Legalistic Christianity, Bill Gothard, and Sex Scandals

(I feel like this post needs an “Adult Content” warning.  So: consider yourself warned.)

One of the dangers of commenting on developing stories is that the details of the story may change, rendering your comments invalid.  Such is the case with the Bill Gothard sex scandal.

It appears that Mr Gothard has, over several decades, emotionally and physically abused young women who worked for him.  Mr Gothard, who has never married, chose attractive young women from families who looked to him as pastor and leader.  He brought them to work directly with him, in close physical and emotional contact.  He isolated and manipulated them.  Then he sexually molested them.

If what I have read is accurate and full, he did not have sexual intercourse with them.  He fondled genitals, breasts, etc., but did not have coitus.

(Again: I’m commenting on what I know about the story at the moment I’m writing it.  I’m aware that these details may shift as the story develops.)

My comment: I see a connection between Mr Gothard’s theology and his misconduct.

As an INSTITUTE OF BASIC YOUTH CONFLICTS alumnus (Lubbock TX, 1979), I can speak to the kind of Christianity / theology that Mr Gothard taught.  It was very rules-based: “Do this and you will be blessed. Do that and you will suffer.”

One of the problems with rules-based religion is that our sinful nature takes the rules and twists them into a kind of permissiveness; we “look for the loopholes.”  We see this in Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees regarding making oaths (Matt 23.16-22): “If you swear by the Temple it means nothing, but if you swear by the gold in the Temple you must keep your oath.”  They had developed an elaborate definition of what constituted lying / oath-breaking, filled with loopholes that would let them SOUND pious without actually keeping their word.

I think the same kind of thing has happened to Mr Gothard.  He had a rules-based system of morality, a rules-based system for making moral choices.  When temptation was strong, he justified his actions: “There’s the line.  I can do THIS, I can get THIS CLOSE to the line, but as long as I don’t cross it–and actually have intercourse–I haven’t really sinned.”  His addiction to masturbation, which he confessed to his ministry’s board nearly a decade ago, supports this picture of moral hair-splitting.

This is surely part of what Paul meant when he said, “The letter (the Law, the old covenant) kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  The Law kills because it focuses (or it tends to be applied so as to focus) on external behaviors: how high is high, how good is good, how shiny is shiny.

But the Spirit, which changes us from the inside out, gives life.

When I think about Mr Gothard’s sin and the devastation that have followed, I wish I didn’t see my own rationalizations and hair-splitting–but I DO see myself here.  The particulars may change, but the sinful nature is the same.  Like Gothard, I try to make moral bargains with God.  Like Gothard, I try to minimize my own sinfulness by moving the boundaries and erasing the lines.

And I’ll bet, if you think about it very long, you’ll find ways that you do the same thing, too.

Good thing we have a God who responds when we pray, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Right?

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