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What I share in this story is something that I have never shared with anyone in its entirety except my wife. Some of you will know bits and pieces of this story, and some of you will recognize yourselves in it. I am not going to share names of friends and associates in the ATI/IFB world because it is not my intention to hurt anyone. I’m not angry with anyone, and I only desire to share a little of my spiritual journey. Also, my mother and father know that I am sharing this, and that I have no animosity or anger towards them because of choices that they made. All things do indeed work together for good.
The writing of this story is triggered by a series of events that have taken place in the past week of my life. The ATI/IFB world is something that I have thought very little about in the past 5 years or so. I have moved on with my life and career as a professional musician and minister, and I have put the past behind me. For those of you that don’t know, ABC news ran a story on 20/20 last Friday (4/8/2011) about a branch of the Baptist denomination called the Independent Fundamental Baptists. It stirred up a great deal of emotion for me, and brought back a lot of emotions that I hadn’t dealt with in years.
I initially shared the broadcast on my Facebook page with the intention of stimulating conversation…which it definitely did. However, much of the discussion was about the actual cases of abuse mentioned on the program, which wasn’t my goal at all. Abuse happens in many churches in different ways. My goal rather, was to provoke discussion about the mindsets that could lead to such behavior. After thinking it through, I realized that the sharing of my story would probably be the most effective way of communicating my concerns.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (my father was a minister), but was homeschooled from Kindergarten through 12th grade using curriculum written entirely by members of the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church. Our basic curriculum (math, English) came mostly from institutions such as Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College (A Beka books), which are two IFB colleges. The other major portion of our curriculum came from a man named Bill Gothard, who led a homeschooling organization called ATI, which stands for the Advanced Training Institute. While not an official IFB organization, a lot of ATI members were IFB members as well, and there are entire IFB churches which consist primarily of ATI members. In the years I spent officially working with ATI, we were bused to IFB churches on Sundays. Many of the books we were told to read were written by key IFB leaders, and numerous IFB leaders came to speak at ATI events. To be in ATI usually meant that you were in IFB, however most IFB members are not in ATI. The typical non-ATI IFB education consists of attendance at private Christian schools, usually associated with whatever church one attends, followed by attendance at one of the major IFB institutions.
Our family joined ATI in the mid-1980s. I was 5 or 6 I believe. I remember vividly when we joined, as my parents went off to their “initiation” conference and left my brother and I with another ATI family. I actually remember a lot of details about that week for it being so long ago. I remember that the family had a lot of rules that I didn’t understand, and that I got in trouble a lot. When my parents came back, I remember that a lot of things changed. A lot of these same rules that the other family had made became rules in our house. I lived with these rules to some degree or another for a long time. As an example, here are just a few of the rules:
- No TV or movies (had to keep the world out of our home)
- No cabbage patch dolls (they were demonic)
- No blue jeans (that’s what the world wears)
- Ladies can’t wear pants (gotta be modest)
- No music with a “rock” beat in it (it’s the devil’s beat)
- No pork (hey, it’s in the OT for a reason)
- No dating…ever (courtship and betrothal were ok, though)
- No college (college corrupts children…but if you have to go, go to Bob Jones or Pensacola CC)
There are many more, but you get the point.
THE DOCTRINE OF SEPARATION
These rules stemmed from something that ATI and the IFB hold to called the “doctrine of separation.” This doctrine is comprised of two degrees of separation. The first degree is the idea of a total separation from the world. From a parenting standpoint, it means keeping any influence of the “world” out of your home at any cost. Parents are to build a hedge of protection keeping sin out of the home, and if you did that, your kids will turn out fine.
This is why I believe my parents got into ATI. They were fairly young believers at the time, and had no real parental role models. So when certain influential people came along and shared with them this amazing program that would make their kids grow up to be godly young men and women, they bought into it.
