Mark Twain once wrote, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”1Mark Twain penned this amusing remark in a letter dated December 2, 1887 which he sent to ‘Mrs. Foote’. The letter was reprinted in the ‘Los Angeles Times’ on March 16, 1930. Also, in 1934 a facsimile of the missive appeared in the book ‘When Huck Finn Went Highbrow’ by Benjamin De Casseres, a limited edition with 125 copies.” Garson O’Toole, “All You Need In This Life Is Ignorance and Confidence; Then Success Is Sure,” Quote Investigator, September 5, 2021 We have plenty of evidence that this axiom works. We even have a word for people who live by it on social media: “influencers.”
True, there are influencers who seem to care about actual facts. But in today’s world of instant social media gratification, driven by dopamine hits users get from the numbers of likes on their posts,2“What happens to your brain when you get a like on Instagram,” by Eames Yates, Business Insider, March 25, 2017. facts are often buzzkills.
If you want to breathe the rarified air of the influencers’ Mount Olympus, you need to focus on projecting confidence. One communications/media trainer even has an article titled, “How to speak confidently when you don’t know what you’re talking about…”3Jayne Constantinis, “How to speak confidently when you don’t know what you’re talking about…” March 31, 2021 That’s your ticket!
A Trail of Breadcrumbs
She conveyed a great deal of confidence, for example, on February 9, 2023 when she tweeted that “Bill Gothard had significant influence on…[John] McArthur” and that their association “ran thick.”4https://twitter.com/R_Denhollander/status/1623813536328695809
And she exuded supreme confidence in a series of tweets about a month later, on March 8, 2023, in which she alleged that MacArthur had a “close association with Bill Gothard and IBLP during the Gothard era,” by which she seems to be accurately referring to the 1970s (the decade in which I graduated junior high, abandoned agnosticism for faith in Christ, graduated high school, attended Bible college, and got married).
Megan Basham of The Daily Wire replied to this,
Rachael, could you cite your source on the close connection between MacArthur and Gothard? Everything I’m finding suggests MacArthur has always spoken pretty critically of Gothard. Though honestly I’m not finding much.5https://twitter.com/megbasham/status/1633629802249826306?s=20
And Denhollander responded:
Recovering Grace [a web site devoted to holding Bill Gothard accountable6https://www.recoveringgrace.org/] has some of the photographic evidence, they were closely aligned during that era. I also have first-hand information directly from individuals involved in both ministries at the time. There is much about IBLP’s history that has faded or is not well known anymore.
This raised obvious questions for Basham, who followed up with:
I mean, what kind of photographs? I’m not trying to irritate you, but I’m sure as a lawyer you know that two people in a room together in a photograph doesn’t suggest a close association they could’ve just both been at the same social function.
Photographs in Gothard’s office with evangelical leaders. MacArthur was close enough that in the 80’s when the first scandal broke he pushed for mediation with CLS to try to resolve the claims of abuse. Gothard rejected this, predictably. IBLP has scrubbed a lot. Again TBC…They were certainly not aligned on everything.
So, in addition to claiming MacArthur was closely associated and aligned with Gothard, Denhollander served up the assertion that Recovering Grace (RG) has “photographic evidence,” and she seasoned that with a reference to another allegation concerning MacArthur and the Christian Legal Society (CLS). She also mentioned something about “photographs in Gothard’s office,” but unless she’s talking about his home office (Gothard was terminated from his Institute in Basic Life Principles [IBLP] in 2014), that’s probably going to be the hardest detail to objectively verify.
This was the only trail of breadcrumbs she left back to her alleged source. I must admit I was intrigued.
But before I had a chance to follow the breadcrumbs, a little over three hours after Denhollander referred Basham to Recovering Grace, Christine Pack provided a photograph7https://twitter.com/SolaSisters/status/1633691936497205251 from a different source: a Facebook page called “Without a Crystal Ball” run by Katie Joy Paulson, a.k.a. Katherine Paulson.8Cf. Without a Crystal Ball Facebook Page.
I had never seen the image in Paulson’s tweeted Facebook post before. And while I’d heard of Christine Pack,9She has a long history of attacking John MacArthur on her Twitter account, so much that on February 25, 2023, she felt compelled to tweet, “I don’t hate John MacArthur. In fact, I used to be a huge supporter. Then I read shocking things about him, documented things. They began to pile up till I couldn’t explain them away.” I had no idea who Paulson was or what her Facebook page was all about.10She also has an Instagram account, a YouTube channel, and a website that isn’t nearly as interesting as the other three.
