Little Soldiers in the Culture War

Evangelical radical Bill Gothard's Character First! curriculum teaches students in Fort Lauderdale to obey his will

A number of ministers and theologians have found defects in Gothard's teachings. Christian scholar and psychologist James Alsdurf wrote a book in the late '80s about domestic violence among churchgoers and came to a conclusion: Bill Gothard's teachings can lead to a continuation of domestic violence.

Gothard is "a good example of how a segment of the church deals with this issue," Alsdurf told the Washington Post. "What he does is totally dismiss it as an issue by saying there are no victims."

Dr. Darrell Bock, a professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, says he's uncomfortable with Gothard stressing authority and hierarchy without tempering it with "Christ-like" qualities.

"His view is, 'I'm right about what Scripture says and it's not me saying it, it's God, and we need to be obedient,'" Bock says.

Baptist pastor G. Richard Fisher wrote in a published article called "The Cultic Leanings of Bill Gothard's Teachings" that Gothard has a habit of "legislating, directing, and regulating just about every phase of life." Some of Gothard's rules that Fisher, a former enthusiastic follower of Gothard, and others have noted:

*Married couples are never to divorce for any reason, including adultery.

*Adult children are told not to leave home or get married without parental consent.

*Married couples must abstain from sex during the following times: during the wife's menstrual cycle; seven days after the cycle; 40 days after the birth of a son; 80 days after the birth of a daughter; and the evening prior to worship. Gothard claims that periodic abstinence will help produce healthier children, can cure infections, and decrease "the danger of genetic abnormalities."

*Listening to rock music, even Christian rock, is forbidden.

*Borrowing money or buying on credit is forbidden.

*Married women aren't to work outside the home.

Gothard even has rules on selecting makeup, preparing shopping lists, planning meals, picking dental plans, and choosing hairstyles, clothes, and vacation spots. Followers have said in published reports that he bans televisions in homes that buy his home-schooling program and that his ministry denounces almost every book but the Bible.

Adopted children, Gothard teaches, carry the sins of their biological parents with them. According to Fisher, Gothard wrote a letter to his followers in 1986 warning them of the evils of Cabbage Patch Dolls, which were very popular then. The dolls, which are "adopted" by their buyers in a written contract, caused strange, destructive behavior, according to the letter.

"It gets very, very weird," Fisher says. "And these people who follow him are frightened to death that they might break one of his rules."

Some churches have been divided by devout Gothardites who use the seminar book -- commonly called "The Big Red Book" -- more than the Bible. John Miller, a Christian Website author, knows all too well about the divisiveness among Christians that Gothard's teachings sometimes cause.

Miller went to a basic seminar in 1991 and "absolutely loved it," he wrote in an article titled, "Bill Gothard: How His Teachings Will Put You Into the Bondage of Legalism." Miller finally had answers: "I was having problems at work, and Mr. Gothard pointed out that I had failed to submit to the authority of my boss and work the 80 hours a week he demanded.... I wasn't making quite as much money as I thought I should, and Mr. Gothard attributed it all to a loan that I had taken out and I was receiving God's chastening for violating His principles.... [T]rouble in some classes... was because I had gone to public school and listened to rock music while doing so. Marital problems, chalk that up to rebellious music, television, and failing to follow God's plan of courtship."

Eventually Miller changed his mind and decided Gothard does more harm than good. He says Gothard's teachings "poisoned" his church in Baton Rouge when a Gothard family left the church because Miller played the drums in the choir and they considered it the devil's music.

"He doesn't strike me as a Jim Jones-type character, overtly going after power," Miller says. "He's incredibly sincere.... But it's his followers. I've heard some say that he's a modern apostle along the lines of Paul, able to tell what God's will is better than anyone else. Does Gothard say that? I don't think so, but his followers do."

Miller was appalled when the mayor of his hometown of Baton Rouge struck up a friendship with Gothard and was dismayed on a recent trip through Mississippi, when he saw a Character First! billboard.

"It was like a slap in the face," says Miller, adding, with a practiced Christian disdain for actual curse words, "I just thought, 'Oh crud.'"

In a letter to his followers, titled "A Note From Bill," Gothard states his imperialistic goals:

"Now, more than ever before, God has placed you and me in a position where we can turn the tide of American history. The message of the Basic Seminar is being looked to by a growing number of judges, mayors, governors, and international leaders as the only answer to youth crime and family breakdown. 'We have no answers,' these leaders say...."

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