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Bill Gothard created a cult, and he did a fine job of it.
He didn’t create a commune that physically isolated his followers from the rest of the world. He didn’t lead weird sessions with chanting and candles. He didn’t even come up with strange names for his teachings. He conducted his cult in the wide-open view of the church, and for twenty or thirty years, he was wildly successful.
What was so brilliant about his “new approach” to cult-building?
1. It sounded innocuous—even boring. He didn’t name his empire something like The Kingdom of Salt and Light, or God’s White Army of Truth. No, he named his “organization” The Institute in Basic Life Principles. His homeschooling branch was The Advanced Training Institute. It’s like he used a Corporate Name Generator and chose the blandest options. Who would hear those names and suspect it was crammed full of twisted Scripture and damaging legalistic ideas? If the past thirty years is any indication—almost nobody.
2. His initial indoctrination wasn’t held at secret meetings with a select few followers. He held massive seminars and taught thousands of people at the same time. Granted, he did warn people not to lend out the materials to people who wouldn’t “understand.” But that made sense, because this was a week-long seminar. Obviously there was a lot of information that you couldn’t just pick up from the red workbook. Meanwhile, who would look at a city-wide seminar and think “cult”?
3. He separated the young people from their parents and short-circuited communication between them. Whether during “apprenticeship sessions” at seminars or in interactions with staff at training centers, he had direct access to us students. What he taught us was more extreme than what he said to our parents—but he used the same terminology. The result was that we and our parents often believed different things but didn’t know it because we used the same words.
He taught our parents that any questioning from us was rebellion. At the same time, he taught us not to “give a bad report” to our parents, so we didn’t let them know about problems that we saw. Meanwhile, he flashed that smile of his and said that he was building strong families. Who could object to that goal?
4. He had no centralized church. There was Headquarters, of course, with the reassuring, ordinary Midwestern name of “Oak Brook.” But people didn’t sell everything they owned so they could live near Gothard’s own personal church, as many cult leaders encourage. Instead, Gothard disseminated his ideas through his “homeschool program.” He required member families to fall in line with his teachings, consistently conditioning them to isolate themselves, both spiritually and physically, from the rest of the world. Which resulted in his most brilliant method:
5. He made sure that his ideas became his followers’ ideas. It wasn’t “Mr. Gothard tells us to do this.” It was, “We have chosen to do this.” That means that when the teachings were challenged, it wasn’t a challenge to Gothard. It was a challenge to my personal belief system. We will fight for a revered leader to an extent, but we often will fight for our own beliefs until death.
Even today, with so much evidence of Gothard’s false teaching, inappropriate behavior, and refusal to deal with sin, it’s difficult to explain how we are so damaged. All we can say is that we attended seminars and followed a certain homeschool curriculum. It’s named, unremarkably, IBLP or ATI, and the teachings are couched in terms of “Seven Basic Principles,” “moral purity,” and “staying under authority.” It doesn’t sound like any cult anybody else has read about or seen on TV. It sounds pretty bland, in fact.
Innocuous, boring, and spiritually devastating.
That’s the brilliant legacy of Bill Gothard.