An Evening With Bill Gothard
By Don Veinot, Marty Butz and Ron Henzel
On December 4, I997, three members of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. (Ron Henzel, Marty Butz, and Don Veinot) met with seminar minister Bill Gothard at his offices of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in Oak Brook, IL. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Gothard’s concerns about an article entitled “Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud” which had appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc.’s Journal and also to discuss Gothard’s concerns about a radio broadcast that Veinot was conducting in Chicago about Gothard and IBLP.
Henzel, Butz, and Veinot were accompanied by Rev. Fred Greening, who is a member of the Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. Advisory Board and is also Veinot’s pastor. Gothard was accompanied by three members of his staff: John Stephens, George Mattix, and Nathan O’Brien.
Before the Meeting
Prior to that meeting, we (Veinot and Gothard) had talked by phone and corresponded by letter. I (Don) was concerned about the spirit of the meeting because Gothard felt he had been unfairly treated and that we had communicated misinformation in our article about him. In fact, after his review of the first article, he wrote me (Don) and stated that our research was inaccurate.
He particularly focused upon a statement in the article that read, “When Dr. Allen attempted to arrange a meeting with Gothard through his (Dr. Allen’s) seminary president, Dr. Earl Radmacher, in order to discuss these problems, Gothard told Radmacher that ‘he had no interest in meeting with me [Allen] to discuss these matters’.”1 (Dr. Allen, a professor at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, OR, had attempted to dialogue with Gothard since 1973.)
Gothard disputed the statement in the article and wrote, “The facts are that I did meet with Dr. Allen and wrote a detailed response to each of his concerns and then asked for a further meeting with him.”2
This left us with a big problem as you can imagine. According to Mr. Gothard, our research was incorrect and Dr. Allen’s statement was no longer true, in which case we would need to make a public apology to Mr. Gothard for publishing it. Ron Henzel immediately contacted Dr. Allen and faxed him a copy of Gothard’s letter for clarification. Ron was told by Dr. Allen, in no uncertain terms, that he (Dr. Allen) had never met with Bill Gothard in his life even though he (Dr. Allen) had attempted to arrange such a meeting for 24 years! Dr. Allen wrote a seven-page open letter to Gothard recounting the history of his failed attempts to meet with him. On page five of his open letter, Dr. Allen responded to Gothard’s account of the meeting that Gothard claimed took place between the two of them and wrote, “These are not ‘the facts.’ These are outright lies. This is not the result of a foggy memory, a cluttered schedule, a lapse of thought. These are simply outrageous lies. How may there be a ‘further meeting’ between us when there never has been one meeting?” 3 (Italics in the original.)
In this same letter, Dr. Allen stated that he wanted from Gothard, “... a brief, no-excuses, no-defenses, abject apology for your blatant, outrageous lies about me.”4 To date, this apology has not been offered. Instead, Gothard wrote a revised paragraph which read, “The facts are that I did write a detailed response to Dr. Allen’s concerns. I addressed my response to Dr. Radmacher because I was told that he requested that the article be written and because he had the same concerns. I then asked Dr. Radmacher if we could discuss my response with him.”5 It is true that Gothard wrote a response to Dr. Allen’s concerns, although it took 17 years of coaxing on the part of Dr. Allen and Dr. Radmacher to bring that about. Both Dr. Radmacher and Dr. Allen deny that Gothard requested a meeting to discuss the issues with him.
Planning the Meeting
Gothard took the initiative to set up the meeting with us. We had notified him several weeks in advance that we would tape record the meeting and leave copies with him, so as to minimize the possibility of misquotation. At the last minute, Gothard wrote to insist that we not record the meeting. In his letter he also wrote, “Don, I need to explain to you that I have scheduled this meeting against the council of a very well-respected Christian leader who knows you better than I do. He said, ‘You will be sorry if you have a meeting with Don Veinot, because Don Veinot does not play by the rules.’ I am beginning to see what he means.”6
Gothard’s willingness to repeat unsubstantiated hearsay from an unnamed source concerns us since Bill Gothard has a great deal of teaching devoted to the subject of gossip. For example, on page 16 of his Rediscovering book he writes: “If a Christian leader gives a bad report about any other brother without having gone to him first in a spirit of love, he becomes a whisperer and damages the wider work of Christ which He prayed for in John 17.” We are not saying that we necessarily agree with his reasoning, but there does seem to be an inconsistency here between his mandates for others and his own actions in this case.
