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In recent days, I’ve been reading a bit about Gothardism on various websites, and it has brought back a lot of memories. Growing up, my family never went hardcore into the ATI (Advanced Training Institute) program, and we would still be considered on the outer fringes by the inner circle members. We were actually very “worldly” from a Gothard point of view: We wore pants and watched TV (although our family standards were much more conservative than most people I knew). In later years, my sister and I listened to Christian rock, despite knowing about the demonic powers being summoned through the witchcraft-beat! (GASP) Not only that, we also occasionally listened to worship songs written in a minor key! Somehow, we escaped the curse of depression.
On the plus side though, we attended every seminar (both Basic and Advanced) every year from the time I was twelve (this was before the children’s seminars, which my brother attended). We led their Basic Seminar Follow-up course and the Financial Freedom seminars. We were home-schooled (of course). We played all their board games. We memorized the 49 character qualities, and could quote The Pineapple Story and Character Sketches (all volumes). We spoke the code. We did Wisdom Searches in the mornings. And, looking back, I realize how deeply entrenched my parents were, and understand things like why my mom continued to get pregnant, even after a staggering number of miscarriages and being told she needed a hysterectomy.
If you just casually attended the Basic Seminar, you probably found it quite easy to take the good and spit out the bones. It starts off Monday night with a pleasant introduction to the whole thing, and a teaching on self-acceptance. Bill Gothard takes you through the “Ten Unchangeables” and explains that God is using all the things that we cannot change about ourselves to paint a beautiful masterpiece in our lives. Bill is a good speaker, and is brimming over with amazing examples of all the people who have been helped through his teaching of the “non-optional principles.” Even now, there are a lot of things that I would probably agree with, at least to an extent. But knowing more about the core makes me nervous.
The next night’s teaching on authority sneaks up on you. He outlines a vertical chain of authority (God, father/husband directly under God, wife below, children lower still) and explains the consequences of getting out from under the umbrella of (patriarchal) authority. (Women have no authority, except what their husband delegates to them over the children.) He gives a long litany of stories of those who went against the wishes of their husbands/fathers and suffered terribly, contrasted with tales of those who submitted, against culture and common sense, and were rewarded beyond their dreams. Those who rebel and eventually return are gravely compared to cracked diamonds–only worth a fraction of the value they could have had if they had been submissive all along.
In a sense, all of his teachings come back to the idea that if you align yourself underneath the umbrella, perfectly submissive to all of Gothard’s principles, then you will be safe. If you dare to go out from under the umbrella by not conforming perfectly with a joyful countenance and light in your eyes, then any number of hailstorms will pound you to a bloody pulp.
The fatal flaw of Gothard's teachings is that he denies the power of Christ. It is all about Man.
It sounds a bit fanatical (and it is), but when you are there it is much more palatable. His quiet humor, lovely chalk talks and assortment of hooks are appealing. By the time you get through the teaching on how to conquer anger by yielding rights (Thursday), you are probably ready to overlook some of the more extreme parts of his teachings on moral purity (Friday) and any discomfort from the teachings on authority begins to blur and fade as he leads you through the examples of success through meditation on Scripture (Saturday).
It is nicely packaged, and full of guarantees. If you follow the principles, you will be blessed with success. Suffering is the result of rebelling, even unknowingly, against any of the principles, but all can be made right (with a smaller diamond, of course) by simply following his steps. I bought nearly all of it, until sliding out from under the umbrella in my relationship with my husband Carlos. Once I was married, I stopped attending the seminars. Even so, it is only recently that I have been able to put together my disagreements with the underlying Gothard doctrines.
One of these is the extreme patriarchy taught. Nearly everyone I knew growing up believed that the father was the head of the house. What many people don’t recognize is the difference in degrees when it comes to the application. Many of the families that I know who believe that the wife should submit to her husband actually practice something much closer to mutual submission. While I believe that they are very sincere, it winds up that through temperament or conscious design, the wife has the respect of her husband and freedom to participate in many decisions, and even the ability to come to some on her own. Although there may be a theoretical agreement that the husband has the final say, in reality, decisions are reached together.
