December 2, 2020

Whatever Happened to . . . Bill Gothard?

By Chaplain Mike

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 today—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 “blind spots” 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 God’s purpose for my life by engrafting Scripture in my heart and mind, and using it to “think God’s thoughts” 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:

See also:

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 impact—positive or negative—on your church? What do you as a Bible student think about how Gothard handles the Scriptures?

Whatever happened to Bill Gothard . . . and you?


  1. I grew up in an ATI family. ATI, was founded and is lead by Bill Gothard. I won’t say that my relationship with my parents was great before we joined ATI, but it became much worse after we joined.

    Bill Gothard claims to turn the hearts of children towards their fathers, and wives towards their husbands. Neither is true. His practical advice, when applied destroys families. I know of many ATI alumni, who, while being successful law-abiding citizens, are estranged from their families. Myself, I cannot talk to my father, without him quoting Gothard with a judgmental attitude. This has brought me to the conclusion, that I am healthier to not contact my parents.

    5 of my 6 younger siblings, have no respect for my father as well, they nod and say yes, until they are able to move out.

    My parents sent me to his para-military group, ALERT when I was 17, as one last chance to “straighten me up.” This organization was good at cleaning out my savings, but that is about it.

    I think the majority of families have moved on, after finding the program unsuccessful, but the families that have continued, or applied his more ridiculous principals have had lasting harm.

    In short, Mr. Gothard is still alive and well, destroying families and lives.

    • I’m sorry John. You capture one of the reasons why I am so skeptical. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve met who have been screwed up by faith, and religion. I’ve met so many people who have been hurt by faith…even if the original intention was benovelent. Again my apoligies (Hug from DC)

      • Eagle:
        It sounds like you have met a lot of hurting/messed up people. To me it sounds like abnormally high.

        I have run into a fair share of them myself. Some of them are messed up no matter what, and they seem to have adopted a form of religion that is toxic. A few are messed up because of their toxic religion.

        But also I have seen the opposite. I was really messed up before my Christian days, and God has been very kind and patient with me. The difference has been night and day, and people who know me can confirm this. I have had some hurts along the way. I have concluded that this is life. Humans do hurt one another which is why we have grace with each other.

        Bluntly speaking, my worst experiences have been in Christian groups where they have abandoned the mind and are charismatic. My best experiences have been in Christian groups that have blended the mind, tradition and are charismatic.

        I can’t count the number of people I know for whom Christ has been very positive and has transformed their life for the better. For a few years I have been in a community of faith that has been very good.

        From all your writings it sounds as if you got tied up in a pretty negative setting, it has not at all been my experience that all Christian groups are that bad.

        Can anyone else here point to positive experiences in Christian community, or am I a minority?

        • I was involved in the conservative non-denom/Baptist side of the church, and the first church I was a member of was a charismatic third wave church. When a popular elder died we prayed for him to be resurrected. The church I was involved with also did demon clensings. (Is that what it’s called…?)Everything from an upset stomach, flu to a job loss was looked at as spiritual warfare. Perhaps that’s why. Oh well its life.

          To be fair I have a couple of people who I admire and love who are Christians. The discussions we have are awesome. But I’m still sorting out my feelings.

          • I know what sorting out the feelings can be like. I was very legalistic when it all started out.

            I imagine that the Pharisees would have welcomed me in with open arms. A 19 year old kid that had it all figured out. I was hard on myself and others. Don’t quite know why, but perhaps my view of God had something to do with it.
            Things weren’t quite right if I did not feel convicted and condemed after church.

            Eventually I had to let God be God. He was good to me all along. But a very big thing for me has been to separate my bad concepts of God from who He really is sounds like a bit of a mind bender but it is true.

            I attended a charismatic 3rd wave place distantly related to Toronto Airport, we kind out got asked to leave the Vinyard. Some good things, but far too weird and anti-mind for my taste.

            I appreciate your comments here. I hope it can continue to be a safe place for you to talk.

          • Eagle, I am glad that you are still sorting yourself out and haven’t just given up on faith. I am still sorting myself out, too. I think getting my daily dose of internetmonk is one of the medicines that has kept me from just outright abandoning religion altogether.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Eagle, I am glad that you are still sorting yourself out and haven’t just given up on faith.

            Eagle got burned bad (maybe he was a weirdness magnet like me) and it’s going to take some time for him to sort things out, that’s all.

        • Radagast says

          I’ve seen a lot of positive, but to be honest only in mainline protestant and Catholic settings. The non-denoms that I know are also happy but more of them have stories to tell. Of course there are always the disgruntled ones – but most of those, if I was to generalize are too busy being mad about something and not spending time growing in their faith.

      • Milton…my views are probably more in line with agnosticism. I’m still working through my feelings. Today I think different…much different than I did 4 or 5 years ago. If you would say something out of faith immediately I find a way to counter it. I’m not trying to be a prick…it’s just that I am very skeptical.

