In November of 2015, I interviewed Kristiana Miner, a survivor of a Christian cult started by Bill Gothard and whose teachings are propagated by the Institute in Basic Life Principles or IBLP in Illinois. Having survived Scientology and now looking into other destructive cults and how they operate, I was amazed at the similarities between Scientology and what Bill Gothard put together and this caused me to look much deeper into the details of the IBLP. This group has fostered some powerful connections in the world of politics and education and has been purposefully mis-represented on entertainment mass media such as TLC as a sort of quaint Christian sect who seem to have a fondness for creating large families a la the Duggars. The truth is actually much darker than that. Unfortunately, these connections and lies have given the IBLP a lot more traction and acceptance than it ever should have received.In this video, we are going to explore just how deep down the rabbit hole Bill Gothard and the IBLP go. While Gothard claims that the principles he offers are the only true route to Heaven and eternal glory under God’s forgiving hand, the truth is that it’s more like an express elevator to Hell, and I’m not being melodramatic. After you hear all of what we have to say, especially about many of the children raised under Gothard’s principles, you’ll see what we mean. These children who were never given a chance to decide or choose what they wanted to believe or how they wanted to act. Gothard made grand promises over the years to many parents and families who were looking for nothing more than a safe and sure way to raise their kids in a God-fearing manner and achieve success and happiness. The one caveat is that it all depends on doing exactly what Bill Gothard says and thinking the way he says to think. So let’s look into this whole thing and see how it was all put together.
Who is Bill Gothard?
William W. Gothard, Jr. was born on November 2nd, 1934. He was raised in a very devout Christian home, and his father (Bill, Sr.) worked for the Gideons – yes, the same people who put Bibles in hotel rooms.
Bill had a hard time in school, spending 2 years in first grade and being “passed on probation” for the following 8 years of his education. Study and learning were difficult for him and he struggled just to make average grades. This may have something to do with his dislike for the public education system. He attributed the fact that he would spend hours learning and memorizing Bible scriptures as the reason he was able to get through school at all.
He went on to get a master’s degree from Wheaton College and eventually an honorary PhD from Louisiana Baptist University. Despite this, Gothard is well-known for his dislike of traditional and higher education. It was during this time, when he wrote his Master’s thesis, that he came up with the “seven Biblical principles of life” which he claimed would lead to a “harmonious relationship with God and others.”
Gothard formulated a class on Basic Youth Conflicts using these seven principles and taught this at Wheaton College. This in turn grew into a 30-hour seminar now known as the Basic Seminar and is the core teaching of the Institute in Basic Life Principles. Let’s talk about this institute and what it teaches.
The Institute in Basic Life Principles
The IBLP is the tax-exempt umbrella organization and global ministry that Gothard created which delivers seminars and homeschooling programs for a fee to Gothard’s followers. Headquartered in Oakbrook, Illinois, they have multiple training centers around the world with about 200 employees and 1,000 other volunteers who do the day-to-day work. Reportedly, their income is generated by tuition fees, publication sales and unsolicited donations. Unlike many other destructive cults, they do not engage in overt fundraising and encourage members to not get into debt but there is evidence suggesting that Gothard has solicited large donations from some members. According to IBLP’s website, they are “dedicated to giving individuals, families, churches, schools, communities, governments and businesses clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.”
IBLP actually has its roots in an older organization which Gothard started in 1961 and ran out of his home which was called Campus Teams. Using the principles he developed in his Master’s thesis, he put together a program for at-risk youth to resolve conflicts between them and their families. In 1964, Gothard was ordained by LaGrange Bible Church and that same year started what he called the Basic Seminar. In 1965, he started teaching a course at Wheaton College called “Basic Youth Conflicts” which started with 46 students, youth pastors and teachers, and grew to 120 attendees the next year. Gothard started doing seminars as well as teaching this class and his ministry grew around these teachings. In 1974, this became the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. By this point, Gothard was giving teaching seminars around the country which reportedly were attended by upwards of 20,000 people at a time. The seminar’s focus moved beyond just youth conflicts to include advice and direction for raising and educating children, how families should conduct themselves all the time, community outreach and even business advices. To reflect this expansion, in 1989 the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts changed its name to the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
In 2006, it was reported by IBLP that they were making $63 million annually. As we’ll go over later in this video, accusations of sexual abuse began to plague the group as far back as 1980 when Gothard’s brother was found to be having affairs with several secretaries in the organization. Gothard himself was accused of knowing about the affairs but ignoring them and so resigned from IBLP. However, just three weeks later he was back in charge. Before we get into any more details about that, let’s talk about the Basic Principles and what Gothard’s teachings are actually all about.
The Seven Basic Principles
In talking about these principles, we first need to be very clear about something. None of what we are talking about is an effort to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs or make fun of them. This video is not about persecuting people for their beliefs or for wanting to have a relationship with God or live a better life. What a person chooses to believe is their business. However, when certain teachings are used to justify criminal or immoral behavior or child abuse, we are forced to take a closer look at what is going on. In this case, Bill Gothard may well have had the very best of intentions in putting together his Basic Principles. He may well have helped a number of people over the years who needed some advice and direction in their lives. We aren’t trying to take away from any of that.
