Comparing the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement (YRRM) with the Bill Gothard Phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s
Several times here and elsewhere (mostly in responses to comments and questions) I have compared the rise and influence of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement largely inspired by John Piper with the Bill Gothard movement of the 1970s and 1980s. I would like to explain and qualify that comparison here.
First, I want to make clear that my comparison has nothing whatever to do with alleged misconduct on the part of Gothard. I have no knowledge about that other than what I read and I don’t have any opinion about whether the allegations and accusations are true. This is simply not of interest to me as a theologian and commentator on American religion. My comparison of the YRRM , the popularity of the “new Calvinism” (which isn’t really new) especially among millennials, with the Gothard ministry and movement especially throughout the 1970s and 1980s is unrelated to the controversy that apparently led to Gothard’s recent resignation from the ministry he founded.
Second, I want to make clear that the only point of my comparison is to explain, based solely on my own observations and opinion, the extreme popularity of the “new Calvinism” and the passion displayed by many of its leaders and followers.
I am often asked for my opinion about what appears to be a kind of fanaticism about Calvinism among YRRM people. “How do you explain it?” is the common question asked when I talk about it (which I often do because I’m invited).
So here is what people apparently mean by that question: What explains the apparently new phenomenon of religious fervor for a particular religious-theological point of view among so many young people such that many of them cannot seem to tolerate any alternative view and feel they must convert everyone they meet to their particular, newly-discovered theology? Of course that description is not true of everyone affiliated with the YRRM. However, its seeming sudden rise and the passion associated with it appear to many people to be something inexplicable and bewildering.
Whenever I remind people around my own age who were alive and evangelical in the 1970s about the “Bill Gothard phenomenon” (that’s all I have to say) the light goes on and they say something like “O, yes…I remember that now” and they express agreement with my comparison.
The following of Bill Gothard formed something akin to a cult in the 1970s. (Here I mean “cult” not in the popular sense of “dangerous sect” but in the sense of a somewhat cohesive group of otherwise disparate people who coalesce to follow a charismatic “guru” figure, believe whatever he or she says, and argue vociferously against anyone who dares to raise any objections or even cautions about the person’s leadership or teachings.) I knew many people who drove hundreds of miles many times to attend Gothard’s “Basic Youth Conflicts” and other weekend and weeklong seminars. Many of them brought up the subject at every possible opportunity and told me in no uncertain terms that if I did not attend a Gothard seminar and learn from him I was “missing out spiritually” and was doomed to suffer the consequences (viz., a life filled with unnecessary conflicts).
One of the ideas Gothard promoted was authority including a principle some (if not Gothard himself) called “God’s chain of command.” Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s I heard numerous sermons about that concept. The idea seemed to be that everyone finds himself or herself in a chain of command set up by God and ought to obey the authority of those in God’s chain of command above him or her. (Gothard’s books could only be obtained by attending a seminar which I never did so I had to rely on reports by those who did attend and in Christian publications such as Christianity Today and Eternity. The people I knew who had Gothard’s books would not even loan them to me. They told me they were instructed at the seminars not to do so—that people would misuse the books and teachings unless they attended a seminar.)
The emphasis of the Gothard movement seemed to be authority and obedience. When I was in college I heard several chapel sermons based on Gothard’s “gospel.” During a time of student unrest the college administration brought to chapel a disciple of Gothard who preached to us about “God’s Chain of Command.” He used very little Scripture but quoted Gothard much and insisted that, as students, we were not permitted by God to question our teachers or college administrators or trustees or denominational leaders. We were to pray for them and never question anything they did or said.
But my point is not so much about Gothard’s teachings (or how his followers interpreted them) but about the phenomenon surrounding Gothard and his teachings. Among conservative evangelicals it was nearly impossible to avoid conversations about Gothard and his teachings and his followers. And those conversations often, even usually, turned into arguments insofar as a person expressed doubts or qualms about the teachings and the devotion Gothard’s followers displayed.
Let me be clear. This was not happening in a corner of the evangelical world; the Gothard phenomenon swept through American evangelicalism like a hurricane. Why? My own conclusion is that the whole thing was an overreaction to the social chaos of the 1960s. The sexual revolution, the “hippie” phenomenon (including “free love” and open use of drugs), riots in American cities, the anti-war movement which sometimes became violent, assassinations of leading public figures, the open questioning of every value of 1950s American society—all shocked many people in the U.S. to the point that they were wide open to a new emphasis on authority and order and Gothard offered that to them wrapped in the Christian flag.
Many of Gothard’s devotees strongly implied that anyone who questioned his teachings was implicitly promoting social anarchy and chaos and especially youth rebellion. A few public evangelical voices dared to raise questions about the teachings and about Gothard himself. One was well-known and influential Christian writer Joseph Bayly who wrote many evangelical books and a monthly column in Eternity magazine. Bayly dared to raise questions to Gothard in his Eternity column—challenging Gothard to come out and answer questions and accusations publicly. Bayly cited many examples of people influenced by Gothard who abused those under their authority—husbands abusing wives and children and defending the abuse by saying that they were over those they abused in “God’s chain of command.” (Neither Bayly nor anyone else I know of actually accused Gothard of condoning that; the point was that without strong qualifications and warnings the teaching of God’s chain of command would naturally be abused and one should expect that and guard against it.)
Gothard’s influence began to wane in the 1980s, but his teachings entered into the fabric of conservative Christianity in America—especially in and through the home schooling movement. (Again, I am not saying that all home schoolers or their curricula or pedagogy are influenced by Gothard or his teachings; I am only saying that some were and are.)
Anyone familiar with the YRRM should see certain sociological parallels between it and the Gothard movement of the 1970s. Both are centered around the teachings of a charismatic personality. Both respond to a deeply felt need among Christians. (The felt need the YRRM responds to is that of a thicker, richer theology than most churches provide.) The leaders of both offer relatively simple and yet seemingly profound answers to contemporary questions. Both are solidly within orthodox Christianity and so cannot be attacked as heretical. On the other hand, both foster a kind of fanaticism about the central message such that outsiders are made to feel less spiritual, if not less Christian, than those “in the know.” The leaders of both can legitimately deny consciously or willingly promoting the extremes to which some of their followers take their messages. Both have critics who sympathize with the basic, underlying message but believe the movements are too one-sided, overly focused on a part of the message, take the message to extremes.
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