    • Although I cannot say I agree with everything Mr Gothard has put out. I can say this. I was helped immensely. I am sorry you didn’t get it. I will not argue with you. But I will pray for your growth in The Lord. NO ONE has the corner on truth. And I’ve read about everyone out there. I have found that we must glean what we can of the truth people are trying to expound on. And spit out the seeds. Only Holy scripture, The Bible is Perfect in teaching. And so many interpretations that are within the pale of orthodoxy… I can fellowship with a lot of people I don’t agree with 100%
      When those of us who have Christ as our Lord & Savior see Him. We shall know as we are fully known. And one of the first things that communicate will not be questions. But a sigh of, OH… And we shall worship Him in perfect knowledge and truth. Until then. I chose to fight against our enemy satan. More than critisize my brothers. There are enough cults, and the occult to contend with. To refute that kind of error. To bring the lost into Christs glorious truth and life. AMEN

  2. My husband and I attend some of Gothard’s seminars in the early 70’s and really felt they were beneficial. I was a new believer and I especially needed to hear and practice the principles on forgiveness.
    I’ve had friends who were into the youth boot camp thing years later, though, and that whole thing seemed pretty much over the top and legalistic.
    I think that what may have begun as Biblically-based (the seminar) took on a life of its own. When we rely on principle to govern our lives and lose our dependance on the Holy Spirit to lead us, we are really practicing a form of idolatry—idolatry with a lot of proof texts.

    • I don’t know Kat. We still need principles, and I don’t think it is safe to set them as being against the Holy Spirit. Just because people screw up does not mean the principles are bad.

      That creates a nasty dualism into which many charismatics fall.

      It manifests itself as ‘Well God told me to ……” Fill in the blank

      • Agreed. However, even though the synopsis of his principles sound Scriptural once you look below the surface without preconceptions, you will (I am firmly convinced) find that wwith few exceptions they are niot Scriptural.

      • MatthewS says

        Ken, it’s very tempting to think that we need principles but John 15 is about abiding, not keeping principles or “higher standards”. The New Testament is about growing fruit in while being in love with Jesus Christ.

        Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard makes no sense if Gothard’s teachings about principles and standards are true.

        In my understanding, Paul’s vigorous defense of Spirit vs. Law in Romans and Galatians is not careful to retain principles. Law-keeping as a way to sanctification is pitted against abiding in Christ and walking in the Spirit.

        Walking in the Spirit does not mean flying by the seat of the pants, of course. It is related to abiding in Christ, letting him shape and change our souls from the inside out. Law-keeping so often results in Pharisees and victims of abuse. Abiding in Christ results in life and liberty and love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

        If someone had a wonderful spiritual experience at a seminar, then God bless them. But shaping your family life around principles is not what the New Testament teaches.

    • I was only in grade school in 1970, but I remember hearing about this program and that it felt vaguely creepy. Even the name was weird. I thought, if it is Christian, why does it have this vague corporate-sounding name? Nothing about the title was self-explanatory. I guess they were trying to hide its true nature. I’m glad I was creeped out.

    • This was a strange organization – some friends tried to pull me into it – but it was obvious to me that it was not of God – The goofy name and the fact that everyone got into sexual situations that were so unGodly!! Satan is hard at work to turn youth away from truth. Gothard made it sound wonderful to unsuspecting young people who did not know scripture and the longer anyone was connected to the mess the farther from God’s truth they seemed to get. Wasn’t it his brother that got into a sex mess? The whole thing is a mind-control thing from Satan to turn away youth from the truth of God’s word ,while professing to teach it. And after my friends went to the Seminar – they refused to answer questions – saying you had to be a member to get the answers – it was secret!! That should be a big warning sign!

  3. 144 comments and counting….. there are a LOT of big fat red notebooks out there, woo,hoo

    • Google “Mathew Murray” and “Gothard”. I knew Mr. Murray through Gothard’s programs. Luckily, he expressed his views in a way that was not expressed by many other “survivors” of Gothard’s programs. Hopefully more people who were involved use this blog rather than follow Mr. Murray’s example. 1,500 comments?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      252 at last count. This is growing like a Creation Wars thread.

  4. My family became very legalistic and performance-oriented due to our involvement in Bill Gothard’s homeschool program. We eventually had a suicide in our family indirectly resulting from the chaos that such views caused in our home. I would say it is very toxic, toxic, toxic, and denies the power of the Gospel by denying the grace of God. After I got out of the program, I went searching for God… for Who He really is, not for what He had been portrayed as… and for the first time in my life, discovered grace in its fullness. Praise God for His healing in my life!

  5. My parents went to one of his conferences and came home with a character sketches book and a character quality card game. I don’t think we ever got through the book as a family and we all agreed the game was stupid so that’s as far as it went in our house (as far as I can remember — I was pretty young at the time).

  6. I was raised in his homeschooling program, ATI. I was heavily involved in his programs, taking leadership roles around the country. My whole family was as engulfed by his teachings as possible.

    1. I “rebelled” and moved out/went to college. I am in a good spot in life.
    2. Younger brother #1 – incarcerated for 40 years.
    3. Younger sister – on state support. Unable to hold a job or keep a relationship.
    4. Younger brother #2 – incarcerated for 10 years.
    5. Younger brother #3 – 19 and more interested in going to raves than paying rent.

    Gothards program fosters a lack of life preperation. All of the people I knew from his program now fall into 3 main sections:
    1. Living at home in their upper 20s.
    2. Working jobs in unskilled labor.
    3. Not having a good framework to make decisions, lived for the moment and made poor choices.

    Quite in the minority are a frew friends who “rebelled” against his teachings and are in a good place.

