I was one of those rebellious teenagers of the “hippie” era that Bill Gothard was destined to reach. Self-indulgent, resistant to authority, in love with rock music, seeking freedom from the constraints of societal demands, I needed order, direction, and purpose in my life. Most of my companions in youth group were cut from the same cloth.
So, in the aftermath of our spiritual awakening in the early 1970’s, the natural thing for our youth leader to do was to herd a bunch of us onto an old school bus to head to Philadelphia for the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, where we were issued our red padded three-ring binders and forced to sit and listen to a short guy with short hair in a dark blue suit lecture us for three hours a night over the course of six days.
We loved it. At least I did.
“The Bill Gothard Seminar” we called it. It was an “experience,” and more than anything, that was what I was after. Sitting in a darkened room with thousands of people learning “God’s principles,” this became a significant annual element of my Christian discipleship. Gothard was savvy in his use of media, even though it was elementary in those days, and his charts and diagrams and words up on the big screen seemed to carry an authority far more powerful than anything we received in church or Bible study (though we loved those settings too).
Looking back, I liken what I felt in those arenas to what many feel in megachurch settings todayâ€”a sense of being part of something “big,” a sense of intimacy with a “celebrity” through a media event (even though I was but one of a huge crowd), a sense of expectancy that my life could be changed by an overwhelming experience.
I remember going home after Gothard seminars determined to apply what I had learned. I asked forgiveness from those that I had offended or sinned against. I tried hard to submit to my parent’s authority. I took up devotional practices advocated at the seminar (his teaching on meditating on Scripture is still a part of me). However, like most “mountaintop” experiences, our week long marathons of spiritual intensity quickly lost their power to affect what happened in my daily life.
In my youth and naivete, I considered Gothard thoroughly “biblical.” What he taught came directly from his own personal meditation on the Scriptures, a method he taught us to use as well. In the Basic Seminar, he taught the “Seven Basic Life Principles”:
Every problem in life can be traced to seven non-optional principles found in the Bible. Every person, regardless of culture, background, religion, education, or social status, must either follow these principles or experience the consequences of violating them. By learning principles rather than rules, individuals are equipped to make wise choices and avoid failure. The Basic Seminar is designed to help you understand the cause-and-effect sequences of life.
What Are Basic Life Principles?
1. Design: Understanding the specific purposes for which God created each person, object, and relationship in my life and living in harmony with them. Thanking God for my design brings Self-Acceptance.
2. Authority: Honoring the responsibilities of parents, church leaders, government, and other authorities and learning how God works through them to provide direction and protection. Honoring my authorities brings Inward Peace.
3. Responsibility: Realizing I am accountable to God for every thought, word, action, and motive. Asking forgiveness of those I offend brings a Clear Conscience.
4. Suffering: Allowing the hurts from offenders to reveal â€œblind spotsâ€ in my own life, and then seeing how I can benefit their lives. Fully forgiving offenders brings Genuine Joy.
5. Ownership: Understanding that everything I have has been entrusted to me by God, and wisely using it for His purposes. Yielding my rights to God brings True Security.
6. Freedom: Enjoying the desire and power to do what is right, rather than claiming the privilege to do what I want. Regaining ground surrendered to sin brings Moral Purity.
7. Success: Discovering Godâ€™s purpose for my life by engrafting Scripture in my heart and mind, and using it to â€œthink Godâ€™s thoughtsâ€ and make wise decisions. Meditating on Scripture brings Life Purpose.
We’ve been talking about “principles” for this and that in the church ever since. Oh yeah, and now I don’t think that is a good thing.
However, back then this was attractive stuff. It was only later, after I had become a pastor and traveled a couple of times to his “Advanced Seminars” that I came to realize his errors. As Gothard began to cover areas such as church life (that I was experiencing at the time as a young pastor), deeper issues of marriage and family (ditto), health issues (this one was really strange), and social and cultural issues (early Christian right culture war stuff), I realized he was straying from the Bible and that he had little basis or authority to be making the absolute statements he was proclaiming. And after I had gone to Bible college, started studying the Bible seriously for myself, reading good commentaries, and preparing sermons and Bible studies regularly, it became clear that his entire approach to the Bible was . . . well, let’s just say it was lacking.
