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When I was 15, a lifelong dream was fulfilled–I finally got to go to a Bill Gothard seminar. My parents had been going annually for years and I was ecstatic that I was old enough to attend. When my parents first went, they were astonished at the practical nature of Gothard’s teachings. He had a biblical answer to every social and family problem, with steps of action to resolve these conflicts.
Now that it was my turn to go to a seminar, it was like finally going to Mecca or Rome. Gothard had “discovered” 7 basic principles that one must follow in order to have a happy life. Besides the principle of Success by meditating on Scripture, and the principle of Moral Purity by practicing courtship, there was one other that profoundly affected my life. It was the principle of Authority. In Gothard’s teaching, God has placed authorities in every person’s life, to protect them, guide them, and to show them God’s will for their life.
According to Gothard, each authority functions like an umbrella, protecting those beneath them from danger and destruction from the attacks of Satan. If a teen rebels, he gets out from under his parents’ authority, and thus their protection, and is subject to the attacks of Satan. This principle was vividly illustrated by graphic stories of teens and college students who disobeyed their parents’ wishes, and came to evil ends. It was further shown with stories of other teens and young adults who respected their parents’ wishes, and were tremendously blessed by God.
As a committed follower of Jesus, I decided to stay under my parents’ umbrella of of protection. I never rebelled in high school, never had an adolescence, never gave my parents an ounce of trouble. This worldview was never challenged, because my parents had decided to home school. I was cut off from all social interaction with peers, and never saw them except on Sunday, in my tiny youth group. On the rare occasion that the youth group had a ski trip, I swallowed my disappointment in being forbidden to go, by telling myself that God didn’t want me going, for some good reason known only by Him. After all, the voice of my parents was the voice of God. He made His will known to me through them.
Once I graduated from high school, the voice of God declared that I was to go to college. I was very disappointed, because all my friends who were in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) were ministering in Russia to orphans, or working at the Headquarters in Chicago. I wanted to do the same. Instead, I was sent to a fundamentalist college, where my parents knew I wouldn’t be corrupted by evil influences.
I graduated with a degree in music, I was thrilled about getting out of the academic environment and into the real world. Who knew what God might have waiting for me after graduation? It was an exciting thought. After all, I had memorized and meditated on Scripture for years, and God had promised success to the one who did that. I obeyed my parents in everything, and God had promised long life and success for this obedience. My future was bright!
Instead, I went back home. To nothing. After the busyness of college life, there was nothing on my calendar day after day. I waited for divine guidance from my parents, but none came. They were content to have my presence in the house, helping with housework (actually, doing ALL the housework). Getting a job was not an option, since my parents were afraid I would be corrupted by bad influences. As year after year went by, I succumbed to depression.
While at home, I eagerly anticipated the invitation to work within ATI. Instead, my brother was invited. I was left alone, with my mother, all day long while my father was at work. Extreme enmeshment was beginning as I was made my mother’s only social companion and became her shadow.
When I was 24, I finally got the chance to work with ATI at their training center in Oklahoma City, working with pregnant teen mothers and kids in the shelters. I loved sharing God’s ways with them, and I felt my superior knowledge due to Gothard’s teachings was particularly helpful. After three months of working there for free, I was offered a job in another department. However, the voice of God (my mother) said no.
She declared that I could no longer read my favorite authors, but was to read missionary biographies.
She declared I was reading too much.
She declared that my bedtime was 10 p.m.
She declared that I couldn’t shower at night and wash my hair.
She mandated one particular way to stack the hand-washed dishes in the drainer.
She mandated that breakfast preparation in the early morning hours was to be done her way, not in my more efficient way, which I had learned from volunteering in a commercial kitchen.
She deplored my fingernail-biting. When I exercised self-control and let them grow long enough for nail polish, she declared they were too long and cut them herself.
She forbade more than one ring per hand.
She made me remove red nail polish from my toenails, following the one time that a friend and I gave each other pedicures.
She refused to allow me to close my bedroom door for anything other than dressing.
She regulated how often I could babysit for neighbors, and the hourly rate I could charge.
She listened in on my rare phone conversations with friends and declared that I was spending too much time talking to them.
If she wanted to go ice-skating, she assumed I obviously wanted to go.
If she wanted to skip church, my only social outlet, then naturally I had to skip.
If she wanted to go to a particular restaurant, then of course I was expected to desire that, too.
My only way out, it seemed, was to get married. However, there were no suitors asking my father for my hand. In fact, the pool of available men was practically non-existent. I came to realize that even if my parents were to agree to my marrying someone, my mother would hear from God, and yank the rug out from under the proceedings sometime in the week leading up to the hypothetical marriage. It began to seem that there was no way out. The only way to survive this control was to tell myself, “God wants me to go to bed at 10 p.m. God wants His dishes stacked in the drainer this way. God wants His meal made this way.” But I slowly lost my self-identity. Everything about me was repressed, from my emotions to my private thoughts about my home life, to my personal tastes. I was merely an extension of my mother, which is how she had viewed me all along. It was hard work to constantly repress myself, but I thought that was what Jesus referred to when He said to “take up your cross and follow me.” Every year my cross grew heavier. The yoke did not get easier, nor the burden lighter. Life was bleak and full of unending boredom.
I started to question what I’d been taught about my parents being God’s word to me and the whole idea of the umbrella of authority. This idea of re-examining Scripture is highly frowned upon in Gothard circles, as the beginning of a dangerous slide into heresy. However, I had no choice! I would never be allowed to marry, I would be free only when my parents died (I would probably be 55 by that time), and life was becoming unbearable. I started to sink into a deep depression. I remember being outdoors, watering some plants, and my eyes could only see a black mist over the brightness of the spring sunshine. I thought I could sleep it off, like I always did, but the blackness over my heart was still there. I thought about suicide, because I could not bear this life that God had for me. Reason prevailed, and I decided that there had to be a better way than taking my life.