    This is not a small sample size. Sample size > 250 young adults raised under his teachings. Results speak for themselves.

    • So Brandon:
      What happened that this guy who seemed so good and benign in the 70s ended up doing all this?

      • I’m not Brandon but will take the bait….was it all so great back then or was it flawed from the beginning? Sorry for jumping place.

        • The basic idea was – by following “biblical” principles and submitting to your godgiven authorities you will always be protected and happy. Sounds great, but what happens when you turn 18, know nothing else and have never made a difficult decision or thought for yourself? College perverts you from God… so don’t go there either. Whoa.. now you are 24, living at home, life is boring, no way to earn a living or support a family. What’s next?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Whoa.. now you are 24, living at home, life is boring, no way to earn a living or support a family. What’s next?

            Become a televangelist?

            Start your own Godly Seminars about the One True Way of Godly Living and Godly Child-rearing?

        • Without a frame of reference it is difficult to know how to make good decisions. Harvard MBAs are primarily taught how to think. Gothardites were taught to submit and follow. That is not a formula for success.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        What happened that this guy who seemed so good and benign in the 70s ended up doing all this?


        1) The destructiveness in his teachings was always there, but it took a while for the side- and aftereffects to show.

        2) Guy might have had a point when he started out, but ended up believing his own PR; God’s Anointed-Arrogance and Entropy set in.

      • Louis du Plessis says

        Maybe it is a question of starting with the spirit and then continuing in the flesh.
        Never heard of this guy till I read this post.Never really was in favour of homeschooling if there is an alternative.I hated a lot about school , but in a way learned to interact, cope with bullies, half-nazi teachers etc.Wasn’t easy though, school can be traumatic for some people.

    • Do you really give Mr. Gothard credit for how your younger siblings turned out? What about personal responsibility? There must have been more going wrong in that family than Mr. G’s teachings. My whole family was in that crap for years and all three kids are doing great in spite of Mr. G. I question those four’s personal walk with God more than i question Mr. G’s negative influence. Just thinking out loud.

      • What was wrong in my family was absolutely expounded and validated by Gothards teachings. Could it have ben there in seed form before? Absolutely. Did Gothard’s teachings water it and give it the right envoirnment to grow? Absolutely.

        All of our walk with God was hurt because of how He was presented through this organization.

        I suggest you read some of the other comments in this blog from people who were in the same situaion I was. It is amazing how similar each of our stories are…. I am glad you were one of the lucky few.

  7. It’s also well worth noting that, though he isn’t a widely-recognized name on the political stage, some major names in the religious Right have deep connections with Gothard and his organizations, including the likes of Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

    (Knowing what happens to discussions of politics on the internet, I add that the above is presented simply as a factual statement, and nobody will finagle a political opinion out of me. I’ve already said too mu

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Sarah Palin, AKA God’s Choice for President?

      • Evangelicals in Texas and Alaska have greatly to our suffering this past decade. Who knows when 2012 rolls around and if Perry gets elected the real question will now be, “Which country does God want us to invade?” Scary….

    • So this is why Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee talk “Christian” but seem so far from God! The fuzzy thinking of Gothard Graduates!

  8. I have never heard of this guy in my life. Sounds like bad stuff, though.

  9. I attended his Basic Seminar 3 years in a row back in the early 80’s. It really had a positive impact on my growth as a Christian. I don’t have a bad word to say about the guy as everything I’ve read about him says that he walks what he talks.

    However, I’ve also spoken with those who have become a follower of Gothard instead of a follower of Jesus. Very rigid and legalistic. “Principle” just becomes another work for “law.” But then I’ve found that to be true with a lot of good beneficial movements. God shows someone a valid powerful truth but then they take that revelation to be THE truth and build a religion around it. Too bad. What could have been a blessing in its proper context becomes harmful when it becomes an idol.

    • Thing is, for all the negative comments here (including my own), I don’t see Gothard as duplicitous, and I’m not cynical of his motives. I don’t think he set out to milk a multimillion dollar empire, and I don’t see him as power-hungry in the more obvious, political sense… even though that was clearly the result.
      He seemed like a humble guy. His life motto in the 70s was the verse from James, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”. However, I now know that verse does NOT mean, “God opposes the proud but gives WISDOM and INSIGHT to the humble”. Bill, if he is humble, will get the grace that he needs to be forgiven in spite of such damaging teaching.
      And Gothard had good things to say about forgiveness, so I cherry-picked that advice. The rest of the extra-biblical and unbiblical stuff? I left that at the arena.

      • Does humble man reject any serious form of accountability? Does a humble man refuse to answer his critics and instead vilifies them? Would a humble man change his stance on key teachings while making it appear that he never taught otherwise?

        Gothard may once have been humble and he certainly is sucessful at presenting himself as such, but direct interaction and observation of the man and his tactics of dealing with disagreent fro mwithin and without his organization shows a lack of some very key characteristics I would expect in a decently humble erson. I won’t question his motives as I can’t see inside his heart, and I would even allow that he is motivated by a desire to help others. But humble? There are just too many things calling that assessment into question in my estimation.

  10. I don,t think he has ever been married. I consider his programs to be just another fad that comes around every once and a while. Remember The Prayer of Jabez fad a few years ago?

