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The year 2011 was an interesting chapter in the legacy of Bill Gothard, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). Through what we believe is the hand of God at work, many of those who were raised under Gothard’s teachings began to reach out to–and compare notes with–others who had shared the same experiences. Although there had been past online communities and local support groups for former Gothard followers, there was a new explosion of such activity sparked by the blogging of former students. It was not long until ATI students around the world united in the realization that they were not alone in the negative long-term effects experienced from their many years in ATI.
A number of Facebook survivor groups were launched so that students could offer support and encouragement to one another as they go through the process of healing and recovering from their past. It was out of one of these large survivor groups that Recovering Grace was born. Many of these survivors saw a genuine need for a website that would help others like themselves find true spiritual freedom through a biblical understanding of God’s grace, which we believe is at the heart of the Gospel. We also wanted to provide a Biblical analysis of Gothard’s teachings, warn others of IBLP’s dangerous influence on families, and help many more people understand that they did not fail in incorporating the formula into their families—the formula itself failed. Our website’s impact has already been greater than we could have imagined, as we have seen well over 50,000 visitors to the site from 148 countries.
Apparently in response to this surge of former students and parents speaking out and questioning his teachings, Bill Gothard authored a letter in November addressed and mailed to “all past and present ATI students.” You can view the letter here. This letter created quite a buzz among the various survivor groups, as it was the first time Bill publicly acknowledged that some former students might have been hurt or “offended” through the cumulative effect of time spent in his programs. However, this excitement quickly turned to disappointment as realization sank in that the letter was simply another attempt to emotionally manipulate his followers, blame their problems on a failure to uphold his legalistic standards, and defend his false definition of God’s grace. Although the letter was written with a sincere tone, we feel the letter was really just an attempt to do damage control among his followers by discrediting the message of those who are speaking out.
Recovering Grace is addressing Gothard’s letter publicly because we give voice to a large number of the survivors he is speaking of in his letter, and his letter serves as an excellent example of how a spiritually manipulative leader operates. Because most of us have known Gothard personally and have spent years working alongside him, we have a good perspective on the difference between what he appears to say on the surface and what he is really communicating between the lines.
The Letter’s Introduction
Gothard begins his letter stating that he has dedicated his life to raising up a generation of “world changers.” Throughout the history of IBLP and ATI, Gothard has often used elitist language to promote his programs and seminars. He has often referred to “giving the world a new approach to life,” and has appealed to parents by promising a fail-proof formula for their children’s success if it is followed correctly. Such tactics have been very effective, as they preyed upon our parents’ desire to raise godly children who love the Lord and follow Him with all their hearts. What Christian parent would not want this for their children? There is nothing wrong with this desire, but God does not operate on formulas for success. Gothard has continually made promises that are not his to make, but God’s.
Gothard states that being a world changer “requires even greater sacrifices than are embraced by Olympic champions.” This type of thinking is at the very heart of legalism. The concept that “if I work harder and sacrifice more, God will use me more than others” is absolutely, unquestionably unbiblical. This is not to say that discipleship is without cost and sacrifice, but our motivation needs to be love and devotion to our Lord and Savior, rather than a focus on spiritual significance. Jesus rebuked those whose desire was to be greatest in God’s kingdom (Luke 22:24-30).
The mindset Gothard is trying to establish is antithetical to God’s call on believers to be humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our focus should not be on leaving the legacy of a “world changer,” but should rather be prioritized by a Christward direction and a servant’s heart (Mark 9:33-35). If God then chooses to use us to make an impact on the world, all glory belongs to Him.
“Missing Factor of Wisdom”
Gothard establishes a valid biblical premise that Christians need to seek God’s wisdom. Throughout Scripture, believers are challenged to find wisdom and to study the Word of God. Gothard states that his ministry has created “Wisdom Booklets, Wisdom Quizzes, and Wisdom Searches” in order to help people find God’s wisdom.
However, these materials contain many principles and ideas that are scripturally unfounded (see our Twisted Scriptures articles for examples). Many of these “wisdom” resources are based on Gothard’s “rhemas,” which are often based on his own ideas about Scripture passages taken out-of-context.
Theologians, Christian writers, and pastors have long warned of Gothard’s erroneous use of Scripture. Christians should indeed seek the wisdom of God, but true wisdom is found in the unfettered Word of God, not in Gothard’s legalistic dogma. Because of these things, we do not believe that Gothard’s teachings are a valid source of “wisdom,” either educationally or Scripturally, as he would have his followers believe.
