There is a cost, very often a high cost, exacted by false teachers in the lives of their followers. Lives can be crushed. Often people are badly damaged spiritually and almost always emotionally devastated by authoritarian leaders in whom they have put their faith. Pastors and elders are charged with guarding and protecting the flock from predators that creep in from outside the church, or perhaps worse, arise from within (Acts 20:28-30), but too often, the wolf sneaks past the guard without being seen for the danger they are. The late Dr. Walter Martin used to say, “cults are the unpaid bills of the church.”
We were painfully reminded of the harm and damage that can be done to spiritually ravaged sheep by authoritarian predators as we watched the four-part series, “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets”1Amazon Originals; Directors: Julia Willoughby Nason, Olivia Crist; Producers: Michael Gasparro, Blye Pagon Faust, Cori Shepherd Stern, Jody McVeigh-Schultz, Julia Willoughby Nason, Olivia Crist; Starring: Jill Duggar on its release date, Friday, June 2.2“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” is an Amazon Original and if you have an Amazon Prime subscription can view it free. Also, it can be watched with a 30-day free trial There wasn’t a story told that we had not heard from people who had experienced the same treatment over the past quarter century, as we have ministered to people victimized by Gothardism. One of the directors/Producers, Olivia Crist, called and emailed us numerous times while they were producing the series. She and others on her team read our book, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life.3It is also available on Amazon.com and had also been in contact with our friends at Recovering Grace. We were not interviewed for this series, but one of the things we were able to point out to the producers is that although Bill Gothard has unfortunately had great access to Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches, he is neither an Evangelical nor a Fundamentalist. In the opening episode titled “Meet the Duggars,” Brooke, one of the women that was interviewed, said something very similar:
The IBLP teachings aren’t Christianity, they’re something entirely different.4“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets; S1 E1 Meet the Duggars, 02:52
She is correct, but if Gothardism does not represent true Christianity, how can it be classified? What is it? Gothard cites Bible passages, and speaks “Christianese,” and sadly, many Christians have attended his seminars over the years. IBLP claims over 2.5 million people have attended Gothard’s seminars, most of them from Christian churches. We have often stated that Christians are not somehow immune to deception. As Jesus Himself warned, we all must be on guard for false teachers and false prophets, who come to us in sheep’s clothing, disguised as Christian teachers. People can be too trusting, which is why we are warned numerous times in scripture to evaluate what someone is teaching, not his or her outward appearance. Many people have been hurt by Bill Gothard’s teaching, including far too many unwary Christians.
We pointed out to Olivia Crist what we demonstrated in our book – If one does not fully understand Bill Gothard’s core foundational teaching, one won’t understand why it has had such a negative impact on his followers. His foundational teaching, which informs everything else, is his “umbrella of authority” doctrine. The “umbrella” icon featured prominently in the series, but its origins or how it wields its power over his followers is not addressed.
Bill Gothard is a mystic and a religious eclectic. He eschews studying the Bible in its historical-grammatical context and instead claims he memorizes large portions of Scripture and waits for God to give him the rhemas5Rhema: rhema at times called “spoken word,”  referring to the revelation received by disciples when the Holy Spirit “speaks” to them a purportedly inspired inerrant meaning of the text. We can see how much power over people this would give him. A supposedly inspired meaning of a text cannot be checked by anything as mundane as making sure to read the Bible in its context. It is a sort of Bibliomancy, an occultic misuse of the scriptures to obtain their meaning by a mystical influx supposedly. Very often, the meaning he derives is not at all connected to the text in its historical-grammatical context but very conveniently seems to support Gothard’s very unbiblical ideas.
On the first night of the first basic seminar, Bill Gothard explains that authority is an “umbrella of protection.” Those who stay under their “umbrella of protection,” the dictates of their alleged “authority figure,” will be protected from temptation and life’s troubles, etc., and they will prosper. On the other hand, if they get out from under their umbrella of protection, they are in rebellion, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. To imbue this teaching with supposed biblical authority and scare people into unwarranted submission, Gothard quotes a portion of 1 Samuel 15:23, as you might guess, out of context:
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (KJV)
In the context of 1 Samuel 23, Samuel is addressing King Saul for his flagrant disobedience to specific instructions he had received from the Lord. Gothard’s tying these together creates what we might call the “authority prosperity gospel.” If you stay under your authority, you will be blessed beyond your expectations. On the other hand, if you get out from under Gothard’s imagined “umbrella of protection,” you are in rebellion, which is as bad as the sin of witchcraft. Your punishment will be personal pain, and your life will lack prosperity.
In an effort to make the umbrella teaching sound biblical to his audience, Bill uses the story of the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13:
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.6Bill Gothard (instructor), Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 20 as quoted in A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, Don Veinot, Joy Veinot and Ron Henzel, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc 2003, p 106
Here is a multiple-choice quiz for our readers. Is the point of the above passage to teach:
A) that God’s kingdom is structured around a chain of responsibility/umbrella of protection? OR
B) to teach Who Jesus is, that He is God and can heal long distance?