The image, posted on February 10, 2023, is overlaid with text labeling Bill Gothard and John MacArthur along with a caption at the bottom that reads, “John MacArthur & Bill Gothard at a conference at the IBLP’s North Woods Campus.” When I first saw it, I posted a comment seeking more information about the photo, but I never saw a response.
And I discovered this wasn’t the first time Paulson posted this image. It had also turned up in a Facebook post from November 10, 2022, only this time with different labels—one that reads “Gothard” and the other “MacArthur” with corresponding arrows drawn to the image of each man’s head—and a caption that reads, “Bill Gothard & John MacArthur at Institute in Basic Life Principle’s Northwoods Conference Center.”11Without a Crystal Ball, Facebook post dated November 10, 2022.
Since the labels and captions are consistent with Paulson’s unique meme style, and since they used different words for the same background image on separate occasions, I assumed this meant she possessed a copy of the original photo. But I had no idea where the original came from.
“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”
Rod Stewart sang those words in 1971. I don’t think it was his best song, nor do I think its ending refrain is true. Pictures don’t so much tell stories as they illustrate stories people tell. And people frequently use pictures to illustrate what they want you to believe rather than what those pictures actually represent.
So, what story does Paulson want us to believe based on this picture? For starters, according to her November 2022 post, she wants us to believe that while “…MacArthur can’t stand Gothard today…the two pals were quite chummy back in the day”—“so chummy,” in fact, “that MacArthur even travelled to Gothard’s Michigan Conference center for conferences [plural].”
And in her February 2023 post12This post has since been deleted, following Paulson’s correspondence with the photograph’s owner, as explained below. she called the photo, “Receipts for proof that John MacArthur and Bill Gothard ran in the same circles and participated in seminars together.”
The photo proves this, right?
Shared in the context of Rachael Denhollander’s Twitter thread, the image was obviously being used by Pack to provide evidence of Denhollander’s contention that JMac was tight with Billy G. back in “the Gothard era” of the ’70s. The apparent ages, hairstyles, clothing, and style of eyeglasses (cringe: I had a pair just like them!) of those in the picture are consistent with that decade.
But I was reminded of another song from the ’70s—one I actually liked—in which Ringo Starr sang, “All I got is a photograph,” because this photograph was the only tangible evidence I had to go on at this point, even considering Denhollander’s reference to CLS—just one single photo. And unlike Ringo, I had no idea what the photo I was looking at meant other than that, at some point in time, Bill Gothard and John MacArthur were in the same room together.
MacArthur & Friends? Gothard & Friends?…
But notice who hasn’t been mentioned so far. Did you get a good look at the photo?
According to how Paulson, Pack, and apparently Denhollander frame this “photographic evidence,” its significance centers on the alleged relationship between Gothard and MacArthur. But are they really central to the story this picture “tells?”
For me, at first sight, this picture tells a different story. Maybe it’s just because I’m as old as the first seasons of The Twilight Zone, The Bullwinkle Show, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and because for me the ’70s sometimes seem like 20 minutes ago, but I can’t help but notice that those now using it seem to completely ignore the fact that someone far more famous among Christians at that time was in the room, commanding everyone’s attention.
The first thing I notice when I look at it is that at the moment the photo was taken, Gothard’s gaze was fixed squarely on Joni Eareckson,13It turns out, she hadn’t yet met her future husband, Ken Tada, when this photo was taken. as no doubt everyone else’s was. That guy behind her wheelchair was merely basking in her reflected glory.
And why not? She was the only one in the room who had been interviewed by Barbara Walters on The Today Show (in 1974).14“An Unlikely Beginning,” by Joni Eareckson Tada, July 23, 2019. She was the only one in the room who had a bestselling autobiography, Joni: The Unforgettable Story, which her publisher solicited as a result of the Walters interview (1976).15The updated version of the book is available on Amazon. And she was the only one in the room who starred in an autobiographical feature film, Joni (1979).16Cf. Joni, at IMDB.
All that on top of probably being the only one in the room who could create beautiful, marketable paintings using a paintbrush held between her teeth. And she could really sing, too!17“Joni’s Song,” on Amazon.
But then, I wouldn’t expect those who weren’t even born yet to understand that Joni was the real celebrity in the room. Gothard had much more to gain from (feigning?) a close association with Joni than some what’s-his-name pastor hardly anyone outside the L.A. area would recognize until sometime in the ’80s.
For all us Boomers and our parents, Joni would have been the big deal, although if her pastor wanted to tag along, I suppose we’d have given him a listen. I’m sure her awesome coolness would have rubbed off on him enough for that.