There’s no denying the fact that religion has been used as a force for good and a force for evil. There are some who have used religious belief as a control mechanism to enforce their will on others, to take advantage of them for financial gain or just because they can. When those religious leaders act like hypocrites, teaching one thing but doing something else, they should be called out. When children are involved, we have to be even more careful, because children are blank slates who don’t have the ability or experience to judge whether what they are being taught is good or bad for them. We put a lot of trust in our educational system, in our religious institutions and of course in parents to do what is right and good for their children. There are all kinds of different ideas about what is good for them but I think any rational person could agree that child abuse is wrong. This is so much a concern of society that there are many laws on the books protecting children from violence and sexual abuse, because unfortunately there are people who cannot or will not control themselves around kids.
Education is the activity of imparting knowledge and skills to someone. We all want education to be constructive and result in adults who are productive members of society in one way or another. It’s imperative that people be taught ethically and in such a way that they can think for themselves, have judgement and have the ability to think critically about what they are going to run into in life. If children are not taught these things, they are being set up to fail, no matter what kind of life they want to pursue. It doesn’t do anyone any good to teach children rotely or with an authoritarian attitude which doesn’t let them think for themselves. Children should learn that there are dangers to avoid in the world, but using fear or anger as a basis of teaching is generally not constructive.
Neglecting children altogether has also been shown to not help much, because children need positive guidance and direction and they need to be taught how the world works and how to get along in it. Education does not just consist of some free-for-all where kids sit around reading books all day based on what they think they want to learn.
So what we are going to do here is talk about Gothard’s seven Basic Principles of Life, but we are going talk about them from an objective point of view, not a religious one. Education can be used as indoctrination, which means instilling thought patterns and control mechanisms into people’s minds without their understanding or consent. This is also called undue influence and can have very negative consequences. The control mechanisms Gothard created were not subtle. The Basic Principles lay out a whole series of these which establish a foundation of thought policing, behavior modification and identity nullification.
The most fundamental idea in Gothard’s cannon, the most basic principle as it were, is obedience. Independent thinking, reason or rationality are bad. In fact, right from almost the beginning of Gothard’s Basic Seminar, he takes pains to distinguish knowledge from wisdom, claiming that wisdom is seeing things from God’s point of view whereas knowledge is something that puffs men up with false pride or feeds their ego. It’s very important that he establish this early on in his program so as to thoroughly crush any idea that anyone knows better than Gothard does about what God wants. This also feeds into a very destructive narrative that facts don’t matter, only the interpretation of God’s wisdom as given by Gothard, which is why trying to present facts or reason is sometimes very difficult when talking to fundamentalists. They are indoctrinated to not trust their own ideas or feelings or judgements.
When Gothard was putting his program together, and as he explains it in his seminars, there are three root problems of character: bitterness, greed and moral impurity. He says the root cause of this is resisting God’s grace, which means violating scriptural principles. This is important because Gothard’s whole methodology is to set himself up as the interpreter of God’s intention, the one who can tell you what various Biblical passages mean and how to live your life accordingly. He says God is the authority and through His scriptures you will learn how to live a good and wholesome life, but only if you follow Gothard’s interpretation of God’s Word.
These two assumptions – that knowledge is bad and that Gothard is the one who understands and interprets wisdom – are key to getting his followers to not question his teachings. It puts Gothard between them and their understanding of God and sets Gothard up on a pedestal where he is the only one who has the wisdom they want. This kind of thing is subtle but crucial to Gothard’s authority.
Now as to the seven Principles of Life, the first is Design.
“God has precise purposes for each person, object and relationship which He established. Only as we understand and follow these will we find our identity and fulfillment in life.”
By getting people to believe this as a basic principle of life, Gothard successfully centers or defines his follower’s very identity only on what Gothard says God wants. You can’t be happy or fulfilled if you don’t do what he says. This extends to many rules which Gothard arbitrarily created to define proper identity such as a dress code, what music a person can listen to, who a person can associate with and how those relationships are to be conducted including business relations, friendships and even romantic involvements.
For example, everything a woman of any age wears is supposed to draw attention to only her countenance (her face) with no symbols or logos or bright colors that would attract attention in any way towards her body. These would be considered “eye traps” which Gothard said would create a situation where women were “defrauding” men by making the men think that they could have something they can’t. In other words, if a man starts thinking sexual thoughts about a woman, it’s her fault because she is either dressing or acting provocatively to tempt him, knowing she will not be able to fulfill his desires. This extends to hair styles, jewelry, what color clothes are acceptable and even forcing oneself to smile because “a sad countenance demonstrates a selfish spirit because it forces the sympathies of others to determine what trouble is at the root of the frown. Observers tend to look away from a frown because it makes them feel awkward.” Everything a Gothard follower does in appearance and attitude is centered around how other people are going to think and act towards them, regardless of how that follower actually thinks or feels. One can imagine the sorts of psychological problems this can cause in the long term, constantly denying how one really feels in order to put on a social appearance of happiness and success to others.
Gothard also insists that there are some objects in the world which have demons attached to them such as souvenirs a person may pick up in a foreign country or pieces of art. For children, this includes things like Cabbage Patch dolls, which back in the 1980s were forbidden in any Gothard-run household. In some cases where families have converted to Gothard’s teachings, they have had to go through all their belongings and get rid of anything that could be thought to be demon-possessed. Any tapes, records or CDs of any kind of music except classical or hymns would have to be gotten rid of, even contemporary Christian music which is considered too worldly. Gothard families must rid themselves of any music with a rhythmic, repetitive beat or where the performer is breathing too heavily into the microphone or even music that fades out rather than comes to a clearly defined end because Gothard claims that such music is too unsettling.
