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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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A former religious right activist who worked closely with some of its leadership, and who also followed Gothard’s teachings in her marriage (which ended in divorce) said, “what I remember most about Gothard’s teaching -- and this sticks in my mind -- you don’t have any rights.”

Gothard requires “total submission to God, doesn’t matter what you think, want, or feel, it only matters what God wants,” she said.

With regard to following Gothard’s teachings on marriage, the former activist said, “basically I gave up my rights to be who I was and I just determined to be whoever he [my husband] wanted me to be.”

Like Garrison, the former activist said that her husband felt responsible for the whole family’s salvation, and that he behaved like a coach, “either you’re on the team or you’re not.” She remained married for 24 years during which “I lived with that kind of having to subjugate myself to that kind of will.”

Garrison rejected the claim, made by and other critics of the “Taliban Dan” ad, that Grayson’s campaign took Webster’s words out of context. “This is the very thing that made my husband such an asshole,” said Garrison.

...Like Getting Out of Hell”

Gothard insisted to me that he does not teach that wives must submit to their husbands. Yet the ATI website’s “Family Support Link,” responds to the question, “How can a husband help preserve his marriage?” with “key areas of loving leadership,” citing Ephesians 5:23–25, one of the core texts for that teaching that is endorsed, and debated, widely in evangelicalism. But Gothard maintained to me that he didn’t know what submission theology was. “When you get into theologies, you get all kinds of baggage,” he said. “Even the statements of faith. I believe in the commands of Christ. They’re inspired and when they are applied they bring tremendous results.”

Despite his efforts to circumvent the submission discussion, though, the ATI site, outlining “The Seven Basic Needs of a Wife,” counsels, “a wife needs a husband who demonstrates spiritual leadership,” adding, “As your wife sees you establish Godly standards in your life, she will be motivated to set similar standards in her life and to submit to your leadership.” In response to the question “how can a wife help preserve her marriage?” the ATI website lays out “seven key areas of respect and submission.” These include “accept your husband as your spiritual leader” and “accept your husband’s efforts to protect you.”

Venoit distinguished Gothard’s submission theology from more conventional complementarian theology because more mainstream theology would not, as Venoit says he’s heard Gothard say, tell women they should even submit to spousal abuse.

Gothard reacted to that with another jargon-loaded evasion, saying that problems within a marriage are caused by four “levels” of problems, and if a man “repents” of his “root” problems, it usually fixes the “surface” problem that the couple is fighting about.

“People don’t realize how scary these teachings are,” said Garrison. “The Duggars seem rather innocuous, they seem like a whimsical friendly family.” But, she said, getting out of a patriarchal marriage “is like getting out of hell.”

Wavy Hair, No Dating, No College

“Eliza,” now in her late 30s, was exposed to Gothard’s teachings her whole life, through her parents’ homeschool materials and attendance at Gothard conferences. She attended ATI conferences with her family from the time she was 12 until just two years ago. In the ATI courses, she said, Gothard’s teachings became more “wacky.”

ATI provides both homeschool materials and training courses all over the world on wide-ranging topics, including law, landscaping, music, food service, interior design, and “ eternity arts.” But it’s in the gender-separated seminars that Gothard’s vision for women becomes clear: they are taught how to “ radiate the brightness of the Lord Jesus Christ through their thoughts, words, and actions,” become “ virtuous women,” and recognize the importance of “falling in love with the Lord, accepting your design and realizing your unique gifts.” Gothard, who teaches that dating is wrong, and that couples should engage instead in “courtship,” maintains “the purpose of courtship is to determine a couple’s readiness for marriage and to discern the will of God for a covenant marriage that will benefit the world.”

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