The Road to Spiritual Abuse

Another packed out arena for Bill Gothards's "Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts".  Where are all of these people today?

Another packed out arena for Bill Gothards’s “Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts”. Where are all of these people today?

It looks like the Bill Gothard train has finally run off of the rails. The Bill Gothard story is an important one to tell, as it has important challenges for those of us in the Body of Christ respecting how evangelicals handle the notion of authority in a Biblical way.

I first heard of Bill Gothard way back in the late 1970s. I was a young believer in the Lord in high school, and some friends of mine had just recently attended something called the “Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts”. Several thousand people had packed the Hampton Coliseum for about a week of Gothard’s teaching about Christian discipleship and family. Most of it was really, really good stuff. Gothard emphasized the principles of getting out and staying out of debt, emphasizing moral purity, confronting spiritual rebellion, and grounding oneself in the study of God’s Word.

Gothard would give the seminar participants a large, loaded red manual filled with practical teachings. For people looking for some solid, spiritual guidance in an age where permissiveness and ungodliness pervades society, Gothard’s positive teachings have served many, many people for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Gothard eventually became a popular advocate for Christian home schooling, which I think is a really a wonderful thing to do, assuming it makes the most sense for the child and the parents.

However, all was not quite what it seemed from the outside within Bill Gothard’s world.

The Bill Gothard Implosion

My first inkling of having doubts had to do with Gothard’s treatment of rock music. He often would repeat the well-worn story of missionaries going to Africa and their unsuspecting kids pulling out their vinyl records of Led Zeppelin and playing them on 33 RPM turntables in their jungle cottages. Shamans and other animistic worshipers would wander by the missionary homes asking why they would be playing such music over their stereo speakers. After all, the beat in the music was the same as could be found in African devil worship.

Surely, this was a common Gothard theme, but it was not just about secular rock music. Gothard singled out contemporary Christian music as unknowingly promoting the devil’s music, too.

Okay. I must confess that I am an electric bass guitar player in our church’s praise and worship band, so I am a bit biased, and I know that I overreacted to Gothard’s admonitions in the past. Filling my head with the raunchy lyrics of paganized popular rock music was not healthy spiritually. To that extent, Bill Gothard did have a point. I stand rebuked. But I had a hard time thinking that worship songs in church like “Shine, Jesus, Shine” were leading people astray. Really? Where is that in the Bible?

Now, a lot of many fine Christian folk today would still agree with Bill Gothard regarding the dangers of Christian “rock” music. Yet it did not sit well with me. But that really is not the big issue. Something else was afoot.

The “Chain of Command”

Bill Gothard is a man who is really into authority.

On his website, Gothard still teaches this notion of having “protection under authority, or what he specifically calls being under an “umbrella of authority“. Most notably children, even into adulthood until they get married, should be under the umbrella of their parents’ authority. Elsewhere, in years past, Gothard would talk about a “chain of command” with respect to authority. Children are under their parents, and parents should be under church leaders, and all should be under God. In the area of finding a mate, young people should not “date”. Instead, they should look to their parents for guidance and try “courtship” instead.

Now, it is important to stop here for a moment and say that if the above paragraph does not make sense to you, please take the time to study what God’s Word has to say on these topics.  So, please, please, please, do not knock it without taking the time yourself to read and deeply study the teachings in the Bible about spiritual authority, family, and the pursuit of marriage . Okay?

Okay. That is a very important disclaimer.

But take a closer look at what Bill Gothard’s teaching was really communicating and how it was working itself out:

I remember getting into several arguments with some friends about how you would actually go about applying some of these principles as Bill Gothard was teaching them. What if a parent were to ask their child to do something that was contrary to the will of God ? I could barely contain my sense of dismay as I heard my Gothard-following friends hem and haw on this one. I could hear the wheels turn in confusion: Would a  parent really ever ask a child to do something that was not right in the eyes of the Lord? Should you ever dare question the authority that God has placed over your life?

Apparently, this type of situation was not something that was fully covered in the Gothard seminars.

Nevertheless, I would have to say that even in our churches today, there are a lot of children who show amazing disrespect for their parents and other adults. We see it all of the time. I think Bill Gothard was onto something really important, good and right.

But it does not necessarily mean that Bill Gothard was right.

I began to notice that during that latter part of the 1980s that the popularity of the Gothard seminars was starting to slack off. Instead of making live appearances to promote his teachings, his seminar staff would simply use pre-recorded sessions flashed up on a big screen. Gothard was growing more interested in promoting the burgeoning Christian home schooling movement (An aside: I still think home schooling is great, by the way).

It turns out that there were things going on that were not above board back at Gothard’s headquarters. In the early 1980’s, Bill Gothard had a brother, Steve, who was… shall we say… not doing the type of things you should be doing as a Christian leader. There was evidence of some financial mismanagement. Bill Gothard promised to deal with the situation, but many critics were upset that apparently the abuse continued.

Was this criticism a responsible attempt to establish some accountability, or was it a self-righteous cloak designed to cover spiritual insubordination and rebellion? Was the criticism directed at challenging Bill Gothard’s interpretation of the Bible, or was it an insidious movement to attack the Word of God itself? Had the Lord not placed Bill Gothard at the head of the earthly “chain of command”?

As the years progressed, Gothard was being challenged more and more by other staff members and parents about how he was exercising authority. But remember this is a man who is really into authority, some would even say, unquestioned authority. A few had questions about some of his teachings. A group of his critics met with Gothard from 1995 to 2002 to discuss these issues, but apparently they were not able to reach an agreeable solution where they felt that he was taking responsibility and repenting of his incorrect teachings and other wrongdoings.