One’s appearance, conduct and attitude are under constant scrutiny and if found to be unacceptable, could result in being ostracized or kicked out entirely from the group. Children and teens are sent to Gothard training centers and if they are found talking to members of the opposite sex for even a few minutes on matters not directly related to their work, they could be expelled.
All of this is an extremely intrusive level of control that pervades literally every aspect of a person’s life.
“God has established a structure of authority and a balance of power. He has also ordained that with proper attitude and wise appeals, those under authority can have far-reaching influence.”
Obedience and authority could be said to be the cornerstones upon which Gothard’s movement is built. This is not a subtlety in his teachings but is paramount to every lesson taught. In fact, the authority structure of the church and family is a clearly defined patriarchy which is symbolized by the umbrella of protection. This goes far beyond the man being the figurative head of the household.
“The ‘umbrella of protection’ symbolizes the fact that as long as we are under God-given authority, nothing can happen to us that God does not design for His glory and our ultimate good.
“It also illustrates the fact that when we get out from under authority we expose ourselves to the realm and power of Satan’s control. It is for this reason that ‘…rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft…’ (I Samuel 15:23).”
The way this works under Gothardism is Christ is at the top with the husband directly below in authority, then the wife who is responsible for the children and the manager of the home. And by manager is meant the one who implements the orders of the husband in getting things done, not the one who is originating her own ideas about how things should be run.
For example, if the husband dictates that morning Bible devotions are to be implemented in the home, the wife is the one who tells the kids, gets the kids to bed on time and then up in the morning, gets breakfast made and everything ready for the dad to show up and run the study period. The duty of the wife and children is to follow the dictates of the husband without question and it’s the duty of the husband to ensure his authority is maintained and mete out whatever punishments are necessary to keep his family in line. All of this, of course, is based on following Gothard’s rules as these are the interpretation of what God wants.
We established in the first principle what proper attitude is and in this principle, Gothard refers to “wise appeals.” There are “correct channels” for appealing to authorities if you don’t like what they’re doing.
According to the IBLP website, “God requires everyone to be under authority. Children are to be under the authority and protection of their parents; wives are to be submissive to their husbands; employees are to be obedient to their employers; and citizens are to be in subjection to their government.
“Sometimes God allows us to observe or discern things that our authorities do not perceive. In such situations, effective communication with our authorities is essential. When you are asked to do evil or when your authorities are about to do evil, an appeal should be made.
“As you mature in Christ, you will learn to view circumstances in life with wisdom from God. As you gain wisdom, you will become better prepared to make precise, effective appeals. All your appeals may not be granted. However, if an appeal is denied, you can be confident that any suffering you experienced as a result of standing alone and refusing to do evil is truly suffering that is for Christ’s sake.”
That last line is kind of important, because it creates a situation where a wife, for example, who is being physically abused, could appeal to her husband to stop beating her. If this appeal is denied, meaning he won’t stop hitting her, she is taught under Gothard’s rules that her suffering is for Christ’s sake.
So how do these appeals work? There are seven steps which we are quoting right from the IBLP website:
“1. Be in ‘right standing’ with God and with your authority.
“* Have you been obedient to your authority?
“* Do you have a clear conscience?
“* Have you fulfilled your responsibilities with integrity and excellence?”
This first step lends itself to a victim introverting as to whether they deserve the punishment or problem that they are appealing. In the wife beating example, the wife first has to ask herself if she is in the clear and being a good wife according to Gothard’s rules. Under the eyes of any objective and lawful authority, there is no excuse for being beaten but under Gothard’s system, this woman could very easily come to feel she deserves what she is getting because she is not submissive enough or because she herself has sinned in some way.
In fact, according to a book published by Debi Pearl called Created to Be His Help Meet, an avid supporter of Gothard:
“You need wisdom to see how feeling sorry for yourself is far from the heart of God…. You need this gift of wisdom as a constant reminder of the limitations of your female understanding…. You need the precious gift of wisdom to be able to hold your tongue and be thankful when your flesh would strike in anger.”
Under this particular brand of wisdom, Debi Pearl once counselled a pregnant woman who was being beaten by her husband to “avoid provoking him.”
It’s pretty obvious that Debi Pearl is preaching that a woman deserves anything and everything that is done to her by her husband because she is not wise enough to know better and should keep her mouth shut. This is not exactly an attitude of personal strength or equality and it’s hard to understand how any of this would help battered women to serve God.
“2. Have the right motives for your appeal.
“Your appeal should communicate your sincere concern for three aspects of your authority’s leadership: his reputation, his goals, and his authority.”
You can imagine the difficulties these present to a battered wife. Or how about a child who is appealing to his father that he wants to be in a little league team? He is supposed to think only of the good of his father and not what he wants.
“3. Discern the appropriate time to make your appeal.”
“4. Provide accurate information.”
“5. Have right attitudes.
“More than any other factor, a wrong attitude is the reason appeals are rejected. An effective appeal demonstrates attitudes of reverence, loyalty, and gratefulness.”
