I first learned about my youth group’s “hands off” policy when a leader ripped my girlfriend’s arm off my shoulder. We were just standing around in a circle having a conversation, she put her around me in a very casual way, and then the leader struck.
That event in and of itself wasn’t a big deal. It was more of an eye-opener that I’d entered a different world where men were expected to open doors for women, boys were supposed to “court” a girl only when they were prepared to marry her, physical contact could lead to “something else,” and all dating decisions were filtered through the girl’s father.
As a guy I had it pretty easy, really. I just had to keep my hands to myself. OK, maybe as a teen that required a bit more will power, but compared to the girls, I didn’t have to worry about the cut of a shirt, the fit of a bathing suit, or the length of a skirt. Young women were under watchful eyes to ensure that they didn’t “lead on” guys. Some eyes were more watchful than others.
I have since learned that such “sin prevention systems” can cut us off from those who aren’t quite as fortunate, killing our empathy for others, and even leading to hatred of those who endure abuse.
I knew during my youth group days that some people in my church listened to the teachings of Bill Gothard, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally learned what exactly he teaches about dating and relationships—basically, hands off to the extreme. While most people in my church were on the looser end of Gothard’s influence, I can see the ways his strict rules about courtship and relationships filtered into the “biblical” way that I tried to pursue relationships.
O hai, Joshua Harris and your book about kissing without dating or whatever it was about…
In addition, I’ve seen how Gothard’s teachings and other variations of Christian legalism impacted the ways young women dressed and viewed their bodies. I remember how I used to have such disdain for young women who dressed immodestly. It was real disdain, like, “How could you do that to me?”
I saw girls worry endlessly about the ways they could make boys stumble.
In our dating relationships we were so worried about “slipping” or “stumbling” if we made the one bad decision that would lead down a slippery slope toward some kind of sexual contact.
If I faltered in just one way, everything could come crashing down.
Looking at the friends I still know on Facebook from my youth group days, they all turned out pretty great. Some even got married to each other. They have happy marriages and support each other. Based on the people I know, I haven’t seen much fall out from Gothard or groups who teach similar rules.
However, recent reports surfacing about Bill Gothard’s ministry from the Recovering Grace website and an article about Partick Henry College have amply revealed the dark side of legalism and the culture created by sin prevention systems. While we can point to the people like me who turned out just fine and left that kind of thinking behind, we need to consider the culture that legalism creates and the ways it can harm and oppress.
Bill Gothard has never married. That’s kind of odd for a guy who has buckets of advice on dating and courtship. I’d like to know if he’s ever taken his ideas for a test drive.
In fact, while Gothard’s teachings have focused on restraint and purity, his personal and professional lives have been anything but.
The man played some wild games of footsies after convincing his teenage entourage in a van to take their shoes off to get more comfortable during road trips.
He had a habit of touching young women on the back as they walked by.
He met with young women in his hotel room late and night and regularly initiated physical contact.
One young woman who came from a sexually abusive family was even preyed upon by Gothard, who regularly sexually assaulted her over her clothing before reaching under her clothes on one occasion.
While the young women at my youth group worried about presenting themselves properly and keeping themselves pure according to Gothard’s standards, he was traveling the country with a team of young women whom he sometimes touched inappropriately.
Nice job Bill.
While families kept themselves pure by avoiding rock music with drums and women made sure their clothing was baggy enough, he was buying bras for a young woman that she could wear to make her more sexually appealing when he wanted to grope her.
The board at Gothard’s ministry knew that something wasn’t right, but they just removed the young women from Gothard’s clutches when things got too hot, protecting their leader at all costs.
Lost in all of this was the dignity of the young women, any sense of justice, or a life-giving spirituality that could counteract the rampant legalism Gothard taught. While he created an empire around character, restraint, and rules, Gothard himself moved beyond the limits of common decency, let alone his own moral code.
Not to be outdone, Patrick Henry College, the elite homeschooling paradise outside of Washington D.C. holds similar standards about physical appearance and relationships.
Young women who were sexually assaulted and groped by male students were blamed for being in the wrong place, hanging out with the wrong guys, or leaving themselves vulnerable because they’d been drinking. In fact, the drinking was a MUCH bigger problem than sexual assault.
School administrators repeatedly brushed off reports of sexual groping from young women because they had allegedly put themselves in harm’s way by drinking, staying out beyond curfew, or laying down in the same room as young men.
The young men were virtually given free passes. They couldn’t help themselves it seems. Once these young women moved outside the bounds of legalistic purity, they were apparently fair game. The administration couldn’t help them.
They’d broken the rules and suffered the consequences. Did they expect to be “protected” and “cared for”?
You broke the rules and, now you expect grace? Just follow the rules next time, im kay?
Rule breakers are not given grace when they fail to prevent bad things from happening to themselves.
The problem with legalism is that it majors on the minors and leaves us vulnerable to the much bigger problems we could face.
So long as you’re obsessed with personal appearance, what your musical tastes are, and whether or not you drink alcohol, you’re likely to overlook the far more important things. When a young woman reports sexual abuse, the focus is immediately on the ways she violated the rules to arrive at that point. The focus is on the rules as the first priority.
That’s how a dean of students can end up telling a victim of sexual assault that she should keep quiet since her assault happened at a party that involved alcohol or that she shouldn’t have been sitting on a bed near a boy.
Can you see the “logic” here?
Lost here is the fact that a young man overpowered the will of a young woman in terrible act of personal violence. The focus is on what the woman should have done TO PREVENT IT.
When all you have is a system of “sin prevention,” there’s no grace for those who failed to follow the rules of the system perfectly.
How many young women have kept silent after being abused or assaulted by men because they either feared being shamed by their leaders or because they held themselves personally responsible? How many women have failed to give themselves grace or have the peace of knowing that their abusers have been neutralized?
The women of Patrick Henry College and Bill Gothard’s organization were held to a series of standards that they violated at their own risk. There was no grace for those who failed, who made mistakes, or who were victimized.
Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to those who follow the rules.
And it’s not just that such legalism kills empathy for those who suffer abuse or who make a mistake. Survivors of abuse, whether they broke the “rules” or not, become the enemy. They represent a flaw in a tightly guarded system that takes little to no account for men forcing themselves on women. Never mind that the system of sin prevention is destined to fail, as illustrated by someone like Gothard. That just causes the gate keepers to fight harder and to demand complete loyalty and obedience.
There’s no way to repair a sin prevention system. There’s no patch for legalism. We have to ditch it all. The only way out is the presence of the Holy Spirit who both convicts us of the ways we neglect God’s grace and shows us the path to life. The Spirit leads us to Christ our vine who brings good things to bear in us, who teaches us to love, who heals our wounds, and who shows us how to heal others.