Gothard and the Law
(Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud, Part-3)
By Ron Henzel
In Parts 1 and 2, we assessed some of the teachings of Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) through a chronological approach. While we wish to maintain that basic perspective in this series, this article covers such a vast and pervasive topic in Gothard’s ministry that it will depart from the chronological format. To evaluate Gothard’s teaching on the Law, we must examine it in the context of the overall history of IBLP.
s Gothard a Legalist?
“Legalism” is a time-honored word Christians use to refer to some kind of misuse of law.1 Gothard, himself, once used it,2 but now he writes:
The word legalism is not a biblical term and should not be used since it has conflicting meanings that are emotionally charged.3
It is interesting that Gothard seeks to legislate how Christians use words and ironic that he chose “legalism.” It is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “thinkspeak” of 1984. Words are the coins of human ideas, and whoever controls their flow becomes a kind of Federal Reserve Board Chairman4 of Christian thought. Should anyone have such power?
If we limited our vocabulary to words found in Scripture, then technically we only should speak Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Even if we extended this rule to include English translations of biblical words, we still could not use important theological terms like “Trinity,” “inerrancy,” “Calvinism,” “Arminianism,” or “dispensationalism,” all of which have conflicting meanings and emotional overtones for various people. Nor could Gothard, himself, use phrases like “chain of authority” or “umbrella of protection.”
Since Gothard has been bombarded with charges of legalism in recent years, we can understand why he would like to erase the word from the English language — but this cannot be allowed. Instead, we must determine the legitimate meanings of “legalism” and consider whether any of them apply to Gothard and IBLP.
When Christians use the word “legalism,” they usually are referring to one or more of the following definitions:
1. Keeping the Law as a means of salvation;
2. Keeping the Law’s “letter” without keeping its “spirit”;
3. Building a “fence” of unnecessary, extra-biblical laws around biblical laws;
4. Imposing obsolete Old Testament (OT) requirements on New Testament (NT) believers.
Gothard denies that we must keep the Law in order to be saved,5 so he does not qualify as the first type of legalist.
He also repudiates keeping the “letter” without the “spirit.” This would include something that everyone has been guilty of: hypocritical compliance with God’s commands. It also includes the way the Pharisees nullified the Law through human traditions (Matt. 15:1-8; Mark 7:6-13).
When we come to the third definition, however, it does not seem that Gothard can be acquitted of legalism. It was precisely the practice of adding extra commandments to the Law that Christ was referring to when He said, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4, NIV).
The Pharisees (and their rabbinic descendents, who wrote the Talmud) were quite unapologetic about this practice. They believed they were protecting the Law by building a “fence” of extra commandments around it,6 and that “tradition” was a “fence” that protected the Law.7 The idea was this: the more rules you set up for yourself, the easier it would be to keep from sinning. Thus, there was a rule against a woman looking into a mirror on the Sabbath. Why? Because, if she looked into a mirror, she might see a gray hair; and if she saw it, she might pluck it — and that would be “work” on the Sabbath! Hundreds of other examples could be cited.
It never seemed to occur to them that the resulting thousands of pages of rules and regulations would become far more burdensome than the Mosaic Law ever was! It would also suck the very life out of God’s people and make hypocritical compliance an inevitability under the strain of so many do’s and don’ts.
With all the “universal, non-optional principles of life” that Gothard’s Basic Seminar Textbook contains, it is a kind of “Evangelical Talmud.” But this does not only apply to the Basic Seminar Textbook. As I sit writing this article, I literally have thousands of pages of IBLP materials stacked around me, donated by concerned Christians, all filled with lists of “principles” for living the Christian life. How could anyone who reads them avoid drawing the conclusion that the Christian life is one of extremely complicated rule-keeping?
