Set Free by Grace

26 April 2013, 06:00



922636_97439258It was around 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in June 2011. I was home for the weekend from the eating disorder hospital where I was in treatment. Asleep in bed, I woke up when my phone beeped for a text message. The name on the screen put fear in my heart. Terrified, I opened the message. Five simple words: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” But now I was in a horrible panic.

You would think this title of my favorite hymn would encourage me, but coming from my abuser it had multiple layers of dark, twisted meaning. He was my Christian therapist, but he had used me sexually for three years. During my “therapy” he would impersonate Jesus, talking to me as if Jesus was speaking directly to me through him. If I was particularly struggling, these words would be used to get me to focus on what he was saying, to get me to comply.

On another level this text was his attempt to save his skin. I had recently reported the continuous rape to the Board of Directors of his non-profit organization. They had just called an emergency meeting for that week. This was his attempt to get me to withdraw my accusations.

How did I fall prey to such a twisted man? I am a woman who was raised in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) program.

Over the past two years as I have healed from the ravages of abuse, I have found power and healing in telling my story. I remember the first time I told someone that I had been sexually abused. I stuttered over the words, cringing in shame and crushed by guilt. The more I tell my story and people witness the atrocities that happened to me, the more I have healed. Today I tell you my story without shame.

I was very young when my parents first went to a Bill Gothard seminar. They sincerely believed that his teachings were Biblical and would “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). When I was going into second grade, Bill Gothard opened a pilot home school program and my parents enrolled us as a second year family. I was raised for 10 years in the ATI program — a program which shaped every part of my being.

As a child I was very fearful. I craved security. Since that is exactly what the program offered, I embraced it wholeheartedly. I fully accepted every aspect of being under my authority’s “umbrella of protection.” I believed that if I aligned even my desires (not just my actions) with the desires of my authorities, I would be the most happy. I remember one time a girl from my church made the comment, “Your parents are really strict!” I disagreed. I replied that actually they don’t have “rules” for me. Instead they have trained my heart to want the very things they want for me, so I simply do what they expect without them having to tell me. This was something the ATI program taught parents to build into their children, and I was proud of the fact that I did it so well.

As a result, my teen years were calm and peaceful. I never rebelled. It never even crossed my mind to think differently from my parents. If an authority wanted me to be a certain way, then that was God’s best for me. By this time, I was completely unable to think independently, or (God forbid) ever say “no” to an authority. If my authority’s wishes were truly God’s will for my life, why should I ever say no?

Ironically, this was exactly the outcome ATI was designed to create, and from the outside I was a complete success. However, in my heart all was not well. I began to live in daydreams and feel horribly guilty about them. That was the beginning of the dichotomy between my tumultuous inside life, and the perfect image I showed everyone on the outside.

My family left ATI when I was nearing the end of high school. In the Baptist circles I grew up in, Bill Gothard was seen as too ecumenical. But as far as my life went, the damage had already been done.

After high school I went to an elite Bible College. The lifestyle requirements were very similar to ATI, including the practice of courtship, so I fit in easily. Because of my skills in taking to heart everything my authorities desired for me, I was a success in Bible College. I quickly was placed in positions of leadership. Now I had an even bigger image to maintain and I worked even harder to mask my inner deficiencies.

Around this time, my brother married, and he and his new wife lived with my family. My new sister-in-law turned out to be violent. My well-ordered and peaceful world fell apart and turned to chaos. I would go to bed at night to the sounds of this woman beating up my brother. Over the years, she attacked my mom and dad, my brother, and even me. The structure of our home that was built by ATI did not have the tools to deal with this. My parents, following Matthew 6, simply “turned the other cheek” and allowed the violence to continue. Now the dichotomy between my perfect Christian life on the outside and my hurting disillusioned self on the inside felt even greater.

After graduating from Bible College, I made preparations to go to Bolivia, South America as a full time missionary. I was to be a teacher in a Baptist school for deaf children. I moved there in March of 2004 and in just a few months my life unraveled. I looked at all the stuff I was doing to be a successful Christian: daily devotions and prayer, proper dress, proper music, living in moral purity, working in the local church, evangelism, discipleship, and of course being a full-time missionary. But inside I was so desperately empty! Did God love me? Or even accept me?

After three months I was desperate for help but did not know how or who to ask. And so I made a very loud cry for help: I overdosed on sleeping meds. My coworkers and mission board were shocked. My dichotomy was exposed. Everyone in my world could now see the truth about me: that this “successful” Christian was really a great big FAILURE!

