Monday, June 27, 2011
Letter to a Family Considering Joining ATI (Guest Post)
The following is an excellent letter, written by a personal friend of mine. It was a response to a man on a message board ("H") asking for info on ATI (Gothard's homeschooling institute) from people who had been involved. Robin shared her letter with an online group we are both part of, and she has given permission for me to share it with you all. I am honored to do so. Her beautiful heart clearly shows through this letter. We once knew each other as fellow Gothard-girls. We now know each other as fellow Jesus-followers and freedom-lovers. May these words reach the people who need to hear them the most.
H, to really get to the bottom of the criticisms, I STRONGLY recommend you read "A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life".
Google the book and you will find it. Amazon has it.
I was in ATI for about 12 years, from age 10-22, very involved, lots of mission trips, Russia, Singapore, Character First, Children's Institutes and so forth. And I never rebelled, I was not one of those who hated the program and fought it while I was in it. I threw my heart and soul into being a good example for my siblings and embracing the standards and trying to live as I was taught. My family left the program in 2002, when I was 22, primarily because they could no longer afford the $600 annual fee. Since then, I have been soul-searching, searching the Scriptures, and re-examining what I was taught. It has been a long, complicated sifting process. To this day, my wonderful, godly husband of nearly 3 years, who grew up in a fabulous Christian family but NOT in ATI, cannot believe some of the things I grew up believing, or the culture my young life was based in.
It is especially now at age 31, looking back, that I see the very subtle dangers and heresies that I (and my family) fell for. Part of the danger is in the teaching, part is Mr. Gothard himself, part is in the culture... I truly believe, now, that it is a very dangerous organization. I would STRONGLY caution you to do your homework and be very careful! It is so easy to get sucked in, a bit at a time. It truly is like a cult.
To answer your question about the dress code, at least when I went to the conferences back in the '90's, the dress code was laid-out, specific, and strict for the "Apprenticeship Students". (ATI-speak for teenagers, since "teenagers" is an unBiblical concept, lol) In ATI, "Apprenticeship Students" were ages 12-marriage. Even if a someone was 25 and unmarried, they were still pretty much treated like a teenager or child, and not as an adult, until they are married. At the conferences, the "adults" could dress as they wished, but modest dress (basically the same as what the apprenticeship students had to wear, but it could be other colors than navy and white) was STRONGLY encouraged. So in a way, it is more of a "behavioral norm" than a stated command. Of course, in an authoritarian culture which emphasizes the "Principle of Authority" there is really little difference between a suggestion and a command, when it comes from an authority figure. If you don't conform, you are being "rebellious". And the ATI leadership and Bill Gothard himself are definitely considered to be authorities over all the families in ATI.
I spent years doing my utmost to fit in on the outside and have the high standards that I was taught to strive for, and on the inside feeling like a failure because I just couldn't measure up. No matter how hard I tried, I could never keep all of Mr. Gothard's lists. Most ex-ATI people I talk to describe the exact same feeling. It is not an organization that teaches grace or spiritual growth through Christ's working in us and changing us from the inside out. Instead we are taught to strive and work and make commitments and vows and work hard to become pleasing to the Lord. It was such an eye-opening epiphany for me, literally brought tears to my eyes and changed me forever, when I realized what God's grace truly means. I think the chapter of A Matter of Basic Principles, the chapter called "The Definition of Grace" is the most important chapter in the book. Bill Gothard literally has a teaching, a letter he sent out to all the ATI families in the early 2000's, where he teaches in essence that grace is "the desire and power to do God's will". So, God's grace is about our works??? That is heresy. Grace is God's unmerited favor. Grace is realizing that God IS pleased with me, no matter what I do, simply because I am His child and He loves me. Works have nothing to do with grace. I don't have to strive and strain to earn His favor. Read the book of Galatians (I seriously think Bill's Bible is somehow missing that book...) we are not saved by grace and then sanctified by works. No, we are saved by grace AND sanctified by grace! The changes in our lives, the fruits of THE SPIRIT (not the fruits of our striving and working!) and our godly Character are produced by the Spirit working His will in our lives as we walk in Faith, following His individual leading in our lives, not by us outwardly conforming to Bill's endless lists on "Seven Steps to This" and "Ten Principles for That".
