Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gothard's Bunk About Begging For Forgiveness Through Manipulation

Edit Added 09Dec2021:
 Guess what folks?  I just learned yesterday that this Taking Up Offenses Doctrine is yet another one that Gothard derived from the IFB.  Apparently, SM Davis is specifically known for this teaching.  There's nothing new under Gothard's sun.

From SM Davis' message entitled Nothing Shall Offend Them:

A key verse every Christian should engraft into his life is Psalm 119:165: “Great peace have they which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.”

The Bible and human life are full of stories of people who became offended or took up someone else’s offense. True to the meaning of the word “offense,” which is “stumbling block,” those who become offended often stumble and fall or cause others to do so.

[ . . ]

For many years this was Dr. Davis’ most well known and requested message. Some consider it his most humorous message. Here you will learn the key principles necessary for Christians to live in harmony with one another. 


While addressing the issue of forgiveness and repentance, I would be remiss in not mentioning Bill Gothard's teaching about “asking for forgiveness” (a.k.a. repentance) as part of his theology about the evils of “taking up offenses” and the giving of a gift to a person when you repent to them of wrongdoing.

Let me paint the picture for you about how I learned about Gothard and forgiveness to put thingsinto perspective. I'd just moved half way across the country and started attending what I thought was a healthy evangelical church. I would learn after I left that they were part of the Shepherding Discipleship Movement which taught that church leaders should micromanage church members's lives by focusing on submission and authority. (Of course, no one tells you this when you start attending. I thought that they were just a nice, non-denominational church, having no clue that they were started by Christian Growth International and that they loved Bill Gothard.) Read more about these groups and their beliefs by investigating the embedded links.

We started going to a mid week Bible study group, and the husband and wife who hosted it seemed to really like us socially. They invited us to go with them to a conference/seminar held in the evenings for the first part of the week, and then on a Friday and Saturday all day. If we had not seen it as a social opportunity as well as something related to the Bible study group, I don't think we would have gone, but we were new there and had no friends. Though we were new at our jobs, we each arranged to get off of work so that we could attend. I'd never heard of the speaker, Bill Gothard, but this elder that we really liked sought us out and asked us to go. They offered to carpool with us which made it into a more social event, our primary interest in the effort to go. They told us on Thursday night as an afterthought that they were not attending on the all-day sessions on Friday and Saturday, so we'd have to drive by ourselves. By then, we we felt committed, especially after arranging time off, so we finished out the week, if only to get our money's worth. And I must say that the couple's acceptance of the doctrines also greased the wheels for us to find the ideas taught in the seminar more acceptable.

(I would learn later that they were only grooming us for leadership in the cult. The church very quietly required informally that all people involved in leadership attend the week long conference. Those who wanted to advance further would do well to attend other conferences that Gothard offered.)

I've talked frankly in a previous post about the way that the seminar promotes overriding of critical thinking, if only because the sessions get long after a hard day's work, night after night. If you were not yet questioning all of Gothard's novel, seemingly benign interpretation of Scripture on Monday night, by Friday, you were zoning out and challenged very little. By the end of the week, I'd accepted many of Gothard's oversimplified lists about how to get along with others in life and how the Christian life most effectively. We were provided with a textbook (which I now call “Big Red”) and a workbook for the many notes attendants were expected to take. Even looking at them the next day, the materials didn't seem non-Scriptural, so the errors slipped right in under my “blatant error radar,” enhanced by the fatigue of information overload. (If you're unfamiliar with how Gothard's system works and how the conferences work against smart and earnest people to override their critical thinking, please refer to this post. Also consider taking a look a this series of posts on surviving conferences.)

Before telling you about the details of my single adventure in practicing repentance Gothard's way,
let me explain what he tells you to do. In short, you give up your personal rights, you grovel, you repent to your offenders for having become offended, and you should consider giving the person you offended or the person who offended you a gift when you ask them for their forgiveness. It's spiritual advancement through masochism, self-deprecation, and self-sabbotage! 

If you're familiar with the Star Trek franchise, Gothard's system seems like the exact opposite of the Klingon way of advancement through killing your superior to gain his position (depicted well in this episode). In Gothard's system, you advance by destroying your own personality and autonomy. It's actually strikingly similar to the Borg collective. But I digress.

