The Thing About Purity

12 January 2012, 08:30



The funny thing about purity is how the pursuit of it drove so many people into utter promiscuity.

Odd statement, I know. But let me explain.

It wasn’t the concept of being or remaining pure that led me to that room where I reached the pinnacle of my self-destruction one night. It was a process of lecture after lecture of berating verbal abuse that set me on a path my parents had sought to protect me from ever discovering.

I started out a bright, innocent, happy girl. Ever trusting, exuberant, joyful–These were all key descriptors people would use when talking about me. But as our family changed with our involvement in Bill Gothard’s ministries, I became someone else entirely—confused, guilt-ridden, and eventually despairing.

When I was in my early teens, my father reported to me that the father of a pair of super-cute guys who were almost in their 20’s had lamented the fact that I was not a more suitable courting age–otherwise he would broach an agreement with my father regarding a union with one of them. This both confused and intrigued me. I was thrilled at the thought that someone would see my worth, since I was already convinced I were a useless sinner, rife with lust and evil.

By this time, we had become official members of the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). My mom called me to her room one day and kept me there for HOURS, coaxing out of me any wrong doing I had ever committed, so that I could “clear my conscience” and not have to answer to God for said wrong-doings. It would prove to be the first of countless confession sessions. Over time, I preempted her coaxing by freely confessing. Eventually, it got to the point where any time I had a thought or a dream, or even worse ACTED on such wickedness, I would run to my mom or dad (or both) and fill them in on my sinful activities. Without the confession, I could not feel clean.

When I turned 13, I discovered my most guilty pleasure and the bane of my teenage existence: Masturbation. I knew this was a sin I would be expected to confess. I acted on these urges from time to time, but kept this illicit activity to myself. That is, until one of our nightly confession sessions. Mom walked in at an inopportune moment. Her reaction was immediate and severe. She grilled me about how often I did it, the method I employed, and wanted to know in detail what I fantasized about. With tears in my eyes and a boulder in my throat, I filled her in on the details she requested. That was it for me. From that point on, I felt like I was no better than a whore. But there was a problem: I had these urges that I did not know what to do with. And when I did take care of those urges it relaxed me, calmed me down, and made me feel happy. But then, that relaxing feeling would be taken over by dread, knowing that in no time at all Mom would be once again grilling me as to whether I had given in to temptation.

This went on for years. The grilling, the confessions, and the failure—I was losing faith in myself. Purity mocked my weak resolve. I could have just lied; I could have just withheld the information, but I was convinced that there would be dire consequences should I do so. We were trained after all–through Wisdom Booklets, Counseling Seminars, and Basic Seminars–that our parents were the final authority over their children, our protection from the consequences of God for our sinful natures. We had to answer to them for our every action, every thought. So I did.

Around the age of fourteen, my Dad introduced the concept of courtship. It was painted in such a romantic light–my hand being won by a dashing young man who proved his honor and godliness and would be the perfect husband. What girl DIDN’T want that?? All we had to do was keep working on becoming the perfect little home-maker. Everywhere we went, we must dress modestly so as not to turn off potential suitors with our brazenness. We must act like and be ladies at all times, because Dad would be judging our readiness for marriage based on how we “kept a home, at home.” We were to give our Dad our hearts and treat him like our husband in the mean-time, so as not to give away the unsoiled ground of our hearts. For if we were to give even a piece of our heart away it was “un-whole” and not worth as much. In an unusually brave moment one day, I said, “Well, I really just want to be held by a man! I want to be kissed and touched and physically loved. Not sex or anything just that physical affection.” My fathers response was, “I can fill in that role until God brings you your husband. Any time you need a hug or to be held, you just come find me and my arms are always open.” I took him at his word, and being an extremely passionate, physically affectionate person, would do just as he said. I live for hugs. So, when I felt sad or lonely I would go find my dad. We would actually snuggle in a horizontal position. And the older I got, the weirder it felt to look for that kind of affection from my father.

Being a passionate person, I still found myself strongly attracted to the opposite sex. I was boy crazy, to be honest. But because I was indoctrinated from an early age that crushes were sinful, I would justify them in my mind by thinking, “Well, maybe HE is the one God will choose for me to marry.” I would then become obsessed with the idea of marrying the boys I crushed on. This is problem number one with the courtship model: Little girls are not only discouraged from BEING little girls and enjoying little schoolgirl crushes–we are taught to focus (nay, obsess) on marriage from early ages. When a girl from a young age becomes obsessed with getting married, thinking it is her ultimate calling, something becomes lost in her.

