As we know from the emphasis on submission in matters of corporal punishment, evangelical Christians place a lot of importance on submission to so-called “God-given” authorities. Learning to submit to one’s earthly authorities, it’s believed, helps teach a child how to submit to God. A child’s most important authority figures in evangelicalism are understood
to be his father and mother.
[T]he Bible insists that children are to obey their parents and that parents are to enforce their children’s obedience. At one time or another just about every Christian parent has quoted this verse to their disobedient kids: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). This is about as straightforward a decree as you’ll find in the Bible.
Although Bill Gothard stepped down
from his homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in 2014 amid allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault that targeted young women and minors, his teachings remain. A cursory perusal of the IBLP website
shows that the program’s authoritarian insistence on the importance of childhood submission to authority figures did not leave with Gothard.
God assigns various responsibilities to parents, church leaders, government officials, and other authorities. As we learn to acknowledge and honor these authorities, we can see God work through them to provide direction and protection in our lives. Honoring our authorities brings inward peace.
IBLP sees this as one of the most important principles a Christian must master in order to live a good life. They believe that submission to authority literally “provides direction and protection in our lives.” This concept is developed further in Gothard’s thinking about an “umbrella of protection
,” which essentially posits that God protects us from bad things like sexual abuse if we remain in subjection to our “God-given” authorities. Suffering, in this view, is the direct result of rebelliousness, of operating outside one’s designated “umbrella of protection.”
The concept of the umbrella of protection is controversial within evangelicalism. Many, including those who come from a Reformed tradition, may dismiss it as magical thinking. I do not have data showing how many people fully buy into the concept. What I can say is that, like many things Gothard and IBLP, the umbrella is an extreme conceptualization of a value held dear in evangelicalism across ideological and theological divides: God places specific authorities into the lives of his children, and living in submission to those authorities fulfills God’s designs for one’s life.
It’s a value system that venerates order above all else, and it’s also a recipe for victim-blaming. When someone experiences suffering, including child sexual abuse, the umbrella of protection can be used as an explanation. That is, the logic goes, maybe the suffering occurred because a child misbehaved, acted out of defiance and lost her umbrella of protection. IBLP’s site states
, “[Through] disobedience you remove yourself from God’s full protection and are therefore far more susceptible to the attacks of Satan.” And attacks from Satan, it’s understood, lead to immense suffering.
It’s an unfathomably cruel explanation that blames the innocent child for his abuse, but it does flow directly from the belief that submission to authority is sacrosanct. Again, Gothard’s teachings represent an extremist interpretation of Christian evangelicalism, but they flow logically from popular evangelical teachings about submission and obedience to authority.
At minimum, it’s unsurprising that people who follow these teachings have little to offer victims who come forward. There is no real road to healing in a system that grants no bodily autonomy and no respite from the law of obedience. And a child raised to submit unquestioningly to the whims of her elders may be particularly vulnerable when encountering a child predator.
When it comes to children and abuse, we should in fact be suspicious of people who strongly value obedience and submission. Speaking out against abuse requires rebellion against people with greater power than the victim – that is, people in positions of authority. And the idea that practicing obedience brings protection from abuse is an outright lie. Of course Gothard turned out to be an alleged predator; he created an entire system designed to enable and justify his own predation.
Gothard and IBLP are useful, I think, because they provide a clear example of how monstrous evangelical teachings can become when taken to their logical end. It’s not that every single evangelical believes exactly what Gothard teaches. Rather Gothard and other extremists show where this thinking leads, left to its own devices.
Evangelicals make up between 22.5 and 25.4 percent
of the US population. They have outsized political power, having solidified control over the US Supreme Court and a majority of state governments. It is incumbent upon those of us who oppose their political program and care about the suffering of children to keep raising alarms about the dangers they pose. To do that, we have to understand their internal logic and motivations.
Likewise, victims from this culture must rely on an outside world that too often doesn’t understand what’s happened to them for help. Understanding requires a basic literacy in the worldview that facilitated their abuse. Most people with no experience in evangelical communities don’t have that understanding. That’s why I felt it important to begin reconstructing an explanation here.