Looking back on it, while I realize our generations were responsible for destroying the planet and everything, still: conveniently omitting this part of the historical context in order to craft a narrative feels like an ageist microaggression to me. Shouldn’t I be deeply and profoundly wounded…or something?
A long time ago in an evangelical galaxy far, far away…
So, was MacArthur a mercenary for the evil Gothardite Empire, or was he really Princess Joni’s biblical Jedi knight? Has the truth behind this photo been lost to the mists of time? How was I ever going to find out why those three were in the same room in the days before the Light Sermon™ became an elegant weapon for a more civilized age? Is there some kind of Millennium Falcon I can hitch a ride on to look for these answers?
I know literally everyone in the picture is still alive, but I surely couldn’t just pick up the phone and call JMac or Joni and ask them, could I? And for some reason, calling Billy G. didn’t seem like the wisest course of action—even though (or more accurately, because of the fact that) he’s the one I’ve met with face-to-face at least four times and have had numerous phone calls and email exchanges with. No, not gonna go there. I don’t think I’d get the straight dope from him.
But it wasn’t like I was without options.
As many of you know, my good friends Don and Joy Veinot and I wrote a book together titled, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life.18Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Ron Henzel, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, (Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., 2003) on Amazon. For the most part, since I was working on my M.A. in Biblical Studies and had our Gothard library stored at my house at the time, I handled the biblical and theological portions and Don and Joy handled the narrative parts. And this worked great because Don is a consummate networker.
Legend has it that one day Don was in Rome chatting with the pope and everyone was saying, “Who is that guy?” And someone said, “I don’t know who that guy in white is, but the guy next to him is Don Veinot.” If everyone on this planet has six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, I’m pretty sure most evangelicals have no more than one or two from Don. He’s met, like, half of everybody.
He knows people. And he knows people who know people. Some of them, Don had already introduced me to.
I Know a Guy
One of the people Don interviewed for our book was Larne Gabriel. From January 1, 1979 through June 30, 1980, Larne was employed by Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), which was later renamed the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
His job? Larne co-piloted Gothard’s own Millennium Falcon, a Lear 35A Jet, alongside his boss, pilot Lin Entz. (I won’t say he played Chewbacca to Lin’s Hans Solo, because I’ve already used too many Star Wars references—and Larne looks nothing like a Wookie.)
Larne was also the main pilot for IBYC’s/IBLP’s MU-2J turbo-prop airplane. During his 18 months with the Institute, Larne flew 455 of his 27,259 career flight hours. Those 455 flight hours included 127 trips to the Institute’s Northwoods Conference Center in Watersmeet, Michigan.
But that wasn’t Larne’s only connection to Gothard. He’d attended his first Basic Seminar in 1972 and after the first Gothard sex scandal erupted in 1980, Larne married one of the primary victims of that scandal, Gothard’s former secretary, Ruth Dessell, who left the Institute that year along with Larne. They had two children together.
Sadly, Ruth passed away from breast cancer in 1994. The Recovering Grace web site features an article Larne wrote titled, “Ruth’s Story.”19“Ruth’s Story,” by Larne Gabriel, February 12, 2014, Recovering Grace.
In the process of writing our book in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Don consulted extensively with Larne. By that time, the 1980 sex scandal was a distant memory for most people and the later charges against Gothard were still years away from surfacing. We covered the scandal in our book, but it wasn’t our primary focus.
We chose instead to focus on whether Gothard lived by his own teachings, whether those teachings are biblical, and how Gothard’s teachings and behavior afffected other people. We concluded that his teachings did not produce the spiritual fruit he advertised because they are not found in Scripture.
Because of all this, and since Larne’s children were still fairly young, neither Ruth’s story nor Larne’s name appear in our book. But Larne was the first person I thought of when trying to figure out where this photo came from.
I called Larne and described the photo to him. Could he recall any time when he saw Gothard, MacArthur, and Joni in the same room together at the Northwoods Conference Center (NCC) as this photo depicts?
Yes, he remembered a time when they were all together at the NCC. So, whatever I saw in that photo actually happened.
How does he know? He flew both Joni and JMac to the event—which kinda’ figures, when you think about it.
According Larne’s log, on August 31, 1979, Larne and Lin Entz picked up Joni at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in the Institute’s Lear Jet and flew her up to the NCC, landing on the strip adjacent to the main building, which has a hangar. He also recalls flying MacArthur to the same event but at a different time.
So, not only do I know a guy, but I know a guy who was there.
