(This originally appeared in the Winter 2000 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning in page 4)
By Keith Gibson
The ministry of Bill Gothard has unquestionably affected the lives of millions of people. The teachings of his Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) influence the daily decisions in thousands of homes across America, making him one of the most significant religious leaders of this era. Many of his followers give glowing testimonies of changed lives and renewed faith. Others speak of bondage, guilt, and severed relationships. The Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. Journal has taken an extensive look at some of the unique doctrinal characteristics of this ministry. However, what is the impact on the local church? IBLP claims to be an organization committed to helping the local church and pastor. What is the result when a family becomes involved in this ministry? We will briefly examine these questions in this article.
Until recently, I couldn’t have told you much at all about Bill Gothard. Of course, I had heard of him. My understanding led me to believe his teachings tended to be legalistic, but I would not have considered him dangerous. After all, my own denomination has, in the past, been known as much for what we don’t do as any of our doctrinal distinctives. My opinion began to change when one of the families in my church became heavily involved in his ministry, and I was forced to research and confront many of his teachings. Over the last year, I have had several opportunities to share my concerns about this ministry with individuals and families involved with IBLP.
Unfortunately, in an article of this nature and size, I will be forced to deal in generalities. I will be painting with a broad brush. In actuality, each specific situation will be different. The actual impact IBLP makes will vary greatly in each case, depending on many factors. Those churches, that already take a position against such things as contemporary Christian music and other issues of conviction, will find fewer disturbances created by IBLP’s teachings than those churches that do not. Large churches are able to absorb people of vastly differing views more easily than small churches.
Another factor will be the level of involvement in Gothard’s teachings the members pursue. For instance, I have had families in the past who attended seminars, gleaned some helpful information, and never went back, because they felt Gothard’s stands on arbitrary matters were too rigid. The experience of this type of family would be much different than one who attends multiple seminars yearly and begins to use the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) home-school curriculum. Having said all this, there are some common characteristics that should raise a pastor’s concern.
Gothard’s teachings leave virtually no area of life untouched— including clothing, proper diet, hairstyles and beards, music, and even appropriate and inappropriate toys. This can create a problem for Christians who are not involved in IBLP and who are trying to relate to those committed to the IBLP. It is difficult to know how to interact. One is not sure of all the areas that might be offensive. We had an incident where a children’s Sunday School teacher showed an excellent video as a part of the morning’s lesson only to find herself being accused by a child’s mother after church because the opening song was felt to be rock music by the child. Another family asked for prayer regarding a house they were trying to buy and were confronted by a Gothard family asking, “Do you really want to go into debt over a house?” The list of objectionable activities can seem mind boggling to someone not involved in the program. The Gothard family is quickly perceived as different, not in the sense that all Christians are called to be separate from the world, just different.
One of the effects of the Old Testament Law was that it kept Jews isolated from Gentiles by making fellowship difficult. Paul writes of the Law as a wall of separation, when he says:
“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15, NKJV)
Christ Jesus abolished this wall by His death on the cross and has created a new race of people from all those who have accepted His atonement. By encouraging his followers back under selected portions of the Law, as well as other arbitrary rules, Gothard recreates the same difficulty between church members as that which existed between Jews and Gentiles prior to Christ. He is, in a sense, rebuilding the wall Jesus Christ died to destroy! It is difficult for Gothardites to eat, recreate, and socialize with others who are outside of IBLP. For many who are not involved in Gothard’s teaching, it is simply easier to keep their distance from IBLP alumni than to always be guessing about whether they are going to offend them.
Gothard is very dogmatic regarding all of his positions. To disagree with him is, in effect, to disagree with God. For instance, it is his view that Christians who listen to contemporary Christian music are not exercising personal freedom and conviction … they are carnal. Many of his followers develop a similar level of dogmatism. This can create division in the body. Several times I have had a family come to me with an ultimatum declaring that if our church was not going to follow “God’s way” (i.e. IBLP teaching), they would leave the church. I have had this same testimony repeated to me from other pastors as well. In Gothardom, every issue is a test of fellowship.