Gothard even sets up principles for which either a biblical reference is lacking or the one he does supply is questionable. This is a dangerous procedure, as Carl Hoch writes:
What is legalism to one is not legalism to another. People have their own set of extrabiblical rules that seem appropriate to them. But then each person’s set becomes the standard for other Christians. The person who has power and influence will soon gain a large following whose adherents will believe that their “set” is the true set. Those individuals in the group who do not necessarily accept that set as legitimate may still comply out of fear of punishment, ostracism, and “shunning.” All of these supererogations8 become identified with Christianity and build up an unnecessary wall between the church and the world. We should not be surprised when people reject Christianity for the wrong reason, thinking that they must give up movies or some other item on someone’s list in order to become a true believer. What a terrible distortion of Scripture and true Christianity! In essence another gospel has been created that leads to confusion within and without the church.9
In Gothard’s How to Respond to the Term Legalism tract, he does not even mention either the third or fourth definitions listed in this article, and yet, they are among the word’s most common meanings. As for the fourth definition — imposing obsolete OT requirements on NT believers — this takes us into an area of widespread disagreement among Christians: the exact role of OT Law in the Christian life. To evaluate Gothard’s tutelage on this point, we must set it in the context of the broad spectrum of evangelicalism.
Gothard Steps in to Fill a Vacuum
Many feel that the Church has not faithfully done its job in preaching the OT. In 1993, theologian Walter C. Kaiser wrote:
The hunger for someone to give the believing community instruction in the proper use of law is so great that one popular seminar since 1968, focusing on Proverbs (a veritable republication of the law of God in proverbial form, as can be seen from the marginal references to Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), has literally had tens of thousands of people swarming to its sessions in every major city in North America and now all over the world. [A footnote to this sentence reads: “In the Basic Youth Conflicts seminars.”] This is an indictment on the church and its reticence to preach the moral law of God and to apply it to all aspects of life as indicated in Scripture.10
A widely respected scholar, Kaiser is well known for his independent position on the relationship between Law and Gospel. He certainly is not a Dispensationalist, but he also is not a Covenant theologian in the traditional sense; and while his remarks fall short of an endorsement of Gothard and IBLP, they urge Christians to have a greater appreciation for the Mosaic Law.
This quote is used as a starting point in order to emphasize the diversity of evangelical opinion on how to relate the Law of Moses to the Christian life, and that this diversity affects the way one evaluates Gothard’s use of the Law. Not all believing scholars follow Kaiser’s view — in fact, he is in a minority camp. (I agree that Christians have sadly lost an appreciation for the Mosaic Law as an important part of Scripture, although I do not accept his view of how Christians should relate to the Law. But our task here is to evaluate Gothard’s view.)
Gothard vs. Matthew 5:17
Among evangelicals, three primary positions on the Mosaic Law exist. They can be distinguished from each other by one simple test: how they interpret Christ’s words, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17, NIV). More specifically, each view can be identified by how it interprets the phrase “to fulfill” (Greek: plerosai). At the risk of oversimplifying (for variations exist within each viewpoint), the three positions and their adherents are as follows:
1. Christ Revises the Law (Reformed);
2. Christ Replaces the Law (Lutherans and Dispensation - alists);
3. Christ Reaffirms the Law (Theonomians and others).
Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox hold to a variation of position two in which the “one true Church,” through its clergy, mediates Christ’s authority in the world. So, in practical terms, they believe the Church replaces the Law.
Since Gothard claims to be an evangelical, we will focus on comparing his position with the standard evangelical positions.
1. Christ Revises the Law (Reformed)
This broad heading does not do justice to the spectrum of Reformed interpretation of Matt. 5:17, but it accurately conveys its results. In Reformed theology, Christ “fulfilled” the Law in the sense of revealing its true meaning and intent — and, to some extent, transcending it. Reformed tradition divides the Law into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The moral laws are seen as still in force for the Church, but Christ’s ministry helps us better understand them. The civil and ceremonial laws are considered types and shadows of Christ that no longer function as pointing forward to Him, so they have been set aside.
Gothard’s position clearly is not Reformed, since he promotes Mosaic ceremonial law in the areas of abstinence from sexual relations on specific occasions (Leviticus 12 and 15)11 and circumcision.12 Gothard’s entire rationale for circumcising infants uses the OT in a way that Reformed Christians reject. He urges the need for an actual circumcision ceremony13 on the eighth day after the birth of a male child.14 To document the event, he even provides a “Certificate of Circumcision”15 (not something I would hang on my wall) with places for signatures from an officiating minister, “medical attendant” (doctor?), family members, and other witnesses.