As the years went by, Gothard’s ministry became an impetus for Christian homeschooling and some of the patriarchy movement’s more bizarre manifestations, such as Quiverfull. It is my understanding that he and his organization continue to exert a lot of influence in some circles, but Gothard has never sought the limelight, and many to this day are unaware of his impact.
For information about Bill Gothard’s teaching and critiques of it by The Midwest Christian Outreach, an apologetics ministry that has taken on Gothard as one who teaches a Galatians-like legalism and whose organization has cultic tendencies:
- Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, part one
- Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, part two (go to Nov/Dec, 1997 link and download PDF)
- Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, part three
- Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, part four
- Exegeting Bill Gothard (CT’s review of MCO’s book on BG)
- Bill Gothard & ATI (Robin Phillips)
- The Institute in Basic Life Principles own website, with links to related sites about Gothard and their ministries
I’ve lost track of Bill Gothard for many years now. When we moved to Indianapolis twenty years ago, we had some devotees in our first church. Gothard’s Institute even has a Youth Training Center here in the city that received some support from local government (and was cleared of child abuse charges in a scandal several years ago). But by and large, he and his influence on my life have faded away.
How popular was Bill Gothard in his hey-day? And what is he doing today? In a March, 2008 article, Robin Phillips wrote:
Between the years 1967 and 2001, the Basic Seminar has been attended a total of 5,835,218 times. Of this total, 2,678,524 are those going for the first-time and 3,156,694 are alumni returning for a second helping.
Not only is Gothard invited to present his teachings to businesses and corporations, but in 1991 after the Soviets had heard about the Advanced Training Institute, Boris Yeltsin, together with the head of Moscow Public Schools, requested that Gothard bring his character training program to Russia. The Soviets were so impressed that they granted the Institute use of a five-acre campus. To top that, the Russian Parliament adopted a declaration stating that Gothard’s principles would be beneficial for all Russians to follow. Since then over 2,000 ATI students have visited Russia, where they are teaching in public schools, working with orphans, counselling delinquent teenagers, assisting pensioner teachers and involved in community service. Gothard has set up Moscow College of The Advanced Training Institute as well as a Training Center and refuge home for orphans and juvenile delinquents.
As the news of the Institute’s success in Russia has spread to other countries, ATI have received invitations from Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, China, as well as numerous U.S. cities. The mayor of Indianapolis, for example, invited the Advanced Training Institute to come and work in a low-income, high-crime area. The Institute then set up a permanent facility in Indianapolis where they have a rehabilitation facility that works in conjunction with the county’s juvenile court system. Entire cities can apply to become a ‘city of character’ by adhering to Gothard’s principles and by the mayor attending the mayor’s seminar. ATI is getting involved in American public schools as well. The state of Arkansas has mandated Gothard’s character training program to be taught in public schools, where thousands of top high school men are enrolled in Gothard’s program for young men called ALERT (Air Land Emergency Resource Team).
I’d love to hear about your experiences with Bill Gothard, the Basic Seminar, and other aspects of this work. I have not made this an analytical post critiquing BG, but let me make it clear that I now distance myself from this ministry and find many aspects of it more than troubling.
However, it was a big part of my early spiritual formation, and has had an influence on American Christianity far beyond popular recognition. Apparently, that influence is spreading around the world as well, quietly (some might say insidiously).
Bring me up to speed if you know more about what’s happening now with Gothard and the Institute. Let us hear your impressions and evaluations. Has this ministry benefited your faith in any ways? Have you been wounded by it? Has it had any impactâ€”positive or negativeâ€”on your church? What do you as a Bible student think about how Gothard handles the Scriptures?
Whatever happened to Bill Gothard . . . and you?