But I saw hope from one source. My dad had a friend from college that he had kept in touch with over the years, and this friend had a daughter and son-in-law who ministered to broken Christians. Because they were family friends, I was happy to hear from them, and when they started emailing me, I was amazed. They helped me see that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I was so desperate for this truth after my suicide attempt that I decided to move back to the States and receive counseling from this couple.

The problem was that they were not Baptists, nor did they live a lifestyle separated from “the world,” as I had been taught to live. All my authorities (my parents, my pastor, my Bible College) were adamant that I should not go to this couple for counseling. They tried hard to warn me that I was too vulnerable and would compromise my higher standards by being around them. But for the first time in my life I had resonated with their message of unconditional love, so I disagreed with my authorities and directly “disobeyed” them. I was 25 years old.

But I did not learn to think for myself overnight. While I soaked up my counselors’ love and acceptance, trying hard to believe that God really loved me that way, I also became very codependent on them. I was trained to be dependent on others my entire life, and one solitary act of independence could not immediately change that.

As it turned out, my counselor took full advantage of my trained submissiveness and began grooming me for sex. As my counselor, he controlled me emotionally, molding me to the place where I believed I could not survive without him. Over three long years he used my body again and again. I would ask him to stop, but he said God was okay with it, and that when the time came it would stop naturally.

Over the years I was receiving “counseling” from this couple, I learned to self-injure, had multiple suicide attempts, ended up in a psych unit four times, and developed an eating disorder. Finally, I had the courage to ask the counselor’s wife for help and I told her everything. She and her husband had a “reconciliation” meeting with me, in which we were each to apologize. However, they had my apology already decided. I was to ask them to forgive me for seducing him. I was stunned because I had no clue how I had seduced him. But being submissive, as I had been trained to do, I confessed to seduction. As a result, I believed I was a whore and an adulteress, and could never tell anyone my horrible secret of what I had done. The sexual abuse stopped for a while, but because I never asked anyone on the outside for help, it eventually started all over again, and I still felt powerless to stop it.

Mercifully, God rescued me from the cycle of abuse. A man on their Board of Directors (who had been told of the abuse by the couple after our mutual apology session, but had been sworn to secrecy by them) suggested that I move away. I had gone back to school since my return to the States and had become certified as a Sign Language Interpreter, so for the first time in my life I actually had the means to be independent and self-supporting.

So at the age of 32, I began the journey to find a home and a job out of state. I was so excited that I actually had the ability to be independent! While Bill Gothard’s ATI program seemed like a thing of the past for me, my parents still lived in that mindset and lifestyle. I remember so well the day my parents helped me move. We were up early that morning to load everything up and make the drive across the country to my new home. When we arrived, I excitedly showed them around, proud of my new-found independence. But my mom was horrified. She began to lecture me, saying I had done all of this without being under my father’s authority, and wasn’t I afraid of the judgment of God?!

The next day as we were eating lunch, my mom tried again. She said, “Who you used to be is who you really are, and the way you are now is because you are deluded.” It hurt deeply, but I was tasting freedom, and wanted it too badly to give up.

With a great desire to heal, I found an eating disorder treatment hospital and made an appointment. I still believed that my counselor’s sexual relationship with me was all my fault, that I had seduced him, and that I was a whore. The shame I felt was so intense. But that day in the nutritionist’s office, I heard for the first time that what I experienced was outright sexual abuse, and that my counselor had violated counseling ethics in using his position of authority over me to rape me.

After nine weeks of treatment in the hospital I had the courage to tell my parents about my sexual abuse. They were heartbroken and very supportive of my healing. But after a few days, the inevitable came out: My mom asked me if I felt conviction from God for any of my sins. I wasn’t sure at first what she was talking about, but she explained. It was obvious to her that since I had chosen to go against all my authorities’ wishes when I chose this counselor, I had sinned. And of course the sexual abuse was the natural consequence of that sin. I was crushed. Why, when I was already drowning in shame, did Gothard’s principle of authority have to be used to pile on even more? It was this very principle that had held me hostage by an inability to say “no” strong enough or loud enough to those in authority who were abusing me.

Being in treatment gave me the strength to contact a couple members of the Board of Directors and tell them what my counselor had done. The text I received that day in June from my abuser was his last effort to get me to withdraw my accusations before the Board of Directors met. Thankfully, by then I had the skills to calm down and stand firm. In their meeting, the Board mandated that he stop counseling, and later that year they voted to close his non-profit organization. More details have come out since and I’ve learned that I was not the only woman he abused.

