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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. Over the past few weeks, we have exposed the fallacy of the following teachings: Today, 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.” 1 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.
Over the past few weeks, we have exposed the fallacy of the following teachings:
Today, 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.” 1 Timothy 5:24–25
The day was Valentine’s Day 1976. Bill Gothard and his brother, Steve, had some surprising confessions to make to the staff of IBYC: they had “defrauded” staff secretaries. In the months prior to this, some of the young ladies had sought out the help of other staff members to make the sexual exploitation stop. Bill expressed frustration that these stories were not being brought to him first. His solution to this problem was to transfer Steve to Northwoods to work on Volume I of Character Sketches, meanwhile attempting to keep the scandal as quiet as possible.
As the year progressed, Bill would feel that several staff members needed to “get off [his] back” about ongoing concerns for the whole situation. Gary Smalley and another staff member were among those who approached Bill about the problems and were consequently pressured into resigning. Coincidentally, the subject of loyalty was a key theme of a supplementary booklet sent to seminar alumni that year: Rediscovering a Forgotten Truth.
Gothard personally saw this teaching as so profound that he wrote, “If God gave me the opportunity to exchange my life for the establishment of one truth among all Christians and I wanted to make my life count to the greatest possible extent, I would choose the truth of Matthew 18 in the spirit of Galatians 6:1.”
Rediscovering a Forgotten Truth focuses on Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18:15–19 regarding the steps to take in confronting sin. These verses are considered by most Christian churches to be the blueprint for addressing personal grievances. But in Gothard’s rendition, many additional qualifiers and stipulations are added. Before we can assess the booklet as a whole, let’s take a moment to summarize its contents. Then we will provide a critique.
First, every believer ought to make a lifelong commitment to only bear a “good report” of others unless the steps of Matthew 18 have been followed. (p. 21) What is a good report? A good report is more than words that are truthful or well-spoken. It is one that presents the “best construction“ of a person. Gothard encourages individuals to make this commitment not only to the Lord, but also to those with whom they live and work. The positive result of this will be a climate of a “special loyalty” to each other. (p. 5, see also pp. 17 and 21.)
Next, in what Gothard calls a “very painful preliminary step,” we must examine ourselves. It may be that our own failures are partly to blame for the offender’s behavior. Five ways in which we may be guilty of failure are presented:
a) if we have failed in similar areas as the offender,
b) if we have failed to pray enough,
c) if we have failed to be a good example,
d) if we have an offensive spirit of pride, or
e) if there is a lack of love.
Next, in yet another “very painful preliminary step,” we need to design a step-by-step plan for restoration, ready for the offender to implement. “The very idea of restoring a brother assumes that we have steps of action to suggest to him so that he can get from where is is to where he should be.” (p. 6)
Fourth, it is necessary that we have the maturity and exemplary life to teach others.
Bearing these four prerequisites in mind, we are almost ready initiate a meeting. Before we proceed to the next step, though, two “warnings” and a “caution” are given:
Warning 1: We may not proceed unless we are 100 percent clear of any blame for the offender’s actions: “We cannot follow the steps of Matthew 18 if there is even the slightest offense or attitude or neglect on our part which has contributed to a brother's offense.” (p. 6)
Warning 2: Do not talk to anyone else about the problem. “If we tell anyone else about an offending brother before talking to him, we create three problems”:
1. We prove to God and others that we don’t love our offender, and therefore don’t love the Lord.
2. We tempt the person hearing us to “take up an offense,” and may destroy strong friendships.
3. We prove that we do not sincerely want to restore; consequently, our chances of seeing the offender restored are damaged, and we are wrongly sitting as judge over the person.
Caution: It is important not to make assumptions about the offender. One of the most important reasons to go to the offender first is to allow the offender to clarify the facts in case we have misunderstood or are mistaken in some way. For example, if we make assumptions about what someone meant when we heard them say something that offended us, we fall prey to “Satan’s most effective method for dividing Christians in the church.” (p. 7)
Fifth, “Going to an offending brother to restore him has been and always will be God’s greatest test of genuine love.” (p. 5) The goal is not ultimately telling him he was wrong, but restoring him. It is normal to be nervous. What should we say? The best way to frame it is to humbly point to a similar area of failure in our own lives.
Sixth, if the offender chooses not to be reconciled, choose the correct people to go with you to the offender. As hard as it was not to tell anyone else previously, it may be even harder to find the right people to tell now. The best witnesses will be those who have previously conquered a similar problem in their own lives.
Hopefully, the process is resolved here. However, if the offender persists, the process begins to move toward bringing the issue to the whole church. But first, there are some prerequisites.
