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In the past few years, since I have expressed many disagreements with the theology of Bill Gothard, ATI (Advanced Training Institute), and his parent ministry, IBLP (Institute in Basic Life Principles), I have invariably been asked how ATI had negatively impacted my life. Here is my story.
My family joined ATI in the ‘90s. It was promoted to them as a program that would enable them to raise up Godly children. I don’t remember much about those early years in the program, except for the one big event every year of driving to Knoxville, TN, for the week-long conference. When I was younger, I participated in the ALERT cadet challenge; later I was old enough to attend the student sessions.
When I was 7 years old, I realized my need for salvation, and I accepted Christ. For this, I am very grateful, especially to my sister and father for taking the necessary time to discuss this with me as a child. At that young age, I understood the basics of salvation, but there were aspects of God I did not understand until just recently. I’ll expound on some of my discoveries later on in my story. I want to make perfectly clear that I firmly believe my parents had the best of intentions in joining ATI. They were not out to spiritually manipulate their children or become legalistic with us. However, ATI did turn many positive desires into legalistic ideas for our family, as I also will describe.
As a new Christian, I wanted to obey God. I wanted to love God. I wanted God’s blessing and approval on my life. I wanted to live the Christian life the way that Scripture taught. Yet, I was taught that in order to live the Christian life in accordance with Scripture, there were certain things I must do and become in order to fulfill that desire. This led to my adopting the mentality that God’s love (or “God’s blessing”) depended on what I did or did not do. Much of this mindset was based around standards, many adopted from or influenced by ATI teachings. Some examples of this include:
Various rules of conduct regarding Sunday activities: These included being disallowed from hanging out with friends (including church friends) on Sunday afternoons; prohibited from reading novels or other fun books; required to read only biographies or Christian books; disallowed from using a computer; not allowed to play with toys; and made to fast at lunch after reading the Wisdom Booklet that covered fasting.
Friendship standards: I was very afraid of being friendly with girls, since I was taught that constituted “lusting” and being “fresh.”
I understand some readers may look at some of these rules and say, “What’s so bad about them? What’s wrong with trying to instill a love for God’s Word in your children? Even if they were somewhat legalistic, they’re not really that bad.” While Bible reading, for example, is indeed a good habit for one to possess, in my family it unfortunately was treated as a major issue if I forgot even just one morning. In my family, breaking these rules meant that you were living in sin or that you were a carnal Christian. For instance, concerning regulations for how to spend Sundays, if I told my parents that I thought it was too restrictive, I was informed, “But this is what God wants you do to, and He can’t bless you if you don’t obey. Don’t you want God to bless you?”
This attitude is one that permeates ATI and its followers. Your attending a movie theater, listening to music with a rock beat, doing things on Sunday other than attending church, or wearing jeans/pants as a woman are things that will gain you strong disapproval. You will be thought of as less mature, less spiritually minded, less committed to Christ, lukewarm or carnal, etc., if not outright sinning. In ATI, your level of spirituality is determined by how well you adhere to the standards they teach as biblically mandatory for the Christian life.
Another area in which ATI negatively affected my life was that of relationships with those of the opposite gender. I was very afraid of being friendly with girls on a normal level because, according to what I learned in ATI, I believed it to be lusting. I recall, when working at IBLP Headquarters, there were several girls that I liked as merely friends. They were always kind to me, but I was very afraid of engaging them in a friendly conversation because I believed I would be lusting. I particularly remember one incident when I sat next to a girl at lunch one day. She was attractive and had always been pleasant and courteous to me. I, however, was deathly afraid of engaging her in friendly conversation due to being concerned that the leadership would consider me fresh and send me home for “inappropriate contact with the opposite sex.”
As I became older, other issues where I found myself disagreeing with the views of others in my family surfaced, many of which were due to ATI’s influence. Because I didn’t think it was always necessary to tithe on a paycheck, I was told, in so many words, that I didn’t love God. (I do believe in Paul’s encouragement to practice cheerful giving.) This issue later resurfaced when I required emergency surgery. My family implied that God was trying to either warn or discipline me for not tithing by causing me to incur a medical issue. Because I would surf the Web or Facebook, play video games, go grocery shopping, etc. on Sunday afternoons, I was told that what I was doing was dishonoring to the Lord. Because I didn’t always go to church on Sunday evenings, I heard that I was being unfaithful.
As a result of ATI’s influence in my life, I developed a very legalistic, judgmental spirit. While I was not one of the most zealous, I did attend some ATI events and complete some of their projects in hopes of growing closer in my relationship with God.
Yet despite my efforts, I always felt that God wasn’t close to me. I felt like one of the so-called “lukewarm Christians” that ATI also discussed. I never sensed closeness to God the way ATI said I should. I felt that God wasn’t pleased with me, because I never had the same zeal for spiritual commitment that ATI said was required of those who really were on fire for serving God. I often felt dull and drab in fulfilling these rules that ATI taught were necessary for pleasing God. Although I didn’t think of it this way at the time, I later came to realize this: If what ATI is teaching about Christianity is the real thing, then I want nothing to do with it.
Some years later, through conversations with two people whom I love dearly, (and with whom I differ in views about ATI), I learned that I needed to develop my own views and Christian beliefs, independent of my parents or anyone else. I took this advice to heart, and it led me out of the gate towards freedom. I soon started questioning many of my beliefs, including those developed through ATI teachings.
The effect this has had on me has been liberating. As I started to re-examine many of my beliefs, specifically ATI-influenced ones, I felt freedom I had never before felt. Freedom in realizing that God is not disappointed in me because I don’t read my Bible every day. Freedom in knowing that God isn’t displeased with me for watching modern action movies, or for going shopping on Sunday afternoons. I was free to live in the grace of God.
Many may assume that, because I have rejected the teachings of Bill Gothard and ATI, I am somehow bitter or rebellious, that I somehow have failed to “move on” past ATI, or that I am now finding excuses to live in carnality. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have learned more in the past year than I had in the last 15 years. Some things I have learned include:
I will be the first to say that I have not completely arrived. I am still thinking, analyzing, and critiquing my beliefs, ideas, and worldview. There are many things I don’t have completely figured out, but I have learned many things that I am grateful for, and I am continuing to learn by the grace of God.
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