    • I think one of the problems with critically looking at these various movements within the Church is that we tend to “throw out the baby with the bath water.” Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez was a great blessing to me. His other books were good as well. The problems begin when people start using it as some sort of magic charm that they chant. A lot of these movements (Gothard included) have powerful truths at their core. But we as people err when we try and reduce them to a formula that can be applied without God. That is law; that is idolatry.

  11. By the way, looking at that old photo of the arena: that must’ve been a KILLER overhead projector!!!

  12. Lukas db says

    I don’t know about Gothard. He sounds more like a life-coach than a minister. But even granting that, he seems to have his priorities precisely backwards. He wants to keep people safe, straight, in control. Safe! In this world! As though staying on the straight and narrow could hold back a hurricane.

    My father once said he would far rather I stole money from him, bought a motorcycle, and rode it across Europe than stay at home and do nothing. A rather specific image, perhaps selected in part due to the unlikelihood of my embezzling funds, but he was quite serious. Robert Farrar Capon said something similar near the end of “Between Noon and Three.”

    This world is God-breathed. It is a wild, perilous, vivid, and unpredictable place. You cannot put it into a paternalistic, legalistic box and hope to see His face. Where can we experience God if we refuse to experience anything?

    • “This world is God-breathed. It is a wild, perilous, vivid, and unpredictable place. You cannot put it into a paternalistic, legalistic box and hope to see His face. Where can we experience God if we refuse to experience anything?”

      Out of a gazilion comments, this is by far the best thing I’ve read today!


    • Ditto what Rebekah said. Your third paragraph is almost art, it’s so well stated. Fair warning: I’m going to steal it and variations of that theme. Let me know if you want attribution. 🙂

  13. I wonder… though I haven’t had any direct contact with BG I now wonder if most of the small private Christian schools in the 80s and 90s were influenced by this guy. Most of these rules or standards seems to be the same ridiculous rules I had in K-12 for both boys and girls. I loved my teachers especially in English, History, and Bible class…but the rules were so stupid. I mean come on, if pants have belt loops, belts must be worn…if you are a boy, but not a girl. Girls could have untucked shirts but not guys even it is slight “bloused.” So…in high school we all cut off all our belt loops, and wore our pants as high as low as they would go just to not have those stupid shirts tucked. They rules seemed so ad hoc…you couldn’t really question a teacher on anything…even on the subject that much with making look like you were some how usurping authority. My friends that went to secular private and Catholic schools never had these problem and as a matter of fact, my friends who went to public school have actually turned out the most mature and most successful of any of us that lived in my neighborhood.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I wonder… though I haven’t had any direct contact with BG I now wonder if most of the small private Christian schools in the 80s and 90s were influenced by this guy.

      Very probable. Christian (TM) Schools are just as prone to the latest Educational Fads as public schools, just they have a different set of Christian (TM) Educational Fads. (Often characterized by “Whatever THEY do — I’m Against It!”)

  14. I’m a veteran homeschool mom who has done a lot of research on the doctrines and practices behind various streams of the homeschool movement. Even though not many people recognize Bill Gothard’s name, he has been a big influence on a lot of churches and homeschoolers. Check out some sites like No Longer Quivering, Quivering Daughters, and Under Much Grace. Check out the ex-ATI Facebook pages. Google Mr. Gothard’s name. See for yourself if he has been a good influence or a bad one.

  15. Attendance at Basic Youth conflicts was required for those on the youth leadership team I was on while in junior college. I went the first time and thought it was a bit much. In fact, if I recall, I found it rather depressing. No one could live up to all those rules. The second time, I came in part way through. He was doing a presentation on music, that was laughable to anyone classically trained and thoroughly unbiblical. I decided to disregard him from that point on. I did hear later that the counselors in town always had their hands full with people in crisis after he came.

    On the positive side though, a girl came up to me during or after one of them. She had been one of my tormenters in 6th grade. She asked for forgiveness and I gave it to her and in my mind I included the others. It was good to learn that at least one of them had second thoughts about their behavior.

    For the most part though, it seemed to be a system of sin management through guilt and fear. Guilt is quite different than conviction, and most often a tool of our accuser. Fear is quite the opposite of faith. I’m glad to know I was not the only one who needed to distance myself from him.

    • Thank god for those who saw the danger and resisted his goofy teaching!

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  16. Pam Burns says

    I went to a church in the 70’s that took groups to Bill Gothard and many people said it was a great thing for them. I was a young married with no funds at the time to attend the seminar. Later our church got involved in a “Shepherding” movement which emphasized submitting to your Elders. At this point we left that church. After reading all the articles about Bill Gothard recommended yesterday, I’m glad I was too poor to attend in the 70’s. It helps explain how that particular church got so heavily involved in the submission to authority thing. It took me enough time as it was to move from that mindset after I left that church to one where God’s Grace held the highest priority. I learned many good things in that church, but I think Christians always have to be on guard against the latest teaching fad and stick to scripture, wise counsel and use of our own brains.

  17. With Gothard, and other patriarchal groups, one does not need the Holy Spirit. You have rules and humans to submit to and guide you in all things.

    • +1
      Great insight, lydia.