“The Real Reason to be Different”
One of Gothard’s long-held premises is the idea that God calls us to be different than the world and to have a higher standard than the world. In his letter, he gives three Scripture passages that supposedly back up this claim (John 17:14-16, Romans 12:2, and I John 2:15). However, if you actually read the Scriptures, none of these passages say anything about higher standards. They primarily deal with being “in the world but not of the world.” A subtle but important difference exists between this idea and what Gothard is communicating.
To illustrate this difference, let’s consider Gothard’s teaching on pork. Gothard has often taught that Christians should keep the Mosaic Law (or at least certain portions of it that he has selected). One example of this is Gothard’s teaching that Christians shouldn’t eat pork. Gothard would refer to such a lifestyle choice as a “higher standard,” when in reality, this “higher standard” was abrogated by the New Covenant (Acts 10:9-16; Colossians 2:16-17). Believers are under the New Covenant, not the law, so any decision to follow the law is a matter of personal choice. Stating that all Christians must follow one man’s preference on certain aspects of the law is legalism. Our focus is to be on Christ, not man-made standards.
Gothard continues the letter by making some rather bizarre assertions about the need to hold “higher standards” because our disciples look to us for an example. He goes so far as to say that “our disciples…will motivate us to maintain a higher standard.” While it is true that we as believers must walk worthy of our calling in Christ, Gothard’s focus here is on outward appearances. As we disciple others, one of the first things we should be teaching them is that God looks upon the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), not the goodness of our outward appearances. The call upon a Christian disciple is not ultimately one of keeping higher standards; God calls us to a life-transforming relationship with Him as we live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Anything else is simply guilt-based legalism or a “Jesus+” theology.
Next, Gothard lays out his first of several arguments to discredit those who would reject his standards–a common tactic which those of us familiar with his teachings have often witnessed.
Gothard says that the reason so many former ATI students have turned their backs on his standards and training is because they are not actively leading others to Christ. In the process of interviewing over 3,000 students who have gone through his “Journey to the Heart” program, he has supposedly determined that very few of these young people are winning souls for Christ or discipling anyone in the Commands of Christ (the 49 commands that Gothard determined are most important in Scripture and which, amazingly, line up exactly with Gothard’s 49 “character qualities,” and which, conveniently, can be purchased for only $49).
In reply to this assertion, we make the following observations:
“The Underlying Battlefield”
Gothard also has a long history of blaming rebellion against his standards on the “evils” of rock music. In this section of his letter, he says that “In almost every single case [of someone who has rejected his standards] the root cause has been their acceptance and involvement with unclean music.” In two short sentences, he dismisses every challenge against his program as the result of rock music. (It is also worth noting that he refers to his teachings as “the way of life that their parents have taught them” so as to shift blame from his failed methods to the parents who trusted those methods. It is also a thinly-veiled attempt to manipulate by guilt any adult former-student who might have since come to a separate conclusion than their parents on the issue of rock music).
He proceeds to take his argument one step further when he states that listening to such music leads to addictions, immorality, and possession by unclean spirits. The assertion is that most of us have rejected his standards because of rock music, and therefore are also likely addicted to pornography and controlled by unclean spirits! This is not only an easily disprovable “slippery-slope” fallacy, but also a low blow to those of us who are standing up to Gothard on behalf of the thousands who were spiritually destroyed because of his addiction to legalism.
It would not take much effort to prove that we are not a bunch of demon-possessed porn addicts. Rather, we are forgiven, redeemed, blood-bought children of God who are, for the first time, experiencing true freedom in Christ. Sure, we still sin. And when we do, we throw ourselves upon the mercy and grace of our precious Lord. But our sin is not because of some outward influence called rock music. It’s because of our fallen human nature. Sin comes from within our hearts, not without. But, thanks be to God, Christ redeems and forgives our hearts and has granted us His robes of righteousness. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, and we rejoice in our forgiveness!
It is also worth noting that, as usual, the Scriptures Gothard uses to make his case against rock music have absolutely nothing to do with music. The passage he mentions in Haggai specifically pertains to ceremonial laws for cleanliness within the context of a prophecy about the rebuilding of the temple (Haggai 2:11-14). It has nothing to do with music, nor is it hermeneutically appropriate to view it as a “principle” that should be applied to our lives. The passage in Corinthians is about Christians who are in inappropriate relationships with non-believers. James is referring to a general spiritual battle against worldliness, and John is specifically referring to rejecting envy, lust, and greed. None of these passages have anything to do with the topic of music. (You may read more regarding what the Scriptures say about music here.)
“The Definition of Grace”
Our website gains its title from our desire to expose Gothard’s false definition of grace, and to help those affected by it “recover” true grace in their lives. (For more about how Gothard twists grace, view the “grace and faith” section of “A Call for Discernment.”) As a result, the concept of grace is a constant thread throughout our website.