Today I am completely free from anorexia, from wanting to injure myself, and from wanting to die. Even more amazing, I am free from the bondage of shame. It has been a long journey, but so worth it. The most beautiful discovery along the way has been a true understanding of God’s grace. When I found the book “A Matter of Basic Principles” and saw Bill Gothard’s definition of grace explained, I finally understood myself and what drove me to work for God’s acceptance. I have discovered that real grace is not something I have to earn; it is completely free. Even more, God delights to lavish it on me! I believe now that my brokenness is a beautiful medium for God’s grace. And so as Romans 5:3-5 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Gwen's family was enrolled in ATI from 1985--1995. As an apprenticeship student she worked at the very first Children's Institute in Detroit, Michigan, as well as several others. She also attended the first counseling seminar held for ladies at the Indianapolis Training Center. She now works full-time as a Sign Language Interpreter. The vibrant communities she loves to be part of include a CSA farm, an emergent church, and of course her dear friends in the Deaf community.

If this sexual abuse series brings up any emotions that you would like to process with a professional counselor, please e-mail us at: [email protected]g. We would be happy to recommend some professional counselors who are associated with the Recovering Grace ministry and who are familiar with the fundamentalist background of ATI and IBLP.


All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. MatthewS April 26, 2013 Reply

    Betrayal on top of betrayal. You have a strong will to live - after being sexually abused by a trusted counselor, and discounted by parents, you still reached out for help to that hospital.

    I really like the closing reminder of hope that does not leave us ashamed, and linking that to God's Spirit and his grace in using our brokenness, wow.

  2. Robin April 26, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story, you are a wonderful and brave lady!

  3. Heather April 26, 2013 Reply

    I think one of the most damaging mindsets that prevails in ATI is this awful idea that if you 'step out from under so n so's authority', anything bad that happens to you is God punishing you for the supposed sin of leaving authority. All of the authority teachings are based on false premises. Does this mean I don't believe in God given authority? No, of course I do believe in it, just not the way ATI teaches it. I've seen too much damage for me to believe that the teaching is the correct one. I'm very sorry your mom felt the need to not have proper compassion, and tell you such an awful thing. I'm even more sorry that she believes it herself. There's no telling what kind of misery parents must go through, being brainwashed by such teachings. Interesting to note that all of Gothard's teachings like these, puts the blame on EVERYONE but him. Sometimes he'll even 'blame God', i.e. God could've prevented it but didn't. (While that is a truth, Gothard says it in such a way to divert attention from himself, and the fact that he's the one administering such foul teachings.)

    • Gwen April 26, 2013 Reply

      I agree with you, Heather. I am not anti-authority either. But the way it was taught to us caused so much damage. It is really sad that the very thing that promised to protect us was actually what made me vulnerable to abuse.

      I am grateful that I do have a very good relationship with my parents, especially as I have been able to articulate what went wrong with being in ATI.

    • Gwen's Mom April 27, 2013 Reply

      Heather, reading my comments in this setting breaks my heart. It sounds so cruel. And to Gwen it sounded very hard and cruel. But my heart was not feeling hard and mean when I uttered those words. I was numb, not equipped to know how to respond. I had found God's Word true in a very difficult life. I was wrong not to think it thru better, but I didn't know what to think. I spoke seriously but I didn't think or even feel mean. I still have a lot to learn about how parent's words feel to their children. I feel so inadequate. My German parents didn't talk to us on a personal level. Nor did we, always busy, dairy farmers learn to take time to culture deep relationships. I think because Gwen was "performing" so well, we thought all was well. She was our inspiration - cheerful and loving, always! We have grown along with Gwen these years. God has been amazing. His Psalms have comforted every dark, horror-filled moment I experience when I think again about what she lived through, by God's grace. He is to receive all the praise and glory forever and ever. Thank you all for making a way for me to respond. What a sad evil world we have made of God's gift of a perfect creation. But soon He will return and amaze us again with the marriage of the church (us) with His Son who died for us! Oh, how can this be???

      • Heather April 28, 2013 Reply

        I'm so sorry Gwen's mom. Whenever I read comments like yours, it really does help me to have more compassion on those who are still caught in these kinds of beliefs, (parents and offspring) and in many ways, parents suffer just as much as children. Thank you for commenting. It's encouraging to know that you and yours have a good relationship. Gives the rest of us hope. :)

      • MatthewS April 29, 2013 Reply

        Gwen's Mom, how difficult this story must be for you as well. I respect your courage and honesty to express your feelings here.

        There is a professor at my seminary who was a missionary for many years to Germany. German parents have a notoriously difficult time expressing affection and emotions to their children. He has had many adults break down into tears and tell him how they know their parents, many times their dad in particular, loved them, but he simply never said so and never gave a hug or expressed physical affection. It is an unfortunate heritage and one that seems to take intentional effort and God's grace to break out of and to heal.

