I have been trying to put the teachings of Bill Gothard behind me for many years now. It’s not an easy task. I came of age and was formulating the way I would approach my adult life while my brain was marinating in Bill’s man-pleasing, works-based, distorted version of living out the “Good News.”
My wife thinks I might have a version of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) from following a works based religion for so long. Maybe it’s true. I do feel like I’m dealing with a horrible hangover that prevents me from seeing my life and responsibilities in a normal light.
I have since dived into Grace. I even got to the point where I finally accepted grace and felt like I didn’t have to question my Salvation anymore. Or maybe it wasn’t salvation I was questioning so much as just, “Is God pleased with me?” I really believed that in order for God to be truly pleased with me I had to get my life to look like Bill Gothard’s life.
I finally realized God is pleased with me because I believe in the One he sent, not because of how much I deny myself, or how much I force myself to do good, or to refrain from doing bad. I don’t have to be dependent on my own righteousness. I have also been understanding how fear has no place in my life as a believer and must be replaced with love.
But I’ve got to be honest, even with Bill Gothard out of the picture, I have still been struggling to understand how this Free Gift of Salvation is supposed to play out in my life. I mean, I know I’m not going to spend my life pleasing a blue suit clone maker hoping I have what it takes to be part of the Holy God squad believing the greatest thing I can do for God is remain spotless from sin and the world, always being freaked out that I’ll accidentally do something to give the devil a stronghold in my soul so he can take over and cause me to do all sorts of horrible things ruining my life and my “witness” for the Institute and somehow miss God’s will (whoa try to say that all in one breath). I know for sure I’m not going to do all that anymore.
But what am I going to do with my life? Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great catching up on some of the fun things I intentionally deprived myself of. You know, stuff like drinking beer and smoking tobacco and listening to rock cartridges (Basic Seminar reference), watching rated R movies. Growing a goatee. But how does God want me to live?
My wife and I stopped going to church for a long time. She needed to get away as much as I did. She grew up immersed in a different Christian organization. I started thinking maybe my Billy G. PTSD is really a more fundamental problem with Christianity itself. My wife and I coming from two very different Christian perspectives were dealing with a lot of the same issues.
Bill Gothard is not the only thing wrong with Christianity. I just look around and I see leaders in other Christian organizations using guilt to rule over others. I see all the factions and denominations of Christianity fighting and arguing points of doctrine. I see Westboro Baptist people spewing hatred in Jesus’ name. I see Catholicism and Protestantism. I see Democrat Christians and Republican Christians both so sincere and so opposed at the same time. I ‘ve seen a missionary who devoted his life to the Gospel cursing God on his death-bed. I see well-meaning Christians who have eschewed worldly wealth only to find themselves desperate for money.
Mostly I see very few happy Christians. Is it Good News? Shouldn’t good news illicit some semblance of joy? Or maybe the Good News part gets buried under a mountain of human bull shit.
We can dismiss Bill Gothard and all the ones we would consider modern-day Pharisees, but we still have a huge problem in Christendom. It’s been there since the beginning. Read Galations and you see how quickly believers were able to miss the point and distort the Good News. Read 1 Corinthians and you see how quickly believers began dividing themselves into different factions following Paul, or Cephas, or Christ.
Christianity is a mystical faith. All attempts to capture it, pin it, classify it, and organize it fail miserably. They always have and always will.
What do I mean by Christianity is a mystical faith? Mystical means “having a spiritual meaning that is difficult to see or understand.” I would say based on the fact that 2000 years later we still don’t have a clear understanding of this faith that we can all agree on confirms its mystical qualities. It’s simply not easily understood.
Think about all the mystical stuff we read in the New Testament: How we were crucified with Christ. How we died and were buried with him. How we are now seated with God in the Heavenly places. How we are sons of God. How we no longer live in our mortal bodies, but Christ lives in us. Christ’s righteousness is attributed to us. Christ is the High Priest who made one sacrifice for all. All the many miracles. Walking on water.
But as strange as these ideas are, where most of the confusion seeps in is through a little crack I’d like to call “Now What?” We’ve got this pretty little tidy vessel of Christianity that tells me, if I only believe, God will throw away my report card and put Jesus’ report card in my file instead. Awesome! I love this idea that Jesus’ righteousness can be applied in my case on judgement day. But…and I mean a big old stinky BUT….Then inevitably someone swoops in with the old “bait and switch” sales tactic. It looks something like this:
“So Kris, this Free Gift of Salvation is really yours at no cost. But, why just squeak through the Pearly Gates by the skin of your teeth like the dude Jesus was “hangin'” with on the cross, when you can stroll through them Gates in style? Just a little effort on your part and you could even earn yourself an extra jewel or two in your heavenly crown. Why have your name merely written in the Lambs Book of Life when you could have it circled and outlined in Gold Leaf? And most importantly, why wait until heaven for your perfect sinless body, when you can beat yourself into submission right here on earth?”
“Yeah, that totally makes sense. I don’t want to just barely make a passing grade. I want to be on the honor roll! Thanks Jesus for this great certificate of Salvation you gave me. I’m gonna hang it on my wall for sure, but I’m gonna earn other awards I can hang right next to it too!”
You know what? The Apostle Paul and a lot of those guys were just as confused about the “Now What?” question, as we are today. In the book of Galations Paul rails against following the Law of Moses, specifically circumcision. But in the book of Acts we read he had Timothy circumcised because he was afraid of what the other Jews would think.