You may say "Well, of course I will not pressure my kids to live up to ALL those lists and standards! We will just take the good and leave out the rest!" but if you say that, then you don't understand the peer pressure that exists in such a group. You may have more lax or realistic standards at home, but when your kids go to the seminars or on the mission trips, you won't be there to provide balance. My parents had no idea of some of the teachings I swallowed on some of those trips. They certainly would not have agreed with everything I was taught, or with how I felt so much pressure to conform. Going to the "Young Ladies Counseling Seminar" and teaching at over 13 Children's Institutes, I saw over and over that those who didn't conform, were shunned. The girls who wore skirts barely to their knees instead of halfway to their ankles? Shunned, generally. Those who wore just a bit too much makeup? Or who talked a lot about secular movies or "worldly" music or wore fashionable but barely-acceptable-by-ATI-standards shoes? Or who enjoyed hanging around the guys and talking and laughing with them and maybe even (gasp!) flirting a little? Those of us who were striving to be godly (I say this tongue in cheek because now I am ashamed of this) shunned them. I didn't want others to see me talking to the "rebels", because they might think I was a rebel and shun me too. I still remember when I was at a C.I. and a new guy sat down at one of the pianos during a break in our training and played some ragtime music. He was very talented, and it was very fun, good music. Not Rock music, ragtime. But those of us who were more experienced with the ATI culture kind of snickered among ourselves and talked about how long it would take for those in charge to go shut him down. Sure enough, he didn't even finish the song before one of the leaders was telling him that that music was "unacceptable" and to stop playing it. Now I see how petty and judgmental and UNGODLY it all was, but at the time we were so self-righteous and sure of ourselves.
I know it is tempting, I understand why people (such as my parents, whom I love and respect) are sucked into it. It would be wonderful in a way if the Christian life was based on a set of formulas, which, properly applied, would guarantee success in life, happy relationships, and kids who turn out great. Especially when you have a lot of kids. I am the oldest of 10 kids and am a home-school graduate. I think home-schooling is wonderful and plan to home educate my own kids someday. But not in ATI. And Christianity is NOT based on a set of formulas, as Bill seems to think. (I love calling him that now, after so many years of the hallowed "Mr. Gothard".) Christianity is a relationship with the living Christ, and no set of standards or list of principles will substitute for that or even really help that. They only distract from that real relationship.
In ATI, children are in essence trained to be hypocrites, since so much focus is placed on dress standards, music, and so many outward peripheral issues which are NOT specifically spelled out in Scripture and therefore are not essential to living the Christian life. There is also a tendency for people in ATI to alienate themselves and their families from the rest of the body of Christ. ATI teaches to seek out "like-minded friends". What this boils down to is breaking fellowship with anyone who does not agree with ATI's view of things, usually minor issues not spelled out in Scripture. That family lets their kids listen to Christian contemporary music and their daughters wear jeans and T-shirts? They aren't like-minded! Never mind that they love the Lord and are passionate about serving Him and they are raising wonderful kids... ATI teachings and culture breed fear that if you let your kids hang around with their kids, your kids will rebel. So if that family will not change to suit you, if they won't change their music and start wearing long skirts and commit to courtship instead of dating (which by the way, CAN be done in a God-honoring way...), then you'd better stop being friends with them. Now I seriously believe that it is HEALTHY to have friends who believe differently than I do... talking with them, questioning why they believe what they believe, finding out how different people think, questioning my own beliefs, examining Scripture together to find out what it says on various issues, is a BIG part of how we mature spiritually! If everyone around us believes the same (or if we end up swallowing the subtle seeds of "we are better than the rest of those so-called worldly Christians out there who don't look and act like us" that are sown widely throughout the ATI culture) then even as we outwardly conform, our true inner spiritual growth will stagnate! That is what happened to me! I look forward to my kids someday asking me the hard questions... "Mommy, why do we believe this? Johnny's family doesn't believe that!" That is a teaching moment! That is how learning happens! If we can't defend our beliefs to our own kids, then why do we believe them ourselves? Do we really want to raise kids who obey blindly and don't ask questions? Really?
ATI acts like rebellion and worldliness and sin is some kind of disease, and if you isolate your kids from the germs of it, they won't get "sick". The truth is, rebellion and sin is in ALL our hearts, we all have a sin nature, and it doesn't need any outward example for someone to fall into sin.
Actually, the very culture of ATI breeds rebellion, though it's hushed up... because any family that starts to question and has kids that rebel will be shunned by the "faithful" (I am not kidding... it really is like a cult!) When questioning authority is discouraged, and mindless conforming to a rather arbitrary set of standards is what is taught, then of course there will be those who see through the hypocrisy and reject it!