Gothard on Submission as a Panacea

As one of the more successful Shepherding and Discipleship leaders, Gothard teaches the prototypical submission doctrine, something I'd never heard of before and didn't learn about until after I exited my group and was exit counseled. His odd redefinition of grace as a mystical substance of power that one merits through works of humble service further enhances the imperative of submission. It also plays a primary role in his ideas about forgiveness. Rather than struggling through life's tough choices as a Christian by following the Word and the Spirit in faith while developing wisdom and good discernment (critical thinking), Gothard offers all sorts of oversimplified plans about how to tackle the hardships of life with greatly reduced hardship. His followers are expected to replace their own discernment with his algorithms and to authority figures make decisions for them by requiring their approval.

He presents his material as a set of moral imperatives that are tantamount to Scripture, as though they are a shortcut for the smarter Christian to use in order to circumvent hardship. (And who doesn't want to be a smarter, more dutiful Christian?) In short, he gives the impression that he has secret keys of wisdom that make interpersonal conflict a simple matter, taking the sting out of the discomfort out of complex relationships. Quite frankly, he “solves” interpersonal conflict by outlawing conflict and denying it “for the sake of the body of Christ” by requiring Christians to assign their critical thinking over to the system and to its leadership. The struggle in life becomes something less of an interpersonal struggle and more of a personal one by transmuting problems into issues of failure to submit to hierarchy and follow his rules. (You no longer find yourself struggling against other fallible people, you struggle against yourself.) All problems are believed to stem from a failure to be sufficiently humble and submissive, and if the system doesn't work, it becomes proof that the follower hasn't performed well enough.

Gothard's Novel Imperatives About Forgiveness

As mentioned in this previous post, Gothard turns the experience of becoming offended into a grave sin by eliminating personal rights, essentially by following what Dr. David Stoop describes as a Path of Denial. When offenses eventually occur, Gothard teaches that his magical strategies will resolve this sinful conflict. He advances this through his doctrine of “surrendering rights to God,” and of course, this means surrendering your rights, autonomy, and critical thinking over to your earthly authority, particularly the authorities in you church.

(Your struggles must become internal through preoccupation with personal faults, weaknesses, and imperfection.) God uses authority to shape your character, pounding on you through authority figures to turn you into a choice diamond.  Asserting personal rights interferes with that process and is a sign of rebellion against God Himself.   If you become engaged in conflict, you're sinning by hanging on to your autonomy and your personal rights, also a grave sin that's as bad as the offense itself.   This "theology" is an excellent example of “Blame the victim.” Problems stem from people who fail to “get it right,” not from problems in the paradigm

If you have no real rights and can't pursue them, you cannot really have much interpersonal conflict.

Of course, conflict happens because the follower fails to practice Gothard's oversimplified checklist items sufficiently, preventing them from becoming God's conduit for some kind of spiritual, irresistible magic. But fear not if you experience conflict because of your failure to honor God by following his lists of plans and strategies for each problem in life! He offers a few ways to get around conflict once it happens when you cast your responsibility to God aside by messing up. There may be more than two strategies under this larger heading, but I recall two notable ones.

      Strategy #1: Evangelism Through Asking Forgiveness by “Healing” the Offended.

(I call it “Evangelism through Sadomasochism.”) In this series of posts about forgiveness at, we've explored ideas that can help us become more trustworthy so as to facilitate trust, creating a safe place where wounded people can feel safe to be vulnerable and heal. The posts have stressed that you cannot change others, so you must be brutally honest and take responsibility to change those things within your sphere of control.

What Gothard teaches differs profoundly. He actually says that by following his moral imperatives, no one can resist the positive effects of his strategy (which he bills as God's perfect wisdom). When you read his “Big Red” textbook, in the “Rights” section, he suggests that by being obvious in the way that you live, you become a stumbling block for others which provides an opportunity to fix people through your holy actions. “Stirring the pot” and then groveling becomes one's most potent evangelistic tool. When others see you grovel in submission and self-castigation, people will fall all over themselves to not only help you advance spiritually through suffering, but they will become Christian converts. What he promotes goes far beyond forgiveness and becomes a type of manipulation.

My edition of Gothard's Big Red Book (not necessarily to be confused with Mao's Little Red one) says (empahsis mine):
Forgiveness is having a greater concern for person after he offends me than I did before he offended me. It is using the hurts of others as the basis of demonstrating Christ's love back to them. (Pg 80).

