Even if you don’t know the name “Bill Gothard,” if you’ve spent time in the evangelical church, you’ve most likely been exposed to his teachings. Yes, he was that influential.
Hundreds of thousands sat in his seminars, including the famous Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting. Some of them became well known teachers in their own right, going on to teach Gothard’s “principles” to hundreds of thousands more.
And of his hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands went through his “Christian” homeschooling program, learning his principles far better than they ever knew the Bible, revering him (according to some) far more than the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you know him and his teachings, then what I’m saying here will be familiar.
if you don’t, then watch and learn in order to better understand your neighbor–or those strange teachngs you heard about but didn’t understand.
These are two significant pages from his Basic Seminar book.
Bill Gothard taught that when you’re asked to do something you think is wrong, there are “7 Steps of Action” you’re supposed to take.
Let’s see if we can get through them all and examine them up next to the Word of God without having a meltdown. This could be interesting if it doesn’t send you to the mental hospital first. Take care of yourself.
(Caution: Gothard List Ahead)
- Check Your Attitude.
- Clear Your Conscience.
- Discern [Your Authority’s] Basic Intentions.
- Design Creative Alternatives.
- Appeal to Your Authority.
- Give God Time to Change His [Your Authority’s] Mind.
- Suffer for Not Doing What Is Wrong.
(Caution: It’s a page from the 1976 3-ring-binder version of Gothard’s red notebook. With all my notes. Gah.)
Gothard teachings are replete with examples from people he knew and/or those mysterious anonymous sorts who applied or didn’t apply his teachings. As far as Bible examples go, the one he’s using here is from Daniel chapter 1.
In the old days I simply accepted his personal stories without question (innocent and naive guru-follower that I was). But today I’ll say that though I am unable to examine his personal stories, I sure do know how to look at the Bible, so I’m eager to observe how Daniel’s story plays out in support (or not) of Gothard’s 7 Steps.
In this case, Daniel thought it was wrong to eat the king’s food because it was defiling. So let’s see how we’re supposed to proceed. . . .
1. Check Your Attitude.
According to Gothard, you’re supposed to check for . . .
(Caution: Gothard List Ahead)
- An independent spirit (the basis of “disloyalty,” he said, which I’ve written about here and in this book)
- A condemning spirit (the basis of “self-righteousness,” he says, which I’ve written about here)
- An ungrateful spirit (the basis of “pride,” he says, and I’ve written about gratitude motivation here)
- A lazy spirit (the basis of dishonesty and poverty, he says)
- A bitter spirit (the basis of selfishness, he says; I’ve written about bitterness a LOT, most notably here)
- An impure spirit (the basis of self-indulgence, he says)
And one I had to jot in there, because it wasn’t in the printed page,
- A resistant spirit (the basis of lack of creativity, he says, and I’ve pondered a good bit what kind of resistance he himself was trying to overcome in his Gothard girls, but I digress)
I’ve written somewhere (which I can’t find right now) how adding the word “spirit” after a description makes the description sound more . . . well, can I just say spiritual? Also more secret, dark, and deep.
if you simply asked a gentle young Jesus lover, “Are you lazy?” they might say, “No, I work really hard.” But if you say, “Do you have a lazy SPIRIT?” they might say, “Oh, I don’t know, I need to seek the Lord about that and conduct an internal self-examination, because the heart of every person is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, so probably yes.” (And, friends, I’ve written about that one too, here.)
So you see how you’re set up from the beginning to find yourself in one of those categories?
Remember now, Daniel is the example, and I have “(Daniel 1:9)” written beside #1. Let’s see how he stacks up with Step #1.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs [the middle management man] to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs.”
Do you see all the soul-searching Daniel did to make sure he didn’t have any of Gothard’s Seven Sinful Spirits?
Not, of course. I jest.
Remember that when you were sitting in Gothard’s seminar, you had no opportunity to look at that Scripture because you were busy taking notes so furiously. How surprising, then, to find when we actually LOOK at the Scripture he references, that there is zero evidence in the Scripture that Daniel “checked his attitude” for any of the “spirits” Gothard said he needed to check for.
What are we to make of that? That we should eliminate Step #1?
Well, I would lean in that direction. After all, when you’re asked to do something that you believe is wrong, what’s really important is (1) to discern whether or not it really IS wrong (is your conscience too sensitive?), and if it is in fact wrong, (2) to try to discern a way to get out of it if possible, and (3) to be centered and grounded in the true God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be able to handle the effects of refusing to do wrong.
