We often receive questions by mail, phone and email about Bill Gothard’s teaching on authority which at one time was “Chain of Command” and later renamed “Umbrella of Protection.” Obviously the latter sounds more benign than the former, but they essentially come down to the same thing. Who is the boss and who are the bossed? Due to the amount of questions we have received I thought it might be helpful to comment on his claims again. This is a modified and somewhat expanded version of a section of chapter 3 (The Emerald City) of our book A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life. In this chapter we discuss proper contextual understanding and demonstrate how Bill Gothard abandons, ignores and abuses context in an attempt to make his point sound biblical.
For instance early on in the Basic Seminar, on page 20 of the Basic Seminar Textbook, Gothard begins discussing his favorite subject of “authority.”
The essence of Gothard’s teaching of submission is not:
“getting under the domination of authority but rather getting under the protection of authority.”
According to Bill Gothard, 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, in his view, compares rebellion to witchcraft – “Rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft.” (I Sam. 15:23). Both terms have the same basic definition – subjecting ourselves to the realm and power of Satan.
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 contextually related to his definition of “submission” as “getting under the protection of authority.”
The context of the story describes Saul’s sin as disobeying a direct command from God. Instead of Gothard providing us with a Scripture verse that does prove his point, he 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 (getting out from under the “umbrella of protection”) is evil; therefore, submission is righteous.
This idea sounds biblical enough so that to most seminar attendees – who are usually 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 that Gothard’s or our teaching is dangerous, does it?
While this reasoning may 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 upon he builds many of his other teachings
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 through to page 20 in the Basic Seminar Textbook without being alarmed by this trend either: a) shows that person is not very familiar with the Bible; and/or b) that person is 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 submission 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 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 sleight-of-hand than a reference for a biblical principle.
Gothard builds on this by teaching that God had three primary purposes for instituting human authority:
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.”
To prove this 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 He increased with wisdom and stature, and found favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52).
Here Gothard took a story from Luke, designed to illustrate the identity of Christ as the Son of God and Messiah. But in his hands it becomes a story about internal conflict within the Lord Jesus over whether to obey the parental authority of Joseph and Mary, so he can fit it into his system. However, there is nothing in Luke 2:41-52 that even remotely implies that Jesus was struggling with the issues Gothard mentions here. He reads these ideas into the passage, giving unwary readers the impression that they are in the text itself. As illusionists quickly distract their audiences from what they are actually doing, Gothard quickly moves on without providing readers with a verse to back up his assertion.
One might be tempted to argue that Gothard doesn’t realize the theological problems that result from this sleight-of-hand. However, as we met with him on this particular issue we spent several hours walking through his claims which are that Jesus deliberately remained behind in the Temple against what He obviously knew (since He was God) to be his parents’ wishes as His authority. Jesus intentionally chose to get out from under the Umbrella of Protection which is, according to Gothard’s definition is rebellion and this rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. This would mean that even before the boy Jesus had resolved His supposed “inner-conflict,” of getting back under the Umbrella He had already sinned by having chosen to get out from under it to begin with! This, of course, directly contradicts biblical teaching on the sinless nature of Christ. Either Jesus is a sinner or Gothard’s teaching on this is wrong.
The notion that this is a story about Jesus resolving His own internal conflict is also at odds with its climactic scene (which Gothard oddly omits). Luke records this in verses 48-49:
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”
And he said unto them, “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”
Luke’s climax also does not uncover any sort of “inner conflict” Jesus supposedly experienced. On the other hand, Luke portrays Joseph’s and Mary’s inner conflict quite vividly. We can read and re-read this passage countless times, but we’ll never find Gothard’s teachings — however, we may find Luke’s.
Luke is telling a story in narrative form. Narratives are about conflict and resolution. When you read this kind of story (or hear it, or see it in a movie), you can tell what it’s about by following the key players in the conflict. A good storyteller knows how to focus your attention on the conflict to build suspense, so that the conflict’s resolution makes a memorable impact on the readers.
Everyone who has children or young siblings can relate to the terror of losing track of one’s young charge, even for a brief period of time. Joseph and Mary were a full day’s journey away before they realized Jesus was missing (v. 44), and it took them three days to find Him after they made it back to Jerusalem (v. 46)!
Luke supplies these details because this is what the story is about. He wants his readers to ask the same question Joseph and Mary were asking: “Where could Jesus be?” He wants them to feel the same range of emotions any parent would feel, because the lesson for the reader is the same as it was for Joseph and Mary.
How would you know where Jesus is? Answer: by remembering Who He is!
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, at age 12, then it was a scolding He did not deserve. But Gothard’s view assumes He did deserve it, since he had already gotten out from under their “umbrella of authority.”
Fortunately Luke is telling this story instead of Gothard. And as Luke tells it, 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!
So, again, this story has nothing to do with any conflict within Jesus over whether to stay in the temple or go home with His parents. Jesus was not contemplating entering the ministry at age 12! Additionally, since Gothard’s view is that not being in submission is rebellion and therefore sin (it is “as the sin of witchcraft”), we do not see any way for him to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was a sinner, based on his explanation of the passage. According to Gothard’s explanation Jesus had to make the difficult decision of submitting which means He was not submitted under His parents umbrella of protection at that time. By choosing to submit and get back under their authority He would have ceased from His rebellion and sin but the damage would have been done already. He would have been a sinner and therefore unable to save anyone else. Certainly Bill Gothard would never overtly say such a thing, but his mystical understanding of this passage doesn’t leave any apparent escape from this dilemma. When we asked him this question in one of our meetings he was quite befuddled and offered no solution to this conundrum.
Since this is not a story about Jesus making the tough choice to “leave His ministry at the temple” to submit to His parents, neither is it about how His choice to submit was the reason 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. He didn’t write, “Therefore Jesus increased in wisdom and stature…” Luke did not even imply the cause-and-effect relationship between submission to human authority and character development that Gothard forces upon the text. There are many people who have submitted to authority in this way but have not “increased in wisdom and stature,” nor “in favor with God and man” (e.g., the followers of People’s Temple leader Jim Jones, and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh).
Bill Gothard moves on to the story of the centurion yet another attempt to support his idea that obeying “those He has placed over us” is “one of the most basic aspects of faith”? He claims:
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.
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 will 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 authority” (or “umbrella of protection”) 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.
Once again, it is possible that this story could be making Gothard’s point in addition to its main one, but it would have to be obvious in the text, and it is not. Furthermore, if it does teach that God’s kingdom has a similar authority structure to pagan Rome’s, then it contradicts the direct teaching of Christ, Who said,
… The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. (Lu. 22:25-26)
The main point this story as with every story in the Gospels is to highlight for us Who Jesus is! By distracting us with his “authority” teaching, Bill 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, we look for a connection between Gothard’s thesis (“to receive clear direction”) and Gothard’s proof-text (Matt. 8:5-10), but 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 that 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.” This core teaching of Gothard, upon which so much else is built, is not only unbiblical but anti-biblical!