I started to look closer at the Scriptures that held me in thrall to my parents. The main verse used to support my subjugation to my parents was, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor thy father and mother, that things may go well with thee, and that thou mayest prosper in the land.” (Eph. 6:1-3) I had always been told that the term “children” meant “offspring.” I looked it up in the original Greek, and found that the term “teknon” meant either “offspring” or “small child.” To be on the safe side, I figured it meant “offspring,” and continued to stay under my umbrella of protection.
Until I realized that my umbrella of protection, my father, had severe rips in the fabric of his umbrella. Gothard teaches that when the authority sins, he creates tears in his umbrella, and the darts of Satan can get through to those under his care. This realization hit me in the face when I walked in the house one day, and saw porn frozen all over the home computer. My parents were holed up in the bedroom, and my father was once again trying to talk and soothe and shame himself out of it. I was the one trying to restart the computer, and had to see all the pictures that my father had been viewing, and battling since he was young. He was a porn addict, and I was no safer under his so-called umbrella, than I was out from under it. I checked that Greek word for “children” again. This time I noticed that it was also mentioned in verse 4 of the passage: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” In all my years of Bible study, I had never been taught the importance of context when interpreting Scripture, or any literature, for that matter. IN CONTEXT, “children” means “little kids”! My father was no longer “bringing me up”—I was 29 by now, for heaven’s sake. This freed me and I began making plans to leave.
A job opened up out of state. When I told my parents, my mother offered up scenarios in which, now that I was leaving my protection, I would be preyed upon by evil, lascivious men. I countered that every situation she brought up had already happened, and I had easily handled every one. She glared at me, ran into her room, slammed the door, and stayed there for hours.
The day approached for me to leave. The day before, I packed up everything I would need, and took it to a helpful neighbor’s house while my mom was out shopping. I had dinner with some church acquaintances and then returned home. My parents acted as if nothing were awry and I went to bed.
Somewhere around 10 or 11 that night, I heard my mom go out to the living room. Then great cries arose. “OH GOD!” she howled at God. I knew what was happening. Gothard teaches that in a great crisis, the believer should cry aloud to God, like David did in the Psalms and then God shows Himself strong on one’s behalf. My mom continued her crying aloud, with moral support from her husband, until 2 am.
Finally, I could go to sleep.
I slept a couple hours, and then rose softly and dressed. I tiptoed out the back door with my suitcases and loaded them into my neighbor’s car. (She was taking me to the airport.) Just as I got them in the trunk, my mom came flying out of the house, her white nightgown streaming behind her, screaming, “You didn’t even say goodbye!!!!!” I jumped in the car, and we took off.
After six weeks at that job, I learned that I was working for a woman who was impossible to please. With more money in my pocket than I had ever had before, I returned to my home state.
Once my outward life there had stabilized, with housing and a job, I began the process of questioning everything I had ever been taught. If Gothard’s teachings were false, what else was false? Did I even believe in God? Was Hinduism the truth, or Shintoism, or Buddhism, or Islam? I quickly rejected those, because my rational mind couldn’t accept them. But I certainly didn’t know what to think of God, or who I thought He was. I kind of ignored Him, even though I kept going to church. I took a long break from Bible reading, because every word brought back some Gothard teaching. I only prayed when I really needed money.
I joined a Yahoo group, where people who were former Gothard followers deconstructed and refuted all of Gothard’s false teachings. They pointed out time after time where Gothard had twisted Scripture, proof-texted, and used circular reasoning. I felt like I was undergoing deprogramming from a cult. Belief after belief were shown to be false, and the true interpretation of the Scripture was shown.
God continued to fill my life with normal, kind, generous people. I had new friends at a new church, who showed me love, and were interested in me as a person, not as an extension of my mother.
There I learned about grace, which is traditionally defined as “unmerited favor.” Gothard has his own definition of grace: “The desire and power to do God’s will.” I learned that because of God’s unmerited favor, He loved me no matter what. I could stop performing in order to merit His love and favor. I started to have a new view of God.
As a result of being shown love by friends, I started to recognize love in God. I felt closer to God, in ways I never was before. In church, songs about God’s love, or Christ’s death as result of love for me, brought tears to my eyes. I even cried at the Christmas service, as I realized that when Jesus was born He began a process culminating in His death, all because He loved me.
I continue to learn who God is. I know that I no longer have to perform in order to please God. Life is no longer black and white, but includes multiple shades of grey. I no longer worry about missing God’s will—I just figure that I’ll go through doors, unless God closes them. And if I make mistakes, God is big enough to create something good out of my mistakes. I am finally free of the twisted beliefs of the Gothard cult.
The process of healing from the emotional and spiritual abuse at home has been long and arduous, fraught with many tears. I’ll never know why I had to go through this pain, when others grow up in normal, healthy environments. Eight years of my adult life were thrown away–years that my peers spent in advancing their careers and starting families. Relationships within my family have been destroyed forever. All this because I was taught lies, which were used to hold me in bondage within a dysfunctional, abusive home. Even though my belief system has changed, the scars, grief, and set-backs from my Gothardized upbringing continue to this day. I know, however, that God is big enough to redeem the misery caused by Gothard’s teachings and I look forward to helping others escape the iron grip of spiritual and emotional abuse.
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