Reflections on the Bill Gothard Phenomenon and Scandal (and Comparison between that Phenomenon and the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement)
One of the questions most frequently asked about the “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement” (YRRM) is the reason for its popularity. People often ask me why so many young(ish) Christians are attracted to it. After all, to most observers its rise and spread seems inexplicable. Hard-core Calvinism was supposed to be dead and gone except among a few older Reformed people in certain extremely conservative denominations. Then, suddenly, so it seems, thousands upon thousands of seemingly bright young Christians were being swept up into it with passion. The movement became so big that even Time magazine took notice and named “Calvinism” one of the ten big, new ideas influencing the world.
One part of the answer I have often given is to compare the YRRM with an earlier youth-oriented evangelical movement called “Basic Youth Conflicts.” Both seemed to appear and become wildly popular without any clear warning or explanation. Both centered around a charismatic Christian personality who seemed to have all the answers to life’s ultimate questions. Both offered to confused, disoriented Christians, most of them relatively young, clear, unambiguous “keys” to understanding not only the Bible but life as a whole. Both offered a Christian-based ideology that explained cultural dysfunction and offered solutions that were not complicated or confusing.
Those who lived as American evangelicals through the 1970s can’t have missed the Gothard phenomenon. I would argue it was one of the three most influential Christian movements of the 1970s that also influenced non-evangelicals and American culture beyond evangelical Christianity. The other two were the Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Movement.
I first encountered the Gothard ideology while attending a fundamentalist/Pentecostal Bible college. There was dissension among the ranks resulting from spiritual abuse, mismanagement of the college, and a disintegrating infrastructure. Much of the dissension was aimed at the college president who was a bully. (He famously or infamously attempted to exorcise demons from two students who went to him to complain about the food in the cafeteria which was truly inedible.) One morning in required chapel a leading pastor and board member preached to the students and faculty about “God’s chain of command.” His message was that our only duty was to pray for leaders God had placed above us in “God’s chain of command” and never question them. We were to be absolutely submissive to them because God had placed them over us. The Gothard ideology was clearly borrowed more from the military than the Bible. The Bible is full of prophets “questioning” those “above them” in the “chain of command.”
Conservative evangelical Christians flocked to Gothard’s Basic Youth Conflicts seminars by the thousands. I, on the other hand, was “turned off” by the ideology from the first time I heard it preached. To me it was overly simplistic, foreign to the Bible, and dangerous. It was an ideology designed (whether intentionally or not) to protect the powerful and oppress the weak. Children were to obey their parents until they married. In fact, they were supposed to remain at home and under their parents’ authority even as adults—until they married. Wives were to obey their husbands unless they asked them to sin and, so it was rumored, even if they observed their husbands sinning they were not to question them. There was one case reported widely in the news where a wife and mother did nothing to hinder her husband from drowning their children in the bathtub because she was under the influence of the Gothard ideology.
I remember one seminary class in which a Gothardite student challenged the professor because he dared to criticize that ideology. The professor allowed the student to express himself rather strongly, something dedicated Gothard fans tended to do, and when he finally stopped the professor simply said “If you really believed in Gothard’s teaching you would not challenge me; I’m over you in God’s chain of command.” The student immediately turned beet red and went quiet.
Any evangelical Christian who lived through the 1970s in America has to remember that mass movement. There were many articles about it in evangelical magazines including especially Eternity then published by the Evangelical Foundation out of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. One evangelical writer “took on” the Gothard “chain of command” ideology in his Eternity column called “Out of My Mind.” He was the extremely popular Christian writer Joseph (Joe) Bayly. Bayly was one of the first evangelical Christians to criticize Gothard’s extremely popular teaching publicly. He argued in his columns in Eternity that it opened the door to all kinds of abuse of those in power.
I well recall numerous conversations I had with Gothardite evangelicals throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. They vehemently defended Gothard’s ministry and teaching claiming it as biblical and “the solution” to all social dysfunctions and that anyone who disagreed with it was in danger of rebelling against God himself.
I argue that Bill Gothard was one of the most influential Christian teachers of the 1970s and 1980s. His message was widely received and embraced, I believe, as the antidote to the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. It became part of the warp and woof of conservative Protestant Christianity in America—having lasting effects long after the mass Basic Youth Conflicts seminars died down in popularity.