    • I agree Lydia! Just before my wedding, the fellow who was to take my pics asked me if my future husband had been married before. The answer was yes. He told me he could not take the pics because of his stand on divorce and remarriage. I explained that my fiancé wife left him for another guy and that he was an unbeliever at the time. Since then he had become a christian and remained single for 15 years. This guy explained that if I married him I would be an adulteress and fornicator. If we had children they would be cursed by God. He called his pastor who then offered me sanctuary at their church(job, place to live, etc.). Turns out this was a Gothard church. I had attended 3 basic and 2 advanced in the 70’s and wanted to do the right thing. I fasted and prayed for 3 days, my poor husband to be was so supportive! On that third day it hit me hard…if I subscribe to this way of thinking, I have no need for a savior. If I choose to live by this law then I will be judged by that law. No room for grace, faith, mercy. I chose Christ, married my wonderful, Godly husband and had a wonderful daughter who loves the Lord with all her heart. She is going to college and has never once given us any heartache. She has chosen to remain pure and wait for marriage. All this without BYC. I am grateful for what good I learned at the conferences. I agree with what some have said, keep the good and let go of the rest. One more thing…being able to forgive is very freeing.

  18. I sort of feel like I should say, “Hey! Bill Gothard *didn’t* ruin my life!” I’m not a big fan or anything, I do think it’s too legalistic and performance-oriented, I’m not involved anymore, but my family was heavily involved for decades and yet we all managed to turn out OK. My parents were not the domineering sort to begin with, that may have helped.

    I think the real problem is bigger than Bill Gothard–it’s pervasive in our culture, secular and Christian. Too many people are just looking for someone to Tell Them What To Do. Too many people think there is a perfect formula for a happy, successful life (Read a magazine rack. Two topics: celebrity gossip and how to have a more fabulous life in six easy steps). And so some total stranger starts spouting off anything remotely plausible and people follow, follow, follow. I’ve come to the place where I don’t really want to hear anyone’s advice unless they’re already dead or I know them personally. Everyone else is just a wanna-be celebrity.

    • Queen,

      I say Amen! There are many movements within the Church; Gothard, Wilkinson, Eldredge and his Wild at Heart. They are all good, though imperfect, representations of various aspects of the gospel. If we are mature Christians we will “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” Christians need to grow up and stop looking for the easy formula answer. That ALWAYS ends up in some form of idolatry or legalism. We need to keep our focus on our living and present relationship with Jesus. There are good truths that strengthen my walk coming from all these movements (Gothard, Eldredge, Wilkinson, etc.) but making that truth or “principle” the focus of my life, instead of Jesus, will shipwreck my faith.

      • Queen, I would say a lot did depend on the parents and how well-balanced they were. Imo, the well-balanced families bailed sooner rather than later, due to all the inconsistencies. otoh, my family, not well-balanced, blindly followed this guy, didn’t know when to call bullshit, and didn’t realize the consequences until it was too late.

  19. I first attended the seminar in high school (maybe about 1970) and then later while I was attending an evangelical college (maybe around 1973). I don’t remember much about my high school experience, but in college I was the inquisitive sort and interested in theological discussion and analysis.

    From the beginning, there were some things that rubbed me the wrong way. One was his insistence (ignored by many participants) that they shouldn’t come to the seminars unless they could attend all the sessions (including one that occurred during regular school/business hours on Friday). He seemed to be concerned that if you didn’t understand the whole shebang you’d be misled somehow. And then there were the teachings that just didn’t make sense — including that a women should stand by her man (because he’s the authority) even if she’s abused. And everything was so black-and-white; in Gothard’s teaching, there are no gray areas of life.

    As part of a project for a class (I was doing some research on abuse of language), I began to look up the Bible passages upon which Gothard was supposedly basing his teachings, and time after time the verses simply did not support what he was saying. They were almost always taken out of context. (Did you know the Bible teaches that the rhythm of the music shouldn’t be stronger than the melody, and that’s why even Christian rock is evil?)

    During that time, there was lot of interest in the “countercult” movement — churches such as the Mormons, the JWs, the Christian Scientists, the Children of God, the Love Family and so on were criticized and seen as “cults” because (among other things) of their supposed tendency to take the Bible out of context. In time, I came to believe that’s exactly what Gothard was doing — and people were hanging on his every word, believing it was the Bible truth, even though his interpretations were esoteric at best. I wouldn’t have labeled him a cult, but I came to see him as cultish (using the definition above).

    And nobody else could see it.

    One rare exception was my professor for whom I did the project on abuse of language; she even intentionally scheduled a midterm on the Friday of the seminar to keep students from attending. And, of course, my project in which I detailed at length the logical fallacies and Gothard’s out-of-context exegesis got me a solid A out of the class.

    I knew a few people who took his teachings seriously. They were the ones that ended up in the-husband-is-the-boss marriages with lots of kids. I would say, though, that most Gothard fans weren’t like that. Even if they didn’t see what I was seeing — that Gothard was a theological fraud (although I would say to this day that he’s sincere) — they did take a cafeteria approach, rejecting his teachings on Cabbage Patch dolls (for example) but agreeing with him on the need to have a daily time of prayer and Bible study. So while I think he was a destructive influence for a significant number of people, he was relatively benign influence on many others.