Could he find a record of him flying MacArthur? Well, no. When it came to passengers, he only recorded the names of Gothard, staff members, and “VIPs.” Sorry, John: you weren’t on Larne’s VIP list in 1979.
But Joni sure was! Larne’s mom was really excited when she heard her son would be flying her. She’d been a huge fan ever since Barbara Wawa (not meant as an insult—just an affectionate ’70s SNL/Gilda Radner reference designed to trigger millennials) interviewed Joni on The Today Show. Now he could show his mom the flight record!
It was fun getting to know Larne. What I learned in my first of several long calls to him was that in addition to being a pilot, a World War 2 history buff, someone with connections to Gothard’s seminars going back to 1972, and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, is that he knows a thing or two about photography.
“Ya’ know, I remember taking photos of that event,” Larne told me over the phone.
The event he was referring to was the Institute’s annual Labor Day staff retreat, a fun time for Institute families to get away and recharge their batteries before going back to work on the fall season of seminars. And one of the many fun things they did—in addition to volleyball, horseback riding, boating, and what-not—was hear from guest speakers.
“The thing is, I have all those photos on slides, and so I have to scan them before I can send them to you.”
The next day, he texted me the first one he scanned.
“Ron is this the photo?”
I had not yet sent Larne a copy of Paulson’s meme photo. I found the fact that he bull’s-eyed it on his first try within 24 hours quite impressive.
Uh, yeah: it was the photo—the exact photo found in the meme, but the uncropped, original version which Larne had brightened up a bit with his software because he thought it was too dark. So, it probably wasn’t the same exact copy Paulson used, since that one was darker.
The version of the image I received also showed artifacts from the scanning process: thin red lines at the top and bottom and parts of the slide’s frame above and below those lines. These features may not have been included in whatever version Paulson had in her possession, nevertheless, all these details helped to establish Larne as the source of the photo.
The photo also shows that this was definitely not one of Gothard’s seminars. They were in a room at the recently-completed NCC that wasn’t usually used for formal gatherings. The partially-opened windows behind them show a beautiful, forested, late-summer day. Everyone’s dressed semi-casually, not in standard seminar apparel.
In fact, one of the first things I’d noticed when I first saw Paulson’s version in early March was Gothard’s clothing. I’ve spent a lot of hours with him and seen countless photos of him, but until that moment, I’d never seen him not wearing a blue suit. Here he was wearing a sweater—and no tie? Initially, I wondered whether his head had been photoshopped onto someone else’s body.
In the sea of online Gothard images, this is perhaps the most unusual. But how did Paulson get it?
One thing was clear: the photo was Larne’s intellectual property and Paulson did not have permission to use it. Larne contacted Paulson by email, explained this to her, and requested she remove it from her Facebook page.
Larne forwarded the text of his email exchange with her to me. On March 30, 2023, she responded to Larne’s request as follows:
I was provided the photo by admins of the Recovering Grace website. Many of them worked for the IBLP & were very clear that MacArthur & Gothard were around each other more than once. The photo used is with their permission. I was also given insight into the relationship between Gothard and MacArthur. Nothing is inaccurate that the two were at a conference. Thank you.
Just to be clear, I did not give permission for them to share it outside of the intended purpose. Please remove my photo from your site.
In the ensuing back-and-forth, Paulson expressed perplexity over why Larne was bothered by her use of his image. She wrote, “I did not misrepresent the situation and your photo has been shared online in many places.”
“Many places?” Really? I’ve done image searches on Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and some others, but I haven’t found it—including on the Recovering Grace web site—although I don’t believe those search results would include private Facebook pages. And you’d think that someone who was actually there, as Larne was, and produced the image in the first place would know whether she was misrepresenting the situation it depicts.
In any case, Larne replied:
Since you acknowledged that Recovering Grace (RG) provided the photo it is evident that you made the meme. I own the photo and feel your meme strongly misrepresents the intent of the photo and why I shared it with RG. I am insisting you remove it from your sites. RG did not have my permission to share it outside its internal intended use.
After she quibbled over the definition of “meme” and told Larne she had archived the image on Instagram, Larne reiterated his demand that she delete the image completely, indicating “RG did not have my permission to share it outside its internal intended use.”
She was clearly displeased about it, but she did remove the Facebook post from February 10, 2023. As of this writing, however, she has not removed her earlier Facebook post with the image from November 10, 2022. I would hope that she would complete her acquiescence to Larne’s legitimate request by deleting all her copies.
Now, my question was: assuming her claim was accurate, who at Recovering Grace sent it to her?
All Smoke, No Gun?
