Wednesday, March 19, 2014

IBLP's Basic Seminar: Instilling Fear

The Institute in Basic Life Principles' Basic Seminar is a core element of the IBLP cult. For many, it was their introduction to the teachings of Bill Gothard.

While the seminar's mainstream popularity has greatly diminished since the 1980's, it continues to flourish in other contexts, like prisons in Florida and Arkansas and New Mexico, and its insidious "principles" propagate under other names including the Character First program, the Police Dynamics seminar, Journey to the Heart conferences, the ALERT Academy, and Verity Institute. Until this year, this seminar was a prerequisite for enrollment in the Oak Brook College of Law. Courts have even ruled in favor of employers who mandate that employees attend a Basic Seminar.

Since Gothard borrows widely from others when writing "material", it is difficult to know which IBLP seminar concepts were actually original with him. Over the decades, Bill conducted some week-long seminars in person, but most attendees simply got to watch 30+ hours of Bill's talking head on video. (The modern version has been cut to 25 hours.) When I attended my first seminar in 1989, a young man in a navy suit stood by an overhead projector on stage and flipped accompanying notes onto the screen as Bill spoke. We each got a printed name tag and a workbook when we registered with the staff at the door. From the time Bill began speaking, we all raced to keep up with filling in the blanks in our books.

An illustration from the IBLP Basic Seminar

When Bill gives a lecture, he uses enough mild humor to be disarming and punctuates each point with a Bible reference that, to his audience, makes it seem legitimate. As the notes rapidly fly off the screen, there is no time to actually look up the verses and see if the context of the passage even supports what Gothard claims it means. From the opening session, Bill purports to teach his disciples to "see life from God's point of view".

The following nuggets of "Godly wisdom" are taken directly from the first pages of the Basic Seminar textbook:
  • We develop right attitudes by comparing ourselves with the characteristics displayed by Jesus. 
  • There is a universal ideal on inward character qualities.
  • If necessary, God sacrifices outward beauty to develop inward qualities, since our happiness is based on having these qualities.
  • God's reputation is at stake in what we do with our appearance.
  • One of the most basic aspects of faith is to realize how God gets His directions to us through those He has placed over us.
  • The way a girl responded to the authority of her father tends to be the way she will respond to the authority of her husband. The way a fellow treated his mother tends to be the way he will treat his wife.
  • The way a teenager responds to his parents' authority will soon be the way he responds to God's authority.
  • Authority is like an "umbrella of protection". and when we get out from under it. we expose ourselves to unnecessary temptations which are too strong for us to overcome. This is why Scripture compares rebellion and witchcraft -- "Rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft." (I Samuel 15:23) Both terms have the same basic definition- subjecting ourselves to the realm and power of Satan.
  • "What if I'm single and living in an apartment?"  First, be very sure that God has led you to move away from your parents, and that they were fully in harmony with the move....When a single person leaves his family apart from God's direction, he exposes himself to many unnecessary temptations to wrongly fulfill [his] social needs. If your parents are in full harmony with your move to another location, it is important to maintain good lines of communication with them in order to receive counsel from them.
  • Forgiveness is having a greater concern for a person after he offends me than I did before he offended me.
  • When our lives are dedicated to God. He puts a protective wall around us so that nothing can touch us except that which God permits. He permits it for a purpose and this purpose is for our ultimate joy and reward. Thank God for the benefit He plans through each offense.
  • Fasting increases spiritual alertness. If we neither eat nor exercise, a greater amount of blood is available for mental and spiritual concentration.
  • ...and on and on!
By denying the stages of normal social development, Gothard traps teenage listeners in an eternal adolescence. By urging submission and forgiveness, he intimidates abused victims out of getting help. Not content with those conquests, Gothard goes on to pit his followers against "today's society", which he dismisses as humanistic, rebellious against [God's] authority, and headed for destruction. Included in this group would be LGBT people (whom Bill prefers to call "sodomites"), college professors, teenagers who dress according to fads, married women with jobs, and couples who use birth control. Bill also pits his audience against other religious people who remain ignorant of his god's wisdom. No wonder so many people who bought into his message went back to their communities and caused church splits!

