Book Reviews,  Christianity

Jinger Duggar Vuolo Takes on Bill Gothard… and Wins

I have known of Bill Gothard’s name for many years but have paid very little attention to his ministry. For a long time, my knowledge was pretty limited to “his followers don’t like drums and have an emphasis on family and legalism.” I had heard bits and pieces of his teaching over the years but had never made a study of it. What I had heard gave me the impression that he was a fringey figure. His ministry seemed to me passé, like an 80’s thing that—except for a handful of “hangers on”—was flickering out. After Gothard was exposed as a hypocritical lech in 2014, I thought surely that whatever he was doing was over and done.

Well, apparently that wasn’t exactly the case. While his influence has diminished considerably since the 80’s, that influence has not gone to zero. Indeed, the family at the heart of the hit television program 19 and Counting, the Duggars, are avid devotees of Gothard’s teaching. Before the show ended, I had seen some episodes here and there but was never a regular viewer. So I don’t think I learned about the Gothard connection until after the program went off the air.

In any case, I saw an interview on Friday that piqued my interest about the world of Gothard and the Duggars. Allie Beth Stuckey interviewed one of the adult daughters of the Duggars, Jinger (see below). Jinger has just written a book detailing her life as a Gothardite and her recent renunciation of his teaching. It’s titled Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear (Thomas Nelson, 2023). After watching the interview two days ago, I bought the book and devoured it. I could hardly put it down.

The book is not a lurid behind-the-scenes tell-all about the Duggars. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is not your book. Rather, it’s a theological memoir—a testimonial of how Jinger broke free from the legalism and destructive false teaching of Bill Gothard. Jinger’s account is a devastating exposé of Gothard’s work. Jinger describes his movement in almost cult-like terms. From his legalism to his tortured proof-texting to his unbiblical views about authority and women, the guy comes across as an oppressive nutter. Jinger writes that the man who insisted women should not work outside the home made an exception for the constant rotation of attractive “Gothard girls” that worked for his ministry. Even worse, Gothard has since been accused by 34 women of sexual harassment, four of whom alleged molestation.

Growing up Duggar, Jinger knew nothing of the sordid details of Gothard’s ministry. In the dark, she remained as devoted a follower of Gothard as there has ever been. She believed his “seven pillars” were the key to life and happiness, and she pitied outsiders who didn’t know the truth like she did. Gothard himself became a close family friend and even visited the Duggars’ home. Jinger viewed Gothard as a prophet and man of God and revered him and his teaching throughout her childhood and early adulthood.

Nevertheless, Jinger’s faith in Gothard’s teaching began to crumble after she met the man who would become her husband, Jeremy Vuolo. Jeremy was a former professional soccer player and had travelled the world by the time he met Jinger. He was also raised as a reformed Baptist in a church that actually took the Bible seriously. He was an outsider to the Duggars and their Gothardite sect. For that reason, Jinger’s father had Jeremy take a crash course in the family faith, which resulted in Jeremy listening to over 60 hours of teaching from Gothard’s ministry.

Jeremy immediately saw problems with the teaching. This led to long conversations with Jinger that drove her to the Bible. Eventually, it became clear to her as well that Gothard was a charlatan and false teacher. She began to see how destructive the teaching had been in her own life as well as in the lives of many others, especially women. So she set about not to deconstruct her faith but to disentangle her faith from Gothard. It was a long and painful process, but one that she’s sees as necessary. This book is Jinger’s attempt to set the record straight about her own beliefs and Gothard’s lies.

Jinger is careful to tell readers that she is not undergoing a “deconstruction” of her faith. She mentions the high profile deconstruction of Josh Harris and others, and says that unbelief has never been on the table for her. Rather than deconstructing, hers is a project of disentangling. She wants to disentangle Gothard’s false teaching from the truth faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). She makes use of the image of a child getting putty stuck in his hair. You can either cut the hair off completely (deconstruction) or do the careful, slow work of removing the putty from hair (disentangling). She is doing the latter.

As a result, there is no cynicism at all in this book. She honors her parents, even though she disagrees with them. She thanks them for teaching her the gospel of grace. She doubles down on her belief in the authority and complete truthfulness of scripture. She even maintains her belief in the Bible’s teaching about manhood and womanhood and God’s unique calling on her life as a woman. She doesn’t deconstruct any of this but rather has it more firmly established upon the word of God now that she has left Gothardism behind.

Becoming Free Indeed is a powerful primer on Gothard’s teaching and its destructive errors, and it’s all set within the compelling testimony of a young woman coming to terms with her faith. This is the book I would recommend to anyone still under the spell of Gothardism. It is a teaching riddled with error, and Jinger exposes it as well as anything I have ever seen. And yet, she does it in a way that will strengthen and not undermine the faith of those who have been hurt by Gothard’s teaching. Highly recommended.