    What Gothard did for me, in an interesting twist, was to encourage me to study the Bible for myself to find out what it really said. Ironically, some two decades later I ended up joining a “cult” (as defined above), one that encouraged me to study the Scriptures for myself and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I can guarantee that wasn’t Gothard’s intention.

    I have followed Gothard’s movement over the years, simply because I’ve found it interesting. I thought that after the sexual scandal (1980s maybe?) he would be done for, but apparently not. His influence remains surprisingly strong, and that’s a bit scary.

    • To clarify your post, it was Bill Gothard’s brother that was involved in the scandal and not Bill Gothard. I don’t want peple to get the wrong impression.

      • Thanks for the clarification; I didn’t intend to give the wrong idea. The scandal also involved other people connected to the Gothard organization, but Bill Gothard certainly was oblivious to it while it was going on.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      During that time, there was lot of interest in the “countercult” movement — churches such as the Mormons, the JWs, the Christian Scientists, the Children of God, the Love Family and so on were criticized and seen as “cults” because (among other things) of their supposed tendency to take the Bible out of context.

      During that time, the Christian Countercult Movement defined “Cult” entirely in terms of aberrant theology, not repeat NOT in terms of abusive/control-freak behavior. This means a lot of “cultish” groups slipped by under the radar; while the Countercultists parsed theology letter-by-letter looking for “Cults”, some real heavy-duty abuse and overcontrolling slipped completely past them.

      I was mixed up in one of these “splinter church” Christian Fellowships at the time. Their theology was Dispensational Evangelical; they would have passed muster because Dispensationalism WAS Evangelical Orthodoxy of the time (and to a large extent, still is). However, their behavior was extremely controlling, in the manner of the “Shepherding/Discipleship” movement. Addtionally, I observed superstition (usually involving Demons) and extreme enclaving (N degrees of Separation) and experienced medium-grade Love Bombing and Sleep-deprivation Devotions (“Prayer”). Plus constant pressure to Separate myself from the World (i.e. everyone outside The Fellowship, especially family) and move into one of their two or three compounds. (My family situation was no prize, but this still struck me as a warning sign.)

      Yet their theology was Evangelical, Dispensational, and Hal Lindsay Eschatological — Born-Again Bible-Believing Evangelical Orthodoxy for the time. They wouldn’t have tripped a single alarm from the Christian Countercult movement. Even when years after the fact I found I was one of only a few to walk away from them on my own — a lot of them either burned out or had to be abducted and deprogrammed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And nobody else could see it.

      Same here. Any “seeing it” was explained as Satanic temptation or Worldly/Fleshly thinking, curable by greater Submission to The LORD, more Discipling, more need for Shepherding, you know the drill.

    • Eric,

      Is that project published? Would you be interested in passing it around?

  20. For the story of what can happen to those raised in ATI, I highly recommend the Razing Ruth blog:

    My family owned the character studies books, which I enjoyed reading as a kid, and my parents always spoke highly of Gothard, but we were never that tied to any of his teachings or conferences. After researching the fruits of his “ministry,” I am profoundly grateful for that!

    • Yes, those character studies bothered me. It is almost as though BG ran out of biblically based things to say and started to turn to the natural world for material — lessons based on interesting “facts” about the life of the eagle, the deer, the hedgehog… I think I am only exaggerating slightly. What is troubling is that the “facts” these “lessons” were based on came from popular beliefs and legends about the animals rather than out of deeper study of how these animals actually live (as opposed to how we would like to *think* they live…

  21. was a fairly new Christian when my little church in Pasadena, CA strongly recruited the congregation to attend one such seminar. even then i felft uneasy about the theological flavor of the Basic Youth Conflict KoolAid…

    legalistic? my God people! it was pure religious bondage wrapped up in good biblical principles wielded by a control addict. even though i was just a wee pup on my own spiritual journey, i felt uncomfortable with the myriad of material being thrown at the poor attendee that felt more & more guilt with every legalistic requirement!

    no grace. no affirmation. no joy. c’mon. there was absolutely no joy in the delivery or in the people sitting next to me in the auditorium…


    it was religious death wrapped up in the grave cloths of towing the Bill Gothard company line…

    i threw out the huge binder. i made a deliberate decision later to extricate myself from the rigid indoctrination approach even though some of the teachings did encourage me to look for myself into the claims being made…

    thank you Jesus it was for freedom that You set me free! if not i would still be steeped in bondage of a religious kind let alone the default condition of all mankind…

    • Thanks, Joseph!! why are people afraid to say that Gothard teachings are a corruption of Scripture and straight from Lucifer – you know – the shining light – aspiring to be, and pretending to be, God. Old Lucifer must be full of glee at Gothards success!

  22. I went to Bill Gothard seminars 6 years straight in the early to mid-eighties and even helped out as an usher for 3 years. At the time I also was naive and thought his approach was dead-on. I gave the scripture memorization and meditation my best and followed all the other prescriptions. It all seemed to be beneficial for a while but eventually became an extremely heavy burden. What I did find beneficial is that I still can draw upon the memorized scripture and with a little practice can have a large portion of some books of the Bible memorized, which is useful for meditating anytime, and has given me a good knowledge of the scriptures. Some of the drawbacks:
    – Just about everything with BGI is black and white and formulaic. You won’t find a personal, fulfilling relationship with Jesus Christ or anyone simply by following Bill Gothard principles.
    – The legalistic and dogmatic focus on authority and submiting to authorities kept me in some bad situations and relationships and overly simplifies our relationship with authorities.

