John Cornish

And the sparks flew: more thoughts on my ATI article

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Wow, what a month it has been. Finals, a trip to New York, a wife in her third trimester, Easter/Good Friday at church…whew. On top of all of that was my last blog post, which turned into something I never would have imagined. What was honestly just a cathartic opportunity for me to write out my story turned out to be an experience only God could have arranged.

As of right now, that blog entry has gotten 4,476 hits and has been shared 843 times on facebook. I spent about 5 hours writing my story last month, and have spent triple that replying to dozens of emails and facebook messages. I actually just now got caught up answering all of those.

What was the response I received? Well, naturally, it was mixed. Comments ranged from former ATI/IFBers thanking me for writing it to current ATI/IFBers accusing me of living in rebellion to God. However, the vast majority of comments were very encouraging.

Many have encouraged me to write more about this issue, and I may from time to time address issues related to ATI and or the IFB. However, my primary calling and gifting is in the area of music and worship, and the majority of my writing on this blog will still be about those and other related subjects. I do participate in a couple of online forums in which ATI/IFB issues are discussed, so I am able to more specifically address issues that affect “survivors.”

Nevertheless, in the process of watching this all unfold, answering e-mails, observing facebook interactions, holding personal conversations, I’ve realized that I have just a few follow-up thoughts. While I stand by the article as it is, there are a few points that I think are worth fleshing out just a bit more so I can be perfectly clear where I stand. Call it an addendum, if you will.


One of the criticisms I received is the typical legalistic response to someone who emphasizes grace: that my acceptance of grace somehow equates to an abuse of spiritual liberty. Some pointed to my life choices (which in their minds are very liberal) as validation of this point.

So let me be clear: the grace of God does not give us freedom to live however we choose. However, it gives us the freedom to know that when we fail, He still loves us and forgives us. As Paul writes in Romans 6, we should not therefore sin simply so we can receive God’s grace, but in response to His grace we should endeavor to please Him.

You see, it’s all about motivation. Legalists are motivated by fear. Christians are to be motivated by love. Gothard teaches that grace is the power and desire to do God’s will. He also teaches that as we obey God, He gives us more grace. This is only partially true, and leads to a cycle of fear and failure. Think with me about how scary this cycle can mentally become: if grace is the desire to obey God, and I get this grace by obeying God, then what happens when I fail God? Obviously, He won’t give me more grace, and I won’t have the power to obey Him.

Now, this desire and power to do God’s will IS a biblical manifestation of grace. However, this desire comes from a heart of gratitude and love for God as He expresses His grace in and through us.


Another criticism I received was from a few IFBers questioning whether it was fair of me to include them in the title, since my personal experience was more with ATI and Gothardism. While I stated in the articles that they are not the same organization, my reason for including both entities in the title and content was two-fold. First, I knew that the IFB issue was on a lot of people’s minds, and I knew it would resonate with a lot of people. Secondly and most importantly, the point of the article was not to expose any group or organization, but rather to expose a mindset that permeates both ATI and the IFB. See, the “ATI/IFB world” as I referred to it is not an organizational structure, rather it is a way of approaching life from a legalistic perspective. The sheer volume of emails I received from IFB members applauding what I wrote is confirmation that this was not an error in judgment.


In my article, I tried to warn of the dangers of ATI. Some people thought I overreacted. One reader commented that ATI could still be used, as long as one kept it in balance. While I personally think that is impossible (ATI has too many requirements to even get into the program), why would one want to play with fire? There are a lot of good things in Mormonism, too, but I’m not becoming a Mormon.

Honestly, I could spend pages writing about the spiritual carnage caused by Bill Gothard. I have spent quite a bit of time on forums created by and for ATI “survivors,” and in comparison to many of the stories I’ve heard, what I experienced was very mild. For every ATI student who survives, there are many more that have left the faith entirely. Bill Gothard has left behind a generation of homeschooled students who are afraid of religion, socially inept, abused, scarred, addicted, and hurt. Yes, many have made it through. Many have not.

