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I have heard many people talk about how they still want to be involved in ATI (the Advanced Training Institute), but be “normal” families and just “filter out the bad stuff.” I’ve seen some of those responses in the Recovering Grace comments. If that’s your premise, then this post is for you, because that’s my story. My family were the normal ones.
If you are unaware or not convinced of the many scriptural fallacies taught in ATI, please read some of the other excellent posts here on Recovering Grace. The purpose of sharing my story is to warn the best intentioned of you that you will not escape serious negative effects resulting from involvement with ATI.
If it is actually possible to be a normal family and still be in ATI, we were that family. When I say “normal,” I mean that we were truly “in the world but not of the world,” as opposed to the ATI model of completely removing all outside influences from family life. Clothing was not emphasized as a measure of holiness. I wore skirts on Sundays and jeans the rest of the week. We were not banned from higher education. My parents both had college educations and the three of us children were expected to go to college. (In fact, one of my parents’ biggest oppositions when I got married was that neither my husband nor I had completed our degrees. This emphasis on higher education was certainly not classic ATI teachings.)
Sports were not banned as a waste of time or as false idols. My eldest brother and I were on the swim team — wearing Speedos, no less! In fact, we all played organized sports. My dad took it as a source of pride when the boys picked his baby girl to play on their teams, because she was actually pretty good. We were not banned from friendships with the opposite sex. My skiing buddy from age 10-15 was a boy, and we spent most of the days skiing alone, unsupervised.
Music was not restricted according to the ATI guidelines. We listened to music with a mild rock beat. Even hot topics in the general Christian community, like movies and questionable games, were not turned into a huge issue in our home. We went to movie theaters and we played cards. We were not banned from potential negative influences at church. My siblings and I were involved with the youth group and other ministries in our church, and active with church events. I know that we were an anomaly in the ATI environment at the time. Because we were practically the only ATI family in our area, we didn’t face the type of peer pressure to conform to ATI standards that many families experienced. The pressure in ATI for girls to be preparing for only one adult role did not affect us. My parents were adamant that a woman is called to be more than a doormat (cook, housekeeper and baby maker). I remember once my mom telling me that she strongly disagreed with the teaching that if a wife disagreed with her husband, she could do nothing but sit in silence and pray.
A career outside of marriage was allowed — even encouraged. Both of my parents fully supported me in my searching for a career after high school. My parents weren’t typical ATI parents any more than we were typical ATI kids. In fact, my mom had a teaching career herself when she convinced my dad that we should homeschool. Her reasonings were more out of educational than religious convictions. She left her job believing she could give us a more solid education at home. My parents filtered the ATI teachings through their own belief system, instead of blindly parroting everything that came out of the mouth of Bill Gothard. Other than being homeschooled and in ATI, we were a “normal” conservative Christian family.
Here’s the thing, though: We still did all those stinking Wisdom Books. Every. Single. Day. I completed the entire series two and a half times by the time I graduated. So guess what theology I was learning from before I could even read? Can you imagine how many twisted interpretations and applications of Scripture I’m still trying to straighten out? Being allowed to wear tank tops in front of boys made me appear “normal,” but the way I viewed the world was not normal at all. I was taught the wrong definition of grace through my entire childhood! It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I learned about scriptural exegesis. I had learned to recite the Greek alphabet and pronounce the Greek words, and I was a pro at using a concordance to search through key words and find Greek roots. But how to examine Scripture in context? I had no clue. Context is not used much in ATI, since proper hermeneutics and context prevent topically leapfrogging through the Bible to twist verses to an agenda. I didn’t know the difference between “prescription” and “description” until I was 21.
All my years of learning “scriptural principles” had to be revisited, evaluated, and adjusted. I attended a church not influenced by ATI teachings, and once teased our associate pastor that I needed to wear steel toe boots to Sunday school, because every time he taught he was undoing twelve-plus years of learning in about an hour. I was glad to learn the truth, but it’s frustrating and often sickening to compare it to what we had learned! I feel resentment over the numerous hours that I once spent studying the Bible during Wisdom searches only to find that those studies were in vain. The days I thought were spent learning more about my precious Savior turned out to be a man’s legalistic teachings. I wonder if Paul felt this way when he looked back on his years studying as a Pharisee. I wonder if he felt that he had wasted the time, and if he later struggled to wrap his mind around the truth.
These thoughts go through my head every time I see a commenter on Recovering Grace say they’re going to do ATI and just “throw out the bad stuff.” You do that and there’s not enough good stuff left to be worth it! We were those people. My parents threw out as much as you could and still be involved — and I still am left reeling some days. I can’t feel anger toward them, because they honestly were trying to do their best for us. My parents had started homeschooling at a time when it was definitely not in vogue. Some parents were arrested and their children taken by the state for the audacity to think they could teach their own children better than the established methods of education. Most school supply and textbook companies refused point blank to deal with homeschoolers. But into that uncertain future my parents marched, knowing it was what was best for us. They joined ATI because it was (purportedly) Bible centered, and they felt that belonging to a national organization would help lend some credibility should they ever be legally questioned. Bill Gothard is a pro at subtly twisting Scriptures, and some of his untruths managed to slip through the nets that my parents tried to set up to filter what we learned. The questionable teachings may not have impacted my parents who already knew the Bible and were secure in their relationships with Christ. But to a small child, having “principles” like the authority structure repeated over and over left me open for abuse that I later experienced. I soaked up the teachings thoroughly, as children do. In the Basic Seminar, grace is redefined to focus on man’s work instead of God’s. Bill Gothard’s definition of grace drove the focus of all his publications. With works-based grace as the backbone of your teachings, directly contradicting the backbone of Jesus’ entire message, is there anything left worth following?
When I first left ATI after graduation, I was disillusioned by my time spent at the Moscow Training Center, but still believed that many of the core concepts were valid with just a horrible execution. When my oldest son was born, my husband and I talked about our desires for his education. My husband is also a former ATI student. At the time we were both absolutely certain that we would never be involved in the program or send our children to seminars or Children’s Institutes, but that we might use some of the materials, much like my parents had with me. However, the more I am growing in my faith and the longer I have to look at the effects of Gothard’s teachings, the more I’m convinced that there is nothing of value to be used. The lies are so inextricably mixed in with the few truths, why should I even bother? America is significantly more homeschool-friendly than it was in the early 1980’s, with many more resources available to parents. There are so many theologically sound, Bible-based teachings out there, why would we want one that offers so little value to grace-based Christians and that is riddled with scriptural errors?
Was I as deeply scarred as many involved were? No. And I thank God for this, because even coming from “normal,” I was disillusioned enough that I nearly walked away from Him. I can’t imagine what so many have had to go through. I ask you this: how deep must the inflicted damage be before it it is time to pull back? I think any damage done spiritually — anything that hinders a person’s walk with Christ — is too much. It is without truly understanding that one would point a finger and say, “But it wasn’t that bad. Why don’t you just get over it?” The depth of our scars is not the measure for value. The point is that we never should have had to experience such damaging teachings at all. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
Trading a gospel of grace for a religion of legalism is placing darkness where there should be light. All of us who were involved in ATI were hurt by lies and deception, no matter how normal some of us looked.