Our Board of Directors and our Board of Advisors were desirous that nothing should prevent our meeting with Mr. Gothard, so we agreed to honor Bill’s request and meet without tape recording the meeting. We were not quite sure what to expect when we arrived.
Let the Meeting Begin!
The meeting began promptly at the appointed time of 8:15 p.m., and Pastor Fred Greening opened in prayer. Following introductions, the meeting convened, and Bill Gothard gave introductory remarks to help us get a feel for IBLP from his perspective. Ron had prepared a series of questions to ask in order to establish the basic facts concerning Drs. Allen and Radmacher.
As the evening progressed, opportunities arose to discuss such issues as legalism, the role of the law in the Christian life, birth control, etc. At one point, the meeting broke up into two genial ad hoc discussions on different topics.
Overall, we were pleased at the peaceful tone of the evening. We found Bill and the other three representatives of IBLP to be cordial and genuinely nice men. There were times when we felt that constructive communication was taking place. After Nathan O’Brien closed the meeting in prayer at about 11:30 p.m., it ended on a cheerful note with everyone expressing some positive affirmations as a result of our time together.
Gothard seemed concerned that we did not fully understand his teachings and really couldn’t unless we attend the Basic Seminar. He also said that it had been changed since I (Don) attended in the 1970s. At this point, Gothard expressed some degree of optimism that the research of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. would actually clarify what Bill Gothard and the IBLP really do teach and alleviate some misconceptions about those teachings. Indeed, at the end of our meeting, Gothard noted that I (Don) have obviously surrounded myself “with good men.” He felt that any honest research would confirm the truth of his teachings and serve to refute what Gothard considers to be false conceptions about those teachings.
To this end, Gothard committed to sending us the tapes of the seminar which we agreed to review in the interest of truth and fairness. If we find that we have misrepresented Gothard’s teachings, we will gladly print a retraction to that effect. A few days later, John Stephens, under Gothard’s direction, sent transcripts in lieu of actual tapes but offered to send the tapes if we still wanted them. While we appreciate the transcripts, we will request the tapes that were originally offered.
In our meeting, we affirmed that there are some very good things emphasized in Bill Gothard’s ministry:
1. A biblical approach (whether we agree that Gothard’s views are legitimately biblically justified is another matter).
2. A strong moral emphasis and striving for high moral ideals, which takes sin seriously.
3. Trying to appropriate the Bible for practical guidance for life.
We would not deny that many have been blessed in the course of following Gothard’s ministry.
We would not deny that Gothard properly applies some texts of Scripture and that such teachings have been a blessing to others.
Should Christians Criticize Christians?
We have found, through our live radio broadcast experience, that the programs that prompted the most angry audience phone calls were programs dealing with false teachers/teachings within the Church. Most people in the Christian community agree that it is right and necessary to expose the false teachers/teachings of Pagans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, liberals, Mormons, etc. But sadly, too large a number feel that we should not critically evaluate the doctrines and practices of teachers within the Church. We do not agree.
Indeed, the doctrines taught by Christian teachers must be evaluated, or we are no different than the cults who claim that their leaders are above correction. Such examples would be: Benny Hinn or other word/faith teachers; charismatic excess, such as the Holy Laughter Movement/Revival; evangelicals who make common cause for political reasons with Rev. Moon or Minister Louis Farrakhan; “deliverance” ministries; shepherding movements and churches, etc. Christian desire for “unity” offers no excuse for silence in these matters. Sometimes, doctrine was vigorously and passionately debated even in the early church guided by the original Apostles (Acts 15). Because of the ministry that we are in, we are used to being criticized for being critical, so we are unlikely to be swayed by such criticism. And, we might add, that if Christians criticize us for criticizing Christians, they only make our case for us.
