I was once a student in Bill Gothard’s ATI (Advanced Training Institute) homeschool program. More specifically, I was raised in ATI from first grade until I finished school at age 16.
At the time, I thought ATI was great. The Wisdom Booklets (our curriculum) were interesting; I learned to know other ATI students who were good friends; the conferences and seminars were fun and interesting. Not only that, but we were part of an elite group of homeschoolers who were superior to all non-ATIers. We were receiving a superior education, and we were going to change the world.
But by 2005, our family had been seeing, for the past five or so years, that things were not turning out the way we wanted. Young people were rebelling. Dress standards were dropping. ATI wasn’t quite what it had been when we joined in 1994. Meanwhile, Gothard was cranking out program after program, with ever-glowing promises of what we would learn, and newsletter after newsletter about how God was doing marvelous things through ATI and its parent organization, Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
It was early 2005 when I finally went to my first Basic Seminar. Previously, all the Basic Seminars in our area had been too far away, but now one was held close enough for our whole family to attend. I diligently filled out the blank spaces in my workbook, trying to remember everything that Gothard was saying. (I was a little annoyed when I got my textbook toward the end of the week, and discovered that it contained everything that I had been busy writing down.)
Beside me, my dad, who had attended several Basic Seminars in the past, was growing suspicious about Gothard’s use of Scripture. Toward the end of the week, he brought his laptop and started looking up the Scriptures that Bill was referencing onscreen but not quoting. They turned out not to be as supportive as Gothard had wanted us to believe. He began having some questions about things that Gothard was teaching.
We left ATI that year. Slowly, we lost some respect for ATI and Gothard, but their teachings still permeated our beliefs and practice–especially me. ATI was all I had ever really known. I had grown up with its curriculum, and the teachings and mindset were all around us in the homeschool community: Courtship. Do things as a family. Youth-only interaction is dangerous. Guys don’t talk to girls. Girls stay at home until they marry. There were some ideas I didn’t even question. Why should I question them? I had no reason to think differently.
And then, in late 2013 and early 2014, the story broke. Bill Gothard wasn’t a Godly man; he was a liar, fraud, deceiver, and sexual predator. People weren’t getting the results he had glowingly promised. He had lied to us about how well the programs were working. He had been doing disgusting things that we would never have dreamed he would do.
The Emperor had no clothes.
That shook me to the core, because Gothard’s teachings were part of my core beliefs. As I examined the evidence, I found that there were many things I believed that were not true. So what WAS true? I wasn’t sure.
One thing stood as a solid rock through this turbulent time: God was true and faithful. I had seen Him work many times, and I realized that He was confirming what He had been teaching us previously through failures in the Mennonite church: rules and doctrines of men don’t produce righteous people. On the contrary, they drive people away from God. (You can read more of my story at Six Years Later.)
But as I saw all the negative ways that ATI had affected me, I felt like a victim. I became afraid that some other false teaching or wrong idea would hurt me and turn me away from God and cause consequences in my life. In addition, the wrong ideas and mindset had led me to make many mistakes in how I handled life. I thought I was permanently scarred. I would never have the life that I could have had if I had only been taught correctly from the beginning.
Secretly, I think I was a little upset with God. I knew better than to blame Him for the way He had led our family, because I knew that His ways are always best. So I blamed my parents instead. I was nothing but a product of a bad system, and now I needed them to make a good system to change me into what I needed to be.
And then, one day, God changed my perspective. “You’re not a victim,” He said. “You are a graduate. I put you in ATI to learn the things that you needed to learn there, and when you were finished, I took you out. I did not let anything happen that is going to harm you long-term.”
He showed me that my singleness was not a punishment for bad behavior, but that I had needed to remain single, living at home, so I could learn the lessons that He had me to learn. The things that had happened to me, the wrong ideas and mindsets, the relationships I hadn’t had and the places I hadn’t gone–they were all part of my training about the terrible consequences of following men instead of God.
You see, so many times, when people want to live for God and not like the world, they run straight for conservatism and commandments of men. ATI was a prime example. There were many first-generation Christian parents who wanted something better for their children than the sinful lifestyles they had experienced without Christ. Along came Bill Gothard, saying “Follow me, and your family is guaranteed to turn out as wonderful, Godly people!”
But it doesn’t work. Oh, sure, it “works” for some–at least for a while. But for those who you don’t hear about in the glowing reports, it causes all sorts of problems and sin.
My dad was in his fifties when he learned about these problems. I, on the other hand, got an early, forceful education about not following men and adding to God’s Word. I now have the opportunity to help people throughout the rest of my life with the things that I have learned.
God has promised: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) I have a choice: I call myself a victim, God a liar, and refuse to believe that God has a purpose in my training; or I can accept God’s words, trust in His purpose, and seek to use what He has taught me.
By saying that I am not a victim, I do not mean in any way to downplay or minimize the true victims of ATI–those whose abusive parents used the teachings of Gothard to abuse their children physically, emotionally, spiritually and/or sexually. I am so sorry that those people–including some of the ATI students I knew–had to go through what they did.
But for the rest of us–those whose parents were just trying to do what was best for us and give us a superior education–say it with me:
“I am not an ATI victim. I am an ATI Graduate!”