I’ve been reading a lot about the horrific events surrounding Josh Duggar and his family, recently. Countless hours have been spent digging deeper and asking the questions: what went wrong? How can I avoid this? It’s no secret that our family is very similar to that of the Duggars. We’re Christians, we have a large family, we homeschool, we don’t allow unfettered access to the internet, etc… and although I’d never heard of Bill Gothard or the Advanced Training Institute until relatively recently, in many ways our family is very much like the Duggars and that is concerning.
The more I read about the Duggars and their worldview* (based largely on teachings from Bill Gothard and the Advanced Training Institute), the more light has been shed on the little, seemingly insignificant, things that, when taken as a whole, may have led to the downfall of one of the Duggar children and the abuse of three others. As I dug through the teachings of Bill Gothard, Advanced Training Institute, Vision Forum, the Quiverfull/Patriarchal Movements and many others, I found a seedy underbelly full of abuse and children (now adults) left crippled and broken, each connected by a common thread that is slowly gaining influence in many Christian homeschooling circles. I was sucked in. Friends I know have been sucked in. And the results are out. Children who were raised within this movement are now old enough to speak out and the results are frightening: Broken families, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, horrific abuse and children (now adults) who have walked away from the Christian faith.
With their promise of easy rules guaranteed to produce “godly results,” these teachings have gained in popularity, even as they leave broken families and shattered children in their wake. Please note that I am not saying that these teachings, taken individually, are all wrong or abusive. Homeschooling can be great, children are a blessing, I love having a big family and I love being a stay-at-home mom. However, many of these teachings are taken to extremes and defined as the ONLY “Godly” way to order our households and raise our children and where several of these beliefs are formulated together into a core parenting philosophy, taken to extremes and followed out of fear, abuse seems to follow inordinately often.
I believe, therefore, that it is important for us to examine these teachings in light of the “fruits” they are producing and evaluate our position and (if applicable) our observance of these teachings. Following is a list of what I have discovered to be the most common core principles that make up these abusive systems, being sold as a set of “rules” guaranteed to produce “Godly adults.” At the end of this article, I have included links where you can read the heartbreaking testimonies of children who have been brought up within these extremes. We owe it to our children to read these stories and learn from the mistakes of the past.
1. Patriarichal gender roles
In this view, the husband is considered the head of the household and has absolute authority over his family. In its strictest application, wives and children are required to submit to the husband and obey him in all things. Questioning the husband/father is considered rebellion and wives are often encouraged to stay with their husbands even if their relationship is physically abusive. In fact, some proponents of Patriarchal gender roles go so far as to say that women need to be “disciplined” (ie. “spanked”) by their husbands.
2. The belief that women cannot be in ministry or have leadership positions.
Women are not permitted to take leadership roles in church, government or employment as that would give them “authority over men.” In some cases, women are additionally taught that they must not speak in church or ask questions except to their own husbands.
3. The belief that women must stay at home
Staying at home and doing domestic work is considered to be the only Godly profession a woman can have. Anything else takes her out from under her husband’s “authority” and is, therefore, sin. In some cases, women are not even permitted to work alongside their husbands in home-based businesses.
4. A stance against birth control
In its strictest application, having children is not a choice, but a duty, and birth control in any form, for any reason, is considered a sin. Parents are often encouraged to have as many children as possible, and even advised to come together only during those times of increased fertility.
Home schooling is considered the only option for the child’s education and those who do not homeschool their children are in violation of a biblical mandate, and are therefore in sin. In its strictest application, homeschool parents are encouraged to keep their children away from children schooled outside of the home, and even avoid activities in which publicly schooled children participate.
6. An extreme emphasis placed on sheltering children from “the world,” avoiding contact with sin at all costs and complete isolation from anyone who doesn’t agree with the parents theology.
In its strictest application, this means that children are to be cut off from anyone and anything that is categorized by the parents or the church as “sin.” I spoke a little bit about our experiences with this teaching Here, and at its most extreme the practice includes keeping children away from any and all things parents disagree with. Example: Bill Gothard advises followers to demand that the places they visit turn off background music deemed “ungodly.” Parents are encouraged to avoid all contact from the world at large, never have friendships with those who believe differently and never participate in activities with those who don’t follow their “rules.”
7. A belief that courtship is the only “Godly” way to find a spouse
In this practice, children – even adult children – are required to ask permission from their fathers before dating (ie. “courting”), partners must be approved by fathers and children may only date under supervision at all times. Most of the time, “courtship” also excludes any form of physical intimacy, including holding hands, and is considered a form of engagement. Break-ups are discouraged except in the most extreme circumstances, the goal being never to “court” more than one person or “give away your heart” until marriage.
