When I was 18 or 19 years old I really began to question the teachings of Bill Gothard, the Advanced Training Institute, and the Institute in Basic Life Principles. I had seen some things at various training centers that didn’t line up with the principles that Bill taught, and I began feeling in my heart that something just wasn’t right. However, IBLP teachings were all I had ever known in my life, and I didn’t even know how to begin processing them through the truth of the Scriptures.
Around that time, my brother was given a copy of Midwest Christian Outreach’s A Matter of Basic Principles written by Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Ron Henzel. He had read it and had passed it along to my mother, telling her that if even half of it was truth we needed to reconsider our involvement with ATI (the Advanced Training Institute) and IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles). Curious myself, I began to read it. What I read literally changed my life forever. I had never seen such a clear presentation of the errors in Bill Gothard’s teachings, and the many stories of what went on behind the scenes in IBLP were incredibly eye-opening. While my journey to spiritual freedom had begun prior to reading the book, it was through the book that God affirmed to me that I was on the right path.
Midwest Christian Outreach (MCO) is an apologetics ministry whose mission is “to give clear answers, and a solid defense of the orthodox biblical faith, to all types of unbelievers—atheists, agnostics, as well as members of cults and new religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the International Churches of Christ, and so on.” Although they had primarily dealt with major cults early on in their ministry, people began asking MCO to research IBLP.
At first, MCO didn’t see the need to investigate Bill Gothard and his teachings, simply because Bill had been a respected Christian leader throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and they assumed his teachings were orthodox. But as people continued to ask about IBLP, they began to dig a little deeper. The book, A Matter of Basic Principles, is the result of their findings. The following is a brief synopsis of each of the chapters.
The prologue gives a detailed overview of the social factors that led to the public acceptance of Bill Gothard’s teachings. The public upheaval of the 1960’s created an environment in which parents were desperate for answers to the problems of the day. Bill Gothard’s finely tuned system of principles for living were quickly embraced, but ultimately became a form of “evangelical Talmud.”
Chapter 1, Citizen Kane and a History of Inconsistency contains a rather detailed picture of Bill Gothard behind the scenes of his public ministry. Much of the chapter is about the sex scandal involving Bill’s brother in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There is documentation of Bill’s attempts to cover up the scandal, as well as his attempts to silence those who felt he was handling the situation improperly. Also in the chapter is information illustrating Bill’s personal refusal to be held accountable to his authorities, and his propensity to use Scripture to intimidate those who would speak negatively about him.
The second chapter, The Unconfrontable Bill Gothard, is the complete history of Midwest Christian Outreach’s attempts to meet with Bill Gothard for discussion of the problems they found with his ministry and teachings. As the chapter title would suggest, they found Bill completely unconfrontable, and his endless attempts to avoid meeting with them and to change the “rules” under which they would meet are carefully documented. This chapter also contains a section documenting Dr. Ronald Allen’s (a respected theologian) attempts to meet with Bill over a 20+ year period.
The Emerald City, the third chapter in the book, attempts to get to the foundation of what is wrong with Bill Gothard’s system. The authors focus on two main areas: Gothard’s misuse of Scripture (and his twisting of the concept of a rhema), and his teaching on authority/chain of command. The authors are careful to delineate what exactly Gothard teaches in these areas, and to articulate a biblical response to these teachings.
Chapter 4 is entitled IBLP: Institute in Basic Legalistic Practices, and contains a detailed discussion about whether Bill’s teachings are legalistic, particularly in his application of the Old Testament to the New Testament believer. Although a bit tedious in places, the authors are careful to give various perspectives on the Old Testament’s place in modern Christian living, demonstrating that Bill’s view of the Mosaic Law falls outside the bounds of any historical evangelical position. They also discuss in this chapter whether it is appropriate for Christians to criticize other Christians, a complaint that Gothard’s followers have often raised about MCO.
The fifth chapter in the book is entitled, Character First!, and covers two key problems with the teachings of Bill Gothard. The first issue discussed is moralism, which is simply a system of behavior modification like Gothard teaches in his multiple versions of character-based curriculum. While the authors certainly don’t have a problem with good character, they find that Gothard’s focus on external behavior is antithetical to the biblical concept of sanctification by grace. The second issue addressed in the chapter is Gothard’s misunderstanding and false teaching of the concept of grace. The authors go to great lengths to clarify and contrast Gothard’s position with the orthodox position, demonstrating that Gothard’s position stands in opposition to the spiritual freedom for which Christ died. In fact, the authors document an instance in which Bill literally said, “Christians can’t handle freedom.”