Gothard’s ministry may leave followers with a false understanding of spirituality. This can occur in at least two ways. One way is that some begin to think holiness is conformity to lists of rules and regulations. This was part of the error of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It is an especially easy trap to fall into. The emphasis is placed on external rather than internal issues. People may perceive themselves to be more spiritual than others in the church based on adherence to dietary regulations, hairstyles, clothing regulations, types of music they listen to, or a host of other issues promoted by Gothard. Paul frequently wrote against the use of an external standard.
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Therefore, 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—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—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.” (Colossians 2:16-17, 20-23)
There is another strain of false spirituality, though, that sometimes is found in Gothard’s ministry. For lack of a better phrase, it is a type of mysticism. Gothard’s mystical tendencies have been addressed in a previous article in the Journal, but let me give an example. At one of the conferences, the story was told of a woman who was so spiritually sensitive that she fainted every time she heard a particular type of rock beat. I have heard this story repeated by multiple followers of IBLP. One of the members of my church was at this conference, heard the story, and was deeply impressed. For some time thereafter, every time she heard a song that had a stronger rhythm than she felt was appropriate, she would feel nauseated. (Apparently, she could not learn how to faint.)
Gothard and his followers frequently speak of the “light in the eyes” the young people under his ministry exhibit, provided they don’t listen to contemporary music. A couple of Scriptures are occasionally twisted to support this. At a conference I attended, Mr. Gothard said essentially, “Jesus said the eye is the light of the body and let your light shine before men.” In a personal correspondence with this author, Mr. Gothard denies he uses these verses to support the “light in the eyes” phenomena. However, he goes on to state, “The light in the eyes is an observable fact.”1
By far the most disturbing problem, though, is a sense of confusion over how the Bible is to be interpreted. Gothard’s poor hermeneutic* technique is well documented in other issues of the Journal and is (for this author) THE ISSUE behind all other problems in his ministry. An individual or family who become heavily involved with IBLP must overlook a series of Scripture abuses. This lack of understanding regarding proper methods of interpretation leaves the follower open to other teachers who mishandle the Word. Many of the techniques used by Gothard are also used by cults and faith teachers. A family who becomes involved in this ministry is ill prepared to counter these false teachers. It is not uncommon, in my experience, to find people involved in Gothard’s program who are also accepting other false teachers as well.
In addition, the followers themselves are often guilty of the same types of misuse of Scripture. There is an old adage, “like begets like and error begets error.” Those who place themselves under the teaching of Bill Gothard have improper Bible study regularly demonstrated to them. This poor use of Scripture can lead to many misapplications and harmful practices in their personal lives.
So What’s A Pastor To Do?
The pastor who attempts to confront Gothardism in the lives of his church members in the hope of returning them to freedom in Christ should be prepared for some powerful obstacles. Since these people claim to have the utmost respect for the Bible, one might think that simply showing them the evidence of misuse of Scripture would be sufficient, but for many this will not be the case. The obstacles to leaving Gothard are similar to those faced by people leaving any other aberrant movement.
One of the first things the pastor will encounter is what I will call the “power of the personna.” Hands down, this is the most common defense to which those involved in IBLP appeal. Bill Gothard presents himself extremely well. His followers are convinced he is one of the most godly, sincere, humble, gracious, you name-it, men who has ever lived. One young lady expressed it this way, “Here is a man who loves people and families so much that he spends every waking moment seeking God’s direction about how to help them.” Though my own dealings with Mr. Gothard are very limited, I must say to his credit, that he comes across as a very likeable, gentle, elderly man. It is a powerful image.
The pastor who attempts to confront Gothard’s errant teaching will very likely find himself being perceived in a negative light. There is a necessary level of argumentation that takes place whenever one disagrees with another teacher’s doctrine or interpretive method. This may very well be perceived by the follower as a personal attack against a man they deeply admire. Moving them beyond personality issues to sincerely examining the scriptural issues can be a difficult and frustrating challenge.
The person attempting to rescue another from Gothard’s entanglement must also be aware that, in the Gothardite’s eyes, you probably don’t measure up to the stature of Gothard. Gothard’s followers, for the most part, only see his public image. He is not on display before their eyes week after week. He does not have any children who can occasionally act up. His seminars abound with illustrations in which he had the right answer, the right discernment, and the right counsel to aid those under his teaching. You will likely find yourself having your human frailty brought into the conversation. Stay the course. Stay with the Scriptures and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a personality comparison.