I was no exception. Every crush, every fascination, every sideways glance from a male friend became a possible match in my head. I had no clue how to choose a potential partner, because the only advice I received from my parents regarding dating, relationships, sex, marriage, men in general fell within the lines of instructions such as, “Sex of any kind, including self-satisfaction, passionate kissing, and inappropriate situations, is all sinful and should be avoided all together. The only thing men want from you whether it is the 7-year-old boy you babysit or the 80-year-old retired pastor who lives next door, is sex. It doesn’t matter what they say, how they act, or what you think. It is impossible to be friends with a male. Period. You don’t have to worry about how to find a spouse, because God will show him to your dad. Your dad will do all that hard stuff, like getting to know them and weeding out any bad ones. Once someone has worked for your hand and we know he is from God, then we will allow him to interact with you and begin the process of wooing your heart. It is at that point that you have veto power.” These were some of their exact words to me. I was ill equipped to say the least.

As I began to blossom into womanhood an odd thing began to happen. Guys actually showed interest in me. I was found to be attractive by members of the opposite sex, which baffled me. I had not been led to believe that I was attractive by my family. So, the first time a boy flirted with me I was overwhelmed, happy, and shocked, among a plethora of emotions. My mind went where it was trained to go—wondering if this boy was marriage material. But it wasn’t meant to be. My parents saw me talking to him at church of all places, and noticed we were not only talking without parental supervision but were smiling at each other too, which only meant one thing: We were fornicating with our minds. I got lectured the whole way home about the dangers of emotional promiscuity and the importance of keeping my body, mind, and heart pure.

I was still intrigued by this boy who actually found me pretty, so I sent him a letter. It went something along the lines of, “It was great to meet you. I hope we can keep in touch.” His response was intercepted by my parents before I got a chance to read it. I was awakened by a spewing, vehement rage I had only seen in movies up to that point. My mom first, and then my dad screamed at me. They berated me, called me horrible names and told me horrible things, like I would end up pregnant, homeless, and penniless at fifteen, if I continued on my path of destruction.

It was at this point that I stopped confessing altogether. My innocence was gone, and evidently my purity was nearly lost irrevocably. It seemed that my parents were not interested in my spiritual well-being. Rather, it seemed that they actually hated me for my betrayal. I found out years later that my dad had found and threatened that poor young boy. He told the boy that he would make his life miserable if he ever so much as dreamed of contacting his daughter again. Little did my dad in his “wisdom” know that this “rebellious” boy would grow to be a brilliant, mighty man of God who had a heart for healing broken people. Broken people like I was about to become.

As the years went on, more boys came along who were interested in me. I grew better at hiding my feelings from my parents, though it didn’t seem to matter. They somehow always found a way to discover what was going on with me–whether it was reading my journal, intercepting my mail, or searching my room.

Looking back, I realize that I was a really good kid. I obeyed the letter of the law, but it was never enough. The standard that had been set was so impossibly high, and the verbal attacks I suffered on an almost daily basis drove me into a deep depression. I felt worthless. There was no hope. I was capable of no good. I was no good.

If my worth was wrapped up in my mental purity then I had destroyed that, because I had given my heart to more than one boy. The only thing I had left to hold on to was my physical purity.

I met a guy who was older than me. He fit the marriage criteria. In fact, he said he was in the process of starting a rescue mission in India. He was handsome and confident and said all the right things. I was smitten, and became convinced that if I married him we could make a difference together. Over time, I grew to trust him completely. We began seeing each other. As time went by, we became more and more physical with each other. We flirted with the line of what was fooling around and what was going all the way. I was naïve and foolish, and I trusted him completely. Until the day that my last bit of self-worth was whisked away in the time span of about 10 seconds. There, standing in a garage over a pile of dirty laundry like the cheap whore I was made to feel like, it was gone. He knew I had wanted to wait for that. He knew I was a virgin. But it didn’t matter. My purity was gone along with any shred of self-worth I had left. I now officially was nothing.