My own family is a perfect example... I towed the line and did my best to be a good example to all my younger siblings. But one of my brothers, being a very smart kid, couldn't see what was wrong with listening to Christian Contemporary music. The words were honoring the Lord, many songs were straight from Scripture, and the music was more fun and interesting than the boring dusty old hymns we were encouraged to listen to. He is just not the type to enjoy classical music. You will notice, if you look up the verses used to defend ATI's position on music, that most of them are quite a stretch... Bill has a tendency to throw lots of Scripture references at you at every seminar you go to, so many references that few people actually take the time to go look them all up and read them in context. If you do, you will see that MANY of them are taken WAY out of context or sometimes even are actually saying the opposite of what he is trying to make them say! Bill talks a lot about "Biblical Principles". That is ATI-speak for ATI teachings that are rather tenuously taken from Scripture. Many are simply based on Bible stories (of which the main point of the story may have been simply historical in nature... not all stories in Scripture are meant to teach doctrine) or isolated passages that were actually talking about something else. Bill acts like he has found out secret hidden truths that no one else has found from over 2,000 years of studying the Bible... and in some ways he has... because the teachings ARE NOT really from Scripture! I could pull isolated passages and stories out of Scripture too and make them say whatever I want, and throw in some personal stories of people who were "blessed" by following my "principles" too if I wanted to! The prophet Isaiah walked around naked for a year, from village to village in Israel, to share a specific message on repentance with God's people. If I taught the Bible like Bill Gothard does, then I could build a whole teaching about how the proper way to witness to people is totally nude! LOL.
Anyway, about my brother. He started listening to CCM on the sly. My parents found out and made a HUGE deal out of it, that he was rebelling and so forth. If he'd had a good enough relationship with my parents, he could have simply asked them about the music standards and had a respectful, frank discussion about it. But in a culture of "Chain of Command" where unquestioning obedience is the standard which is taught, there isn't much room for that. Also, my parents were continually criticizing my brother for how he did his hair, the clothes he wore (he wanted to wear T-shirts, my parents and ATI culture taught that only collared shirts are acceptable in public) and so forth. The message he got, was that all these "standards" were more important to my parents than he was as a person. He grew to think they loved the standards and ATI more than they loved him. And they weren't (at that time) really even open to discussing the standards.
Which by the way, are NOT in Scripture... nowhere in Scripture does it say men have to have their hair trimmed around their ears and can only wear it in a "conservative" parted-on-the-side 1950's style, or that men should wear collared shirts, and the rest! Why do we even focus on such stupid things? But in ATI, a LOT of focus is given to such things! You will learn that there is literally NO area of life about which Bill doesn't have a teaching! Including what kind of toys your kids should play with, your health care, your leisure time, music, business plans, how to bake bread, clothing styles, keeping the O.T. dietary laws, circumcision (don't even get me started on that one...), sex between a husband and wife, social dancing, acceptable ways for young men and young women to talk to each other (pretty much try to avoid talking to the opposite gender unless you have jumped through all kinds of hoops and are practically engaged already... forget about having opposite gender friends!) all kinds of things! Eventually, my brother totally rebelled and not just against ATI, he threw the whole package out... Christianity and the Bible too. He made some really bad decisions and ended up spending some time in jail. In spite of the fact that my parents sheltered him as ATI taught and he was homeschooled from preschool to the day he more or less ran away from home and joined the party scene. I believe that having healthy, open, respectful and loving relationships with our kids, and setting a good example to them of Christ's love and grace, is a much better way to raise kids who will love the Lord, rather than focusing on conforming to and teaching a set of principles. Remember, it says in Scripture that we will be known as His disciples by our love for one another... it doesn't say "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye all listen to melodious music and wear conservative clothing and live by the 7 Basic Principles".
