Recently, an old article of mine, “Trapped in the Shadow of ‘God’s Anointed’: Breaking free from an Unbiblical Concept” (MCOI Journal, Volume 8 No. 3, Fall 2002, pp. 12-15) was re-posted by the Recovering Grace (RG) web site, which is devoted to helping people break free from the spiritual bondage caused by the teachings of Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), as well as his Advanced Training Institute (ATI). The mere fact that it was republished there is a bit interesting, since the article does not mention Gothard. Nevertheless, it appears that the RG staff, who have all had involvement in Gothardism, resonated with what it said.
And so did many of those who commented on the article. One of them wrote:
Even as I type this, I have that clammy feeling of being eaten by bears or zapped with lightening [sic] for even questioning the ‘anointing of Mr. Gothard.’
The misappropriation of the biblical term “anointed” by church leaders over the past generation has produced results that do not merely border on lunacy, but are actually the embodiment of it. In most of evangelicalism the lunacy has been more subtle, its chief manifestation being authoritarian and abusive leaders who held themselves above accountability. You know: like Bill Gothard. He did not even need to use the term or refer to the concept in order to leverage the spell it had already cast over vast segments of the church. Like a surfer on a surfboard, he simply rode this example of goofy theology like a wave.
But, of course, the pro-Gothard trolls who visit the RG web site did not waste any time raising objections that the article did not refer to Gothard, and did not demonstrate that he ever claimed to be “anointed.” How, then, can it be relevant? What follows from here is the response (slightly edited) that I gave on the RG web site.
When I wrote this article some twelve years ago, I was not addressing any specific person, church, or organization, but rather I was addressing evangelicalism as a whole on a problem that is common among evangelicals in general. Even so, that does not mean that Bill Gothard was not on my mind when I wrote it.
If Gothard is not a part of evangelicalism, then I suppose you could conclude that nothing in my article applies in any way to him. But last I heard, he has been a “mover and shaker” in evangelicalism since at least the early 1970s, if not earlier. He has been written up in evangelical magazines and has been the subject of evangelical columnists since at least the mid-’70s. I have come across references to him in several evangelical books. The first book about Gothard (to my knowledge) was written by an evangelical Lutheran pastor in 1976 (Gothard, The man and His Ministry: An Evaluation, by Wilfred Bockelman). The sex scandal involving his brother rocked much of the evangelical church in the early ’80s. Given all this it seems hard to believe that he is not aware of common characteristics and tendencies of evangelicalism, since he himself is a product of evangelicalism.
The specific reason I wrote this article is that there is a tendency in wide swaths of the evangelical subculture to unbiblically elevate leaders to a level where it becomes very difficult to hold them accountable. We continue to see news stories about the fallout from this practice today. In some cases this tendency has been woven into the fabric of a given church’s or denomination’s character; it is part of the general ethos that everyone takes for granted. In other cases this idea enters churches when strong, charismatic leaders assume control. In these cases the tendency to elevate the leader has often been introduced through new teaching. In either case, tragedies (or should we say atrocities?) have ensued when savvy individuals take extreme advantage of a pervasive culture that fosters a general willingness to follow. And in many cases throughout much of the 20th century, the expression “Touch not mine anointed!” (1 Chr. 16:22; Psa. 105:15) was frequently used to defend tyrannical leaders. I, for one, remember hearing it cited in discussions about church disputes when I was a new believer back in the late 1970s. The view remains common that pastors and leaders are special “men of God,” a cut above the rest of us. And it is easy to see how such an unbiblical view of authority, promoted by a popular evangelical teacher such as Bill Gothard, and embraced by a large portion of the evangelical church, became an additional support for already-existing authoritarian leadership practices both inside and outside IBLP.
Did Gothard ever apply the words “Touch not mine anointed!” directly to himself? Not as far as I know. But that is beside the point.
For one thing, why should he? Experienced manipulators know that it’s better to have others say good things about you than to say good things about yourself. It keeps you looking both humble an heroic at the same time. The leader who surrounds himself with a crowd of well-trained sycophants not only has an unpaid PR staff, but a team of defenders ready to swing into action at the slightest sign of opposition, quoting verses like “Touch not mine anointed!” as part of their rationale, so Gothard doesn’t have to. Given what I know from firsthand experience in evangelicalism over the past 38 years, I find it difficult to believe that Gothard’s supporters have never quoted it on his behalf.
For another thing, he’s not that stupid. He surely not only knows that he would be exposing himself to well-earned charges of spiritual despotism and unflattering comparisons with Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9) if he actually went on record claiming special anointed status, but he also knows that people are more susceptible to subtle intimidation than they are to its more crude and obvious forms. When a person out-and-out claims to be anointed, he or she runs the risk of looking silly, if not a bit pathetic. It would be far easier to brush off Gothard’s direct claim to being anointed than it has been to ignore some of the things people have reported that he has actually said to them. I’m talking about things like, “Bad things have happened to people who people who have gone up against me … some have lost their businesses … some had spouses die…” Why would a spiritual despot even need to quote 1 Chr. 16:22 when he can simply evoke the fear of the consequences for supposedly breaking it in other people’s minds? And all the while he gives himself plausible deniability that he ever told anyone that he was “special” or “anointed?”
In 1983 Harold L. Busséll wrote a book called Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians. His point for writing it was that there are certain unbiblical emphases in the evangelical subculture that make many evangelicals easy prey for cults. Many evangelicals are taught that accepting Christ and/or living according to Scripture will cause you to be ceaselessly joyful and “victorious” over sin. When some conclude that this is not to be found in their local churches, they come to believe that they have found it in a cult that is able to fake it long enough to suck them in. Other evangelicals are taught to identify all their inner feelings, impulses, and the occasional odd thought that pops into their heads with “the Lord’s leading” (often informing others about it with the words, “the Lord said to me,” instead of describing what they actually experienced), and there are cults that specialize in using that as a hook to reel in unsuspecting Christians. Still other evangelicals are taught that the only leaders worth following are those brimming with blunt, unyielding, and aggressive self-confidence and who “aren’t afraid to offend people” (translation: they are obnoxious revilers), and there are legions of cult leaders with the “spiritual gift of swagger” who act like magnets for people with this view.
Bill Gothard was able to draw people into his vortex because he was “speaking the language” of so many evangelicals who had been poorly taught about so many things, but were particularly ill-informed on the Scriptural view of authority, which is the cornerstone of his propaganda. He knew that there was a strong craving for order and authority in American evangelicalism—especially in the chaotic days of the late ’60s and early ’70s—and he took advantage of it. He built his own little kingdom, his own little spiritual empire, inside of which he harnessed evangelical attitudes, concepts, and buzz-phrases for his own ends. While he may never have directly quoted “Touch not mine anointed!” he has certainly displayed a fondness for the word “anointed” itself, and other things he has said have tended to apply the meaning of those words to himself.
I had already written several articles about Bill Gothard by the time “Trapped in the Shadow of ‘God’s Anointed’” was first published. Our book, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, was in the process of being edited and printed at the time. I was then in the process of turning my thoughts to the currents within evangelicalism that made Bill Gothard and his organization possible. The theme of “Touch not mine anointed!” has been and continues to be one of those currents, so that’s what I wrote about. But even if Gothard never explicitly said that that verse applies to him, he has certainly acted and spoken as if it did. And so have many of his followers.