My next step was to contact the admin team of the Recovering Grace (RG) web site with the photo. I had already conducted searches of their site and had not found any images of MacArthur, let alone “photographic evidence” of a relationship between him and Gothard.
Over the following couple of days, after they told me that they had no record of ever receiving the photo, and that they “went through the team email and Facebook messages” they told me they “don’t have any correspondence between us and Katie Joy / Katherine / Crystal Ball. We couldn’t remember giving permission to use the photo and don’t see any correspondence either.”
So, after several message exchanges with them, and email, text, and phone exchanges with Larne, at this point I was left with a mystery. We know Larne sent photos to RG nine years ago; some of them are on the web site. But was this one of them?
In her first Facebook post, Paulson said she received the photo from “A former follower of Bill Gothard who then left the IBLP to follow John MacArthur – then Abandoned both…” In her second (now deleted) Facebook post, she said it was sent to her by “an IBLP survivor and victim of Bill Gothard.” In neither post did she mention Recovering Grace, nor did I find any reference to RG in the comments of the remaining post.
This raises a question: why did Denhollander indicate that “photographic evidence” of a close Gothard-MacArthur connection during “the Gothard era” was available through RG when (a) RG has no such photos on its website, (b) their admins have no records of receiving (let alone sending anyone) such photos, (c) the only such “photographic evidence” was posted on Paulson’s Without a Crystal Ball accounts, and (d) the first time (as far as I can tell) RG was connected to that “evidence” was in a private email from Paulson to Larne?
Did Denhollander get this idea directly from Paulson, like Larne did?
When Agent K grabbed a stack of tabloid newspapers in Men in Black (1997) and Agent J said, “These are the hot sheets?” and K responded, “Best investigative journalism on the planet,” that was satire. I wish I could say Paulson’s sites were.
Memories, pressed between the web pages of my mind…21Apologies to Elvis Presley, and his songwriters, Mac Davis and Billy Strange.
More than 20 years after we wrote our book, many of those we interviewed concerning the first Gothard sex scandal that erupted publicly in 1980 are still with us, still in contact with us, and their memories remain intact. Former staff from those tumultuous times have held periodic reunions over the years, and they heard rumors that MacArthur supported Gothard, but they didn’t confirm that with him or his church.
One former staff person whose name made it into our book is Tony Guhr,22A Matter of Basic Principles, 56ff. who in the ’70s served as emcee for video seminars held in Gothard’s absence and who conducted an internal investigation of sexual wrongdoing and presented his findings to the IBYC board on May 13, 1980.
Tony confirms that guest speakers were often brought in to speak at staff retreats and chapels, not because they were supporters of the Institute, but because they had name recognition in evangelical circles. For example, Theodore Epp (1907-1985), the popular founder of Back to the Bible, spoke at the 1978 Labor Day staff retreat. I used to listen to his radio program and don’t recall a single time he taught Gothard’s unique doctrines.
Agreement with Gothard was not a prerequisite for being invited, and this resulted in some interesting encounters between him and his guest speakers.
One year, a personal friend of mine, Richard Owen Roberts of International Awakening Minsitries,23“About,” International Awakening Ministries web site. His friends call him Dick. Dick and I used to attend the same church together in the ’90s. was invited to speak in a series of staff chapels, but about half way through the series Gothard sent a staff member to tell Roberts he couldn’t continue unless he shaved off his beard. This led to a confrontation in which Roberts told Gothard, “The problem with you, Bill, is that you elevate your personal opinions to the level of Scripture.” Tony and I both heard this account directly from Roberts on separate occasions. He never spoke at an Institute event again. And last I heard, he still has a beard.
According to Tony, sometime around ’78 or ’79, theologian Charles Ryrie (1925-2016) spoke at some weekend staff chapels, but before he did, Gothard had Tony fly down to Dallas and personally deliver a copy of his Advanced Seminar Textbook to Ryrie for his review. Perhaps he was trying to make an impression. Well, he did. Understandably, after reading it Ryrie decided to speak on the topic of law and grace.
On the last day of those chapels, during a question-and-answer time, Tony asked Ryrie how he would characterize someone who taught that Christians should neither eat pork nor raise pork for others to eat. He had a reason for asking that: he was from a family of hog farmers and Gothard had put pressure on Tony to convince them to abandon that business because he teaches that the Old Testament prohibition of pork still applies to Christians. Ryrie responded that he would characterize such a person as “a false teacher.” Gothard was sitting in the front row. He was not pleased.
I suppose if someone today has photos of any of these events, they could scan and upload them as “photographic evidence” of these men’s “close associations” with Gothard. They could make memes out of them to let everyone know they were “pals” who “were quite chummy back in the day.”
