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Opinion: Purity Rings, John MacArthur, and That Wretched TGC Article

By Kaeley Triller Harms
john macarthur TGC Gospel Coalition purity ring purity culture

On my 13th birthday, my well-intended parents took me out to a fancy waterfront restaurant, where they announced that I was becoming a young lady, and it was time for “the talk.” It was a super awkward affair that essentially boiled down to “Don’t have sex until you get married.”

As we waited for our food to arrive, they handed me a small black box, and I opened it in eager anticipation. Inside I found a delicate gold ring with an opal stone. This, they told me, was a purity ring, to be worn as a reminder of my commitment to God to remain sexually pure for my future husband.

It was a stunning ring with a stunning problem; my parents had purchased it from the man who had spent the first 10 years of my life sexually abusing me. When I wore it, I didn’t experience resolve; I experienced cognitive dissonance. It didn’t remind me that I was pure; it reminded me that I was already damaged, that whatever my future husband was interested in was already gone. And nobody knew about it.

I put on a front and played the part of the good Christian girl. I was the girls’ Bible study leader and the captain of my high school basketball team. Everything I did was a desperate performance designed to convince myself that if I worked hard enough, I could regain some of the worth that ring was supposed to represent. I wore my performative virtue like a suit of armor, even choosing “Good Girl” as my moniker on our team’s personalized sweatshirts.

I attended a staunchly complementarian church where the women were largely silent. We entered each Sunday to see a wall full of charcoal drawings of the great church fathers, but no church mothers. If we heard a woman’s voice during the service, it was either coming from the choir loft or the narthex, where the moms wielded wooden spoons to wrangle uncompliant children. My concept of what women were designed for was shaped by submission theology enacted in a million subliminal ways in my entire childhood experience.

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At youth group, the pastor would routinely read us excerpts from books like “Passion and Purity” that, to me, seemed to reiterate that women’s value on the marriage market was directly tied to our chastity. I remember a particular chapter where Elisabeth Elliott recounted being gripped with extreme guilt for laying her head in her fiance’s lap before they were officially married. I remember going home and thinking, “Man, if that’s a mortal sin, then I’m really in trouble.”

I lived with the ultimate imposter syndrome, terrified that someone would find out I was secretly damaged goods and that no one would ever want me.

purity ring
Image of purity ring (Courtesy image)

Eventually the dissonance won. I lost my purity ring on the softball field during a game one day and returned to the field the next day frantically scouring each blade of grass on my hands and knees during a thunderstorm trying to find it. I threw away my virginity to the first guy who would have me, and I remember feeling such an overwhelming mixture of both grief and relief- for once my actions matched the way I had long felt about my worth.

It didn’t really improve from there. I drank to excess at parties in hopes that some scoundrel would take advantage of me so I would feel wanted. I’m not talking once or twice. I’m talking years’ worth of self-harm and self-sabotage to the degree that, on more than one occasion, I found myself wandering drunk and barefoot around the streets of Seattle in the wee hours of the morning after having left some other guy’s hotel room. I got pregnant out of wedlock, which made me feel even less worthy of love, and then I married an abuser, in part, to try to punish myself. Inside, I was still a lost, profoundly lonely little girl who genuinely believed her worth was directly tied to her sexual capacities. I mean, it kind of makes sense. It was the only way I had ever known to elicit what I thought was love from the time I was in diapers. It was a deep, dark, demonic cycle of agony and self-loathing from which, by the grace of God (after a ton of therapy, prayer, and layers of repentance), I’ve been redeemed and set free.

I don’t spend much time in the space anymore. I’ve got an amazing, faithful, godly husband, three beautiful children, and a life I love living every day. But when I encountered last week’s fateful TGC article about marital sex and the ensuing defense of demonstrably abusive men like John MacArthur, all that trauma came screaming back to the surface for the first time in over a decade, and I’ve spent the majority of the past week trying to figure out exactly why.

