Review: A Matter of Basic Principles

I wondered whether posting a review of this book would be a good idea. As much as I appreciated it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to burden my blog with so heavy and disagreeable a topic as Bill Gothard.

A Matter of Basic Principles is worth it, however. When I began to research Gothard’s teachings, I wanted a calm, biblical critique. This book outdid my expectations. It is scrupulously documented, referencing books, articles, and interviewees (usually by name).

The authors test Gothard’s views with the Bible. They are clearly knowledgeable of the Scriptures and how to interpret them. They are also well-versed in Christian theology and its points of dispute. They compare, for example, Gothard’s view on grace to that of the Roman Catholic Church, citing the Council of Trent.

They also contrast Gothard’s teaching on the Mosiac Law with traditional Protestant views (Reformed, Lutherans and Dispensationalists, and Theonomists). Gothard goes beyond all these groups in applying the Mosiac Code to Christians. He regulates when husbands and wives can have relations based on OT ceremonial laws. Gothard preaches circumcision, too, in defiance of the Bible’s teaching that circumcision has no spiritual value (Gal. 5:5). His legalism also shows itself in numerous smaller ways – such as his strange animosity for Cabbage Patch dolls, store-bought white bread, beards …

The things I was most surprised to learn are these:

  1. The pervasive weirdness of Bill Gothard’s teachings. The man believes that the presence of Cabbage Patch and troll dolls can make women unable to give birth. He also asserts that uncircumcised men are more promiscuous than circumcised men, connects a person’s health to the meaning of his name, teaches that the Flood was caused by dating, holds up Samson as someone “most qualified” to choose a wife …
  2. Bill Gothard’s unprincipled behavior. The book recounts several stories – including the authors’ own experience – about Gothard’s dealings with others. I was startled at what they showed him doing – lying, slandering, making false promises, violating his own teaching, and treating others with a lack of kindness that was, at times, truly remarkable. At one point he attempted to extort property from one of his followers. This is the man with the “Institute for Basic Life Principles”.
  3. Bill Gothard’s distortion of grace. I can’t do justice here to the authors’ excellent exposition. I will, however, quote one of their conclusions: “For Gothard, the primary purpose of grace is to assist Christians in keeping the Law.”

I realize this last borders on a charge of heresy. You could get a copy of the book to see it proven, but it would be easier just to go to Bill Gothard’s website and read his page on grace. His essential definition of grace is easy to find – it’s the sentence in a font two or three times bigger than anything else on the page: “Grace is the desire and the power that God gives us to do His will.”

Roll that over in your mind, Christian. It doesn’t come within a thousand miles of being right. Grace is not about God enabling us to do His will, but about God saving us when we didn’t do His will. Grace is about God’s love – “Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done; Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.”

Equally disturbing is this comment from Gothard’s website:

Circumcision is not required of believers for salvation. … Neither is circumcision required for achieving the righteousness of the Law or the sanctification of the believer.

It’s amazing that Gothard would list “achieving the righteousness of the Law” along with salvation and sanctification. The righteousness of the Law has nothing to do with either. As Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans, “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “

We can no more achieve the righteousness of the Law than we can walk to the sun and roast marshmallows in its atmosphere. That is why we need Jesus. Just as He took our sins at the Cross, so He gives us His righteousness. That is grace, and it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a thing that Bill Gothard apparently doesn’t understand.

In A Matter of Basic Principles, the authors give a severe verdict on Gothard’s teachings, and they get in a few sharp barbs along the way. But the tone of the book is calm and measured. The authors do not take cheap shots, and unlike Joseph’s brothers, they can say something good. Their even-handedness gives credibility to their final judgment. Anyone wishing to understand Bill Gothard’s teachings and their popularity would do well to start with A Matter of Basic Principles.