Think about most other religions and why they are so concerned with how you live your life. Because how you live your life is the whole point of their belief system. If you don’t live your life like this or like that, you will not attain the after-life rewards you want. And the religion has to demonstrate itself in practical ways so that your lifestyle can be visible to others, because the leaders of the religion must have some way of judging your performance, and you, the follower, must have some way of distinguishing yourself from unbelievers.
Christianity is different. You will attain the after-life prize you want by only believing and receiving the Free Gift. You don’t have to wait until your death bed to be assured of its certainty. So how should we live in the meantime?
Whoa, stop a second. There is the million dollar question: How Shall We Then Live?
Don’t be too quick to answer. Bill Gothard and thousands of pundits before him have attempted to answer and destroyed many lives. Don’t answer too quickly. You will be held to account if you cause any of God’s children to stumble. And be careful not to tell me I need to hang more certificates on my wall. Isn’t the one I got from Jesus enough?
This question of what we should do with our Redeemed lives is the vacuum we the people have created that gives Christian Leaders power over us. We have the question, they have the answer. We are the wandering sheep, they are the wise shepherds. The voice which gives us clarity becomes our master.
Bill Gothard’s over-reaching ministry and teachings are just symptom of a bigger problem within Christianity. It’s not enough that Bill identified 7 basic principles in the Bible. We want to know specifically how to apply these principles to our lives. We don’t want any guess work or struggling to find the truth for ourselves. We asked him to tell us exactly how our lives should look under these 7 “non-optional” principles.
And let’s be fair to Old Billy G. Does he tell us we won’t receive the Free Gift of Salvation unless we live his branded lifestyle? No. But should we still classify him as a legalist? Yes.
Believing we can please God with our own brand of righteousness isn’t just called legalism; it’s heresy. If we are still justified under the old law Jesus died in vain. Legalism, in the dirty sense we all despise, allows us to please God by just keeping a series of commands. But Bill would retort, “I’m not preaching my own righteousness. These are rules and principles which God himself outlines in the scriptures.” Yes, Bill, God gave rules and laws for the ancient Hebrews to follow, but I am not a follower of Moses, I am a believer and follower of Jesus Christ.
If you are following the law it’s because you do not believe what God said about Jesus Christ.
You must decide. Do you believe in the Law? Or do you believe in Christ? You can not have both. Maybe you believe in a new law, like the one Bill Gothard created. Same principle applies. You can’t trust in God and the system. You must choose.
The majority of us recovering legalists were never trying to earn our salvation. I think we all agree, including Gothard, that salvation is free. I think we are propelled by a more basic instinct to please our Heavenly Father, because we want to know that God is pleased with us. He is powerful so we want to make sure we’re on His good side.
So the question of “How Shall We Then Live?” can be replaced with the more basic one of “How Do I Know God is Pleased With Me?” I like the second question better because it at least brings God into the equation. Or maybe it’s more like, “How should I live so I know God is pleased with me and he’ll bless me.”
Remember my silly “bait and switch” sales scenario? My character in that play is expressing his desire to be good and please God. He’s not content with just a passing grade, he wants to be valedictorian. He’s not trying to earn salvation, but in a sense, he is attempting to prove he is worthy of it.
Have you ever been given an unexpected gift by someone close to you? Someone you see everyday? A wonderful friend, boss, and mentor of mine once gave me a car. I had so many conflicting emotions. I was, of course, so grateful. But then I kept thinking “How can I ever repay her for this?” I started feeling guilty. What can I possibly do to prove my gratitude?
I was talking to my aunt on the phone about the whole situation and the conflict I felt about how this may change my relationship with this person. I told her how this gift is making me feel guilt and shame that I could never possibly repay such kindness. My Aunt, in her wisdom, told me to just say thank you. She told me someone with such a generous heart really only wants to hear a genuine and sincere thanks. That’s all she wants.
I gave thanks and received the gift. My friend and benefactor never tried to make me feel guilty or like I owed her anything. It only made us closer friends.
What if more of us lived out of gratitude and trust in what God said, instead of out of guilt and shame trying to prove ourselves? What if more of us read and internalized Brennan Manning’s teaching instead of Bill Gothard’s?
The following is not an answer to the “Now What?” question as much as just an observation:
I am a waiter in a restaurant. Typically how my job works is I serve people by advising them what to eat and drink, ensuring they have what they require at all times and generally keep them happy during their dining experience. If they are pleased with my service they leave me a monetary reward. I am motivated to provide good service in hopes of a reward. The idea being, if I give them the best service I possibly can then I can expect a greater reward.
But what if a guest sat down at my table and handed me a generous tip before service had even begun? It sounds crazy, but I’ve experienced this before. It is surreal. You can probably imagine the motivation I felt to ensure this guest gets the very best of everything I bring. I will move mountains to make sure their experience is the absolute best I can provide, even if it affects my timing on other guest’s tables.
Having experienced this makes me smile at the way God orchestrated the Gospel Message. We have our reward before we could even start thinking how to earn it. You don’t have to earn it, because you already possess it.
How does it make you feel to think it may be just that simple? If we shovel our way past centuries of human explanation and doctrine, lies and deceit maybe we will find that the reality of the Good News will inform us how to live all on its own. Maybe all God expects is a genuine and sincere thank you. Even if you could repay him, He doesn’t want you to.
Dear God, I’d like to trade in all my principles and laws and guilt and shame for more Trust and more Gratitude. Amen.