“An effective appeal should reflect an attitude of gratefulness. In fact, gratefulness is usually a key element of an appeal. It is possible to have a grateful spirit only if you give all of your expectations to God and recognize that whatever He gives is more than you deserve.”
So again, put yourself in the position of a battered wife and look at the roadblocks Gothard is putting in the way of this woman getting any form of justice or even making the beatings stop.
“6. Use appropriate words to present your appeal.”
“7. Respond correctly if your appeal is rejected.
“Your response to an appeal that is rejected will reveal your true attitude about the situation. A gracious response not only will be a proper testimony; it also may prompt your authority to reconsider the appeal. Also, a right response will influence your authority to be open to your future appeals.”
I have a hard time differentiating what Gothard has written here and what might well be considered the ideal guidelines for a slave. Any family member in a Gothard household is told that it is their duty and expectation that they will honor, respect and have graciousness towards the head of the household regardless of any of his actions, words or intent. For women, this authority transfers from their father to their husband. This also extends to authorities in the church and government, meaning that Gothard is preaching unquestioning loyalty and subservience to any authority he deems important. How is this not a form of psychological and emotional slavery?
One other point to make about this is that with an authority structure of this kind, Gothard’s teachings would attract personality types who want to dominate others.
“God holds us personally responsible for every one of our words, thoughts, actions, attitudes and motives. Therefore, whenever we sin, there must be confession and proper restitution.”
Sin is a universal concept in religion and defines what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Any group has the right to decide amongst its members what they want their members to do or not do for the good of the group. It’s certainly not a problem to be held responsible for one’s actions and this could in fact be called a cornerstone of civilization. However, systems of policing behavior are always open to abuse especially when this extends to thought policing.
No one is in complete control of their mental faculties at all times. Random thoughts and ideas come unbidden to all of us for any number of reasons. So when thoughts and attitudes are considered crimes, everyone is a criminal. Gothard said imagining sin can affect you just as though you had actually done it. For a teenage girl or boy, for example, to have sexual thoughts about anyone, constitutes a sin and if done enough times is tantamount to actually having sex. He preaches that one must make every thought captive and be in complete control of one’s brain, a psychological impossibility which sets up every one of his followers for failure in the eyes of God.
So how does one purge oneself of his sins? Through confession. This occurs mainly at the family level more so than going to an official church minister or priest, depending on which denomination a Gothard follower is part of. Gothard’s system is mainly implemented in individual households so the methods used vary from one family to another. But the mechanism of confession is very much part of Gothard’s system to rid oneself of impure thoughts and attitudes as well as moral transgressions.
There’s not even a lot of mystery as to what constitutes sin because Gothard wrote of the many sins one could commit in Wisdom Booklet #4. C.G. Finney is quoted in this as saying:
“General confessions of sin will never do. Your sins were committed one by one; and as far as you can come at them, they ought to be reviewed and repented of one by one.”
Sins include such things as neglect of the Bible, unbelief, levity and wordly-mindedness and these are all described in some detail. For example, under wordly-mindedness it says “What has been the state of your heart in regard to your worldly possessions? Have you looked at them as really yours – as if you had a right to dispose of them as your own, according to your own will? If you have, write that down. If you have loved property, and sought after it for its own sake, or to gratify lust or ambition, or a wordly spirit, or to lay it up for your families, you have sinned, and must repent.”
Yes, it really does say that it’s a sin to own things and like what you have. Under Gothard’s ideas, this is bad because you could lose them at any time like Job did and therefore you shouldn’t get too attached.
These are just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as Gothard preached there are many, many kinds of sin including sins of the forefathers which we may not be directly responsible for but which we are genetically inclined to repeat, as well as sins of omission as well as commission.
Confession can be done verbally by wives or children just telling the head of the household what they have been doing or thinking or more formally by writing them down in a list. It is not a formal ritual like in other religions such as Catholicism. Since every sin is supposed to be confessed, this means secrets of any kind are verboten and unacceptable including anything a person is thinking or feeling. This of course sets up all kinds of psychological problems and anxieties and feelings of guilt and shame since teenage boys and girls, for example, can hardly be expected to just stop thinking about sex altogether.
Children are indoctrinated into this from as early an age as possible and the general attitude is that of Jonathan Edwards from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, a 18th century sermon which is part of the Gothard curriculum for children in Wisdom Booklet #4 and which features such classic ideas as “God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment” and “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell.”
“God has ordained that we receive grace for personal cleansing, growth and achievement by learning how to properly respond to those who offend us.”
We talked already about the appeals process under Gothard and how this more often than not results in victim blaming and shaming. This point of suffering as one of the seven basic principles actually makes this blame and shame a point of dogma, to make it proper and even a good thing to suffer in life.
If someone wrongs you, how are you supposed to properly respond? According to Gothard, the only proper response is to forgive and point to Christ, because nothing is about you. If you are upset at being wronged, it simply means you have not yet yielded all your rights to God, meaning you are spiritually deficient and your upset is on you, not the person who victimized or harmed you. Remember, bitterness is one of the three root causes of all a person’s difficulties in life.
