The Trauma of Spiritual Abuse, Part 1: A Case Study

Trauma. It’s a word we associate with beatings, genocide and injuries. We have “trauma centers” to care for those who have been badly injured in car crashes and other such accidents. So what does this have to do with anything spiritual?

The spiritual realm is unseen, along with the mental and emotional realms. When someone is abused physically, we can see the results: bruises, scars, broken bones, even death. But when someone is abused spiritually, no one sees the bruises, scars, and hurts. No one sees the damaged relationship with God. No one hears the wounded heart crying out in pain. In fact, while a physically injured person may seek help, the spiritually injured person may very well try to hide their injuries, to prevent others from even suspecting that anything is wrong. Because that could result in more injury.

But the consequences are just as bad as, or even worse than, physical injury. When a strong believer in God is injured physically, they know Who to lean on, Who to ask for strength, Who they can trust to work all things together for good. But the spiritually injured person may feel that God won’t help them because they haven’t been good enough to deserve His help. Furthermore, while physical injuries will not impede our journey to Heaven, spiritual abuse and trauma can turn someone away from trusting God and receiving His gift of eternal life.

I grew up in a spiritually abusive system. Actually, I grew up in multiple abusive systems. But I would like to use one particular system—the Advanced Training Institute homeschool program, or ATI, along with its parent organization, Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP)—as a case study in the characteristics and consequences of an abusive system. This system started its impact on my family before I was even born, and I was raised in the homeschool program from 1994-2005, grades 1-11. Please think through these characteristics and see if they apply to any religious system you find yourself in.

God and the Bible are not sufficient

This is probably one of the main pillars supporting spiritual abuse. People add their own teachings, doctrines, interpretations, ideas, recommendations, and commands to the instructions and doctrines given by God. The sneaky thing is that they tie it all in with the Bible, so it looks like it comes from God.

Bill Gothard (Photo courtesy IBLP)

Bill Gothard (Photo courtesy IBLP)

Bill Gothard, the founder of ATI, added many things to God’s Word. Many times in his teaching, he would merely state something as fact, with no research or references to back it up. He explained, for example, that God had instituted a “Chain of Command” that created an “Umbrella of Protection” over us. This “Umbrella of Protection” would keep us safe from Satan’s attacks as long as we submitted to it, but if we stepped out and did something that one of our authorities (God, government, church, parents) didn’t want us to do, we were totally vulnerable to Satan’s attacks.

To this, he added that if our “umbrella” had “holes” (for example, an adulterous father), we could “patch” this umbrella with prayer or some other spiritual discipline.

Obviously, there is a certain level of truth to this—if we disobey God, we will receive His discipline—but this also was a means for keeping young people, even adult children, submitting to their abusive, misguided parents. And by the time it got to the “patching holes” nonsense, there wasn’t a Scriptural leg to stand on anymore.

Resurrecting the Law of Moses

Gothard borrowed heavily from the Old Testament Law, picking and choosing various doctrines to support his teachings. For example, he taught that couples should abstain from sex during the wife’s menstrual period and for seven days thereafter, as commanded in the Law. He told people that they needed to meditate on God’s Word so that they could have success in life, based on God’s word to Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success.” (Joshua 1:8)

God has clearly told us that we must not follow the Law of Moses anymore. We have died to it through Jesus Christ, and now we are part of the New Covenant, and are subject to the instructions of the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant.

“Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)

When we resurrect parts of the Law, we actually bring ourselves under its curse: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.’” (Galatians 3:10)

For more on the Law of Moses, watch the video below that I recorded on this subject:

Performance-based Christianity

In Gothard’s world, God was like a warped genie in a bottle. If you did the right thing, He would bless you (i.e., do something you liked, something that was good for you), and if you did the wrong thing, He would curse you (i.e., do something that you didn’t like, something that wasn’t good for you). The “right things” and “wrong things” were determined by Gothard, but we didn’t realize this at the time.