ATI is is a HOTBED of spousal and child abuse, too. I have seen it so many times. In ATI, men are taught that they are the ultimate authority in their homes, and the whole umbrella of authority/chain of command teaching is emphasized over and over, starting in the Basic Seminar. It sounds good on the surface, but actually it isn't Biblical. Christ is the only mediator between God and Man. My relationship with Christ does not need to go through my father or my husband, or my pastor, or Bill. In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek... yes, children are directed to obey their parents, adult children are directed to honor their parents (note the difference between the two), wives and husbands are to honor and love and submit to one another in the fear of God...but that is not the same as a military-style "chain of command". And nowhere do we see the idea of an "umbrella of authority" in Scripture. But in the ATI world, if a man chooses to be hyper-controlling or verbally abusive, there is no recourse at all for his wife and children. They are directed to simply keep submitting and obeying him, and not to talk about the family's problems with others, lest they damage their testimony. This culture runs VERY deep in ATI. Of the longtime ATI families who were friends of ours in the program, roughly half are now divorced, and well over half have had some or most of their kids completely rebel and even reject Christianity. There are so many long-time ATI families I know, where it came out after many, many years, that behind closed doors the husband was verbally and emotionally tearing his wife and kids to shreds on a daily basis, then putting on a suit and a smile and being accepted as a great leader in the ATI community. Hypocrisy is easy when "spirituality" is gauged by outward conformation to a list of standards. The only kind of abuse ATI believes merits any attention, is physical abuse. This is more a part of the culture than actual teaching, though I am pretty sure I have heard it in from-the-stage teachings at various conferences. If a woman comes to someone and says that her husband is abusing or mistreating her, she is encouraged to forgive him, go back to him, and keep submitting and praying for him. I actually heard my own parents counseling women in that situation, to do so. Nothing else. I know of women who were abused for over 20 years, whose sons grew up to have HORRIBLE attitudes toward women because of what they saw at home, whose daughters grew up thinking such actions were normal and that women have no choice but to be doormats. If the man doesn't actually strike his wife (or if he doesn't do it very often, and he "repents" afterward), then the counselors in ATI scoff at the idea that he is abusing her, and instead she is accused of being "rebellious". Never mind that verbal and emotional abuse can be far more devastating than physical bruises. I have a ministry now to abused women, and I can tell you, emotional abuse is REAL. Of course, ATI's official teachings say men should be respectful and "listen to the cautions of their wives" and so forth, but listen to those lessons carefully... if he doesn't listen to her and treat her respectfully and lovingly, there is nothing she can do about it. She has no recourse, and he has no accountability. I'm not saying that ATI will turn a good man into an abuser, but instead that this kind of system tends to attract men with abusive tendencies. So hanging around with all those wonderful ATI families may not be as "safe" as it seems, and that wonderful-seeming, respectful, sharply dressed ATI young man who wants to court your daughter could be something very different from what he appears, after the wedding day. I saw THAT happen several times too. Like I said, hypocrisy is easy in a system like ATI.
I know there are a lot of people in ATI who really sincerely love the Lord. Probably most of the people in ATI. I know they have a lot of great-seeming materials and programs. But sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, as one who grew up in the program, I would avoid all of it like the plague. I do not plan to use ANY ATI materials in my own home when I have kids. Because the subtle heresies and culture and false teachings are scattered far and wide throughout all of it. Well, I amend my first statement. I might use some ATI materials as a way of teaching my kids about false teachers and how subtle they can be, but I would give them a Basic Seminar Textbook and have them actually look up ALL the verses and study them in context, and see where Bill is twisting Scripture, and how false teachers work. Yes, false teachers. I know this may come as a shock, but now I do not even believe that Bill is truly saved. It makes me sad. I know that many, many true Christians have embraced ATI, but it would not be the first time that true Christians were fooled into following a hypocrite. And if mere numbers of followers showed that God was blessing an organization, then that would tend to lend credibility to all kinds of cults and false teachings out there... Islam? Mormonism? I could go on. The main reason I don't think Bill is truly saved, that I think he is a dangerous wolf in sheep's clothing, is his emphasis on works and his heresy about (basically) denying God's grace, teaching that we have to work for God's favor. In ATI-speak they talk all the time about being people who are "striving to please the Lord". Think about that. Deeply. Striving? To please our Heavenly Father who loves us and gave His Son for us while we were yet sinners? How can we possibly earn His favor? All our righteousness is as filthy rags. The works that we do, grow out of our love for Him and gratitude for what He has done for us, and His working in our lives. They are the RESULT of God's grace (favor), not an attempt to earn it.
I apologize for going on here and writing a book (LOL!), I didn't set out to write such a long response, but I am really concerned and passionate about this. Like I said, I spent 12 of my 31 years of life in this organization, embracing it and trying to follow all the teachings to the best of my ability, and now as an adult looking back I have GRAVE concerns about it. I have been reading emails on here for quite a while and wanting to respond or tell my story, but I didn't know where to start. Thank you, H, for sending the message that motivated me to get all this out here for discussion. It has been healing to write down all these things which have been in my head for several years. It is almost, in a way, like a chance to go back in time to where my parents were when I was 9 years old and they met this wonderful family with sharply dressed, respectful children, who raved about this amazing teacher Bill Gothard, and got my parents to go with them to a Basic Seminar, thus starting the process of being sucked in. (By the way, we later found out that that very man was abusing his wife and children, and now he and his wife are separated, have been for nearly 10 years, and several of their kids have rejected the faith. Look at the fruit...) It has been healing to be able to say to you what I wish someone would have said to my own parents, all those years ago. I will pray for you and your wife to have wisdom and discernment as you seek God's best for your family.
Love in Christ,
Robin (McKerracher) Ganstrom
P.S. Once again, PLEASE read the book A Matter of Basic Principles. You will be glad you did.