Of Men and Megalomaniacs: Getting Beyond the Alleged Sexual Abuse of Certain Homeschool Leaders
There’s been quite a bit of buzz recently about complaints against Bill Gothard, founder and teacher of IBLP (the Institute of Basic Life Principles) and ATII (the Advanced Training Institute International), for allegedly being involved in sexual harassment of several young ladies who served at the ministry’s headquarters in Chicago. To be clear, dozens if not hundreds of young ladies have circulated through the ministry doors over the decades, but according to World Magazine, 34 of those are alleging private sexual abuse from Mr. Gothard.
In the wake of the recent events with Doug Phillips, it’s unclear how these complaints should be taken. Apparently, some of these accusations point back to events from decades ago, but they are just now becoming a hot topic—and one has to wonder if it’s not due to many folks getting swept up in the flurry surrounding Doug Phillip’s recent admission.
So the questions that arise: Are there common denominators between Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard? Could these complaints against Mr. Gothard be genuine, or are they part of a pendulum swing taking place in the Christian homeschool movement in the wake of events surrounding Doug Phillips?
Some have pointed out that there is a general concern growing about ministry leaders getting away with sexual abuse. The media is rife with reports of pastors and priests of various denominations getting away with adulteries and never being held accountable. No doubt, there is a problem here.
As we ponder these questions, it behooves us to step back from the controversy and ask what led up to these events.
Since the homeschooling movement first began, there has been a tendency among Christian homeschool families to (usually subliminally) set up surrogate fathers of a sort. Typically, these surrogate daddies were set up because a family heard some profound Christian speaker cast a vision for using homeschooling as a means for family discipleship, and the mother caught the vision, but the father was so inundated with his work life (or something else) that he could not visualize himself being the spiritual leader in his home that the homeschool visionary was talking about.
So what did the family do? In a lot of cases, the mom attempted to step out and do the family discipleship without much help from the dad other than his stamp of approval. She actually did the teaching, much of the Bible teaching in particular, beyond taking the family to church on Sundays. But feeling the need for the support of a man, she often directed her children to mentor under the teaching of various respected men in the homeschool movement. Men like Bill Gothard, Greg Harris, Mike Farris, Doug Phillips, Voddie Baucham, or Kevin Swanson. In effect these men began to be treated and thought of as the surrogate spiritual fathers of these families because they were filling a role abandoned by the local daddies.
As these homechool children grew up, thus, it seemed only natural to send them off to the distant visionary’s ministry for a few years to personally work under the man. After all, the man had been serving as the surrogate father from a distance for so long, the experience would seem complete by having the young person go off in a rite of passage by serving personally under the leader for a season. Sometimes, if a family was having trouble with their youth, they would even send the young person off to one of these ministries in the hopes that the visionary would be able to reform the young person.
After being treated as the super-father of so many families for so long, this type of treatment has an effect on a man. It’s easy for it to go to his head, and it’s easy for him to perhaps assume certain intimacies with a young person that a father would have that an outsider would not normally have.
Is it possible that some of the accusations being made against Mr. Gothard (and other surrogate daddies) are due to his assuming a “daddy” role in the life of many of the young ladies that came to his ministry and talking to them about various intimate things, or treating them in various intimate ways that might would have been appropriate for a father (but not necessarily appropriate for a non-relative)? The trick of putting a man in such a surrogate daddy role, and him assuming that role, is that it creates something of a nebulous, ambiguous position for the characters involved.
Is the surrogate father really effectively operating as her father? Or not?
So, for example, it’s not unusual for a daddy to hug his daughter for an extended time, but it would be unusual for a man not a lady’s father. But if people treat you as a surrogate daddy, would you assume that this was okay for you? While this type of assumption would be wrong, it would not necessarily be “sexual abuse” because it would not have been intended by the leader to be an sexual advance but rather as a misunderstood part of mentorship.
Of course, all of the details related to each of the allegations against Mr. Gothard will need to be reviewed by the appropriate authorities investigating these incidents. They should consider whether perhaps Mr. Gothard’s actions, in each case, were really intended as sexual advances, or whether perhaps he was operating under an inappropriate understanding of his mentorship role in these young ladies lives.
