Why What Happened in the Bill Gothard Movement Matters (Even If You Weren't In It)

Conservative Christians circles in the USA are currently very much abuzz with the drama happening at headquarters of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) – a Christian non-denominational para-church organization that has heavily influenced Bible churches, the home-schooling movement and conservative Christian culture in America since the 1970s. The president and founder of IBLP, Bill Gothard, resigned two days ago, amid extensive allegations of sexual harassment spanning several decades.  

For years, the worst Bill Gothard and his teachings had been accused of publically of was being “legalistic,” and of taking scriptures out of context. But gradually, personal stories about oppressive emotional and spiritual abuse both at IBLP headquarters and among some of the families who subscribed to his teaching began to come out.  Beyond that, lots of the kids who grew up under his teachings had to struggle well into their adult years to comprehend grace.  It wasn’t until the internet provided a wide spread forum, and the stories started to include many accounts of sexual harassment by Bill Gothard himself, that he was finally was forced to resign. 

So who is Bill Gothard, and what’s the big deal?

One of the biggest of Bill Gothard’s influences was his Advanced Training Institute (ATI) which, for many, was the flagship curriculum of Christian home-based K-12 education along with some college alternative components.  Another huge part of IBLP was its Basic Seminars and Advanced Seminars that taught the many Basic Life Principles promoted by the movement.    

 These were purportedly all based on Bible scriptures, but often took scriptures out of context.  ATI materials did a great deal of sub-texting, and expanded, explained, interpreted, illustrated and “wisdom searched” verses so far beyond and apart from the original text and context that it created an entire very complex counter-culture among those who followed its hundreds of extra-Biblical laws.  Seven principles. 49 character qualities. Lots of wisdom booklets.

Basic Care Bulletins took general information about disease, preventative care, nutrition and health and mixed them in with Old Testament laws for Jews originally designed by God to show that righteousness by keeping rules was impossible.  These were "cherry-picked" and applied out of context to modern Gentile Christians living in the dispensation of grace.  This in turn led to a long list of dos and don’ts from what you could wear and not wear, eat and not eat, watch and not watch, listen to and not listen to, read and not read, think and not think.