When God allows someone to offend us, He is entrusting to us the responsibility of demonstrating Christ's love and presence to him. Who can stand in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ for very long and remain the same person? (Pg 89)
Shazam and Poof! Stirring up conflict becomes a means of evangelizing the lost, ignorant, and less spiritual! If the evil atheists or lesser Christians you encounter don't convert to Gothardism, then you did something wrong. You didn't follow the steps and you must have been haughty. God opposes the proud, but if you grovel in humility, God rewards you with grace points which make you a more powerful Christian. 

Grace for Gothard is like like Pac-Man. Submission and serving the mission of greater specimens than you are (those above you in the military-style chain of command) are like eating power pellets, and suffering is like eating the enemy characters. You accumulate power that way, and then you can save more people and resist more sin and do greater things with greater ease.

I also find it interesting that Gothard couches things in terms of “asking for forgiveness” as opposed to repenting and seeking to restore others. It's a self-serving process that edifies self, not one that focuses on ministry. He also mentions “clearing one's conscience” frequently as though asking forgiveness should be governed more by the offender and the list of steps to achieve forgiveness as opposed to tactfully responding dynamically to the needs of the offended person.

Please take another look at these quotes from the Big Red Book. Forgiveness is about “having more concern for people”? That isn't what forgiveness is, although empathy is certainly a desirable element of it. It is also not a means to an end to manipulate another into something or a process to be “used.” Forgiveness is the canceling of a debt, even though the debt is, by all rights, owed to the offender.  It's a process of healing and restoration with a focus on the offended, not a process that helps the offender earn brownie points with God. Done well, forgiveness does demonstrate Christ's love, but that after effect is not the primary concern when resolving conflict. In contrast, Gothard presents forgiveness as a self-serving strategy for advancing personal agendas and evangelism.  (Isn't that what Wicca is all about?  Strategies to acquire power?)

(Then there are the followers of Gothard who claim that you're supposed to ask forgiveness from people who offended you, but you responded by actually becoming offended. You're supposed to go to them to confess your sin of failing to surrender your rights, implicating them without just cause and creating stress within your relationship with them. But that's another matter...)

     Strategy #2: Investing in the Life of the Offended by Gift Giving.
If you offended someone, when you go to them to repent, Gothard suggests that you consider “making an investment” in them by giving them a gift that you find personal and significant. It should be a gift that causes you a sense of loss, becoming part of your penance process. It's your attempt to identify with the loss experienced by the offended person, and it's supposed to speak about Jesus' gift of life to us. You're supposed to use the experience to turn it into an evangelistic or teaching tool.

My Gothard-Style Forgiveness Failure!

Not all that long after this marathon indoctrination process, I ended up in a conflict with this elder's wife. I didn't handle it well and lashed out verbally when they both dumped a bunch of last minute work on me. Again. I failed to realize that the group, and this couple in particular, were strongly hierarchical which meant that the elders expected other people to take up their slack. I couldn't figure out why I'd not been given reasonable consideration, why this was not seen as improper, and why people in the church didn't see anything wrong with how I was being treated. I didn't realize that what was happening was seen as my duty to serve others.

In this group, if you worked your way up high enough on the food chain, you'd even get the blessing of being able to wash an important person's car [Bob Mumford's, as was the case with this elder in his own past ] or could scrub their toilets(A section in Vision Forum's Passionate Housewives, one of many complementarian manuals, includes an example of this Shepherding Discipleship Movement divine right of leaders and the domestic servitude duty of followers.)  The privilege of ministering to leaders is exactly like washing the feet of Jesus so you can earn extra grace points. Gothard says that "serving the vision" of an important person is a way that you can earn enough humility/grace points to become an important person yourself. At least, that's how things are understood pragmatically because of how Gothard redefines grace.

In remorse, humility, and shame, I knew that I would have to repent to these folks for lashing out at them, and I happened to recall attending this course with them. Still not yet aware of the big picture about the expectations on me to just absorb whatever treatment I was met with, I pulled out the “five easy steps guide” to figure out how this new church went about following the procedure. I even went directly to the pastor and the assistant pastor and confessed to both of them about how I'd reacted – not realizing this was a sign of blurring boundaries and an expected response in the cult. I referred to this material about the gift giving tactic, too.