Gothard’s view of authority is far more extreme. The wife must submit entirely to her husband, regardless of the rightness of his choices. She is allowed to appeal if he wishes her to sin. Of course, the definition of “sin” is incredibly and inexplicably narrow in this context, especially compared to the hyper-sinfulization [My own word…I am quite pleased with it!] of those not in the position of authority! If her appeal is denied, she may choose to suffer for doing right, but must continue to honor her husband, and look happy to the rest of the world, since any discontent in her countenance is a public shaming of her head. In addition to this, he teaches very strongly that the one under authority is the one responsible for change: In other words, if the husband does something wrong, it is all your fault. If you were only more submissive, more this, more that, you would please him and he wouldn’t do that. You can patch the leaks in your umbrella by just trying harder to submit. It is the perfect recipe for abuse.
Whatever God is speaking, he will speak to your husband/father. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is: A daughter’s future spouse, your callings and responsibilities, how you should spend your time, how you should raise your children. Any decision is between the father/husband and God, and the father/husband will let you know when he is ready to. Your responsibility is to cheerfully go along with it. Even if your father is not a believer (which is somehow also your fault, of course), you still have to rely on him to be the go-between between you and God.
There are all kinds of other, minor things that have become twisted and elevated into doctrine, some that I agree with aside from the theological status conveyed upon them, others very weird indeed. But to put it all into a nutshell, the fatal flaw of Gothard’s teachings is that he denies the power of Christ. It is all about Man (and here, the male gender is most definitely implied). Even grace becomes redefined as MAN’s desire and MAN’s ability to do God’s will. “Grace” rests squarely on our efforts. (“Would you make a vow to do XYZ? And if you really mean it, would you raise your hand as an outward demonstration…”) The work of the Cross becomes an afterthought, and all that matters is our ability to conform to the checklist. Instead of works flowing out of faith in God, the works flow out of faith in the works themselves to provide carrots or avoid the stick. If you can keep your façade together, and especially if you can make your man look good, then you will reap all kinds of goodies. If your life isn’t perfect, well, that is your fault for not following the steps precisely.
The concept of mercy is ignored. The power of Christ’s sacrifice is a mere footnote to our own efforts and accomplishments. This is incredibly dangerous, especially because it is the kind of mindset that corrupts every thing it touches. Every relationship, every accomplishment, every action becomes tested by whether or not it follows Bill’s principles. When you hear of someone going through a difficult situation, rather than responding in compassion, you wonder which principles they violated to reap that problem. Or, if you know them at all, you have probably already figured out which principles were violated. Because of the unrelenting emphasis on appearances, you condition yourself to pretend all the time, until you have spun it all in your mind to the point that you aren’t really sure what the truth is anymore. You yield your rights to others (“Jesus, then Others, then You–what a wonderful way to spell JOY!“) and may never even realize that you also yielded many healthy, necessary boundaries.
I felt a bit smarter back before my diamond was cracked, back when I was centered under my umbrella of protection. I could give you all the answers to any situation so that you could apply the principles and understand where you went wrong (You were cursed because you let a Cabbage Patch doll into your home; because you went away from home to college; because you didn’t joyfully submit, etc.).
Now I find that grace isn’t about me; it is about the amazing love that God lavishes on us. It isn’t all about my efforts or shortcomings. It is about His mercy and patience in helping me grow. Instead of seeing all relationships in a vertical line of top-to-bottom hierarchy, I am seeing them as a circle of love and service. This makes all the difference! Instead of shaming myself and others, I am learning to joyfully proclaim that His banner over me is love. Instead of desperately trying to patch leaks in my umbrella, I am enjoying the glorious sunshine of freedom and grace.
Dulce Chale is the happy wife of a wonderful husband and a homeschooling mom to four much-loved kidlets. She reads constantly, loves to travel, blogs at Dulce de leche and drinks copious amounts of iced coffee. Each new day is full of joy and fresh adventures as she is learning to walk in God’s amazing grace.
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