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  • Writer's pictureShannon Makujina

Examining Bill Gothard's Teaching on Defrauding from 1 Thes 4:3-8.

Updated: Mar 29

We sat in the living room together, having “family worship”. My dad opened his Bible and told us all to open to 1 Thessalonians 4. We were about to talk about one of his favorite topics: how women should (and shouldn’t) dress.


I remember being wowed by Bill Gothard’s explanation of defrauding and coming away thinking it made so much sense: if I wore something that made a man lust after me, I was defrauding them. That is why it was so important for me to wear ankle length skirts, shirts a size too big, and stockings or long socks.


I wonder how many people learned Gothard’s teachings on ‘defrauding’ and came away with a false sense of security in their modesty legalism, or worse—a terror of accidentally sinning against someone or feeling responsible for someone else’s sin.


Let’s talk through this passage together and figure out what it really means and what it does not mean.

 

1 Thes 4:3-8 “For this is God’s will, your sanctification, that you keep away from sexual immorality, that each of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passions, like the Gentiles, who don’t know God. This means one must not transgress against and take advantage of a brother or sister in this manner, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. For God has not called us to impurity but to live in holiness. Consequently, anyone who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

 

Here's what Gothard taught based on this passage. Gothard took the word “defraud” (KJV) or “take advantage” (vs. 4) and defined it like this. “To defraud another person means to stir up in them desires that cannot be righteously fulfilled.”


According to Gothard, if you are a woman, you are responsible to keep men from lusting after you. If someone looks at you and is attracted towards you (has desires they can’t righteously fulfill), that is your fault for ‘defrauding’ them. As a result, you should dress as modestly as possible to avoid incurring God’s judgment (vs. 6), or even being raped or sexually assaulted as a result of your clothing (yes, Gothard blamed rape victims for their clothing).


If you read Gothard’s definition of ‘defraud’ into the text, it makes way too much sense. It’s appealing. And we should avoid making other people lust after us, right?


Here’s the problem: Gothard’s definition is completely made up by—wait for it—Gothard! This definition is nowhere in the text or in your dictionary.


There are some other serious issues with this idea of ‘defrauding’, so let's look at two.


1.      No matter what you wear, no matter how modest you are, you cannot control what other people think. While it’s a good idea to not purposely flaunt your body, there is a serious problem with assuming that women are responsible for controlling men’s lust by what they wear (or vice versa). Sadly, modesty does not protect women nearly as much as the IFB church would like you to think. Muslim women are some of the most covered people on the planet and sexual assault and rape is rampant in Muslim communities, especially overseas. Men who have fetishes for Amish girls kidnap them, rape them, and then murder them. Pornography features entire genres of ‘modest’ girls, wearing long dresses and stockings, for men with fetishes for those things. Dressing conservatively is not going to prevent men from lusting after you! As Christian women, we cannot be responsible for anyone’s actions or thoughts but our own. I cannot be responsible for every man who looks at me and wants something he cannot righteously have.

 

Jesus taught this concept of self-responsibility in the sermon on the Mount, where he famously told a crowd to tear out their eyes if they were causing them to lust (Matthew 5:27-29). In Christ, we are given everything that is needed for life and godliness, and that is not dependent on other people or their actions. In Christ, we can be self-controlled. And that is our responsibility, not anyone else’s.

 

While we should not intentionally dress or act provocatively just for the sake of it, we are also not responsible for any actions but our own. Someone else lusting after you is their problem, not yours. It is impossible to be responsible for not stirring unrighteous desires in someone else, because no matter what you wear, there will always be someone.


2.      Gothard’s concept of ‘defrauding’ missed the entire point of the passage. The point of this passage about controlling your own body (not someone else’s!) and being responsible for you not having lustful passions, unlike the Gentiles, who do not have the power of the Holy Spirit to control themselves.

 

If the passage literally says it is God’s will that each one learn to control his own body (vs 4), how could Gothard get the idea that this means you are responsible for controlling someone else’s sexual urges?  

 

Since we are able and commanded to control ourselves, Paul goes on to give the application of his previous statement. This means, Paul says, one must not transgress against and take advantage of a brother or sister in this manner

 

While this could absolutely include general sexual sin, it is interesting to note that the language here, “transgress against” and “take advantage of”, is not consensual language and seems to be more specifically referring towards hurting someone who is vulnerable, sinning against them, or doing something against their will.