In our scrutiny of Bill Gothard’s ministry and in the practice of evaluating and critiquing some of his teachings, we do not presume to judge his motives or his heart. In fact, we believe that he sincerely regards his prescriptions for Christian living as conforming to biblical truth.
Our concern is that Gothard, though sincere, interprets some biblical texts in illegitimate ways, resulting in a possibly damaging misunderstanding of those Scriptures among his followers. We are well aware that false teachings can result in unfruitful or negative effects in the lives of those who accept them, which compels us to pursue this issue. It is our conviction that God can bless His children even when they do cling to false interpretations of Scripture, although such error can frustrate God’s work in the believer.
We are certain that we, ourselves, and everyone in the Church at large, are imperfect in one way or another and have an imperfect understanding of the Scriptures. Inspired understanding of the scriptures is a claim we disavow for ourselves as well as for others. Having said that, however, we believe that through humility, biblical analysis, and the community of other Christ followers, a consensus can be reached about what God does teach us through the Scriptures and how these teachings apply to our lives today.
We believe that all who want to follow Christ and the Scriptures will welcome dialogue and evaluation of any individual’s biblical interpretation, since the Scripture tells those who wish to glorify Christ and obey Him to “... examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1Thessalonians 5:21, NASB). (Italics ours.)
Finally, the Bereans were considered as having “noble character” (Acts 17:10-15) because they searched the Scriptures to see if what the Apostle Paul told them was true. Nobility is commendable; gullibility is not.
Are You Being Fair?
Some have reminded us to be fair. That is something we very much desire to do. In fact, one individual wrote, “... I hope you will apply no finer filter on Gothard than you would on any other Christian leaders (e.g., Colson, McCartney, Dobson, MacArthur, Kennedy, etc.).”
We couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. In fact, we especially like the “filter” illustration because it implies the attempt to remove impurities. We agree that great caution should be urged in trying to “purify” someone else’s biblical interpretation. As we have already pointed out, there are hermeneutical impurities to be found in every denomination, group, and even individuals (including ourselves!), and it will only cause unnecessary division to go on a crusade against all of them. We readily affirm that we have our differences with Colson, McCartney, Dobson, MacArthur, Kennedy, and so on. Some are more substantial than others — and yet, so far we have not been compelled to write articles about or have meetings with them.
On the other hand, based on our observations, there are a couple of things that set Gothard apart from all these other teachers whom we have just named.
1. Gothard holds to a whole string of rather unique and aberrational teachings, not just one or two. In fact, the more we research his teachings, the more we get the impression that his view of the Law is closer to Seventh-Day Adventism than it is to evangelicalism. At the end of our meeting on December 4, Gothard spent a few minutes trying to persuade Ron Henzel that if he had a son, he should circumcise him — not for salvation, of course, but because it is in the Law nevertheless. The medical reasons he cited simply served as an apologetic for his view of the Law. In other words, the medical evidence was simply used to verify that when God would tell [supposedly] Ron to circumcise his future son, He had good reasons.
In Intertestamental Judaism, one strain of teaching held that during the Messianic Age, the Law still would be strictly applied, but God’s rationale for deleting some of the more inscrutable commands would be explained. Of course, we know that Paul did not argue that Christians should practice Mosaic circumcision with the proper understanding; he said Christians should not practice it at all (Galatians 5:2-12)! Gothard’s view sounds more like one of the Intertestamental Jewish views than it does the Apostle Paul’s. It also more closely resembles Seventh-Day Adventism with Gothard’s habitual resorting to Levitical ceremonial cleanliness laws regarding abstaining from sexual relations for so many days after the birth of a child, and even the mistaken dietary requirement of keeping milk and meat separate [based on an Intertestamental misinterpretation of “You shall not boil a kid (young goat) in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19)]! To our knowledge, neither Colson, McCartney, Dobson nor any of the others come anywhere close to Gothard on these issues.
2. Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., Personal Freedom Outreach, and others have received many reports of people basing their entire lives around Gothard’s teachings to an extent that we have never encountered with Colson, McCartney, Dobson, et. al. We are not saying that those people do not also have their fanatical fans. We are saying that those people, to our knowledge, do not have such an organized and devoted following for themselves as Gothard has for himself.
If what we are saying here is true, then Gothard is glaringly different from other popular Christian teachers. And if this is the case, then it should be true that we do not need a finer filter in order to catch Gothard’s errors. A less fine filter should catch them equally as well. A finer filter would only be necessary to catch tiny little errors that are probably not even worth discussing. That would be nit-picking in the extreme. In our view, so far we have not been dealing with tiny little errors that can be ignored. Thus, the hermeneutical roots of those errors should also be rather easy to catch.
Having said all of this, we must confess that it has still been a challenge to trace Gothard’s exegetical errors back to their hermeneutical causes. It would appear that the explanation to just about all of them is found on page 3 of his Basic Seminar Textbook (1981 edition), Principles for Applying Scripture. There he seems to make “meditation” a hermeneutical principle in such a way that, for all practical purposes, he elevates it to a source of extra-Biblical revelation. Even if he doesn’t go all the way to a concept of extra-Biblical revelation with that practice, it still undermines the doctrine of perspicuity of Scripture. If I must meditate on large sections of Scripture in order to begin to see the underlying principles of the text, or as he also says, “... go far deeper than the facts of the text” to discover its application, then the entire doctrine of Scripture as a clear, self-interpreting revelation begins to fall apart.
We must hasten to say that we are firm believers in meditation, but NOT as a hermeneutical principle — i.e., not as a means of arriving at the meaning of a text. It is true that the Holy Spirit can enlighten our minds to better appreciate the meaning of a text. We sometimes refer to this “understanding” in a sense that is different from cognitive apprehension, which is the normal sense in which we speak of understanding a text.
Sometimes, the Holy Spirit may even help our minds to uncover the actual literal meaning of the text when we are having problems interpreting it. But, that meaning will never be any different than that which could be discerned from a literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutical approach. Yet, we feel that Gothard has used his “meditation” principle to do exactly that; to bypass standard Protestant hermeneutics, with the result that he gets meanings out of the Bible that God never put “in” it!
Of course, we are all guilty of this from time to time. We are taking that into account. The concern that we and others have is that, with Gothard, it happens so frequently and seems to have gotten much worse in recent years. It has extended into medical advice (Cabbage Patch dolls interfering with the birth of children), adoption (tracing family lineage to bind ancestral demons), and other mystical elements (hedge of thorns, umbrella of authority/protection, sins of the fathers, emanating light, the effects of troll dolls).
We will make every effort to be fair, and we appreciate Gothard’s willingness to meet with us. We appreciate Gothard’s quest for truth and share his enthusiasm that our research will get to the bottom of what he really teaches. Ultimately, such research may not be without criticism of Gothard’s teachings.
Nonetheless, we all share the belief, along with Gothard, that the truth of what the Bible teaches, properly understood, is of benefit to us all. In that regard, we are all on the same page. Ron, Marty, and I are willing to have our research tested by Scripture. We look forward to future meetings for clarifications as we interact with the teachings of Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles. W
Don Veinot, Ron Henzel, and Marty Butz
1.) “Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, Part-1,” Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. Journal, September/October 1997, Volume 3, No. 4, p. 9. 2.) Letter to Don Veinot from Bill Gothard, dated October 25, 1997. 3.) There You Go Again: Bill Gothard and “The Facts,” An Open Letter to Bill Gothard, by Ronald B. Allen, Th.D; November 7, 1997. 4.) Ibid., pp. 6,7. 5.) Letter from Bill Gothard to Dr. Ronald B. Allen, dated November 29, 1997. 6.) Letter from Bill Gothard to Don Veinot, dated November 28, 1997.