I went home feeling completely empty. There was no way my parents could know. They had screamed at me over a letter from a boy—this was far worse. I had to just move on and keep trying to pretend that I hadn’t just been destroyed, but it didn’t work. Word got out to my circle of friends that I was “promiscuous,” and my fate was sealed. I was now the resident whore. I reached out to the few people in my life whom I thought could help me, but even they turned their backs on me. The depression I had been managing for years raged with a new-found fury. The screaming bouts with my mom were getting worse. ALL of my friends abandoned me except one–a guy who had been a confidante to me.  He was there for me. He comforted me. He held me. Our friendship turned physical.

This new relationship would mark the beginning of a new pattern in my life that brought me to that room that night. The only friend I had left wanted me for booty calls. He was at least honest about it, but he really did only want me for one thing. I decided that must be all I was worth any more—a good lay. So, that’s what I became. There were a few months in there where I would get sloppy drunk and have indiscriminate sex with random guys. I am not proud of this fact. I am actually growing nauseous as I write it, because it sickens me to think of who I was then. I hate that girl. I was a lost, sick, pup who would turn to anyone who might make her feel a little attractive and worthy of attention at least for a little while. For a time, I actually felt empowered by the fact that I could get any guy in the sack. If guys could be players, why couldn’t girls? I was a player, all right. I got to the point where I would use men specifically to hurt them. I had lost the ability to love. If all I had been good for was to be a perfect virginal bride and that was gone, then what WAS I good for? Exactly nothing. I might as well have a little fun, right? I had become jaded.

And then one night I reached bottom. I found myself riding in the back of a car with my other wild-child friend and three guys we had met that night in a bar. Our designated driver had almost run off the road multiple times, was going at least 95, came within inches of multiple cars and was swerving worse than I can begin to describe to you. It turned out that he had been popping ecstasy all night and was farther gone then any of the rest of us. I knew I was going to die, and my parents would have no clue where I was or who I was with. We, by the hand of God, arrived unscathed at our destination, although our destination couldn’t have been further from anywhere God wanted me. It was that night in a foreign bed in a strange room, lying next to a guy whose last name I didn’t even know, that I lay staring at the ceiling crying bitter tears of hurt, disillusionment, and fear. I felt trapped, and couldn’t wait for the morning to come. I was imprisoned that night in the  room–not by that guy, but by my broken life, and by bad decision upon bad decision. I got out of bed and stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. Who had I become? I WAS a whore. And I hated myself with a fiery passion. There were several times after that night, while taking a bath, that I would hold my breath and go under water to see how it would feel to just end it all.

Something had changed inside me. I knew I had to do something drastic and fast or I would do something truly stupid. I swore off men, enrolled in a college in another state, and got a job–standing on my own two feet for the first time. Getting out and away was one of the best things I could have done. While I was there, I met a guy who was unlike any guy I had ever met before. He was a genuine friend to me in a way I never knew possible. He was kind to me; he listened to me. He respected me, and didn’t want me just for sex. He loved me and went out of his way to show me so. He would ask my opinion on things, and he let me speak my thoughts. He let me pour out my heart to him, and was with me not because of what he could get from me, but what we could be together. It took a long time for me to pull down my walls and allow him to love me–or to allow myself to give my heart to him. Because of my past, my lack of self-worth, and the hurt I had suffered at the hand of selfish men, I really struggled with the idea that someone could love ME. Hadn’t I given all that was valuable away already? Why would he want someone who was anything but “pure”?

I began to understand that he DID love me. When I tried to push him away, he loved me. When I tried to run, he loved me. When I struggled with trusting, he was patient and he loved me. I finally knew what unconditional love looked like. He picked me up out of the mud; he cleansed my heart with his love. He forgave me when in my hurt I hurt him…. sound familiar? He showed me redemption. After we had been together for a few years, he asked me to be his bride. I joyfully accepted. It took a lot of time and patience, but over time, he showed me that my virginity did not define my worthiness. Nor did feelings I had or refrained from having affect my purity. In fact, my past–though regrettable–had actually played a part in shaping me into the woman I am today. And even beyond all of that, he helped me see that I am a beautiful, lovely woman. I am priceless. I HAVE worth in not only my husband’s eyes but in GOD’S eyes. As amazing, loving, and merciful as my husband was to me, God was infinitely more so.

