Part 3: How we got into (and out of) legalistic homeschooling

In Part 1 and Part 2, I defined legalism and gave some history of its relation to homeschooling in North America. In this post, I’d like to share our journey into and out of the legalistic homeschooling program ATI (Advanced Training Institute).

When our eldest child was a preschooler, we started praying about where to send him for school. We had heard about homeschooling through a family that had spoken at our church, but I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it. At that time we were seriously considering a private Christian school, because we didn’t feel comfortable with sending him to public school. There were two families in our church that had begun homeschooling, and one of them was using the ATI curriculum. The father was very persuasive, telling us that this curriculum was the “cream of the crop”, and that homeschooling would be the best thing for our children. I was not convinced, but my husband felt that homeschooling would be an effective way to disciple our children in the Christian faith. One day as I read my Bible, I felt the Lord leading me to homeschool, and that he would give me the ability to do it. I told my husband, and we began the adventure. In those days, there was no internet to peruse for homeschool curriculum; everything was through word of mouth. Most homeschoolers were using Christian school curriculum such as A Beka or BJU, or following the Moore’s method. I believe it was around that time when the first homeschooling curriculum fair/conference was held in our city. We were encouraged by our friends to attend a Bill Gothard Basic Seminar, which we did. It was impressive. He was a charismatic teacher, who came across as well-studied, sincere, and having Biblical solutions to common conflicts. He was a visionary. There were tons of scripture quoted. Certainly, this man spoke for God! He told many stories about God’s supernatural provision for IBLP, thus validating his ministry. The Basic Seminar was enlightening, and sounded like solid Biblical teaching.

We had to attend an Advanced Seminar, then apply to be accepted into the ATI program. In the Advanced Seminar, some red flags went up. I took offense to some of what he taught, but still felt that there was enough good teaching to not dismiss the program altogether. In applying to ATI, you had to answer many personal questions and agree to a certain lifestyle. Men could not have beards; no rock music or alcohol was allowed in the home; television was a no-no as were movies; women were to dress modestly and in dresses, etc. We were keen to follow the Lord and took our responsibility as parents to raise our children in the Lord very seriously, so these commitments didn’t seem like a big sacrifice. In fact, we were already living by most of those standards anyway (not because they were required, mind you, but because of the changes God had wrought in our hearts.) We applied, and were thrilled to be accepted! When we attended our first ATI Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, a few months before we began homeschooling, we were wowed. Coming from Canada, where homeschooling families were few and far between, it was overwhelming to see thousands of homeschool families gathered in one place. Everyone’s neat appearance, the visionary speakers, the bright-eyed students, the testimonies, the exceptional talents displayed: all left us with quite the impression. Surely the Lord’s blessing was on this ministry!

Actually implementing the program, however, was not quite as glorious as those annual conferences! I did my best, but it was hard work. As a young, inexperienced mother, my patience quickly wore thin. I felt the burden to do it right, to not ruin my children! The vision was to raise sons and daughters who were godly in spirit, warriors against the evils of our secular humanist culture. A big calling, indeed! Both the curriculum and the Christian culture of that day put a lot of emphasis on obedience on the part of children and submission on the part of wives. The “standards” that we were required to live by aimed to make us godly Christians, as opposed to carnal Christians. These were the measuring sticks given to us to evaluate ourselves, our children, and others. Everything was spelled out to us in black and white as to how to live a life pleasing to God, including what music to listen to, what to wear, courtship vs. dating, even what kind of feminine hygiene products to use and when it is best to have sex with your husband! Everything that proceeded out of Bill Gothard’s mouth was framed as a commandment of God. If you didn’t follow it, you were told that you’d be out from under God’s umbrella of protection, and Satan will wreak havoc on your family. There was much fear and control in this program, not to mention misuse of Scripture. There was a Pharisaical mentality that seemed to justify these ridiculous standards. If you were serious about following God and sparing your children the evils of this world, it would take a radical lifestyle, right?

As the years went on, I began to have some doubts about the theology presented in the Wisdom Booklets (the ATI curriculum). Verses were quoted out of context, and sometimes used to support conclusions that didn’t sound right. Every now and then I would get into a theological crisis, but I couldn’t imagine leaving the program. There was enough good in it to not justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, our children were learning and memorizing God’s word and learning to see life from a supposedly biblical worldview. They were learning life skills, my husband was having daily family devotions, and we got to spend much time together as a family when they were little.  The program was age-integrated, multidisciplinary, and didn’t require many hours of formal teaching like A Beka or BJU would. There was still plenty of room in the schedule for chores, leisure, and family time.