Gothard, well aware of our attempts to correct his re-definition of grace, devotes an entire section of his letter to defending it. As has been noted many times, the error is in his definition of grace as “the power and ability to do God’s will.” We affirm that God’s grace does grant us both of these, as evidenced many places in Scripture (Philippians 2:13 is a good example: “… for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose”). A life of Christward pursuit is fueled by the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, is Gothard’s application of this one outworking of grace to the broader definition. In other words, one of the results of grace is the ability to do God’s will, but Gothard is saying that grace IS the ability to do God’s will. This is a very subtle difference, but an extremely important one.
Gothard attempts to use the Westminster Confession of Faith to affirm his definition, but the Confession he is using would similarly disagree with his application of the part to the whole. The portion he quotes (WCF 9.4) explains that when God transfers the sinner into the “state of grace,” he is then able to do that which is “spiritually good.” We fully believe that statement. But grace is far more than this. It is grounded in God’s unmerited favor and not in any power or ability within us, God-given or not. This is a concept repeatedly presented elsewhere in the Westminster Confession, such as in the next chapter (10.2): “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”)
To apply one effect of God’s grace as the definition would be akin to defining oxygen as a gas that makes our brain work correctly. Yes, oxygen keeps the synapses firing, but its uses are far more pervasive, and it would be misleading to define it solely by one effect. God’s grace in Scripture is not simply a potential (an ability to be used or neglected) but a change of status that we have no hand in. It might be most helpful to state it this way: Gothard is defining God’s cooperative grace in our sanctification, not God’s unilateral act of our justification. To apply his definition to sanctification could conceivably make sense, but applied to our salvation, it unequivocally suggests that saving grace is a work or ability within us. Gothard may believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but his definition casts doubt on this and, even worse, has undoubtedly confused many of his followers as to where their acceptance before God is founded.
Many theologians have called out Gothard for this redefining of grace, only to be swiftly rebuffed as those who would “turn the grace of God into lasciviousness,” an accusation that Gothard utilizes in this letter. We absolutely do NOT believe in grace as a license to sin. We hold firmly to the truths found in Romans 6, where Paul rebukes those who would use grace in such a way. We pursue holiness in our walks with God as a response to God’s unmerited favor. We walk daily in a love for the Lord and a freedom that comes from following His Holy Spirit, not a list of man-made rules. We believe that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) As we walk in dependence on His Holy Spirit, He will not lead us into licentiousness, but into a freedom to rejoice and delight in serving the Lord with boldness, without living in fear of His rejection or disapproval.
“A Time to Rejoice!”
Surprisingly, Gothard invites those whom he may have offended to contact him. While this is perhaps a step in the right direction, we honestly do not believe that it is enough. Time and time again over the past three decades, Gothard has been confronted with the heresy, hypocrisy, and spiritual abuse within his organization (here is documentation of this in the 1980’s and again in 1997). At no time has he publicly apologized for his wrongdoings or corrected his teachings and behaviors. We believe that if he were truly remorseful, he would repent of his false teachings, deal with the rampant hypocrisy and pride that has characterized his ministry, and publicly acknowledge and make restitution for the spiritual and emotional abuse he has both committed and tolerated.
We believe that while Gothard may feel sorry for many of his victims, he tries to find ways to cast blame for the failures without taking any personal responsibility for the spiritual destruction that has taken place. His refusal to acknowledge or address the sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse that is daily being brought to light by Recovering Grace and other former ATI students can only be read as either indifference or blatant refusal to take responsibility.
A Formal Call to Repentance
Therefore, in light of our desire to proclaim the unadulterated truth of the Gospel (Matthew 4:17):
While we understand that much of what he has done in ministry may have been with good intentions, his refusal to accept correction and his attempts to silence (or fire) his critics throughout the years has not served him well in the long run. Now as his organization is just a shell of what it once was, the fruits of his labors are being revealed.
We are his fruit—the thousands of us who have been hurt by his teachings—and we call on him to repent and begin preaching the true Gospel as found in God’s Word. God’s grace is extended to everyone—anyone—who realizes their need for it, and we will gladly and joyfully extend grace to Bill Gothard upon his repentance and will welcome his heartfelt remorse and restitution.
However, as Bill Gothard chooses to remain unrepentant and continues to sweep aside these documented grievances, we at Recovering Grace will have no choice but to continue to tell our stories as a warning to those who might consider following his teachings. We will continue to make every effort to expose the truth about his organization, publicly critique his false teachings, and shed light upon his spiritually abusive “new approach to life.”