Everyone I Don’t Like is Literally Gothard
Gothard says we can transfer ourselves back into Satan’s realm at any time, not by, say, apostatizing from the Christian faith, but simply by getting “out from under” our “umbrella of protection,”8 by which he means things like disobeying our bosses or our parents. While Paul says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one,” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV), Gothard says if you don’t remain under your “umbrella of protection,” God will stop guarding you against Satan and allow him to rain down “destruction” upon you.9
I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life researching Bill Gothard, interviewing him, warning others about him, and debating him and his followers. So, when someone comes along and accuses a well-known Christian of teaching Gothard’s concepts, it tends to get my attention, especially when said Christian has been in the public eye for more than 40 years. It’s an extraordinary claim—and a sobering one—that makes me want to look into it.
Recently I learned that, two days before I published my article titled, “Hi, Megan! About those tweets from Rachael Denhollander…,” Denhollander’s husband Jacob tweeted about “Bill Gothard’s ‘Umbrella of Authority’ concept.” He was trying to use this concept to establish a direct link between Bill Gothard and John MacArthur.
Actually, he was claiming more than a “link.” He asserted that MacArthur’s teaching on “male/female relationships” is conceptually identical to Gothard’s, that he was “using” Gothard’s “concept.”
Again, this was an extraordinary claim. If there was any truth to it, I really wanted to know.
Jacob Denhollander’s Allegation
This is what he tweeted above a screenshot of a web page containing one of MacArthur’s sermons from 1986:1
Here’s John MacArthur using Bill Gothard’s “Umbrella of Authority” concept–his unique and extremely influential way of explaining male/female relationships.
The commonality is there for anyone with any familiarity, regardless of how formal it was.2
Denhollander’s wording is important. He claims that when MacArthur said that a woman “is to be under the umbrella of male protection, provision, authority, and direction,” he wasn’t merely using Gothard’s “umbrella of authority” language, but his “umbrella of authority” concept.
Gothard’s preferred way of stating his concept is that “authority is like an ‘umbrella of protection,’”3 rather than simply calling it an “umbrella of authority.” And in 1986, MacArthur used language that is at least formally similar to Gothard’s: “umbrella of male protection, provision, authority, and direction.” But as Denhollander himself seems to note, the only thing his citation of MacArthur proves is formal similarity. His allegation of conceptual identity (not mere similarity) can’t be demonstrated from the text alone. It requires “familiarity” with the teachings of both men.
So, precisely what is Gothard’s concept—his unique and extremely influential way of explaining male/female relationships—that Denhollander alleges MacArthur “used?” I think I have some familiarity with it.
First of all, let’s get one thing clear…
Gothard’s “authority is like an ‘umbrella of protection’” concept is not simply his way of explaining male/female relationships. It’s his way of explaining everyone’s relationships: a wife’s relationship to her husband, a child’s relationships to his parents, a man’s relationship to his boss (women shouldn’t work outside the home, according to Gothard), a couple’s relationship to their pastor, a citizen’s relationship to his government, people’s relationship to God—just about every relationship outside of siblings and friends. Wives are not the only ones subject to it, nor are men exempt from it. It is all-inclusive and does not discriminate on the basis of sex.
Now, in every theological error, there is usually an element of truth. Gothard’s errors are no exception. If you’re going to explain God-established human authority in terms of an “umbrella of protection,” it makes perfect sense from a historic Protestant perspective to apply it to all of our relationships and not just one kind since historic Protestant teaching locates the source of all legitimate human authority in the fifth commandment. We see this, for instance, in the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647:
Q. 124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?
A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.4
The Christians of the Reformation and their successors poured a great deal of work into establishing the biblical basis for what the catechism says here, which is that all relationships that entail authority and submission, whether found in the family or in one of society’s hierarchies, are governed by the commandment to honor our parents. This may sound strange to most people today, but it was a common Christian understanding several generations ago. The catechism I just cited contains a lot more on this subject than the part I quoted here. You may find it helpful to consult its context.5
Evangelicals today who insist that marital and family relationships should bear no trace of submission to authority are signaling their decisive break with (and perhaps ignorance of) historic Protestantism on this issue. Most of them are probably okay with that, but all this is simply to say that on this narrow point—the existence of authority and submission in human relationships—Gothard has not broken with historic Christian theology. He is, in fact, in harmony with it. And so is MacArthur.
