There have been too many stories of “deconstruction” lately. The pattern is simple: a young, conservative Christian zealously promotes the faith, only to hit a crisis of doubt that leads to an end of faith. The most famous example of this is Joshua Harris, the prominent purity culture figure who wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. After being a rising star in conservative evangelical circles, Harris apologized for his book—and then left the faith entirely. At first glance, Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s new book, Becoming Free Indeed, seems set to follow a similar pattern. After her family became famous from the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting, Jinger gets married and starts to question her heavily Gothard-influenced upbringing. But there’s a twist: instead of leaving the faith, Jinger comes to a deeper love for God, as she pulls out the fragments of truth from a web of confused ideas about God and the Christian life. She calls this process “disentangling,” an antidote to deconstruction.
Maybe you’re thinking something like this: Why should I be interested in the wrestlings of a former reality TV star in circles far removed from mine? When I first heard of the book, I wasn’t tempted to read it, partly for that reason. But as I kept hearing about it, I realized there is a lot more going on here. Once I read the book, I started connecting the dots and seeing how I’ve wrestled with some of the same questions Jinger has. The book is well worth reading on two main counts. First, the concept of disentangling is solid and something we should all probably be facing on some level. Second, many of the specifics Jinger wrestles with overlap with dynamics many of us have seen in our churches.
If you’ve never dealt with abusive leadership, you’re very blessed, but you probably have friends who have—this isn’t just something “out there.” Often this abusive leadership is also intertwined with legalism. Before you bristle at my mention of legalism, I’ll be quick to acknowledge that a genuine following of biblical commands can be misconstrued by skeptics as legalism. I recognize that danger up front. But it would also be a shame if we failed to identify true cases of abuse and legalism because we were afraid of overcorrecting. In this article, I’d like to think generally about how to process and biblically respond to true cases of abuse and legalism, following Jinger’s story. In future articles and podcasts, I plan to delve more specifically into questions about Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), especially where he has influenced our churches.
The story, in brief
Jinger Duggar Vuolo is the sixth of nineteen children. The daughter of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, she grew up in a home heavily influenced by Gothard and IBLP. When she was ten, her family appeared on 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, a documentary released in 2004 by Discovery Health Channel.1 TLC would continue to run regular shows featuring the family until 19 Kids and Counting was canceled in 2015 after it came to light that the oldest Duggar, Josh, had molested multiple underaged girls, including four of his sisters. In May of 2022, Josh was sentenced to 12 years in prison for possession of child pornography.2 In short, what was once a popular reality show suddenly fell completely apart.
Obviously something went wrong somewhere. For some, Josh’s sin is a travesty but a kind of one-off, something that doesn’t reflect more broadly on his brand of conservative evangelicalism. Some in this camp sniff a conspiracy against a godly movement and dismiss claims from victims. Far on the other side are those who think this story proves that religious people who try to follow the Bible get into all kinds of trouble. Just this year, a docu-series was released that takes a critical look at the Duggars and Gothard, called Shiny Happy People.3 Some in the series have left the faith entirely and rail not only against Gothard but against Christian values in general. It’s safe to say that we need to find a balance between these two extremes!
It’s easy to see why Jinger finds it necessary to seriously process and question much of her upbringing. As I read her book and later watched the docu-series, I’m also asking myself a lot of questions. Clearly there were things that went wrong with the Duggars, at least some of which goes back to their connection to IBLP. Since many of us have been influenced by some of Gothard’s teachings, these questions are personal. How do we discard bad teaching without throwing out good things that should be retained?
The wider authority dilemma
Whenever we hear a story of an abusive leader who used his authority to control and ultimately damage his followers, we scratch our heads. Yes, we’re troubled by the all-too-frequent intrusion of ungodly behavior into the church. But we also wonder how it ever could have happened. In order for a leader to cause large scale damage, he needs to be taken seriously by a sizable number of people. In many cases, there are warning signs from the beginning, yet they aren’t enough to deter the leader’s followers.
Regardless of what you think of Gothard and IBLP, this is a phenomenon that happens too often in the church. Another prominent example is Mark Driscoll, who resigned from Mars Hill Church in 2014 after multiple allegations of bullying and toxic leadership.4 Usually these leaders have charismatic personalities, are good speakers, and exude a confidence that naturally attracts others. Especially for people without an existing solid church community, there’s something reassuring about a leader who doesn’t seem plagued with doubt and can speak with authority from the Scripture. Well, these leaders usually aren’t accurately conveying the meaning of Scripture, but they regularly quote it and sound convincing. Think about it: if you don’t know where you’re going in life and someone comes along who can give a specific vision of what life can be, you might be ready to give everything. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course. Pastors, Bible teachers, and mentors can appropriately help us live with a narrowed purpose. But there’s a tremendous potential for this to be abused.