Its taken some time, but over the years I have forgiven my parents, and I love them dearly. I also know that they love me and really were trying to do the best they could with what they believed. Before we joined ATI, my house was a happy, fun, lively place. My parents were balanced in their rules and expectations of us. I firmly believe that it was the indoctrination of IBLP and ATI that drove them to be over the top. When well-meaning parents who want the best for their children are presented with a formula that promises godly, brilliant children with outstanding character–there aren’t many parents who wouldn’t listen and implement said program. Especially when it seems to be scriptural, and is backed up with countless anecdotes and “testimonies” supporting that formula.

You can say that those of us whose stories you read here are merely bitter, but you are wrong. I am not bitter in the least at my parents. I have forgiven them. We have a fabulous relationship now. I am not even bitter at ATI. But I offer my story to you as a warning: The formula was flawed.

I am not proposing that being taught the importance of purity is what drove me into utter degradation. It was the over-emphasis on works and the utter lack of grace or redemption that made me feel that I had nothing left. It is VITAL that girls know that their worth and value is not derived from their innocence. That it is not earned from anything they do or refrain from doing. We are valuable because God says we are. He loves us, He created us and called us His children. And He sent Jesus to die on the cross to redeem us from sin we had not yet committed. But He knew we would sin! We are powerless to remain sinless. If ANYONE had that power, then what was the cross for?? This is the danger with the teaching of IBLP. Misguiding anyone to think that grace is actually some mystical power with which we can withstand temptation and sin is not only wrong, but is heresy in its truest form. The grace of God is His love, forgiveness, and mercy regardless of anything we do or abstain from doing.

I now have daughters and it scares me beyond words to think about them foraying into the dating world, but I intend that they will be WELL equipped. They will know from a young age what sex is, how it works, and what it means. They will know about masturbation, and that self-discovery is not a shameful thing. It is also no one’s business but theirs. They will have privacy and self-respect, and know that their bodies are their own. And they don’t have to share it with anyone they don’t want to. They will also know to choose wisely whom they will share themselves with both emotionally and physically. They will also have an open channel of communication free from judgment with both me and their Daddy. They will know that crushes are great things and it’s their job as little girls to have them; but you don’t love just anybody. People have to prove themselves in relationships. My girls really are all that, and have priceless value. And I want them to know that no matter what happens or where they find themselves in life, they will always be loved, accepted, and highly cherished by their daddy, me and most of all, their Heavenly Father.

Because they are princesses. And they don’t have to go around kissin’ on frogs.

"Mary Elizabeth" and her husband live in Spokane, WA with their three girls. She is a writer and a mother. Her family joined ATI while she was quite young and left when her youngest sibling graduated highschool in '99.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. RyanR January 12, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for sharing such a difficult story. It was incredibly sobering for me to read this as a parent and wonder, in my zeal, could I inadvertently push my children down a similar road?

    I think your story highlights well some of the hidden danger in IBLP's emphasis on "standards." When standards become the end in and of themselves (and become more important than relationships), it's devastating.

    What a great testimony to the love and mercy of God not only in helping you to see that you have value and worth in spite of mistakes and also bringing you to the place where you are able to forgive and have a good relationship with your parents.

  2. kny January 12, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is unbelievable to me how many stories I have heard from other ATI students that are horrifyingly similar to yours. The program that was supposed to in 7 easy steps make us have perfect families, actually destroyed them. I know it almost did mine. I am so glad you are ok and have found love.

  3. "Hannah" January 12, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for sharing, Mary. I'm very sorry for what you have been through. Your parents should have been protecting you, at least helping you through some very difficult situations, instead of painting an overinflated picture of morality that was neither Scriptural nor possible to obtain.

  4. Brumby January 12, 2012 Reply

    It has been going on 7 years since I removed myself out from underneath Bill Gothard's "umbrella". Having discovered Recovering Grace this long after I began my independence and healing journey, I can read the articles and feel inner pain, empathy, as well as roll on the floor and laugh along with the many writers when they tell the dumbfounding stories of experiences we both share.

    In reference to The Thing About Purity - aye aye, mate! Before I fully "rebelled" by leaving my family for college and a different way of life, I found every last booklet with my signature in it signifying my committment to yet another "insightful principle" and trashed them. No way was I going to let those be used against me anymore!