In theory, many aspects of this doctrine of separation make sense. Of course we want our kids to be holy, and to walk in the ways of the Lord. But this is not something that can be taught by a bunch of rules and regulations. It has to be taught through nurturing their personal walk with the Lord. Of course we discipline our children. Of course we teach them principles of Godly living. But the emphasis has to be the internals, not the externals. This is the major fallacy of ATI/IFB thinking.
The second degree of separation is even more radical, and it was the concept of separating from those WITHIN the church who didn’t follow the first degree of separation the same way that you did. Thankfully, we weren’t as radical in this area, as we were members of a SBC church. However, the vast majority of my ATI/IFB friends believed in both degrees of separation, and the IFB also has a long standing history of isolation and disassociation from mainstream evangelicalism.
Within ATI, Gothard was viewed as a sort of demigod. I remember attending the annual conferences where he was lauded with 10 minute standing ovations. We awaited every word that he said with baited breath, and took it all as gospel truth. We didn’t ask questions, we just accepted it. And that was the norm in ATI. Gothard was all about controlling people’s minds through anecdotes that would strike fear, and using scriptures out of context to say things that he wanted them to say.
I remember one particular story that illustrates how the ATI and IFB worlds seek to control people. A friend of mine’s sister-in-law had died tragically in a car accident. It so happens that she had recently been listening to some form of contemporary music. Well, her father wrote a letter to Gothard basically saying that God had killed her for her rebellion. Gothard was on the brink of publishing it (thousands would have read it), and only stopped it when a number of her friends flooded him with calls and letters. This was typical of Gothard. Fear and guilt are a powerful method of control. When one’s view of God is so skewed that you fear retribution if you take one wrong step, it is very easy to be controlled.
So, how did all of this thinking affect me as a child? Well, I began to see God as someone who existed to judge me for my failures. I had to live my life in just the right way so that He wouldn’t take His hand of blessing off of me. I learned to obey my mom and dad not because they loved me, but because God would shorten my life if I didn’t. I actually made three public professions of faith in Christ because each time, I wasn’t sure if I had done things the right way.
This mindset led to several character and personality flaws that began to manifest themselves in my early teenage years. These issues are battles that I still face even today. While I must confess that these issues are the result of sin within my own heart, they were heightened by the culture in which I was raised. And I can honestly say that these first two flaws are prevalent within the ATI/IFB world.
First and foremost was a prideful and arrogant attitude about people around me, in and out of church. I followed the rules and they didn’t, so obviously I was a better Christian. As such, I didn’t associate with them.
Secondly, I developed an incredible ability to lie and deceive others about who I was. I knew I wasn’t perfect on the inside, but it wouldn’t matter as much if people, including my parents, didn’t know. Some of my offenses included cheating in school and watching things on TV that my parents didn’t approve of (TV made its way back into the house for only the most strictly approved viewing, mostly of Gothard and IFB videos). Still today, I have a strong tendency to cover up failures and avoid transparency, even within my own family.
The third personality flaw, which I don’t think is as prevalent in the ATI/IFB world, started when I was around 14 or 15, and continues to be a struggle until this day. I developed a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which was completely debilitating for around a year or two of my life. The best way I can describe it was a constant overwhelming fear of messing up, whether it be forgetting to pray before I ate, or accidentally offending someone. I remember nights where I would spend 30 minutes doing something as simple as locking the doors before I went to bed, because I was afraid I wasn’t doing it right. Bizarre, I know. At the root of it all was this oppressive fear of failure. As an aside, my parents took me out of piano lessons at this point, thinking that the pressure of competition was the cause. We also burned a few piano pieces that I was playing at the time, because we were taught that certain music carried demonic powers.
Those of you who know me now won’t really see this side of me, because it’s not debilitating the same way that it was. But it still manifests itself as extreme perfectionism and an inability to accept any kind of failure. My wife can attest to this. Schoolwork, for example, has been known to cause me great emotional stress, as I simply can’t deal with the prospect of failure.