I think in many ways, Josh Butler, the article’s author, reminds me of my well-intended parents. He wrote the article in an attempt to guide and bless, but his lack of awareness and discernment ended up triggering old injuries for countless women in the church, injuries no one with power ever really seems to care enough to see. Butler’s wonky theology wasn’t novel; it echoed an inadvertently chauvinistic refrain familiar to thousands of women who grew up submitted to its debilitating authority. Butler reminded us womenfolk that we are largely viewed as passive recipients in our own salvation love story. He informed us that our bodies are receptacles for men’s advances, and that our “holy” place is not our brain or our heart, but our vagina. He reminded us, through omission, that our pleasure is optional as our primary function is procreation. He told us that we are expected to yield fruit without intimacy. In short, he reduced us to sex objects and breeders, a message we hear too often in a lot more sophisticated ways in the church.

It’s messaging that’s driven thousands and thousands of women straight out of the church and into the open arms of the very ideologies we rail against. Most women don’t leave the church because they were rebellious; they leave because they were badly harmed, and no one gave a damn about their suffering. I’m a women’s advocate by vocation. This is my wheelhouse. I live in these spaces and interact with these people. I’ve catalogued story after story after gut-wrenching story. The trends are always the same.

But when women who’ve dedicated their entire lives’ work to binding these specific wounds speak up to address the injuries and invite a long-overdue conversation about the trends, the theobros generally choose to heap contempt on them. I’m talking about women like Sheila Wray Gregoire and Beth Moore and Aimee Byrd and Julie Roys and Rachel Denhollander, who’ve all ventured bravely into the abyss to try to speak truth to the theobro power only to be aggressively mistreated and dismissed by an all-too-familiar tune: “Your thoughts and insights don’t matter because you’re a woman, and we cannot, will not, learn from you.” Or, in the words of John MacArthur, “Go home.”

These women are labeled threats. They’re accused of Marxism. They’re told they’re divisive. They’re categorized as “false teachers.” They’re scrutinized for their appearances. There are entire online forums designated to the sole purpose of heaping contempt upon them. Church, we NEED these women. They edify us. They make us better. Their work is what it looks like to remove the planks from our own eyes. But no one wants to listen because they are women.

Sorry, brothers, but God created women to bring balance in all areas of life, including the church. In the Bible, wisdom is personified in the feminine. We are not, as a sex, “more easily deceived.” You are not, as a sex, called to be our saviors. If your masculinity is threatened by our ability to see things outside your purview, then you’ve got an identity problem that won’t be resolved by stomping on our necks and reminding us who’s boss. We see things you can’t because we’ve lived through experiences you haven’t.

He didn’t create us to be passive receptacles. He created us to be living vessels, actively engaged in our own stories. And because we, like you, have a vested interest in advancing the Kingdom and seeing marriages flourish, we insist on speaking up about the threats to both. For the love of mercy, have enough humility to listen to the lessons so many of us have learned the hard way.

This article was originally published at Honest to Goodness and has been reprinted with permission.

Kaeley Triller Harms, who blogs at Honest to Goodness, is a Jesus follower, abuse survivor, writer, wife, mom, and lover of words aptly spoken. 

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42 thoughts on “Opinion: Purity Rings, John MacArthur, and That Wretched TGC Article”

  1. The two qualities represent Christ, the Word Made Flesh, are humility and compassion as a way to show love. I see none of the essence of Christ in some churches which emphasize paternalistic hypermasculinity. It’s a toxic church culture which has harmed many people. I always say if the power structure at your Christian church is more interested in preserving its own power and control than in ministering to people, vote with your feet and vote with your dollars. Shake the dust off your feet and take your peace back upon you. Blessings to all who have been harmed in such places.

  2. James R Samples

    Thanks for the courage to share your heartbreaking experience. The church needs to hear your voice. I’m glad you found your “wheelhouse”, may you be blessed as you bless others.

  3. Rev. Bob Fritch

    First of all, the bible is complementarian regarding men and women, and secondly, Scripture is very specific in that women are not to have authority over a man in the church when it comes to preaching and the pastoral leadership in the church.

    1. You know who else isn’t to have authority over men in the church? Other men who are disqualified by their life choices. THAT is a far bigger issue. So why the focus on only one of these?

    2. “Reverend” …

      Adjective
      Middle English, borrowed from Anglo-French, borrowed from Latin reverendus, gerundive of reverērī “to stand in awe of, REVERE” (Merriam Webster)

      In the comments section of an article detailing someone’s suffering – which started as unspeakably ghastly abuse when she was a child – apparently all you could see from the moment you started writing your comment was someone who posed a threat to your position??? All you can speak is “correction,” about what is owed to men, and then you took the time to remind us all of what is your personal “due” in your title???

      Really???

      The first evangelist was Mary Magdalene. What would have happened if the apostles had refused to listen to the words of that woman? (They were LEARNING something from her, after all.)

      Could you REALLY not see what the author was asking for?

      May God have mercy on us!!!!

      There is precious little of it to be found down here.

      1. Don’t forget the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Somebody who owned her past, but allowed Jesus to change her future – and then told her community, who came and believed. The churches that do not embrace the connection and insight Women of God bring are simply killing themselves, and the growth of many of the women in their congregation, too.

        1. A lot of comments on women in the Bible that God used. Not sure if the point is to justify women as elders. However, scripture is clear on leadership in the church. It is to be male (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). Does that mean God isn’t using women or they are inferior? No!
          Are they an important part of the local fellowship? Absolutely. But God has not ordained them to be leaders in the church as far as elders( overseers, pastors- interchangeable).
          The issue for some should be taken up with God!

      2. Not to split hairs☺️, but the first evangelist was Andrew, who brought Simon Peter to meet Jesus.

    3. Theresa Ramseyer

      Did you actually read the entire article?

      Reread the passage that begins : “But when women who’ve dedicated their entire lives’ work to binding these specific wounds speak up to address the injuries and invite a long-overdue conversation about the trends, the theobros generally choose to heap contempt on them. I’m talking about women like Sheila Wray Gregoire and Beth Moore and Aimee Byrd and Julie Roys and Rachel Denhollander, who’ve all ventured bravely into the abyss to try to speak truth to the theobro power only to be aggressively mistreated and dismissed by an all-too-familiar tune: “Your thoughts and insights don’t matter because you’re a woman, and we cannot, will not, learn from you.” Or, in the words of John MacArthur, “Go home.”

      These women are labeled threats. They’re accused of Marxism. They’re told they’re divisive. They’re categorized as “false teachers.” They’re scrutinized for their appearances. There are entire online forums designated to the sole purpose of heaping contempt upon them. Church, we NEED these women. They edify us. They make us better. Their work is what it looks like to remove the planks from our own eyes. But no one wants to listen because they are women.

      Sorry, brothers, but God created women to bring balance in all areas of life, including the church. In the Bible, wisdom is personified in the feminine…”

    4. Rev. Bob,

      The fact that you took more offense to the author’s position on women teaching in the church than you did by the fact that she was molested by a male church leader drives home the whole point of her article.

      That IS the problem.

    5. Rev. Patrick Anders

      Blanket statements such as the ones presented by Rev Fritch are both unhelpful as well as inaccurate. If you paint with a broad enough brush or employ vague generalities with enough confidence and bluster, you can get away with all sort of nonsense.

      My response to Rev. Fritch is, “Third of all, while the Old Covenant (testament) was ‘…complementarian regarding men and women…’ the New Covenant (testament) is egalitarian (Galatians 3:28).”

      I would also respond that the APOSTLE PAUL was “…very specific in that women are not to have authority over a man in the [Corinthian] church when it comes to preaching and the pastoral leadership in the [Corinthian] church.”. Any serious student of Scripture has learned that Text without Context is Pretext.

      The Philippian Church – not to mention the rest of us – owes a debt of gratitude to women such as Lydia (Acts 16) and Priscilla, (Acts 18) who **taught** Apollos.

      As a product of both Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Seminary, it the apparent lack of compassion, empathy or love is both frustrating and heartbreaking.

    6. Rev. Bob Fritch: what you say is true. I don’t believe Mrs. Harms said anything directly against this.

    7. Sorry Rev Bob a sister shared that heartbreaking story of abuse and betrayal, with courage and humility… and that’s your comment.
      I can see why so many church seats are empty…. Absolutely heartbreaking, without Love such a deafening noise…. Lord Jesus please come soon, so many in the pulpits of the world have turned to ice… the evil is dence so hard to breathe.. we wait for Your Blessed appearing. MARANATHA

  4. I can’t help but think back to the very beginning in Genesis. God said, “Let us make man in our own image”, and he made them male and female. That tells me that God Himself has the characteristics and qualities of both men and women. He didn’t just make man in His image. Also, Jesus sent Mary to announce to the disciples that He had risen; it wasn’t a man. I agree with Rev. Fritch that women are not to usurp authority over a man, but what does that really mean? It does NOT mean women have no part in the functioning of the church, just that they are not to take over a man’s position by pushing a man out of his place. It does not say she cannot be given a position by the consent of leadership. Paul speaks of deaconesses. These are women in ministry in the church with a specific ministry, specific gifts and call. The gifts of the Spirit were given to “each one”, not each man. If you removed the women from a church, I have a feeling that the men might find it somewhat difficult to carry on. I have often noticed that it is the women who attend prayer meetings in greater numbers than the men. What would happen if you took away that prayer covering? Jesus honored women when He walked this earth, and I believe He has never stopped doing so. We are called to walk in His footsteps. It’s time we all did that in earnest.

      1. In 1 Timothy 3:11, many versions read “so too female deacons must be worthy of respect”
        Many also believe Phoebe (Romans 16:1) was the first female deacon, and that Paul’s command for elder women to teach the younger is calling for female deacons to oversee younger women in the faith.

      2. Thanks Kaeley. You have spoken for so many of us. I’m no longer surprised by misogyny in the church (though I’m still baffled by women who use church teachings to rob other women of their Biblically promised joy, peace and strength.

        “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He put my feet on a rock and gave me a sure place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord”

        An early church “father” wrote, “ women are vessels of human filth”. It’s evil that so many churches still preach a version of this lie.

  5. Great article.
    It takes a lot of mental work to reach full discernment concerning anything.
    Everyone, please do the work, so no one gets harmed.

  6. Amazing how quickly things got out of hand here. One bad man and all the men get shamed and this quickly escalated into the eventual complementarianism versus egalitarianism schism that burdens the church today.
    No wonder I don’t want to attend a church. So much division and arguments and no one can be in accord. Little civility might help.

    1. Agreed. this article started out well but devolved into an uncivil rant by the end. How in the world an editor didn’t flag the use of the juvenile slur “theobros” on what purports to be serious news site is beyond me.

  7. As a woman who advocates for other women as well, I tell women it’s important to obey the Bible, even the parts we don’t agree with or make us uncomfortable. Many women leaders are indeed “false teachers” and also “marxists” and the Bible tells us to call out wolves and correct others who claim to be one of us. Regardless of painful life experiences which come to all of us, we should still seek to have a deeper understanding of God’s word and a desire to obey His will. We shouldn’t use our painful life experiences to lead others away from the truths of the Bible.

    1. Seem like you are under a hard task master. Many men are also false teachers, even more than women. Marxism is named after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis for the theory and practice of communism. There are more women.in churches than men, are you not teaching false here with your comments by misrepresenting the Lord.

    2. “Many women leaders are indeed “false teachers” and also “marxists” and the Bible tells us to call out wolves and correct others who claim to be one of us. ”

      Many leaders – male AND female – are indeed “false teachers”.
      Just fixed it for you.

      And please define “marxist”. I see this so casually thrown around and misused nowadays.

    3. Obeying God’s word does not and never has declared that women must allow and be obedient to the men of the church and their own husbands by victimizing and brutalizing them. I seem to remember a verse that says that husbands are to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Your statement of, we shouldn’t use our painful life experiences to lead others away from the truths of the Bible, is insensitive and perhaps even cruel in the extreme to the countless number of women who have been beaten down by the false interpretation and over spiritualization of “wives submit to your husbands”, and “women must remain silent in the church” etc. etc. Personally, I find your post to be extremely offensive.

  8. “He informed us that our bodies are receptacles for men’s advances,…”

    The public schools in Germany are teaching the same to young girls and boys in 4/5 grade sex ed.

  9. Unfortunately people like mcarthur have weaponised Biblical patriarchy and taken it to a level never meant and turned what was meant as a protection to women to justify their unbiblical often misogynistic ways

  10. Travis Hutchinson

    Thank you for your honesty and transparency. The Church needs to hear it. As a complementarian, the fetishizing of female virginity fills me with horror and disgust. I’ve heard women tell younger women, “Your virginity is a gift you give to your husband.” As you aptly pointed out with your story, this weird obsession creates the very thing it purports to avoid. It creates shame and commodifies female sexuality.

    1. I thought both male and female were to save their virginity until marriage. Sounds like you’re advocating promiscuity.

  11. First off, I’m a “deconstructed exvangelical” so you can take what I say with a bag of salt. I sympathize with McArthur and the long list of men defending complementarianism and patriarchy. How can you hold biblical in-errancy and fair and equitable treatment of women in the same hand? The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. The mosaic law and the old testament in general holds women as guilty-until-proven-innocent property to be bought and sold and claimed as the spoils of war. Song of Soloman written by a guy with a multitude of sex slaves. Misogynistic proverbs. And then we get to the NT where Paul, in 1 Timothy 2 basically calls women second class humans responsible for the sin in the human race. McArthur and his cronies are left trying to reconcile what the Bible actually says with how women should actually be treated. I’m not saying the only path forward is total abandonment of Christianity, but I am saying that it’s high time to call a spade a spade and alongside the condemnation of complementarian patriarchy, there needs to be an intellectually honest acknowledgment of the hugely problematic content of the Bible. Inerrant or not.

  12. May God have mercy on all of us males who bought the complementarian distortions of Scripture for far too long, and may God bless the church with more female prophets who will courageously speak truth. I like what the apostle Paul said that he always preached to everyone everywhere: that we should “repent and turn to God and demonstrate our repentance by our deeds” (Acts 26:20).

  13. I was born-again at age 9. The church I attended was heavy into Bill Gothard… a woman/girl had to wear a dress, long-hair, a head covering etc. etc. etc. etc.

    As I remember it at age 12, the church split on a Sunday morning and half the congregation walked-out…. Believe me the women sure did not cause the split… a bunch of elders got up and accused the Pastor of acting like the apostle Paul….

    The next church I went to split…

    The next church I went to had a pastor that molested a dozen students and eventually collapsed…. it was stunning when the FBI lead said it was one of the worst cases he ever worked on….

    I could go on and on…

    I am older and now work at one of the worlds largest management consulting firms 200,000+ consultants….

    My analysis…. all the issues were caused by extremely poor male biblical leadership by both pastors and elder boards in every case…

    The women in the church were NEVER at fault…..

    I am embarrassed to go into most evangelical churches today….

  14. I’m truly sorry for what this woman experienced as a young girl. However, I don’t think that the purity movement and purity teachings are to blame in and of themselves. I went through that era and I am grateful for the teaching of sexual purity that I received. Purity of course is for both guys and girls. The teaching can be pushed too far either way. “If you have sex before marriage you are damaged goods and will remain so the rest of your life” to the other side, “it doesn’t matter, just get in bed with whomever you want – no big deal.” This was coming out of the “free love” of the 70s of which there is no such thing. So I’m grateful for the Biblical emphasis of purity and sorry for those who have suffered because of an unbiblical approach. Sexual purity is something that God desires for us and has spoken on.

    PS – the TGC article is total “bunk” (stronger word could be used). It is reading into the text what these individuals want to find. What do they say about a single man or woman who does maintain his/her purity? This is terrible theology!

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