  5. SaraJ January 12, 2012 Reply

    This story is hard to read, mostly because it's yours, and you had to live it. I'm sorry, so sorry. But so glad you found real grace and real love.

    As a teen, I figured I was a lost cause as far as crushes were concerned. I wasn't even particularly "boy crazy," but do you know how many pieces of my heart I'd given away? Lots. I know because of the project where you cut out a paper heart and wrote on it the name of every crush you'd ever had. Then you GAVE IT TO YOUR FATHER. It was as excruciatingly embarrassing for him as for me, I think. But I wondered, what will I do when I have daughters? How will I keep them from having crushes? So glad that's not part of my thinking now.

    Thanks for this post.

  6. Faith January 12, 2012 Reply

    This could have been me. I was headed down this road with a lead foot on the gas pedal and no review mirror. If my fiance hadn't found me there is no telling where I would have ended up.

  7. Ileata January 12, 2012 Reply

    I'm sorry for everyhing you had to go through. When I think of that teaching of having dads meet their daughters emotional needs so they wouldn't need a guy, it's so creepy!

    • Heather September 6, 2012 Reply

      Yeah, that one was weird, and actually kind of sick. 'treat your father like he is your husband? Give your father your heart..' doesn't that go against Gothard's very own principle of 'guarding your heart, not giving ANY piece of it away..'?
      And for a girl who is starved for masculine affection, what this could potentially turn into, both mentally and physically? There's a HUGE difference between being 'Daddy's little princess', and this kind of forced unnatural behavior.

      • JerryG January 14, 2015 Reply

        Read your story today and cried.

        As a dad of sons, I never had to go through what you had to go through with your family, but since my kids have grown up and gone, I've found myself in the position of playing "adopted dad" to a number of young gals who either didn't have a dad or had "lost" their dad through death, separation, or abuse. Many have lived with my wife and I for periods of time.

        The single most stated need they all say they have is that they were "starved" for Godly male affection, one that allowed them to be a girl (or a woman - all of these gals are adults) who had value as a person, and NOT for her body only. More than one was driven to seek affection outside the Church because the men of the Church were afraid of impurity which they believed was caused by the women and not by their own lusts.

        The gals have shared struggles that they could never share with their own fathers, mostly because of the same reasons you've talked about in this article. My wife and I have seen HUGE transformations in these "daughters" and the main thing we provide them is just a ear that listens with an unrestrained acceptance, a lack of "judgement", a "grace" to be themselves and to accept the value that Jesus puts on them through His sacrifice.

        My wife and I were able to avoid the Gothard debacle by simply staying away, but now we find ourselves picking up the pieces of it, since many of the wounded kids (guys and gals) in our life were raised with many of Bill's "teachings" (or "indoctrinations", as they should be called). It's a nasty mess that is not easily unraveled.

        One thing you said in your article, though, I had to comment on, and that's the "grace" thing. I know that Gothard had HIS definition that fulfilled his purposes, but there IS some truth to the idea that grace is a "force" that allows us to accomplish what God wants. But the reality is that it has NOTHING to do with how Gothard taught it. True grace is PURELY a gift from God and is accounted ONLY to Christ and not to us. Our past actions, including both successes and failures, are buried beneath the saving power of grace, and our present and future actions are accounted to HIS righteousness and HIS agape, not ours. We are no longer our own, but Christ's. When we get a grasp on that aspect of grace, we can abandon ourselves to a life that is directed SOLELY by Jesus and not some "covering authority". We will find ourselves acting with a spirit of grace and agape even in situations that we would have otherwise been tempted to satisfy our own needs or desires.

        It's a whole new world when we give up our "spiritual scorecard" to Jesus and not give it a second thought. He's not "keeping score" of what we do, which is what Gothard teaches, but He's already wiped out our failures and accounts our lives as "righteous" through HIS power, not ours.

        Jesus had only two "commandments", which he says "on these hang ALL the LAW and ALL the PROPHETS". That means that the ENTIRE portion of everything that God has ever revealed of what He expects from us is contained in those two "commandments". Screw "principles". Screw "rules". Just "agape". And to do that it takes complete surrender to Jesus and a complete reliance on His grace.

