Leveraging Lunacy: How Bill Gothard Rode a Wave of Evangelical Goofiness

It is hard to believe that Gothard is not aware of common characteristics and tendencies of evangelicalism, since he is a product of evangelicalism

“The misappropriation of the biblical term “anointed” by church leaders over the past generation has produced results that do not merely border on lunacy, but are actually the embodiment of it. In most of evangelicalism the lunacy has been more subtle, its chief manifestation being authoritarian and abusive leaders who held themselves above accountability. You know: like Bill Gothard.”

 

Recently, an old article of mine, “Trapped in the Shadow of ‘God’s Anointed’: Breaking free from an Unbiblical Concept” (MCOI Journal, Volume 8 No. 3, Fall 2002, pp. 12-15) was re-posted by the Recovering Grace (RG) web site, which is devoted to helping people break free from the spiritual bondage caused by the teachings of Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), as well as his Advanced Training Institute (ATI). The mere fact that it was republished there is a bit interesting, since the article does not mention Gothard. Nevertheless, it appears that the RG staff, who have all had involvement in Gothardism, resonated with what it said.

And so did many of those who commented on the article. One of them wrote:

Even as I type this, I have that clammy feeling of being eaten by bears or zapped with lightening [sic] for even questioning the ‘anointing of Mr. Gothard.’

The misappropriation of the biblical term “anointed” by church leaders over the past generation has produced results that do not merely border on lunacy, but are actually the embodiment of it. In most of evangelicalism the lunacy has been more subtle, its chief manifestation being authoritarian and abusive leaders who held themselves above accountability. You know: like Bill Gothard. He did not even need to use the term or refer to the concept in order to leverage the spell it had already cast over vast segments of the church. Like a surfer on a surfboard, he simply rode this example of goofy theology like a wave.

But, of course, the pro-Gothard trolls who visit the RG web site did not waste any time raising objections that the article did not refer to Gothard, and did not demonstrate that he ever claimed to be “anointed.” How, then, can it be relevant? What follows from here is the response (slightly edited) that I gave on the RG web site.

When I wrote this article some twelve years ago, I was not addressing any specific person, church, or organization, but rather I was addressing evangelicalism as a whole on a problem that is common among evangelicals in general. Even so, that does not mean that Bill Gothard was not on my mind when I wrote it.

If Gothard is not a part of evangelicalism, then I suppose you could conclude that nothing in my article applies in any way to him. But last I heard, he has been a “mover and shaker” in evangelicalism since at least the early 1970s, if not earlier. He has been written up in evangelical magazines and has been the subject of evangelical columnists since at least the mid-’70s. I have come across references to him in several evangelical books. The first book about Gothard (to my knowledge) was written by an evangelical Lutheran pastor in 1976 (Gothard, The man and His Ministry: An Evaluation, by Wilfred Bockelman). The sex scandal involving his brother rocked much of the evangelical church in the early ’80s. Given all this it seems hard to believe that he is not aware of common characteristics and tendencies of evangelicalism, since he himself is a product of evangelicalism.

The specific reason I wrote this article is that there is a tendency in wide swaths of the evangelical subculture to unbiblically elevate leaders to a level where it becomes very difficult to hold them accountable. We continue to see news stories about the fallout from this practice today. In some cases this tendency has been woven into the fabric of a given church’s or denomination’s character; it is part of the general ethos that everyone takes for granted. In other cases this idea enters churches when strong, charismatic leaders assume control. In these cases the tendency to elevate the leader has often been introduced through new teaching. In either case, tragedies (or should we say atrocities?) have ensued when savvy individuals take extreme advantage of a pervasive culture that fosters a general willingness to follow. And in many cases throughout much of the 20th century, the expression “Touch not mine anointed!” (1 Chr. 16:22; Psa. 105:15) was frequently used to defend tyrannical leaders. I, for one, remember hearing it cited in discussions about church disputes when I was a new believer back in the late 1970s. The view remains common that pastors and leaders are special “men of God,” a cut above the rest of us. And it is easy to see how such an unbiblical view of authority, promoted by a popular evangelical teacher such as Bill Gothard, and embraced by a large portion of the evangelical church, became an additional support for already-existing authoritarian leadership practices both inside and outside IBLP.

Did Gothard ever apply the words “Touch not mine anointed!” directly to himself? Not as far as I know. But that is beside the point.

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