8. A fear of sexual sin and an excessive focus on preventing it, including an extreme emphasis placed on modesty.
Sexual sin is considered the worst of all sins and there are strict rules and teachings in place to prevent all forms of “sexual sin,” including physical attraction to the opposite sex (which is considered “lust” and is believed to be as sinful as adultery.) See this article for a truly frightening exposition, and this series of articles that expound on the culture that is often a result of these beliefs.
9. A belief that children of both sexes must obey their parents, often into adulthood, and that daughters must stay home until marriage
In its strictest application, daughters may not attend college, have jobs outside the home or move out on their own – ever. No matter what their age, women are required to stay at home, serving and obeying their fathers until marriage. In some teachings, adult men are required to obey their fathers even after marriage.
10. A belief that spanking is the only “Godly” method of discipline and that children who question their parent’s rules are being “rebellious.”
In this view, only spankings are considered adequate forms of discipline for all behavior deemed undesirable by the parents and parents are taught that any other form of discipline (time-outs, taking away privileges, etc.) will lead to rebellion. In its strictest application, parents are encouraged to spank until “the will is broken.” Children are never allowed to ask “why” in regards to the rules, they’re never allowed to give input or express their own opinions, they are required to obey immediately and with a “good attitude.” See here and here for examples of these teachings.
For most of us in the Christian homeschooling world, these teachings are at least somewhat familiar. Started by a minority, they are gaining in popularity and it is interesting to note that the extreme application of each of these beliefs centers around one thing: fear. Fear that children will be “corrupted” by outside influences. Fear that if children aren’t disciplined a certain way, they will rebel and reject the Christian faith. Fear that if our children aren’t modest, they’ll have sex before marriage and…. I don’t know… become prostitutes or something. FEAR. In fact, Bill Gothard’s entire curriculum centers around antidotes and stories filled with tales of all the horrible things that will happen if his advice isn’t followed to the letter.** The entire movement centers on instilling the fear that anything other than exact obedience and strict interpretation (their interpretation) of certain biblical passages will lead to … well, the very things that are happening as a result of these teachings… abuse, broken families, and shattered faith.
Attempting to shame away sin, or cause children to become afraid of sinning, won’t ensure that our children grow up with their own desire to follow Christ, it won’t ensure that they want to abstain from sin and it won’t ensure that they want to love those around them. In the end, only one thing can do that, and that is a relationship with Jesus Christ. And that is something that we, as parents, can’t create. We can’t make it happen and we can’t ensure that it does. What we can do is pray, and create an environment full of love in which to foster it.
So in asking the question: “what went wrong, and what can I do to avoid it,” I find only one good answer. Focus on the love of Christ. Welcome Jesus as intimate member of our family. Know Him as savior… and as a friend.
I encourage all of us who have grown up in the midst of these movements or on the fringes, all of us who are familiar with the terms “Patriarichal” and “Quiverfull” and the ministries of Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl and Doug Phillips, just to name a few, to take a deeper look at the things we’ve been taught and refuse to follow blindly.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
*Please note that I do not know the Duggar’s personally, nor do I know everything about how they teach or raise their children. I do know, however, that the Duggars have been very outspoken in support of Bill Gothard and homeschool their children using the Advanced Training Institute’s curriculum. The more I read about this curriculum and the teachings of Bill Gothard and others like him, the more frightening I find it to be. This is not an attack on the Duggars, only a sincere desire to lean from their mistakes. Because although I believe that Josh is an adult and is fully responsible for his own actions surrounding the most recent scandal, I also believe that the roots of his current behavior started when he was a young boy, growing up in a household that seemed to have every safeguard in place to prevent this and yet a household where something went terribly, terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the Duggars have not been willing to speak more extensively on this subject, so we are left to examine their parenting practices based on what little is known. In an attempt to learn more about some of their beliefs and practices, I have uncovered horrific abuses affecting many of the children who were raised according to Bill Gothard’s methods and those like them. Regardless of whether this led to the heartbreaking situation in the Duggar family, its effect on other families should not be ignored.
**Examples: An ATI page on counseling sexual abuse has a section for identifying whether the victim was “at fault” due to “immodest dress” or “being with evil friends.” In Bill Gothard’s Road Safety booklet, six out of twelve pages deal with how a woman can keep herself safe from attacks, one of which gives instructions to women on how not to “provoke” an attack (by, you guessed it, dressing “inappropriately,”) and another teaches that a woman who is attacked is as guilty as the attacker if she doesn’t “cry out.” There are pages devoted to proper dress, avoiding temptation, submitting to authority, the dangers of semen-causing cancer, and an especially disturbing set of videos devoted to avoiding masturbation because it is “selfish,” “becomes an idol,” “cultivates a depraved mindset” and makes you a “prisoner,” unable to love and connect with your loved ones.