A thousand years ago in Europe, alchemists served as philosophers, scientists, and magicians all wrapped up into one. They mixed, stirred, bubbled and distilled chemicals in the search for the fabled philosopher’s stone–the substance that would have the power to turn metals like lead into silver or gold. Their mission was doomed from the beginning, although their work paved the way for modern chemistry. The relentless search for the philosopher’s stone eventually died out and was replaced by knowledge of things such as the periodic table of the elements.
On Bill Gothard’s web page, he asserts that “every problem in life can be traced to seven non-optional principles found in the Bible,” and that his teachings help people from all backgrounds understand the cause-and-effect sequences in life. This approach to Scripture causes one to see all of God’s Word as nothing more than a collection of universal principles. It’s almost as if Gothard does not read a passage to see what it really says. Rather, he reads it to see how he can distill gold out of it. Like an alchemist experimenting with elements, he seeks universal principles as his philosopher’s stone.
In 1973, a professor of Hebrew Scripture attended a Basic Seminar and later reported, “I was regularly assaulted by a misuse of the Bible, particularly of the Old Testament, on a level that I have never experienced in a public ministry before that time (or since)…Old Testament passages were used time after time to argue points that they did not prove.” (Allen, 1984)
In 1974, a Christian columnist wrote, “Gothard insists that for every problem in life there is a particular Scripture passage that offers the solution. For him the Bible is essentially an answer book—a verse here to answer this problem, a verse there to answer that. So the more Scripture passages you learn, the more problems you can answer. A favorite approach of Gothard’s is to state a problem, then ask, ‘You know what the answer is?’ and then quote a Bible passage to dispose of the matter. Such use of Scripture, it seems to me, reduces it to a kind of book of magic.” (Bockelman, 1974)
And in 1998, a concerned pastor and elders at a church in Texas wrote in the conclusion of their response to Gothard’s teachings, “In short, we believe Bill Gothard misinterprets the Word of God to such an extent that his teachings present a concern for the local church significant enough to warrant a caution to those who are inclined to follow his teaching indiscriminately,” and “Perhaps one of the reasons why Mr. Gothard’s misinterpretations of the Scriptures are not more plainly obvious to those who attend his seminars is that the pace of the seminars does not allow for the student to actually look at the Scriptures in context.” (Kirk, 1998)
Bill Gothard seemingly does not read Scripture to discover what it says before trying to draw meaningful application from it. Rather than paying attention to genre and examining a passage in its context, he mixes and distills ideas from here and there in search of universal principles which will unlock hidden cause-and-effect sequences in life. He approaches a passage with his mind already predisposed towards a particular result, and this is why he is doomed to miss the point of so many passages.
For example, his recent Easter email ignored the true purpose of Christ’s resurrection in an effort to distill this most important remembrance into simple principles. Instead of Easter being about who Christ is and what He did, the spotlight shines on our own performance.
Another example is how Gothard boils down Acts 2 to a method which can be repeated. The real point of Acts 2 is that the Holy Spirit came on the early followers of Jesus and began a new movement in the world. Peter, a changed man, stepped up and boldly proclaimed the gospel. The gospel quickly spread throughout the world due to this event. But Gothard’s alchemy evaporates all that out as he boils it down to “what is the method here that I can repeat?” He approaches it looking for the principle that can be repeated, the action that can be taken in order to achieve a predictable result in a cause-and-effect sequence. He finds that the disciples were together in “one accord” (incidentally, this word does not even appear in the older Greek manuscripts). Recalling that the Lord referred to a hypothetical group of ten in a completely unrelated Old Testament passage, Gothard mixes the concept of being “one accord” with groupings of ten and reports that Acts 2 yields “One-Accord Power Teams” of 10 people.
Many characters in Scripture had one-time encounters with God, tailored for them, never to be repeated again. Moses did not give shepherding seminars so that people could reproduce their own personal burning bush experience (it only happened once for Moses himself). Jacob did not become a wrestling coach and open a “how to wrestle with angels” clinic. Jonah did not become a diving instructor to help people dive in at the right place and have a swallowed-by-a-huge-fish experience. Hosea did not start an eProstituteHarmony web site to help aspiring prophets marry ladies of the evening. Peter did not start a nutrition seminar with information about how to trigger a trance and a vision related to unclean foods. And the disciples did not start ‘One-Accord’ teams (which would have been 12 men, plus the women, plus other followers anyway) and meet on Pentecost every year and try to have a wind-and-fire-and-tongues repeat. These were all one-time encounters with the living God.
Historically, alchemists sought “a sort of limitless power over nature.” Mr. Gothard does not promise limitless power, but there is an undeniable appeal to understanding the cause-and-effect sequences in life that give a person maximum control of their life. Life is often out of our control and even dangerous. Part of the appeal of Gothard’s teachings is the promise of control. With this mindset, one does not read God’s Word to see what it says. Rather, the focus becomes a search for methods and actions that may be repeated to achieve results in a cause-and-effect sequence.
Scripture is the inspired Word of God. It is not a dry engineer’s manual. It is not primarily about methods, formulas, or principles. It is about relationship: loving God and loving others. Sadly, Gothard distills even this down to “loving God equals obeying God’s commands and I just happen to have 49 commands for $49.” But I believe that many of Gothard’s followers have the uneasy sense at one time or another that the relational aspect is lacking.
The clock is ticking but it is not too late for Mr. Gothard to make the leap from being an alchemist to being a true student of God’s Word. A good student of God’s Word lets it live and breathe in its context and allows it to have its intended meaning rather than relentlessly attempting to distill and boil it down to the philosopher’s stone of universal principles.
Alchemists helped open people’s eyes to the possibilities of chemistry. They also encouraged people to chase false dreams. Some people appreciate that Bill Gothard helped open their eyes to the possibility of being completely dedicated to God. Others deeply regret years of pain and loss from chasing false dreams. Bill Gothard’s teachings are neither all good nor all bad. God has used him for good, but his system of distilling everything down to universal legalistic principles while ignoring the greater narrative of Scripture has led many astray.
Allen, R.B. (1984). Issues of Concern — Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report.
Bockelman, W. (1974). Pros and cons of Bill Gothard. Christian Century, 91(32), 877-880.
Kirk, D.W., et al. (1998) A Call For Discernment: A closer look at the teachings of Bill Gothard.