        Bless you! Thanks again for sharing. I'm planning to send some of your words to some of the "daughters" who have struggled with this whole "purity" thing.

  8. Elizabeth Stalcup January 12, 2012 Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I was also wounded by a strict upbringing and ended up trading sex for love. God brought me through but it was painful as I write about in my article Seven Reasons Not to Move in with Your Boyfriend.

    One concept I have learned that has helped me evaluate these kinds of situations: Love bonds and fear bond. The Life Model teaches that we are motivated either by love or fear. Love bonds are driven by desire. We want to be with the person, we want to do good, we want to give. Fear bonds are driven by trying to avoid pain. We are with the person because we are afraid of what will happen if we aren't with them, don't do what they say, don't follow their rules.
    It is not meant to be this way. As scripture says, there is no fear in love. Love is a higher motivation.
    It strikes me that your family was bonded by fear. Your parents were afraid of what might happen to you if they gave you breathing room and you were afraid of them--and of God. It is tragic but I see a lot of fear bonding in Christian families even ones who have never been to Bill Gotherd. Parents are frightened by our world and try to protect their children by coercion. You can read about fear and love bonds in the book Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You.

  9. Sue Prestwood January 13, 2012 Reply

    Bill Gothard wrote an interesting letter to Michael Pearl which Mr. Pearl published in his ministry's (No Greater Joy Ministries) magazine about a year ago. As a parent who tried all the formulas with utter failure, I was pleased to see Mr. Gothard's response. All too often, it wasn't the teachings that were wrong. It was the overzealous harshness of the application. I'm relieved that "Mary Elizabeth" has forgiven her parents. Our older children have forgiven us as well. Little by little, God has shown his Mercy in guiding us to emulate His treatment of His children as we raise our own.

    • They call me 'Krash' January 13, 2012 Reply

      Mrs. Prestwood,

      As a survivor of an ATI/Gothard's teaching based home, along side "Mary Elizabeth", I feel I do need to add that in the matter of courtship Bill Gothard's teaching, exactly as he presents it, is in fact WRONG. With the possible exception of a couple of very vague Proverbs which can also be interpreted quite differently, I find no scriptural basis whatsoever for his teaching that beyond remaining 'physically pure' (aka no sex, i.e. abstain from fornication), that we are in some sense to remain 'emotionally virgins' for our spouse. This would preclude us from ever, from the heart, loving anyone of the opposite sex while single. This is certainly not consistent with the life Christ lived. He spoke (alone, albeit in a public place) with the woman at the well about her deepest heart issues, including her failed romances (not stuff 'emotionally pure' students would be supposed to discuss across gender lines). He also allowed several women to show physical affection to him (He allowed them to wash his feet with their tears, dry them with their hair, and perfume and kiss them. We, on the other hand were taught (by Bill Gothard himself) to believe not only a 100% literal interpretation of 'it's is good for a man not to touch a woman', but also what was not stated in scripture 'and it is bad for a man TO touch a woman, while they are single'. This is classic Pharisaical constructing of a wall above, and beyond the actual teachings of God. And worse still, if flies entirely in the face of Christ's teaching in the parable of the talents, where the servant who simply keeps his talent 'safe' or 'pure' but refuses to risk what he had entrusted to him on anyone is not praised for his wisdom and purity, but is called 'wicked' and 'lazy', and is cast out into outer darkness.

      I don't mean any of this to feel like a personal attack on you. What I want you to hear in it is my own confession: If I'd met "Mary Elizabeth" during the years where I was deeply ascribed to Bill Gothard's teachings, even much of the time I spent working on his staff, I probably would have considered showing her real, genuine, personal love too dangerous for someone in my position. I wouldn't have, on 'principle', been available or willing to be the man God used to show her love, and to restore her life. Of this I am ashamed. And it was exactly what I was taught, by Bill Gothard himself.


    • SaraJ January 13, 2012 Reply

      Yes, overzealous parents do a lot of damage. But if you'll browse the articles on this site a little more, you'll see that many of the teachings themselves are flawed. My parents weren't overzealous. All they had to do was agree with Gothard and communicate that to me -- the teachings did the work of damaging my view of God and of myself.

      • Emily January 30, 2012 Reply

        I agree with SaraJ! My parents were on the edges of this movement and not particularly heavy handed in their application of these principles, but they damaged me severely nevertheless!!