But then, they would be lying.
Who did the “pushing?”
This leaves one final allegation made by Denhollander: “MacArthur was close enough that in the 80’s when the first scandal broke he pushed for mediation with CLS [Christian Legal Society] to try to resolve the claims of abuse.”
The evidence that’s been freely available on the Recovering Grace (RG) website since 2014 tells a different story. MacArthur’s name doesn’t come up in the context of the scandal until well over a year after it broke. And when it did, it wasn’t he who was doing the “pushing.”
On November 2, 1981, Samuel E. Ericsson wrote the following to Bill Gothard on CLS letterhead:
On a visit to Grace Community Church a few weeks ago, John MacArthur shared with me some material sent to him regarding some concerns with respect to the Institute. In view of the fact that possible litigation was contemplated, I suggested to John that he refer the concerned parties to the Christian Legal Society, in particular its Christian Conciliation Service (CSS).24A copy of this letter was obtained from “Rebuffed Are the Peacemakers,” March 18, 2014, Recovering Grace.
So, it wasn’t a case of MacArthur pushing anything; he was simply trying to get something someone sent him off his desk, and Ericsson, who was a former member of his church in town to pay a visit, helped him out.
But who was that someone?
If one takes the time to carefully examine the documentation on RG, it becomes apparent that the one who was pushing for this, along with any other measures to hold Gothard accountable, was Tony Guhr’s uncle, Gerald Wiebe,25See the links under the heading, “Original Letters and Documents,” particularly the ones labeled, “A (rather humorous and pointed) letter from Gerald Wiebe, Tony’s uncle, to Gothard,” and “A brief note showing that Wiebe had already been pushing Gothard for an independent examination of the IBYC ministry, and that letters to that effect had been exchanged,” in “The Agent of Satan,” June 4, 2014, Recovering Grace. who was copied on Ericsson’s letter.
After discussing this with Larne, Tony, and Gothard’s former seminar administrator, and participant in the lawsuit against Gothard in the early ’80s, Bill Wood, with whom I also spoke at length, our consensus is that perhaps the person most likely to have sent MacArthur the “material” to which Ericsson refers was Wiebe. If anything, the ex-staffers caught up in the dispute and later lawsuit against Gothard were disappointed over the lack of involvement they saw in high profile pastors like MacArthur.26I also spoke with David Henke, founder of Watchman Fellowship, who wrote a paper titled, “A Summary Report: Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles,” in which he said, “When efforts at accountability and reconciliation were frustrated, Rev. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church recommended that the Christian Legal Society be invited to provide impartial arbitration through its Christian Conciliation Service.” He informed me that he based this statement on second-hand information he came across in his research. The full text of his paper is available at “Four Pre-Digital Reviews of Gothard’s Theology,” May 20, 2014, Recovering Grace.
Which leaves one remaining loose end to tie up…
MacArthur Takes My Questions
After working on this for several days and having gathered quite a bit of information, it occurred to me that there was one person I really needed to hear from. Had anyone bothered to check with the subject of their rumors, gossip, and innuendos, based entirely on a single misappropriated photo? (I think there might be something in the Bible about that.)
I asked Don Veinot to contact Phil Johnson at Grace to You to see if he would pass on my questions to John MacArthur. Phil promptly replied in the affirmative and a few hours later I emailed him my questions.
The following afternoon, Phil wrote back:
John came in to record this morning, and I asked him your questions. Since he was in the studio, we simply recorded his replies.…I’ll get that segment of the recording and send it to you. You are free to quote verbatim and publish any of John’s replies.
Later that evening, Phil sent me a nearly 9-minute audio recording of him asking my questions to MacArthur and MacArthur responding. I made a transcript of it which I copied him and others on. What follows is the relevant portion of that transcript (nearly 7 minutes of the recording):
Phil Johnson: So, Rachael Denhollander and her husband have been persistent in insisting [that] no, there’s a long-term tie between John MacArthur and Bill Gothard. So, somebody sent in this picture of you with Joni and Gothard. Let me read it to you.
John MacArthur: That’s the only time I was ever with him.
Johnson: Yeah, I know that. I know that.
MacArthur: And I had to carry her down the stairs.
Johnson: He had you there to speak to his staff, as I recall.
MacArthur: Mm-hmm. It wasn’t one of his seminars.