Hopefully, however, this incident is also a wake-up call to the Christian families of America to the vulnerability that sending your daughters off to serve away from their families under another man puts them in. It’s not dangerous merely in ministries, but also in the corporate world for a family to send or abandon their daughter to the work force. Not only does it make her vulnerable, but it also tends to train her to think feministically—not as a helpmeet to a man serving God in the context of a family.
The Christian homeschooling families of America need to step back and consider the implications of setting up surrogate daddies to fill in for the fathers of their personal families. What expectations do those scenarios create—especially when we send our daughters off alone with these surrogate daddies? Moreover, what are the solutions to the underlying problems?
Getting to the Bottom of It All
Of course, it’s not going to fully solve the problem to go on a witch hunt for all the surrogate daddies that we speculate might be abusing their position. In each case where abuse is alleged, the Word of God is clear as to how Christians should work to bring reconciliation to the relationships and restore the victims—and they do not involve starting web sites that detail the nitty-gritty of the private accusations. The internet is not the ecclesiastical court God has set up for resolving these kinds of issues.
God’s Word is clear that public sins should be condemned publicly. But conflicts that are private need to go through the Matthew 18 procedures before they are made public and anyone is condemned.
If a lady claims to have been sexually abused by another Christian, the first thing she should do is talk with her shepherds about what happened, so that they can help, comfort, and steer her in what to do next. If she is married, then that would mean speaking with her husband and possibly her church elder(s) privately. If she is unmarried, that would mean speaking with her parents and possibly her church elder(s) privately to have wisdom in what to do next. If she cannot prove that she was abused, then she should beware the consequences of Deuteronomy 19:16-21, which hold her accountable to the same penalty as the one she accuses, if she is proven wrong.
Her counsellors need to help her overcome the hurts she claims to have experienced, and there are many hopeful truths of Scripture that should be a source of encouragement to such hurt individuals. But our zeal to deal with their alleged hurts should not lead us to rashly jump to condemn someone else without following God’s process for proving guilt and bringing restoration.
James 4:11 commands Christians to “Speak not evil one of another, brethren.” Specifically, we should not be spreading gossip, slander, backing-biting, or other similar things. We should not even read or listen to such complaints if we are not tied closely to the alleged victim and/or part of the solution.
John Calvin wrote on this subject:
“[H]ere is also rebuked the vice of undue credulity, which, when any evil reports are spread against our neighbors, leads us either eagerly to listen to them, or at least to receive them without sufficient reason; whereas we ought rather to use all means to suppress and trample them under foot. When anyone is the bearer of invented falsehoods, those who reject them leave them, as it were to fall on the ground; while, on the contrary, those who propagate and publish them from one person to another are, by an expressive form of speech, said to raise them up.”
Dr. R.J. Rushdoony in his Institutes of Biblical Law addressed how each accusation by an alleged victim must be corroborated by two or three witnesses to the same event, and the alleged perpetrator must be given the opportunity to defend himself before being condemned.
“Within the courts, for justice to prevail, honest and faithful testimony is a necessity. However, because man is a sinner, and the agencies of human society reflect man’s sin, checks and balances are necessary. The testimony of a witness must be subject to cross-examination and to corroboration. The law is clear at this point.”
Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1, pg 565. This is based on a consistent sets of instructions from Scripture such as this verse:
“A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed (Deut. 19:15).”
In the Larger Catechism, questions 144 and 145 deal with the principles of the Ninth Commandment. Question 144 asks: What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?
“A.: The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and grace, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely and of good report.” (emphasis added)
Commenting on the phrase “covering their infirmities” in his book Authentic Christianity, Dr. Joe Morecraft writes:
” ‘He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates chief friends (Prov. 17:9).
“Love, the most excellent of the Spirit’s gifts (I Cor. 12:31), is to be expressed and practiced in all our relationships. This includes not revealing unnecessarily what has been said or done by others against us, especially when it does not affect their situation. … Nothing tends more to the separating of friends than the repeating of sins for no edifying reason.”
Morecraft, Authentic Christianity, Vol. 4, pg. 920.
Commenting on the phrase “unwillingness to admit an evil report,” Dr. Morecraft writes:
“Those who enjoy family fellowship with God in His church not only walk with integrity, work righteousness and speak truth in their hearts, they do no slander others, nor do evil to their neighbors, nor take up a reproach against their friends. [See Psalm 15:1-3.] … [H]e will not use his tongue to bring down the innocent.”