The materials had a palatable form of godliness, containing a mixture of solid Christian doctrine and Bible verses, basic textbook knowledge in all subjects, woven in with lots of extra-Biblical materials and Bill Gothard’s opinions.  Since it was packaged all together as Biblical principles, they were often applied as such without question.
Why did so many Christians buy into it?  Two main influencers were timing and fear.  Bill Gothard’s principles hit the scene at a very crucial time in American culture.  Following the permissive 60s, conservative Christians in the States were afraid of losing their children to a secular culture that was increasing taking a path away from Biblical values. Being the independent pioneering people that Americans are, a few brave Christians decided they would fight this trend by educating their children themselves. They went against mainstream culture although they had little support, and few tools or curriculum available to help them accomplish their goals. (My mother was one of these.)
Into this void came Bill Gothard and his Basic Life Principles. He assured Christian parents they were doing the right thing to home-school if they wanted to be truly committed Christians and have their children turn out right.  He promised that if parents followed his pattern, applied his principles, kept his rules, did these things, (but not all these other things), their goals for their children and their families would be accomplished. He offered them hope.
By the way, in case you are wondering, the Bible doesn’t say you have to home-school to have godly children.
There were few alternative choices or voices, and the seeds of the Bill Gothard influence gradually began to grow and put down deep roots in the conservative non-denominational “come-out-er” type circles.  In the greater evangelical protestant Christian circles, not so much.  Those American Christians who were less fearful and less concerned about protecting their children from the evil world, and more concerned about going about their middle-class lives working, paying their bills, paying off their homes, taking care of their families, going to church on Sundays and getting their kids a good public education looked on some of Bill Gothard’s doctrines and practices as rather bizarre and unnecessary when they crossed the paths of those following them.
But many others, many conscientious parents, many fearful parents, many parents insecure in their own ability to raise obedient kids, many good parents just “wanting to do it right”, many first generation Christians wanting to make sure their kids didn’t go wild like they did, got pulled into Bill Gothard’s teachings and heavily influenced. This was along a few really unhealthy parents and people who latched onto this movement and its teachings for all the wrong reasons. (My mother was one of these.) 
I was born in 1969.   Although I was homeschooled from 5th grade through high school, we did not personally use ATI materials. We did not join the BG movement, we weren’t an ATI family. (We wouldn’t have qualified even if we had wanted to. Small blessings.) I’m pretty sure we never even went to a Basic Seminar.  And yet, the things that leaked out of that movement into the lives and doctrine of my family and my heart would influence me as much as if I had been right in the middle of it.
Because actually, I was.  I am a product of the Bill Gothard generation.
This is why I’m writing this blog.  You see, like me, if you were alive during the Bill Gothard generation (which has actually now spanned more than two generations, 1961-2013), you were influenced by it.  If not directly, then very possibly indirectly through the lives of others you knew. There is an excellent chance you are interacting with the consequences in the lives of people around you now.  I certainly am.
Allow me to elaborate.
Before I was 13 I was told by my mother that I didn’t need to go to college.  Girls should live at home until they get married.  And then be a stay at home mom. 
Where in world of 1980s America did she get this idea from? This concept was first widely preached as a “Biblical” doctrine in America by Bill Gothard.  It was also heavily reinforced by a book called The Way Home, by Mary Pride that was written in 1985 that eschewed feminism and called for Christian women to return to more traditional roles. This idea which grew into a belief was quickly picked up by the growing home-school movement at large, into which Mary Pride was also a primary contributor with her books and magazine on homeschooling.  The idea was also promoted by others in the homeschooling movement that included other smaller conservative Christian “streams” like the Christian Quiverful movement, No Greater Joy Ministries (Michael and Debbie Pearl), and the family church movement.  Eventually, girls staying at home until they got married was commonly understood to be, in these circles, as absolutely “what the Bible says”.
Prior to that in American culture, girls (Christian and otherwise) often did live at home until they got married, and didn’t always go to college, but this was either by economic necessity or practicality- not as a measure of virtue or goodness or godliness or spirituality and certainly not as a practice of any Biblical doctrine.
Because actually (in case you are wondering) the Bible doesn’t say anything about going to college or not, regardless of gender.
Another thing I was told in my early teens.  Dating is bad.  Falling in love is a fictional fallacy. You need to let God just tell you who your husband will be when you see him for the first time. He will confirm His will to you through your parents.
This was the early edition of this trend, somewhat before the courtship movement was in full swing.  That developed a few years later in the progression of conservative Christian extra-Biblical doctrines . This was the idea that parents should pick a girl’s husband because arranged marriages are more godly.  It was heavily reinforced by the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” by Josh Harris which came out in 1997.  Many young people were encouraged to vow that they would only enter marriage by courtship as a guaranteed way to stay pure and find a godly spouse.
This was strongly associated with and promoted by the Bill Gothard movement.  Prior to that in America dating had been a generally acceptable way to find a spouse for quite some time, and was not considered intrinsically “non-Christian” or worldly by the church.  How you were raised and what was in your heart was basically what determined how the dating thing worked out for you. 
Because actually (in case you are wondering) the Bible doesn’t say anything about dating or not dating.
Unfortunately dating had gotten a bad rap, partially because of all the promiscuity of the 60s, and parents who came out of that were trying to counter it with something, anything, to keep their girls from getting pregnant in the back seat of a car on a date.  The solution presented by Bill Gothard was like a life preserver to committed Christian parents trying to keep their kids on the right track- Let’s just not let them date at all.  Let’s supervise them at all times.  And actually, let’s just tell them who they can marry.  That’s how it was in the good old days after all when almost no one got pregnant out of wedlock and no one got divorces. That will fix this problem.  
Bill Gothard taught that dating was practice for divorce, but a marriage that was built on a courtship would last.  And because the last thing any parent wanted was for their kids to get divorced, they bought it.
Bill Gothard also made up an illustration called an umbrella of protection. It was an example he used to promote his teaching that the husband was the high priest of the home and everyone in the home should be submitted to him in order to be blessed and protected. 
But actually (in case you are wondering) the Bible never says the husband is the high priest of the home, and never mentions an umbrella of protection.
If you were taught this, you have seen this picture before- you know exactly what I am talking about.  If you weren’t, you probably think it’s weird and are wondering why the big deal is, and why it matters.
Well, for one thing, it matters if you marry someone from this background.  A pastor once made this interesting statement that caught my attention about someone he had worked with.  “The husband had an ATI background, and was trying to make sure it didn’t influence his marriage.”  When I asked him to elaborate he said, “The chain of command teaching in particular.  When only one (the man) has a special relationship with and direction from God and others listen to God through him, and ‘him’ is fallen and sinful, abuse can follow along shortly.”
And the flip side of that teaching is that it also sets women up to resign themselves to that abuse should it happen, whatever kind it might be.  Because if your authority is always ordained by God and you must submit to be blessed, you may have a hard time knowing when it is okay to question it, and stand up for yourself.  This concept was reinforced through books that were approved by Bill Gothard and making the rounds like, Me? Obey Him, by Elizabeth Rice Handford,  and, Created to be His Help Meet, by Debi Pearl .
This influence also matters when you work with women who were raised under the umbrella.  Bill Gothard taught that children should let their parents make their decisions for them and determine God’s will for their lives.  This essentially meant that no matter what someone wanted to do, had an aptitude for, or felt called by God to do, if their parents didn’t approve it, it wasn’t God’s will and should be given up in order to stay blessed and protected.  Keep in mind, this doctrine was directed to ADULT children as well as minors. This by default fell much more heavily on the young women than on the young men.  It led to a lot of adult girls deciding it was either too painful or too conflicting to think for themselves, and they stayed in the habit of asking their parents’ permission to do anything of significance long after their less conservative peers had moved out and gone off to college as the normal course of events.
This unnatural depending on parents to direct life choices after adulthood was crippling.  It means there were tens of thousands of ATI girls who came of age in the 80s and 90s and 2000s who were basically waiting for the next male authority (a husband) to come into her life and tell her what to do next. And if he didn’t show up (or get selected by their dad) at 18, 19, 20, 21?  They often didn’t have many acceptable options, depending on their parents. If and when they did enter some job or field, some of them had trouble making decisions in a working environment where they weren’t supposed to be subservient.
Since midwifery was sometimes deemed an acceptable “office” for modest young women (excuse me a moment while I digress and laugh- doing vaginal exams and pap smears and suturing and showing birth videos to couples and discussing reproduction, modest?) we got a fair number of them deciding to become, or being allowed to become, midwives.
I am a daughter of these movements.  I was homeschooled, never dated, and planned to live at home until God told me who to marry and my parents approved and blessed my marriage.  I read The Way Home, All the Way Home and A Full Quiver, and lots of Bill Gothard’s publications and I believed them all. And although I wasn’t allowed to go to college, I was allowed to apprentice to become a midwife.
Which, thankfully, turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
To be continued…


