June 25, 2019

What About Bill Gothard and the Local Church?

By Pastor Steven Youngblood

Are the teachings and influence of Bill Gothard upon his followers detrimental to the local church, or do they support and bolster its ministries? And, we might well ask, are the teachings and influence of Gothard detrimental to the ATI disciple, or do they lead him/her to spiritual maturity? As most parachurch ministries claim, Gothard's organization purportedly exists to assist the local church, not to undermine it. However, as the pastor of a small local church for the past twenty years, it has been my experience that Gothard's ministry functions as a "suprachurch" (above the church) ministry rather than a parachurch (alongside of) ministry.

What do I mean by that? Those who are thoroughly committed to Bill Gothard's teachings via the seminars and homeschooling materials entrench themselves in a lifestyle that impacts every avenue of their lives, and that includes their assessment of the local church and its leadership. Just as a premillennialist or a postmillennialist will interpret eschatological passages from their respective viewpoints, based largely upon their studies from books that endorse their own mindset, so ATIers view the teachings, philosophies, and practices of their local church by the indoctrinations that they have encountered in various seminars and booklets that Gothard's organization provides for its membership.

And make no mistake about it, the ATI adherent will bring all of his seminar "baggage" with him to the local church he is a member of. Yea, because of his implicit trust in the seeming wisdom of Gothard's teachings on both family and church life, he will filter and scrutinize the activities and leadership of the pastor on the basis of everything that he has previously learned from Gothard. If the pastor happens to teach anything that remotely contradicts something taught by Gothard or his materials, guess who gets questioned about his teachings? Not Gothard, but the pastor! It is assumed a priori that the pastor is not as learned or as spiritual as Gothard, and thus any teaching by the pastor that contradicts ATI teachings becomes suspect. The reason for this is that the ATI devotee believes that Gothard's teachings are superior to that of the local pastor. In his eyes, the local pastor's differing teachings become suspect since Gothard has a national audience and, therefore, Gothard cannot be wrong. Does not the blessing of God rest upon Gothard's organization? How can the pastor of a small local church compare with such an icon? He can't! At least, not in the eyes of the ATIer.

What is the eventual result in the life of an ATIer who compares the beliefs and practices of the pastor and local church with those he has encountered through ATI materials and teachings? The ATIer himself begins to think that he knows better than the pastor how the ministry ought to function in the local setting, and becomes more and more dissatisfied with the pastor AND anyone else in the membership that fails to implement ATI teachings (such as placing their children in a public school rather than homeschooling). If the pastor and local church go in a different direction than what has been taught by Gothard as the right way, then the disgruntled Gothard disciple eventually begins to look for greener pastures.

So what are the "fruits" evidenced in the lives of ATI disciples in their relationships to others in a local body of believers? The following have been observed by this pastor over the course of almost a decade:

  • A lack of commitment to sound doctrinal teaching taught by the pastor. The main reason for joining a certain local church is not because of devotion to its doctrinal stance, but because of the number of homeschooling families. This is the "bottom-line" reason for uniting with a local church. When an ATI family leaves a local church to join with another fellowship elsewhere, the main question is not, "Does this new church hold to the same doctrinal stance that our previous church did?" No, the new church's doctrinal beliefs may totally contradict those of the former church, but that does not matter as long as the new church has many homeschooled families. Doctrinal distinctives are thrown overboard if the new church seems to be committed to promoting home-schooling.


  • A second fruit is that of apotheosizing Bill Gothard as the final authority in faith and practice, i.e., elevating Gothard to a transcendent position that is unwarranted biblically. Watch the countenances of ATI disciples when you (or they) begin to refer to the ministries of ATI. They really get excited when mention is made of the purported successes obtained through the implementation of the various Gothard ministries. You can see it on their faces. They really do believe that Mr. Gothard's teachings and practices are wonderful. They cannot understand how you cannot see what they see -- Mr. Gothard's discoveries from the Bible, and the implementation of those discoveries in family and church life, are life-changing and heaven-sent. And they cannot stomach the thought that anyone in evangelicalism might write a book exposing Gothard's false hermeneutics, interpretations, and definitions of biblical terms such as "grace." Just as a dedicated Jehovah's Witness will not read any materials contrary to the teachings of the Kingdom Hall, so a dedicated ATIer will not read a book or any materials that reveal the inconsistencies of Gothard's teachings and practices. Such an attack would be considered an affront to the man of God they so highly esteem.  


