Fake Miserable People: IBLP & the Gospel

Earlier this month, the docuseries Shiny Happy People dropped on Amazon Prime. According to Amazon, it has set the record for views of any Prime-released docuseries. This docuseries deals with the celebrity Duggar family and the "ministry" of Bill Gothard, the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) that motivated their unique lifestyle. The celebrity status of the Duggar family along with the pervasive influence of Gothard's teaching in evangelicalism have made this a powerful and important documentary. 

The series uncovers the rampant abuse that happened within IBLP and as a result of Gothard's teachings. It tells the heart-rending stories of people whose lives and souls have been wrecked by a toxic brew of false teaching, abusive authority, and institutional power. Though I'm thankful that Bill Gothard's evil is finally being exposed, my heart breaks for the many who were spiritually and sexually abused as a result of his distorted teachings. 

My concern in this post is not to critique the show but to offer an evaluation of Gothard's teachings that fueled so much of the abuse and brokenness highlighted in Shiny Happy People. Matthew 7:15-20 tells us that any teacher's ministry should be evaluated by its fruit. In Gothard's case, the fruit includes dozens of credible accusations of sexual abuse, the collapse of an evangelical empire, and tens of thousands of young people whose faith in God has been destroyed, and many many others who continue to grapple with legalism. 

I personally have experienced IBLP's teachings first hand. As a teenager, I attended the Basic Seminar multiple times. I subsequently went through the Advanced Seminar at least twice. At various points in my homeschooling experience, our family used the "Wisdom Booklets.” I attended a handful of ATI Conferences, went through the Children's Institute, and did ALERT Cadets a couple of times. While our exposure to Gothard’s curriculum waxed and waned over the years, Gothard’s influence was quite strong my life at various stages.

In offering this critique, I’m not attacking my upbringing or my family. Indeed, it was my Dad’s faithful teaching of Scripture in the home that gave me the tools to question the Biblical fidelity of Gothard’s teachings. I’m immensely thankful for that. I’m also not critiquing homeschooling in general. There’s a vast difference between academically serious approaches to homeschooling and the bizarre version of it championed by Gothard. While my experience included limited aspects of Gothard’s approach, I received an outstanding education in spite of these supplemental elements.

With all that out of the way, what did Gothardism get wrong? I will contend in this piece that Gothard distorted Christianity, Authority, Scripture, Grace, Holiness, and the Gospel. The results of these distortions have been devastating in the lives of many. 

Gothard Distorted Christianity

Gothardism is similar to Christianity in the way that a caricature resembles a photograph. What is large is made small and what is small is made large. What is emphasized in Scripture such as divine grace and the saving work of Jesus, is minimized, though not fully erased, in Gothard’s teaching. Similarly, while it is true that historical Christianity of all stripes has universally taught the sanctity of life, sexual purity, the goodness of rightly ordered authority, and the beauty of gender distinctions, Gothard’s presentation of these features is horribly distorted. In his hand, sanctity of life becomes an unhealthy obsession with reproduction (“Quiverfull”), sexual purity becomes oppressive rather than freeing, authority becomes absolutist, and gender becomes a matter of power and control rather than complementary beauty. 

The very fact that these teachings are distortions of the Christian message is what makes them so dangerous. An ax in the wrong hands can amputate limbs, and truth distorted destroys lives. Ugliness is nothing more than beauty distorted, and heresy–as Gothard himself said!–is often little more than truth out of balance. His system is a living example of such out-of-balance distortions. 

Gothard Distorted Authority

The Basic Seminar purports to teach the non-negotiable universal principles of Scripture. What it actually did was present Gothard's novel interpretations of isolated verses, run through the grid of his personal experience. 

One of the most famous and foundational aspects of Gothard's teaching was the so-called umbrella of authority. If you stay under your God-given authority, Satan will not be able to attack you. If you venture out, you'd be whacked. Gothard taught that God would never lead you to do something that went against your parents–even if you were an adult or they were non-Christians. 