Those are the only Steps I would address, and I would have quite a few Scriptural examples for them.
But that’s not the way it goes down here.
We continue onward understanding that there is no Scriptural basis for Step #1 (and thus not for most of the others), but I am nothing if not thorough, so here we go.
2. Clear Your Conscience.
Oh my, the printed page and my scribbled notes are all making me react here. Let’s see what we can do with this.
I know I have to come back to Daniel and consider how Daniel “cleared his conscience”—after all, I have “(Daniel 1:20)” handwritten in my notes at this point—before going on to Step 3.
But I just want to park on this one for a minute. This one is HUGE in Gothard’s system. When you follow it through, you see just how insidious it is. You’re supposed to . . .
(Caution: Gothard list ahead)
- Correct those attitudes which have offended [from Step #1].
- Fulfill the wishes and unfinished directions of those in authority [and my handwritten note says “father”].
- Acknowledge to the person that we were wrong and ask forgiveness.
- Make any restitution which is necessary.
- Learn “deference”—limiting my own freedom “so as to please those in authority over me” (according to my notes).
Wait a minute??
I thought we were getting direction about what to do when we’ve been asked (i.e., told, since we’re talking about an “authority”) to do something we believe is wrong?
How did this end up coming back on us asking forgiveness and making restitution and learning deference? Sure those things have their appropriate place, but their place isn’t here.
What I’m hearing and seeing sends me back to a quotation by Bob Jones Sr, founder of Bob Jones University, a notorious quote used against students all the time:
“No doubt the problem is with you.”
I guess he and Bill Gothard must have learned from the same teachers.
So, all those “attitudes” (aka “spirits”) from Step #1 that were so deeply sinful now have to be addressed before we can even THINK about trying to stand up to someone who is asking/telling us to do something wrong.
And voila, the individual is absolutely tied up into a knot, and we’re not even past the second point.
My friend Lauren Rose, who has guest posted for me before, and who was one of many “Gothard girls,” told me about “clearing her conscience,”
“I was told that the power of sin is in the details. If I wanted a clear conscience I had to tell details of every secret thought sin to both of my parents, or it would hinder my fellowship with God, put a block between me and God. I didn’t want any blocks between me and God, so I did that. I told sexual thoughts in detail to them both. When I went through the Telos course, I made a list of every secret sin I had never confessed, and I told them everything. I wanted so much to be connected with God. But this only instilled fear in me and gave access for me to be further controlled.”
May I just say that NONE of this is in the Bible ANYwhere? He made it all up. It is cult control.
So our Scripture reference here, which we absolutely do not have time to look up, scribbling furious notes as we are, is Daniel 1:20.
This is out of order from the other verses, being as it is at the end of the story while we’re only in Step #2, but we do not have time to consider that because we’re in rapt attention listening to Gothard tell us another anecdote about the dangers and implications involved when a girl lives by herself. (I know that because it’s in my notes.)
Here is Daniel 1:20.
“And [in the end] in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, [the king] found [Daniel and his friends] ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.”
Do you notice anything?
Actually, that has nothing to do with clearing the conscience as a step in trying to avoid doing something wrong.
Why would Gothard even include that reference?
Could it be simply because he needed a verse reference at that point, and he figured we wouldn’t look it up?
If so, he was right. I didn’t look it up. I just jotted it down and kept going, scrawling, “Was there a good relationship with the ones in authority before this situation came on?”
And as I look at that particular handwritten note now, I think of all the many predators and evil people in positions of “authority.” I think of how impossible it would be for these precious, tender souls who are trying to follow Jesus to have a genuinely good relationship with predators.
A man of wisdom would understand this and could communicate it to his followers. After all, it’s in the Bible, in places such as Ezekiel 34, which describes notorious sociopaths and psychopaths in positions of leadership, or the gospels, where Jesus called the scribes Pharisees (“authorities” of sorts) children of their father the devil.
3. Discern [Your Authority’s] Basic Intentions.
When an authority tells you to do something you believe is wrong, I agree that sometimes he or she may think that a wrong path is the way to achieve a good goal.
This is the kind of thing that made me an avid Gothard follower when I was young. He did have some good ideas buried in the cult teachings. (And so many great stories.)
In the case of Daniel, the eunuch in charge (that is, middle management, since he had to answer to the king), said in Daniel 1:10, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.”
The king wanted the young men to present as healthy. The eunuch didn’t want to get into trouble.
Basic intentions expressed. Pretty straightforward.
However, let’s look at where Gothard went with this one.
(Caution: Gothard list ahead.)