        I am still in the beginning processes of my journey towards healing of perfectionism and the infinite "standards" that I was taught, especially in regards to relationships.

        It is absolutely these ideas that are evil and soul-crushing!

        Mary Elizabeth, thank you for sharing this story. In telling it, you offer me and many others hope!

    • Tammy January 13, 2012 Reply

      Sue, as one parent to another. I would have to disagree with you. I don't believe it was always an overzealousness of the parent that caused the problems with ATI, although being overzealous certainly can do a lot of damage. I don't believe I was overzealously harsh nor did I enforce everything that Gothard taught. (FYI- We were in over 16 yrs.) I will be the first to admit though, that I did make many mistakes raising my kids. I believe by far my biggest mistake was to accept and follow Bill's teachings which many of them have proven to be unscriptural and full of errors and to have taught them to my kids.

    • MatthewS January 13, 2012 Reply

      Krash, I will reply at this level so it doesn't indent so much.

      "I don't mean any of this to feel like a personal attack on you. What I want you to hear in it is my own confession: If I'd met "Mary Elizabeth" during the years where I was deeply ascribed to Bill Gothard's teachings, even much of the time I spent working on his staff, I probably would have considered showing her real, genuine, personal love too dangerous for someone in my position. I wouldn't have, on 'principle', been available or willing to be the man God used to show her love, and to restore her life. Of this I am ashamed. And it was exactly what I was taught, by Bill Gothard himself."

      So well-said! This reminds me of the kind of thing that made Jesus angry in Mark 3:1-6 (

      The Pharisees were ignoring the person in front of them as they nitpicked the law for a reason to accuse Jesus. That's so many of us refer to Gothardism as a form of Pharisaism: it's all about the rules and outward appearances at the expense of people.

    • "Hannah" January 13, 2012 Reply

      I say both. Overzealous, out-of-balance Bill Gothard with overzealous, out-of-balance, unbiblical teachings, complete the equation with overzealous, out-of-balance, not-thinking-for-themselves parents. Put all that together and end up with one overzealous, out-of-balance, unbiblical mess.

    • David January 14, 2012 Reply

      Ah yes, the classic guru's "My formulas always work...and if they don't work for you it's because you are doing them the wrong way." It's *never* because the formulas were flawed or, at the least, not universally applicable as claimed.

      • Danielle January 16, 2012 Reply

        Right ON! That's exactly the way it goes...especailly with Mr. Gothard. I watched him do it in person over and over again....

  10. RyanR January 13, 2012 Reply

    I wouldn't say that my parents were overzealously harsh either. In fact, they probably couldn't have cared less whether I made a commitment to courtship. They were pleased that I did, but it wasn't an issue that my siblings did not.

    I went to extremes all on my own, "under the influence" as it were of what I was being taught in the wisdom booklets and in staff meetings at HQ, conferences in Knoxville, etc.

    While my courtship experience wasn't heinous like Mary Elizabeth's, in hindsight, I just don't see that it was "necessary" the way Mr. Gothard insisted it was. As an adult, I find that most of my friends dated their spouses, and despite what we were taught as young people, they didn't "train for divorce."

    At best, arguments that courtship is "scriptural" are speculative. While there are biblical accounts where parents were involved in the marriage arrangements of their children, there are also a lot of accounts where Scripture doesn't say - did Boaz's parents approve of his marriage to Ruth?

    To insist on adherence to such ideals to such a degree to drive children to do what Mary Elizabeth did (her story isn't an isolated one) borders on shameful.

    • Danielle January 16, 2012 Reply

      AGREED! If we are to be honest about Scripture's approach to marriage, we will come up with cultural practices that are not acceptable in our culture in the least. Polygomy, arranged marriages, infidelity, the whole bit. For Gothard to stretch his courtship idea to be Scriptural was twisting Scripture. And it WAS/IS harmful.

      When you attempt to not only control a person's actions (don't touch, don't look at the other sex) but also their THOUGHTS (don't "give" your heart away, keep your thoughts always pure) it is a level of control that is cultish and brainwashing. That is the harm. Even after marriage, I have trouble shaking this warped thinking.

  11. Randell January 20, 2012 Reply

    I have read the word "balance" in at least one of these posts. We have heard the witnesses of the prosecution. Will there be any from the defense?