Want to be a missionary but your atheist parents are against it? Can't be God's will!
Want to get married? Well, your parents better arrange that marriage for you (courtship). Gothard's teaching on authority essentially neutered the Bible's teaching of the priesthood of the believer, putting parent between child and God, and mediating divine guidance through them. 

While Scripture does teach the goodness of authority, it does not present it like Gothard did. The Bible calls for us to "honor father and mother," but it also recognizes the limits of authority as being under the Word of God. Nowhere does Scripture teach that any human authority is absolute nor does it teach that authority mediates the will of God. 

It's not hard to see how a system that teaches young people to never question authority, to always obey authority would lead to rampant abuse at the hands of authority figures. Gothard’s extreme views on authority, coupled with his complete prohibition of any kind of sexual education created a culture in which naive young people would be readily victimized. 

Gothard Distorted Scripture

The authoritarian patriarchy of IBLP was a direct result, in my judgment, of Gothard's functional rejection of Sola Scriptura. When the Bible ceases to be the authority, something or someone else will fill the void. While Gothard no doubt would happily subscribe to any evangelical statement of faith and claim the Bible as his absolute authority, his teachings show otherwise. Gothard rejected Biblical authority in several ways. 

First, he misused Scripture. 

I remember vividly sitting through the Basic Seminar and hearing Gothard claim that, at the bottom of all our failures, was our resistance to God's grace. To back this up, he "quoted" Hebrews 12:15 as saying "Beware lest any of you resist the grace of God." That's not what the verse says. That's not what the verse means. That’s not what the Greek means. I was taught well by my parents; this seemingly small issue raised an early red flag in my soul. To be sure, Gothard’s seminars were peppered with Scripture quotations, but rarely in context. They were simply the backfilling to support his conclusions.  

To support his infamous umbrella of authority teaching, Gothard appealed to Jesus' healing of the centurion's servant in Luke 7:1-10. A quick read of that this account reveals that the point of the story is Christ's authority over disease–not a the basis for the umbrella of authority. The centurion’s faith is seen in his staggering recognition that Jesus could simply speak the word from a distance and heal. He can command disease from a distance like a centurion commands his soldiers. In short, this pagan centurion confessed Christ’s divine power. It's not a lesson in human authority. To make it that is to miss the point entirely. 

Second, he misinterpreted Scripture. 

More insidiously, Gothard regularly appealed to obscure segments of the Mosaic Law to prove his points. For example, he argued against mixing dairy and meat on the basis of the Mosaic Law. He advocated for circumcision on the same basis. He treated Deuteronomy 28’s covenant curses and blessings as being applicable to NT Christians. He maintained that a woman was complicit in rape if she failed to audibly "cry out," based on the Mosaic Law's stipulation to that effect. Women's spiritual lives were under the control of their husbands on the basis of the Mosaic Law's provision for a man to void a wife's oath. I'm sure other examples could multiply other examples. I'm going purely on memory. 

To put it clearly, Gothardism is nothing more than the Galatian heresy revisited. Basic to New Testament Christianity is the fact that we are under the New Covenant, not the Old. Jesus kept and fulfilled the OT Law, if not in its entirety, at least in its ceremonial and civil aspects. To place this yoke on Christians is to place on them a burden that Christ acted to remove. This misuse of Scripture on Gothard's part is no small quibble. It is sub-Christian. For a self-proclaimed Bible teacher to get this most basic matter wrong is disqualifying. 

Third, he subjectified Scripture. 

While Gothard gave lip service to the Protestant principle of "one meaning and many applications," in practice, he taught that Scripture could indeed mean something other than its inspired meaning. He claimed that, by memorizing and meditating on Scripture, one could receive rhemas, which he regarded as personal insights into the Bible's meaning that couldn't be gleaned by the normal process of grammatical-historical interpretation. This arbitrary division between logos and rhema, while being linguistically baseless (the two terms are synonymous in Greek), opens the door to even the wildest interpretations of Scripture. It allows the teacher to claim "thus saith the LORD" when the LORD has not spoken. 