Seventh, clarify the church’s motives. The motivation is not to expose sin. The motivation is to enlist the church’s help in restoring the offender.
Eighth, the church needs to initiate a new program: a day of fasting and prayer. They are to use this time for self-examination. If they realize that they are partly to blame for the offender’s sin, they need to first approach him or her to ask forgiveness before they may continue.
Ninth, the church must verify that there is 100 percent unanimity on the issue. If they discover that there is any disagreement whatsoever, this is a full stop. This is “God’s call to the church leaders” (p. 9) to begin a program of teaching the church God’s standards, such that they will all be of one heart and mind. This is all part of God’s call to “cleanse the church before any attempt” is made to being church discipline to the offender. (No guideline is offered for how much time this program of teaching will typically require.)
Tenth, publicly rebuke the person and separate them from the community. The point of all of this is a hope for repentance. The desire is that by now the offender will be repentant, to which the church should respond by welcoming the repentant offender back.
We must now ask the obvious question: How accurately do these steps represent what Jesus actually taught in Matthew 18? We believe that Gothard communicates some questionable messages that warrant a much closer look.
“If God gave me the opportunity to exchange my life for the establishment of one truth among all Christians and I wanted to make my life count to the greatest possible extent, I would choose the truth of Matthew 18 in the spirit of Galatians 6:1.” This seems a questionable place to place one’s doctrinal flag in the sand, especially considering the truths for which writers such as the Apostle Paul were willing to exchange their lives (see 1 Corinthians 2:2, 9:23, 15:30–31). And Gothard does not raise this “one truth” to the level of his seven “universal, non-optional principles,” nor does he seem beholden to it in his own responses to his critics. But what if his claim were sincere? As we critique the booklet, keep in mind how strongly Gothard desires this doctrine to be his legacy.
A key term in this booklet is the phrase “good report.” In fact, the first step every believer ought to take is to make a lifelong commitment to only bear a “good report” of others unless the steps of Matthew 18 have been followed. A good report is more than words that are truthful or well-spoken. To give a good report is to “find out all the good we can” about a person and to “put the best construction on everything we hear” (p. 12).
Institute materials typically use the King James Version (KJV), but this explanation of improved health hinges on the set of words used in the Amplified Bible (used without attribution). Proverbs 15:30 contains a figure of speech which essentially says that good news brings good health. There is some sleight of hand in the explanation that follows. The Amplified Bible uses the expression “good report,” but follows that term with “nourishes the bones” as opposed to the KJV “maketh the bones fat.” Recall that the term “good report” as used in the booklet has a specific connotation, different from the intended meaning of the phrase as used in this verse. The explanation is given: a “good report” makes for healthy bones, and blood is made inside the bones, and healthy blood results in a healthy body. Therefore, giving a “good report” (as employed in this booklet) results in a healthier physical body. Ironically, in light of what the booklet says about a “good report,” the next two verses in context in Proverbs stress the importance of listening to needed input, even when it is “negative”: If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.
Institute materials typically use the King James Version (KJV), but this explanation of improved health hinges on the set of words used in the Amplified Bible (used without attribution). Proverbs 15:30 contains a figure of speech which essentially says that good news brings good health. There is some sleight of hand in the explanation that follows. The Amplified Bible uses the expression “good report,” but follows that term with “nourishes the bones” as opposed to the KJV “maketh the bones fat.” Recall that the term “good report” as used in the booklet has a specific connotation, different from the intended meaning of the phrase as used in this verse. The explanation is given: a “good report” makes for healthy bones, and blood is made inside the bones, and healthy blood results in a healthy body. Therefore, giving a “good report” (as employed in this booklet) results in a healthier physical body.
Ironically, in light of what the booklet says about a “good report,” the next two verses in context in Proverbs stress the importance of listening to needed input, even when it is “negative”:
If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.
If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.
Love is a vital Christian concept. In this booklet, the love of the one who has been hurt, not the offender, is placed under close scrutiny. “God’s greatest test of genuine love” has been laid out for the victim. Also, “the world’s test of whether we are genuine disciples is if we have love for one another” (p. 5). And more, if the victim’s love is deficient, their “lack of love [will be] a far greater detriment to the spread of the gospel than whatever fault [they] try to expose or correct” (p. 12).
In another verbal sleight of hand, “loyalty” is swapped out for love. Loyalty is presented as the result of knowing that others will only say positive things about you—a “good report”; it is disloyal to give a negative report. The concept of “special loyalty” is then connected to verses that speak about the importance of loving and doing good for each other. Thus, the insinuation is that the believer is obligated not to speak about problems. But the concept of loyalty is being conflated into the text; “loyalty” and “disloyalty” do not appear in the scriptural texts being cited (including Matthew 18). This concept of “special loyalty” sounds more like the oath of silence for the Mafia or a secret society than it does Scripture.
