I recently wrote a post that reviewed Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s process of disentangling truth from error in her upbringing in the Bill Gothard / Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) movement. In this post I’d like to address what I think has been the most harmful and abused of Gothard’s teachings: his view of authority. “Authority” is one of the seven basic principles promoted by IBLP, and their take on it is probably the defining characteristic of the ministry. I think it’s safe to say that this will strike close to home, even for those with no direct connection to IBLP.
What is the “umbrella of authority”?
While I have concern about much of IBLP’s teaching, it’s only fair to acknowledge that some portions are biblically based and have helped many people.1 Much of their teaching on authority is simply standard complementarian theology. There are biblical passages that both promote a framework of authority and encourage us to submit. Ephesians 5 and 6 tells wives to submit to their husbands and children to their parents. Romans 13 tells us God has ordained secular government and that we should obey. And Hebrews 13:17 tells us to obey and submit to our spiritual leaders. Submission and hierarchy are biblical principles.
Gothard’s idea of the “umbrella” is that when we are under these God-ordained authorities, we experience special protection. But if we step out from under our authority, we are no longer protected by the umbrella and Satan can directly attack us.
Here is a bit from the IBLP website:
As each person fulfills the specific responsibilities that are within their jurisdiction, the result is order, clarity, and peace. (See I Timothy 2:1–2.) Each one doing his job contributes to the success of the whole. Understanding jurisdictions helps one in respecting the people in authority over particular areas. As a person realizes the concept of jurisdiction, he is better able to determine what his own responsibilities are. Transgression, confusion, or potential harm happens when someone steps from his area of jurisdiction into a jurisdiction that belongs to God or others.2
Again, much of this is solid, although it should prompt a few questions. What happens when those in authority fail to exercise their leadership well? IBLP wouldn’t deny the need for leaders themselves to be gracious and submitted to authority—at least in theory. But what happens when there’s conflict or a concern with a leader? Think about this: If recognizing and obeying authority is seen as a formula that produces good results, where is the blame going to be placed when things don’t turn out? It likely won’t be on those in authority. If we see submitting to leaders as a formula that produces good results, then any time there is conflict, we’ll be tempted to blame it on a lack of submission.
Perhaps this sounds extreme and not representative of the usual application of IBLP’s teaching. Let’s take a look.
How the umbrella is applied
In the seminar session called “How to Relate to Four Authorities,” Gothard gives multiple examples of ways wives could be showing more respect to their husbands. He tells the story of a husband who neglected to fix his wife’s leaky faucet for three years. In the meantime, he would go over and fix the neighbors’ faucets. And no, Gothard isn’t telling this story to criticize the husband for neglecting his responsibility. He says that husbands are “looking for admiration” and think it’s a poor investment of time to help their wives when all they will hear is, “It’s about time.” He ends the story by saying, “Wives, I can’t emphasize too strongly how important it is for you to have a grateful spirit.”3 And immediately afterwards, he talks about husbands being tempted by women at work who give them compliments.
Gothard goes on to say that when the husband sees his wife display a grateful spirit, God begins to do a work in his heart. Now it’s true that Peter speaks about unsaved husbands being brought to faith because of the godly example of their wives (I Peter 3:1). But something is off when Gothard points to stories of delinquency in husbands—and he’s speaking to Christians!—as a normative opportunity for wives to surrender expectations and bless their husbands.4 Throughout the seminar, Gothard picks on wives substantially more than men, and from what I’ve seen of his teaching generally, this is typical. In essence, he’s putting pressure on those lower in authority to behave in impeccable ways to bless those above them. He also tells the story of a wife whose husband had just left her. She had a sad expression, telling Gothard she had been sad ever since she got married. And Gothard says he knows why her husband left:
It’s because a sad wife is a public rebuke to her husband. It’s like saying “I want everyone to know what a failure my husband is. He does not know how to make me happy. He’s just a failure.” On the other hand, a happy, joyful wife is a public crown to her husband. Wives, you must learn to be both happy and grateful. That is your greatest attractiveness.5
Why is he blaming the wife for chasing off her husband instead of wondering what could be causing her sadness? Even in cases where the blame lies squarely with the person higher in authority, Gothard is telling the person being treated poorly that they are responsible to be grateful to their authority.
It gets worse, though. Not only does God use difficult authorities in our lives to work character in us, but he actually wants them to be difficult so we can grow through tribulation. He refers to authorities as hammers and chisels to refine our “diamond.”