Regardless of his employment of medical evidence to support his use of ceremonial laws, Gothard ultimately does not promote them for medical reasons. He picks and chooses what he will accept from medical authorities, as he so much as states in his bulletin on circumcision:
In recent years, the time-honored practice of circumcision has been challenged by many groups, including pediatricians.
The attack against circumcision in the United States coincided with the revolt against morality and authority in the 1960s. One of the chief reasons given for not having circumcision was that it decreased a man’s sensual pleasure.
Indeed, uncircumcised men have, as a group, been more promiscuous than circumcised men ...
Because this is one subject which is so strongly commanded and reinforced in Scripture, there is no question what the decision of Christian parents should be on the matter.16
While one might wonder how Gothard knows so much about the sexual habits of uncircumcised men, it is clear that he does not present circumcision as an option for Christians, but rather, as a moral requirement. This, alone, places Gothard’s view outside the Reformed tradition which interprets circumcision as a moral requirement under the Law but not under the Gospel.
2. Christ Replaces the Law (Lutherans and Dispensationalists)
Despite his popularity among Dispensationalists, it would be a mistake to think Gothard is one of them.17 The dispensational position on the Law can be summarized as follows: “Christians are not under the Law of Moses as a rule of life.” This position reads Matt. 5:17 and 18 together, and the emphasis is placed on the phrase “until everything is accomplished” at the end of verse 18. Since Jesus has “accomplished” (or fulfilled) the entire Law, all of it has “passed away” (see v.18) for Christians. The Law remains a vehicle of revelation but not regulation.
Lutherans agree that Mosaic Law is not binding on Christians, but they differ from Dispensationalists in that they allow for “three uses” of the Law. The first use is to restrain evil in the world; the second use is to bring people to an acknowledgment of their sins, so they can understand their need for Christ; the third use is to restrain the remnants of sin that remain in true, regenerated believers.18
So, what do Dispensationalists say is the “rule of life” for Christians today? When you consider the fact that a wide range of teachers — from John MacArthur, to Charles Ryrie, to Zane Hodges — call themselves “Dispensationalists,” the answer obviously varies. But the most common response is that the NT, itself, provides all the moral guidance that believers need.
Gothard’s view of the Law is not even close to the Lutheran position. It also is more-or-less opposite that of Dispensationalists. While he does not attack the dispensational view overtly, much of what he writes seems intended to refute that position.19 He does not admit that the Law has passed away in any sense other than, perhaps, that its sacrificial system has ceased.
3. Christ Reaffirms the Law (Theonomians and others)
Theonomians are a small, fringe group of evangelicals whose origin traces back to Reformed scholar Rousas J. Rushdoony, who insisted in his 1973 book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, that the Church should work to bring Mosaic civil laws and penalties (e.g., the death penalty for adulterers, idolaters, and sorcerers) into the law books of modern “Christian societies.” Sometimes called Christian Reconstructionists, their views have spread beyond their Reformed birthplace into Pentecostal circles.
Theonomians depart from the Reformed view in that only the moral aspects of the Law apply today, and they believe that only the ceremonial aspects of the Law passed away in Christ. Thus, Gothard is not a Theonomian. However, we can say that, of all the interpretations of Matt. 5:17, this one comes the closest to his position. Like the Theonomians, Gothard believes Christ’s basic meaning was to reaffirm the validity of the Law for all time.20
Nonetheless, Gothard’s view goes beyond that of the Theonomians. He, too, believes that modern civil laws should be based on Scripture,21 but he also strongly promotes the ceremonial requirements of the Law for Christians today. In this, his belief comes closer to that of a group outside of evangelicalism: Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA).
One of the things Gothard has in common with the SDA is his admiration for a popular book from the 1960s: None of These Diseases by S.I. McMillen, M.D.22 McMillen primarily interpreted Mosaic ceremonial laws in medical terms. He was an early popularizer of the notion that circumcision reduces the risk of cervical cancer in women23 — which has since been repudiated by the American Cancer Society.
