From left: Michael Farris, Doug Phillips, and Bill Gothard
From left: Michael Farris, Doug Phillips, and Bill Gothard

A fast-growing flame is spreading through the internet fueled by reactions to a recent article by Attorney Michael Farris (Chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association). Farris separates himself and his organization from disgraced leader Doug Phillips and another leader, Bill Gothard, whom he lumps together that has stepped down in the midst of different accusations. Articles are surfacing rapidly to affirm or reject the accusations Farris states about these two leaders (though he focuses the majority of his attention on Phillips).

My desire is not to evaluate each person’s actions to which they are accused. Though it needs to be done, it must be done by those with accurate firsthand information. I do not have direct access to information on either man. I also do not seek to evaluate either man’s teachings, though I personally have been exposed to some teachings of both men over the years. My foremost concern is how Farris approached this, and on his comments which supposedly drew a “line in the sand.” For the record, I hold Mr. Farris in very high regard, and my wife and I as home schooling parents have been members of HSLDA for many years.

Farris Shows Up in a Proverbial SWAT Uniform Claiming Not to Be the Police

To begin, Farris first says that the role of HSLDA is not too “be the police force of the homeschooling movement,” and it is not his place “to try to remove viewpoints from the homeschooling community just because the HSLDA board or I hold a different view.” He then proceeds to do exactly the opposite by seeking to purge the views of these two men (Phillips and Gothard) from the homeschooling movement by warning of the dangers of their teachings.

If Farris is honest when saying HSLDA’s role is “to defend the freedom of everyone to homeschool,” then he sure sets out to do so in a very strange and non-acrimonious way. He paints himself into what has become a proverbial corner that seems to already have divided the homeschooling movement right down the middle.

What Farris should have done, in my opinion, was to stop there, and encourage people to study the views of these and other men deeply, compare them to Scripture (these are both Christian leaders), and to come to their own conclusions. Instead, Farris errors to the point of being dangerous about warning about the “dangerous teachings” of others. Here are a number of concerns that jumped right out at me when I read his article:

Farris Changes the Focus from the Sins of the Men to Their Teachings

If either of these men are guilty (and such will eventually come to light), the issue for these men is first and foremost their sinful actions. However, to simply condemn all that they teach in a general way because of these sins puts anyone in a serious dilemma. What movement has not had men fail in similar fashion? Does any such sinful failure discount the movement?

Further, as soon as the HSLDA begins examining the teachings of anyone that they had previously affiliated with or represented or sold ad space to (and it was all of the above), they must make a list of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to believe in the official view of the HSLDA. They immediately become the police they claim not to be. And what of those who hold to any portions of teaching that either of these men have taught over the years? What about other teachers not yet determined to have crossed the line, but will? What teachings will be ignored, and what teachings will be scrutinized?

Evaluating potentially sinful actions is a challenge in the courts, but there is at least a path to do so. Evaluating men’s teachings is an entirely different matter and infinitely more complex. Though Farris lists just a few such teachings “to keep this article at a reasonable length,” he paints with broad strokes that tell very little information and argue only by accusation. He does not present full examples of teachings from either man nor does he clearly refute them from Scripture. He simply cites a few general examples, argues from a bit of logic (not Scripture), rings the fire bell, and even does so while saying it is based upon his “personal opinion,” not argument. If Farris wants to argue against teachings, he needs to do so in a completely different way, being precise and thorough both in his accusations and his refutations.

Another point from my own observation is in order. When Farris says, “The personal failure of Doug Phillips in the area of marriage and his mistreatment of a young woman bears directly on the legitimacy of his teaching,” I cannot agree. I had heard Doug Phillips teach a few times in the past and I have read some articles by him. From what I gather, his teachings were not his downfall. From my vantage point, his sin did not come from his teachings, but instead came from him ignoring the very teachings that he taught from Scripture. I do not defend his teachings nor refute them (I am not familiar enough with them to do either). He simply did not practice what he so passionately preached. I believe that if we care to investigate the teachings of Phillips, whether you agree with them or not, it is clear that he did not sin because of his teachings, but sinned because he did not live by them.

Farris misses the point altogether. If Farris evaluated anyone (even himself) on such terms, not one group or movement would exist or should exist. Though not every group has a leader who sins by having an extra-marital affair, all groups or movements have leaders that fall or fail to some degree. I do not say that Phillips should continue teaching – I strongly believe that he should not. I simply suggest that a moral failure of a man does not itself indicate that the movement of which he was a part is illegitimate or false. His actions need to be evaluated as his own actions, and teachings of the patriarchal viewpoint need to be evaluated on their own merit, or lack thereof (as all teachings should be all along).

