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My first experience with anything Bill Gothard was the Eternal Vision program. My then 18-year-old daughter, who had for years rejected God, had been amazingly touched by God in a Denny’s parking lot. This girl was beaming with joy, sleepless from excitement, and so new and fresh. I urged her to visit some people we knew who ran Bible camp each year. Nothing fancy. Our children had all become friends and what we knew of them seemed legit. I had always admired their dedication to God, plus they were ministers. He was a pastor. The lady encouraged Jaime to go to this Gothard program and even intervened on her behalf when there was a concern for her eligibility, since she had not been raised in their teachings (red flag number one). I had become leery of and concerned with any ministry/church that claimed to be “unique” in its approach, above the rest. There begins to develop an exclusionist mentality. I was taught and believe the Bible would not have us circle our wagons into a “holy huddle” with unique rules that separate us from fellowship with any other believers.
We had never even heard of Gothard and had no idea what this was, but I was so happy she was going to a place to minister. She was so fresh and free when she found the Lord. She had been delivered from some bitterness and was a brand new unspoiled person, so loving. It was a real testimony to God at work. She would willingly go to help and stay with a sick woman we knew and tried to help her without complaint. She wanted so much to serve the Lord. She had such a forgiving spirit. She had let go of some major traumatic memories from her past that only God could have healed her from.
Fast forward to the Gothard institute. The legalism started to creep into her life almost immediately. She was to wear a dress at all times and not just that, but it was taught that those that didn’t were kind of unholy; defrauding. She told stories of a girl who was confined to her room for about a week as punishment for what seemed like a behavior that wasn’t wrong or hurtful. It was just not acceptable to them (red flag number 2). Boys and girls could not even be in each other’s company and talk, trying to get to know each other, without condemnation (red flag number 3). I wondered why it was treated as almost evil — what better place to teach them proper conduct with the opposite sex? Relationships are not wrong; God created woman and man for marriage. This seemed so over the top, almost like it was sinful. Clothes were so scrutinized that anything that even hugged the body or form fit in any way (like jeans) was decidedly scandalous. Almost like Muslim women, they were being taught that they were trying to appeal to the men and they were responsible.
One boy who was from a family deeply involved in this teaching showed interest in her after she left. He was a friend there and pursued her even though they both almost felt guilty. He eventually said his parents wouldn’t approve of his “courting” her because she had not always been a Christian (Huge, huge red flag!). My God changes people and they are a new creation. My belief stands, backed by scripture, that we are no different from each other, “that all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” The only possible reason for this mentality would be to further keep themselves from “contamination,” rather than reaching out to others in fellowship as family. Also, if indeed God puts two people together, if they have prayed it through themselves before pursuing each other; I don’t believe the parents should overrule merely by their unfounded prejudices. She had been telling us she was completely under our authority. I tried to tell her I felt her decisions were best made by her (with some advice) and God since she was over 18 and I believed it was time for her to have her own personal relationship with God rather than through me. She really was stuck on this.
It was very cult-like. I saw many similarities: the jargon that was solely understood and indoctrinated into them, the books written only by him, the teachings — everything was from his teachings. There were multiple rules that I knew were extra-biblical. Sure, it is wise to have your parents’ advice, but you stand before God in the final analysis. I think of Mary, David, and many of those we admire in scriptures who walked with God and had His guidance in the matter, at even younger ages. I wasn’t prepared to pick her mate. I understand the need for dissuading males and females from inappropriate contact, especially while away from home and in the care of the ministry. I get that, but the effort that was taken to keep them from forming any attachments or go home was an unjustifiable and unbiblical law. We do not live in a bubble. It is normal growth to learn, in increments if needed, just how to maneuver the curves that life throws us. Leadership is not meant to control us, but to guide us. I found it ironic that the daughters of the pastor were flirting with everyone and the rules didn’t apply. One only had to read their comments and such on their blogs.
My daughter became so legalistic and accusatory, mimicking the teachings and pointing fingers at others if they did this or that. It began to be less about God and more about doing the right thing; very judgmental, which was very obviously religious training. Quoting legalistic jargon as if it were scripture, and questioning people’s intentions if they were to ignore these rules or cross a line.
I have seen many of the youth who went to this program become isolated in life, unable to form healthy and loving relationships. It was as if they were so damaged by this program that they couldn’t pull this thing called life together. I have met many of kids from the program, and only on rare occasions do any of them seem to have the loving spirit of God that draws you to Him. It is as if the program derailed them from becoming growing, thinking Christians who are saved through grace by faith. It also derailed them, especially in my daughters’ case, from being the walking, joyful example of Christianity that they had been prior to their involvement with the Institute. In my daughter’s case, the spirit seemed to have died in her. It was quenched. I know no other way to put it. There was such a huge transformation from her sweet childlike faith to an almost bitter, judgmental person who spouted teachings as if they were scripture. I pointed out on many occasions how this or that wasn’t really in the Bible, and she agreed, saying that they were meant to be guidelines, but leadership took it too far. Yet you could see it was having its effect on her. It began to permeate her speech and attitude toward others, and tainted her opinion of others. Her joy disappeared and was replaced with fear. Instead of coming away ready to minister to others and better prepared to stand up and let His light shine, she was more interested in avoiding anyone who might contaminate her. Those who needed Christ became more like people to avoid.
She has since left the Institute and met some other amazing Christians, among whom she has learned to overcome those false teachings, returning to her once loving ways.
He truly has and what better testimony to the God of the universe to always seek us out and call us back to Him?
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