If you’ve not allowed God to build character in your life through your parents and through other people in your life, then God will change the heart of your husband. I’ve had many wives tell me, “He’s not the same man I married; he’s changed.” That’s right! God changed his heart. He’s more concerned about what happens to your character than even who does it. And that’s why people come to me and say, “Bill, now what do you think? My husband is treating me unfairly… What do you think?” I think to myself, I wonder how many hammers and chisels she’s already worn out, and how many more it will take.6
I could give more examples, but a clear picture emerges from the seminar: authorities are often difficult, but God has ordained them to work character in our life. God’s blessing only comes when we are under that authority. And while Gothard does speak about the need for authorities to use their authority appropriately, the emphasis is quite disproportionately on those under authority submitting—and he attempts to use Scripture to back this up.
Disentangling the umbrella
There’s much to critique in Gothard’s approach. But it also contains an element of truth: our Christianity shines forth when we handle difficulty with grace and kindness. If we have a difficult authority in our lives and we are able to respond in love and patience, God will ultimately bless us. Indeed, our faith is most evident in difficult times—and this should include relating to difficult people. There are numerous stories throughout the Bible of godly people acting honorably towards authorities who didn’t seem to deserve it. But bad behavior shouldn’t be normative for spiritual leaders! In fairness, Gothard teaches that leaders should be held accountable. But controlling, abusive men had a way of infiltrating the IBLP settings and demanding respect from those under them without being held accountable themselves. This lack of accountability for leaders produced a lot of confusion and does seem to stem back to a faulty emphasis in the initial teaching.
Spiritual leaders should be demonstrating Christ-like behavior more than those under them. If leaders are failing to lead lovingly, the burden of responsibility, by definition, should land squarely on them. A leader should never blame his bad behavior on the lack of ideal responses on the part of those under him. Nuance is needed here, of course, because all Christians should be aiming to be more like Christ—and we are still responsible for our actions when leaders fail. There are also times when it is appropriate for leaders to correct ungodly behavior in those under them. But with greater leadership comes more responsibility. It doesn’t make sense to look to someone lower in authority—often younger and less mature—and expect them to be leading the way in godly behavior!
There’s also an ironic element in Gothard’s teaching. Responsible men should be able to fulfill their duties without requiring constant pampering. While it’s certainly helpful when they are affirmed, it’s twisted to suggest that they can be excused when negligent just because those under them weren’t appreciative enough! Biblically, it’s clear that leaders are to be modeled after Jesus, demonstrating care and compassion as they disciple. But it’s quite confusing when leaders expect those under them to evidence character that they fail to show themselves! Unfortunately, a practical result of Gothard’s emphasis is that many wives, children, and laypeople were expected to display character more than that of those they were under. While this was not the intent, the emphasis of the teaching produced this result. God works through difficult authorities, but this shouldn’t be normative in the church, nor should our teaching prioritize encouraging wives and children to submit more than correcting husbands for their lack of love and biblical leadership.
Gothard’s teaching had an appeal because of the way it attempted to look to the Bible for guidance for practical living. Today, especially for younger people, the authoritarian tendencies are a turnoff, as is Gothard’s heavily formulaic, often exegetically questionable approach to Scripture. But coming out of the climate of the sixties, with its rampant rebellion, drugs, and sexual exploration, the structure and emphases of Gothard’s teaching seemed like a breath of fresh air. Today we have the advantage of hindsight, as we can see how for some of Gothard’s followers the pendulum swung towards domineering authority. But even as we critique where Gothard’s teaching went wrong, we need to remember why it had appeal in the first place.
In short, loving, patient behavior is commendable for all Christians. God has also ordained authorities, and submitting to them is right. We should expect leaders to exemplify Christ-like traits in a way that can be imitated by those under them. As people look at the church and our families, they should see respect and honor given to leaders. But just as much—and I think more!—they should see leaders who demonstrate Christ’s sacrificial love, strengthening families and the church.
- This is especially important to affirm since some who react to the teaching fail to properly “disentangle” the harmful bits from truly biblical instruction on authority. Case in point is the recent “Shiny Happy People” series.
- This and the following quotes are from the Basic Seminar session on authority, access here on 7/25/23: https://basicseminar.com/session/basic-seminar-session-04-how-to-relate-to-four-authorities/ Timestamp for this reference: 52 min.
- This would be less of an issue if equal weight was placed on husbands surrendering expectations, but the emphasis in the seminar is quite lopsided.
- See here, timestamp 47 min.
- See here, timestamp 28 min.