Farris Condemns Views that Have Been Held Long Before These Men Were Ever Born

Farris cites three brief examples of teaching (interestingly, not examples from either of these two men). In focusing on his main premise of rejecting patriarchal teaching, he lists three propositions which are “not universal commands of God”: (1) women should not vote; (2) women should not seek higher education; and (3) unmarried adult women are subject to their father’s authority until they are married.

What is mind-blowing is that all of these things have been beliefs present and often foundation in the USA since our founding. I’m not arguing for or against these views. What I would encourage people to do is first to understand why people in the past and why some people today believe there may be valid arguments for different views such as these. Whether you land on one side or another, do people have the freedom to come to their own conclusions without being labeled “dangerous” by anyone, including a key leader of the homeschooling movement, a movement built on the assumption of liberty and freedom?

Let’s take a look at the first proposition that Farris lists: Women and voting. Do people recall that in the USA women were not given the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was approved? Did the majority of our nation’s early fathers (and mothers) illogically hold to such a view for no valid reason for 131 years? I am not seeking to present a side (I do encourage my wife and daughters to vote, and they do). What I am saying is that to assign such a view to these so-called “patriarchal teachers” and to further label it “dangerous” is both ignorant and divisive. There were reasons why originally only land owners could vote, or only those paying poll tax could vote, or those only 21 years and older could vote. Maybe they were poor reasons. Maybe they had some good logic. My only point is, “How will you know the reasons they believed what they believed until you investigate it yourself?” Discarding views before we understand them is pure folly.

You can wrestle further with this first issue with many observations from the Bible. Much depends upon how you approach the Old Testament and New Testament teachings. It will impact how you look at all three of the propositions Farris lists. Patriarchy by definition is men leading their families and husbands leading their wives. In the Bible men almost always led their wives and families, and often even lead their extended families. This is illustrated in the Old Testament and taught in the New Testament. Is it wrong since a now sinful Phillips cited the Bible when teaching it? If the Bible says it (in the view of some), is the Bible dangerous? Since there is no clear record of voting in the Bible (most cultures lived under a theocracy – God ruling, or under monarchy – king rule, neither of which allowed for voting), maybe it is dangerous for Farris to call any view regarding voting “dangerous.”

The second proposition is similar in that it is hard to argue from any direction. The Bible does not address college. If one views a woman’s primary role of marriage and motherhood as traditional Christianity has taught for two millennia, and as the Old Testament has taught for much longer, is spending lots of money on a college education a worthwhile investment? (Try looking up 1 Timothy 5:14 and Titus 2:3-5 to make your politically correct blood boil a bit.) I have married daughters that would say that attending college would have been a huge impediment and a financial burden. I also know young men who avoid college for other reasons. It is yet another realm to research, study, and come to your own informed conclusions while you allow others to do the same.

The third proposition about an unmarried daughter staying under her father until married still rings with the same tone. Whether you or I accept them or not, there are reasons why people come to such a conclusion. Doing so does not make them “dangerous” as Farris would say. It simply lets them exercise their freedom to be persuaded in their own minds. Read Numbers 30:1-15 from the Old Testament, and at least see why people could come to such conclusions. (There are other passages too, but this is a key one for that view.) Do people have the right to come to their own conclusions regarding the interpretation and application of the Bible? Is it not better, if we disagree with them, to seek to understand their interpretation, and then to calmly point out why we disagree rather than writing an internet posting calling them “dangerous?”

Farris Uses Poor Experiences of Some to Judge the Views Held by Many More

“What has changed our minds are the stories we are now hearing of families, children, women, and even fathers who have been harmed by these philosophies. While these stories represent a small minority of homeschoolers, we can see a discernible pattern of harm, and it must be addressed.”

Maybe I am biased or bent, but does anyone catch the irony of this? A small minority report undefined “harm” from these unclarified philosophies, and that is what caused the HSLDA and Farris to change their minds? What about the majority? Do they count? What are the specifics of this “harm?” Could this “harm” really be due to following the teachings of either man? Could it not come from following the teachings of either man incompletely? Could “harm” come from wrongly thinking that either man had a “golden ticket” to easy family life? Is there specifically identifiable “harm” that can be clearly traced to something specifically taught? Could this “harm” be due to personal failure looking for someone to pin the blame upon? (I know I have failed many times as a father and husband, but I have no one to blame in the end but myself.) We will never know, because Farris never shares one shred of information about this “harm.”

I do not claim to follow Phillips or Gothard. I follow neither. As I mentioned, I have been exposed to the teachings of both men. From what exposure I and my family have had, I would not and could not blame either man for any “harm” that could or would or did come to my family. I am responsible to study the Bible and come to my own conclusions, which I have and continue to do. These men can neither make nor break a family or an individual that is responsible for what they believe. To take the minority and make it the rule is to come to dangerous conclusions in a dangerous methodology (and it is practiced throughout our culture today). What about those who believe such things and who have stood in righteous behavior? If bad behavior is the basis for discounting one’s beliefs, does the good behavior of others justify those same beliefs?