    I heard somewhere that Bill Gothard may have eventually had a moral failing of his own. I can’t say for sure and don’t want to spread hearsay, but it’s ironic in that Bill Gothard presented his “way” as so fail-safe and fool-proof .

  23. arpritchett says

    I remember Character Sketches from growing up (1980s), and I had to Google Gothard to see why the name sounded familiar.

    When I read through the principles I thought, “I bet he’s got a bunch of haters, but these principles seem fine. Would it kill people to have a few principles?”

    I read the comments here and checked out his own website, and my thoughts moved more in the uneasy direction. It sounds like just another example of something that began as (probably) well-intentioned and spun into man-centered moralism clothed in the guise of stating absolute truth and hard-and-fast biblical principles.

    I still don’t think that my generation would lose anything by picking up a principle or two.

    I’m wary of such authoritative advice on how the family works from someone who has never been married. I’m coming up on 1 year of marriage to my awesome wife, and we sat under wonderful pre-marital counseling, but when you start waking up next to someone every day, it’s the real deal. I know many are called to be single, but they don’t seem to be the people clamoring to helm movement-starting ministries based around how a family should follow a husband and father’s leadership.

    I’m also skeptical of ministries that place such a large emphasis on narrow topics like abstention from attendance at movies. My wife and I are too broke to see movies regularly, but I can’t say that that’s made me a better husband than I would have been otherwise. I appreciate what I’m going to choose to believe is a well-intentioned, but misguided sentiment: being discerning in choosing your entertainment, but such a stark rule takes so many biblical things out of the equation, not least of which is the Holy Spirit.

    As for the commenters who stated that such a ministry had hugely negative effects on their families, I can’t say that I’m surprised. Legalism tends to do that to people, whether the legalistic attitude was backed into or not.

    • If more young believers (and more mature ones, too) had a healthy understanding of sound exegesis and hermeneutics they would be less likely to swallow out-of-balance and/or heretical teachings. As for Gothard, I agree with Chaplain Mike that much of Gothard’s teachings would fall under “Jesus plus” theological reasoning that Paul challenged in his letter to the Galatians.

  24. Dan Buck says

    Bill Gothard’s ministry has continued to evolve all these years. He long since stopped the city-wide seminars, replaced by small meetings around a video screen. For a while he was emphasizing the Anger Resolution Course, until that ran its course. He started a college prep program called Verity that went defunct a few years ago. A lot of his real estate has been put on the market as the programs it housed dwindled away. His latest program is called Journey To the Heart, and it’s pulling in a lot of young people of both sexes.

    To call the Alert program paramilitary is a gross mis-characterization. No training is given in weapons or even martial arts; it’s strictly a discipline program. Call it boot camp or even indoctrination, but not paramilitary. It’s paramilitary to the same extent that that theological training is paramedic.
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    • Dan, couple corrections. Verity is not defunct. They are alive and well in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can check out their website. They are Verity Institute. They just celebrated 10 years in May. That is pretty much the only successful growing ministry/program he has left.

  25. I will speak for myself, after been to the All Day Seminars from the first one in 1978 to the early 1990 and all in between books and study notes and Basic Seminars and Advance. Now in 2011 I still believe much of what was taught. I believe what he taught came from a person who was geninu in his belief.

    I would still teach much of what he taught. I and an Biblical Expositoinal preacher and John MacArthur is my favorite teacher of the Bible.

    That is to say, if people got mixed up over what Bill was teaching, they misunderstood what he was teaching.

    I for one have no problem with the early teaching of Bill. But yet the Bible is the finally authority of our lives.

    • Gothard was anything but an expositional teacher. His forte was topical study. I would say he was guilty of a fair amount of eisogesis. If more young believers (and more mature ones, too) had a healthy understanding of sound exegesis and hermeneutics they would be less likely to swallow out-of-balance and/or heretical teachings. As for Gothard, I agree with Chaplain Mike that much of Gothard’s teachings would fall under “Jesus plus” theological reasoning that Paul challenged in his letter to the Galatians.

  26. I’m a day late to the party, but I just had this observation: it’s interesting to me that these guys who are so big into “submitting to authority” don’t actually seem to submit themselves to any authority. As far as I know, Bill Gothard conferred his authority upon himself and has never been formally accountable to anyone beyond his hand-picked board of directors.

    In my opinion, it’s a huge “DANGER” sign, whenever a teacher emphasizes submission and obedience without submitting himself to an authority that would have the power to fire him, should the need ever arise.