- Ask [your authority] what their goals and wishes are.
- Ask them to point out any of your blindspots.
- Discern bigger goals which God may have designed to be accomplished through the situation.
Sure, finding out the authority’s intentions and goals is a good thing.
In the case of Daniel according to the eunuch, the king’s goal was for Daniel to appear healthy.
In the case of a narcissist in “authority,” the goal would likely be for everything to revolve around himself or herself.
In the case of a predator in “authority,” the intention would likely be for the grooming and breakdown of defenses to lead to sexual conquest.
In the case of a trafficker in “authority,” the intention will be power and wealth and I believe, the pleasure that comes from inflicting pain on others.
The intentions and goals are not always good ones, are you tracking with me? Even with those “authorities” who present as godly Christians.
I’m sure my readers could supply many anecdotes that pertain to these Gothard teachings, but Lauren Rose, who is ready to reveal her identity as Jane Doe IV in the Gothard lawsuit, gave me another here:
Bill Gothard wanted me to go to his church, but my dad didn’t want me to, so I told him that. Gothard said something like, “Your dad can’t protect you because he has holes in his umbrella [that sounds so crazy, but you can read more about that here, here, here, and especially here]. You have to listen to me, or Satan will get through to you and destroy you.”
Bill Gothard set himself up as perfect. He never did anything wrong. If your authority set themselves up as perfect and never doing anything wrong, then you can’t discern their basic intention, because you’re taught there is no wrong intention, you see what I’m saying?
So Bill Gothard always had a rationale for what he did. He often made young girls tell him extreme details of their horrific childhood sexual assaults because he said it would be healing for them. Someone who experienced this firsthand knew that he was aroused and would stare in lust, but she had to believe what he said, that his intentions were good to help, so she had to silence the inner voice that told her he was lusting, which set her up to be his prey.
And now that you’ve figured out what your authority actually wants to accomplish (which Gothard implies will almost always be stellar, unless said authority needs to be superseded by Gothard himself), it’s time for the next step.
(Caution: Page 2 from the 3-ring binder version of this teaching. With more handwritten notes from moi. Ugh.)
4. Design Creative Alternatives.
Daniel doesn’t want to eat the king’s food, which was verboten for the Jews.
“The king wants you to be healthy,” the eunuch says.
What can we do? What can we do? Hmmm. . . . .
Oh! We can eat something different, some healthful foods!
Well, that was easy! I guess when you follow Bill Gothard’s plans, all of life will be easy like that.
That’s sure what I thought. And it got me designing creative alternatives in my life. But I didn’t design them around authorities who asked me to do wrong, since all the people in my life were more or less safe people. I used them to solve problems. Hmm, let’s try to think outside the box here. Wow, I came up with a great idea to solve this problem because I was thinking of creative alternatives! Bill Gothard is brilliant!
Only . . . his own intention wasn’t like that.
Not at all.
This wasn’t about simple problem solving, remember. It was about finding a way to keep from doing something wrong.
You are continuing to tie yourself in knots.
What creative alternative can I come up with to get out of having to be in the office alone with my predator boss late at night?
What creative alternative can I come up with to get out of being trafficked by my dad?
What creative alternative can I come up with to get out of pouring all of my life into building up this mini-kingdom for my pastor and calling it “volunteering in the service of the Lord”?
Never fear. Bill Gothard has the answers.
(Caution: Gothard list ahead.)
- Remove any resistant spirit in order to be creative.
- Use different situations to expand your frame of reference.
- Gain insights for difficult situations from Proverbs.
- Design an alternative which he will see can reach his goal.
Ohh, one of those “spirits” is raising its head again. I guess the reason I feel absolutely frozen in this situation and can’t think and my vision is closing in on me and I can’t even see anything now and I can’t feel anything either is because I just must have a resistant spirit so all my creativity is shut down. It is. It sure is. No creativity. I can only take orders. I’m just a robot. See, that’s proof that I have a resistant spirit and everything is really all my fault.
I hope you understand that I was using a literary device there called “exposing the hogwash.”
Bill Gothard liked to control where I went on the weekends–I was very controlled. When I wanted to go visit my sister on the weekend, he said no. I felt trapped, so my creative alternative idea was that I would stay behind, but maybe I could host the Bates family instead. This felt like a creative alternative, but it wasn’t really. I was only doing what he wanted me to do anyway.
5. Appeal to Your Authority.
Daniel came up with a plan that he proposed to the eunuch, in Daniel 1:12-13.
“Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.”
