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Question: How do you ensure that your children don’t catch a deadly disease? Simple…inoculate them. In the 1700s, it was discovered that dipping a needle into the pus of a smallpox blister and then inserting that same needle into a healthy person prevented them from getting the disease. The infected dose was large enough for the body to create a defense against the disease, but small enough for the healthy person not to catch it.
Question: If you are the leader of a cult-like sect of Christianity, how do you inoculate your followers from the teachings of “outsiders?” Simple…give them a heads up of what the “outsiders” will try to say and why the “outsiders” are wrong. Bill Gothard is a master at inoculating his followers from anyone who would poke holes in his teaching. Allow me to present a case for four of his “inoculations” which combined are extremely enslaving.
1. “Disagreement is a Sign of Hidden Sin”
On the first night of the Basic Seminar, Bill quips that “A man’s morality will dictate his theology.”1 True, because of our fallen nature, we tend to justify our sin rather than repent of it. However, this statement is quoted again in the section of the Men’s Manual calling fathers to discern false teachings. He goes on to say, “If they [“outsiders”] want to argue over heresy, listen for clues to their moral problems.”2
Heresy is a word to be used with caution. Certain doctrines of Christianity are non-negotiable, but many have a little wiggle room for disagreement (if not a lot). That’s why we have so many denominations within Christendom. However, Bill “inoculates” his followers from “outsiders” by suggesting their theology is formed to justify indulgence in some type of sinful behavior. This seems a little below the belt…especially if the issue contested is something like rock music or blue jeans.
One page later, Bill brings a railing indictment upon any spiritual leader who makes a move to synthesize Biblical standards (i.e. Bill’s standards) with culture. “The clear teachings of Christ, Paul, and Peter are of particular embarrassment to religious leaders who want to be friends with the world.”3 This kind of theological bullying works to prevent any genuine biblical dialogue as no one wants to be a caught fraternizing with “world lovers.”
2. “Scholarship is Misleading”
Over and over, Gothard presents scholarship as the opposite of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Logic is presented as humanly opposed to God’s wisdom. “Neither the inspiration or the true meaning of scripture will be understood intellectually, but will be discerned spiritually.”4 Yes, God’s ways are higher than ours and go against our natural desires, but to go so far as to suggest they are not logical or intellectually incomprehensible goes too far.
“…rules of scholarship were designed to avoid error, but these same rules in the hands of false teachers can be misused to make a verse give an opposite meaning or no meaning at all. This is why true interpretation goes beyond human scholarship to the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.”5 Gothard dismisses the reality of legitimate issues of scholarship which are vital to the correct understanding of a biblical passage.
For example, Paul’s letters were written to real people, with real problems, in a real historical culture. Ancient words and phrases could have several possible meanings depending on context. Scholarship is crucial to properly interpreting these texts. I’m not denying the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit; it is very much needed. But our intellect is part of God’s good creation. Logic and knowledge can be used for good or evil; it was tainted by the fall of Adam, but can and is redeemed by the work of Christ’s cross. (Besides, most of the scholars I know who would disagree with Bill’s teachings are born-again Christians who have the Holy Spirit indwelling in them).
3. “Scripture is Subjective”
This point follows from the last one. Since Bill doesn’t recognize logical, intellectual, or scholarly critique as valid, he is free to interpret the scriptures as he feels led by the Spirit. “God’s Spirit is the author and interpreter of Scripture. Once He enters our spirit, He is able to rebuild our thoughts, emotions and will around a comprehension of His Word.”6 The only problem is we cannot measure the Spirit’s illumination in one believer vs. another. If two believers claim a verse means two different things (A regular occurrence in church history), apart from scholarship, it turns into a glorified “my gut feeling is more spiritual than yours” argument.
Bill claims, “There is only one interpretation of Scripture, but there are many applications. These open up worlds of meaning in life.”7 While multiple applications can be made from a text, not all applications are equally authoritative for the church as a whole. We ought to take great caution before holding other believers up to our applications (See Paul’s exhortations in Romans 14:1-10). However, these “applications” are the meat of Gothard’s teachings.
“After…we put related passages together, we begin to see underlying principles within that Scripture which can be applied to our lives.”8 Once Bill has given himself the authority to invoke the Spirit’s illumination and established the authority of multiple applications, he then urges his followers to buy into “hidden” principles which he has discovered (Literally, a canon within a canon). To Bill’s followers, these secret principles are much more enticing than the plain meaning of the Biblical text. This is why you will rarely see Bill exegete an entire chapter of the Bible and teach the historical, grammatical, and cultural point of the passage (the point which the original author actually meant).
4. “Dissenters are to be Shunned”
The final inoculation, designed to protect his followers from the truth, is really rather childish: Avoid theological dialogue. There is a whole section in the Advanced Seminar Textbook dedicated to teaching your family to “Stand Alone.” In fact Gothard urges“Do not argue about theology” and then follows it with the command that “if they (“outsiders”) ask a foolish or unlearned question, avoid it.”9 He claims 2 Timothy 2:15-17 & 2:24-25 as his basis for this principle.
Yes, Christians should not be quarrelsome, but this does not mean they should never discuss and defend the accuracy of doctrine, in fact the same passage teaches the opposite. “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth”10 (See also 1 Tim 1:3, 4:6, 4:11, 6:2 & 2 Tim 4:2). Alas, Bill makes it all too easy for one who simply doesn’t see things his way to be labeled a scorning fool who “has rejected truth and delights in mocking Christians and their standards…Remove yourself from him…He is the victim of his own passions. He is committed to teaching you. We should reject his teachings and have no association with him.”11
1. Also found in Men’s Manual One, p.78, Eighth Printing
2. Men’s Manual One, p.79
3. Men’s Manual One, p.80
4. Advanced Seminar Textbook, p.67, Fifth Printing
5. Men’s Manual One, p.80
6. Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 144, Eleventh Printing
7. Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 3
8. Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 3
9. Men’s Manual One, p.79
10. 2 Tim 2:25 NIV
11. Advanced Seminar Textbook, p.270-271
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