This is a very unfortunate re-definition of both love and loyalty. What does this mean for a victim of abuse, if they were to try to follow this booklet as their road map in addressing the abuse and the abuser? We noted above that both God and the world are testing the love of the victim, but love has now been conflated with loyalty. For the victim in question, the occasion of their abuse has shifted into actually being a test of their loyalty.
To illustrate, Gothard introduces his primary case study, a “true story” of a mother who is shocked to discover an indecent letter to her son from the youth leader’s wife. The mother proceeded to tell her husband about the letter and is painted as a negative example for doing so. We pause to note that women are in the hot seat in this case. The youth leader’s wife is the initiator of the indecency, the mother is in error for telling her husband, plus “(and women)” is added to Galatians 6:1 as emphasis for the ability of women to sin as well as men.
The mother is blamed for touching off a chain of events that resulted in a church split. In the illustration to the right, we condense the booklet’s teaching as shared in the case study. These steps are literally what Gothard claims will transpire. Click here to compare this chart with the actual illustration from the booklet.
What should the mother have done, according to the booklet? We are told she should have gone directly to her son (leaving open the question of whether he is considered the offender for having received the letter). The discussion considers only the interaction between her and her son—no discussion of any need to inform her husband or to alert the church that a person in a position of trust has violated that trust.
But why should we assume that speaking to the son would magically solve the youth leader’s wife’s problems? Or that this was an isolated incident which has never happened to any of the other students in the church in the past and will never happen again in the future? Being silent about a problem does not make it disappear any more than babies playing peek-a-boo cease to exist when they put their hands over their eyes.
The reverse is all too often the reality: silence and secrets provide an optimal environment for abuse to flourish. The consequences compound: the abuser digs a deeper hole for himself or herself, current victims continue to be abused, and new victims will be abused in the future. The many years of Jerry Sandusky’s ongoing abuse and the scandal within the Catholic church are two recent examples writ large.
This emphasis on silence is not healthy. It is about keeping secrets, not telling the truth. When the one who talks about the problem becomes the problem, we have a problem.
If a wife may not tell her husband about this upsetting discovery, what is the alternative? The implied message to victims and their family members is that they are obligated to keep secrets.
There is a deep inconsistency here. It would be anathema in any typical Institute document for a wife to keep secrets from her husband. Throughout Institute teachings, Gothard says repeatedly that people under authority are to submit and yield rights. Anything less than whole-hearted submission is rebellion “which is as the sin of witchcraft” and leads to destruction. The good news, we are assured, is that submission to authority places one under an umbrella of protection. There is thus a trade-off of individual autonomy for protection and security. But in this booklet, the artwork and text both rebuke the wife for telling her husband about the problem and make her the catalyst of a church split.
The “Rediscovered” process lends itself to blaming the victim for the offense as well as for any failure to restore the offender. This is unfortunate because victims often already blame themselves for the decisions made by their abusers. The fact that offenders are quick to shift blame is even acknowledged in the Basic Seminar textbook.
Blame for the offense: In the ten steps summarized above, the victim was evaluated for their love. Here, the test cuts surprisingly close to the bone in evaluating the victim for blame. Announced in bold capital letters “A WARNING!”: Even “the slightest offense or attitude or neglect” which has “contributed” to the offense means “[you] cannot follow the steps of Matthew 18” (p. 6). And yet, “the people around us are often reflections of ourselves” (same page). If the wrong actions of the abuser were a reflection of the victim, then the victim is partly to blame. If the Basic Seminar textbook is correct on this point, then the abuser’s own “natural inclination” will be to blame the victim. And if any blame at all, however slight, can be assigned the victim, this entire process becomes off-limits to the victim.
Blame for failure to restore: The booklet speaks of restoring the offender approximately fifteen times, always in terms of the one offended doing the restoring, never in terms of the offender making the choice and taking needed action to be restored. When it comes to restoration, it is as if the offender is a passive party and the weight of success or failure is on the shoulders of the victim. We are told that a mark of our spirituality is our ability to restore a brother (a questionable use of Galatians 6:1, p. 13). For a victim of abuse, this is an unequal scale. Even if, by some miracle, the victim is able to pass the test sufficiently to press their case, but “restoration” does not happen (restoration is a concept that is not well defined in the booklet), one more failure is chalked up to the victim. The buck stops here: on the victim.