Long story short, I gave a gift along with my apology, and the gift was literally tossed back at me in anger. (For those who are morbidly curious, I gave her an old, vintage rhinestone wedding brooch in excellent condition, a precious part of my small, treasured collection that I'd accumulated over the span of a decade. I did not want to part with it, but I wanted to follow the whole process all the way through. And I offered in joyfully because I wanted to bless her just as much as I wanted to restore things between us.) 

 I'd labored and done all that I could to follow the book, and sought advice from the pastor and assistant pastor, yet the very people who introduced me to these new helpful hints (the elder and his wife) didn't even follow them, I thought afterward. In my mind, by following all the rules, I was honoring this couple who had invited us to the conference where we learned these “magic” principles of “enlightenment.” Now that I'm far away from that group and look back on those events from almost twenty years ago, the fact that this woman literally threw my gift to her back at me was actually the healthiest thing that I'd ever seen her do. Good for her! Probably not remembering this element of the indoctrination program, she clearly identified it as manipulative, given the circumstances. I look back on all of it with such regret. What a mess!

Manipulation 101, Gothard-Style

For those of you who might be struggling with this aspect of this mindset that comes out of the Shepherding Discipleship Movement, Gothard's ideas are built on fantasy and magic, and what he recommends as part of his quick and easy steps to restoring relationships is nothing more than manipulation. It plays on Cialdini's Weapons of Influence, specifically the Weapon of Reciprocity and that of Commitment/Consistency. (Why do you think the vacuum salesman gives you a free feather duster for your time? It's not for your time. It's to secure your sense of obligation to reciprocate his investment in you through the “free gift.”)

These are ways of making people feel obligated to comply with your wishes, ones that Gothard claims to be directly from Scripture. But we are never called to pressure people with manipulation, nor are we called to beg people for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness or pointing out to others that they must “forgive or else” can become a means of manipulating others, and the gift becomes a blatant manipulation tactic. A person may not be ready to offer forgiveness, but someone acting from a position of religious legalism can point the finger at others, charging them with unforgiveness, reminding their offender that God requires us to forgive one another. Jesus decried this kind of behavior when He saw it in the Pharisees who reminded the people that they were miserable by comparison to the piety of the priests.

Scripture speaks about repenting, and we are encouraged to seek out other friends in our churches to help us work through disagreements when we cannot do so successfully one on one in private. We're not supposed to repent through pious appeasements as David Augsburger names them (see previous post) but are called to voice and resolve our offenses. In contrast, Gothard's tactics are merely measures used to maintain milieu control in a closed, high demand group and to intensify shame and blame to make people more easy to manipulate.

Since those days when I attended that Gothard seminar, I was encouraged when I read that Augsburger's opinion about manipulating to solicit forgiveness from others differed little from my own conclusions. When we focus on asking for forgiveness instead of repenting and making restitution when it is possible, we must trust God to do whatever it is he wants to do. We put the needs of the offended person before our own in order to help them heal as we take responsibility for our neglect, error, and any of the harm we have caused. According to Augsburger, we essentially forfeit our right to ask anything of the offended party because the offended party gets to call the shots. They may be required to forgive us, but that process takes time and loving understanding. Forgiveness is a journey of difficulty without shortcuts, not a formula laid out in five easy, foolproof steps that guarantee results.

Trusting God Instead of Man's Formula

When we ask for things and push the agenda, we end up with disingenuous results. We don't build a foundation for true forgiveness, unity, and intimacy. We turn into legalists who run around with checklists comparing ourselves amongst ourselves. If things don't work out the way we might hope, we must look to God to help us as he works in others to bring the process to its fullness. If we cannot restore what we have caused others to lose, or if those we have offended do not respond to us, we must trust the matter to God. Love doesn't keep score, and it waits and waits, as long as it takes. Hopefully in time, we will find favor with them.

True restoration always begins with the conviction of God on the individual's heart, not with concerns about how to change others. How others respond to circumstances as well as the way others respond when we do what God requires of us becomes a secondary matter that rests in God's hands.

More to come regarding
the topic of reconciliation,
then special issues in forgiveness.

The above Youth With A Mission photo obtained from their My Space page, 
documenting aspects of "Base Life."  
The photo is entitled "Who knew scrubbing toilets could be so fun."{%22ImageId%22%3A1636150}