Based on what I have experienced, what I know, and what I have witnessed, ATI is extremely dangerous. My heart breaks for the thousands of children who are in it today.


Something that I was challenged on was whether I was fair in my criticism of Bill Gothard. Not his teachings, but who he is as a person, his motivations, etc. While I can never know a person’s motivation or heart, I can know what they do and don’t do. And I have come to several conclusions based on what Bill has not done. These conclusions came partially as a result of a dialogue with someone who knows Gothard personally.

  1. Bill has not publically responded to or accepted the criticism of other theologians, pastors, or church leaders who have challenged him on his interpretation of scripture.
  2. Bill does not surround himself with those who will challenge him.
  3. Bill has never rebuked his followers who idolize him or done anything to deflect the glory, fame, or credit from himself.
  4. Bill has never rebuked his followers who have judgmental spirits and attitudes.

I have also heard a number of accounts from friends who have had personal interactions with Bill that would make your stomach turn.

In summary, I would view Bill in much the same way I view Harold Camping. Did Camping intend to deceive and defraud his followers out of millions of dollars, costing them years of their lives? Probably not. But what he did was still wicked.

Likewise, did Bill Gothard intend to cause carnage within the hearts of thousands of children, causing them years of heartache and spiritual confusion? Probably not. From all accounts, he only ever wanted to help young people. However, he is still accountable for the damage he has done. And the fact that he has never taken responsibility for his actions makes him dangerous still.


So with that, I wrap up this topic for a while. I’ve said what I needed to say, and I hope I’ve brought some clarity to my position. As always, I’m available by email at if you have specific questions.

  1. […] Cornish has posted a follow up to his post about his childhood in an ATI world. Share and […]

  2. I grew up in ATI and am now 25 years old. My mom was saved after attending a Basic Seminar, and it drew my Dad back to a more consistent walk with the Lord. They both had regrets from living so much of their lives with bitterness, rebellion, addiction, etc., and they truly understood the 7 basic life principles (suffering, ownership, freedom, authority, etc.) from a heart motivation perspective. They were full of love and full of fun, and I think that protected me SO much from the skewed perspective of God that so many of my friends and acquaintances have described to me. I loved reading the Wisdom Booklets, doing the projects in the Parent Guide Planner, etc. Also, when I was growing up we attended a large church where the special music was usually Southern Gospel (with a beat) and there was no real dress code. There was always a sense of tension between my family and the church – on the one hand we loved the people and the excitement with many people getting saved and growing in Christ, yet on the other we were far more conservative in our “standards” than most other people in the church, especially as regards music.

    At church and at home I was taught a Biblical view of justification by faith alone, and I accepted Christ as my Savior when I was five. Yet I remember correcting my 2nd-grade Sunday School teacher when she defined grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” In my extremely literal mind there was only one definition of that word and it was “the desire and power to do God’s will.” I think she was a bit shocked. But I never connected those dots and thought that SAVING grace was the same as “the desire and power to do God’s will.” Although I didn’t know the theological terminology, I basically thought of that as what I would now call “sanctifying grace.” I guess you could say that my basic personality is such that I tend to think I am absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. I have a natural tendency to think in terms of “us v. them.” So, growing up I believed that I, my family, and Bill Gothard were right and anyone who disagreed was just wrong – even though in reality, I didn’t even know a lot of what Bill Gothard actually taught!

    I specifically remember going to a Children’s Institute when I was 12 years old, the last year before I would not be able to attend CI anymore. Every night they had a different commitment they asked us to make before the Lord. I felt very miserable and uncomfortable because I felt that if I did not make all the commitments, I must not really be willing to give my all to the Lord, but yet there were some of them that I did not want to make (like to never listen to rock music). It wasn’t that I wanted to listen to rock music, but my literal mind took the words as a contract, and I realized that NEVER is a long time! I did not want to make a promise I wasn’t reasonably sure I could keep. This was also the reason I never staffed a CI – I really wanted to, because I loved working with children, but you had to sign on the application that you were committed to courtship, no rock music, etc. I would have been glad to promise not to flirt with guys during the CI or not to listen to rock music during that week, but to have to make a lifelong commitment in order to be able to work just that one week was too daunting to me. I didn’t even really know what courtship WAS, for goodness sake!

