By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
In college and seminary, I learned about the philosophical and theological underpinnings of many of the movements of our day. We dove deep into thinkers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, and many others.
We noted their impact on various worldly philosophies of our day. We also analyzed the impact of activists and sociologists like Margaret Sanger, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and more.
But there was something that we seldom looked at. Our own philosophical and theological foundations. Where’d the idea of umbrellas of authority come from?
What about the idea of not “defrauding” one another through how you dress or act? Where did we get some of our principles of courtship and dating? Where does the idea come from that children are a “quiverfull” of arrows to redeem culture?
It was simply assumed that these principles, or perhaps called basic life principles, stemmed from the Bible. I’d never even heard of a man named Bill Gothard or the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
And yet, many of his views were running rampant in the culture and teaching of the conservative college and seminary which I attended.
You’ve likely been hearing the name Bill Gothard more recently. Since the release of Amazon’s Shiny Happy People, folks have been talking about Gothard and his IBLP. You’d heard of the Duggars, but did you know about the philosophy which shaped their culture?
What Is the IBLP?
The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) was founded in 1961 as a local outreach in Chicago. Its stated purpose is to “teach the wisdom and truth of Scripture as the foundation of every area of life.”
They attempt to fulfill their mission through conferences, retreats, and seminars as well as providing many homeschool families with their “trusted teaching.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the foundation of the movement was Gothard’s Basic Youth Conflicts seminar. In 1974 these seminars coalesced into the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC). In the late 70’s they began publishing books, most notably a popular story of a missionary entitled The Pineapple Story.
In 1984, with many becoming disenchanted with the public school system, a need arose to provide homeschooling curriculum. The Advanced Training Institute of America (ATIA) was launched with 102 families participating in the seminal program.
The popularity of the institute exploded among homeschool families in the late 80s and early 90s, even reaching globally. In 1989, the name was changed to its current name — Institute in Basic Life Principles.
In 2000, a 2200-acre campus was built in Texas to house the home offices and the International ALERT Academy. ALERT stands for Air Land Resource Emergency Team.
According to their website, it is an intense “post-high-school, Christian discipleship and training program for young men who want to live with purpose and make an impact. We forge men to be spiritually sound, physically fit, and ready to serve.”
The movement continued to expand through the early 2000s, in part because of the popularity of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. The show followed the life of the Duggar Family and their eventual 19 children.
The Duggars were proponents of the IBLP, used their curriculum, and spoke at their seminars. When the popularity of the Duggars rose, so also did the teaching of the IBLP.
In 2014, Bill Gothard was accused of sexual harassment. This led to a more open critique of the organization and its teachings. Gothard stepped down in 2014, and the Institute moved offices from Texas to Illinois.
Though its influence has waned from its pinnacle days, the IBLP continues to this day, still influencing many families.
Who Is Bill Gothard?
Bill Gothard was born into a Christian family in 1934. He received degrees from Wheaton College in 1961. In the early 1960s, Gothard became concerned with helping other youth make wise choices in their life.
He came up with what he called “seven biblical, non-optional principles of life.” These are the seven principles:
1. Design: know the specific purpose for why God created you.
2. Authority: inward peace results when people respect and honor the God-given authority in their lives.
3. Responsibility is when you have a clear conscience when you realize you are responsible for every thought, word, action, and motive. You are also responsible for seeking forgiveness when you offend others.
4. Suffering is the idea that we allow hurts from offenders and welcome them for revealing “blind spots” in our lives. You must overcome bitterness with forgiveness.
5. Ownership is the principle that we are stewards and not owners of our possessions.
6. Freedom: true freedom is having the power and the desire to do what is right.
7. Success is the notion that when we follow God, meditate on His ways, memorize Scripture, and make wise decisions, we will successfully fulfill our life purposes.
This was the core of what Gothard taught and was part of the seminars which made him wildly popular in fundamentalist and conservative circles in the 70s and 80s. Many of his seminars were attended by more than 10,000 people.
In the early ’80s, Gothard moved his focus to homeschooling. He was responsible for creating the education program which revolved around these biblical principles, writing 54 “Wisdom booklets,” which taught geography, science, math, history, and other subjects from a fundamentalist Christian perspective.
Though Gothard himself never married, he was influential in shaping conservative families for decades. Gothard taught the importance of family structure and emphasized the man’s role within the home.
In 2011, a website was launched with former students sharing their negative or harmful experiences at the hands of IBLP and even, specifically, Gothard. In 2012, one courageous woman, Lizzie, came forward to share that she had been inappropriately touched by Gothard as a teen.
This opened the door for more than 30 other women to make similar allegations. In 2014, Gothard resigned from his position. He was sued in 2015 and 2016, and those cases were eventually dropped in 2018. He counter-sued his accusers, but the countersuit was dismissed.
What Are the Issues with IBLP?
