Bill Gothard: A Change of Heart or Still Dishonest?

Recently, Bill Gothard revamped his website. He includes a page titled, “What I Really Teach in the Basic Seminar”. Unfortunately, it seems to show that he is still following a pattern of dishonesty that has characterized him for the last 40 years.

In 1980, as scandal swirled around Gothard’s organization, the staff found that Gothard was not trustworthy. He lied so much that they reportedly had to carry notepads and write down what he said so that they could prove to him that he had said it. Over the years, he has been known to trump up testimonials to make them more glowing than they were. In 2001, he promoted the Sonic Bloom system to thousands of conference attendees, even though it had failed miserably in tests in his own greenhouses.

In 2014, Gothard falsely claimed on his website that a lady had tried to post a pro-Gothard testimonial at Recovering Grace but had been blocked. However, that had never happened. I had personally seen the testimonial when the lady posted it six months earlier.

The question of honesty is very important for the Gothard case. Bill Gothard has claimed that he did not do some of the things that multiple women have accused him of doing. In addition, he supported many of his teachings with testimonies (mostly anonymous) from seminar attendees and others. These testimonies make up the bulk of the proof for many of Gothard’s teachings.

If Gothard is not honest and trustworthy, it casts doubt on whether these testimonies ever happened as Gothard presented them. And, by extension, it casts doubt on the accuracy of his teachings. It also casts great doubt on his claims that he is innocent of the charges against him.

Why Bother Talking About Bill Gothard?

Bill Gothard claims that almost 3 million people have attended his Basic Seminar. These people have gone on to spread the influence of his message to millions more.

Joni Eareckson Tada mentions going to a Basic Seminar in her autobiography Joni. She says the seminar helped her to accept irritations and improve her family relationships.[1]

Gothard’s teachings spread throughout the Mennonite church, shaping the overall mindset of many conservative Mennonites. One of them was Val Yoder, longtime president of Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (SMBI). Yoder homeschooled his children in Gothard’s homeschool program, ATI, exposing him to a lot of Gothard’s teaching. I never went to SMBI, so I can’t say for certain what impact Gothard had on SMBI’s teachings. However, I do know that SMBI taught courtship, Gothard’s parent-supervised replacement for dating. I also know that much of the conservative Mennonite church has adopted the purity culture mindset that Gothard taught.

You may have never heard of Bill Gothard. But in all likelihood, you have probably been taught by someone who was influenced by him. Even though he is basically out of the picture by now, his teachings live on in the lives of those who he taught.

Four False Statements on Bill Gothard’s New Site

1. Changing the Seven Basic Principles

Basic Seminar Textbook

Basic Seminar Textbook

The Seven Basic Principles were the foundation of Gothard’s Basic Seminar. These principles were:

  1. Design: accepting the way God has made you.
  2. Authority: respecting authorities (family, church, government, and employers) and staying under their “umbrella of protection”.
  3. Responsibility: gaining and keeping a clear conscience.
  4. Suffering: learning to respond with forgiveness to those who offend us.
  5. Ownership: giving everything we own to God and yielding our rights to Him.
  6. Freedom: gaining moral purity through spiritual disciplines.
  7. Success: discovering God’s purpose for your life and gaining spiritual power through meditation on Scripture.

On his new website, however, Gothard re-defines the list of “the seven basic principles that are presented in the Basic Seminar”:

  1. Design
  2. Authority
  3. Responsibility
  4. Suffering
  5. Ownership
  6. Yielding Rights
  7. Moral Purity

Please note that in the Seminar, yielding rights is part of Ownership and moral purity is under Freedom. The Basic Principle of Success has disappeared.

Gothard is no longer teaching the Basic Seminar live. He can’t re-define the Seven Basic Principles without re-teaching the seminar. At least not if he wants to state that they are “the seven basic principles that are presented in the Basic Seminar”.

2. Claiming the Central Message of the Seminar is “Day and Night Meditation”

Bill Gothard quotes an unidentified person as saying that Gothard “arrive[s] on the scene with a message on authority and rules.” Gothard states, “This is a total distortion and misrepresentation of the Basic Seminar message. The central message is ‘day and night meditation.’”

