Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Corrupting Power of Basic Principles

Written by: on March 13, 2014

Recently another Christian leader has come under scrutiny for sexual allegations. It would have been one of the least likely people by the way this man conducted himself. He was reserved, non-flamboyant and taught a moral high road. If you lived in the U.S. in the 70s and beyond, chances you would have heard of him, especially if you grew up in a conservative Christian environment. Bill Gothard created the Basic Youth Conflicts Seminar. His Principles for Living Seminar attracted large crowds. Later he went on to endorse and have seminars on the virtues of home schooling. The teaching was based on a strong hierarchy of power.

But as a 2003 book A Matter of Basic Principals points out, all is not well. The author claims both wrong conduct and wrong teaching. Apparently, he has been unwilling to take any criticism or correction about his legalistic teaching and taking hermeneutical license with scripture. His power could not be disputed. Back in 1981 Christianity Today ran an article that key leaders had resigned because of the way finances were handled. This year Gothard resigned when he was placed on administrative leave while sexual allegations were investigated. It is also alleged that Gothard covered up his brother’s improprieties. Some female employees contend that Gothard also was guilty of some harassment.

This man had a huge influence on me in my teenage years and on into my twenties. I probably attended his seminar seven times. He combined pop psychology, subtly legalistic theology and tightly defined principles for successful Christian living. This was empowering stuff for a teenager. We were Pentecostal. The power of the Holy Spirit was appealed to those who feel disempowered. The “spiritualized” atmosphere seemed to have little relevance to a teen dealing with the tension of parent’s arguments, school peer relationships and wanting to know girls. So a seminar that made practical application for everyday life was like a breath of fresh air. The principles influenced my thinking for many years. Two things changed my mind, marriage and ministry. Quickly I discovered that principles don’t always work. I grew to see how legalist this teaching was. Life is no easy seven principles to anything. It actually can create a subtle guilt for not living up to the principles.

Power in social settings needs to be understood. This week I have read the book Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence by MaryKate Morse. This is an excellent read on how we use power in everyday life. Morse is not against the use of power, instead she examines how power is used in the social space we inhabit relationally. Too often we learn more about power through its misuse instead of its use. In my Pentecostal church power was used and misused by leaders and church members. It seems the Gothard organization is not immune either. The desire to gain control of one’s life by controlling others is so subtle in every encounter. What MaryKate points out is the importance of understanding embodied presence. We are bodies that carry capacities to influence others.

One of the most helpful insights in this book for me is that people behave based on their perspective of their visual presence. Our impressions of ourselves and others determines our success at managing influence. Often our first impressions about other people’s visual presence can be misinformed (p.110) We also can fall into other people first impression biases. Morse gives insight on how we can manage to give positive second impressions to overcome these biases. They are ways power can be used to influence others. She gives eight visceral markers that contribute to a positive presence with others. These “viscerals” allow a person to more deeply assess a relationship. The first is focus. When a person has a determined focus they are not easily intimidated. Clarity about one’s purpose makes one more easily able to take up social space. Next is the ability to risk. Those who are more comfortable with risk have more influence. Attitude is another factor. Having an optimistic attitude is definitely more endearing to others. A positive mental affect opens one up to more social space. Fourth is creating boundaries. A sense of separateness defines who one is and who one is not. To keep healthy social boundaries creates power. Social skills is the next marker. These are learned behaviors one can acquire from observing others. Good eye contract, body position and appropriate touch are the last three. Each calls attention to how we use our bodily presence.

What each of these skills display is that leadership influence is not merely inward. The spirituality of the Pentecostal world I knew as a youth saw all social skills overcome by a deeper commitment to God. The spiritual and the material were subtly separated. While the Basic Youth Conflicts seminar discussed relational interaction, it placed the attention primarily on internal attitudes and receptivity to godly principles. The chain of command principle has been highly debated. It seems the power structure is cracking. What Morse does is bring the spiritual and bodily actions together. God created us in a social space. Paying attention to that space helps clarify how to use influence as a leader in healthy God honoring ways.

Channel Seven Eyewitness News, “Leader of controversial Oak Brook religious group resigns amid sex harassment.”


Battered Sheep, “The Blinding and Binding Teachings of Bill Gothard”.


About the Author

Fred Fay

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