Following McMillen’s lead, many Bible teachers jumped on the bandwagon, finding medical reasons for the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” foods, the treatment of lepers, the handling of corpses, and numerous other ceremonial requirements which, otherwise, seem inexplicable to modern man. For Christians interested in apologetics, this approach also seemed to provide evidence for the hand of an omniscient God at work in Scripture.
But were health and hygiene the primary (or even partial) reasons that the ceremonial laws were given?
While this view of the ceremonial laws enjoyed its heyday among some commentators,24 it has been thoroughly discussed by Christian scholars and no longer carries much weight. As Gordon J. Wenham observes, the reasons this view does not work can be found in the Scriptures:
First, hygiene can only account for some of the prohibitions. Some of the clean animals are more questionable on hygienic grounds than some of the unclean animals. If ancient Israel had discovered the dangers of eating pork, they might also have discovered that thorough cooking averts it [sic]. In any event, trichinosis is rare in free-range pigs ...
Secondly, the OT gives no hint that it regarded these foods as a danger to health ...
Third, why, if hygiene is the motive, are not poisonous plants classed as unclean?
Finally, if health were the reason for declaring certain foods unclean in the first place, why did our Lord pronounce them clean in his day [Mark 7:19]? Evidence is lacking that the Middle Eastern understanding of hygiene had advanced so far by the first century A.D. that the Levitical laws were unnecessary. Indeed, if the primary purpose of the food laws was hygienic, it is surprising that Jesus abolished them.25
We should add two items to Wenham’s list:
First, if ceremonial laws were given for health reasons, then (because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit) some moral imperative must be attached to those laws. The inspired Apostles should have recognized this and taught believers to keep ceremonial laws as proper stewards of their bodies — but they didn’t. Even when they had a Greek Christian in their midst (Titus), the Christian church in Jerusalem did not require him to get circumcised (Gal. 2:3). Ultimately, however, Gothard does not seek to justify “Christian circumcision” on medical grounds; for him it is a matter of biblical “morality.”
Second, to focus on matters of health and hygiene, or interpret Mosaic ceremonies as moral requirements, is to lose the prophetic function of those laws as pointing forward to Christ and to risk removing Christ from the core of the Bible. Paul’s teaching, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17; cf. Heb. 10:1), recedes into the background. Keeping ceremonial requirements becomes the main thing, and we end up trading the substance for the shadow.
To all Christians, especially those who follow Gothard, his teaching on the Law should be quite alarming. It forces us to ask the question, “Is Gothard truly an ‘evangelical’?”
The Historic Christian Position
The historic Christian position on Matt. 5:17 has not been that Christ came to reaffirm the Mosaic Law; but that, in its original form, the Law was provisional and incomplete at some level. The fact that it was necessary for Christ to come and “fulfill” it is proof enough of that. This is a basic area of agreement between the Reformed, Lutherans, and Dispensationalists.
Another area of agreement among evangelicals has been that neither the ceremonial nor the civil aspects of the Law are required of Christians today. Evangelicals take different theological routes, but they arrive at the same conclusion: it is not only unnecessary but wrong for Christians to require others to be circumcised, to keep the Levitical purification rites, or to impose Mosaic civil sanctions.
Gothard has not merely adopted a “fringe” position on the Law; he clearly falls outside historic evangelicalism, having gone much further than Theonomianism.
Recently, I explained Gothard’s view to Dr. Walter Elwell, Professor at Wheaton College, during a personal conversation. He identified Gothard’s position (as I explained it) as a “moderate Judaizing” position, because Gothard clearly does not require circumcision for salvation, and yet, he makes it a requirement for Christians.
Full-blown Judaizers, whom we read about in the Book of Acts, required circumcision for salvation. Then there were Jewish Christians who practiced the Law but did not require Gentile Christians to do so. Moderate Judaizers fall in between Judaizers and Law-observing Jewish believers.
So now we should ask: “Is there room in evangelicalism for moderate Judaizers?” An “evangelical” is one who adheres to the gospel message as it was preached in the NT. So does Gothard’s gospel match the Apostle’s gospel? This question goes beyond the scope of this article.