According to his teachings in the Advanced Seminar Textbook, suffering is part of life and you can either learn to forgive or let it make you bitter. Fair enough, but the twist comes in when you are made to feel guilty if you don’t offer forgiveness and how you are expected to be optimistic at all times. He wrote “If we are dedicated to God, we can conclude that anyone whom He allows to offend us is actually God’s agent to accomplish His higher purpose in our lives, such as in Job’s life…. When we suffer, we can resist the grace of God by rejecting our suffering and refusing to forgive our offenders. The result will be bitterness.”
It’s a very old principle that to err is human but to forgive, divine. True enough but let’s be really blunt here. Forgiveness is a very personal choice and it is up to each individual to decide for themselves based on their own conscience and the nature of what was done to them whether or not they can forgive the sins of another against them. For anyone to enforce that someone forgive a person who wronged them is not really encouraging forgiveness at all, but instead is victimizing them further. In fact, if you extend this thinking to its logical conclusion, there would be no reason to have a legal or justice system because all sinners deserve to be forgiven and judged only by God. That’s impractical at best.
I don’t think I can really stress how insidious this is as a control mechanism. People who want to control others are eager to instill this kind of thinking in their followers. By turning the tables on their victims and making it the victim’s fault that they are upset, any number of crimes or abuses can be rained down upon them with impunity.
There is not one perfect person in the whole world, not one human being who isn’t acutely aware of their own flaws and shortcomings. But those flaws are no reason that they should put up with having their human or civil rights violated or consent to being victimized. This is perhaps one of the single worst things about destructive cults. In fact, instilling this mindset in its members is what makes a group a destructive cult. There is no excuse for making a person feel guilty when they are the ones who have been wronged or harmed.
“God allows us to conquer anger and worry as we acknowledge that all we have is from Him and belongs to Him. Based on this we must yield our personal rights and expectations to God.”
Earlier we talked about how wordly-mindedness is a sin. According to Gothard, there is no right to own anything nor do you have any personal rights. “Since most people have built their lives and affections around temporal things, they experience worry, fear, anxiety and anger if those things are threatened or taken away.”
There’s no question that, to quote an old saying, you can’t take it with you and no one really believes that the person who dies with the most toys wins. We are all going to the same place in the end and we aren’t taking our stuff with us. So it makes a certain degree of sense to not be overly anxious about the things we own.
At the same time, I’m pretty sure Bill Gothard would be rightfully upset if his house burned down or if someone stole his car. Our stuff is our stuff and ownership is one of the most basic of human rights. This principle of ownership as described by Gothard extends to marriage and children as well. For example:
“Before entering into marriage, each partner must know how to yield personal rights to God and to each other. All anger can be traced to personal rights which others violated. By giving rights to God, we remove the root cause of anger.”
I can’t help but feel that this instills a kind of fatalism in Gothard’s followers, that whatever will be will be and everyone should just roll with it because it’s all out of their hands anyway. This attitude of not being too connected with material wealth and things could be heavily abused in terms of bilking people out of their savings, and there is certainly evidence in Gothard’s history that he has done just that.
“Godly freedom is not the right to do what we want but the power to do what we ought. The freedom which God designed in morals and finances is to allow us to serve others in love.”
The subtitle to this principle is “conquering moral impurity” and most of the guidelines and descriptions of what this principle is about concern control. Controlling oneself and controlling one’s spouse and children. One can’t help but recall George Orwell’s Newspeak, that Freedom = Slavery, when examining this principle because it’s all about what you can’t do, and what you must not think about, in order to be free.
We’ve already covered in detail many of the methods of control under Gothard’s rules. There’s one that we have not touched on which I want to go into and that is raising babies and specifically something called blanket training.
Unborn children and newborns who don’t speak yet are still apparently capable of comprehending Scripture “…because Scripture is spiritually discerned….Even before obedience, a child must be taught to be attentive to the parents, the words of Scripture, and the ‘voice’ of his or her conscience.”
Blanket training is a form of teaching discipline and attentiveness enacted upon babies who are not yet even walking as well as toddlers. To blanket train a child, the parent or caretaker puts the baby or toddler on a blanket and inflicts pain on the child by slapping or hitting them with a rod if they attempt to leave the blanket. In some cases, the parent will even shake keys or rattles or use other devices to get the child to try to move off the blanket and then hit them to teach them they cannot.
This form of child abuse was not invented by Gothard but is used by many of his followers based on the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl in the book To Train Up a Child. Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo have also advocated in favor of this and it has been used and promoted by the Duggars of 19 and Counting fame. The Pearls and Ezzos have reportedly even spoken at Gothard’s training seminars about the benefits of blanket training.
Somehow in the minds of Bill Gothard and many of his followers, they have equated the idea of freedom with the idea of docility and obedience. It’s certainly true that babies and children need to be controlled so they don’t hurt themselves and learn how to get along in the world, but child abuse should not be any part of that picture. Blanket training has no place in a civilized society.
“We can discover God’s purpose for our lives by engrafting Scripture into our hearts and minds, using it to ‘think God’s thoughts’ and to build a foundation for making wise decisions.”
The subtitle of this principle is “fulfilling God’s priorities” and it is with this final principle that Gothard instills his ideas of what a successful life would consist of. In going through the points he makes, what one finds is that a Godly life consists of talking, thinking and doing almost nothing but the Bible, interpreting current events in light of Biblical prophecy and literally memorizing whole passages of the Bible to be able to think like God, to “engraft His word.”
