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Unfortunately, instead of reducing the hurt and complexity, Gothard actively worked to take advantage of the confusion. He had regularly required staff to sign loyalty oaths and to turn over their meeting notes to him as a method of controlling information. Now, over a period of numerous years, he carefully taught new concepts to his staff and employees—with the goal of blocking truthful reports—and extended his teachings nationwide through seminars and alumni booklets. We have exposed the fallacy of the following teachings: In this article, we explore: “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” Ephesians 5:11 “The sins of some men are quite evident going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” I Timothy 5:24-25
Unfortunately, instead of reducing the hurt and complexity, Gothard actively worked to take advantage of the confusion. He had regularly required staff to sign loyalty oaths and to turn over their meeting notes to him as a method of controlling information. Now, over a period of numerous years, he carefully taught new concepts to his staff and employees—with the goal of blocking truthful reports—and extended his teachings nationwide through seminars and alumni booklets.
We have exposed the fallacy of the following teachings:
In this article, we explore:
“Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” Ephesians 5:11
“The sins of some men are quite evident going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” I Timothy 5:24-25
Listening to an Evil Report
One question often asked of those who have contributed their stories to Recovering Grace is, “If things were so bad, or even illegal, why didn’t you contact the authorities, or at least tell your parents or a lawyer?” Most who grew up in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and/or Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) system readily know the answer. For those who did not grow up in the system, it can be difficult to translate the experience of an ATI student or IBLP staffer into terms that are easily understood. There is a significant cultural more that is seemingly designed to curb gossip, but functionally serves to silence. The booklet “How to Guard Against the Defilement of Listening to an Evil Report“ is but one of several resources effectively used to manipulate well-meaning folks to simply ignore and pray rather than to speak up.
In the January 31, 1981, article “Doubts on credibility haunt traveling preacher,” Los Angeles Times author John Dart places the genesis of this booklet around the same time frame as the 1980 IBYC sex scandal. Reporting on such events, he says, “In a move to counter criticism, Gothard recently introduced supplementary teaching material which says a Christian who listens to ‘evil reports’ will be infected by disease. Gothard likens the ‘disease’ to the Old Testament idea of defilement.” In light of this background, serious doubt is necessarily cast on both Gothard’s motive for authoring the booklet and the teachings contained therein. Further, a critical read of the booklet highlights a disturbing number of fallacies.
A Shaky Start
This booklet is full of slick presuppositions that might be missed from a cursory reading. First, there’s the title: “How to Guard against the Defilement of Listening to an Evil report” (emphasis added). The words “guard” and “defilement” imply danger, to prepare readers to receive this information from a place of fear rather than reason. In the Old Testament, defilement rendered a person ceremonially unfit, and the person could only worship God after a ceremonial cleansing. So right there, the reader is made doubly afraid. Not only is danger lurking, but if they fail to heed the warnings in the booklet, they will be “defiled,” and out of fellowship with God until they DO something to be cleansed. Next, the reader is also at risk because of what others may do to them, like voice a concern about someone else. The reader does not want to commit a vile sin simply because someone gossiped to them. That would be “evil.” Here Gothard signals the “correct” classification for any difficult report, independent of consideration, truth, or dissenting opinion.
Gothard defines terms to fit his goal. For example, defilement is defined as “Receiving an evil report from another person and believing that it is true,” which begs the obvious question: “Who gets to determine whether the report is evil?” There is absolutely no instruction for the scenario where the report really is true. Even a true report is presumed to be evil, and the reader is now contaminated or defiled for simply having listened to it. “Unauthorized” reports are considered to be evil, but what criminal or sinner is likely to “authorize” a report about himself?
The booklet also contains a list of motivations for someone giving an “evil” report: bitterness, rebellion, deception, pride, guilt, and envy; yet makes no allowance for inquiry, as needed for serious analysis or to dispel a misunderstanding. “Slander” is implied to mean “destroy[ing] another’s credibility with damaging facts, distortions of facts or evil suspicions,” wherein reality, it would be the damaging facts, rather than the person who conveyed them, that destroyed the person’s credibility. In the American legal system, a communication never can be slander if it’s true.
The entire teaching is an analogy to disease. So why is there no mention of medicine? Truth, like medicine, might not taste good, but it is healing.
The first stage of defilement is IGNORANCE. Nobody wants to be ignorant, but accepting the list in this section as accurate will make us ignorant. Reading between the lines:
A. If we love, we WILL HIDE ALL transgressions. (Partial truth)
B. The clean CANNOT influence the unclean. (Untrue)
C. We should not give an “UNAUTHORIZED” report. (Untrue)
D. ALL forms of communication are tainted. (Untrue)
E. EVERYONE is spreading evil reports. (Untrue)
F. We deserve LABELS as bitter, rebellious, etc. (Partial truth at best)
G. This is OUR FAULT. (Untrue)
H. This is SATANIC. (If the report is truth, then this is Untrue.)
Notice that two of Gothard’s goals in that section are to tell people not to be a Busybody and not to discredit spiritual leadership. What a coincidence. In the section titled “How to detect an evil report,” all of the teaching is against exposing an offender. In fact, the booklet takes the reader to the extreme:
1. The offender becomes the source of facts and correct quotes. (This really would be ignorant.)
2. “Refusal to identify the source of information is a sure signal of an evil report.” (Untrue)
In the section titled, “How to cleanse our mind from an evil report” the reader is told, “You know you have cleansed your heart when” you (again reading between the lines):
1. Give in.
2. Blame yourself and others.
3. Love the deceiver.
In the last line of the booklet, responsibility rests with the elders. In the 1981 version, once the offender is informed, the responsibility rests with whoever is spiritually responsible. Thus, if a spiritual authority was the offender, then responsibility would rest with that offender. That would certainly be a Dead End. Following such logic, there will never be accountability and repentance.