But if the problem with Gothard’s “umbrella of protection” is not with the fact that its view of authority is so all-encompassing, what exactly is the problem with it?
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” —Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
What does Gothard specifically mean by “authority is like an ‘umbrella of protection’” that makes it so bad? What specific theological content does he pour into his figurative umbrella that makes his use of these terms so toxic? Once you start reading his literature, the answer isn’t hard to find. In his Basic Seminar textbook, Gothard wrote:
Authority is like an “umbrella of protection,” and when we get out from under it, we expose ourselves to unnecessary temptations which are too strong for us to overcome. This is why Scripture compares rebellion to witchcraft – “Rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft.” (I Samuel 15:23) Both terms have the same basic definition – subjecting ourselves to the realm and power of Satan.6
And in supplemental materials to the Basic Seminar, Gothard reinforces his concept:
The “umbrella of protection” symbolizes the fact that as long as we are under God-given authority, nothing can happen to us that God does not design for His glory and our ultimate good. (See Romans 8:28-29). 7
It’s difficult to imagine a more subtle and effective theft of the believer’s comfort and assurance than the one Gothard pulls off in these few words. With an utterly reckless disregard for context, he takes the unconditional promise God makes to all His children in Romans 8:28-29 that all things will work for their good and makes it conditional upon submitting to human authorities.
To be clear: Christians cannot “subject [themselves] to the realm and power of Satan.” Salvation in Christ makes this a spiritual impossibility because,
¹³ He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, ¹⁴ in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14 ESV)
Gothard’s word “realm” and Paul’s word “domain” (ἐξουσία, exousía: “authority,” “jurisdiction”) are both functionally synonymous with each other here and functionally synonymous with Paul’s other word, “kingdom,” although Paul’s “domain” is more comprehensive in the sense that it excludes believers from being under Satan’s power in any way. This is what Paul means when he says we’ve been rescued from Satan’s kingdom and given full citizenship in Christ’s kingdom (cf. Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20). Keeping all this in mind, let’s stick with Gothard’s word, “realm,” since it’s his concept we’re discussing.
While Paul says believers have been decisively delivered from and transferred out of Satan’s realm and into Christ’s realm so Satan no longer has any claim over us, Gothard says we can transfer ourselves back into Satan’s realm at any time, not by, say, apostatizing from the Christian faith, but simply by getting “out from under” our “umbrella of protection,”8 by which he means things like disobeying our bosses or our parents.
While Paul says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one,” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV), Gothard says if you don’t remain under your “umbrella of protection,” God will stop guarding you against Satan and allow him to rain down “destruction” upon you.9
While the Apostle John repeatedly assures born-again believers that we have already overcome “the evil one” (1 John 2:13-14) and that the God who indwells us is greater than Satan (4:4) who therefore “does not touch” us (5:18), and thus the primary motive for confession of sin (1:9) is to restore a close relationship with our loving Father (3:1), Gothard terrorizes Christian consciences by teaching confession is necessary to “reclaim the ground that we have given Satan the ‘legal right’ to occupy.”10
Even though you’d never guess it from reading the whole epistle to the Romans, according to Gothard, the promise in 8:28-29 that everything works together for the good of believers is contingent on staying under your multiple “umbrellas of protection.”
Little wonder that Jinger Duggar Vuolo, who grew up on this teaching, writes:
Gothard didn’t teach me to be in awe of who God is and what He’s done, especially through Jesus Christ. Instead, he taught me to focus primarily on God’s punishment. I learned to fear what God could do to me. While the Bible affirms that authority has a place in our lives, Gothard turned obedience into a matter of terror. If I misstepped in any way, I was removed from all protection, and Satan would have full access. “As long as you are under God-given authority, nothing can happen to you that God does not design for your ultimate good,” Gothard said. This implied that if I stepped out from under the umbrella—knowingly or unknowingly—anything that happened would not be for my ultimate good.11
For reasons I’ll soon explain, Gothard did more than imply the possibility of stepping out from under the umbrella unknowingly and losing God’s protection. That idea is foundational to his system.12