Since our readership has rapidly expanded over the past few years, and especially during the past few months, we want to take some time this summer to draw attention to earlier articles for those who may have missed them. Today’s article was among those from our first few months and was published on Recovering Grace in September of 2011.
Ask any church leader who has come into contact with Gothard followers, and far too often you will hear about stories of divisions caused within churches, rather than people who are known for their love or unity.
Many instances of division can be traced directly back to the teachings of Bill Gothard through the Institute in Basic Life Principles, and his heavy emphasis on “Godly standards.” There is nothing wrong in and of itself with having Godly standards–after all, we are called to be holy and pursue holiness in our lives. However, there is something wrong when someone creates extra-biblical rules that they claim as “God’s standards” and enforce them on other believers. These extra-biblical “standards,” which are taught by Gothard with the authority of biblical doctrine, are referred to in Scripture as “commandments of men,” not standards of God. 
The Apostle Paul also referred to these teachings in the book of Colossians as “basic principles of the world” [Ironically, the only time the term “basic principles” is used in Scripture, it’s used to speak about false teachings and doctrines of men]:
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” 
These human commands and teachings essentially create ranks within Christianity that Christ has not sanctioned. The top rank, who are seen by themselves as the more spiritual Christians, hold to rigorous teachings on things such as fasting, abstaining from certain foods, and avoiding certain ungodly people; and the lower rank are viewed as inferior Christians, who either can’t or won’t keep up with the same “standards of holiness.”
So what does one do when encountering a believer with lower standards? Bill Gothard does not just imply confrontation, but he flat-out encourages it:
“If you consistently fail to prayerfully and lovingly confront friends who violate Godly standards, you can be sure that you have a fearful heart. Here are some examples of such violations: Stealing the heart of a girl and disregarding her father; Listening to sensual, worldly music that is contrary to God’s nature; Visiting places of worldly amusement (e.g., theaters);….Reading sensual books or magazines–including romance novels.”
Gothard goes on to explain several reasons why people might be tempted to not confront others who violate these “Godly standards”:
“Perhaps you are afraid to expose their sin because you are doing the same things, which are reinforced when you keep company with them. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Corinthians 15:33). “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20).” 
So basically, Gothard is saying that you MUST confront someone who violates his criteria for Godly standards, and anyone who disagrees with these humanly-imposed standards is probably also corrupted by sin, and/or is a companion of fools who will be destroyed. While Scripture does teach the necessity of confronting sin, it is never clearly taught in Scripture that dating a girl without her father’s prior approval is equivalent to stealing, or that listening to worldly music and reading romance novels are automatically sins against God. But Gothard takes these personal convictions and elevates them to a Scriptural standard that ALL believers should follow, encouraging confrontation when these extra-biblical rules are not lived out in fellow believers’ lives.
Is it any wonder that many people who sit under these teachings create divisions within the body of Christ? If other believers don’t embrace the same standards, they are often shunned for having lower standards and not submitting to “God’s best.” This not only creates rifts in personal relationships, but within local churches as well, as the standards over music, dress, courtship, child-rearing, educational decisions, Bible translations, and more are seen as worthy enough to create division within the church, often resulting in attempts to fire a pastor or expel a fellow brother from fellowship over non-conformity to these “standards.”
Former Advanced Training Institute (ATI) students can relate countless stories of the collateral damage done to churches, youth groups, and families by the efforts of well-meaning Gothardites in their zeal to spread these higher standards. Here are just three examples I know of personally:
–One ATI student’s parents led the praise and worship at their church. They laid down the law about using hymns only, as opposed to choruses and anything with a “rock beat.” It turned into a huge ordeal and the church split in half.
–Another student’s family caused a church to split over wanting to teach Gothard’s materials in the adult Sunday school class. After the Senior Pastor expressed concern, they took five like-minded families and started their own church the next Sunday.
–In yet another student’s story, the actions of another family attempting to spread Gothard’s teachings in their church led to the resignation of the associate pastor, the departure of the problematic ATI father/family, and finally the resignation of the senior pastor as the church reeled from a split.
While many ATI families are NOT like this, many students recount the constant church-hopping they were subjected to throughout their growing-up years, as their parents continually looked for the “perfect church” with similar teaching and music standards. They lament the lack of spiritual roots they were able to develop because their families were constantly “on the move” from church to church. Fine-tuned, extra-biblical standards too often create a misguided rationale for breaking fellowship, and the resulting strife often follows a person or family from church to church.
The early church encountered similar standard-related strife. In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul opposed Peter to his face because he had bought into the wrong “standard.” Peter believed that both Jews and Gentiles were equal in Christ, but in a moment of weakness, he was swayed by the Judaizers in separating themselves from their fellow brothers in Christ who did not share the same “high standards” of circumcision and dietary laws as they did. The Judaizers knew that this method of ranking Christian commitment and shunning believers who didn’t measure up to their own standards was both powerful and effective, and they were able to use it to sway many to their side. Paul warned, “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.”
This type of alienation is unbiblical at best. Any form of shunning fellow believers with “lower standards” flies in the very face of the gospel, which makes all equal before God through faith in Christ. Philip Graham Ryken puts it this way, “We must have fellowship with anyone and everyone who is in fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. If we refuse to have fellowship with them, then our actions deny the gospel. We are making a distinction that God himself does not make. We are adding some qualification to the only thing God requires, which is faith in Jesus Christ.” 
Scripture calls us to unity within the body of Christ, not to unnecessary divisions based on human commands and teachings. There is never any justification for alienating other believers based on lower standards. As believers, we are called to love each other and work for the peace of the church. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
This is not to suggest that there are not issues worth fighting for in the church, or genuine sin that should not be confronted. Good Christians will often disagree on personal convictions and standards, and sometimes strongly. But love should always be our highest rule. Love is what we should be known for. If we are worried about others who do not hold to our own standards of godliness, let us first examine our own path to make sure we are not following the commandments of men. Then let us demonstrate the truth with love, not through shunning or alienation.
1. “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9)
2. Colossians 2:20-23
3. Journey to the Heart booklet (IBLP Publications), 18
4. Galatians 4:17
5. Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians (P&R Publishing, 2005), 60
6. Ephesians 4:3-6