Chapter 6, A Black and White Gospel for a Color World, is a discussion on Bill Gothard’s black and white view of how Christians should live. Beginning with a discussion of what Gothard teaches, the authors highlight how Gothard believes that there are no such things as “gray areas,” and that every decision a Christian makes is either right or wrong. They continue by discussing how Gothard refers to those that allow for spiritual freedom as “Antinomian Rationalists,” a bizarre accusation that in most cases is completely untrue. There is a discussion of how Gothard uses a fear of making wrong decisions to keep his followers dependent on his rules for living, and how Gothard fails to grasp the truths that Paul clearly taught in Romans 14.
The Orwellian World of Bill Gothard is about how the authoritarian structure of IBLP and ATI creates an environment in which individuals are forced to conform to the standards and rules put forth by Bill Gothard. The chapter illustrates this concept with a number of testimonies from former Gothard followers who came under the intense spiritual abuse of IBLP leadership at various training centers. One particularly shocking account is the story of Pastor Johnny Jones, who moved across the country to lead the Flint training center at the request of Bill, who had announced publicly that he had been told by God that Johnny was the man for the job. Pastor Jones was repeatedly deceived and lied to by Bill and other leadership as they failed to fit into the IBLP model of a perfect ATI family.
Chapter 8, Alpena Mountain Home, is the story of the Hamm family, who had allowed IBLP to utilize a large amount of their property to launch the “log cabin program” in Arkansas. This story illustrates how Bill repeatedly refused to submit to the building laws of the state of Arkansas, and how he even spiritually threatened Mr. Hamm when he tried to hold Bill accountable to these laws, writing: “I am sincerely concerned for the judgment of God that will come upon you for the actions you are taking.” Bill actually even tried to coerce Mr. Hamm into donating the property through spiritually manipulative tactics.
The Courtship Game, naturally, deals with Bill Gothard’s teaching on courtship, which in reality is a form of arranged marriage. The authors present Gothard’s teachings on the subject, and then show how they are unbiblical, unfair, unreasonable, unworkable, and unwise. In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful chapters in the book, as it deals with some of Gothard’s most dangerous concepts, including the “leaky umbrella,” emotional suppression, and hasty marriages. Most importantly, they discuss how Gothard’s system forces young adults to allow their parents to take God’s role in guiding their lives.
The tenth chapter, Bill Gothard—Medicine Man, focuses on IBLP’s Medical Institute of America, which was responsible for producing a number of “Basic Care Bulletins.” The authors demonstrate how these bulletins were largely based upon “junk science and/or New Age mysticism,” which Bill borrowed because he was able to fit the concepts into his system of spirituality. At best, Gothard attempts to create in his readers paranoia of the medical community, and at worst, he gives advice that is dangerous. The authors also discuss Bill’s teachings on Adoption—he is generally against it—and of the “sins of the fathers.”
In the epilogue, the authors’ years of experience in counter-cult ministry really comes through. They write extensively about the power of propaganda within cults and cult-like organizations, and they show why it is so hard for people to leave such groups. However, they make a strong appeal to their readers, showing how the grace of God will enable even the most tormented soul to embrace the freedom that Christ won through his death on the cross.
A Matter of Basic Principles, while occasionally tedious in the theological sections, is a fascinating and enlightening read. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is seeking the truth about Bill Gothard’s teachings. I personally believe that this book has played a major role in the decline of Bill Gothard’s influence, and in the massive decrease in enrollment that ATI has suffered in the past 10 years. If you know someone who is entrapped in the legalism of IBLP, giving them this book would be an excellent step towards helping them find freedom. If you are a proponent of Bill Gothard’s teachings, I would encourage you to simply read the book. The truth it contains could change your life, much like it did mine.
You can purchase A Matter of Basic Principles from Amazon in either paperback or Kindle editions. (Note that by purchasing using these links, a small percentage of the sales price comes back to support the ministry of Recovering Grace.)