Much of Jinger’s book deals with her experiences with what she considers a rules-based system. But she also recognizes why it’s attractive. Here she is, looking back to her time under Gothard’s influence:
Rules are easier than liberty. They give a sense of certainty. They remove doubts and questions. Knowing exactly what to say and what to do in any situation to perfectly please God is an incredibly attractive idea. It certainly was for me, since I struggled with doubt and fear. Gothard’s rules gave me certainty.5
Even though she’d later recognize that Gothard’s teaching was restrictive, it also makes sense how it could’ve provided comfort to her as a fearful girl—if at a heavy price.
The process of “disentangling”
For Jinger, it wasn’t only her brother’s sex scandal that forced her to think about her upbringing. As she and her siblings grew older and started getting married, they were introduced to nice Christian people who were skeptical of IBLP. When Jinger’s older sister Jessa started dating Ben Seewald, she spent a lot of time riding with the two of them, hearing their conversations on God and theology.
Anytime Ben would explain something during his conversations with Jessa, he would quote an entire passage of the Bible to make his point. He didn’t pick one verse to support an idea. He let Scripture speak for itself. (82)
This was in sharp contrast to Gothard.
Bill Gothard would pick a subject and tell us what he thought the Bible said about that topic. He would begin a seminar with a problem, then he’d find a solution to the problem in a verse or two. He’d spend the rest of the seminar—sometimes sixty to eighty minutes—giving his opinion on what that verse meant and how it applied to our lives. (82)
Jinger also started dating Jeremy Vuolo, who she’d later marry. During their courtship, they’d listen to Gothard’s messages, pausing them to talk about what they had just heard. Jinger “began to understand how his teaching was feeding my fears and guilt, not showing me the grace of Jesus” (93). They also saw how much weight Gothard placed on his own authority. He would claim to receive his insights from Scripture, yet he was often using Scripture as a “proof text” to back up his opinion, instead of actually understanding the meaning of the text.
During my experience of disengaging truth from error, I have learned to be skeptical of any leader or teacher who claims to be essential. If a teacher says the Christian life can only be lived successfully with some secret bit of knowledge they have discovered, then that teacher should be avoided at all costs.
Thankfully, God in His kindness, does not keep us in the dark. His Word is clear. The key to the Christian life is not listening to hours of lectures from Bill Gothard. It’s knowing Jesus Christ. And Christ is not hidden. There’s no secret way to access Him. He is clearly presented in the Bible, not just the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but in the entire Bible. Jesus is prophesied about and foretold through the Old Testament. And He is explained and exalted in all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Jesus is the key to the Christian Life. And the way to unlock His riches is to know Him through His Word. (101)
So in short, Jinger’s disentangling process involved recognizing when what she had been taught wasn’t really from Scripture—even when Scripture was used to back it up. In its place, she would read the Scriptures, not topically, but in context, looking for the heart of God as displayed in the redemptive storyline.
So how does this practically apply? I’d encourage you in two ways. First, I think we’re often too eager to try to pull application out of Scripture, often by finding a command, instead of being amazed by the beauty of the gospel. While there are commands for us to obey, we miss the point if that’s our main takeaway from the Bible. Second, a proper understanding of practical living comes after we’ve immersed ourselves in the story of God and his redemptive work for his people. If we get this backwards, we’re going to miss the meaning of Scripture—and be vulnerable to unbiblical teaching.
I still have questions about Gothard and IBLP, especially where his teachings have influenced the Anabaptist circles—and believe me, the influence is there. I’m hoping to address some of these questions more specifically in future posts and podcasts. It’s only fair to acknowledge a danger in swinging too far in the opposite direction, tossing out bits of actual biblical truth along the unbiblical rules and application we reject. Jinger also recognizes this tension:
I’ve come to see that unfettered freedom does not produce the good life. In the end, it often leads to more bondage. Why? Because it puts me in charge of my life, and I am not the best judge of what is best for me. If given limitless options and the responsibility of figuring out what is going to make me truly happy, I struggle to commit to anything. (9)
We definitely need God’s wisdom to properly separate truth from error. This is why it’s so important to center any disentangling around the Bible, not simply in reaction to bad teaching. While I have not reached all the same conclusions Jinger has, I think her model of working through these things is solid and something we can learn from. We can acknowledge the risk of having these conversations badly while recognizing the greater danger comes from not having them at all.
- If you haven’t listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, it’s highly recommended. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/
- Jinger Duggar Vuolo, Becoming Free Indeed (Thomas Nelson, 2023), 157. All subsequent page numbers cited parenthetically in the article are from this book.