That was a good plan. Appealing to Authority must be the way to go, right?
I’d like to observe something here.
As I’ve mentioned twice already, this eunuch was middle management—he wasn’t the one in ultimate authority. The Bible says God gave Daniel favor and compassion in his sight, and he showed himself to be a reasonable person.
Some of Gothard’s ideas (not the ones that tie you in knots) will work with reasonable people.
But the king was not a reasonable person (as is shown later in Daniel), and I’m guessing these ideas may well not have worked if they had been presented to him directly. “Get with the program!” I can hear him snarling.
For Gothard to take ONE example of ONE story in the Bible and then make a Rule out of it, by which you will not be successful if you don’t live by it and you’ll experience the rain of Satan’s darts down through all those holes in your umbrella which will then destroy your life and you’ll drive off a cliff like those young people who listened to rock music . . .
. . . is just culty.
Let’s take a step back from this story of Daniel. Middle management agreed to try this “creative alternative” without asking the top management, the Big Boss, about it, which was a risk for him.
There are many who wouldn’t be willing to take that risk. In FACT, if you were to, say, ask Mom if you can try this thing instead of that thing that Dad told you to do, Mom might be afraid to go against Dad because then she might get out from under Dad’s umbrella, and heaven forbid we get out from under umbrellas, you got me? If Dad were to try something different from what Gothard told him to do, then he might fear experiencing the darts of Satan because that’s what happens when you get out from under an umbrella, you hear what I’m saying?
That eunuch, he was pretty bold to get out from under his umbrella and take matters into his own hands like that. Seems to me like Gothard might be undermining his own teachings there, just a bit, by using that example.
From Lauren Rose’s testimony, it sounds like the concept of “appealing” didn’t apply simply in cases of wanting to avoid doing something you believe is wrong.
I had to make appeals to Gothard about everything. I couldn’t disobey him, because then I might be out from under his umbrella, so he had complete control over my life.
6. Give God Time to Change His [Your Authority’s] Mind.
So, when you’ve been asked/told to do something wrong, according to Mr. Authority, you really can’t just say “No.” You need to wait for your authority’s mind to change.
How long should you wait? That’s a murky question, but you can certainly have some expectations, according to Gothard.
(Caution: Gothard list ahead.)
- Expect God to bring outside pressure on the authority.
- Expect him to respond with extra pressure on you.
- Realize that God will use his pressure for our ultimate benefit.
- Build right responses which will be a basis for his changed decision.
The reference in Daniel is to the steward following through on Daniel’s request, to try the veggies for ten days.
Which of course doesn’t have anything to do with that list you just read (or skipped, according to your pleasure).
No, the Daniel story isn’t lining up too well with the 7 Steps. So for this one, Gothard parachutes down to the Israelites in Egypt.
They sure did follow through with the 7 Steps super well.
Yeah, no, they didn’t (1) check their attitudes, they didn’t (2) clear their consciences, they didn’t (3) discern their authority’s basic intentions.
Actually, yes, I believe they did. Their authority wanted to work them to death for his own glory. Basic intentions right there.
They didn’t (4) design creative alternatives. Moses just kept saying, “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Let my people go!’”
They didn’t (5) appeal to their authority. No appeal. Just orders from God.
So far it’s not looking too good for the story of the Israelites in Egypt matching up with Gothard’s teaching about 7 Steps of Action When Asked to Do Something You Think Is Wrong.
They match up with this one! Step #6!
In fact, they match up with it perfectly! My hand-scrawled note says, “The Israelites left Egypt rich and strong instead of poor and weak because it was in God’s timing. They left only after having been given permission by the authority.”
God did in fact bring “extra pressure” on Pharaoh in the form of the ten plagues. I cannot deny it. The pressure became so intense that eventually he ordered the Israelites out.
Whoops, he later changed his mind and wanted them to go back to slavery again, but they just plain didn’t go, which doesn’t fit so well with Gothard’s Steps of Action.
Could it be that Gothard came up with these Steps of Action out of his own head to put all the burden on the one being told to do something wrong and to turn everyone’s eyes away from the one demanding the wrong?
Because if so, from testimonies I’ve heard and read, it worked like a charm.
The text then says,
Only when the above six steps have been fully applied, are we Scripturally ready for step number seven. In my experience, I have met very few who have actually been called upon to take it.
I shake my head at his use of that word “Scripturally.” Aside from his isolated examples that don’t follow through, there was nothing Scriptural about this list. It is his own made-up list.