After 5 or 6 years in the program, however, I began to crack. Now with the increased responsibility of teaching 3 children and the daily indoctrination into a legalistic, condemning version of Christianity, my mental health began to suffer. My self-esteem was at an all-time low; I was battling depression and fatigue; my church was not particularly supportive of homeschooling; and we were really isolated. I knew that something had to change. The Lord led us to change churches at that point, to a grace-oriented church that taught us who we were in Christ and the value of the finished work of Christ. It was a lifesaver for me, and we began a process of discovering the true gospel and the grace of God, instead of being in bondage to legalism. It took some time, but the Lord began to heal me from depression and negative thinking as I was exposed to and meditated upon the freeing truths of God’s Word. My outlook began to change, as did my husband’s, and while we did not yet leave ATI, we adjusted our teaching to be more balanced. Sometimes we skipped sections of the Wisdom Booklet that we disagreed with, or as we read it, we would qualify what it said with a more balanced interpretation of scripture. Now the children were getting grace-oriented teaching in church, and we felt that it would balance out the more legalistic elements of our homeschooling program.

After being a few years in our new church, I had begun to understand the grace of God much more. The Lord had restored to me the joy of my salvation, and I wrote the devotional book Stress-free Homeschooling specifically for other homeschooling mothers to help them discover the truths that set me free from depression and negative thinking. They have continued to provide me with a solid foundation in the midst of trials since then. The Lord revealed to me wrong concepts that I had held onto and brought me to a place of peace and rest in Him. A few years later, we finally let go of ATI.

As I mentioned, there were times when I wrestled with the question whether or not we should leave ATI. There were a few incidents that confirmed the decision for me. One of the earliest ones was when I went to a women’s conference. (At the time, I was still wearing dresses every day.) The worship team, which was all-female, were obviously loving and worshipping the Lord, but in pants! I know that sounds ridiculous, and it was, but that’s where I was at the time. I couldn’t reconcile how these women seemed to love the Lord so much, and yet be wearing clothes that I was taught were not pleasing to God. This caused me to question what I had been taught in ATI. Another moment came when we were in a family crisis and everything I seemed to have built over the years came crashing down. The Lord used that time to reveal to me that the vision that Bill Gothard had given us, that we had been so dedicated to, was the wrong goal. The ATI program required us to commit ourselves to “train up sons and daughters who are mighty in spirit and able to impact the world for Jesus Christ”.  While on the surface this looks like a laudable goal, its pursuit takes the focus off the children’s needs and instead pressures them to be culture warriors. The last incident that clinched it for me had to do with the principle of authority that Bill Gothard taught. One day I asked myself, “Why are we following the leading of Bill Gothard and organizing our lives around his teaching, when he isn’t even our authority? He’s not our father, pastor, or government leader. Yet, he’s dictating everything about how we should live.” He usurped the authority that our leaders supposedly have over us! We finally said goodbye to ATI and began to follow a more grace-oriented approach to homeschooling and parenting.

When we finally left ATI, it was for theological reasons. We had no idea back then of the decades-long history of sex scandals, deception, and abuse that had plagued the IBLP ministry from its early days. Had we known what was really going on behind the scenes, we would have left much earlier. It was easier to cover up scandals back then because there was no internet. Furthermore, the support of prominent Christian leaders like Elizabeth Eliot, Gary Smalley, David Wilkerson, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, etc. validated his ministry. We heard many of these speakers at ATI conferences. Because of the millions of Christians that attended his seminars over the years, including annual pastors’ seminars, his teaching has been disseminated throughout North American churches and even worldwide. Many Christians and pastors probably don’t even realize that the origin of some of the concepts they are teaching is from Bill Gothard. In 2011, the website was launched to help those who have been negatively impacted by his teachings. He is currently being sued by 10 women that claim he sexually abused and/or harassed them. May justice be done, and may the Lord restore the years that the locust has eaten for everyone who has been harmed by his false teachings.

Galatians 5:4-10 “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty.”



3 thoughts on “Part 3: How we got into (and out of) legalistic homeschooling”

  1. Wow, your story is so informative. I am going to save the devotional you wrote for when I begin homeschool my son. I’m so sorry you endured ATI and Bill Gothard. I’m very glad you got out!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Laura- that about sums it up. Its incredible how blinded a person can be when following a man and his principles instead of Jesus and His marvelous mercy and grace. I’m sorry you had to endure all that. A persuasive father indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

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