That is seven years, folks.

The media latched onto the story again around 2003, but still, Bill Gothard hung on. His devoted followers would still hang onto every word he said. At times, he would dismiss his detractors by making up tall tales about them. At least, that is what his critics claim (here and here).

Hitting A Wall… And Hitting It Really, Really Hard

Sadly, only since about 2011 has the real tragedy begun to unfold, and this involves a lot more than the possibility of Gothard secretly playing with Cabbage Patch dolls. Over the last couple of years, a number of home schooled girls that grew up under the authority of Bill Gothard working at the Gothard headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois have come forward now as they are in their adult years. The latest story as of late February, 2014 is that the board of directors for Gothard’s ministry have placed Gothard, who never married, on administrative leave pending the results of investigating the stories of 34 women who claim sexual harassment, with 4 of them reporting molestation. Within a week, on March 6, Bill Gothard resigned from his post.

I am simply reporting what can be found in the media and the main website of the victims that have followed the controversy. You can make your own decision as to the status and fitness to ministry of Bill Gothard. I must warn you that, if you dig into some of the stories told on the website, be prepared to weep. To me, even if only a tiny fraction of the allegations can be substantiated, the man is in serious, serious trouble.

Recovering Grace

The compounded tragedy of Bill Gothard is that much of this was probably avoidable. At least, I would hope that this would be the case. It took years for some of the more troubled elements in the Gothard story to manifest itself. Plus, I am fully aware of the many stories of genuine appreciation for Gothard’s work, dedication and ministry in the lives of those who were greatly helped and not harmed by Gothard. However, spiritual authority practiced without the evidence of accountability is merely authoritarianism, a blight against integrity within the church. The most frustrating thing for me personally is that so many of the defenders of Bill Gothard over the years were led to believe that they were defending the authority of sacred Scripture and its teachings, when in reality, they were merely defending the fallible interpretation of the Bible from a fallible human being… and they just could not see it!

I think there are a few lessons to be learned from the Gothard saga:

  • Before any of us blindly accept the teachings of someone, even if they claim to be a Bible teacher, check it out against the integrity of God’s Word itself and any other credible evidence that is pertinent to the issue.
  • Accept and honor all that is true. Even someone whose ministry is faulted somehow can still teach some really good things. There is no need to completely reject everything. Do not reject the Truth of Scripture simply because someone you looked up to mishandled it..
  • Spiritual abuse is really, really dangerous and violently hurtful. You can be doctrinally correct in many, many ways and still mess a lot of people up.
  • Do not confuse the infallible authority of Scripture with the fallible authority of human beings. Unfortunately, keeping this distinction is often easier said than done.
  • Beware of making an idol out of our spiritual leaders and wrongly promoting their unquestioned authority. When we tend to idolize our leaders, accountability will breakdown, and we are no longer serving them as they attempt to serve us.

Pray for Bill Gothard. Pray for those who feel victimized by the abuse they sense they suffered under Gothard’s leadership. Pray for those in the “Institute in Basic Life Principles” remaining in leadership as they seek God for wisdom and guidance in how to proceed forward and bind the wounds of the broken. Pray for other leaders like Bill Gothard who are idolized by their followers that they may be protected against inflicting spiritual abuse on others, and pray for those people who might suffer from such abuse.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

10 responses to “The Road to Spiritual Abuse

  • S.J.

    Good article. I profited greatly from a Bill Gothard seminar back in the early 80s, when I was just coming back to Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. In fact, it was his teaching on authority that helped me to understand the Catholic Church’s teaching on authority–how ironic that it was the teaching of a Protestant that helped lead this Catholic back to the Roman Church!


  • Clarke Morledge

    S.J., That is a great comment, and nevertheless troubling for many an evangelical Protestant, like me, I can assure you.

    There are quite a few folks who grew up Catholic, presumably like yourself, then went through various stages of Protestantism, and then made their way “back home”, as Roman Catholic apologist Scott Hahn puts it.

    When you see an episode or two of Bill Gothard-style evangelicalism in practice, you come to see a lot of powerful strengths of Protestant Christianity, but then you can become painfully aware of some of the challenges when you do not have a magisterium to keep things in check. I can empathize with you in your journey.

    Thanks for stopping by Veracity!


  • jriddett

    It is good to check oneself for idolizing
    our leaders. If we don’t know what they are doing in their life away from the pulpit , or what they are really like in ” person” .. That’s what can be just as important. But God can use people to reach others who may not being living in their personal life as The Lord says. People and their life can truly get in the way of the majesty of God. But God can conquer through that for His purposes 🙂 Because ultimately God controls even the evil realms of this world and can use even use this for His good and purpose.


  • Jeff

    I am stunned by this, although, I must confess, not surprised. I bought into the Institute back in the eighties, before I realized that this “chain of command” stuff was, in fact, what you have described it to be. I agree that there was some good teaching, and I thoroughly agree with your takeaway from this post. I honestly haven’t heard Gothard’s name in years, maybe even decades. I’m very sorry to see this happen to him. Even if I didn’t agree with all of his teachings, I wouldn’t want to see him fall like this. I will pray for him and those affected by this.

    Grace and peace,



  • Arlene Vander Loon

    Your comments under Recovering Grace were particularly “on target” in my opinion. So much pain and tragedy could be avoided and then redeemed if true repentance was applied at the outset.


  • Arlene Vander Loon

    I particularly found the “Recovering Grace” section helpful and “on target” in my opinion. So much pain and tragedy could be avoided and then redeemed if there was timely accountability followed by true repentance–which leads to an abundance of grace.


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