Farris Gives Pragmatism as a Key Reason for His Speaking Out

“…their teachings continue to threaten the freedom and integrity of the homeschooling movement. That is why HSLDA needs to stand up and speak up.”

“The philosophies of Gothard and Phillips damage people in multiple ways. To keep this article at a reasonable length, I will focus on the threats to our liberty caused by these philosophies.”

“If public policy makers understand that there are only a few homeschooling families who mistreat their children, our freedom is not likely to suffer.”

This is a losing premise. Attack one part of the group in hopes that by doing so it saves the larger group. I would suggest that we are past pragmatic responses. What of Christian teachings that are already a threat to our liberties? Shall we cease teaching the 10 commandments which are seen by many to be harmful or dangerous? Is the belief in a literal creation held by some and mocked by atheistic scientists to be curbed to protect our freedoms? Is the belief of a Bible-defined marriage between one man and one woman to be jettisoned to save face? By defining “mistreat” as someone who espouses patriarchy, who does Farris hope to fend off from his own organization, the same organization who sided with the patriarchal people for so long? He has avoided nothing but to throw bloody meat to the hungry sharks around his own boat which will only be further tantalized by the taste and become hungrier.

Farris Provides Public Policy Makers the Very Information He Sought to Avoid

 “What has changed our minds are the stories we are now hearing of families, children, women, and even fathers who have been harmed by these philosophies.”

It would be nice if Farris, a lawyer, would define his terms. Harm in what way? Vagueness only causes fear rather than clarity and calm.

When you read his article, it is not hard to see that Mr. Farris is guilty of labeling anyone who might believe in patriarchy in any flavor, or any form of what some would view as traditional teaching on marriage and the family, as “harmful.” Whether he sees it or not, Farris with his homeschooling platform has done many a great disservice, and he himself has endangered many by his comments. He might literally have begun the process to limit the freedoms of those he disagrees with by categorizing them as dangerous (in the name of preserving liberty!). His “line in the sand” has done a big favor to the liberty takers by publicly identifying many as being on the wrong side of the line. He has labeled many as harmul, abusive, or extremist who are none such, whether he meant for it to happen or not.

Farris Opens Dangerous Doors Rather than Closing Them

“It is not sinful to hold a very conservative view of gender roles or child rearing. If people believe such ideas are wise, then our legal system should protect their choices, provided those choices do not result in abuse.” [Emphasis added.]

Farris cannot win. The more he writes the more he hurts the greater cause of all who love freedom. He of all people should know that many see homeschooling as a form of child abuse. Others see teaching kids Biblical morality as child abuse. One cannot talk “abuse” without defining very clearly what one means by that term.

“What I should not do is claim that my personal views are universal commands of God. Those more conservative or more liberal than I am should not claim that their personal views are universal commands of God. God speaks for Himself, and He does it in the Bible.” [Emphasis added.]

“We have a really easy way to know God’s universal commands. They are written in the Bible.”

Just how do people who study the Bible and come to different conclusions survive under this type of view that Farris espouses? Do they write to Farris and have him screen their interpretations of Scripture? Good Christian teachers teach what they teach because they are convinced that it is what God is teaching based upon their own study of the Bible. Phillips and Gothard both did so. Others come to different conclusions and teach those conclusions as teachings of God. Every teacher and resultant teaching still is as faulty as the people that study the Bible. Do we give up all Bible teachers and teaching unless blessed by Farris or the HSLDA? All Bible teaching needs to be wrestled with and discussed in depth by those that study in depth, not by lawyers who are fearful of being found in wrong associations. It is simply improper to hold a trial via a short article and find people guilty in such a flaccid fashion. It is not helpful, scholarly, or fair to do so, and it has only resulted in hurting the very cause Farris has fought so hard to defend. Is freedom only allowed if others approve of our conclusions, whatever they may be? Will the HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association) become the AHSLDA (Approved Home School Legal Defense Association)?

Farris Does Not Accurately Represent What He Does Cite

“Gothard and Phillips are entitled to share their personal opinions if they label them correctly. When it is claimed, for example, that God never wants any daughter to leave home until she is married, the patriarchy movement goes too far. That is human opinion wrapped in a false claim that God has announced a universal truth.” [Emphasis added.]

I would have to read or listen to more of either Phillips or Gothard to be sure, but the idea of Farris calling the view of Gothard and Phillips “human opinion” is itself human opinion about other’s views of what God has said or established. Farris is setting himself up as the one that is the authority on the views of all others. I am not suggesting he desires this, but there is no way around it. For me to call someone else’s conviction of truth an “opinion” is a very lousy way to prove that it is indeed an opinion. Proving a view is only an opinion takes articulated, reasoned arguments, as any lawyer should know.