Of course, since Gothard’s followers are indoctrinated to not think for themselves and not apply reason or critical thinking, they need to have something else to occupy their brains in their otherwise idle hours. The Bible is the first, last and only destination for them. Success is defined by Bill Gothard as “our real fulfillment in life will come as we see God reproducing Christ’s character in the lives of others through our lives and witnesses.”
Gothard promises that if you follow these seven principles, you can’t help but have success in your life. If you define success as following what someone else tells you to do, how to be and how to act, then I suppose that’s true.
Allegations of Sexual Abuse (the scandal of IBLP)
It’s a sad but true fact, repeated over and over in history, that sometimes those who preach leading a moral and sanctified life not only don’t follow their own advice, but so many times are found doing the exact opposite of what they teach. Hypocrisy is simply a way of life for those who seek money or power or dominion over others and its the followers of such people who end up suffering in the end.
Bill Gothard unfortunately is just such a hypocrite. While preaching godliness and following the teachings of Jesus, a review of his actions in the real world shows a different story. And for anyone who wants to look, the evidence of this has been there for quite some time.
The first time anything became public involved Bill Gothard’s brother, Steve in 1980. Steve had confessed in 1976 to having engaged in affairs with seven female staffers at the Northwoods Retreat Center, also known as Crazy Bear Lodge in Watersmeet, Michigan. Apparently Bill had known about Steve’s sexually inappropriate activity for well over a decade, but instead of turning his brother over to the police or even just firing him, instead he sent him to the Northwoods property to work on Character Sketch booklets for Gothard’s seminar curriculum and sent secretaries up to the property to work with Steve. These women were then psychologically and sexually abused by Steve, using the ministry’s teachings and authoritarian structure to justify having his way with them. When this finally started coming out in 1980, Bill lied to the Institute’s Board of Directors and dragged his feet in enforcing any discipline on Steve. In fact, it was Bill who had kept sending these women to work with Steve and he had personally witnessed them going into Steve’s bedroom. These women had complained to Bill about what Steve had been doing but Bill had done nothing to stop Steve’s behavior all that time.
Looking deeper into why Bill would condone such abuses, it turns out that he had been engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior himself for well over a decade behind closed doors and he continued this pattern of abuse for as long as he could conceal it. To start with, in 1980, he confessed to 14 years of sexual addiction to masturbation. Not a problem in this day and age, but for a pastor who preaches what Gothard does, this is a mortal sin. Unfortunately, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Northwoods Conference Center I referred to earlier, including Crazy Bear Lodge, actually has its own website and to this day can be rented for private use. It was a Gothard family retreat before Bill purchased it in 1971 and used the facility to write IBLP publications such as the previously mentioned Character Sketches and Men’s Manuals. The site claims the funds needed for this purchase were obtained by donations from two wealthy Basic Seminar attendees. Bill and Steve had cabins built for them and a runway installed for their corporate airplanes.
Having built up his ministry and giving seminars in the 1970s to hundreds of thousands of attendees, Gothard was a busy man and had his own personal secretary but also had many pretty, young, 14 to 16-year-old girls to do work for him. These girls served him in the early morning when he went to the office at 5:00am and in the evening, after his secretary left the office, until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. These girls were often alone with Gothard and he would sit next to them on the sofa in his office with his thigh pressed against theirs. In fact, there is at least one confirmed incident where Gary Smalley, an associate of Gothard’s, stated that he walked in on Gothard at 11pm to find one of these young women sitting on Gothard’s lap dressed in a “skimpy nightgown.” The young women at the Northwoods property made a habit of locking their bedroom doors at night because Gothard had a habit of walking in on them unannounced.
We’ve already covered how Gothard’s teachings would be quite intimidating to these young woman in terms of blaming Gothard for any unwanted sexual advances, along with their lack of experience and the fact that they were at a remote cabin on Gothard’s property, making this whole situation highly suspect. Gothard has insisted that his thoughts and actions, including his close proximity to and touching of girls, has never been sexual in nature though he has admitted in his public statements that such actions were wrong and immoral. It was also clear that questioning Gothard’s authority in all things was absolutely forbidden. As one former staff member said “Those who questioned his authority were asked to leave and were labeled as failures. Bill would explain that they had failed God and were resistant to God’s chain of command. The Gothard family was at the top of IBYC’s ‘biblical’ chain of command.”
Smalley stated that he warned Gothard the next day that such behavior could bring down his ministry, but Gothard didn’t heed this advice. Steve and Bill’s sexual indiscretions came fully into the public eye through an informal investigation by an Institute staffer in 1980. It would take far too long to detail all the ins and outs of what was discovered, but 15 female staffers were interviewed about their experiences with Steve Gothard and as one of them put it, “the slavery they were involved in.” Steve confessed to sexual relationships with several of the staff, all in gross violation of the principles he was not only supposed to be living under but was himself writing for Bill in the seminar workbooks. Bill attempted to suppress what was coming out of this investigation but was unsuccessful because too many people knew what was going on and his involvement in it, especially when the Institute staff were briefed on what had happened.
