The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

A Christian ‘Cult’ Sex Scandal

Posted on | December 18, 2019 | Comments Off on A Christian ‘Cult’ Sex Scandal


How bored are you with impeachment? Well, I put up a post about it this morning and, as of 1 p.m. ET, there were zero comments. On my office TV, members of the House have spent all day “debating” the articles of impeachment, but this is a pointless exercise, because Democrats have already made up their mind to vote “yea,” and indeed, this was all preordained as soon as Nancy Pelosi got her hands on the Speaker’s gavel. Everyone is thoroughly bored by this Ebenezer Scrooge let’s-ruin-Christmas drama, so instead let’s talk about Jesus.

Three years ago, I encountered a blog by a “Christian feminist” (oxymoron alert) who was part of the “progressive” (i.e., partisan Democrat) movement that included the late Rachel Held Evans. This “Christian feminist” blogger had grown up in a Pentecostal denomination, and had experienced an abusive relationship with a “Godly man” to whom she became engaged while attending a conservative Bible college in Florida. Researching her background, in one of my deep-dive expeditions, I encountered some references to various scandals in the conservative evangelical Christian subculture, including Bill Gothard and his Advanced Training Institute (ATI).

The name Bill Gothard was vaguely familiar to me, because my wife and I had homeschooled our children for several years beginning in 1996. Our curriculum was what you’d call “eclectic,” meaning that we put together an improvised hodgepodge from different sources over the years. We are Christian conservatives in a general sense of that phrase, but we were never doctrinaire followers of any particular system of Christian homeschooling, instead just picking and choosing whatever seemed best to us. However, if you’re part of the Christian homeschooling community, you become aware that there are distinct systems, of which Bill Gothard’s approach was one of the more influential. I must confess, however, that I had no idea just how influential Gothard was in the direction of the evangelical movement from the 1970s onward.

Gothard had a particular vision of the Christian patriarchal family (husband/father “headship,” etc.) that he developed into a popular seminar called Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) that later changes its name to Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), within which the Advanced Training Institute subsequently was formed. Gothard’s seminar was basically a slide-show lecture about principles of Christian family life that would, he asserted, prevent children from drifting into the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” youth rebellion. Given all the craziness that was going on in the late 1960s and ’70s — the Manson family, LSD freakouts, heroin overdoses, legalized abortion, Jonestown, the Symbionese Liberation Army, etc. — there was a remarkable demand for Gothard’s lectures. Christian parents were scared to death that their sweet church-going kids would turn into teenage homosexual Communists or whatever, and Gothard offered what seemed to be a guarantee of safety against such outcomes. However . . .

“Gothard has never married.”

That one line in his Wikipedia page tells a lot about the scandal that subsequently destroyed Gothard’s ministry and thereby left a permanent stain on conservative evangelical Christianity. There is no evidence that Gothard is homosexual — quite the contrary, as various women allege — but the matter of his lifelong bachelorhood should still raise questions. Indeed, this question was raised even when he was a young evangelist in the 1960s. Gothard defended himself against suspicion by insisting that his devotion to the ministry made it practically impossible for him to take a wife, and there is abundant testimony that Gothard was a workaholic whose every waking hour was devoted to his ministry. Still, common sense would suggest a skeptical attitude toward a man who claimed to know everything about how a Christian family should function, when he himself never had a wife or children of his own.

My guess — and this is just speculation — is that Gothard had some kind of insecurity or inhibition in regard to sex, and this personal psychological problem of his (a) prevented him from ever marrying, and (b) informed his legalistic follow-the-rules prescription for creating the ideal Christian family. Whatever the case may be, the “life principles” Gothard taught were not objectionable in themselves, and I would not hesitate to recommend studying those principles, but in terms of the practical application of those principles to daily life, Gothard’s system seems to have become a rigid and unforgiving legalism. The much bigger problem, however, was corruption and hypocrisy.

Almost by accident, the other night I stumbled onto a YouTube video of a documentary about the Gothard scandal, The Cult Next Door. To explain how that accident happened: I’ve been watching YouTube videos as a substitute for bedtime reading lately, and I’ve always been interested in cults (Jonestown, Waco, Mormons, etc.) and this documentary about the Gothard “cult” popped up as a YouTube recommendation.


Let me say this: I dislike the attitude expressed in this documentary. There are satanic forces in the world seeking to destroy Christianity, and one of the methods by which these forces operate is to publicize scandals within the church as a way of discrediting Christianity altogether. One will notice that these satanic forces often claim to be devoutly Christian, even while they ally themselves with enemies of Christianity, and so as bad as the Gothard scandal was — and trust me, it was very, very bad — I am not enthusiastic about those who are dancing amid the ruins of Gothard’s ministry. Nor do I like the characterization of his ministry as a “cult,” because whatever personal failings and abusive practices were involved in IBYC/IBLP/ATI, the essence of Gothard’s teaching was a sincere (if in some way misguided) effort to apply biblical principles to family life. Gothard was arrogant, guilty of sinful pride among his many other failings, but it wasn’t like Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate or David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. There were no mass suicides at the “compound,” no armed standoff with AK-47s, nothing like that.

What went wrong with Gothard’s ministry was that warning signs were ignored, and previous scandals got hushed up. In the Internet Age, we take it for granted that a major sex scandal will be so clearly documented that, if a Christian ministry had such a problem, everybody would know about it, and so the ministry would be permanently discredited. But there was no Internet in 1980, which is probably why the first big sex scandal involving Gothard’s ministry was somehow forgotten.

Go read “The GOTHARD Files: The Early Years, 1965–79,” which is the first in a series of articles (Part II and Part III) about scandals that should have rendered the Gothard ministry permanently radioactive. Essentially, Bill’s younger brother Steve was using the ministry’s staff the way that Hugh Hefner used Playboy bunnies, sexually exploiting a harem of vulnerable young Christian women. While there was also some misconduct by Bill Gothard in the 1970s, it was Steve who played the central role in that early scandal and yet, despite the Gothard ministry’s emphasis on “accountability” as a principle, that whole mess somehow got buried, so that the ministry continued as if nothing serious had happened. When the homeschooled children of Gothard’s admirers were subsequently recruited to serve as “apprentices” at ATI headquarters, they arrived with no forewarning about what had happened back in the late 1970s and — surprise, surprise! — the pattern of abuse was repeated.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ll find that interesting, but it’s got to be better than impeachment. Mister Chairman, I yield back my time.



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