“This particular example is a good way to demonstrate a common error in both men’s theologies. Phillips has stated that daughters should remain in their fathers’ homes until married. His principal biblical citation for this argument is the story of Rachel and Leah in the home of their father, Laban.” [Emphasis added.]

Wanting to be as informed as possible, and thinking I was slightly more informed about what Phillips taught than what Farris was presenting Phillips view to be, I followed the citation after “Laban” to actually look at the Vision Forum article that Farris cited. The Vision Forum article did not, as Farris suggest, present the account of Laban as the “principal citation.” It was listed as the first of five Bible references listed in Biblical order. The nature of the article was supportive, not explanatory. It listed all relevant references at the end of summarizing statement, and didn’t explain how the references related to that statement. This is just plain shoddy research, or dishonest representation, both of which are wrong anytime, and especially when making such accusations.

To properly use the Vision Forum article, one would have to know what the verses were and how they would tie into the statement. It really was not a good document to try to convey the viewpoint of Vision Forum or Phillips. Farris grabs the first reference in the list, assumes it is the “principal biblical citation” and then proceeds to attack it “primary citation” with an argument all the while not knowing that the claim he makes about the reference is invalid.

Farris Ignites the Offended, the “Hurt,” the Rebellious, and the Media

What is clear to see is that many are happy for what Farris has written. Comments on the HSLDA Facebook page are full of affirmations such as “It’s about time someone wrote this!” As with any Christian ministry, movement, or leader, you will find a large audience of the mutually offended or hurt to help you stone it to death (if possible). By referring to the “harmed” without defining the “harm,” Farris also calls out (and calls in) all who might remotely hate the movements mentioned. Such is a great way to engage the non-critical thinkers of our day, glad to see death of something they do not understand. Further, a simple internet search will show anyone how quickly the media forest fire is spreading on this topic. People love to see the one conservative Titanic – homeschooling – going down in pieces after this Farris iceberg. The sin of Phillips was a bad crash for all homeschoolers; Farris throws gasoline on it for the media to enjoy.

Farris has also shocked many conservative homeschoolers beyond words. They feel wholly betrayed by this very poorly researched, pragmatically written article that reaches beyond Phillips and Gothard to people who care about neither. They believe what they understand the Bible to teach as truth only now to be classified as “dangerous,” “harmful,” “abusive” and “extremist” by the loosely applied generalizations of Farris himself. He has drawn a line in the sand, and many of those who respect him greatly for his work have found themselves on the wrong side of this line, bewildered and wondering what the impact will be from the labels Farris has so carelessly slapped upon them.

A Final Personal Note

I still hold Michael Farris in high regard because of all that he has done to strengthen the freedoms of home schooling families. He is a hero in his own right. I do not doubt that Michael’s intentions in writing this article were good. However, from my own vantage point, the article reads as though he wrote it pressed by fears and maybe even threats brought about by past affiliations with Phillips and Gothard; affiliations that the HSLDA by its very mission cannot wholly separate itself from, but yet is still trying to do so. I do not believe Farris has accomplished anything beneficial through this article, but on the contrary he has managed to shatter the strong support of many that now find themselves on the wrong side of the very sloppy and harmful line he has drawn.

3 comments
  1. I am very pleased with Michael Farris’ article, and hope that Kevin Phillips’ and Bill Gothard’s influences are neutralized. Both of them are hermeneutically incompetent. Gothard in particular is a legalist and semi-Pelagian of the deepest hue. The home-school movement has been distorted by patriarchalism and the general teachings of Vision Forum and Gothard.

    1. Jack, I appreciate your perspective. However, I cannot fathom how you would be “very pleased with Michael Farris’ article” and then call [Doug] Phillips and Bill Gothard “hermeneutically incompetent.” Speaking only regarding the Farris article itself (I don’t think Farris has written much exegetically or theologically), Farris does a great job demonstrating just that type of shallow hermeneutical incompetence. I am not arguing for or against Phillips or Gothard. I am struck simply by the sweeping statements that Farris makes without any depth of hermeneutical support whether presenting what he is against or why he is against it. Farris is way out of his league in this realm, and I found his article hermeneutically horrible. Phillips had (has?) a systematic hermeneutic, whether you or I would care to agree with it or not, which seems to embrace and develop teachings from the OT as well as the NT. Gothard’s approach was more topical, and thus more random and undefinable.

  2. Thank you for expressing my thoughts better than I could do. What bothered me the most about the article was the claim that Phillip’s ideas inherently lead to abuse. Really? Not one reason was given for this claim, except some people’s experiences. With that logic, not just the whole homeschooling movement, but even Christianity can be said to lead to abuse. There were the Crusades, so Christian teaching must inherently be violent, right?

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