Legalism, Sexual Sin, and My Experience with Bill Gothard

When Bill Gothard and I posed in front of the camera, I had no idea that I was standing next to a sexual predator. I had just finished two years as a part-time student in Telos Institute International (founded by Gothard), and it was a time of celebration. Fast forward to today, where it has become public knowledge that Gothard has been accused dozens of times over of sexual and emotional harassment. If these accusations are true, which appears likely, it is a tragic series of events. The amount of pain caused by this one man’s abuse of power is absolutely staggering.

Even before now, plenty of people have accused members of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (also founded by Gothard) of legalism and cultish behavior. I’ve even seen many people link Gothard’s sexual sin with the doctrines he espouses. I may not be steeped in IBLP culture, but I am familiar enough with it to ask myself this question: does this devastating news about Bill Gothard nullify my own experience with his teaching?

You see, I benefitted greatly from IBLP. For the two years I was enrolled in the Telos Institute, I spent hours each day saturating my mind with Scripture. I learned helpful principles related to money management, marriage, and child training. I learned how to grow in transparency with others and submit to biblical accountability. I learned beneficial study habits and word study techniques that have helped me in my perusal of Scripture to this day. Considering the place I was in my spiritual journey, Telos was just what I needed.

What about the accusations of legalism? Well, many of them are indeed true. If you’re familiar with IBLP at all, you know a lot of the teaching material includes detailed lists about what to do in various circumstances. One such example involves the six basic steps to conquer impurity. Obviously, those steps didn’t insulate Bill Gothard from the evil in his own heart.

Now, practically all of the listed steps to fight impurity are based on biblical wisdom. (You can do much worse than memorize Romans 6, after all.) But are all these steps—and the order in which they are arranged—absolutely necessary for fighting lust? No. That goes well beyond what the Bible teaches.

So yeah, I entered Telos with my eyes wide open. I knew some of Bill Gothard’s teachings were legalistic. Some could even be interpreted as humanistic.

What I experienced while enrolled at Telos, though, was grace upon grace. I may not have agreed with everything I was taught. Nevertheless, every time I interacted with my professors, whether in email or in person, I found nothing but gospel-saturated warmth and kindness.

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to excuse or condone Bill Gothard’s actions. My desire is that he faces serious consequences for his crimes. I hope this not only for his many victims but for his own good as well. It will not do Gothard any good to escape temporal consequences and be ill prepared for eternal consequences.

It’s almost disheartening, really, to think that I have practically never been involved with a church or ministry that hasn’t been rocked by scandal or schism. This isn’t the first time I have seen the corruption of power and the deceitfulness of sin. And yet, amidst this fallen world’s countless tragedies, nothing has crippled God in His care for my soul.

So as I mourn over the revelation of Bill Gothard’s once-secret sins, I can also remain thankful for how God used his teaching to bless my own life. I needn’t choose between sadness and gratefulness. These two responses may not be the best bedfellows, but they aren’t mutually exclusive either.