A few years ago, I was interviewed by a journalist writing about Gothard’s Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP) and how his views on gender might have contributed to the numerous accusations emerging about his sexual abuse of women who had worked with him.
I don’t think the journalist ever got the article published, which is, unfortunately, what sometimes happens in freelance journalism. However, what stands out from the interview was the reporter’s surprise that I was willing to go on the record and call Bill Gothard a false prophet, and say that he was someone whose popularity in conservative Christian circles made his teaching dangerous and helped perpetuate a culture that excuses domestic abuse and makes women feel like their faith is tied to their submission to their husband.
Apparently, not many people were willing to do that.
Well, I’m so glad I’m no longer the only one willing to call him what he actually is. I’ve been reading Jinger Duggar’s book Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentagling Faith from Fear, and she also calls Gothard a false prophet.
Duggar’s book not only calls out Gothard and his behavior, but point by point goes through IBLP curriculum and calls out toxic theological interpretations. I applaud Duggar’s willingness to speak out but, like her sister Jill, Jinger still hasn’t fully disentangled from complementarian theology. Unfortunately, She and her husband are involved with John McArthur’s Grace Community Church in California and Master’s Seminary. McArthur has openly mocked women preachers, such as Beth Moore. At a 2019 Grace Community conference, McArthur and other Grace leaders were essentially playing the Joey and Chandler “I give you a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind” game A dangerous pastime, as they found on in Friends The One in Vegas Part One.
McArthur was given the phrase “Beth Moore,” to which he responded, “Go Home.” Then went on to say “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher…Period, paragraph, end of discussion.” I’m not a massive fan of Moore, but she is Biblically justified and should preach if that is her calling. (read my post on B.T. Roberts Ordaining Women if you want a great argument on Biblical justification for gender equality.)
I note Duggar’s connection to McArthur (and her co-writer Corey Williams is the chief communication officer at Master’s Seminary), to illustrate she still has a ways to go in her journey away from toxic complementarianism. I also believe most of the Biblical interpretation portions of her book were probably written by Williams, who just used her personal stories to weave in McArthur-friendly Biblical interpretation tips.
However, don’t throw her book out completely. Like I mentioned in my post on Christian publishing, the connections are messy. Despite the book’s flaws, she is still raising important points about the impact of complementarianism on women’s self-worth and mental health.
I don’t think many people realize how incredibly impactful Gothad’s IBLP curriculum has been on evangelical culture. As I read Duggar’s book, I realized that many of the IBLP principles she discussed I also encountered growing up in mainstream evangelical culture. As someone who grew up during the peak separate Christian culture years of the 1990s and early 2000s, Gothard’s teachings on the character of God, the importance of following specific legalistic rules, and gender norms were things I also encountered. I just didn’t recognize the source until I read Duggar’s book.
In the early chapters, Duggar discusses how her fear of messing up, of doing something that would jeopardize her faith and eternal salvation, left her constantly anxious. So anxious that she suffered from social anxiety and panic attacks.
In one chapter, Duggar tells the story about making a simple oath at an IBLP conference to read her Bible for 15 minutes every day. What seemed relatively simple led to feelings of guilt and panic if she happened to forget. As she tells it:
“In the coming months and years, that simple vow would haunt me. If I didn‘t read my Bible or pray in the morning. I’d feel so much guilt. Sometimes at night, I’d realize I hadn’t fulfilled my vow. Lots of nights, I’d see one of my siblings reading the Bible in our room and freak out, scrambling to read a chapter or two before I went to bed. The difficult thing about the vow wasn’t the length of time required; it was the relentless nature of guilt.2
This might seem silly, but the emphasis on rules and, as Duggar, says, the emphasis on making the Bible about us and our purposes leads to a very selfish interpretation of Christianity. In the hands of the wrong person (think Gothard or her brother Josh), this can be dangerous—a way to justify behavior that in other cultures would be both immoral and often illegal.”
She argues that Gothard’s teachings ignore the fundamental character of God and rely heavily on a type of Biblical interpretation called proof-texting. Proof-texting is when only specific Biblical passages are used to justify a specific belief. In Gothard’s case, he would pull verses from both the Old and the New Testament to justify whatever IBLP principle he was promoting at the time.3 Furthermore, Gothard’s focus on a rule-based approach to faith directly contributed to her anxiety and misunderstanding about God.
God is love. Leaders like Gothard (& McArthur) accumulate power through fear- fear that maybe they do have a direct line of communication with God, and if you do not follow the Biblical interpretation they have set out, then you might not really be a Christian. As Duggar explains in her final chapter, disentangling faith and what Christianity means is sometimes a difficult and lonely process, especially for those of us who grew up in legalistic Christian culture.
So, how does Duggar define the nature of God? Simply put, he is her best friend. Not a judge or a critic out to say, “ah hah, you screwed up” when we make a mistake, but someone who loves us and others and whose message of care and compassion is what the Bible actually is about.
Duggar’s book should be seen as a starting point for important topics that too often overlooked, or others are too afraid to discuss because they fear backlash. As she explains, “Leaders use fear to keep people in line and ensure their loyalty. Give someone a sense of belonging, a group of people to share life with, a commitment to a cause, and an enemy to defeat, and you have a powerful recipe for loyalty.”4
I only wish (and hope) she and her husband can see how they are still following a leader who is just as toxic as Gothard.
1 Duggar, 2023, 162.
2 Duggar, 2023, 107.
3 Duggar, 2023, 113.
4 Duggar, 2023, 121.