  4. Eliza April 26, 2013 Reply

    I'm so glad you are now free! Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Gwen April 26, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for all the encouragement and support! MatthewS, those verses in Romans are so very REAL to me. And I'm not trying to sound spiritual. Even in the very darkest days I still somehow had hope.

  6. FaithR April 26, 2013 Reply

    ((hugs)) I'm so sorry this happened to you! You are incredible brave for speaking out and telling your story.

  7. esbee April 26, 2013 Reply

    God has many ways of healing, sometimes through the love of friends, sometimes a certain verse of scripture, sometimes even a movie which I would like to recommend for those wanting a good cry over a good old fashioned story of a story about someone needing healing---It is called the Spitfire Grill.

    Yes, regardless of what Mr. bill says, it is ok ok watch tv and is part of our culture.

  8. LJ April 26, 2013 Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! May it encourage others who are going through similar situations to stand up and find hope and healing in the midst of their abuse. I sooo identify with your experience of verbalizing that you were abused. I was physically abused and can remember sharing with a friend years later--and it was very difficult.

    May our precious Lord's great grace continue to wash over you and use you to help free others in bondage to Bill's teachings.

  9. Flynn April 27, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story...I am so glad for you that you are now free!

  10. Another Hannah April 27, 2013 Reply

    Wow! Thanks for sharing your story! So sad. But it's good you shared it, because it really shows how Gothard's teachings can "indirectly" destroy someone's life...all the while blaming the victim.

  11. Gwen April 27, 2013 Reply

    I wasn't sure at first if my story would really be helpful on this site since the sexual abuse didn't happen while I was in the program. But my story does illustrate the far-reaching effects of Gothard's principles and how damaging they can be.

    Honestly, I am very grateful for the opportunity to share my story here. Finding the Recovering Grace website about a year ago was incredibly helpful in my healing process. I want to thank the entire community here - both the readers and those who have written articles for your honesty, encouragement, and support.

    • Stéphanie April 29, 2013 Reply

      Hi, Gwen!

      One could say that Bill Gothard's teachings aren't really that dangerous… so long as they remain cerebral and are not applied. What is frightening is the result of actually APPLYING them as instructed. Your story illustrates exactly what the program was meant to do: Train up the child so that when he is old, he will continue to APPLY the principles (non-optional, after all) to EVERY area of life ("universal," so they're for all situations). You acted consistently with what you were taught, and this trapped you in deep darkness and serious danger, leaving you no "Biblical" escape hatch. Your story is valuable precisely because it shows the horror of the rotten fruit produced by these "universal, non-optional, Biblical principles."

      I'm so sad to hear what you lived through, and very grateful to hear you're OUT of danger and no longer captive to principle-induced guilt and shame. You go, girl!

  12. Sad April 28, 2013 Reply

    Thank you Gwen for having shared your story. Even though I was not an ATI kid, having attended the Seminars and interacting with deeply involved ATI families had an impact upon my life that took years to get clear of, to finally see God's Grace for what it really is. You are not alone, thank you for being brave enough to write about your experiences.

  13. Jordan May 3, 2013 Reply

    WOW!! Very well written, and extremely gut-wrenching. I am only 17 and I am already having to recover from all of this ATI mess. I was only involved in it for about 4 years. It is so great to see the grace of God at work in the lives of people like yourself. Thanks for the post.

  14. [...] 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... that I later experienced. I soaked up the teachings thoroughly, as children do. In the Basic [...]

  15. Danielle May 6, 2013 Reply

    Wow....thank you for telling your story. I feel that there is a direct connection too between this twisted teaching and the abuse that I've allowed in my life. That teaching creates victims and harbors very toxic.

  16. […] Set Free By Grace. A former ATI student tells how the extreme submissiveness ATI cultivated made her more vulnerable to a spiritually and sexually abusive counselor later in life. […]

  17. TheaK January 25, 2015 Reply

    Gwen, thank you for sharing what's in your heart. Out of all the life stories on this website, yours seems the most free of pointing the finger at others with blame. I grew up in the ATI program along with my 9 siblings, and while my parents didn't take everything Bill Gothard said without weighing it against God's word, some of us still felt the effects of absolute submission to authority if what was asked of us didn't directly go against God's word. I lived at home until I was 30 (when I married a non ATI guy) and, praise God, still have a good relationship with my parents. What blessed me most about your article is that your mom made comments and got involved in your story and that you have become free from your past knowing that it is okay to question man's authority while still obeying the Lord and living in the freedom that is in Christ. The Lord bless you and keep you in His hand all the days of your life.

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