  1. (and PS I guess the main problem with the whole subservience-vs.-Jezebel business for me is that, since I struck out and decided to a) date, b) go to women's college back East and then c) grad school overseas, the only thing I was ever going to be, in that cosmology, was an evil fallen woman. That's not really...a very helpful way to think of yourself, as out-of-the-gate broken and flawed and disgusting. I did what I needed to do, what God had put in me to do, anyway? but it wasn't easy (understatement) and I have self-sabotaged every step of the way, fundamentally (ha) conflicted about how ambitious, how creative, how independent I am really allowed to be.

  2. Thank you so much for taking time to explain this, I also think Teen Mania took a lot of this teaching as well, I certainly know that they were very much in support of "I kissed dating goodbye" it was practically required reading there. And I am sure as you well know, As a Teen in this movement you were very well praised by authority in these circles when you read these book or said that you were not going to date, what a shock it was when stepping out into the world, the work force, and speak casually about it. It had taken me years to undo the subconscious thinking and to as you also spoke....learn to be assertive in the work place, being trained to be submissive, makes it very hard to move forward in any job, and kissing dating goodbye as a teen, meant I kissed marriage goodbye as an adult as well, as talking to a boy felt like such a sin, that I in almost midlife I feel incapable of a healthy relationship with a man. I can only thank God that I at least did not marry someone with this teaching as I was trained to do....or I would more than likely be trapped in that circle teaching the same things to my children. I would rather be single and work through these things that skewed my thinking than carry it on to the next generation.

  3. My experiences with Bill Gothard had some things in common with yours, and others not. I was not discouraged from going to college, but I was told I would be under my parents' authority until I was transferred to my husband's authority. It's interesting to me to see people using the phrase "Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater" about Bill Gothard. The problem seems to be that there is so much bathwater to throw out that even when you've thrown out a bunch of it, there's still some left.