The offender is effectively given final say in clarifying their words, actions, and intentions. This is surely a polite move if both parties are acting in good faith. However, what if you are a victim of abuse and your abuser lives in a haze of self-deceit or a “fog of confusion and evasion”? The booklet spares no exception, requiring you to approach your abuser “as a learner and as a servant” (p. 6). You have just been compelled to hand control of the narrative over to your abuser. If you are familiar with the term “gaslighting,” this is an ideal setup for it.
For any case of abuse, this is naïve at best. When an abuser is offering a distorted perspective in order to minimize, justify, or cover up his actions, it is the abuser’s story that ought to be rejected and the victim’s plea for help that must be heard. It does not help the healing to give the abuser the “last word,” and (like the rest of the booklet’s extra steps) it has no scriptural warrant.
God gave us our feelings and emotions for a reason. If a person’s treatment of you arouses anger, fear, or suspicion, your emotions could be serving as God-given warning lights alerting you to danger or damage. You do not need the permission of the offender to validate your senses if you are being treated badly.
Following the conclusion of this article, we show a visual representation Jesus’s version of the text of Matthew 18 compared to Gothard’s process in this booklet.
For Gothard, “Go to him” no longer means “go to him.” “Go to him” means examine yourself for any possible failing in five ways, and only if you pass 100 percent may you “go to him”—and this only after you have a detailed step-by-step plan worked out for his restoration and have initiated new programs in the church.
By adding these weighty prerequisites, doubt is cast on any victim’s right to invoke Matthew 18 at all. Have you prayed enough? Do you detect any pride in your heart? How would a victim know whether or not they have been a good enough example or have exemplified enough love? Recall that the hurdle to clear was “even the slightest offense or attitude or neglect” which has “contributed” to the offense, otherwise “we cannot follow the steps of Matthew 18” (p. 6). One must be a high achiever indeed to be allowed to pursue the steps of Matthew 18!
Beyond the individual, the church is also saddled with extra, apparently mandatory, steps when it becomes their turn to take action. It must initiate some new programs, which include 1) a day of fasting and self-examination, 2) apologizing to the abuser if the church finds any reason to blame themselves, and 3) 100 percent unanimity in agreement with the process. Remedial programs of teaching and cleansing are in order should a vote return any less than 100 percent unanimous.
But look again at Jesus’s words and note the emphasis on “hearing.” The responsibility to hear is on the offender. A truthful reconciliation requires that the offender stop controlling the narrative and, instead, listen—he must hear what has been the experience of the one who was wounded.
This booklet is a snapshot of a day in the life of spiritual abuse. Gothard wrote these words down the hall from where ongoing sexual abuse was occurring. It was part of the effort to keep the scandal quiet as people began to realize there was a problem and to talk about it. This teaching is an example of the “can’t-talk” rule in action. And it worked. Gothard’s twisting of Matthew 18 served as a tool to help stonewall and silence the victims, cover up the truth, and enforce loyalty. The results were as predictable as they were tragic.
People wonder why those young ladies who allegedly were sexually assaulted did not speak up. Why did they not talk? But if you put yourself in their shoes and believe that this process is God’s only path for you to follow in addressing the abuse, you will find that the dice are loaded against you. You cannot win at this process. Neither could they. When you wonder why or how their voice could be silenced so effectively, you are seeing evidence that this booklet did exactly what it was designed to do.
Rather than disappearing into the silence, the abuse escalated; New victims were added to the collection as one of the primary abusers was shuffled off to a remote physical location (Northwoods) that became, quite literally, a haven for abuse. In the words of one denominational statement regarding child sexual abuse, this was a “fundamental failure of servant leadership, rendering the [leadership] complicit and culpable before the Lord, driving people away from the safety, healing, and hope of Jesus Christ.”
Meanwhile, a significant amount of the material for Character Sketches 1 and 2, the Life Purpose Notebook, and Men’s Manual 1 was being produced in that environment of abuse. These materials appeared to offer higher standards and a way to spiritual excellence for those who desired to rise above the average. Such duplicity is exactly what Jesus called whitewashed tombs: purity on the outside, closets full of skeletons on the inside.
If this booklet is so bad, what can we offer instead? First, for cases of interpersonal offenses, let us return to the straightforward process offered by Jesus. He did not talk about “good reports,” “special loyalty,” and “very painful prerequisites.” The one who has been offended is invited to pursue a hearing with the offender, with increasing audience, until there is restoration.
Second, for cases of abuse, let us lay dishonesty aside and pursue the truth in love. Let us show love to the abusers by making it easier to stop than to continue. Let us show love to the victims by being patient with them, letting them take as long they need to heal. Let us show love by being kind to them, by hearing their story, by protecting them from further abuse, and by treating them as more important than our own convenience and public image.
Let us not fail them when our time comes to stand with them or to speak up on their behalf.