7. Suffer for Not Doing What Is Wrong.
Funny, he spoke with such confidence that when you do those Six Steps, they’ll work. But now he says there may come a point where you’ll have to take a stand and refuse to do wrong.
But I don’t understand how we’re supposed to be able to get to #7, since Steps 1-6 are designed (it seems) to keep us stuck.
Here are his examples of those who suffered for not doing wrong:
- Disciples were to be willing to be rejected by family rather than to deny Christ (Matthew 10:32-39).
- Disciples were to proclaim the Gospel even when forbidden by government officials and religious leaders (Acts 4:19).
- Daniel was willing to be killed rather than cease his worship of God to worship the king (Daniel 6:12-16).
I didn’t give you a caution there because these are legit. These really are in the Bible. (Do you notice how, unlike the other lists, he actually has Scripture references for these?)
Well, what do you know. What have we here?
Daniel was willing to be killed rather than cease his worship of God to worship the king. Here’s the Scripture, Daniel 6:12-16. It will be familiar to anyone who went to Sunday school.
Then they came near and said before the king, concerning the injunction, “O king! Did you not sign an injunction, that anyone who makes petition to any god or man within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?” The king answered and said, “The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Then they answered and said before the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or the injunction you have signed, but makes his petition three times a day.”
Then the king, when he heard these words, was much distressed and set his mind to deliver Daniel. And he labored till the sun went down to rescue him. Then these men came by agreement to the king and said to the king, “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no injunction or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed.”
Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!”
So, Bill Gothard, where did Daniel check his attitude about THIS? He didn’t do it the first time; maybe he did it here? Where is it, hmm?
It’s not there. It’s absolutely not there. Daniel isn’t investigating his heart for any sinful “spirit” that might be propelling him to pray in public. Which means he can’t follow through with Step 2.
No. Not there.
No discerning of his authority’s basic intentions, either.
Not even designing creative alternatives or appealing to his authority or giving God time to change his authority’s mind.
He leaped over all those steps and went straight to Step 7, “Suffering for Not Doing Wrong” (aka suffering for doing right).
I feel like I’m watching the “7 Steps of Action” crumble before my very eyes.
But what about the disciples in Matthew 10 and Acts 4?
They didn’t follow through with the Gordian-knot Steps either? No, they didn’t. In Acts 4, they were doing right, they were told to stop, they said they wouldn’t, and they were gladly willing to suffer for proclaiming the gospel.
Wow, how straightforward can you get?
Could it be because those “authorities” actually had selfish or even evil intent?
Why didn’t you address that, Bill Gothard?
He was good at creating this stuff to sound Christianese because this is like someone dying for the faith. You should never disobey your authority unless you’re ready to die for Christ. You’re not allowed to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow the Holy Spirit. Your authority is your “holy spirit.” Your authority is your god in your life. This is demonstrated through every one of these steps.
Let’s be very clear about this. Bill Gothard appears to have designed these “7 Steps,” which are core to his other teachings, without reference to the Scriptures. Then he looked for stories or Scriptures he could tweak one way or another to support his individual points, and if they weren’t there, he just forced something in and acted compelling enough that you wouldn’t notice.
Classic eisegesis, accomplished with a beguiling “attitude” and the appearance of a “humble spirit.” And how much more spiritual can you get than that?
With the many thousands of souls it entangled, it worked amazingly well. To entangle a generation of Christians in spiritual bondage.
A New (Un)Twist in the Knot
Well, look at this. “Until the Truth,” a new documentary about survivors of Bill Gothard. (Not to be confused with the Amazon docu-series coming out on June 2nd.)
My friend Lauren Rose is in this one.
Let’s reconsider “Steps of Action When Asked to Do Something You Think Is Wrong.”
If you are powerless at the time of the wrongdoing, if you can’t speak up and take action because of grooming and cult conditioning and trauma, then you speak up when you’re able. And these women have done that.
If you, dear reader, haven’t been ensnared by a mega-cult, you may think, “That would never happen to me.”
But oh yes it could. I stand as one who loved Jesus and wanted to learn the Bible but one who could easily have been trapped and allowed my children to be trapped by him. So many of us were wooed into and ensnared by his teachings.
I’ve been snarky in this article, but honestly, friends, I’m shaking. So much wrong was committed from his teachings, so much horrific evil was covered by it. The implications are severe. God help us.
I pray that at the end of it all, there will be those who can find Jesus anyway, through all the awful muck. And I pray there will be many true Christians who will see, listen, and care.
May we all learn “steps of action” to take when we want to stand for what is right.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.