Johnson: So, Ron Henzel says, “I’ve spoken to two individuals who were present when the photo was taken: Larne Gabriel, who was Gothard’s pilot, who took the original photograph, and Tony Guhr, a former staff member for Gothard. They confirm that this was simply an informal staff retreat over Labor Day in 1979 at which Joni and Pastor MacArthur were guest speakers. Larne says he piloted the plane, which,” he said, “transported John MacArthur’s kids because Tony took them fishing.” Does any of that sound—?—I don’t ever remember details that far back.
Anyway, so he has a few questions. Number one: do you recall the details of the 1979 retreat?
MacArthur: Yeah, some of them.
Johnson: Talk about that. What actually happened?
MacArthur: Yeah, I was asked, along with Joni Erickson Tada, to speak to their staff. It wasn’t one of his Basic Youth Conflict things, which is what he called those—
MacArthur: —conferences, but to speak to the staff. So, Joni and I went and did that. I remember carrying her, physically in my arms, down the staircase in this retreat center that they had.
Two things stand out to me, there. One was a conversation with Bill Gothard’s father. And I said to him, in a private conversation—we were in a car going somewhere—I said, “What do you believe about eternal security? What do you believe about salvation? Can you lose your salvation, or it is eternal life?”
And he said, “Well, no, you can’t lose your salvation.” And then he followed that immediately by saying, “Once you’re born you can’t be unborn.”
And that was my introduction to a system where everything they believe was predicated on an analogy. Whether you can be born again physically has nothing to do with the theology of salvation. You could—if you wanted to say you could lose your salvation you could come up with another analogy that would cause you to believe you could lose it. Everything [that] was in their system—their entire system was built on that: birds, and animals, and all these endless analogies.
And we were walking by this pen of Canadian geese, and I asked Bill about divorce—we were talking about divorce, because they had divorce, no time ever for anybody—and he said, “The reason we believe that is, well, take a look at those Canadian geese. We clip their wings. We clip their wings and they stay right here. If we didn’t clip their wings, they’d all fly away. So, you can’t give people any means by which they can exit a marriage.”
So, this is another classic illustration of the way they did everything. Nothing was really exegetical or expositional; it was all analogical. And they would pick whatever illustration gave them the point they wanted to make.
So, I think that was the big lesson, and of course at that point I realized that this was in some ways sub-Christian, because it wasn’t based upon Scripture.
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah, in fact, when I came here in ’83, one of the things I asked you about during our first weeks here was your opinion on Gothard, and you were pretty clear, by 1983, you didn’t affirm him in any way.
Johnson: And you told me that story about the Canadian geese.
MacArthur: Yeah, we never promoted any of his seminars. Once I met him and saw the reality of how they formulated their convictions, you know, I could see this is problematic. And of course, then, as time went on, I had no relationship to him whatsoever, after that one event. And until this day today I’ve had not even a conversation with him.
“Did members of Grace Church attend the Basic Seminar in the ’70s or ’80s, and if so, did Grace Church encourage it, discourage it, or simply remain neutral?”
MacArthur: Yeah, we did not—we were not partnering with them in any way.
Johnson: And did you ever attend a Gothard seminar? You’ve already answered that, too, I think.
MacArthur: Yeah, no, I think there was one in Long Beach one time, and I remember going there for one session. But they lasted for days, so I never sat through the whole seminar.
Johnson: Were you familiar with what was in his red notebook?
MacArthur: Well, some of it. You know, yeah, the idea that you do what your parents tell you, and he had drawings of a hammer and a nail, and, you know, your parents were the hammer and you were the nail, and you went the way they wanted you to go. Some of those things were commonly known to people. You always obeyed your parents no matter what the circumstances were.
That’s All, Folks! Well, just about…
The main reason I contacted Bill Wood was because Larne thought that if anyone knew whether MacArthur had been at a seminar, he would. As Larne put it, “at the seminars, everyone knew Bill [Wood] was in charge.” He oversaw all the logistics.
I didn’t realize that by the time I called him, I would have already heard in MacArthur’s own (recorded) voice that he attended one session in Long Beach. But why, I wondered, would someone attend just one session of a six-day seminar after paying for the whole week?
It turns out that he wouldn’t have had to pay for it if it was a one-day ministers’ seminar, which were held in advance of the regular seminars and were used by the Institute to promote them—and they were free.
By now it seems more than obvious that MacArthur was at the 1979 IBYC Labor Day staff retreat primarily because he was Joni Eareckson’s pastor, not because he had any relationship to Gothard, especially not that of one of Gothard’s follower.