Bill even tried to get his brother Steve to marry one of the women he had sexually molested, with Steve calling many of them on the phone and proposing marriage and Gothard’s parents trying to woo the parents of the girls at dinner outings. Needless to say, none of the girls agreed. All of them were dismissed from Institute employ and, precisely according to Bill Gothard’s teachings, the girls were the ones blamed for being the problem in the first place.
All of this resulted in the Institute’s board of directors and staff losing confidence and trust in Gothard and he was terminated as President and Teacher of his own ministry on June 5, 1980. During the investigation, it had also come to light that Bill and his whole family had been very loose in spending ministry funds for private expenses. A financial audit was begun which Bill eventually was able to stop, so a full accounting of the Gothard family’s excesses never was made.
This was a massive public scandal which nearly destroyed the Institute altogether. Bill’s own father had been on the board of directors and both he and Steve had resigned in disgrace. Half the Institute staff, in fact, resigned or were fired within days. An attorney named John McLario took charge and Bill Gothard worked from behind the scenes with him to discredit the findings of the investigation. Just 17 days later, McLario resigned his position as head of the Board and Gothard retook control, never having actually left in the first place. Paperwork from that time indicates that Gothard was only on a leave of absence. His father continued to draw salary for six months and was then hired back by the Institute as a financial consultant. Gothard had also been awarded $25,000 and a car by the Board for his contributions when he was ousted and to this day we don’t know if he paid that money back when he took back his job.
The simple answer to why the board of directors had no spine and allowed Gothard, a proven hypocrite and liar, to reassert control of the ministry was that they needed his seminars to continue in order to keep cash coming in. Up to then, the ministry had been buying a lot of real estate with the idea of future building and expansion and it could not pay its bills and operations costs without a steady influx of finance which the seminars provided. Gothard also did a number getting rid of people who were not loyal to him personally. Those who had done the investigation and were not cooperating with Gothard were paid off and sent on their way, not having any real choice but to take the money because they had given up everything to come work for the Institute. Gothard engaged in other machinations throghout 1980 to re-solidify his control of the organization he had founded. Many of the current and former staff wanted to do something to bring Gothard to heel, but their only legal resource seemed to be a class action suit. That was a magnificent failure because Gothard’s ministry hired one of the largest law firms in the country to defend them and completely destroyed the suit before it made it near a court room.
So it was that the 1980 sex scandal came and went and Gothard, surely feeling invincible at this point, continued his sexual indiscretions while running his ministry. Also in 1980 is when the first legislative seminar was held for legislators and judges from Minnesota and Indiana at the Crazy Bear Lodge. Since then, annual seminars have been conducted for legislators, judges, doctors, pastors, business leaders and educators. In fact, Gothard has fostered relationships with a number of politicians over the years, including former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Representatives Steven Wise and Dan Webster and Governor Jeb Bush from Florida, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Jim Bob Duggar who not only heads up an insanely large family in the show Nineteen Kids & Counting but has also served in the Arkansas State House for two terms, as well as Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia. Keep these connections in mind as we continue.
Soon after Gothard was back in charge, in February 1981, he issued a new paper to all ministry alumni entitled “How to Guard Against the Defilement of Listening to an Evil Report.” This 11-page document rails against spreading slander or ill repute, which in and of itself is good advice, but given the context in which this was issued, was clearly an effort on Gothard’s part to get people to not talk about what he himself had admitted to, which had caused his termination. In other words, he wanted no one in his ministry spreading the truth about what he had done and he likened doing so to an infectious disease which only prayer and forgiveness could heal. It simply cannot be ignored that this is the classic behavior of a destructive cult leader, a clear effort on Gothard’s part to re-assert power over his followers by shutting up anyone who had firsthand knowledge of his own immorality. Of course, Gothard made it seem in this and other correspondence at the time that he was following the word of God but his actions said otherwise.
In 1984, Gothard started the Advanced Training Institute of America homeschooling program. Prospective parents were required to enroll all unmarried children in the program, even those who were already enrolled in college. Some college-aged ATIA students started working at the Institute headquarters and Gothard was surrounded by young men and women, many of whom worked directly for him in his office and whom he took a personal interest in.
According to first-person testimonials from those involved, in 1992 Gothard preyed on a 16-year old girl named Charlotte. This entire narrative is laid out in detail and everything I’m about to tell you is publicly posted on the Recovering Grace website.
Charlotte had kissed her boyfriend and therefore her parents labelled her a sexual, rebellious teen who needed help. Gothard promised them to give her intensive counselling which quickly escalated to him asking her for all the details of her past sexual experiences. He would rub her bare feet with his and have her on her knees praying for forgiveness, seeming to take pleasure from her tears. But this was just the beginning. Something to know about this is that Charlotte had been sexually molested by her own father, a pastor himself and heavily involved in Gothard’s Institute since the mid-1970s. He had been kicked out of churches in California, New Jersey and Minnesota before arriving in Gothard’s crew and began sexually abusing Charlotte when she was just 7 years old. Gothard knew of this incest and made it clear to Charlotte that the blame for that was hers, that she had tempted her own father into his illegal behavior.
As sick as this may sound, this young woman felt in need of Gothard’s approval and wanted to please him, an authority figure to her like no other, since her parents had told her that Gothard’s teachings were what had inspired them to have her in the first place. She was regularly picked up by Gothard at 5:30 in the morning to go to his office for prayer and Bible study. Once Gothard cleared his office and was alone with her, he would then tell her how beautiful she was, how she inspired him and hand holding then became long hugs before taking her to the routine morning staff meetings.
