, submission is righteous.

This idea sounds Biblical enough so that to most seminar attendees —who are usually busy balancing a three-ring binder on their knees, feverishly taking down notes, while trying to catch everything on Gothard’s overhead presentation — it is not obvious Gothard has just misused the Bible. But then, who doesn ‘t occasionally quote a Scripture verse in support of a point it does not prove? We all make this mistake from time to time. That doesn’t mean our teaching is dangerous, does it?

While this reasoning may quickly pacify the conscience of a seminar attendee, it will also set that person up for difficulty because: 1) Gothard’s view of submission to authority is the foundation on which he builds many of his other unique teachings; and 2) by the time Gothard deals with the subject of authority, quoting verses that do not prove his point has already become something of a habit for him. So, for a person to have read all the way to page 20 in the Basic Seminar Textbook without being alarmed by this trend means either: a) that person is not very familiar with the Bible; and/or b) that person is being kept too busy by the pace of the seminar to notice. Only the more informed and alert seminar attendees would be likely to pick up on these problems.

Even if it is true that all rebellion is evil and, thus, all submis¬sion is good, it is still not the same as saying submission means “getting under the protection of authority.” When is Gothard going to supply us with a Scriptural basis for this idea? He isn’t. He basically expects us to accept his assertion and follow him quickly to his next point, before we have the opportunity to notice he is not teaching Scripture but rather his own ideas. His citation from 1 Samuel, therefore, reads more like a sleight-of-hand than a reference for a Biblical principle.

But there is more to consider in Gothard’s teaching on authority, because an intrinsic part of it can be found in his statement, “Authority is like an ‘umbrella of protection,’” and when we get out from under it, “we expose ourselves to unnecessary temptations which are too strong for us to overcome.” With this, Gothard has shifted away from the “authority paradigm” that has been historically presented to young people.

Most young people in the ’60s and ’70s were taught authority was to protect people from social chaos. We need to have government, a police force, a military, and all the structures and powers of authority, so the standard explanation went, in order to keep evil from running rampant in the world. It is no secret many people in their teens and twenties, especially during the ’60s. rejected this line of reasoning.

Nevertheless, it is the central rationale provided by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:3-4, and we have to wonder why Gothard felt the need to supplement Paul’s teaching with the notion that not submitting to authority somehow exposed us to “unnecessary temptations which are too strong for us to overcome.” Is it not enough we should fear the inevitable social ills that result from disregarding authority, must we also fear some mystical, spiritual ill as well? And mystical it will remain, in more ways than one, because Gothard never shows us from the Scriptures how this is so.

The Links in Gothard’s “Chain-of-Authority”

Gothard teaches that God had three primary purposes for instituting human authority:

1) “To [help us] grow in wisdom and character;” 2) “To gain protection from destructive temptations” (as outlined above); and 3) “To receive clear direction for life decisions.” (p.20)

To prove his first point, Gothard writes:

The only recorded incident in the life of Christ between the ages of two and thirty was a discussion with His parents which involved authority. This occurred when He was twelve. Should He follow His spiritual calling and be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49), or should He become subject to His parents and leave His ministry at the temple? He did the latter, and the following verse reports, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)[lbid.]

Here Gothard has taken a story from Luke, which was designed to illustrate the identity of Christ as the Son of God and Messiah, and has twisted it into a conflict over the parental authority of Joseph and Mary, so he could fit it into his own system. We know the reason Luke recorded this account from its climactic scene (which Gothard omits), in verses 48-49:

When his parents sow him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked, “Didn’ t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (NIV)

This is also the only record we have in Scripture of Jesus ever being scolded by His human parents. But, if we believe in the doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ, then it was a scolding He did not deserve. The sinless Christ, at age 12, answered His parents’ question with His own questions: Don’t you know Who I am? And don’t you know that Who I am dictates where I am? So the basic issue was: Why didn’t they think of coming to the temple first? It would have saved them a lot of unnecessary worrying! Contrary to Gothard, this story has nothing to do with any conflict Jesus was facing over whether to stay in the temple or go home with His parents. Jesus was not contemplating entering the ministry at age 12!

