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Dear Basic Seminar Attendee,
The person who handed you this letter tonight cares about you. They care enough that they took time to bring it to you because they believe in the message and want you to understand before it is too late. This person is someone who grew up in a household influenced by the teachings of Dr. Bill Gothard and the Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling organization he founded in 1984. They bring you this letter in hopes that you and/or your children can avoid the heartaches and struggles which they have had to deal with. They bring you this letter because they wish someone had been around years ago to tell them and their parents the truth contained in it.
When Dr. Gothard presents the Basic Seminar, he promises true and lasting results. He claims to be giving the world a “new” approach to life. As recent as the late 1990’s he cast a vision for a ministry that would multiply from a generation of large, godly families into a generation of Christ-followers numbering in the thousands. Unfortunately, that dream has not been fulfilled. The latest statistics provided by an anonymous IBLP staff member indicates that less than 1% of children raised in the Advanced Training Institute use the program with their own children. In addition to this staggering fact, many children raised within the program have fallen away from the Christian faith entirely. There have even been at least three murders committed by students raised in committed ATI families. In a program that guaranteed successful children, how can this be happening?
THE MISSING INGREDIENT: GRACE
At the center of Christian orthodoxy is the concept of God’s grace. The Greek word for grace, charis, literally means “unmerited favor.” It is through this unmerited favor of God that we have been given life, salvation, and the transforming power of God in our lives. It is through the grace of God that every good thing happens, even when we do not deserve it. Yet, the Bible teaches that grace can be resisted to the point where God no longer offers it.
We believe that the primary answer to why so many ATI/IBLP families have ended up broken is found in the fact that amidst all of Dr. Gothard’s teachings, he leaves out the key ingredient that is central to all of a Christian’s life: the grace of God. Yes, he uses the term grace, but he subtly redefines it so that it is no longer about God’s favor but about our performance as Christians.
On his website, Dr. Gothard defines grace as “the desire and the power that God gives us to do His will.” On the surface, this definition seems to be okay. But what happens when you use that definition in the context of Ephesians 2:8? The meaning changes drastically: “For by the desire and the power that God gives us to do His will you have been saved through faith.” Suddenly, salvation becomes a matter of behavior rather than God’s free gift. This is one reason why so many of Dr. Gothard’s followers have abandoned Christianity. When our salvation is based upon something WE do rather than what GOD does, eventually we will grow disillusioned, frustrated, and spiritually suicidal.
God’s work of grace in our lives cannot be reduced to a set of principles. As you go through the seminar, we want you to notice all of the guarantees Dr. Gothard gives. Do you notice how many times he says that if you do X, you WILL get result Y? That if we just put in our quarter and turn the handle, we get our prize, as if God were a candy machine? Does God really work that way? No. God works in each of our lives as unique individuals according to His divine plan.
Jesus did not give us step by step directions to show us how to live a sanctified life. He taught us through parables and through example to help us understand His heart. He showed us that the outer shell of our body is not who we truly are. The inner person is what matters. God desires that we seek a relationship with Him rather than follow a set of basic principles about Him. At the end of this week, ask yourself, “Did I come out of the seminar thinking more about seeking God, or did I walk away thinking about all of the principles I must follow?”
THE MISUSED TOOL: GOD’S WORD
One of the things that stand out about the Basic Seminar is the amount of Scripture that Dr. Gothard uses. In fact, there are so many Scriptures used throughout the seminar that it is humanly impossible to look them up as the seminar is in progress. The average attendee simply accepts that the verses being used are appropriate and being applied carefully and correctly.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, we are commanded to be students of the Scripture who are capable of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” This means that we are to ascertain the truest meaning of every Bible passage. Unfortunately, our study has shown that Dr. Gothard fails to use Scripture in such a manner. Rather than taking each passage in its appropriate context and discerning what the author originally intended, he takes single verses of Scripture and uses them to validate whatever point he is currently making. This practice is known as “proof-texting,” or eisegesis.
The result is that many of Dr. Gothard’s ideas and principles are simply secular philosophy, with single verses taken out of context to prove his points. He then urges his followers to buy into “hidden” principles which he has discovered by carefully examining the Scriptures. These principles are often more enticing than the plain meaning of the biblical Text. This is why you will rarely see Dr. Gothard teach the historical, grammatical, and cultural meaning of an entire Bible chapter to determine what the original author actually meant. We would challenge you to go home and look up every verse that is used during the seminar and read it in the original context. If you need help understanding the context of a verse, go find a set of commentaries written by a respected scholar. And then, once you have done that, ask yourself this key question: If all these principles are really so important and non-optional, why aren’t they laid out specifically in Scripture as clear-cut commands? Why does it take someone like Dr. Gothard to help us understand these “hidden” meanings?
THE MANIPULATIVE METHOD: ANECDOTES
Another powerful tool that Dr. Gothard uses in the Basic Seminar is that of the anecdote. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” As you go through the seminar, take note of the number of times Dr. Gothard utilizes anecdotes to validate one of his points. And then take note of how many anecdotal stories he tells without giving any references, full names, or other details that would let you look them up and make sure he is sharing them accurately.
In our experience working with IBLP and Dr. Gothard, we have discovered that there is a very strong tendency within IBLP to twist or manipulate the facts of a story in order to prove a point. In the study of logic, this is known as a logical fallacy of incomplete or suppressed evidence, also commonly referred to as “cherry-picking.” This practice is deceitful because not only is one manipulating a story to prove a point, but the speaker often fails to share any instances or anecdotes where an opposite result of a behavior was true. We see this practice quite often in politics when a public official uses a story in order to elicit an emotional gut reaction from the audience. As children growing up under Bill Gothard’s teachings, we believed that these anecdotes were completely biblical and accurate, thus leading us to make hasty commitments that God never intended us to make, many of which ultimately cost us dearly.
THE ULTIMATE MOTIVATOR: GUILT
2 Timothy 1:7 says “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” As followers of Jesus, our Heavenly Father desires that we walk in the freedom provided to us through his grace. Indeed, we are forgiven of our sins and no longer need to fear the eternal consequences of our sins. We are free to walk in new life, and free to pursue the holiness that comes as we long for a deeper, more personal relationship with God. God no longer wants us to live in the guilt of our sins, but to forget those things that are behind, pressing on towards the goal to which God has called us.
As the first generation to grow up under the teachings of Dr. Gothard, we found that attending the Basic Seminar or any IBLP-sanctioned event inevitably led to the horrible result of personal guilt. We found that no longer was our Savior sufficient to lead us into Christlikeness, but now we had to follow the seven principles for this, the five steps for that, or the three key concepts to overcome whatever sin was being discussed. Certainly we should seek to follow Christ’s commands as a path to Christlikeness; but as we have already established, many of Dr. Gothard’s teachings are not Christ’s commands at all, but rather his hidden principles. Thus, we no longer followed Christ. We followed a man. We forgot that true freedom doesn’t come from moral behavior, but rather by complete abandon to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only as we walk in His grace will we receive true freedom and the fruit of holiness. We must never confuse guilt with conviction. One (guilt) weighs us down and makes us feel unworthy of love, and the other (conviction) makes us feel loved in spite of our unworthiness.
Our experience has been that the teachings of Bill Gothard lead not to spiritual freedom, but to spiritual bondage. That is the reason we are reaching out to those who have yet to experience the captivity we have suffered. We feel God’s call to lead people to return to His grace as the true source of spiritual freedom. Please know that this letter is written in love and not a desire to hurt or harm. We only desire that each child of God find the joy, peace, and confidence that come from seeking a relationship with the God who loves us and gives us new mercy and grace each and every morning.