This is actually a difficult question to answer for a wider audience. If you are a fundamentalist, a conservative, and adhere to patriarchal theology and quiverfull theology, there will be some (or many) things within the teaching of Gothard which you find no issue with.
Others will have varying degrees of difficulty with the movement. I will share the most problematic teachings/actions and then move toward those which are concerns for some but not others.
First, one has to look at the case of Josh Duggar. Certainly, we cannot make a one-to-one causality with IBLP and Duggar’s sexual assault of several underage girls, including his own sisters.
There are many who were raised in this movement that do not download child pornography on their computers. The teaching of Gothard does not cause sexual assault. But does it create a culture where those with this propensity are left unchecked?
One can easily see how Gothard’s view of authority and suffering as well as the teachings on moral purity, not only create a culture of fear but also make the possibility of exposing sexual abuse nearly impossible.
This teaching is centered upon fear. Listen to these words of Jinger Duggar:
“[Gothard's] teachings in a nutshell are based on fear and superstition and leave you in a place where you feel like, 'I don't know what God expects of me.’ The fear kept me crippled with anxiety. I was terrified of the outside world,” she told PEOPLE, adding that as a child, she believed she would be harmed if she accidentally wore the wrong clothes, played the wrong sports or listened to the wrong music.”
The IBLP is attractive to parents who are looking for a way to shape and mold their kids into healthy adults. We want what is best for our children. We want to protect them and keep them safe. Gothard’s teaching can sound like a breath of fresh air.
It’s formulaic and makes big promises. If we can keep our kids sheltered from the influences of the world, if we can train them to stay under proper biblical authority, and if we can train them to live out of biblical principles, we can rest assured that they will be successful.
That sounds wonderful, but are there checks and balances within the system itself to make an account for the sinful propensity of its own leaders? Does fear create disciples, or does love? Can we protect our kids from sorrow, or is the general tenor of Scripture that we walk with our children through sorrow?
The fundamental issue with the teachings of Gothard is that it perverts the gospel story. Sure, it talks about the forgiveness and the sacrifice of Jesus. Any kid going through the IBLP will be able to tell you all the facts about the gospel. But it doesn’t lead to freedom — it leads to fear.
Some will also take issue with the quiverfull theology and patriarchy within the movement. The key idea within this teaching is that God has granted men authority over their families, men belong in the workplace, and a woman’s sphere of influence is in the home.
In this view, any form of birth control is sinful. Some will even say that educating your children is not the responsibility of the state but is the responsibility of the home — thus homeschool is all but mandated. And sown into the fabric of much of this teaching is the notion of raising children to “take back America for God.”
However, a Christian side of these particular issues we still must ask questions about flourishing and thriving. I think of the words from Andy Crouch on institutions:
“The best test of any institution, and especially of any institutions’ roles and rules for using power, is whether everyone flourishes when everyone indwells their roles and plays by the rules, or whether only a few of the participants experience abundance and growth” (Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power).
Is everyone truly flourishing in this environment? How did Jesus empower and give voice to vulnerable women? Is there room for this kind of voice and flourishing in IBLP?
Most of those coming out of this movement would give a resounding “No.” Jesus said that you’ll know them by their fruit. What kind of fruit has this movement produced?
Why Does This Matter?
Personally, I could give a book-length worth of reasons why I believe the teachings of Gothard are problematic. And ultimately, I come to these conclusions not because I deny the Bible but because I believe it.
And that is what I would encourage anyone to do who is watching this Shiny Happy People documentary. Some will likely have the gut reaction to mark this as another attempt by a secular company, through interviewing apostates, to mock the name of Christ.
You’ll see it as a call to arms. I’d simply encourage you to ask good questions about what you’ve been taught. Are these things actually from the Bible, or are you simply making that assumption? It’s always helpful to look at the places where we’re making assumptions.
There are some statements that I find myself using on occasion. And in my better moments, these statements raise a flag.
When I am prone to write or say something like, “Oh, that’s clear…” or “It’s obvious from the Bible…” or “The scriptures plainly teach,” I pause. It might be obvious. You can say with incredibly high confidence that the Bible proclaims Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Likewise, you can speak of Him clearly as Lord and Savior. But there are times when we use these same powerful, debate-closing words like “clear,” “obvious,” “biblical,” “plain,” etc., and they are more assumptions than something which has been truly assessed.
Lastly, there will be those who watch Shiny Happy People and conclude we should burn it all to the ground. Every teaching associated with Gothard will be taken out to pasture and burned. The gospel itself will potentially be cast to the side.
I get it. It’s tough to unravel some of these things. It’s hard to know what was part of the movement and what are the words of Christ.
My counsel would be the same, get back to the claims of Jesus — do His words square with those of Bill Gothard? Is it possible that the things you are rejecting would be rejected by Jesus as well?
One of the worst things about abusers is that they often use good tools to do bad things. This creates double harm. Because not only are we harmed, but we’ve also now come to associate bad things with that which could be used for our healing.
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Photo Credit: ©Amazon Prime Video, used with permission