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Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt compelled to write down my experience with the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). I think this desire comes from the fact that I want to show that the effects of Gothardism are not always as drastic as one may be led to believe. So perhaps I should title this testimony as: “How Gothard did not ruin my life, and how solid doctrine helped.”
Let me begin by explaining my childhood. I was raised in a God-fearing home. I was used to my family being seen as “the perfect homeschooling family.” We attended a local Nazarene church, and my parents were very careful to raise us in the ways of the Lord.
From a very young age (as early as 8), I struggled with lust and anger in my life. At the same time, I was also gifted by God with a very sensitive conscience. As taught in church, I believed that any violation of God’s law would cause me to be “unsaved” and in danger of hellfire until I repented and asked God for His forgiveness. This sparked a cycle of sinning—repenting—sinning that would haunt me for years. If I took a second glance at a magazine in the store — time to say a prayer. If I yelled at my sisters — time to say a prayer. Everywhere I went was temptation; everywhere I went, I prayed.
The side effect of all this was that I would constantly feel guilty. I was totally incapable of discerning what I should be guilty about and what was just my hyper-sensitive heart going wild. I distinctly remember feeling guilty about things like not vacuuming the floor properly, or not using clean enough water to wash the dishes. Looking back at it now, it was a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Every action I took, every moment of the day, was constantly being compared to scripture in my mind, and I was falling short.
Then my parents rediscovered the teachings of Bill Gothard. They had attended a Basic Seminar back in the ’70s but in the ’90s decided to go again. Being about 13 at the time, I went with them, and I unexpectedly found the answers to my problems! It was the rock music that caused it all! It was my unconfessed bitterness, and all those things I had hidden in my heart that caused me to struggle with anger and lust! Even my ache was caused by moral failures in my life! All I needed was to follow the 10 principles, or the 7 steps, and all would be well. If only I stopped listening to rock music (if you consider ’50s oldies to be rock), that would magically help. If I still lusted, it was because I still had “high places” in my mind, because I still secretly coveted things that were unholy. If only I could follow these steps perfectly, I could be perfect. I just knew it!
My sisters and I started attending certain ATI programs. The first of these was Sound Foundations (a music class put on by IBLP). Even here, in a monastery of “holiness,” I found plenty of room to sin! If I stayed up just one minute after curfew, I sinned by defying the authority of IBLP leadership. If I walked into a friend’s room (also not allowed in SF), this was something else I would need to confess — but confess to whom? Halfway through the class, I had racked up so many “infractions” that were making me feel guilty that I had to confess. So I marched down to the office of the man in charge of the program and confessed my sin.
To his credit, he did not try to stop me from confessing all these ridiculous “sins.” Instead he quietly listened, thanked me, and told me he “forgave me,” that it was okay. I suddenly felt much better. So much better it was almost euphoric! It was at that point that I realized that I often felt better after confessing than I ever did before the confession.
From there I was involved in several other IBLP programs over the years; they all had basically this same outcome. I followed their laws to the letter, and confessed every action I did wrong. I was learning the secret to a good Christian life: Confess and you’ll feel better about life.
Then my parents sent me to ALERT. This was when I realized that there was no good I could do that would be good enough for the drill instructors in Basic Training. My best was so horribly sub-par that it didn’t even come close to being “right.” But that’s the way any boot camp goes, and after the eight weeks, I was out of Basic and into the more advanced training that ALERT offered.
Through all of this, my personal failures still existed. I still lusted in my mind, I still struggled with anger, and I still had this crushing guilt all the time. What did this mean? At the age of 21, did my struggles with lust mean that I could never be married? How could I be expected to love my wife properly when I was such a horrible sinner?
I’m going to cut the story a bit short at this point and explain a few things. About four years later, I was still at ALERT, working on staff, and my parents (and I) had started attending a different church back home. On one of my visits home, my dad suggested that I go talk to the pastor of our new church, and talk to him about my problems with “lust.”
Being skilled in confession at this point, I was very frank with this pastor about my problems with lust, and his response was shocking: “First of all, you should remember that this guilt you feel over your lust means you are saved—”
“What?!? How can I be a Christian and still be so evil inside?”
“I was an unbeliever once, and I can tell you, the unsaved care nothing for the laws of God. They don’t care if lust is wrong. They don’t care in the slightest what God says. Therefore the very fact that you know lust is wrong, and you are actively trying to fight it proves you are a child of God. The second thing this proves is that you need to get married. There may be some in the world who are ‘eunuchs created by God’ but it’s my personal opinion that these men are very, very rare. If you desire to marry and to love your wife, you are not one of these men. It’s better to marry than to burn.”
This doctrine was like nothing I had ever heard! I started attending this church whenever I got the chance, and everything that was preached seemed to be a breath of fresh air! I no longer had to feel guilty, because God loved me unconditionally. I no longer had to try to be so utterly perfect, because I knew it was completely impossible.
It’s been almost eight years since that conversation, and I cannot explain how incredibly it has changed my life! I have come to realize that it’s not rock music that causes me to sin. I may sin in thought or deed from the effects of certain music, but the act of listening to the music itself is not a sin. Seeing a scantily clad woman on a magazine cover is not a sin; it’s what I do with that image that may be sin. Drinking liquor is not a sin; it’s what I do when I’ve drunk that liquor that may be sin.
I’d like to just contrast these two positions:
Gothardism: We can live a perfect life by following a set of rules. If we don’t see success in our lives, it’s most likely caused by failure to follow one or more rules. Follow these 7 steps, these 10 guidelines, destroy the strongholds, confess your sins, and you’ll be able to purify your life to the point of true salvation. In essence, it’s all about you.
Solid doctrine: You are a sinner. If you confess your sins to God and ask Him to save you, then you are a child of God. Period. Nothing you can do or say will ever pluck you from His hand. You have only now to strive to please your Lord with your actions on earth. But know this! Jesus has already died for your sins, past and present and future. He already knows how you will sin, and He knows it will be a battle. But He will be there, enabling you to fight and to conquer, and He will never permit you to be subjected to a temptation beyond what you can endure. In essence, it’s all about God.
I said in the beginning that Gothard did not ruin my life, and I believe that to be true. Gothard’s teachings simply amplified issues that I already had. I think this is the true danger of Gothard’s teachings. They take scripture that you already know and believe, and they warp it ever so slightly to make it support a legalistic lifestyle. The most dangerous form of heresy is the one that’s mostly the truth, but also contains a single lie.