In my fundamentalism of the 1960s, it was widely believed that the husband was the head of the house and that women were not allowed to preach. Many even objected to their wives working outside the home. The ideal wife was June Cleaver who kept the home spotless, had meals ready, and was always nicely dressed, with earrings, as though she might go out in public at any moment.
Among many fundamentalists over the next decades, family roles became more rigid as ‘God’s plan for the family’ became a focus issue. Among the leaders of this calcification perhaps none was more influential than Bill Gothard (not to be confused with popular Christian singer, Bill Gaither).
Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles
Gothard began seminars called the Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts that became hugely popular. I probably first heard of them during college in the early 1970s, and during my 21-year career in Christian Bookstores his seminars grew in visibility within the fundamentalist and some evangelical communities—though he changed the name in 1989 to the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
I was never attracted to his seminars, so it was not until later that I began to realize the scope and influence of Gothard’s movement—and the extremely harmful religious baggage he taught. Among the developments he promoted were fundamentalist homeschooling, courtship, authority, and others. Today we will take a look at Gothard’s teaching on authority.
Gothard’s Teaching on Authority
Being under authority is one of Gothard’s most central teachings. His idea is that God has ordained authorities and that believers must submit to those authorities in order to live a proper Christian life. If we do not submit to God-ordained authorities, then we will have no protection against spiritual chaos.
Instead of reviewing Gothard’s views by quoting critics, we will look at a post on the Institute in Basic Life Principles website called What is an “umbrella of protection”?
The introduction states:
God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.” By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection, direction, and accountability.
If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own. [Emphasis in the original]
The article identifies four areas of God-established jurisdictions of authority, along with proof-text references for each one. They are: 1) Family: husbands and parents; 2) Government leaders; 3) Church leaders, elders, and other believers; and 4) Employers. The article explains:
God works through these areas of jurisdiction to train up and protect children, to restrain evil and protect citizens, to stand against Satan and advance the Gospel, and to provide necessary resources for life.
We are responsible to submit to these authorities in order to receive their protection and the blessings of living in submission to God’s authority.
The consequences of rebellion are said to be that:
Through disobedience you remove yourself from God’s full protection and are therefore far more susceptible to the attacks of Satan. [Emphasis in the original]
Gothard takes these lines of authority very seriously. Particularly damaging is the way Gothard applies authority and the ‘umbrella of protection’ to family relationships. His teaching is strict, specific, and detailed, as though he has any business interfering with families.
The Rigid Concept of the Umbrella of Protection in Family Relationships
Gothard’s umbrella of protection in family relationships puts the husband in charge under Christ and the wife totally subservient to the husband; her access to God is through her husband. The husband is responsible for making the decisions for the family, and it is her job to properly instruct and manage the children; the children’s spirituality and access to God is through their mother as she submits to her husband. Children must be totally responsive to their mother’s authority.
I am indebted to Sara Jones for these quotes from Gothard’s own literature:
Many husbands have acknowledged that their motivation for spiritual pursuits can be quickly destroyed by negative attitudes or lack of enthusiasm from their wives. When a husband gives a command to his family and the wife fails to work out the proper procedures to carry it out, many consequences may occur.
First, the father may attempt to give the laws himself. Very often, however, he is not sensitive to the needs and responses of the children; thus, he may be too harsh or demanding. The wife will then try to compensate by being more lenient than she should be, and the children will sense a divided authority.
Meanwhile, when the wife does not fulfill her function in the family, she will feel inadequate and inferior. She may try to compensate for these destructive feelings by withdrawing, reacting, or looking outside the family for her approval and fulfillment. (WB 15, pp. 615-616, first edition)
Bill Gothard seems to know how my family should function even though he doesn’t know my family.
One Additional Level of Authority in the Umbrella
Although not pictured in the umbrella illustration, there is in practice an additional layer of authority. For those in the sway of Gothard’s cult-like teaching, Gothard himself is part of the hierarchy of authority—holding the place between the husband and Christ. This is because Gothard is the source of the teaching; he is the one who knows everything. Without his authority it all falls apart.
The doctrine of the patriarchal umbrella of protection is a major piece of harmful fundamentalist baggage, and happy are those who survive it. However, healing for those survivors is often slow and many are scarred for life. This is only one serious baggage issue in Gothard’s teaching. We will talk about others in future posts.
Note: Gothard is no longer with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, but to those loyal to his teaching he is still the authority for the teachings.
Articles in this series: Today’s Extreme Fundamentalism
My Fundamentalism of the 1960s Has Changed for the Worse—Considerably Worse Patriarchy, Bill Gothard, and the Umbrella of Protection
An Overview of Bill Gothard’s Role in Today’s Cultish Fundamentalism
Resources on Today’s Extreme Fundamentalism
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