Id. at 922.
We can certainly sympathize when people who believe they are victims feel desperate and they desperately do anything that they think will get a response for help, but once wise Christians are there to help them, they need to guide them to a course more in sync with these directions given in Scripture for handling conflicts. Spreading internet gossip and slander does not help or bring healing or restoration to anyone. It does serve to embarrass the Body of Christ before unbelievers, which is something the Word of God discourages in I Corinthians 6:1.
It is not unthinkable that homeschool visionaries who are committed with too much power and trust could be susceptible to the same kind of autonomous mindsets that have plagued many esteemed Christian leaders throughout history. As the old saying goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We think of how autonomous power corrupted men such as King Saul, King David, and King Solomon—each men who had respected beginnings.
It is entirely possible that men in such positions of undue influence and lack of accountability have had that power go to their his heads. They may begin to think they are unapproachable and unaccountable, and sometimes people in their organizations with a sense of misplaced loyalty (idolatry) try to shield him from accountability. When allegations arise, those questions should be investigated and tried by the appropriate authorities.
But as we attempt to deal with autonomous abusers of power, we must take care that we ourselves do not become autonomous abusers of power. We must exercise care to not condemn someone for any sin until he is first proven guilty by the burden or proof that Matthew 18 and other such passages require.
Surrogates of Other Sorts
Ridding the world of the surrogate daddy homeschool leaders will not really solve the problem either. If the these objects of misplaced trust are removed, they will be replaced by others.
For many Christian families in America, the surrogate father becomes the pastor of the local church. Families turn their children over to the youth pastor or other pastors in the church and expect them to be the spiritual fathers in their lives, and often the pastors are more than happy to oblige. In many cases, these scenarios have also led to allegations of sexual abuse. But there are plenty of other harms that occur when the father of a family is not being the spiritual leader that God has called him to be in his household. Pastors can also abuse their power in these situations to act autonomously in how they lead the young people of their church.
Then there are mothers who try to be surrogate fathers. These are the mothers who try to wear both the hat of the mommy and the daddy. They try to rule their homes with all the authority of the father, and sometimes they experience some degree of success, but they ultimately always fall short because they are not designed by God to withstand all the responsibilities of a man. Indeed, in some situations, such as those addressed in passages such as I Timothy 2:12-15, a woman is commanded by God not to attempt to exercise male authority.
Because women often experience insecurities, especially when their husbands are being negligent in their roles, this can lead a mother trying to wear both hats to overcompensate and act overbearingly and dominating. To act as an arbitrary tyrant in her family. Sometimes the children get used to it for a while. But time and time again we have seen such mothers eventually run into a major clash—usually with the grown-up sons or prospective son-in-laws of her family, who especially do not appreciate her dominating ways.
Solution: Christian Daddies Needed!
There is no substitute in God’s social design for Christian daddies who are serving God as the providers, priests, and protectors God has called them to be. No surrogate daddy—be they homeschool visionary, youth pastor, teacher, or mother—can adequately fill their shoes because a special bond exists between a father and a child before the Lord.
This is why God specifically zeroed in on fathers in Ephesians 6:4 when he commanded them to “bring [their children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” (NKJV)
Thus, the best thing that homeschool visionaries, local churches, Bible teachers, and mothers can do is to help equip and encourage a father to rise to the task that he has been called to fulfill. A task that only he can adequately fulfill. (See Ephesians 4:11-12.) Sometimes it takes a great deal of patience and long-suffering, but the long-term investment will be worth the abundant fruitful harvest it will yield for Christ’s Church.
To be clear, even fathers are not given a blank check by God to be autonomous in the lives of their children. No one is given such leeway. All authorities must follow God’s Law-Word in their sphere of influence. We are all called to accountability to one another in the Word of God. But the father has a special jurisdiction in that network of accountability that cannot be be replaced. We have to build up our men to the noble task of Christian fatherhood.
Because we ultimately are not merely trying to prevent our daughters from being abused. Ultimately, we are working and praying to see God raise up strong battalions (families) in the Kingdom of Christ for multiple generations.