  • A third result of Gothard's teachings is to cause his disciples to "perform." Because of the man-centered, man-focused teachings found throughout the different seminar settings and writings, the ATI disciples unwittingly begin to perform before others. For example, "How is my smile coming across to others in this room? Do they see the radiant countenance that results from applying Gothard's teachings in my life? Have others noticed that my family dresses in a godly fashion and not like the world? Are others impressed with the mental (or musical) abilities of my children in comparison with other children in the church who are not involved in ATI?" Gothard's yoke of teachings placed upon his disciples cause them to adopt an artificial behavior before others that is robotic and mechanical. Their stilted performance is the direct result of ATI philosophy: "Image is Everything!" They are not at ease around others, perhaps because of fear that they might be contaminated by worldly church members, some of whom may have been divorced or educated publicly or listen to country music or whatever.


  • A fourth fruit flows from the one previously mentioned: a judgmental spirit towards those who do not practice and/or agree with the ATI mindset and philosophy. Gothard's teachings produce Pharisees for the local churches, yet these judgmental ATI adherents seek to give off a persona of humility and meekness. Yea, they want to be known as more godly because of their adoption of Gothard's teachings. But you can easily spot these Pharisees in the local assembly. They are ever seeking opportunities to get old and new families in the church to attend various ATI seminars so that they can "see the light." These Gothard disciples are not content to keep their beliefs on homeschooling and large families to themselves, but must seek to proselyte others to the ATI program. If the local pastor and non-ATI families do not eventually come to believe in the superior teachings and practices of Bill Gothard, then the ATI disciples begin to pull away from them. For example, disgruntled ATI families that leave a local church to find another one that is more spiritual will give the following feedback: "We want to find a church where the families are homeschooled so that our children can interact with other homeschoolers." Perhaps the children who are attending public schools might contaminate their "village" children, those who are being segregated from the evil influences of public schools and the ones who attend those institutions.


  • The development of a captious spirit is another characteristic of devoted ATI disciples. After being around them for awhile, you will discover that they are marked by a disposition to find and point out the most trivial faults of the pastor's family (and other families in the church) that are not ATI-committed. This leads to division in the church --- not over sound doctrine, but over one's failure to view Mr. Gothard as a god-send from heaven for families in the local church. When the non-ATIer seeks to confront the Gothard disciple over any differing issue that contradicts the clear teachings of God's Word, low-and-behold, he quickly discovers that the ATI disciple will seek to entrap him or confuse the argument by putting a "spin" on the issue so as not to have to deal with the main problem. The sad thing is that the "spin doctor" will attack the character of the non-ATIer by denunciation of his past and present actions, thereby throwing him into a defensive mode. Until the confronter realizes the modus operandi of the ATI disciple, he will get sidetracked trying to deal with side issues that have no relevance whatsoever to the main concern. He must realize the deception of the "spin doctor" and bring him back to the real issue.


This pastor's assessment (and many other pastors across this nation would undoubtedly concur) is that Gothard's organization does not promote the health of the local church, but undermines it by causing the ATIers to look outside of the local church to another authority figure (Bill Gothard) to learn what their beliefs and practices ought to be. This truth is easily discovered by simply listening to the Gothard devotees' conversations. They repetitiously state: "Mr. Gothard says..." or "Mr. Gothard teaches..." or "Mr. Gothard believes..." How tragic! Would to God that every Gothard disciple would learn the truth that the Word of God is "the true center of Christian union (not ATI with all of its seminars, workshops, programs, and teachings), and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried." (Quoted from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith)