Jinger Duggar Vuolo on 'disentangling' truth of the Gospel from problematic upbringing

Jinger Duggar Vuolo
Jinger Duggar Vuolo | Britton

To the millions of TV viewers who watched her grow up, Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s life seemed almost utopian in nature. 

She, her 18 siblings and their parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, appeared on the long-running TLC series “19 Kids and Counting” in a counter-cultural way that both intrigued and inspired millions of viewers: They dressed modestly, actively participated in the church, didn’t dance, drink or smoke, and, instead of dating, “courted” their future spouses. 

But beneath the veneer, Vuolo was struggling with deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and shame, tortured by the belief that should she misstep, she would be removed from God’s favor.

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The former star of “Counting On” and her siblings were taught to adhere to the strict teachings promoted by the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an organization established by disgraced minister Bill Gothard in 1961.

With guidance on everything from avoiding music with a “worldly beat” and band T-shirts to the finances and the family structure, Gothard’s teaching offered the same promises the “health and wealth” gospel promotes: "Follow these rules, and your life will be richly blessed by God."

“In the teachings I grew up with, everything's black and white: If you live a certain way, you'll be blessed by God, Himself,” the 29-year-old recalled in an interview with The Christian Post. “In one of [Gothard’s] seminars, I remember him saying, ‘Life is a very delicate cause and effect sequence. So if you live by my principles’ — which he would say were biblical principles — ‘your life will be a success, and God will make you prosper in everything that you do. And if you don't, your life will be one disaster after another.’”

“But that's how I lived my life. I thought how God operated was based on these principles.”

In her 20s, Vuolo began to question the ideologies she was raised with, largely due to the influence of her brother-in-law, Ben Seewald, and her now-husband, Jeremy Vuolo. That first step of questioning her childhood beliefs and realizing that Gothard’s teachings were not only warped but entirely unbiblical, she said, was scary. 

“That first step of like realizing, ‘Oh, this is not true’ — it's scary because you're told not to question it. You're told not to think for yourself, you're told what to think. And so once you stop and say, ‘Is this really what the Word of God says?’ And you realize it's not, it feels like your whole foundation is shaken.”

“As a believer, as somebody who really wants to glorify God and know what God thinks, know what pleases Him, I'm going to go back to the Word of God for my answers, even if that takes me years of working through what I've been taught and saying, ‘OK, well, I remember what this verse said, according to this teacher, but what does it actually say? What was the actual context? What is the theme of the Word of God? And what does this look like in my life? How should I live my life accordingly?’”

The Duggars
The Duggars | Jinger Duggar Vuolo

Faced with the realization that Gothard was a false teacher, Vuolo ultimately walked away from IBLP altogether. Now a mother of two young girls, Vuolo said she began contemplating sharing her story in 2017 after realizing just how many other people were following his principles; principles she said in no way reflect the true Gospel.

“I've heard stories about people who left the faith entirely because they were so confused about who Jesus was, and they were really sold a false view of God in the Bible,” she said. “And so that really got me thinking, ‘I want to say something eventually,’ but at that point, I wasn't ready. I definitely was not ready to speak or to say much on it because I was still working through a lot myself.”

And after six years of studying Scripture and committing to truly understanding what the Bible — and not Gothard — said about living a holy life, Vuolo is sharing her story in her book, Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear. 

She described writing the book as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

“The community I was raised in is so tight-knit, and I had a lot of fear surrounding that, that it may not be accepted or I may lose friends over it. And so that was probably one of the things that kept me from writing it for so long, was just being ready to emotionally go through all of this,” she said. 


Unlike others raised with some of the strict ideologies prevalent in the late '90s and early 2000s, Vuolo stressed she is not deconstructing her faith. Rather, she’s disentangling the truth of the Gospel from some of the problematic doctrines she was raised to believe. 

“Deconstructing is pulling apart everything and tearing it all down to the studs, never to build it up again. And that's just not what I'm doing, and that's not my story,” she said.

“Mine has been one of disentangling, which is pulling apart. It's a slow process, pulling out the error, and examining everything according to the Word of God. It's much harder to do, I'm sure, than deconstructing, because people who deconstruct just throw it all out there, like, 'I'm done. I’m going to live my life how I want to.’ But that's not true freedom. True freedom is not found in throwing off all the strings, all rules. It is found in knowing the person Jesus Christ, and coming to the Word of God.”

When she first left IBLP and began wearing pants, Vuolo said she spoke to her parents — who previously spoke at IBLP seminars across the country — to share her beliefs and newfound perspective. She also shared she was going to write a book about her experience.

“I wanted them to know that I am committed to loving God and walking in a way that pleases Him,” she said. 

Gothard, now 88, led the controversial church until 2014 when more than 30 women accused him of harassment and molestation. In her book, Vuolo details how Gothard would surround himself with young girls, some of whom were still minors, in the name of service to God.

She writes: “I don’t want to describe all the awful things they accused him of … But even if half of what these ladies say is true, Gothard should be permanently disqualified from ministry.”

Vuolo compares her brother, Josh, to Gothard. The Duggar’s TLC show was canceled in 2015 in the wake of reports that Josh Duggar had molested girls as a teen, including two of his sisters, Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard.

In December 2021, Duggar, who had resigned six years earlier from his position as executive director of the pro-family group Family Research Council Action, was convicted on two counts of receiving and possessing child pornography following his arrest eight months earlier. The former TLC personality and father of seven was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison in May 2022. 

Environments focused on external behaviors and outward appearance and not the condition of the heart, Vuolo said, fuel the kind of destructive behavior Josh engaged in for years. 

“I’ve seen so many families where there's destruction inside, and it fueled that, that because whatever you're focused on the outward stuff, what you're supposed to say, where you're supposed to go, not go, it can produce so much of this outward, ‘I'm OK,’ and inside who knows what's happening. It fuels a lot of that because there's such a focus on this purity culture of being so pure, but then you're missing the element that will keep you pure, which is out of love for God.”

“You can put up whatever face you want on the front, but it all goes back to having a relationship with Jesus,” she continued. “That's where it all begins and ends, and so if that's not there, then you're just putting up a front for everyone to see until that's exposed as who you really are.”

Vuolo said that though the situation surrounding her brother is “difficult” to talk about and “heartbreaking,” she is “grateful for justice being served in this situation.”

“I'm grateful for the Lord exposing that,” she said. “My heart just breaks for the victims and families now they've walked through.”

Though she has a clear understanding of just how problematic her religious upbringing was, Vuolo believes her parents, like many others, came from a place of simply wanting to protect their children from the world. 

“You can do your best as a parent but at the end of the day, you have to trust God,” she said. “I think that's where a lot of parents got tied up in it, wanting the best for their kids. And ultimately, it ends up bringing harm because that type of man-made religion can build up your kids to perform well, and they can have the fear that grips them and cripples them into obedience, because you think, ‘If I step outside of this box, if I listen to rock music, I might be killed in a car accident,’ OK, that’s scary. So you’re motivated by fear and not out of the love for God.” 

Today, Vuolo and her family attend John MacArthur’s church, Grace Community Church, in Sun Valley, California. She also appreciates the teachings of Evangelical pastors like Alistair Begg, John Piper and Tim Keller. 

Now, Vuolo said she wants to model for her daughters what it means to truly be a child of God: Deeply flawed and deeply loved. Being performative and “people-pleasing,” she said, doesn't reflect the grace He freely offers. 

“I want my kids to see … me having a relationship with Jesus. It's not that I'm going be this perfect person,” she said. “But whenever I fail, the grace of God is there to carry me through. And hopefully just to exemplify that to my kids, because no one's perfect, and people let you down, I will let my kids down, but hopefully, point them to the One who will never let them down. That's where I want to point my kids. And also that's who I want to be is before God, the same person in public as I am in private.”

Through sharing her story, Vuolo said she prays others can know the joy found in Jesus alone and “set aside limiting roles and the world’s perspective.” And to others who might be struggling with their faith due to a difficult upbringing or have been hurt by the Church, she offered a word of encouragement: 

“Run to God. Run to Him alone, and quiet your heart before Him and say, ‘I'm confused. I don't understand,’ and go to the Word of God and read it in its context. … Go into a church that's teaching the Word of God carefully. … It's so helpful because you start to see the beauty of who Jesus really is. And amidst all that pain and stuff you're working through, Jesus is our only hope.”

“We can turn to the world for answers, we can turn to wherever for answers, but it's never going to last. It's never going to satisfy. Only Jesus Himself, having a relationship with God through Jesus is our only hope."

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

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