Many today claim that Bill ensnares his disciples in legalism, but I find that his teaching goes so much deeper than rules. I have many friends who grew up in legalistic environments, yet when their understanding broadened, they were able to jettison the strict rules and move forward. What Bill teaches goes far deeper than legalism, and no amount of "grace" or forgiveness or "loving God" is sufficient to fully counteract the poison.

I was taught a theology full of grace even while I was part of IBLP. I read Luther and Bonhoeffer, Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll. I trusted a "loving god" who knew my frame and remembered that I was dust (Psalm 103). I read Galatians and disagreed with Bill regarding some of the rules he encouraged my parents to follow. I knew Bill didn't actually believe his eternal future depended on following those rules--his "principles" did not apply to his own lifestyle! He did not wonder if he was good enough for the god he credited with blessing him with wisdom and regular "insights".

And yet, even when I left IBLP and was involved in churches that taught the grace and love of Jesus week after week, I still had a terrible time shedding the teachings of Bill Gothard's cult. They had entwined themselves with my own thoughts and lay coiled in my brain. Friends talked about how awful legalism was, and I agreed. But I wasn't afraid of displeasing my god, I was afraid of making an imperfect choice and regretting the consequences ever after.

Bill made us insecure about every choice we made.

Rather than merely teaching us that God wanted us to live thus and so, he taught that there was a best, a right choice in every situation. Legalism would have been much simpler in the long run. My Mennonite friends had their Ordnung which made rebellion and obedience as clear as a yardstick. You cut your hair, or you didn't. Your sleeves went to the elbow, or they didn't. Your head was covered, or you were rebellious. IBLP was never quite so clear. Were culottes allowed or not? Who was forbidden to wear denim, and when and where? Why was one girl's hairstyle shamed, while other women got away with it? Everything was about more than mere appearances, more than following the rules.

Instead of being told blue toothbrushes were bad and red were good, we were told that God knew what color toothbrush we should buy, and also whether we should wear a clip-on tie or a regular one. Properly discerning God's will in these things could even be a matter of life or death. We were reminded that God's will was not the same for all people or at all times. "Others may, but I cannot" was a refrain we were trained to repeat. We were taught to stand alone, to make a wise appeal, and also to obey authorities, for they spoke with God's voice. We were told to reach the point of "having no will either way", like George Mueller, when we prayed to know God's will. The god IBLP taught us to serve was capricious, inconsistent like our IBLP leaders. He could protect us, but would sometimes prefer to "deepen our character" instead by allowing us to be hurt, abused, or even raped, for our own good or to teach us a lesson.

Yes, there were rules, but many were neither clear nor obvious. And so it became a game every time. Does God want me to take the stairs or the elevator? Which shoes does God want me to wear today? Would God be honored if I had a second helping of granola? What would be the possible consequences if I step out of God's will? Can one accidentally step out of God's will? 

Bill Gothard made us frightened to death of being satisfied with "Satan's best", which he said always preceded "God's best". We distrusted our physical sensations, our emotions, our reasoning. Instead, we were to base every decision on Bill's magical Seven Principles. Instead of asking, Is this the person I want to marry?, the question became, Is this the person God has brought for me to marry, or is this the decoy Satan wants to trick me into marrying?

The IBLP seminar teaches people to be afraid.

It teaches them to be afraid of Satan, afraid of their own desires, afraid of getting sick or having financial or relationship problems if they don't follow the "principles" closely enough, or don't keep physical drives on a short enough leash. In many ways, Bill was merely a more conservative voice of "prophecy" in the 1970's, his message akin to Hal Lindsey's in Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. I sum it up this way:
God's enemy, Satan, has the desire and power to hurt you 
and you need to find ways to be safe from him!
Bill spoke, and some shrugged. But others panicked and followed him, blinded by their fear.

Frightened by Bill's made-up charts describing the moral slide to reprobation, we made vows, we made commitments, we raised our hand up and then down, with every head bowed and every eye closed. We promised to read our Bibles every day, we promised not to have secrets from our parents, we promised to submit our wills and our choices to those of our superiors, we promised to pray daily for God's protection from the devil. With these talismans we hoped to be guarded against the evil lurking outside to devour us, and the evil lurking in our own hearts to consume us.

Using fear and manipulation to control others' behavior and thoughts is one identifying characteristic of a cult. And cult survivors, unlike those who grew up in merely strict religious groups, often struggle with decision long after escaping the cult. They may suffer from post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression, nightmares, sexual problems, psychosomatic health problems, and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, these are exactly the symptoms exhibited by many who have left IBLP, especially those who attended the Basic Seminar as children and found their way out of the organization as adults. The more carefully they adhered to Bill's interpretations, they more difficulties they face when they attempt to reclaim their own minds.

The teachings of IBLP are not merely "out of balance". And though Bill peppers his points with biblical references to give the illusion of legitimacy, they are not the "universal, non-optional life principles" he purports to unveil. They are mostly the fabrications of a man who does not believe them himself.


  1. Very true. Even for those of us who didn't attend a seminar until our teens, we imbibed the poison.

    Even more, though, our parents did, and the fear created lingering problems. Every disagreement - or even normal teenaged stuff - was potentially a deal with the devil. The normal process of separating from parents and forming one's own identity and opinions became "rebellion" and caused parents to panic. Combine that with the teachings that parental authority extends beyond childhood, and it becomes difficult to ever have a healthy adult relationship with one's parents.

    In the end, fear never leads to good things...

  2. A couple of weeks ago, the sermon in church was about how the devil has only the power we give him. My husband summed it up: "God is love; fear is the Devil."

  3. Right on. As someone raised Amish Mennonite, I experienced the paranoia you're talking about here as a way I was more "spiritual" than my peers who could only see the rules. Of course the paralysis that results from the constant fear of making a misstep is incredibly useful for controlling people and keeping them in line.

  4. I should have said, "As someone raised Amish Mennonite with a large side of IBLP..."

  5. I live with, "well, I obviously made the wrong choice and permanently ruined my life.." every day.. I still repent and beg God to help me every day. I've tried to make my minf work some other wsy. Once it is ingrained in you young, you cant see any othrt way to think.

  6. I identify with this so much! I feel like most of the reasons why we weren't allowed to do things in our family were based on fear rather than valid, logical reasons.

    1. You might be a legalist if:
      -You put more emphasis on Divine Punishment over freely-given mercy.
      -You emphasize behavior modification as a way of training future devotees.
      -You equate those who don't measure up to your principles as lacking righteousness.
      -You profess to be friendly, but are actually very judgmental (like those in ATI/IBLP).
      -You teach that people's disease is a punishment for being ill-behaved.
      -You instill fear in people by taking a lot about being punished for not behaving oneself.
      -You dislike the idea that even the dirtiest of people can be forgiven by the Lord.
      -You misuse the Bible to teach your holier-than-thou principles and practices.
      -You follow the Seven, Universal, Non-Optional Principles of Life (a rather legalistic formula of living).
      -You say that your courageous and heroic, but are afraid of people analyzing your own hypocrisy.
      -And so forth.

  7. You use the term "Legalism" which I believe is a substitute for the Ten Commandments of God. Jesus said, "If you love me, you'll keep my Commandments." I do not attend, nor have I ever attended any of the Seminars of Gothard. I have my own Faith, which has been taught to me through my parents and His Church, which has withstood the test of time for 2000 years.
    I may look at life differently than the way Gothard does, but the fact he wishes children to keep the 4th Commandment, and to be careful about leaving home without a purpose, and to expose themselves to major temptations is not wrong. It is sensible at best.
    LGBT is not an acceptable life style, and no one is telling these people they cannot participate in the Church, but that they should repent and then participate in the Church.
    God has given us the Commandments, and everything else should fall into place if we keep them and wish to attain the happiness of Heaven. "There will be weeping and nashing of teeth" for those who do not.