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I first encountered Bill Gothard in the fall of 1957 when I was a sophomore at Wheaton College. He had just graduated that year and was enrolled in their graduate program. Bill was organizing college students who were willing to be Bible study leaders one evening a week under the auspices of a program working in various Chicago-area public high schools. Actually, Bill was writing his master’s thesis in this area, so I guess we were acting as free academic assistants, getting data for him on how such youth groups panned out.
The proposed leaders were taken away for a weekend retreat to prepare us for our roles. I remember the pressure put on me to cram one more event into an overly crowded agenda that had me up into the wee hours most nights, studying to keep up with a 21-semester-hours class load.
Since service to ministry was always uppermost in my missionary family, it seemed appropriate to agree to be a Bible study leader at least for a year. I remember Bill leading the retreat in a navy suit and tie and being rather uptight, albeit charismatic and persuasive in convincing us to sign on. I didn’t sign up for a second year.
The next I heard of Bill was in the early ’70s in Brazil, where I was now a missionary. Each year the Missionary Association Fellowship that helped with visas, travel, and general encouragement held a pan-mission conference. That year they invited Larry Coy to present a Basic Youth Conflicts seminar, which apparently was the current rage in the U.S.
Larry had been my classmate at Wheaton, and when we chatted, I told him I’d worked with Bill Gothard as a sophomore. Larry mentioned that he not only was Bill’s associate but was also writing the workbook to go with the advanced course of their program. Like Bill, Larry was a great salesperson, and I took the message to heart.
My husband and I had been in Brazil since 1962. Shortly after arriving, and two days after I turned 24, we adopted eight Brazilian orphans (ages almost 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 years old) when their orphanage closed. Within ten years, we added two of our own to the family, so the children then ranged from 7 to 19, and we were facing a new reality of dealing with teenagers and school.
Beyond the normal challenges, my (now-ex) husband had sexual relations with my oldest Brazilian daughter over the course of her early teen years. He also had a nasty temper that he took out on me as physical abuse, for which he always apologized, quoting 1 John 1:9 for good measure: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I was firmly convinced by my fundamentalist world that there was no other option than to stick it out and forgive this “cleansed” spouse and try to forget the betrayal.
Larry Coy’s message reinforced this conviction, and I returned home to the kids, convinced that if we stuck to God’s immutable principles, all would be right – and ours would be added to all those success stories they kept talking about in the seminar.
We decided that my husband would be “in charge” of the four boys and I would be “in charge” of the six girls. I kept forgiving everyone around me and “rejoicing” in everything. I also remained silent when I thought he was being too harsh on the boys because he was in the direct line of God’s authority. I did say things like, “Don’t you think you should apologize to Graciano for losing your temper?” To which I would hear a disgusted, “No!”
I was heartbroken but not overly surprised after one of my husband’s vicious attacks on Graciano, 14, when he ran away to find his Brazilian family. I didn’t see him for another 20 years, so I mourned losing this bright child, our youngest son whom I’d raised from the age of four, and who was totally fluent in English. Within a few months, two of the older boys had gone off to find their fortunes after bearing the brunt of my husband’s rage. But still I persisted in “obeying God’s immutable laws” per Gothard’s interpretation.
Over the next couple of years, it felt like all the effort I had spent nurturing and raising these eight Brazilian children was coming to naught. Then a missionary friend whom I had not seen for quite a while came to visit, totally upset. She had just come back from a long mission trip where a young man in their group committed suicide. She had a seminary degree, and she was sure that with her experience she could have helped him, but she was discounted. Our mission world told her she needed to be “in submission” to the male authorities around her, and that they did not have to listen to a woman. They insisted she have nothing to do with that young man—not even pray for him, because she was rebelling against authority.
We sat for hours and told each other the stories of what had happened to us in the interval we had been apart. Finally, at about 2am, I looked at her and said, “I think, Barbara, they’ve sold us the Brooklyn Bridge! They keep telling us about all these wonderful success stories for those who obey the rules, but here are a couple real failure stories to add to their litany!”
I had been silent while three of my sons were forced from our family by the vile temper of my husband. And she had stood obediently silent until a lovely young man committed suicide, for the sake of the “male hierarchy” in her mission group.
Once you open the window, you can never erase the view from your memory. Thinking back to the last time I had seen Larry Coy, I had been totally flummoxed by a shocking story. I had kept trying to ignore the story: In one of our times together as “old Wheaton buddies,” Larry told me he had been offered a good position with Jerry Falwell. Bill Gothard, however, was not only upset by Larry’s contemplated leaving of Bill’s ministry, but was telling him he had no “right” to use the material Larry had developed while working with Bill. He had just been a “paid writer.”
When Larry took umbrage and said it was his own creative work, Bill said he would sue Larry to make him stop using his (Larry’s) own words. But I kept wondering, how could Bill go against every principle he had espoused with such authority? During the seminars, they repeatedly emphasized the “principle” that Christians could NEVER take another Christian to court because it was an un-Christ-like stance. Yet Bill wanted to sue Larry. What gave?
Then came the rumors that Bill’s brother was sexually harassing women in their office. At that point, I decided I was dropping all pretense at bowing to that kind of “authority.” Although it took a couple of years to gain exit velocity, I did manage to leave Brazil and get out of Dodge City, by the skin of my teeth. Everyone in my mission world blamed me for not being submissive. Apparently I should have turned the other cheek and ignored my husband’s unfaithfulness, his physical abuse and his foul temper. When I didn’t, I became a persona non grata to my mission community.
But not to God, who opened the doors and led me out of that wilderness into a new life full of adventure and travel and a new ministry.
So recently, when it looked like Bill Gothard had finally fallen on his own petard, I was not surprised. If he would have listened to me 40 years ago, this former research assistant of his could have told him his so-called immutable principles were nothing but bunk—being used by a male-dominated church trying desperately to keep women blind and in bondage. His harsh teachings were certainly not going to prepare anyone for life in heaven, where there will be no more tears, nor crying, nor mourning, nor pain.
What were we thinking to allow such poppycock to be stuffed down our throats?
I guess we weren’t thinking. We were brainwashed.
–Faith Annette Sand, March 13, 2014, Pasadena, California
Photo ©Alex Postovski irisphoto18 / 123RF Stock Photo
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