Bill Gothard used this reward-and-punishment system to persuade people to follow his teachings. For example, going back to the “abstinence during the wife’s period” teaching I mentioned, he explained that if a couple abstained from sex during the wife’s period, God would bless the couple, possibly even curing infertility (complete with a story of a couple who conceived after following this abstinence plan). But if you disobeyed him and didn’t practice abstinence, God would bring some unknown punishment.

This sort of mentality is very crippling in one’s Christian walk. How do we love a God who only loves us when we do the right thing? How can we ever love a God who will vindictively punish us for a sin that we’re not even aware of?

There was no emphasis on a very important aspect of the Christian life: we do not live in our own strength, but by the power of the risen Christ. We do not gain victory through following man-made systems and formulas, but by the power of Christ working in our lives to kill our sin and enable us to overcome. We cannot boast in our own abilities, because we are only able to serve God by the power of His grace.

And we most certainly will never gain greater power with God by following man-made teachings.

Vindictive punishment from God

Gothard’s teaching about God’s reward/punishment system was very destructive in my life. I believed that God’s punishment was vindictive—in other words, that He did it to get revenge on me for disobeying Him. Therefore, God’s punishment was not redemptive. It was a consequence of doing an unredeemable bad thing. The best I could hope for was to do better in the future so that God would bless me instead of curse me.

The Bible clearly teaches that God punishes us only because He loves us, and for the purpose of guiding us into doing right. Furthermore, it teaches that everyone gets punished by God, if they are truly His child.

“’My son, don’t take lightly the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him; For whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.’ …

“Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live? For they indeed, for a few days, punished us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:5-6, 9-10)

God’s punishments are good and not to be despised. He does it to help us, because He loves us, not because he wants to repay our evil deeds.

Bad experiences are God’s punishment

Bill Gothard taught that we should find out “why God let it happen”. He taught that bad experiences were God’s consequences for our sin. On the other hand, God’s blessings were good experiences, and were the result of doing the right thing.

So if you are dirt-poor, it’s probably because you are sinning (or sinned sometime in the past), and God is punishing you for your bad behavior. On the other hand, if you have plenty to eat, money in the bank, and a nice house, God is blessing you for your good behavior.

Want your business to do well? Make sure to do all the right things, and God will “bless” your business with “success”. Want to advance in the workplace and be promoted? Be sure to serve your boss well.

However, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, God’s Kingdom is yours.” (Luke 6:20) On the other hand, He said, “But woe to you who are rich! For you have received your consolation. Woe to you, you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24-25)

Paul said, “I know how to be humbled, and I know also how to abound. In everything and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13) He spoke of suffering nakedness and hunger in serving God (2 Corinthians 11:27).

It is true, for example, that God can use sickness as a punishment for taking communion irreverently (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). But there is no Biblical basis at all for the idea that all non-persecution suffering is the result of our sin.

Exaggerated/false claims and promises

Gothard published many stories of people who claimed success after following his teachings. Often, in his seminars, he would use stories to prove that his teachings worked, as with the afore-mentioned abstinence teaching. We had no way of verifying that these stories even happened, or that things were really as good as he claimed, but we thought he was a Godly man and trusted that he was telling the truth.

Gothard also made many exaggerated promises. Back in the 80’s, he claimed that the ATI program would give a young person, by the time they graduated high school, the equivalent of four years of college education, including pre-law and pre-med. By the time I graduated, I didn’t even have a basic understanding of anatomy, never mind a full pre-med education.

Another example is his claim in the description for his book, Seven Courtship Secrets for a Successful Marriage, that “this book… provides a revolutionary approach that will guarantee the success of a marriage by applying a powerful Biblical truth.” Unfortunately, following courtship does not guarantee a successful marriage.

Authoritarianism and patriarchy

A big man and a little manThis was one of the most destructive parts of Gothard’s teachings. He taught a top-down authority structure in which fathers ruled over their families, while their families submitted to the dad. Junior was a stone. Dad was a hammer, Mom was a chisel, and God used them to chisel on Junior to cut him down to what God wanted him to be. This was literally one of Gothard’s illustrations. And, of course, if you didn’t like the hammer and chisel you were under and stepped out of the family, God would bring an even bigger hammer and chisel along—such as marriage.