At many points, Gothard would substantiate his assertions, not with Biblical exegesis, but with personal anecdote. "Years ago, a woman approached me...." Because his teaching supposedly yielded results in people's lives, it had to be true! This is naked pragmatism, no better than the worst techniques of the most seeker-sensitive churches. He told fantastic stories about casting out demons, of having a woman heal him of back pain, and seeing lives changed by following his principles. Scriptural exegesis can be critiqued. Personal experiences cannot. And that's the point. 

IBLP and ATI spun out numerous resources that did theology by analogy. The Character Sketches tried to teach Christlike character, not by appealing to Christ, but to beavers and owls and ants. While there's value in illustrations, illustrations are just that--illustrations, not proofs. 

The end result of this hermeneutic of personal experience and theology by analogy is the practical denial of Biblical authority. Either inspired Scripture is completely sufficient to fully furnish God’s people to live for God’s glory (II Timothy 3:16-17) or it isn’t. If rhemas, anecdotes, and analogies are also needed, then Scripture is not sufficient. Who needs the Bible if personal experience will tell you the truth? I remember, even as a gullible teenager, thinking that Gothard's use of Scripture was suspect. I suppressed these thoughts, because, after all, "He's a super godly saint, and look at all the people who've been helped by applying his teachings!" 

Fourth, he subverted Scripture. 

In Mark 7:1-13, Jesus blasts the Pharisees for practically rejecting the law of God by elevating their human interpretations and applications to the level of Scripture. This is precisely what Gothard's system did. He presented extra-biblical applications as Biblical truths. "This is God's way of raising your kids/doing courtship/choosing clothing/evaluating music etc." 

The fact of the matter is that much of what followed was Gothard's own opinion, salted with various levels of Biblical content. Some of what he said was helpful. Much of it wasn't. All of it was presented as coming from God. 

Whatever you think about rock music, there is nothing in the Bible to sustain the notion that the melody aligns with the spirit, the harmony with the soul, and the beat with the body. That's nothing more than mystical conjecture taught as gospel truth. 

Whatever dangers exist in approaches to dating, there is nothing in the Bible that teaches "courtship" is God's ordained method for all people of all time to find a spouse. It was a cultural practice that is nowhere commanded in Scripture. To be sure, the Bible does give plenty of teaching that should inform dating and marriage, but it does not provide a foolproof formula. 

In his quest for certainty, Gothard killed Christian liberty and executed Biblical authority. Could it be that God says nothing about music styles because he gives us liberty to listen to various different styles? Could it be that the Bible does not mandate a method of finding a spouse because Christianity is transcultural and is designed to speak into numerous cultural and relationship models? Could it be that the Bible leaves large areas of life open to the sanctified use of wisdom in the context of love for God and neighbor? 

I was quite jarred when I first read Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8. I was conditioned to expect all of life to fall into black and white categories, not Romans 14’s world of differing practices, Christian liberty, and charitable disagreement. Christians really can legitimately come to differing yet God-honoring conclusions on a whole host of issues, from diet to dress to drinking to entertainment. 

With Gothard set up as the end-all be-all of Biblical teaching, his adherents followed him with cult-like zeal. At his conferences, he received standing ovations. Families left, ready to completely change their lifestyle to conform to his message. The fact that tens of thousands of homeschool families spend huge sums of money they likely needed for other things to drive to Big Sandy, Sacramento, or Knoxville every year for a week should've raised red flags. 

Gothard Distorted Grace

At the heart of Christian theology is God's grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 2:11-14). It has been historically regarded as God's generosity, His gift of unmerited favor to the utterly undeserving. It is an attribute of God and a gift of God. It's not a human work and cannot be connected to human works in any way. 

Gothard, however, re-defined grace as "The power and desire to do God's will." While it's true that God's grace has a life-altering effect in the hearts of His people (see Ephesians 2:8-10), this is not the definition of grace. To define it this way is to confuse the fruit with the root, the cart with the horse, the effect with the cause. 

