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Homeschooling doesn’t save

The kingdom of heaven is built on Jesus, not on “life principles”

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I first heard of Bill Gothard when his Advanced Training Institute of America came to town and most of my homeschool friends signed up to attend. ATIA was the homeschool outreach of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, founded by Gothard in the early 1960s. I was interested, but interest cooled when I heard about the time commitment: three-hour sessions every night and all Saturday, amounting to 20-plus hours. Outside of Christ Himself, there was no one I wanted to listen to for 20-plus hours. My husband wouldn’t go for it either, so we passed. After attending the conference, my friends agreed about the spiritual value of much of the teaching. But other aspects of the program puzzled them—particularly the heavy lean on authority, with the ultimate authority assumed to be Gothard himself.

Our skepticism of Gothard and his followers grew over the next few years. “Trenchcoats,” one of my fellow moms observed. “Why do all the boys wear trenchcoats?” A homeschool day in the state capital featured testimonials from ATIA teens, who spoke of their “training” with perfect posture and glassy smiles. “They’re freaks,” moaned a young man in my car pool. “They’re gonna kill homeschooling.” After one of our co-op meetings I heard my kids laughing over a song their friends were singing to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me”: We love Jesus, yes we do / ’Cause Bill Gothard told us to.

Suffice it to say, though ATIA had a wide influence on homeschooling during the 1990s and 2000s, not everyone subscribed to his rigid family structure. The influence waned in later decades after accusations of sexual improprieties by Gothard himself (see “Bill Gothard resigns from ministry,” March 7, 2014). The Institute in Basic Life Principles still exists apart from its founder, though perhaps more influential internationally than in the United States.

His name wasn’t widely known outside evangelical circles, but the Amazon series Shiny Happy People brought Bill Gothard to the attention of a wider public. I haven’t seen it, but word is that the four-part series makes the Duggar family a prime example of Christian homeschoolers everywhere. Not true; even in the pioneering days of the 1980s, with curriculum options extremely limited, homeschoolers came in a wide range of lifestyles, both religious and secular. But one idea haunted many of my peers at that time: that our children would have a profound effect on politics and culture. That they might even, in the words of at least one ­conference speaker, “save America.”

Gothard hinted at this, but he wasn’t the only one. Homeschool leadership, as well as the rank-and-file, included a number of reformed feminists, fornicators, and drug-addled hippies who blamed their secular education for steering them down destructive pathways. They swore to do better with the next generation. Shielding their kids from the world’s enticements, giving them Proverbs-based instruction, inspiring them with a mission—that was the ticket. Vision Forum, Generation Joshua, and the Quiverfull movement were hopeful developments that promised great things. Which made it all the more painful when some of their leaders revealed feet of clay.

I recall our shock when a popular conference speaker who promoted large families and a back-to-land lifestyle left her husband for another man. “If we can’t trust ____, who can we trust?” one of my friends cried. Other paragons would fall, brought down by sexual improprieties, financial mismanagement, or overbearing leadership. And in my own circle of eight moms, all of us had ­children who strayed, at least temporarily, from the “basic life principles” they were taught.

Who can we trust? Jesus.

The kingdom of heaven is not built on a foundation of life principles. It’s built on a Person who is less interested in saving America than saving individual souls. All of us, I suspect, default to the “do this and live” principle from time to time; the thought that our best efforts might not produce desired results is hard to accept. So is radical grace, but nothing else can save.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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