What's Wrong with Bill and Me
That comment was actually reassuring, as it was meant to be, given the context. The conversation earlier had been affirming of some things I had said on my blog. I was told that it made people think, and they were talking about it among themselves, even if they weren’t writing comments or talking to me. Tacitly, however, there was acknowledgment that it was not universally appreciated or even regarded as being worth paying attention to. That’s when the above comment entered the picture. The reassuring part, also tacitly acknowledged, was that I need not have felt that the ideas were bad, because even good ideas don’t always have a chance if you have a gender strike against you.
For the most part, I have been surrounded by people who have not made me feel “less than” for my gender. Most of the men closest to me have been wonderful. I grew up with mostly boys in my class at school. They’ve always felt like friends. My father and my husband, and now my grown sons don’t always agree with me, but they’ve never made me feel that I should routinely put my inferior ideas aside for their superior ones. Ditto for the men I’ve worked most closely with at school. I think I’ve said some of these things before on this blog, and I’m repeating them here because of their relevance for what I want to address here: Bill Gothard’s teaching on the Chain of Command.
Have I ever suffered personally from Bill Gothard’s flawed emphasis on the Chain of Command, which, allegedly, when followed scrupulously, will result in being able to navigate life sheltered under an umbrella of protection? I think so, but that’s not the main point of my concern.
First, let’s consider whether there actually is a flaw in Bill Gothard’s emphasis.
I do believe that the Bible speaks to the matter of gender roles, and to matters of leading and following. Bill Gothard (BG–I plead fatigue rather than disrespect by abbreviating) thinks so too, so where’s the problem? Stay with me here; this is about to get a little dense. Some of these thoughts are not original with me, but they’ve become part of my thinking, and I can’t remember where all I found them, so, sorry about not providing more references that you can check out for yourself.
Bill Gothard seems to see the Chain of Command as a top-down structure. Think of the word “command” in the term. This is how it works in BG’s teaching (oversimplified perhaps). “Commands” are issued, and anyone lower on the chain submits to them, if they want protection and blessing. I’m trying not to read anything negative in the “chain” part of the term, so I’ll leave that one alone. I believe this top-down emphasis is a problem.
Now picture how different things look when each person seeking to follow God voluntarily submits to God, and then, in an act of humility and service, voluntarily submits to others, including those named as their leaders in Scripture. The emphasis in Scripture when submission is taught actually sometimes seems quite broadly applicable–not narrowly so, as in a straight line from the top down.
I’d like to scrap the BG umbrella image in favor of a different umbrella image. In my mind, God is the “knob” in the center top of the umbrella. All God’s children are the spines of the umbrella, fastened to the center knob, and, when spread out for action, held by the fabric of brotherhood in useful tension and support in relation to all other “spines,” but especially in relation to God, at the center. In a more targeted submission, any “spine” can send a submission “signal,” through the knob, to any other spine. By this route, every act of submission becomes an offering to God first, and then to the person He transmits the signal to. To spare us endless confusion about what is happening, God gives us some prior information about how He chooses to organize things, and we can learn something about the pattern of His transmission work.
I’m afraid my umbrella image is a lot less tidy than BG’s. I still like it better than his–mainly because it shows that I can completely rest in my position in Christ. If adversity befalls me, I will look immediately to Christ, in Whom I am securely anchored. I will not assume immediately that I have stepped out from under the umbrella of protection, and that the adversity is somehow my fault. Neither will I immediately assume that those over me have failed to protect me. Adversity will first be a matter to consider between me and God, not the triggering of a review of the steps in a Big Red Book that tell me exactly how to stay under the umbrella of protection, and what blessings or hazards accompany staying there or leaving there. Those steps focus inordinately on myself and other humans. Instead, what I need to focus on are God’s purposes and ways.
Sadly, the Chain of Command teaching can easily serve the purposes of someone who desires to control others for selfish purposes, or to perpetrate abuse.
I recall reading the story of Abigail in the Bible more than 25 years ago, and having been deeply impressed by her discernment, flexibility, and resourcefulness in incredibly trying circumstances because of a husband who behaved reprehensibly. I spoke of it once when I had devotions at the sewing. Later, when we studied that passage in Sunday school, I spoke admiringly again about Abigail. Right on the heels of that, someone said publicly, to some of the same audience I had spoken to, that Abigail made a beautiful appeal, but she made it to the wrong person. I felt rebuked for having spoken so favorably of her when her response was presented as being obviously flawed. Yet, when I checked out the Biblical record more carefully, I searched in vain for Bible commentary on that story that suggested that Abigail was in error.
I don’t believe that the final test of any teaching should be pragmatic–that is, whether or not it “works,” but even by those standards, in Abigail’s case, what she did appears to have “worked.” I believe that it’s likely that an unwholesome loyalty to Bill Gothard’s teaching on Chain of Command can taint our understanding of stories like Abigail’s, and result in unwholesome applications in our own practice.
Here’s a story that makes me smile, remembering. Sanford Yoder, Costa Rica, who is my sister-in-law Judy’s father, when he preached in our church a long time ago, said something that also countered Bill Gothard’s teaching. I can’t recall the precise details, but, in BG’s view, the husband/father should be in charge of the family finances. Sanford told us he had heard that, and he really didn’t agree. He thought it made more sense for whichever spouse was the better record keeper/manager to be in control of the finances. This insertion of common sense into the discussion is exactly what was needed.
I recall hearing another time about a conversation within a small church group when one woman campaigned hard for having the men be directly responsible for all the purchases made with church funds. She made it clear that she considered it a chain-of-command matter (although I’m not sure that term was used), and it could be done properly only if the men were responsible. After a stalemate became apparent, one man quietly said that he was not nearly as concerned about who did the actual purchasing as he was about the direction the conversation was taking. Again, a common-sense expression restored order in a situation that was lurching toward nonsense.
1. As I understand it, Bill Gothard teaches that when someone in authority acts in a wrong or unreasonable manner, the correct response from those under authority is to still cooperate with the person in authority or, if that is impossible, to make an appeal. For the most part, this makes sense to me. I don’t believe, however, that all are obligated to stay frozen in place under such mishandled authority. An appeal for help from others may be necessary. In fact, going directly to God about the matter is probably the first thing that should happen.
2. The “Umbrella” and “Chain of Command” teaching do grievous harm when they are used to blame the victim when abuse or sin occurs. We all know this instinctively. Yet it seems that it’s not always easy to recognize how it applies.
I once heard an indignant comment about what seemed to be an assumption that when one spouse strays, the faithful spouse also needs to be willing to receive counseling. I had never given the matter much thought, and mostly just listened. The person speaking went on to cite a case in which she knew the details very well, and the wrongdoing was clearly one-sided. In that case, the problems were resolved without others making the faithful spouse feel that she caused the problems. Caveat: I don’t have any trouble seeing that couples or family counseling may often be helpful. I hope, however, that if a person has already suffered because of another’s wrongdoing, that person is not made to endure further suffering because of an unjust assignment of blame.
In what is coming to light in IBLP, it’s obvious to me that the Chain of Command teaching was, in fact, used far too often to protect the abuser and to silence the abused.
This document has been knocking around on my computer for most of a week now, and I'm ready to stop looking at it. When I click on that "publish" button, however, I'll be sending it into other people's mind space, and I pray it accomplishes God's purposes there.