Part 4: After legalism, then what?

Perhaps you’ve read Parts 1-3 of Homeschooling and Legalism, and you’ve become aware of the damaging effect of legalism in your own life. Perhaps you’re a homeschooling mother, or one who was raised under legalism, or both! Where do you go from here? Is homeschooling still a viable option? Is Christianity really the truth? I can understand the many people who have been burned because of legalism, and it has made them skeptical and disillusioned. Sometimes that disillusionment has led them to reject Christianity altogether. I can understand that. Healing is a process that can take quite some time. Sometimes the pain is so great, you just can’t bring yourself to do anything that remotely reminds you of that other life, including reading the Bible, going to church, or believing in God. Something’s been taken from you; your trust has been violated; and you don’t want to get hurt again. While in the short term running away from the Lord seems to be the easiest option, true healing and peace will only come as you dare to draw near to God and learn who he really is.

I want to tell you that the abuse you suffered, the wrong teachings you received and lived by, grieve the heart of God. He feels your pain; he longs to show you his love, restore you, and replace those lies with truth, truth that will set you free. What you lived through was a distorted view of Christianity, a false gospel, that could not deliver on what it promised.

Under legalism, you were made to feel ashamed, condemned, inadequate. You were always striving, never attaining the goal. You were judged, not loved unconditionally. You were given a false hope: that if you strive hard to be righteous according to the rules of the organization you were with, you might be good enough to earn God’s love and acceptance. But if you fail, you will lose God’s protection and blessing, and Satan will destroy you. That is not biblical Christianity! The gospel is good news. Good news is something that has already happened; not something that you have to do. The good news is that Jesus has done it all for you. He has fulfilled the requirements of the law on your behalf; he has paid the penalty for your sin; God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) You cannot become righteous by following the law. Jesus, having fulfilled the law, now offers you his righteousness as a free gift! Just by asking for it! No, we don’t deserve it, but’s that’s grace! You would have to obey every single bit of the law for your whole life to be considered righteous, but you can’t do that. In fact, no one can, except for Jesus! If you are a Christian, you are righteous in God’s sight, simply because you were given the righteousness of Christ when you believed in him. You did nothing to earn it, and you can do nothing to lose it. You can’t add to it, either! What can you add to perfect righteousness?

Furthermore, God’s love for you is not conditional upon your obedience or behaviour. His love, agape, is unconditional. The Bible says that God is love. [God] is patient, kind, doesn’t envy, doesn’t boast, isn’t proud, does not dishonour others, isn’t self-seeking; isn’t easily angered; keeps no record of wrongs; doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth; always protects; always trusts; always hopes; always perseveres; never fails. That’s the God of the Bible! He loves you not because you perform so well, but because he created every detail about you. You are his workmanship; you belong to him. His very essence is one of unfailing love. Nothing can ever separate you from his love, including anything that you do or don’t do! Rest in his love for you, and you will find emotional stability in your life.

Perhaps what drew you into a legalistic lifestyle was the need to be significant, to achieve something, to be important. Again, legalism cannot meet that need. The best it could do was give you a pharisaical sense of self-importance if you compared yourself with other “less godly” Christians, but that’s not the real deal. It falls so short of the humble confidence you can have when you are following the leading of the Holy Spirit in serving others with your God-given gifts. He has a plan and purpose for you, and he knows how to expertly weave together both the good and the bad experiences of your life to reveal his heart to you and make you a blessing to others. Serving God is not a burdensome, impossible obligation as portrayed by legalism; it is a joyful opportunity to participate with him in making a difference in someone’s life.

What about homeschooling? If you have homeschooled under legalism, should you put your children in public school instead? There is not one right answer to that question, other than to seek the Lord for his will for each of your children. Homeschooling is a very good option if it has a foundation of grace rather than legalism, but it is not an obligation. Perhaps that child will thrive in a different setting. If you do homeschool, don’t put your trust in it to achieve a certain outcome. Recognize it as an opportunity to love your child, help them to discover their God-given talents, and model faith in Christ. Learn to lean on the Lord’s direction rather than blindly following some homeschooling guru.

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13

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.”


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






Homeschooling and Legalism Part 1

Homeschooling and Legalism Part 1

Homeschoolers today possess a diverse range of educational philosophies, religious beliefs, and motivations for homeschooling. Nevertheless, the homeschooling movement grew in the 1980s and 1990s largely as a result of underlying ideas that had their roots in Christian legalism. Many homeschoolers are not aware of how pervasive (and dangerous) that legalistic thinking was, or continues to be in many circles today. Having lived (too many) years as a homeschooler in a legalistic system, I know firsthand how damaging it can be to your spiritual health, emotional well-being, and relationships. This series will attempt to define legalism, expose its flaws, present an alternative foundation for homeschooling, and give hope and truth to those who may find themselves living under the yoke of legalism.

What is Legalism?

According to, legalism is defined as:

  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. Theology.
  1. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
  2. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

Legalism, for the purpose of this article, will be defined as any system of law or rules that encourages the judging of one’s righteousness (value, lovability), or that of another person, based on their adherence to that particular set of rules. While my experience was in a Christian legalistic system, legalism is present in many other religions/cultural expressions. In Islam, for example, legalism is expressed in the fervent desire to live by Sharia law and impose it on others. In Judaism, it is expressed in Orthodox Judaism, where the Torah is strictly observed as interpreted by the Talmud. Legalism is also prevalent in our secular culture today, where people are bullied and judged according to their adherence (or lack of it) to veganism, feminism, environmentalism, allopathic/alternative medicine practices, or social liberalism. How many of us are made to feel guilty and unrighteous, for example, because we dare to eat meat? According to many vegans, any consumption of animal products or farming of animals is morally unacceptable. They would look down on carnivores as being morally inferior, and will be zealous in trying to convince others of the moral superiority of not eating meat. I’m not saying all vegans are legalists. There are numerous motivations behind the practice. But this is one example of a non-religious philosophy that can be legalistic in its approach.

Legalism, whatever form it takes, basically says “if I strive to live up to these laws, I will be more acceptable/righteous/lovable/blessed than those who don’t adhere to these laws”. Legalism is an attempt to earn approval or righteousness in the eyes of God or others. We all have a God-given need for love, acceptance, and significance. As a Christian, I believe that those needs can only be fully met in a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. He loves us with an everlasting love; as I put my trust in Christ and his work on the cross for my salvation, I become a member of his family, accepted by God, and righteous in his sight. I have a purpose for living: to receive God’s love and grace, and share it with others through words and actions. Once I have accepted God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus and I am confident in his unconditional love and acceptance for me, I don’t need to prove anything, or strive to be something. 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.

“And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Galatians 2:16b

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