When Charlotte tried to report the physical contact to her roommates, she was discplined for lying, as no one would believe that Gothard would hug a girl. Bill then told her in private that what they did was to be kept between them, their little secret. This escalated to Gothard giving her money to buy push-up bras and touching her breasts over her clothes. People noticed the increased attention she was getting and she became known as Bill’s pet.
On a trip home, Charlotte told her mother about Gothard’s physical aggressions but her mother didn’t believe her, just like her mother didn’t do a thing about the incest Charlotte had already been a victim of. When she went back to IBLP Headquarters, Gothard picked her up at the airport and felt her up between her legs on the car trip back.
Finally, Charlotte’s own brother is the one who stepped up and complained about how much time Gothard was spending with his sister and the IBLP Board intervened. Before she was sent home, Gothard called her into his office, embraced her and kissed her fully on the lips and asked her to never forget him. He was 59 years old and at this point, Charlotte was 17.
Charlotte later told her parents about this and they blamed her and told her it was her fault for tempting Bill. Eventually, she found a counsellor and was able to get help for the trauma, nightmares and anxiety the sexual abuse caused her and she is now happily married with two sons of her own. Her parents remained faithful Gothard followers and her father died in 2006, never having faced justice for his crimes.
As reported by personal testimonials by each of these women, almost immediately after Charlotte left, Gothard turned his attention to Meg, then Lizzie, then Gracie and many many others. The pattern of abuse was almost always the same, which makes perfect sense considering Gothard as a sexual predator had a fertile and ever-changing rotation of fresh prospects coming through the ATI headquarters and each new girl was ignorant of what had happened before. The entire system of controls we described earlier in the Seven Principles combined to create a perfect control system and Gothard then applied pressure by balancing guilt, shame and admiration as a form of coercive persuasion, not ever giving these girls any chance to get away, while the entire system of authoritarian discipline they were surrounded by at the ATI school reinforced Gothard’s control. No one was going to believe them over Gothard – not their friends, the ATI staff or even their own family.
Fast forward to February 2014. It took 34 years for Bill Gothard’s sexual abuse to become public again but this time he couldn’t just make it go away as he had in 1980.
Gothard’s ministry had begun losing money, with a net loss of $1 million in 2009, $4.1 million in 2011 and $3.5 million in 2012. This came around the same time that former members of Gothard’s ATI schooling started the Recovering Grace website in 2011 and allegations were posted of his sexual predation and failure to report child abuse to Child Protective Services. And this opened up a flood of dozens more allegations, 34 in total, of Gothard sexually harassing or molesting young women. Like other destructive cults, it took the freedom of the internet and people willing to tell their stories, as painful as they are, for the truth to finally come out. The system of control Gothard had created made it impossible for anyone inside his system to hold him accountable, especially since he could and did discredit and get rid of anyone who ever tried to go against him. Given this fact and that sexual abuse is often not reported, it is not beyond reason to think that the number of girls Gothard may have molested could be much higher.
Gothard was put on indefinite administrative leave on February 27, 2014 by the IBLP Board of Directors and a week later he resigned. His public statement was that he denied the allegations and admitted no wrongdoing but was going to apply the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus directs his followers to “go and be reconciled” if “your brother or sister has something against you.”
On June 17, 2014, IBLP issued a statement saying that outside legal counsel had conducted a thorough investigation and discovered no criminal activity. Many of Gothard’s victims have stated this investigation was a whitewash and they were never even contacted to give statements. The Board ended up saying that Gothard had acted in an inappropriate manner and failed to follow Christ’s example. They unanimously agreed that Gothard would not be permitted to serve in any counselling, leadership or Board role within the IBLP ministry.
They also said that they didn’t think that Gothard’s ethics lapses affected his teachings and were going to continue using all of the books and materials Gothard had written. One can only wonder if such a thing is motivated by divine inspiration or simply a love of money, since there’s certainly something to be said about a man who can’t follow his own teachings and demonstrated in the most horrifying way possible that he never meant a word he said. Many of the alleged victims of Gothard’s predations believe IBLP board members were fully aware of what Gothard was doing and turned a blind eye to it until it was exposed so publicy they no longer could.
A year later, in July 2015, Gothard started his own website and asserted that the now 60+ women who have accused him of harassment are not telling the truth. He claimed to have reached out to reconcile with any of the women who he could identify by name who had publicly told their stories, but given his lack of any apology or recognition of any wrongdoing, it’s hardly a surprise that none of these former ATI members want to have anything to do with him. And just to be clear, the reason most of these women have not filed criminal charges against Gothard is because the statute of limitations ran out years ago. Gothard is also attempting to take legal action to prevent the IBLP Board from selling off assets in an attempt to keep the Institute afloat in the face of dramatic financial losses.
As of the time this video is being made, Bill Gothard has not issued one apology or statement of wrongdoing to any of these women.
As horrible as all of this is, there are more aspects of the IBLP and Gothard’s teachings which we can discuss. If you would like to know more about this, go ahead and tell us in the comments. We want to know your feedback and any information you may have yourself about Gothard, his teachings and your experiences with it, good or bad.
Thank you for watching.