Recently, Bill Gothard’s reputation has been tarnished by accusations that, over the years, he raped and molested numerous women. A current “news flash” has it that thirty women are suing him for rape and molestation. He was relieved of his leadership what remains of his ministry by its board. Of course, he is innocent until proven guilty, but the accusations seem too deep and wide to dismiss as simply one or two disgruntled and greedy people attempting to get at his money. We will have to wait and see as the court proceedings unfold.
My personal opinion has always been that the “chain of command” ideology leaves the door wide open to abusers to hide and even justify their abuse of those under them. It also tends to silence those being abused. Power without accountability corrupts—even among the most “spiritual” leaders. Transparency and accountability are the only antidotes to the corrupting influence of power.
I feel no Schadenfreude about Gothard’s troubles. I only feel a certain amount of vindication as I was highly critical of his teaching and suffered loss of friendships over that.
Gothard was and has been even up until recent years (ref: his influence with the Duggar family) an extremely influential fundamentalist Christian teacher. Only a few courageous prophets like Bayly dared to take him and his teaching on critically. I well remember the letters to the editor of Eternity that harshly attacked Bayly and others for daring to “touch God’s anointed.”
After the Gothard phenomenon began to die down I noticed something similar arising to take its place. At first it had no identifiable title. Some of my colleagues called its young followers “Piper cubs.” Suddenly, in the 1980s I was hearing evangelical Christian young people, mostly students, touting John Piper as the “best Christian teacher” of all. They spoke warmly and passionately about his “Christian hedonism.” (I still have in my files not a copy but the original of one of his first published articles entitled “Confessions of a Christian Hedonist” published in His magazine—the now defunct publication of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in America.) The “Piper cubs” were mostly young males in the early twenties; they had no hesitation about contradicting me, their theology professor, whenever I taught about Calvinism and Arminianism. One of them came to my office after class, in about 1985, and told me this: “Professor Olson, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are not a Christian.” I asked him why he would say such a thing and he responded “Because you’re not a Calvinist.” I asked him where he heard that non-Calvinists could not be Christians. He said “From my pastor John Piper.” (Many years later Piper told me directly that he never said non-Calvinists cannot be Christians but admitted that some of his more passionate followers may have misinterpreted him as believing that and that he had not done enough to correct that impression.)
While not all Gothard followers or Piper followers were or are “true believers” in their teachings—in the sense laid out by Eric Hoffer in his 1951 study The True Believer—many have been and still are.
I argue that the YYRM would never have “taken off” as a mass movement without Piper’s influence. Once Louie Giglio “baptized” Piper as one of his main, if not his single main, speaker at Passion and One Day youth events, the YRRM really took off as a mass movement with Piper’s teachings at its center and as its foundation and main attraction.
Why do I compare Gothard and Piper and their movements? The comparison has nothing to do with scandals; it has only to do with the kind of single-minded, overly simplistic, absolutist dedication of core followers. Both were perceived by many developmentally immature evangelical Christians as “the recovery” of true, authentic Christianity that, if adopted by all Christians, would solve all the major problems facing and infiltrating Christian churches from secular culture. The single enemy of both, whether followers know it or not, is the rise of anomie out of the secular and pluralistic cultural revolution of the 1960s. Both offer “the cure” for all that ails church and society. Both have strongly ideological and demogogic features. Both have the tendency to idolize power. Leaders of both failed to recognize the predictable abuses of their teachings by their absolutizing followers.
The core problem with both movements is threefold. First, they tend to take one rather idiocyncratic idea and blow it up into the interpretive key to the whole Bible and Christianity in general; Second, they tend to totalize an ideology developed out of that idea/key as something that cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny without revealing the critic’s spiritual weakness if not outright rebellion against God. A problem with both is that they did and do not regard their signature teachings as proposals for consideration but rather regard them as having the status of divine revelation itself. (How many times have I heard YRRM people call high Calvinism “a transcript of the gospel itself?”) Finally, both tend to elevate a single individual teacher as above question or criticism and both of those teachers are noted for rarely, if ever, saying “But I could be wrong.”
Many people have asked me why I don’t try to become the “Arminian John Piper.” The answer is complicated with many aspects. I don’t consider myself a charismatic personality and I am constitutionally averse to all totalizing. “I could be wrong” and “what I teach has problems” never attract mass followings.