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I’m a former ATI student. I’m writing to you to explain why I no longer support IBLP/ATI, and why I’m involved with sites like Recovering Grace. You invited us to approach you “if” we have been offended. (You used wording, by the way, that you taught us we couldn’t use if we really wanted to seek forgiveness.) I’ve hesitated to write for a number of reasons:
1. You’ve never met me. I was one of the hundreds of young ladies in a white blouse and blue skirt, singing in the Knoxville choir, working at training centers, and trying to build my life around the principles you taught. But the closest we ever got to actually meeting was when I shook your hand at the ITC [Indianapolis Training Center] in 1993.
2. I dislike causing pain. You’ve poured your life into this ministry, and I don’t enjoy opposing someone’s life work.
3. My grievances aren’t against you, personally, and others in leadership. It’s against your teachings and theology. And since you haven’t ever acknowledged errors in your teachings, I’m not left with much to say.
I remember the story you told about the businessman who invited his employees to tell him his blind spots. Each employee started out listing trivial things, to gauge his reaction. They expected him to get angry and fire them. It was only when he showed that he was really listening that they opened up.
This is a similar situation. We former ATI students have been invited to approach you, but most of us learned early on that to confront anyone in leadership brought only condemnation and punishment. To be blunt, few of us expect you to listen. Most of us expect you to label us as “bitter” or “carnal.” Why subject ourselves to condemnation from someone who has no say in our lives in the first place? That’s why you haven’t heard from many who have been hurt by your program.
Despite my misgivings, though, I was impressed by your offer to listen to our stories, so here’s my letter.
My stepfather, mother, younger sister, and I enrolled in ATI in 1991, when I was 14. My parents were good and loving; they never abused or mistreated me. I went to Knoxville for six years, worked in Children’s Institutes, spent time at various training centers, and attended Excel 2. The leadership never treated me unjustly, and I usually had a very good time wherever I was. So the damage I came away with wasn’t because of personal abuse.
I took your teachings to heart. And many of them are good. Clear conscience, honoring authorities, accepting who I am, accepting suffering — many have been useful in my life. But you didn’t present them as “good ideas to take or leave as you need them.” You said they’re God’s words. Then you misused Scripture to back up your claims. That is a mistake, and it’s what hurt my view of God and my duty toward Him.
By the time I was 20, I was not the “victorious Christian” I was supposed to be. I was always afraid. I was afraid of accidentally violating a principle and incurring His “correction.” I was afraid of making any decision that didn’t line up with my parents’ opinions, for fear that God would expose me to Satanic attacks. I was afraid that I wasn’t “spiritual enough,” so when the time came to get married, I’d be blinded to God’s will and marry Satan’s decoy. I was afraid to help those who were hurt, because what if I “got in the way” of God’s correction for that person? I wouldn’t even pray for anyone I considered “rebellious.”
Every person I met, I judged: was this person falling in line with the “basic principles” or not? If not, then I could be reasonably sure that God wasn’t pleased with that person. At the same time, I knew the darkness and failure in my own life — and was reasonably sure that God deeply disliked me.
Your teachings either gave rise to these thoughts or aggravated the ones already there. I didn’t find peace in your “new” approach to life. You didn’t tell us, “What matters is that you love God and love others.” You told us, “Make more commitments. Make vows. Stay under authority. Follow these steps. Avoid rebels. If you violate God’s principles, He will use harsh means to get you back in line.”
I’m 35 years old now. I’m happily married, after a beautiful courtship that was begun and directed by us, not our parents. It involved unchaperoned dates and lots of physical affection. We have four children who routinely question our commands because we’re teaching them that we, as parents, are fallible. What I wear, what I listen to, how I run my household … those are not issues of the spirit. I’ve broken rule after rule, violated principle after principle. Whether my life is smooth or rough, I’ve realized that it doesn’t really have much to do with how well I’m keeping the seven basic principles.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve gradually learned that God doesn’t dislike me. He is always present and active, gentle and loving. When I sin, there is much grace. When I succeed, there is much grace. When I’m apathetic and can’t bring myself to “try” any harder, His grace is still there with me. Grace is so much more than “the power and desire to do God’s will.” It’s God Himself, carrying me whether I walk or stumble. It’s completely undeserved — God’s unmerited favor.
Your definition of grace is inadequate. The seven basic principles are good ideas, but [they are] not God’s universal non-optional principles to live by. You consistently take Scripture out of context and twist its meaning. I now speak out against IBLP/ATI and support sites like Recovering Grace. Not because I’m bitter against you, or pursuing a personal vendetta. It’s because I know the fruit of these teachings, and I am compelled to warn others.
Thank you for hearing me out.
Sara (Roberts) Jones
ATI student from 1991–1997