So, if this is not a story about Jesus making the tough choice to “leave His ministry at the temple” so He could submit to His parents, then neither is it a story about how His choice to submit was why He “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” It wasn’t the point of Luke’s story. Luke was simply describing the progress of young Jesus’ life. Thus, Gothard -. misused Luke’s story to create a false cause-and-effect relationship between submission to human authority and character development. There are many people who have submitted in this way but have not “increased in wisdom and stature,” or “in favor with God and man.” The Nazi party comes to mind at this point.

In order to justify his statement that submission to authority is necessary to “receive clear direction for life decisions,” Gothard writes:

Correct decisions are based on faith; that is, visualizing what God intends to do. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23) One of the most basic aspects of faith is to realize how God gets His directions to us through those He has placed over us. [Ibid.]

Here, again, we are confronted with two questionable statements and a Bible verse that proves neither of them sandwiched in between. How did Gothard come up with his definition of faith as “visualizing”? He doesn’t say. Where does the Bible say following “those He has placed over us” is “one of the most basic aspects of faith”? Gothard doesn’t help us out here, either. But he goes on:

After the centurion asked Jesus to come and heal his servant, it occurred to him that just as his life was structured around a “chain of responsibility,” so the kingdom in which God operates must have a similar structure of authority. [Ibid.]

The account Gothard is referring to here is found in Matthew 8:5-10 (NIV):

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him,” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant mil be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Is the point of this story that God’s kingdom is structured around a “chain of responsibility” (or “umbrellas of authority”) similar to that of the Roman Empire? No. The point of this story is the centurion had such great faith in Who Jesus was, that he knew Jesus did not need to come to his house in order to heal his servant. Jesus was God. He could heal long-distance.

The main point of every story in the Gospels is to highlight for us Who Jesus is! By distracting us with his “authority” teaching, Gothard not only is violating the rules of proper interpretation, but he is frustrating the intent of the Gospel authors, and diverting our attention from the glory of Christ’s person.

Alas, Gothard is relentless. He interprets Matthew 8:5-10 as yet another passage which corroborates his view that submitting to a “structure of authority” will help us “to receive clear direction for life decisions.” Once again, when we look for a connection between Gothard’s thesis (“to receive clear direction”) and Gothard’s proof-text (Matt, 8:5-10), we come up empty, if anything, here we have a story where the centurion was telling Jesus what to do (“just say the word, and my servant will be healed”) instead of receiving “clear direction” by submitting to Jesus’ authority! It soon becomes apparent Gothard cites Matthew 8 primarily to support his underlying premise (since it does not support his immediate point), which is that Christians must get under one of his all-important umbrellas of “protection of authority.”

In his book. Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 1980), James W. Sire refers to this method of proof-texting as “The Biblical Hook”:

When Scripture is quoted, especially at the beginning of an argument which turns out to promote a cult doctrine or point of view, it may be that it is being used primarily as a hook to grasp the attention of readers or listeners. “The Bible says” gets the attention, but what follows the quotation may be far from traditional Christian teaching and far from the intention of the Bible itself, (pp.41-42)

We do not mean to imply Gothard is a cult leader. Nor, on the other hand, is this the only way in which Gothard misuses Scripture. The examples we have provided thus far are simply consistent with Sire’s description of “The Biblical Hook” Gothard’s persistently incorrect (but strategic) citation of Bible verses creates the illusion he is teaching “Biblical principles,” This leads us to the next problem which we will address in Part 3 of this series: Just how many “Biblical principles ” are necessary to live the Christian life?

The Journal would like to thank Ron Henzel for his work on this series of articles, Ron and his wife Wendy, belonged to a “spiritually abusive group” (with an evangelical Statement of Faith) in the past and now spends part of his time counseling others who have been hurt by spiritual abuse. Ron is also a graduate student at Wheaton College located in Wheaton, Illinois.


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