Another powerful obstacle is the sense of certainty and stability Gothard gives. While many of us might find all the IBLP’s rules and principles stifling, many others will find them psychologically comforting. In a world of uncertainty, apparently here are all the answers.
Here are the foolproof methods to find success in your marriage or job and to raising obedient children who won’t use drugs or become immoral but will, instead, radiate the light of Christ in their eyes. Here are the answers to financial success. And these methods have to work because they are God’s methods. After all, they’re straight from the Bible! Rather than having to train their own senses to discern good and evil in modern issues, they find, in Gothard, a mediator who can deliver to them the opinion of God on these matters.
The flip side of this is the fear that comes with leaving. This is more than just the fear of uncertainty. An undercurrent in much of Gothard’s teaching is a sense that something bad will happen if his principles aren’t followed. His teaching regarding the sins of the parents passing on to the children certainly fits here. It is Gothard’s opinion that children experience direct spiritual consequences for their parent’s sins. The sins of the forefathers must be confessed and acknowledged in order to cleanse oneself from their ramifications. As previously stated, in Gothard’s system, to disagree with him is essentially to disagree with God. Also, there are no areas of personal freedom or conviction. Even something as innocuous as eating white bread is turned into a moral issue of either ignorance or willful disobedience.2 The net result of all this is to make leaving the organization and its rules very difficult. One wonders if he is rebelling against God and what the fallout will be within his family.
Another obstacle is simply the sociological consequences of leaving. Many of these people have family who are involved as well as a close network of relationships formed through the homeschool support groups and other groups within the organization. Add to this the tremendous step of courage needed to admit that one was wrong about an institution to which one has given a great deal of time and money, and you have some difficult issues with which to grapple.
There is no formula that can be followed to help people that guarantees success. However, a few things can be done that may help. Warn people before they become involved. As a minister, I am deeply troubled at the overwhelming silence of the evangelical community with regard to IBLP. I realize there is a hesitancy to take issue publicly with someone who, if one only considers his written statement of faith, would be considered one of us. But is he really? His views on circumcision alone put him outside the pale of orthodoxy and in direct conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture. His unique definitions of key doctrinal terms such as “grace” and “faith” make his statement of faith questionable as well. It is much easier to prevent families from becoming involved than to retrieve them once they are entangled. I say this to my own embarrassment, since I didn’t know enough about Gothard’s ministry to warn one of my own families.
Also, when trying to reach a person involved in IBLP, establish the importance of doctrine. I would suggest walking them through the Pastoral Epistles and highlighting every instance where Paul refers to doctrine. It doesn’t take long to get the idea that God felt it was important. Once it is agreed that a minister has a duty to maintain sound doctrine and to handle the Word of God accurately, take them to the IBLP literature and show them the scriptural abuses. I would suggest starting with Basic Care Bulletin 11. This is the one on circumcision and is one of the worst examples of Bible study I personally have ever seen. The errors are easy to spot and undeniable. I recently shared page five of this study with a Gothard family, and they wept because the misuse was so clear they couldn’t deny it no matter how badly they wanted to.
Lastly, deal with these people the same way you would with anyone else caught in an aberrant movement—patiently and with gentleness. It will take time, love, and especially prayer, but we can see people delivered from a yoke of slavery and brought to the freedom of Christ.Ω
*hermeneutics: The science and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text.
The Journal would like to thank Keith Gibson for his work this issue. Keith has a B.S. in Psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic College and Magna Cum Laude M.A. in Religion from Liberty University.
He has been in the ministry for 15 years, nine as a pastor. He is currently serving as pastor of Word of Life Community Church in Grandview, Mo. He and his wife started the church under the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention nine years ago. He has been married 14 years to Doreen and they have five children.
© 2015, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.
- Personal letter to author from Bill Gothard ↩
- Basic Care Bulletin 2, “How to Greatly Reduce The Risk of Common Diseases,” (Medical Training Institute of America, Rev. 6/91), p 9.
“Throughout history the desire for white bread has motivated men to violate both of these principles either through ignorance or through deliberate disobedience.”
This entire booklet is a discussion on the need for every family to make their own whole wheat bread daily ↩