    As I got into my teenage years, I began to come more into contact with the actual teachings of the Institute. I went to my first Basic Seminar, then to the Counseling Seminar, the Anger Resolution Seminar, and the Advanced Seminar. Although I think many of the principles (such as staying out of debt, seeing trials as opportunities to trust God, etc.) were helpful, I found Mr. Gothard’s LISTS extremely frustrating to my literal mind (again!). I remember one day I was mad at somebody, so I got out my Anger Resolution workbook and tried to follow the STEPS like a formula. “Ok, first I need to give my rights to God. God, I give You my right to such-and-such. Next, I need to reclaim ground I have surrendered to Satan.” (Etc.) When I got to the end of the list of steps, I still felt mad! I felt like a spiritual failure and thought I must have done something wrong in following the formula. I feel pretty sure now that Mr. Gothard never thought of those things as a formula or mindless checklist, but that is how they were presented and I know from my discussions with others that I am not the only one who thought this way. Mr. Gothard also said that the secret to power over sin was memorizing and meditating on Romans 6. I tried it and was extremely frustrated when it did not work to make me stop certain besetting sins! This mystical approach may sound like a silly misinterpretation on my part, but I think it was encouraged by the use of phrases such as “The Secret to…,” “5 Steps to…”, etc.

    The biggest struggle I have had over the years with the principles taught in ATI is that of authority. Any time I would disagree with my parents I felt guilty, that I was being rebellious, not only against them, but against God Himself. This has made me very afraid to form my own opinions about certain issues and take responsibility for my own decisions. My parents have actually helped me a lot through this by telling me, “You are an adult now, and we do not want to dictate to you what to think or do. We may disagree, but you must make your own decisions.” I am SO thankful that I do not have the controlling, authoritarian parents that so many in ATI have had! Nevertheless, I still struggle with fear anytime I make even a minor decision that does not fully meet with their approval – fear that it will turn out badly and it will be all my fault for not complying with their opinion.

    I tend to LIKE rules, guidelines, uniforms, discipline (would probably have really enjoyed the military). I also still greatly PREFER fairly conservative music, dress, art, etc. It has been really difficult for me over the years to separate my tastes and preferences from moral convictions and not have a judgmental spirit toward others.

    Sorry this is so long, but thank you for the opportunity to share part of my experiences with ATI.

  3. “Bill Gothard has left behind a generation of homeschooled students who are afraid of religion, socially inept, abused, scarred, addicted, and hurt.”

    That statement summarizes me in a nutshell. I’m 29 years old and am still struggling with the insidious effects of the lifestyle my parents abruptly adopted when I was 7. The misguided theology consumed every nook and cranny of our lives. I like to tell people I wasn’t “raised”, I was “programmed”.

    Prior to their “conversion”, our life was normal. It was quite balanced, and the only happy memories I have from childhood all occurred before they decided to take their religion to the next level.

    My father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister who was spiritually stifled by the rigid requirements of ATI, and took out his frustration via emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse. My mother went from a vibrant, healthy woman to a shell of a human, always consumed by fear of sin, always struggling with a myriad of health issues. I went from feeling genuinely loved, to only receiving affection when demonstrating absolute obedience to the ever-changing rules governed by various fundamentalists. Scholastic achievement also brought me attention and affection for a while, but when you’re always academically perfect (99th percentile on every standardized test), it becomes the norm, and there’s no catalyst to incite affection.

    I didn’t know on an intellectual level that our life was odd or unhealthy, but in my gut I felt something was very wrong. They kept me socially isolated, saying that I wasn’t allowed to have friends because I received enough attention from them, which is what the Bible dictated. I was an only child, so the choice to homeschool me simply eliminated any possibility of normal social development. We moved a lot- 18 times in 18 years- so there wasn’t even a chance to form relationships with like-minded fundamentalists. I was born with an outgoing personality, so the loneliness aspect was a heavy burden.