In essence, it effectively perverts grace into works. Grace now becomes about what you do. It's about how you act. And since grace, in his system, was resistible, any failure to see the results Gothard promised was not the fault of his system, but your lack of effort or your resistance to God's grace. Grace, rather than bringing divine forgiveness to the undeserving, saddled saints with a great burden of works, grievous to be borne. 

Many alumni of Gothard’s teaching report feelings of guilt and fear at the most minor of supposed infractions. Didn’t read your Bible long enough today? You might fail this afternoon’s test! Didn’t confess every possible sin in your prayer journal this morning? You might fall off the horse when you go riding later. Did the pipes burst while you were on vacation? That’s because you weren’t giving enough money to the church. 

In contrast to this fear-based approach to Christianity, Scripture declares that “you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba Father.’” Rather than the uncoerced cry of ‘Abba Father,’ many labored under the coerced cry of “do more.” 

Gothard Distorted Holiness

The true litmus test for spirituality in Gothard's system was not the fruit of the Spirit, but was adherence to a lengthy list of external markers: not listening to rock music (very very important!), dressing modestly (no pants on women), having as many children as is humanly possible, avoiding “worldliness” (a frustratingly vague category that captured anything suspect), and unquestioning submission to all authority. If you did not do these things, your spirituality was suspect, and vice versa.

I remember at Gothard's conferences, certain families would be presented as the model for all the rest of us to follow. We'd then go home and try to copy it. One family got up and all sang in matching outfits, next thing we knew, we were all singing in matching outfits. One of the more bizarre memories I have is of Gothard presenting a stage full of families who'd decided to undergo vasectomy reversals and have more kids. You’d think that such things would be highly personal. 

But that was the ideal. Have as many kids as possible, homeschool them, and take over the world. 

Now, it's true that Psalm 127 celebrates children as God's blessings and Genesis 1:26-28 pronounces God's blessing in connection with having children. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a blessed command. Life is a gift. Children are a blessing. But it does not follow from these passages that non-abortive birth control is always wrong or that having a big family is always a sign of greater faith. Just because something is good and is a gift does not mean we must maximize it.  

When holiness becomes a matter of externals, then sin learns to fester in the darkness. Satan cares not whether we sin by way of self-righteous sin or self-assertive sin. If I had to venture a guess, sin of the self-righteous variety has sent many more to hell than the latter. 

I confess that this engrained emphasis on externals helped me develop a very judgmental and legalistic mindset in my own heart–one I’m even now still fighting. When I went to college, I looked down on anyone who listened to thumpy music, read the ESV, or wasn't homeschooled. I was convinced that any deviation on matters of dress, music, and translation indicated an underlying spiritual disease. 

I was righteous. They were not.   

However, these assumptions got blown out of the water. I started to meet people who listened to music I didn't care for or read from translations I didn't prefer–and they were more evangelistic, humble, and Christlike than me. They cared about the stuff the Bible actually said. Plus, they weren't stuck-up legalists running around judging everyone like I was. My system fueled my sinful pride and self-righteous older-brother-syndrome (see Luke 15). My pride over extra-biblical standards was quite sinful. I’m still repenting.

Although I came to saving faith at a young age, thanks to my parents' faithful discipline and teaching, I didn't really understand the gospel's centrality for all of life until I was in seminary. True, I had heard the gospel and believed when I was five. But by and large, my Christian life was one of self righteous attainment and belief in my own superiority over my siblings, classmates, and friends. I would have been good company with the infamous Pharisee in the temple.  

While I was in seminary, as I was studying the book of Romans, the great paragraph of Romans 3:21 to 31 completely wrecked me. It showed me that every last bit of my standing before God is by grace alone; by grace, and absolutely nothing else. 