This went hand-in-hand with the “Umbrella of Protection” concept that I mentioned earlier.

Furthermore, ATI didn’t really have a way for young people to learn to be independent adults and make their own wise decisions. You were supposed to submit to your parents right up until marriage, including only marrying someone they approved of—even if your parents were non-Christians.

Even today, it’s difficult for me to put my finger on specific examples of patriarchy and authoritarianism in what I was taught. All I can say is, it was just a big part of the fabric of ATI.

Image is everything

Bill Gothard made a big deal out of the brightness of one’s eyes. Bright eyes were good. They were the result of only listening to Godly music, and they were a big attraction to other nations, to open doors for ministry. (IBLP literally published a video about “How the Light of the Eyes Opens Nations to the Truth”.) Dull eyes, on the other hand, were the result of listening to rock music, according to Gothard.

And then there was the pressure to be one of those “perfect ATI families” with the smiles, well-behaved children, and serene dad and mom. We didn’t know that many of those “perfect families” were riddled with problems, including sexual abuse.

A false gospel

All of this boiled down to one thing: Bill Gothard taught a false gospel of good works, following his teachings, and serving God on your own strength. It looked good, sounded Biblical, and promised great results, but it wasn’t the real gospel. And I don’t mean that Gothard never gave a Gospel message or altar call. What I mean is that he created another gospel that sounded very much like the Gospel of Christ, but was a Satanic perversion. And, of course, the results were what you might expect when you follow Satan.

We’ll look at those results in Part 2. In the meantime, I suggest that you read an article by Tony Guhr, former aide to Bill Gothard: The Preeminence of, the Exclusive Claims by, and the All Sufficiency of Jesus Christ.


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7 Replies to “The Trauma of Spiritual Abuse, Part 1: A Case Study”

  1. Joel, thank you so much. Thank you for being a prophet to our generation, and exposing the false gospel that so many have embraced. Blessings!

  2. I never experienced Gothard’s teachings personally, but I know a number who did…and the teachings sound very similar to a variety of the doctrines propagated within the circles in which I grew up.

    I’ve also seen a disturbing and growing trend in the “word of faith” circles. Granted, this isn’t a new movement, but it seems like over the last number of years, Prosperity Gospel and Word of Faith got together, had a few drinks, went back to a hotel room, and eventually birthed an offspring that has many of the genetic markings of his parents while trying to deny his lineage.

    The prosperity gospel now masquerades as “biblical wealth-building” where, if you do everything right and follow all God’s rules, you will become financially successful. Because God loves you. And wants to bless you. And blessings = money. The Bible says so.

    Closely coupled with that is the whole idea of faith – if you exercise enough faith, literally anything is possible. Health, wealth, happiness…it’s all yours, because God wants to give it to you, but only if you have enough faith. If a family member is ill, pray in faith believing that they will be healed. Claim it over them, because that Bible says that God REALLY wants to heal them, but only if you do your part. If they don’t get well, you simply didn’t have enough faith. “Claim it in faith” has replaced Gothard’s (and others’) “thou shalt not.”

    Granted, these aren’t new, but the way they are being marketed is (to my knowledge) new. It’s more subtle. It’s more dressed up. It’s become “biblical business coaching,” “relationship building,” and “spiritual empowerment.” “Name it and claim it” has become more spiritual by putting the responsibility on you to exercise an adequate amount of faith. They denounce a doctrine of works, because scripture says your relationship with God and the receiving of God’s blessings are all about faith.

    But, not matter how you slice it, it’s still about works. The only difference is that the “works” has become “faith.” It’s not about exercising a simple faith in God, it’s about having ENOUGH faith…which is a work in and of itself.

    Anyhow…I feel like I may have just spun my wheels there for a bit without really going anywhere. But, continued blessings on you for the work that you’re doing!

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