Homeschooling and Legalism: Part 2

A brief history: How did legalism become associated with homeschooling?

The modern homeschooling movement in America began in the last century with such pioneers as John Holt and Ray and Dorothy Moore. Both Holt and the Moores advocated more of an unschooling approach. They believed that formal education was harmful if undertaken too early, and instead they encouraged warm bonding experiences with parents and other adults, chores, natural learning experiences, and community service in the early childhood years.[1]

By the 1980s, however, the American homeschooling movement was heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalism. The writings of Christian reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony advocated traditional formal education in the home and curriculum based on a Christian worldview.[2] Although Rushdoony fought tirelessly for the rights of parents to homeschool their children, he held extreme views concerning education, politics, racism, etc. He sought to reconstruct a nation where all of life would be governed by the Bible, including harsh penalties for many crimes as set out in the Old Testament Law. [3]His ideas were foundational to the emerging Christian homeschool movement.

Much attention was given in that era to the dangers of secular humanism and its growth in public schools, and Christians were encouraged to protect their children from this faith-destroying philosophy and homeschool them instead, using Christian curriculum. Francis Schaeffer, Dr. James Dobson, Bill Gothard, and other prominent Christian leaders reinforced this idea that a cultural war is going on, and that the only way we could win this battle was by raising our children according to God’s Word and equipping them to be salt and light in this evil world.[4] The climate was one of fear but also hope, as visionaries such as Bill Gothard persuaded thousands of families to enrol in his homeschooling program The Advanced Training Institute (ATI). In keeping with the reconstructionist philosophy, he taught that every aspect of life should come under the governance of God’s law, and that following the so-called Biblical principles that he taught would bring success in life and result in godly children that would be a great positive influence in the world.[5] What Christian parent doesn’t want that?  As I wrote in Part 1, however, “Legalism is a false system that promises righteousness/acceptance/purpose, but cannot deliver. It is totally inadequate to meet those basic human needs that only the Lord Jesus can.”

The ATI program taught among other things that following God meant homeschooling your children; not eating pork or seafood; dressing modestly and in the case of women, never in pants; distrusting allopathic medicine; not using birth control; rejecting dating in favour of courtship; not listening to rock music, watching secular movies, or reading worldly books; and so on.[6] Unlike other homeschooling programs, you had to apply to ATI and be accepted in order to enrol. Detailed personal questions such as how many hours the father works outside the home, how many hours the TV/internet is used and for what, if the couple has prayer together, if there has been a divorce, and so on, are asked on the application form. The parents must agree to live in accordance with “the goals, responsibilities, and standards required of ATI families”, which included no rock music (Christian or secular); no alcohol; the entire family must be enrolled in the program; no one outside of the immediate family was allowed to live in an ATI home; limited (and preferably) no TV or internet; clothing must be modest.[7] There were even recommendations given in the Advanced Seminar concerning “God’s view” on sex within marriage and what type of feminine hygiene products to buy!

In addition to the required standards, there was a heavy emphasis on authority and not questioning it. Instead of walking by faith according to the leading of the Holy Spirit in the freedom of grace, which is true biblical Christianity, a false gospel was promoted where you would supposedly achieve godly success by adhering to its many rules and separatist lifestyle. Participants would sometimes evaluate their righteousness based on how well they were measuring up to all these expectations, and others were sized up that way as well (including their children). It was a lose-lose situation, because homeschool parents were under great stress to live up to the unrealistic expectations, not the least of which was “getting it right” so their children could turn out right! This resulted in unhealthy emotions for the homeschooling mother, in particular. There was a goal to attain that always seemed out of reach. There was always another family that seemed to be doing things better than yourself. It fostered competition, not cooperation. Legalistic homeschooling put an undue emphasis on rules/obedience, which was detrimental for family relationships. It replaced faith in Christ with a manmade system that dictated personal choices in many areas of life with no recognition of Christian liberty. Standards were not discussed or debated; you were expected to blindly obey them because they were supposedly an expression of God’s will. Everything was taught in very black and white terms. The seven non-optional “biblical” principles taught by Bill Gothard, which are the foundation of the ATI homeschooling program, were presented as God’s will for every person. According to Bill Gothard, “the root causes of life’s problems can be traced to a violation of seven non-optional principles. Every person, regardless of culture, religion, race, education, or social status, must either follow these principles or experience the consequences of violating them.”[8]

In the 1990s, the homeschooling movement grew; it was legal across North America; and groups such as Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) were key players in defending the right to homeschool and reinforcing the Christian fundamentalist mindset. When HSLDA alerted homeschoolers in the U.S of the pending HR-6 bill, they flooded the phone lines of Capitol Hill. [9]Thus, a powerful political base formed which would be called upon to support other fundamentalist goals.[10]  Those whose faith differed from fundamentalist Christianity were pushed out of the limelight, and sometimes were not allowed to participate in homeschool support groups because they didn’t agree to the statement of faith of that group. Homeschooling families were encouraged to separate themselves from others who didn’t share their values, resulting in much division in churches as families left to join the house church movement. Even the homeschool community became very divided, as Christian fundamentalist homeschoolers separated themselves from other homeschoolers with different beliefs.[11] It’s no surprise that many house churches eventually disbanded, since the legalistic foundation of those churches produced the fruit of pride, division and judgment, rather than the love and unity that is supposed to mark followers of Jesus.

Thankfully, with the proliferation of the internet, many more options became available to homeschoolers in terms of curriculum choices, educational methods, support groups, conferences, etc. The internet has also exposed scandals affiliated with well-respected Christian homeschool leaders such as Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, and the Duggar family. Websites such as and www.homeschoolersanonymous  have arisen to give support to families and students that have been negatively impacted through legalistic homeschooling. Unfortunately, many who were raised in the Christian faith have come to reject it because of the experiences they had while being homeschooled under legalism. The homeschooling culture today is vastly different from that of 20 or 30 years ago, with people of all faiths and persuasions taking on homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons. Overall, there is much more balance, but there still are homeschooling circles where legalism reigns.

“For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people.” Rom. 14:17,18







[6] Advanced Seminar Textbook, IBLP






6 thoughts on “Homeschooling and Legalism: Part 2”

  1. I was just about to ask about if you knew of recovering grace, they were a wonderful resource for me since I still wanted to hold to my Christian faith but wanted to separate from legalism. Homeschoolers anonymous was great too, and they helped me tremendously, but I found it was more popular with that group to be atheist or agnostic and didn’t always feel welcome as a Christian. Thank you so much for writing this and bringing attention to the history. I learned of a few thought leaders I hadn’t heard of before through this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Rebecca! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the two websites mentioned. Perhaps I should have put a disclaimer that I don’t necessarily agree with the opinions​ expressed there; but I felt it was important to inform people that these sites were started to support those who were negatively impacted by legalistic homeschooling approaches.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ❤ ❤ ❤ I don't know that it is necessary but just wanted to share what I remember from both. They were both very helpful but I lean more towards Recovering Grace for their worldview.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great history and a good reminder to those of us who ‘drank the koolaid’ of a better life through adherence to so-called biblical principles. In the years since being in the homeschooling cult I’ve learned that life in Christ is through community, not elitism, legalism and separation. It’s a beautiful world out there! Thank you~

    Liked by 2 people

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