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Cultish Christian Leader Teaches Women Should Submit to Husbands -- Victims of His "Submission Theology" Speak Out

The cultish Evangelical leader Bill Gothard espouses a theology that tells men to rule over their families, and for wives and kids to submit entirely, no matter the circumstances.

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Gothard’s recent efforts have even extended into faith healing. He told me that a delegation of Peruvian elected officials and other leaders were impressed with his ability to heal “stress” and cancer. “God has directed us to a new approach to health,” Gothard told me, “which is taking care of stress first.” Now the Peruvians, he said, want to be a “model world nation.” That, he added, “to me is like the example of what we’ve been working for all these years.”

Webster, whose office did not respond to an interview request, repeatedly insisted to the local press when he served in the Florida legislature from 1980 through 2008 that he would not apply Gothard’s teachings in his official duties. But Gothard told me that America’s problems are caused by “rejecting God’s ways” and that “we should make laws that are in harmony with the laws of nature and the laws of God.”

Gothard’s followers can take that directive quite literally. “Jack,” now in his 20s, who had lived and worked at IBLP headquarters and was exposed to ATI his entire life, told me that after high school he “immediately jumped into the legal studies program that ATI provided, determined to create a legal system based on biblical law then become president and implement it all over the world -- crazy, I know.” He has since broken with ATI.

Webster was and remains a staunch social conservative, opposing LGBT rights and abortion even in the case of rape or incest. He introduced an unsuccessful covenant marriage bill in the Florida legislature which would have prohibited divorce except in cases of adultery. He was the sponsor of legislation that legalized homeschooling in Florida in 1985. He earned an “A” rating and an endorsement from the Christian Reconstructionist group Gun Owners of America. The religious right Florida Family Policy Council named its annual award honoring “outstanding service to the pro-life and pro-family principles” after him. Recipients have included the American Family Association’s Don Wildmon.

“Culture of Fear”

Don Venoit, a conservative evangelical who founded Midwest Christian Outreach, a ministry devoted to countering the influence of “new religious movements,” has long been a critic of Gothard and documented his efforts to confront him in a 2003 book, A Matter of Basic Principles. MCO, like other apologetics ministries, considers Mormonism and other religions “cultic” and has contested the teachings of other evangelicals like Rick Warren and Brian McLaren. Still, the Venoits’ objections to Gothard are a barometer of how Gothard, well-loved by many conservative evangelicals, has drawn the ire of others. The Venoits’ book was praised by scholars at evangelical colleges, including Westminster Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Dallas Theological Seminary, and received a favorable review in Christianity Today.

Venoit told me he doesn’t consider Gothard’s organization a cult, but that Gothard’s “view of authority is the core of where things go wrong.” Gothard teaches, in the first hour of the first night of his “basic” seminar that “authority is like an umbrella of protection.” If you get out of that protection, “you are in rebellion, which is like witchcraft,” and “all evil will befall you,” said Venoit.

“It’s a culture of fear, is what it is,” he added.

Gothard says that Venoit’s descriptions of his teachings are a “distortion” -- but his defense is that all he is teaching is the necessity of obeying God’s commands.

Venoit said he was provoked to challenge Gothard’s “legalistic” views on issues like marriage and circumcision, which Gothard maintains must conform to Old Testament law, and other ideas like demons are transmitted from place to place through inanimate objects. In the 1990s, MCO began receiving increasing calls about Gothard’s authoritarianism.

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