Answer “A” would be in direct contradiction to the Lord’s own words to the Apostles, to whom He had given authority to sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28) when He said:
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26)
Another major problem with Gothard’s umbrella teaching – as borrowed from First Century Roman authoritarian practice – is his example of Jesus as a child. Gothard takes the story of the 12-year-old Jesus who remained behind when his family and their caravan left for home. (Luke 2:41-52) When his parents returned frantically looking for Him, according to Gothard, Jesus had to make the “tough decision” to get back under his parent’s umbrella of protection.
The first time we met with Gothard in his office, we verified each step of his umbrella teaching and his story of Jesus having to make this “tough decision.” We pointed out that if Jesus had to decide to get back under his parent’s umbrella of protection, that necessarily implies He had gotten out from under it, to begin with. If Gothard’s teaching is correct, Jesus was in rebellion against His authority – and rebellion such as this is as the sin of witchcraft, according to Gothard. So, either Gothard’s teaching is wrong, OR Jesus is a sinner. After a few minutes of silence, Gothard simply stated his teaching is correct, and Jesus isn’t a sinner – but he couldn’t explain how that worked. It doesn’t work – that’s the problem, and it is a major “problem.” Pastor Don Owsley also picked up on this when he heard Bill state, “Don’t be like Jesus when he disobeyed his parents!”7“An Evaluation of Gothard’s Twelve Hearts seminar,” Pastor Don Owsley, December 20, 2020
In this setting, the authoritarian leader wields God as a big club to threaten any of his followers who may question or disobey his dictates. Gothardism is, like the First Century Roman culture, a Patriocentric system in which females are personal property and must obey their male authority without question. To do any less than blindly obey is to get out from under their umbrella of protection and risk God’s wrath. At the wedding of his daughter, a father transfers his authority over his daughter to his new son-in-law. The husband is now her “leader,” who she must hear and obey unquestioningly. If a father passes away, his authority over his wife and family passes from the father to the eldest son, according to Gothard. And here is another way a woman can be passed from authority to authority – If she is sent to work at IBLP “Headquarters,” the authority over her passes from her father to Gothard himself. Wow. That type of “ownership authority” is not biblical at all and can and does produce horrendous outcomes.
Jinger Duggar Vuolo and her husband watched the series as well, and I spoke with Jeremy earlier this week. To acknowledge the obvious, the series is “left-leaning,” but we expected that would be the case. It does not seem the producers and directors understand a theologically conservative worldview, and there was a bit of popular “Wokeism” conveyed. But as we consider the content, the series did an important service. They gave those who had grown up in this rigidly authoritarian system a voice. Jinger and Jeremy were impressed with how well the creators handled the abuse stories and respected those who shared them. Many Gothardites, as is true with people in other cultic groups, equate the authority figure at the top with God Himself. When people leave a group like that, it can be very hard to get past that false idea, and it takes time to begin to see God as He is and not as He has been portrayed by the “great leader.” Some feel that by leaving the group, they have left God, which is a very scary and lonely feeling, though it is not true in the least. Some choose atheism or agnosticism. Others deconstruct into Progressive Christianity. Some, like Jinger Duggar, have gone through a process of “Disentangling Faith from Fear.” Such people, coming out of whatever authoritarian group they have been a part of, really need our love and our prayers.
An unfortunate side effect of this expose is the broad brush that will be applied to all those who have been involved in IBLP to any extent whatsoever. Many who are or have been involved in IBLP are well-meaning parents that seek to protect their families and try to raise Godly children in an ungodly culture.
It is also quite likely that Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches may be tarred as well and seen as supporting these or similar teachings. They most assuredly do not. Most Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches completely shunned IBLP decades ago, especially after the 1980 sex scandal. It seems the Apostle Peter’s words are very appropriate concerning an unfair or unwarranted public rebuke:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:14-17)Ω
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|↑1||Amazon Originals; Directors: Julia Willoughby Nason, Olivia Crist; Producers: Michael Gasparro, Blye Pagon Faust, Cori Shepherd Stern, Jody McVeigh-Schultz, Julia Willoughby Nason, Olivia Crist; Starring: Jill Duggar|
|↑2||“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” is an Amazon Original and if you have an Amazon Prime subscription can view it free. Also, it can be watched with a 30-day free trial|
|↑3||It is also available on Amazon.com|
|↑4||“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets; S1 E1 Meet the Duggars, 02:52|
|↑5||Rhema: rhema at times called “spoken word,”  referring to the revelation received by disciples when the Holy Spirit “speaks” to them|
|↑6||Bill Gothard (instructor), Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 20 as quoted in A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, Don Veinot, Joy Veinot and Ron Henzel, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc 2003, p 106|
|↑7||“An Evaluation of Gothard’s Twelve Hearts seminar,” Pastor Don Owsley, December 20, 2020|