Author’s Note: A deeper dive into this subject will appear in the next issue of Nurturing Faith Journal.
Arguably, the “lead actor” (or character) in the new documentary series “Shiny Happy People” is no one in the expansive Duggar family, known for their long-running TLC show, “19 Kids and Counting.”
The slimy, abusive fingers of disgraced “Bible” teacher Bill Gothard are all over the Duggars, other adherents to his teachings, and the well-produced series.
While Gothard’s teachings are unfamiliar to some today, their damaging impact on individuals and evangelicalism at large are now well-documented.
In the late 1980s, as a major part of my doctoral work on personal responsibility in decision-making, I attended one of Gothard’s 32-hour seminars called Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts.
Thousands of professing Christians absorbed his teachings of abusive power as if they were ordained and delivered by God through him.
In my 1990 dissertation I wrote, among other critiques, that Gothard’s “principles are heavily based on the legalistic parts of scripture and virtually void of the life and teachings of Jesus.”
Specifically, I observed: “Gothard’s extremely low view of and apparent hostility toward women were very noticeable. … There are likely many women who will stay in abusive relationships as a result of Gothard’s teachings.”
Tragically, my assessment written more than three decades ago has played out in devastating detail as painfully told in “Shiny Happy People” from Amazon Prime Video.
My interest in and opposition to Gothard’s authoritarianism began during my own time as a college student and grew when his impact became more apparent during my 14 years as a campus minister.
After teaching and leading many retreats on the topic of responsible Christian decision making, I took those ideas to Columbia Theological Seminary to test them academically.
My major professor and I agreed that attending one of Gothard’s seminar would be beneficial to my efforts. This was especially true since Gothard’s organization held much of his life and the institute’s work in secret.
Here are a few things I discovered while listening to Gothard’s teachings:
- He taught polytheism. He told a bizarre story of a girl’s vision problems being tied to her Cabbage Patch doll, which he claims was named for the Norse god of blindness.
- He granted enormous power to Satan over Christians — just a wee bit less than God but only if one conforms to Gothard’s teachings.
- A strict legalist, he presented faithfulness as primarily a bunch of do’s with even more don’ts.
- His teachings, rooted in unyielding structures of male authority, were to be unquestioned.
- His overt sexism was revealed not only in his teachings but also in his attempted jokes that demeaned women as “nagging” and inappropriately seeking nice things from their ruling husbands.
Once Gothard, who never married, began a sentence with, “If a man gets involved with an immoral woman …” That left me wondering why, then, the man was not described as immoral.
Blaming women, as reported repeatedly in the documentary, is at the center of Gothard’s teachings.
Heather Heath Self, who grew up subjected to Gothard, recalled: “You can’t exist without being accused of tempting a man to attack you.”
Those of us who pointed out his misleading and dangerous teachings long ago were often excoriated for “not believing the Bible.”
So, yes, we told you so. Now we wonder why lessons in discernment are rarely learned.
Bible teacher Beth Moore, who recently revealed her own experiences of abuse, tweeted: “When I was a young mom, many of the peer families we knew were getting neck deep in Bill Gothard events and materials. [I] couldn’t do it. He made my skin crawl. For one thing, I don’t trust heavy duty fundies pushing and policing girls’ purity … In my view, that’s not for protection. That is for training predators and grooming prey.”
Those of us who’ve long pointed out how blindly many will accept false and dangerous teachings aren’t taking a victory lap.
We are issuing yet another reminder that toxic narcisists who claim to hold the highest views of holy scripture are often those most likely to abuse vulnerable people for their own benefit and in the name of godliness.
Gothard’s teachings (which became homeschool curricula) are mostly commands — while ignoring the two-fold command that Jesus called the greatest and most encompassing.
In the four-part docuseries, damning testimonies flowed from those whose lives have been deeply harmed by living in families and communities — like and including the Duggars — that strictly followed Gothard’s instructions.
Many years ago, I developed and taught college students an alternative approach to faithful living that contrasted with Gothard’s abuse-fertile authoritarianism and legalism.
My focus was rooted in the biblical concept of being made in the image of God — which places the freedom and responsibility for personal decision making into the hands of each individual through spiritual discernment.
After seeing the new documentary, I want to be even clearer and quite frank: Discernment is more than listening uncritically, praying over something and then getting a good feeling.
It involves possessing an effective enough BS meter to quickly dismiss nonsensical and dangerous claims (from Gothard and those like him) that God intends for male authoritarians (pastors, husbands, fathers) to lord over others — destroying their value and freedom and setting them up for victimhood.
Discernment also involves having enough sense to see that evil forces are more likely found in human claims of divine authority than in a kid’s pudgy-faced doll.
And, in an effort to protect vulnerable people, I and others will keep saying so until it’s heard.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.