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In 2 Timothy 3:12, it is written, “Yea, and all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” I don’t remember much persecution, at least not the kind that the Bible talks about. Sure we were ultra conservative and occasionally got some strange looks from people who had no idea what we were talking about. And several relatives (who genuinely loved and cared for us) began to have issues with the programs we were following, but can that honestly be considered persecution? I mean the Bible mentions nakedness, famine, peril of your life, being sawed asunder, prison time, etc. My family has NEVER suffered anything like that. Even in our worst times, we didn’t come anywhere close to this.
At some point in my early teens, I came across a copy of the Voice of the Martyrs’ magazine. It shocks and horrifies you, the conditions our brothers and sisters live in all over the world. We Americans have nothing to complain of, comparatively speaking, especially in our freedom of religion. People die, or come close to dying for Jesus on a daily basis! They face Nazi-type work camps, and other forms of destitution and utmost poverty. Even young ones “get it” when it comes to Jesus, and are willing to lay down their lives. As I read each story, a question began to formulate in my mind—a question that took several years to develop into something I HAD to face.
You see, I’d been raised all my life in ATIA [the Advanced Training Institute of America], which was formed and led by Bill Gothard. I was homeschooled with their Wisdom Book curriculum from Kindergarten thru 12th grade. I’d gone to multiple Children’s Institutes while mom and dad were in the “big seminar,” and I finally graduated to the Basic Seminar at 12 years old. I probably attended half a dozen seminars, including at least one Advanced Seminar when I was 16 or 17. The basic premise of the seminar is, “The Institute in Basic Life Principles is dedicated to giving clear training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” How does anyone’s idea of earthly success line up with the Scripture that guarantees persecution to those who are truly godly?
Back to Voice of the Martyrs. My question finally presented itself in my mid-late teens: These simple Christians—impoverished, illiterate, most of whom have never and will never hear of ATI—are these brethren of the Cross laying down their life, limb, and property for nothing? They are often tortured and then killed because they refuse to deny Christ. Surely they are going to heaven? Receiving a crown of glory? Is God pleased with them, even though they didn’t live by Bill’s non-optional principles of life? Is ATI and IBLP the be-all, end-all for Christianity?
Years later, a second question arose: Before Bill Gothard was born or his ministry started, surely God was not helpless in bringing people to Christ? Of course He wasn’t, but everything I’d seen and heard of ATI seemed to imply that this was the only way to be a “superior” victorious Christian and please God. Bill was teaching “new” truths (or truths that had been lost) couched in the phrase, “giving the world a “new” approach to life.” Are third-world Christians missing out on God’s best? I’d learned that bad things happened to you because of God’s judgment of sin in your life. But these other Christians had all kinds of bad things happening to them. Punishment for sin? Or Bible prophecy/judgment being realized?
These questions may seem silly and absurd, but I assure you they were absolutely real to me, and bothered me tremendously. I had been taught that ATI was God’s best way, but there was some stark evidence to the contrary, staring me in the face through the inanimate pages of the Voice of the Martyrs magazine, insisting on my attention.
I never found a satisfactory answer to these questions. Not in ATI. Once I asked one of my parents, “If I walked away from ATI, but remained a Bible-believing, God-worshiping, church-going, Jesus-loving Christian, would you think that I had departed from the faith?” That parent answered, “No.” Neither of us said anything else, but in my heart I was crying, “Then WHY are all of these ‘principals’ necessary?” They were such a weight, and not the light burden that Jesus spoke of. They were impossible to live by, and I was not one who WANTED to walk away from the faith. I was not looking for an excuse to live however I wanted.*
Then I started noticing certain people. They were joy-filled like I’d never seen before. They didn’t pretend to be perfect. They just loved Jesus. They were filled up to the brim with peace, and THAT was what I craved. I told myself, “Whatever it is they’ve got, I want it.” Wasn’t that always the mark of a Christian? Others seeing your joy and being drawn to you? Well here I was, the “wiser” Christian, and I was looking at someone I would normally look down on as spiritually inferior, and wanting their peace! “That is the real Jesus, and I will find Him.”
God let me hit rock bottom–I found myself wanting to take my life before I was ready to let go of ATI and move on to his plan for me. I will never forget it. Looking back I know I was in the palm of his hand all along. I was terrified to let go of ATI, afraid that God would “smite me.” I was holding on to my own chains, not aware that they’d already been snapped asunder.
What does Scripture really say? “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Mt. 5:10). Much better, but still not quite what I was seeking. “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). That’s more like it! What was more interesting to me was that this was the only stipulation: to believe and be saved. To put it modernly, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Now we’re getting more to the point—salvation is a simple thing. Didn’t Jesus say somewhere that a child could understand it? “And [Jesus] said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven'” (Mt. 18:3).
I think of those martyrs. Uneducated. Simple. Believing. They didn’t get tangled up in ‘ologies and ‘isms. They just lived their faith and trusted God. I had found my answer. And I realized that while there were a spare handful of truly biblical teachings in ATI, there weren’t enough fully un-manipulated Bible truths to warrant me spending any more time devoted to a program that had failed me after years of faithfulness to it.
*Do I believe I have the right to do whatever I wish? No—nor do I consciously live that way. In fact, by all accounts, I’m still very conservative, and naturally prudish. There are several things I abstain from through personal choice, such as alcohol, tobacco, cursing, etc., and I have turned down many opportunities in my career because it may have caused a weaker brother to stumble. But I know that if I sin, I have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and the burden of guilt is not one I have to carry anymore.