IBLP, ATI, Mr. Gothard…and Me

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Bill Gothard is a Christian teacher who’s best known work is the Basic Seminar put on through the Institute in Basic Life Principles…(IBLP), wherein he lays out seven principles for overcoming basic youth conflicts. This seminar became extremely popular and packed out stadiums in the 70s and 80s. There’s some pretty good points in there. Things like, you need to accept yourself the way you are because God made you and He loves you. Things like, you need to show respect for your parents. Things like, you need to realize that God owns everything ultimately and you are a steward of the things he gives you. Well, Mr. Gothard met a demand for the Christian homeschooling movement of the 90s by providing curriculum known as Wisdom Booklets through the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). So far, so good.

Alright, down to it then.

When my older sister started struggling in school, my parents decided to try homeschooling. Emi did great. More than great, she excelled. (She is in fact a brilliant test taker–can pass them almost without studying for them.)  Well, being only four years behind, they decided to try it with me too. Not quite a great as sis. But, fairly decent, if I do say so myself.

Soooo how did we get involved in ATI?

One of a parent’s more basic concerns when their children are young are the types of friends they make. A friendship is a big influencer on a kid’s life. So, naturally, they sought out kids that would be good playmates for us.

The kids with the best attitudes, the best grades, the best clean-cut fun were, by and large, the ATI kids. They were Christians, they were memorizing Bible verses, they were respectful to their parents, they were mannerly, they were…quite near perfect.

Basically, I wouldn’t know where my life would be right now if my parents had not joined ATI…it was literally integrated into every part of me. (This was a conscious choice on my part. Nobody had to push me into trying to achieve things…I’m a natural go-getter.) So, I filled out the faith journal (read the Bible front to back and write a commentary on it.) I filled out the virtue journal (memorize all the 49 character qualities and their definitions and demonstrate how you have applied them to your life.) I filled out the knowledge journal (read the wisdom booklets…and somehow document it.) I filled out the Commands of Christ Journal (more memorization and application proof.) I worked hard at capturing every thought that entered my head, (per the instructions at the Counseling Seminar) and analyzing it to see if it was sinful.

Well, you get the point.

And I had all the certificates.

I was Super Christian. (And yet, no person from the ministry ever received a divine revelation of how holy I had become and then invited me on the stage to share my profound wisdom with others…it was deeply disappointing.)

Please, please, I can hear the snickering. It’s something I’m not really proud of now.

Anyway…if I were to put this all on a balance sheet, I would say that the pros outweigh the cons. Was I a legalistic little pharisee with life alllll figured out? Yep.

Did I learn a lot of scripture that kept me from dangerous traps growing up? Yep. In fact, having that much Bible as the backbone of your upbringing is an extreme blessing!  I fall back on it multiple times a day. It’s never going anywhere. That’s a real comfort.

I made a lot of dear, godly friends. I discovered my passion in life: writing. I had the benefit of girls’ retreats which were amazing fun…and it was at one of these retreats that I really understood for the first time that I was faking it when it came to loving God. That was perhaps the most significant day of my spiritual walk. So, yes. The ministry has touched and affected my life in positive ways.

But, looking back, I’m acutely aware that I idolized Mr. Gothard too much. I mean, it was easy to think that he was the holiest man to have walked the planet since the apostles. Really, it was. When Recovering Grace started their website, I thought at first it was just a bunch of rebels who just didn’t get it. Who weren’t willing to do the hard work holiness requires and were just trying to throw mud at the organization. But, now. I can’t ignore it any more. 34 women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment (oh, don’t get excited. It’s nothing explicit…just footsie and a little fondling…but in the culture of ATI where moral purity was valued above all else, it’s wickedly perverse.) People who are my personal friends, people I trust, have verified that there’s truth to it.

I feel…almost like someone died. Yes. I feel like grieving, but why, I don’t know. Maybe I feel like grieving because so many people were misguided for so long. Good people, like my parents, who invested their lives and their money into this ministry, only wanting the best for their kids, have been slapped in the face and lead down a twisted trail of distortion. This is what they got for doing the very best they could. Just sickening.

The man had too much power. I remember him standing on a stage surrounded by about thirty thousand people at the Thompson Bowling Arena in Knoxville, TN, just soaking in the crowd. Soaking in their attention. If I could see him there now, with the eyes of a law-office hardened 26 year old woman, (not the wide-eyed innocence of 14) I wonder if I would see the truth. It’s likely that I wouldn’t. A lot of smart, and very wonderful christian men and women were deceived by this man.

I’ve been aware of the rampant legalism for some time. Probably for the last twelve years I’ve been scoffing at some of the more ridiculous taboos. (Calf length skirts ALL the time…are you kidding me? And, my personal favorite, no toenail polish.) But, you know, I was willing to see beyond it and appreciate the good things the organization had brought into my life: the people, the Bible, the commitment to excellence, etc. But, as time has gone on, the faith in the good will of the ministry has eroded.

The switch in my brain, the part where I started analyzing the ministry outside of a preconceived notion that everything sanctioned by them was gospel came sometime in my mid teens, late one night, with my family, in the car, in the pouring down rain. I can still remember the pounding of that rain on the windshield. The frantic pulse of the wind shield wipers keeping time as my father…the man I adore and admire more than any other person…firmly and emphatically condemned the words that had just come out of my mouth.

I had been criticizing some kids who had performed a musical number because they had done it with a rock beat. Clearly evil.

My dad, God bless him, saw what was happening and he put a stop to it. Right then. Right there.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he did leave me with the *crystal* clear understanding that God was closer to the publican than the pharisee. And that, in reality, we are all publicans. Those too arrogant to realize it are a scourge on the world…or something like that.

That night, he snipped a thread of the tapestry and it began unraveling. From that moment on, I started using my brain. I started trying to understand the concepts behind the verses I read, not just the words. I began looking to see how my dad (one of the most authentic men you’ll ever meet) was living out his Christian walk. I think my dad saved my life.

It’s interesting in law school right now, I’m learning about damages, and all the formulas that apply to calculate damages for buyers and sellers and for injured people and family members of people who die….damages. Formulas.

Sometimes, the courts talk about how wrong it is to reduce someone’s drastically altered life to a dollar amount. How can you put a number on a disfigured face? Well, truth is, there’s just no other way. In our broken way, man can only come up with formulas to bring balance, to restore. That’s what Gothard did. He would give us safe and secure formulas. 5 principles to this or 7 steps for achieving this or 10 reasons why…Anyway, supposedly if you mastered all this, you would have the perfect life. Well, ain’t no such thing. Life is necessarily a broken mess. Paul’s was a mess. Peter’s too. Mr. Gothard’s formulas are flimsy when you stand at the receptionist window at a law office and come face to face with the effects of real evil affecting real lives. There is no such thing as a perfect life. Until you are broken on the reality of life, the comfort and companionship of the Holy Spirit is held cheaply. Although the formulas feel safe. They’re illusionary and driven by fear, designed to give people insulated constructs to be holy in.

I wonder how many people I’ve hurt with my superior attitudes over the years. I’m deeply ashamed of being “too holy” to really love them. It was so empty. So exhausting. Now that I’ve gotten a taste of how beautiful life is walking in the pure grace of Christ, I’m never, ever going back. As one of my former ATI friends has said: Instead of a “new approach to life” give me the old, old story of Jesus and His love.







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