Book Review - A Matter of Basic Principles  Bill Gothard and the Christian Life

Cultic Studies Review, 3(2/3), 2004

A Matter of Basic Principles:  Bill Gothard and the Christian Life

Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Ron Henzel.  Foreword by Ron Rhodes.

Springfield, Missouri: 21st Century Press, 2002.  384 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Dr. John Dillon

According to their website ( Don and Joy Veinot formed the Midwest Christian Outreach (MCO) in April 1995 “to give clear answers, and a solid defense of the orthodox biblical faith, to all types of unbelievers—atheists, agnostics, as well as members of cultic groups . . .” At the time the Veinots and a dozen other co-workers established MCO, none of them had ever been involved with a cult.  But as a group they had many years of experience in various Christian counter-cult ministries.  This book is the latest product of a series of investigations by MCO over the past decade into Bill Gothard’s ministry, the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), now known as the Institute in Basic Life Principles (or IBLP).  The investigations began when residents of Oak Brook and Hinsdale, in the Chicago suburbs, contacted the Veinots and their collaborators with concerns about how young people attending IBYC were being treated.

Bill Gothard began the IBYC in 1964, the year he was ordained and commissioned for work among youths in the nondenominational Bible church in which he grew up in LaGrange, Illinois.  He had studied at Wheaton College from which he received a B.A. in 1957 and an M.A. in 1961.  The thirty-year-old Gothard established IBYC after working for fifteen years with inner-city gangs, church, youth groups, high school clubs, and families in crisis.  In the ensuing four decades, the Basic Youth Conflict Seminars have attracted more than 2.5 million participants.   Most of these would have come from conservative Protestant Christian Churches, but the teaching of the IBLP had a decided impact on at least one of the covenant communities that arose in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal before ecclesiastical intervention brought about restructuring and reform.

At a meeting in 1997 between Gothard and three members of MCO, Ron Henzel, Marty Butz, and Don Veinot affirmed that there were a number of very good things emphasized in Bill Gothard’s ministry.  These include the fact that Gothard’s ministry does have a biblical approach.  Second, there is a strong emphasis and striving for high moral ideals that takes sin seriously.  Third, Gothard’s teaching does try to appropriate the Bible for practical guidance in life.  On the other hand, MCO has called Gothard a legalist who strongly stresses submission to godly authority that serves as an umbrella of protection from worldly temptations. MCO also calls into question Gothard’s teaching about the need for all Christian men to undergo circumcision and that uncircumcised men are more promiscuous than circumcised men.   MCO has expressed concerns about reports of many people who base their lives around Gothard’s teaching to an extent that they had never encountered with other popular Christian leaders such Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Coach Bill McCartney, formerly associated with Promise Keepers, and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.   Although it is true that these popular Christian leaders may have their fanatical fans, MCO does not know of their having such an organized and devoted following for themselves as Gothard has for himself.   Finally, the authors accuse Gothard of not living by some of his basic teachings on truthfulness and authority.  A Matter of Basic Principles presents many examples of correspondence or meetings where Gothard promises to investigate a complaint or pursue arbitration.  But then he neglects to follow up on his promise to investigate the matter at hand.

The book contains ten chapters topically arranged.  The authors sometimes draw upon movie titles for their chapters.  The first chapter, for example is entitled “Citizen Kane and a History of Inconsistency.”  Although the authors do not suggest that Bill Gothard’s life parallels that of Charles Foster Kane, the main character in the 1941 Orson Welles film, they do believe that there are valid comparisons to be made between the two.   They note that during the 1970s the seminar ministry was filling not only churches but also stadiums.  Like Kane, the people in general loved Bill Gothard.  But back at the institute anyone who challenged Gothard’s rule was marked for mistreatment.  One female staff person fell victim to Gothard’s authoritarian ways when she was fired in 1971 because she did not obey his order to forego dating.

“The Emerald City” is the title of the third chapter. There the authors compare Christians who found themselves in the strange and scary world of the Vietnam protests, sexual revolution, and youth rebellion to Dorothy who had found herself in the frightening Land of Oz.  Just as Dorothy was looking to the wizard for answers, Christians looked to Bill Gothard as the authority with all the answers that could get them safely home and out of the chaos that had surrounded them during those turbulent years.  The authors also draw upon contemporary literature for chapter titles.  They begin chapter seven (“The Orwellian World of Bill Gothard”) with a quotation from Animal Farm by George Orwell in which one of the animals warns the others if they were allowed to make their own decisions, they might in fact make the wrong decisions!  Overall the presentation is clear and the organization of the book is appropriate.

One of the strengths of the book is the relating of the stories of followers who followed the directions of the leaders of IBLP.  One moving story is that of Pastor Johnny Jones in chapter seven who moved his family from California to Michigan to be part of an African American presence in IBLP.  But he discovered instead broken promises, power struggles and backstabbing.  A typical power struggle was when Emmett Mitchell was brought in as the General Director of the Character Inn in Flint, Michigan where Pastor Jones was working for IBLP.  In a short while it became clear that Mitchell was a mere figurehead director who had been brought in because of his connections in the banking industry.  The real authority was a staff member named Pat LaMantia, who was in charge of the front desk office.  At one point Johnny and his wife Shantelle felt that they were under surveillance, that their mail was being opened, and that someone was sifting through possessions that they had put into storage.  After a time of feeling increasingly harassed by Ms. LaMantia, Johnny learned that she was actually running the Character Inn and loyally following the directives of Gothard.  Pastor Jones and his family left after discovering that a sixteen-year-old girl was sent to prepare and bring a meal to Bill Gothard.  This girl told Pastor Jones that Bill Gothard was her best friend and that Bill Gothard called her all the time to come to see him.  Scandalized by this activity, Pastor Jones turned in his resignation, and his family departed from the Character Inn.  The Joneses had been promised an offering in July 2000 to help them in their move from California to Michigan.  The balance of this money was never paid to him.  As he reflected on his experience of his involvement with IBLP, Pastor Jones felt that the real lesson that he learned was that Bill Gothard did not live up to the principles that he taught in his seminars and materials.  He has a growing concern for others who like him and his family have been devastated by Gothard and IBLP.

The book is less useful in those sections in which they authors theologize.  Those parts of the book have less interest and appeal outside of the conservative Protestant world in which the authors operate.   A typical example of this occurs in chapter five when the authors discuss for over ten pages how Gothard’s theology of grace turns away from the Reformation toward what they term the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation based on works.  So too the last ten pages of the epilogue contain a somewhat tedious discussion about sanctification by works, the righteousness of the Law, and grace as the unmerited favor of God.

Bill Gothard has had success in reaching the core leadership of American Christian conservative churches.  This book effectively and thoroughly sounds the alarm on how this ministry has exerted abusive spiritual authority on many of its participants.  Dr. Robert Stewart, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans sums up the matter fairly well when he writes that this book should be read by virtually all evangelical pastors and anyone who has attended a Gothard seminar, is considering attending one, or just wants to know more about the ministry of Bill Gothard.