Gothard’s Key Text
Gothard defends his position on the Law by quoting Gal. 3:24 from the KJV: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ ...” Should not Christians follow the Law if it brings people to Christ? Several things need to be noted here.
First, Gothard often misquotes Paul’s verb tense by saying that the Law is a schoolmaster. Paul used a past tense (“was” KJV, NIV26) to indicate that the Law no longer functions in this way.
Second, the phrase, “to bring us,” is not in the original Greek (it’s italicized in the KJV). The NIV and NASB add similar phrases, but the NIV provides the alternate translation, “the law was put in charge until Christ,” in its margin. Many scholars agree that the Greek preposition “eis” has this temporal meaning of “until” which fits the context (especially v.25).27 Paul was not so much describing what the Law did (i.e., bring us to Christ) as he was emphasizing its temporary role.
Third, Gothard omits Gal. 3:25, “But after that faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster,” where Paul made it clear that the relationship described in v.24 no longer exists for Christians. By quoting Gal. 3:24 out of context, Gothard tries to get Paul to say the opposite of what he intended.
But Is It Legalism?
Based on the evidence, we conclude that Gothard is a legalist according to the third and fourth definitions previously listed. Several Bible teachers have observed that legalism inevitably leads to license, because it frustrates the very grace of God. We need to become holy. Instead of being cleansed by God’s Spirit, legalism depends on one’s own efforts; and since man is not up to the task, sin invariably boils over in the human soul.
1. For definitions from three evangelical writers: Erwin W. Lutzer, How In This World Can I Be Holy? (Moody Press, 1974), pp.82-92; J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, (Tyndale House, 1993), pp.175-77; Charles C. Ryrie, The Grace of God, (Moody Press, 1963), pp.73-84.
2. Instructions for our Most Important Battle, (IBLP, 1976), p.27.
3. How to Respond to the Term Legalism, (IBLP, 1996), p.1.
4. The Federal Reserve Board Chairman heads the agency that controls the American money supply.
6. The Mishnah, tractate Aboth 1:1.
7. Aboth 3:14.
8. Supererogation — the act of performing more than is required, usually for the purpose of gaining merit.
9. Hoch, All Things New, (Baker, 1995), p.212.
10. Kaiser, “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, (Zondervan, 1993), p.198.
11. The Unexpected Benefits of Periodic Abstinence in Marriage, (Medical Training Institute of America [IBLP], Revised 1992), p.5.
12. How to Make a Wise Decision on Circumcision, (MTIA, Revised 1992).
13. Op.cit., pp.11-14.
14. Op.cit., pp.7-8.
15. Op.cit., p.15.
16. Op.cit., p.2.
17. Robert J. Sheridan wrote: “... if there is a dispensational approach [in Gothard] it is inconsistent.” Bill Gothard and Dispensationalism, (Calvary Bible College, 1984), p.20. However I detect few, if any, dispensational tendencies in Gothard.
18. “Formula of Concord, Article VI,” P. and D. Schaff, eds., The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, (Baker, reprinted 1985), pp.130-31.
19. See especially point 25, “We Despised His Law,” in The Power of the Living Church: A Biblical Strategy for Courageous Pastors and Congregations, (IBLP), p.34.
21. Be Alert To Spiritual Danger, (IBLP, 1980), p.12.
22. (Revell, 1963); reprinted numerous times.
23. None of These Diseases, pp.17-22.
24. Especially R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Eerdmans, 1969), p.605; and R. Laird Harris, “Leviticus,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2, (Zondervan, 1990), pp.529-30.
25. Wenham, Leviticus, (Eerdmans, 1979), pp.167-168.
26. Also: R.Y.K. Fung, Galatians (Eerdmans, 1988). NASB interprets the verb (ginomai, in the perfect tense) as “has become” which is an attempt to bring out the perfect tense but at the cost of introducing ambiguity. It is still not the same as “is.” F.F. Bruce’s use of “has been,” Galatians, (Eerdmans, 1982), is a better choice.
27. See Bruce’s and Fung’s commentaries on Galatians.