But Gothard only taught day and night meditation in the seventh principle (Success) and at the end of the principle of Freedom. He did present it as “the fountain of true success” [2], and spent a fair amount of time talking about it. But it does not appear to be any more the central message than the principle of authority.

3. Reframing His Message on Authority

Gothard states: “He also equates authority with domination and blind obedience. We teach a totally different concept of authority.” He goes on, in the section on the principle of authority, to explain that authority should function by agape love and that authorities should be “servant examples”.

Basic Seminar Textbook, pg. 26

Page 26 from the Basic Seminar Textbook: parents are essential in determining God’s will. (Click for full size.)

Here’s the problem, though: the Basic Seminar does not teach people how to be authorities. The Basic Seminar teaches people how to be under authority.

In the Basic Seminar, Gothard states that there are eight methods for finding God’s will (Scriptures, government, ministers, circumstances, friends, prayer, father, and mother). He presents the parents as virtually always being correct about God’s will, while the other six are potentially flawed or untrustworthy.[3] Throughout the rest of the section on responsibility and authority, parents are presented as god-like people who can always be trusted to help you discern God’s will, even if they are unbelievers.

Basic Seminar Textbook, page 37


Basic Seminar Textbook, pg. 38 Pages 37 & 38 of the Basic Seminar Textbook: questions on authority (click for full size).

Gothard further teaches that:

  • The parents’ “chain of responsibility” for their children ends when they delegate that authority to someone else—“as in marriage or the ministry”
  • Whatever our age, we must “always be responsive to our parents’ counsel”
  • A single person living by themselves should “be very sure that God has led you to move away from your parents, and that they were fully in harmony with the move”
  • For widows and divorcees, “it would be very essential to build around your life as many godly counselors as you can, especially parents and parents-in-law” (See textbook excerpts on left)

For more on this, see “The Voice of Papa is the Voice of God”.

In short, Gothard’s new explanation of the Basic Seminar totally sidesteps his actual message about authority in the Seminar, while introducing teaching that he never taught in the Seminar.

4. Claiming That He Does Not Teach Rules

Gothard says, “…we do not teach rules. We present universal Biblical principles that all people must follow. I have found that when people understand the principles, they set up their own rules to help them live out the principles.”

The Seminar textbook is full of dogmatic statements from Gothard about what you must do to handle this situation or that problem. This includes numerous multi-step plans that, according to Gothard, must be followed step-by-step or else God will not be happy with us or we will not solve our problems. See the previous section for examples from the section on authority.

In addition, the textbook states: “If you have attended the Basic Seminar, begin working through the Follow-Up Course. This course contains a booklet on each of the principles given during the Seminar and provides the Scriptural basis for each one. The course also gives steps of action to carry out these principles in daily living.” (pg. 9, emphasis mine)

Is “steps of action” synonymous with “rules”? Did Gothard truly teach people to make their own rules from the principles, or did he also give them rules with the principles?

A Message of Shame

One final note: as I paged through the Basic Seminar Textbook while preparing for this post, I noticed that it all revolves around how I can fix situations; what I need to do to be a good person; that problems in my life result from me not taking the correct course of action. And it is presented in a context of shame: if you have problems, you are doing something wrong.

There is a feeling of empowerment from such teaching. If it’s my fault, then I can fix it with Gothard’s steps of action. However, the shaming and blaming of such teaching can also cause great mental and spiritual anguish.

It’s important to note that much of Gothard’s blaming and shaming does not come directly from Scripture. It’s based on his own steps of action. At the same time, much Scripture is used to present these steps of action as God’s commands.

Is Bill Gothard Still Dishonest?

I have presented the evidence above. I think you know my conclusions on this subject, but I will leave you to make up your own mind.

But if Gothard is still dishonest, then he is also still unrepentant, still untrustworthy, and still a false teacher. And if you have listened to his teachings in the past, it behooves you to ensure that you are following God, not Bill Gothard.

 

For more on false teachers, I recommend my new free ebook, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: How to Recognize and Avoid False Prophets.

 

[1] Eareckson, Joni. Joni. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1976

[2] Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 134

[3] Basic Seminar Textbook, p. 26

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