While not an unknown pastor in the L.A. area, he didn’t yet have the national name recognition someone like Theodore Epp or Charles Ryrie or especially Joni had at that time. According to Grace to You’s website, his sermons only started to be broadcast outside of California in 1977, and then, “seemingly by accident.”27“The Ministry,” Grace to You. I don’t recall hearing his sermons in the Chicago area until the ’80s. The big draw in 1979 would have been Joni.
While saddened that I found this necessary, I’m deeply grateful to Phil Johnson and John MacArthur for the cooperation they showed in assisting me as I sought to follow the principles Scripture teaches for dealing with what was once referred to as talebearing. And I truly enjoyed the time I spent interviewing Larne Gabriel, Tony Guhr, and Bill Wood, without whom this article wouldn’t have been possible, and Larne’s photos were especially helpful. They brought back memories of a time when it seemed professing Christians on the whole were more careful about avoiding potential involvement in slander and libel. Gothard and others like him who were “influencers” of their day but have since fallen obviously took advantage of that. But by casting off restraint, ignoring facts, evidence, and due process to advance a narrative the way some of today’s Christian “influencers” are is proving to be just as disturbing, and perhaps more so.Ω
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|↑1||Mark Twain penned this amusing remark in a letter dated December 2, 1887 which he sent to ‘Mrs. Foote’. The letter was reprinted in the ‘Los Angeles Times’ on March 16, 1930. Also, in 1934 a facsimile of the missive appeared in the book ‘When Huck Finn Went Highbrow’ by Benjamin De Casseres, a limited edition with 125 copies.” Garson O’Toole, “All You Need In This Life Is Ignorance and Confidence; Then Success Is Sure,” Quote Investigator, September 5, 2021|
|↑2||“What happens to your brain when you get a like on Instagram,” by Eames Yates, Business Insider, March 25, 2017.|
|↑3||Jayne Constantinis, “How to speak confidently when you don’t know what you’re talking about…” March 31, 2021|
|↑8||Cf. Without a Crystal Ball Facebook Page.|
|↑9||She has a long history of attacking John MacArthur on her Twitter account, so much that on February 25, 2023, she felt compelled to tweet, “I don’t hate John MacArthur. In fact, I used to be a huge supporter. Then I read shocking things about him, documented things. They began to pile up till I couldn’t explain them away.”|
|↑10||She also has an Instagram account, a YouTube channel, and a website that isn’t nearly as interesting as the other three.|
|↑11||Without a Crystal Ball, Facebook post dated November 10, 2022.|
|↑12||This post has since been deleted, following Paulson’s correspondence with the photograph’s owner, as explained below.|
|↑13||It turns out, she hadn’t yet met her future husband, Ken Tada, when this photo was taken.|
|↑14||“An Unlikely Beginning,” by Joni Eareckson Tada, July 23, 2019.|
|↑15||The updated version of the book is available on Amazon.|
|↑16||Cf. Joni, at IMDB.|
|↑17||“Joni’s Song,” on Amazon.|
|↑18||Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Ron Henzel, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, (Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., 2003) on Amazon.|
|↑19||“Ruth’s Story,” by Larne Gabriel, February 12, 2014, Recovering Grace.|
|↑20||Feast your eyes on her Without a Crystal Ball website, Facebook page, Instagram page, and YouTube channel.|
|↑21||Apologies to Elvis Presley, and his songwriters, Mac Davis and Billy Strange.|
|↑22||A Matter of Basic Principles, 56ff.|
|↑23||“About,” International Awakening Ministries web site. His friends call him Dick. Dick and I used to attend the same church together in the ’90s.|
|↑24||A copy of this letter was obtained from “Rebuffed Are the Peacemakers,” March 18, 2014, Recovering Grace.|
|↑25||See the links under the heading, “Original Letters and Documents,” particularly the ones labeled, “A (rather humorous and pointed) letter from Gerald Wiebe, Tony’s uncle, to Gothard,” and “A brief note showing that Wiebe had already been pushing Gothard for an independent examination of the IBYC ministry, and that letters to that effect had been exchanged,” in “The Agent of Satan,” June 4, 2014, Recovering Grace.|
|↑26||I also spoke with David Henke, founder of Watchman Fellowship, who wrote a paper titled, “A Summary Report: Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles,” in which he said, “When efforts at accountability and reconciliation were frustrated, Rev. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church recommended that the Christian Legal Society be invited to provide impartial arbitration through its Christian Conciliation Service.” He informed me that he based this statement on second-hand information he came across in his research. The full text of his paper is available at “Four Pre-Digital Reviews of Gothard’s Theology,” May 20, 2014, Recovering Grace.|
|↑27||“The Ministry,” Grace to You.|