  27. Wasn’t Gothard an instigator of the “Spiritual Gifts Inventory” that many others elaborated?

  28. Tino Nazare says

    I am from India (ex-sailor). When my ship touched Tacoma in WA State – and in the process of contemplating experimenting with drugs to fill that mysterious and depressive void in my life, two young men confronted me with the Good News of Jesus CHrist. That was in November 1979. A simple tract “What fills the void” was explained to me and the Gospel with all it’s contents (cross and the crown included) was explained crystal clear. During my voyage I asked Jesus to come into my life. That was 31 years ago! In the year 1980 I attended Bill Gothard’s seminar, I was not only thrilled by it but BLESSED. For an Indian whose culture is not christian that was something. I have still is books & material. To-day we argue and bicker about various brands of theologies, mud slinging at people who may not flow with our theological world view and “holier than thou” attitudes. Thank God there were no Calvinists, Arminians in the Early Church, The simplicity, sincerety and sacrificial attitudes of those saints need be exemplary to us. I don’t know about others, BG is a sinner saved by GRACE, and so are all of us. Redemption is by Christ alone and as redeemed men and women being transformed into the image of Jesus, and living righteously we can walk confidently into the future, knowing and rejoicing that the path of the righteous (forgiven sinners), knowing is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of that Day. I appreciate BH and his ministry and of others who kept running the race marked for us….like Paul can we all say “follow me (Paul) as I (Paul) follow Christ?

  29. I had a brief encounter with Gothard in the early ’90’s. Our family didn’t go anywhere with it but it didn’t raise any more red flags than any other benign, well-intentioned movement. Later on I married a woman who had been immersed in the group for her entire life and so had some exposure to its after effects. At the time they were experiencing a crisis of kids not moving on into adulthood, no jobs no marriages, nothing. That’s why ALERT was started, in order to give the directionless young men another step before having to perform in the real world. The whole home school, courtship movement has the same challenges though. The kids are just not being raised with an expectation that they will ever exist outside of their parent/child relationships. My marriage failed spectacularly by the way. My ex-wife would send Gothard up in flames if he knew what she turned into. All in all I would say that Gothard was a failed movement, but not nescessarily a destructive one.

  30. I’m not a Gothard follower by any means, but I do follow blogs of his followers. The families facinate me. Anyway, Gothard has unveiled his new Embassy University (“50 years in the making”). Ray Comfort will be a lecturer and for $100 a credit one can receive a BA in Life Studies or something like that. The Staddon family gives it a breathless write up on their blog. They are big time Gothard followers. BG himself attended their son’s wedding a few weeks ago. Check it out at the Staddon family website. And for all things patriarchy and some links to really bizarre things religious check out the FreeJinger forum.

  31. And for a good look into a really patriarchal Christian family, check out the Maxwell’s authors of Homeschooling with a Meek and Quiet Spirit, Managers of Their Chores etc. A family where teen and 20 somethings have chore charts and wear matching clothes. It’s surreal.

  32. My deceased husband and I were in a ministry back in the 70’s-80’s that required the married couples to attend Gothard. My husband and I enjoyed Gothard. However, the “ministry” took my husband aside and told him that he was not being a true “leader”. (He was a wonderful man! Loved God – loved me) However, because he was so intimidated by them, he tur ned out being very hard on me – because I was not “right” with God. Sad – I had a brain tumor. The whole thing almost destoyed me physically. I think it may not be Gothard himself, but how people “react” to what he says. That is determined by one’s status in the church or organization they are in. It is also determined by how arogant and narcissitic they are.

    The “bubble” they keep people like Gothard and others in, prevents them from seeing the real world.

  33. Hi,
    Thanks Ken for directing me here. There’s a lot of great comments
    I was a got hard follower for a long time, basic & advanced seminars. Home schooling, large family; Our nephew went to A.T.I. in the states
    Kris is right, most evangelicals reject the pope as head of the Christian church, but find their own pope ( infallible Gothard ) or someone else who tells everyone what they must do (non optional principles),
    There are teachings the church has taught which were rejected by Luther, (and most protestants). after the reformation. If we go back and study some of these early church fathers, we’ll be way ahead of mindlessly following any man who had a new revelation while he was fasting. Some of the stuff can be helpful or good. Does it line up with the word of God, common sense, and what the church has taught through the ages.No need to reinvent the wheel.

    • Good posts, Gordon, Tino, Pennie and others. If more young believers (and more mature ones, too) had a healthy understanding of sound exegesis and hermeneutics they would be less likely to swallow out-of-balance and/or heretical teachings. As for Gothard, I agree with Chaplain Mike that much of Gothard’s teachings would fall under “Jesus plus” theological reasoning that Paul challenged in his letter to the Galatians.

  34. Not surprised there’s so many comments… I thought Ken’s, starting with one about context (you can search for the term to find it), were especially helpful. Gothard started the pendulum swinging back the other direction, reacting against the free-wheeling peace love & drugs culture of the 1960s-70s. It’s hard to grasp how secular the U.S. was becoming in those days. For instance, there are church schools everywhere these days, but except for Catholics, that was still a pretty radical thing even in 1975.

    I remain a big fan of the principles & his teachings on motivational gifts. Nevertheless, as Ken noted, somehow in America, ministries tend to just get more and more off track as they grow. I think some of it here is intellectual laziness. There are a lot of folks who just want someone to tell them everything – how to believe, how to live, even how to vote. And there are plenty of groups offering these ‘package deals’ in the U.S.!

    I was fortunate that I always knew better than to buy into the whole thing. This is true with any teacher or ministry, you need to take an a la carte approach – pick the good stuff, discard the rest. Nevertheless, it wasn’t always easy to sort things out, even for me. I was 19 when I first attended the Basic Seminar in 1982, and can certainly sympathize with folks who grew up in such a system, never knowing any better. Legalism can never be a substitute for love & acceptance.