I had always known this...but I didn't grasp it until then. By and large, I regarded conversion/justification as a matter of grace through faith, but all the rest was about following the system. The gospel is the engine of the Christian life, the very soul of it all. The perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, ongoing sessions, and coming glory of Christ is everything. To paraphrase Jerry Bridges, not a day goes by in which I am beyond the need of God’s grace, and not a day goes by in which I am beyond the reach of God’s grace. 

May my confession ever be that, by the grace of God, I am what I am. Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost. 

Gothard Distorted the Gospel

While it was cloaked in the trappings of very conservative Christianity–high necklines, low hemlines, no rock music, coats and ties–Gothardism is, in my estimation, a species of prosperity gospel. Instead of promising a gaudy lifestyle of cars and financial success, it promised a godly lifestyle of perfect children and divine blessing, all granted in exchange for carefully following a formula of obedience. 

While it's true that Gothard would include a gospel presentation on one of the nights of the Basic Seminar, it was a tacked on presentation (by the way, Joel Osteen does the same thing). Gothard's system would still "work" if you followed it, with or without Jesus. It was more about effort and formula than worship and faith. Any system in which Jesus is an optional appendage is not a gospel system. It's moralism, plain and simple. 

Thus, for example, Gothard taught that if you meditated on Scripture day and night, you would experience success in every endeavor, including academics, business, and finances. While it is true that Psalm 1 promises that "whatsoever thou doest shall prosper," we make a hermeneutical misstep to fill that promise out with material success. Further, it reduced God to a puppet and made man the puppet master. I could control the outcome by following the process. 

Struggling with temptation? Just quote Romans 6 to yourself and temptation will magically fly away! I tried it many times...and it didn't work, in spite of my best efforts and sincerest hopes. Gothard's system was comprehensive. Some have compared it to a Christian Talmud. He had the answers for everything from infertility to debt, a system to cover all of life for his followers, removing all the guesswork out and guaranteeing the outcomes–and removing any semblance of Christian liberty (see Romans 14)  

So what if it didn't work for you? 

Well, it's because you lack faith or commitment. The system is foolproof. 

One individual noted, “Gothardism is a lethal dose of both legalism and prosperity gospel. Individuals who were touched by this lethal double dose are left under a heavy yoke and filled with buyer’s remorse when they discover that the product they were sold is nowhere near as good as advertised…I can remember as a young adult being resentful that all the ‘blessings’ that were promised from following Gothard’s teaching never came true.”

It does not take a theologian or psychologist to tell you that such thinking will fuel crippling doubt, fear, guilt, and shame. I know more than one person raised in Gothadrism who has walked away from Christianity altogether because "it didn't work." 

The fact of the matter is Christianity is not a system we follow to get the results we want. The Christianity those individuals have rejected is not Christianity, but an insidious counterfeit of human effort. Such a false religion of human merit merits human rejection.  


What can we say about a system that distorts Scripture, grace, holiness, and the gospel? 

It is not Christian.

Such distortions are sub-Christian at best and anti-Christian at worst. While Gothard's teachings did get some matters of Christian teaching correct–there's truth in every lie and similarity in any caricature–they got core matters horrifically wrong. Rather than producing happy shiny people it often produced fake miserable people. Some, like me, were the fakes. We were self-righteous and outwardly conformist. Others were miserable. They bucked against the oppressive rules and buckled under the weight of law placed on their shoulders. 

Some of us were older brothers, and others were younger brothers (see Luke 15). Whichever category you are in, run home, not to a man-made system of rules and regulations, but into the Father's embrace. Run home to find acceptance on the other side of confession, forgiveness beyond repentance, justification through faith. There will be music and dancing, worship and praise, freedom and fellowship, grace and mercy, love and acceptance. 

To those who have labored under the weight of legalism, hear the words of the real Jesus: 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ~Jesus


  1. Thanks for the great article Sam. I can tell by the article that you invested a lot of time and thought into it . Thanks most of all for pointing us to Christ Alone!

  2. Oh my word! So good! Thank you!

  3. Great insight! Thank you for sharing your story and the truth of God’s word.

  4. Pastor Sam, thank you for this insightful post.

  5. Much appreciated.


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