MUSIC AND TRAINING CENTERS
As a budding musician, many of the writings of the ATI/IFB leaders were prevalent in my life during my teenage years. Some of the authors I read and believed included Frank Garlock, Tim Fischer, and Gothard himself. I won’t go into all of the details of their belief system, but suffice it to say that any music with a “rock” beat or pop sound was considered sinful. One particular gem was Gothard’s booklet entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” which named people like Steve Green and Sandi Patti as being “of the world.” Even today, any type of contemporary Christian music is strictly forbidden in ATI/IFB circles. It was in this area that I became particularly legalistic. I wrote letters to my pastors, disdained my music ministers, and judged other teens over their music.
Between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent around two years of my life in ATI training centers, both in Oklahoma City and Indianapolis. I’m not quite sure how to describe training center life to someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand, but the best description I can think of would be a monastery. The majority of my time was spent in Oklahoma City, working with a branch of ATI called Character First. It was an organization that produced and taught character education curriculum in the public schools, which in and of itself wasn’t a bad thing. The life itself wasn’t really so bad either, but the rules and legalism were oppressive. I personally got in trouble for engaging a girl in casual conversation, but that was pretty much the extent of my “misbehavior.” I however, saw several others sent home or assigned extra workloads because they didn’t follow the rules to perfection. I still remember with horror as one young man was forced to confess pornography use to the entire training center. I felt humiliated for him. I remember when the entire group of students was almost denied a field trip because they failed a random pop quiz on the book of Jonah. However, they were allowed to go if they wrote out the entire book by hand. My memories of those days aren’t all bad, but I wouldn’t go back in a million years.
God really began to do a miracle in our family when I was around 18 years old. Somehow through all of this indoctrination, I began to ask questions. Something about what I was experiencing didn’t line up with what I was seeing and reading in God’s Word. Gothard defined grace as “the desire and power to do God’s will (i.e. follow the rules).” But I couldn’t find that concept of grace in the scriptures. It took a long time for me to figure out what it really was, but I knew something just wasn’t right.
I can think of two major influences that really helped things to start clicking for me. One was a Bible study entitled “The Search for Significance” that my dad got for me when I was in the midst of my OCD crisis. The concepts I learned there, though they didn’t catch on right away, stuck with me. Concepts such as the fact that my identity is not in what I do, but who I am in Christ. The other influence, believe it or not, was a speaker at an ATI conference. I to this day don’t know if this man was intending to help students escape from the bondage of legalism, but he spoke on the topic of Christian liberty. He basically talked about how not everything is black and white, and that it is in those “gray areas” that we must seek God’s face.
It was under these influences that the walls began to crumble. Both of those concepts were antithetical to what was ingrained in me. I always thought that everything was black and white and that my personal value was based on how well I followed the rules. The process of change was slow, but things began happening.
The only problem was that my parents hadn’t yet seen the light, and this began a very rough patch in our lives. I actually did become very angry and verbally hateful. They viewed me as a rebel and forced me to attend more of Gothard’s seminars. There were arguments and threats, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to tell them what I was seeing in my training center experiences, but they didn’t understand.
About that time, a ministry called Midwest Christian Outreach released a book (A Matter of Basic Principles) exposing corruption and heresy in Gothard’s teachings. My mother read it, and I don’t know why this particular book did the trick, but it did. My parents began to independently verify certain accounts and events laid out in the book, and when they did, we pulled out of ATI completely. We lost a number of friends, but thankfully we already attended an SBC church, so we didn’t have to leave everything behind.
It was then that I started college (an ATI taboo), and began ministry at a new church. There was a lot of debugging that I had to do. It was very difficult to undo 15 years of thinking, especially when those 15 years were the formative years. I to this day struggle with legalism, pride, dogmatism, and feeling insecure in my relationship with God. Each year gets better, but these things run deep and I’ve had to do a lot of forgiving and forgetting.