Poor Scriptural Support
Aside from its logical troubles, the booklet is riddled with proof-texting and sloppy hermeneutics. When one reads the cited scriptural passages in their context, the surrounding verses that were not included are both ironic and disturbing. For example, Gothard cites Matthew 15:18, “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart; and those defile the man,” but he curiously omits the succeeding verse, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders . . .” (emphasis added). It’s not the words that defile the man, but the evil in man’s heart. In fact, words may also glorify God and instruct others.
Under the heading “How does God want us to respond?” the booklet quotes Ephesians 5:10-12, “Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret,” (ostensibly to discourage folks from voicing details of some impropriety) but conveniently omits Ephesians 5:13, “But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.” The point of the passage in Ephesians is not silence, but avoiding behavior so shameful that no one would even want speak of it. Other passages distorted from their context and cited to suggest that God is displeased when bad information is shared include Leviticus 19:16, Galatians 6:1, Hebrews 12:15, and 1 Peter 4:15.
Elsewhere, the booklet appeals to a scriptural anecdote about Absalom giving an evil report and attempting to steal the kingdom from his father, King David. The booklet makes the following points to attempt to tie Absalom’s behavior to an evil report:
Ironically, most of those points describing Absalom could just as easily be made about Jesus. He gathered disciples who followed Him, fasted for forty days in the wilderness, rebuked his disciples for preventing children from coming to him, hung around with those whom society might consider outcasts, spoke with the woman at the well, rebuked the Pharisees for taking all the widow had to live on, seldom passed up an opportunity to criticize the religious establishment of his day, gave His life as the ultimate sacrifice and tearing the temple veil, was lifted up so that He might draw all men to Himself, referred to Himself as “I AM,” and ultimately used His disciples to build His church, which many (such as Saul) considered errant.
While Scripture is pretty clear that Absalom’s motives were wrong, real life is not so cut and dried. We cannot know another person’s motives with certainty. Nor is it always apparent whom God has anointed—even cults experience financial prosperity and popularity at times.
The booklet contains additional blatant misuses of Scripture. Job 34:37, “For he addeth rebellion unto his sin” is quoted to support the Gothard’s claim that rebellion/an independent spirit is a motivation to give a bad report; yet in context, that verse does not support the claim at all. The statement is made by Elihu to refer to Job. Nowhere in Scripture is Job labeled rebellious or an independent spirit.
Similarly, Romans 16:17, “Now I beseech you, bretheren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them,” is cited to support how God wants us to respond to a person who has given a bad report. However, the clear meaning of the phrase “contrary to the doctrine” in that passage refers to false doctrine. This is an admonition to avoid those teaching heresy, not those who give an “evil report.”
The booklet also quotes Scripture with no discussion for case-specific applications. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:5-6, “Love . . . thinketh no evil, rejoicing not in iniquity.” In the case of gossip, the answer is simple: don’t gossip. But what if the issue is testifying against criminal activity? Then the answer is different. Another example is Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” What if your brother has molested a child, and then claims he’s repented? The booklet provides no guidance in such scenarios, which leaves the guilt-ridden reader having to wrestle with the doubt of whether reporting his “repentant” brother to the police is giving a bad report, defiling the police officer who receives the report and violating “God’s direction” in Galatians 6!
Finally, aside from several places where ideas are posited with no citation (to Scripture or others), there are multiple places within the booklet where the same verse is recycled to support a different point (e.g., Hebrews 12:15, Proverbs 18:8, Proverbs 16:28 to name a few). Not surprisingly, the booklet heavily relies on isolated verses from Proverbs (no less than 18 times). But one must question the wisdom of building doctrine of supposed absolute truth from generally true wisdom (e.g. Proverbs 16:7, “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him”—yet that was not true for Christ when He was crucified).
Should We Speak Up?
Gothard does state in one short paragraph that wrongdoing should never be covered over. However, there are no points to expound or illustrate the concept. This warning is most likely soon forgotten by the reader in the ten pages that follow. In contrast, nearly every other point made in the booklet garners more attention.
Curiously missing from the booklet is any discussion of the biblical admonitions to defend the weak, fatherless, and oppressed (Psalm 82:3, Isaiah 1:17). What of our duty to provide information necessary to help those who cannot support themselves? This publication contains no encouragement to seek the truth, but seems to give many justifications for silence and refusing to listen to the concerns of others.
For those of us raised in ATI, teachings such as those outlined in this book were all we knew. Speaking out came at the risk of being labeled a “tale bearer,” shunned, and quite possibly sent home from a Training Center (being fired) in disgrace. Given the allegations of cover-ups that have come to light concerning Bill Gothard, as well as the historical context in which this booklet was written, we find it hard to consider this booklet to be anything more than a fancy shell game designed to silence those who might speak up or speak out against true reports of evil.
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