    There are many detrimental aspects of this lifestyle that reach far beyond childhood. Spiritually, I’ve gone from being agnostic, to dabbling in divination (tarot cards, astrology), to my current believe system of Deism. I have zero respect or appreciation for authority- always assuming it’s being abused- which has gotten me in hot water with employers in the past. I’ve managed to stay away from illicit drugs, but have had issues with alcohol; drinking is the only thing that seems to quiet the emotional chaos caused by the overwhelming guilt and criticism that was programmed into me. I’ve struggled with thoughts of suicide since the age of 12, albeit I very rarely have them now since my mother has been dead since 2000, and I have zero contact with my father. I have a lot of health problems, far more than anyone my age I’ve ever met, and I believe some of them are the result of the relentless tension in a legalist home. I refuse to legally marry my husband because of the simple traditional vow to “obey” him; he’s an absolutely wonderful man, but I cannot and will not commit myself to unquestioning obedience after what I went through with my childhood. I have a horrible self image because all elements of my femininity were discouraged and hidden for so long, I don’t know how to dress or handle myself with ladylike grace. My heart has a deep fear and loathing for all churches, although my head understands that not all of them are bad, as neither are the members all power-hungry, perfection-driven, spiritual narcissists. I have severe emotional problems because, after we attended a Bill Gothard seminar when I was 9, my parents sat me down and said I wasn’t allowed to feel any emotion except happiness. Sadness, anger, confusion, worry, and any other number of feelings were “a sin”, and I would go to hell and be tormented by Satan if I felt anything in my deepest heart of hearts other than joy, and praise for God. As a result, I’ve gone into the cycle of denying my emotions for so long, I have events were I literally erupt after bottling up my feelings for months on end.

    I decided when I was very young that I would never have children. I could not explain why I reached such a solid choice at that age, but I maintained the decision to the point of having a hysterectomy at age 26. Looking back, I think my intuition was telling me that I would not have been a good parent because my own did not set a good example. I have not regretted the decision to be childless, not even for a moment.

    That being said, I have been able to heal some areas. The first breakthrough was when I moved out on my own (total act of rebellion) at age 18, and I stepped into a wonderful world full of interesting people. After so many years of having hate for the secular world shoved down my throat, it blew my mind that someone could not live by stringent legalist rules, but still be smart, funny, and considerate. Another breakthrough was stopping with the constant questioning if something was sinful or not; instead, I channeled it into wondering if something was morally right or wrong, or healthy versus unhealthy. I knew the self-absorbed, myopic thinking I was programmed to embrace was a horrific way to view the world, so I’ve managed to nurture an interesting union of an open mind while maintaining my own private convictions. There is no doubt in my mind that God gave me the gift of intuition and being able to think for myself.

    Some hard lessons have taken a long time to learn, many of which are social. Because I was so shielded and isolated, I had no idea how to spot truly bad people. In my parents’ eyes, everyone outside the home was either bad or had the potential to be bad, so I was programmed to fear everyone and everything around me, lest sin weasel its way into my life if I let my guard down. Anyway, it’s been a rough journey trying to learn how to identify toxic people, or to recognize and accept when someone is just using me. A lot of heartache, a lot of angst.

    Bottom line, my parents crippled me for life. Do I blame them for shortcomings and bad decisions that were completely my own? Of course not. But they instilled in me a horrible disease of religion-based fear, hate, and doubt that, no matter how hard I try, will not go away. Every time something bad happens in my life, the first thing I do is ask “What am I supposed to learn from this?” I believe the answer to that question regarding my experience with legalism is simple: I need to learn how to forgive. I have not been able to do it, although I’ve tried very hard to let go of the resentment and frustration. I just don’t know how because, guess what? Forgiveness was not part of our lifestyle.

    I am a broken human being because of this belief system. My hope in sharing my story is that there might be others out there who have shared similar experiences, and will not feel so alone after reading this.

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