One huge issue that came up in the “debugging stage” was my relationship with my wife Rashel. Some of you know that my wife Rashel was divorced out of an abusive marriage prior to our relationship. Within ATI circles, the fact that I pursued a relationship with her was considered sin. I was told by those within that circle that were I to marry her, God would take His hand of blessing off of my life. I remember to this day nights when all hell was breaking loose in my mind. I struggled with fear of God’s abandonment. Unfortunately, for a while my fears prevailed. I broke off our relationship for several months, something that honestly took us a long time (even into our marriage) to fully deal with. Thankfully, I was able to work through these issues spending a lot of time in scripture, and Rashel and I did get married. And yes, I lost some relationships because of it. And no, God has not taken His hand of blessing off of my life. If anything, the opposite is true.
So…why do I share all of this? I guess there are two reasons: as a word of warning and as a word of pleading.
To those who are unfamiliar with this world, I share these things with you so that you are aware. No, abuse does not take place in all or even most of the IFB churches. Many of them are good churches that are reaching many for Christ. There are God-fearing people who truly have a passion for holiness and a love for the lost.
However, the doctrine of separation has resulted in many casualties as well. The problem with believing that you can keep sin out of your children’s lives is the truth that sin already dwells within their hearts. And when a child doesn’t experience personally the love of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the gospel, then the rules mean nothing except captivity and oppression. I know personally of numerous young people that have completely abandoned their walk with Christ, and I have heard that there are hundreds more. I know of broken families, addictions, rapes, abuse, and even murders that can be linked to a culture of legalism. This is NOT to say that these things don’t happen in non ATI/IFB churches. They do. But these problems really hit home to me because they are so deeply personal.
To those of you within the ATI/IFB world, I would begin by plead with you to ask yourself these questions:
- On what do I base my relationship with Christ? What I do, or who I am in Him?
- Concerning my beliefs about music, dress, KJV, dating, etc: do I believe what I believe because somebody told me to believe it, or do I believe it because God showed me through His word?
- What is Christian liberty, and what is its impact on the doctrine of separation? (Romans 14 is powerful in this area)
- What does the Bible say about grace?
Concerning ATI, I fear that there is little hope for change as long as Bill Gothard is still at the helm. Because of his continuous misuse of scripture and heretical teachings, I see no way to live within that world and remain true to the word of God. The dangers are simply too great. I believe that the scariest part of ATI is the fact that those within those groups have no clue as to the danger of their situation. They are simply brain-washed to believe that the world outside is evil, and that the only safe place is within the group. It literally takes an act of God for them to be freed.
I believe that this is also true for a certain segment of the IFB world. Some in those circles still preach a lifestyle of legalism, which breeds behaviors like those exposed on the 20/20 news report. These churches are extremely dangerous.
However, I honestly do not believe this is true of the IFB world as a whole. While I believe that there are strains of legalism running through the IFB world, I believe that there are many changes happening, and that there is hope for deep Spiritual renewal. I pray that the 20/20 broadcast will simply serve as impetus for more transparency and more brotherhood with the broader evangelical church. Mainstream evangelicals need those in the IFB to help keep us faithful to the foundations of the Christian faith, and they need us to hold them accountable for living and walking within the freedom and grace of the Lord Jesus.
In conclusion, let me just say that I hope my story is of value to someone out there. I’m not really sure why I felt lead to share it, but I hope it makes a difference somewhere. If this story resonates with you in any way, I’d love to hear from you about it. I can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Update 4-27-11: It’s been exciting to see how God has used this story. As of this morning, I have had over 3,000 hits on it. Numerous e-mails have come in with lots of stories. Due to the overwhelming response, I’m thinking about writing so more on this issue over the coming months. Probably dealing with specific issues such as Bill Gothard’s definition of grace, the concept of Christian liberty, and possibly other ATI specific issues such as courtship, authority, music, etc. If you would like to recieve such future entries from this blog, there is an e-mail subscription link on the bottom right hand corner of this page.)