    My parents took me to a Basic Seminar in the early 90s when I was a teenager. During the years leading up to that time we'd been in Lutheran churches, non-denominational Pentecostal type churches, Vineyard, Assembly of God, unaffiliated Bible school started by ex-Lutherans...kind of a variety. So I had already experienced various baby-and-bathwater scenarios and was used to sifting through what people said from the pulpit. I came to the Basic Seminar prepared to figure out what sounded reasonable and what didn't.

    The music teachings were the easiest to toss for me. I had previously been taught that traditional Hebrew music, such as might have been the accompaniment to the Psalms, had its stress on beats 2 and 4, and I was musical enough to know that there were other tempos like 3/4. What Gothard said immediately sounded like nonsense to me--but not to my mom. Sometimes I wonder how our relationship could have been different during my teen years if music could have been a matter of taste between us rather than a matter of righteousness.

    There were other things that were eyerolls for me, but not for my parents. I don't remember all of them now. But the things I didn't fully question until recently have to do with marriage, roles of men and women, and how men and women are different. Sure, when my parents told me that women were to be under their parents' authority until they married, I questioned that. I said, "What about women who never marry? Do they ever get to be adults?" (I got no good answer to that one, by the way. I recently discussed that with my mom and she looked a bit surprised she had said it. I got married at age 20, straight out of college, so it was never more than a hypothetical question. Would I have married so young if it hadn't been my only route to adulthood?) But still, I held onto many ideas that I used in my invention of the The Good Wife. The Good Wife is a persona I invented myself out of bits from IBLP and other marriage books or books about how men and women are different, etc. The Good Wife is not necessarily what my husband wants in a wife, but she's an ideal I try to emulate anyway, with such characteristics as No Nagging (even if my husband would like me to tell him what's bothering me) and Never Say No to Sex. She's not much of a real human being or a good friend, but she's a Good Wife, and that's what Men (tm) want, right? It's been a very damaging thing to bring into a marriage relationship with a real human being who is not just a Good Husband. Certain odd expectations I have about a Good Husband have also prevented me from loving and knowing my real life, flesh and blood husband. I didn't learn details of what the male spiritual leader of the home is supposed to do from the Bible. I picked those up somewhere else, like from IBLP and other books influenced by the same movement. Rather than accepting my husband for who he is, I've held him to a human standard that was never Biblical.

    I guess the moral to my story is, make sure you've thrown out all the bathwater. There may be a pesky bit at the bottom of the bath.

  4. You have described my life to a tee. Except you missed the Doug Phillips part. I believe I am grieving the years the locusts have eaten, as a failure ATI family. We sure looked good but worked way too hard to follow all those rules, falling short and beating ourselves up. I am in shock having just learned of this all this weekend. We have no church as none followed the rules correctly and we have tried all in our area..so sad now.

  5. My first comment got aten :( but I think I said most of it on yr second post about all this anyway. Oh, and also that I can't EVEN look at that umbrella illustration without laughing like a hyena. I think it has to be the cover of my memoir, someday. Which will of course be called, The Jezebel Influence. And then the epigraph should be from Milton, obviously:

    Whence true autority in men; though both
    Not equal, as thir sex not equal seemd;
    For contemplation hee and valour formd,
    For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
    Hee for God only, shee for God in him....

  6. JL I would sure love to read your memoir. The Jezebel Influence. That's going to be a corker! Mine will be called, "Wife: Interr - what? NO! Oh stop -upted." Roxanne it is AWESOME to see these words from your mouth - er, pen - er, keyboard - well, heart! That's the main thing. Been saying this, all this, since the 90s and my warnings fell mostly on deaf ears except for the smart folks at places like Christians For Biblical Equality (lighthouse to me when I was getting out of Gothardism and fundy-land.) I remember want to rip "Born in Zion" and "The Way Back Home" to shreds and BONFIRE "To Train Up a Child" and "Fascinating Womanhood" (which, by the way, they give to the FLDS wives/slaves to instruct them in their role!) You are right that it not only is a set-up for abuse but also indoctrinates women a) to not be able to identify the abuse b) to get very upset if anyone on the "outside" points it out and c) as you said, makes them resigned to abuse. I would get so cranky and yell to my (very understanding hub) "they are TRAINING people to be co-dependent and dysfunctional!" I mean, everyone is somewhere on the dysfunctional spectrum, but they were not only making a virtue out of it, they were teaching it as God's will! I just about cried when someone gave me "Families Where Grace Is in Place", what a breath of fresh air that was. It is so encouraging to see you come full circle and you are in good company - lots of people getting out of fundamentalism and patriarchy now and finding their voice.


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