 

The word for “take advantage” (CSB) or “defraud” (KJV) or “wrong” (ESV) is the Greek word pleonekteō (πλεονεκτεῖν). This word literally means “to exploit” and while there are several words used to mean ‘wrong’ in the New Testament, this is the only occurrence of pleonekteō. The word before that, that is translated “transgress against”, hyperbainō, is also only used once in the NT. It means to ‘cross over’ (a boundary) or to ‘overreach’.


While there is a sense in which consensual sexual immorality is hurting someone spiritually or stepping over the boundaries of Godly Christian living, the more direct application of these words would be referring to non-consensual sexual actions, where you step over someone’s boundaries and exploit them. While this passage is condemning immoral behavior in general, it is specifically condemning sexual assault, in the specific context of church.


Read it again. Paul is saying that it is wrong to sexually take advantage of or sexually assault a brother or sister.


It is wrong for pastors to prey on young girls and molest them.


It is wrong for the music director to take advantage of after church practice to say inappropriate things to female singers and get them alone with him to feel out their ‘availability’.


It is wrong to use a small group session to listen to people share vulnerable things in their lives and find easy, emotionally needy targets to groom.



Sexual abuse in church (and anywhere else) is wrong. It is wrong to take advantage of someone else sexually because you can’t control yourself. It is wrong to transgress or sin against someone else sexually.  

 

This makes even more sense considering the next verse. Paul soberly reminds them that God will avenge these offenses. While God is specifically listed as the avenger, it is important to remember that God has appointed the government as his earthly extension of justice.

 

 “Romans 13:3-5: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong (CSB).”

 

If you are sexually abused or assaulted, in church or elsewhere, God wants you to utilize his servant the government, to assist in bringing his justice. Sadly, the justice system fails many victims, and this verse ultimately serves as a promise that even if justice is not carried out on earth, God will carry out a decimating, unparalleled judgment where the unrepentant “detestable” and “sexually immoral” will be thrown into the lake of fire, to suffer an eternal death (Rev 21:8).


God sees those who are sexually assaulted, including those who are assaulted by someone taking advantage of them under the guise of being a ‘brother or sister’ in Christ. He sees and he promises that His justice is coming.

 

Paul follows up this passage with a discussion about brotherly love (4:9-10), which he says the Thessalonians already have for each other. Paul is recognizing that in the body of Christ there is a trust and community that we don’t have with those who don’t claim to be Christians. Paul was making it very clear that the trust and love we have for each other in Christ, should never be used to encourage predators to find easy targets.


Church should be safe, just as in a healthy family a daughter would never expect her father or brothers to sexually assault her. Church should be that safe, with the brothers and sisters in Christ as appalled by the idea of taking advantage of each other as if it were incest. Because it is.

Bill Gothard’s teachings on defrauding were used to blame victims and impose a false standard of legalistic morality on well-meaning people. Sadly, Gothard himself did not even hold to these standards and has been accused of sexual assault and workplace harassment by over 35 of his former employees. Gothard had a profound impact on fundamentalism and even a lot of evangelical circles. It is my hope that through looking at the Bible and comparing it to what Gothard taught, that we can be free from these harmful teachings.


To sum up, here is what Gothard says and here is what Jesus says, side by side, so you can compare it.


 Gothard says: “You are responsible for what other people do with their body, and if they take advantage of you and sexually abuse you, it could very well be your fault for provoking them to want something they can’t have. If you don’t dress according to my definition of modesty, God is coming for you. God blames sexual assault victims and wants them to assume responsibility for their abuse.” 


Jesus says: Since God has given you the ability to control your own body, do not take advantage of the close family relationship in the body of Christ to target people to sexually abuse or exploit. If you do, God is coming for you. God sees sexual assault victims and promises justice for them.


They are very different.


 

Note: If you have been hurt by the false teachings of Bill Gothard and this article triggers any painful feelings or memories for you, please reach out. I would love to talk to you and you are not alone in this journey. I also encourage you to check out the website RecoveringGrace.org.  

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