    • Darcy January 21, 2012 Reply

      Nope. They've had their chance. All they do is blame everyone else for everything that went wrong.

    • MatthewS January 23, 2012 Reply

      Randell, do you have a success story to tell? Are you a member of a family that has long-term experience with the Institute and have found the good to outweigh the bad? I personally am interested in hearing stories from across the spectrum.

      • Randell February 8, 2012 Reply

        From your picture I can tell I am much, much older than you. I attended my first Basic Seminar in 1976 in Atlanta, GA. I was a young adult. I have not been in ATI either as a parent or student, but I have attended many seminars. My biggest disappointment is my slowness in apply the things presented that are undoubtedly sound, Biblical teaching. I can tell you that I don't remember a time prior to attending that first seminar when I actually ask another person's forgiveness - other than God. I suppose my problem was pride, don't you think? I've read some pretty harsh things on the internet about Bill Gothard and his ministry. Somehow "harsh" and "grace" don't compliment each other in my mind. What ever you think about this man, Matthew 18:15-17 is still true. Private reconciliation (if at all possible) seems to me to be the thread that runs through this passage. I know I don't have all the answers - as in some election choices when people say, "Well, you just have to choose the lesser of the two evils." Sometimes it's hard to know for whom to vote. God has all the answers we need. It's just difficult getting to them sometimes. I don't intend to defend evil. And it is impossible to argue against someone else's experience. But I also know that practical truth is hard to come by in a single context where only one side is presented...and presented very persuasively. The internet is a double-edged sword. There is much good and evil here. I would hope that yours is part of the good, but to concede that I would be condemning others (some of which I know personally) who still strongly support the man and his ministry. Jesus said He came to bring a sword and that children and parents would oppose each other, but I am convinced He meant that the two opposing each other were of two different kingdoms. I suppose we are all left to work through God's word and our own personal experiences. I will continue to emphasize Christ's character in the Sunday school class I teach and I may even match them with Christ's commands because after all, He is our Commander-in-chief and we are obligated to obey Him, but He would perfer that we enjoy it, and John said we would. Let the Holy Spirit "guide you into all truth" as you "let the word of Christ dwell in you in all wisdom..."

      • MatthewS February 9, 2012 Reply

        Randell, you sound like a wise and caring person. Thanks for your response. I have known a number of fine people who attended a couple Gothard seminars here and there and the Lord used those experiences to help them do things like you mention, such as ask forgiveness or to forgive a parent for past offenses. They are grateful for the experience.

        You might have gathered that Recovering Grace is being hosted by those who were much deeper into Gothardism than you were. We saw the "man behind the curtain" so to speak and it wasn't what we had been led to believe.

        I agree that harshness and grace are mostly like oil and water. There were some occasions where Jesus and Paul registered some emotional heat as they rebuked false teachers and religious leaders (the ones we would call "conservative", for what it's worth) but they were not harsh people. Many of us endured years and years of harsh treatment from our parents. I can attest that I personally spent hours researching Gothard's materials looking for how to submit correctly so that I could please my dad and therefore please God. It was only later that I realized that this was never going to work. My dad was getting an emotional benefit out of treating me harshly and in anger, then hiding behind the "chain of command", the umbrella diagram, and the hammer and chisel diagram. He claimed that even if he was wrong in how he treated me, that even then it was still from God sent to me. Thus, I believed that God himself was constantly angry with me and treated me harshly and with physical and emotional violence in spite of my constant efforts to please him. I cried myself to sleep night after night, begging God to help me finally get it right; the next day I would be crushed to be a "failure" yet again.

        As you say, harshness and grace are mostly opposed. My dad was all-too-often harsh, not gracious. God is gracious, not harsh (I guess we would probably both agree that he is just and righteous but not harsh). I had to leave Gothardism entirely before I could begin to form a warm picture of God instead of the harsh image I had of him. I do not intend to be harsh against Mr. Gothard but I do intend to be direct and honest, and to tell the truth like I mean it. Gothard's teachings have reinforced far too many abusive households and his teachings are proven false by every one of the New Testament epistles (that's what this section is about: ). This is not a Matthew 18 issue, it is an issue of false teachings and Scripture being taken out of context.

        Well, for whatever reason, I've shared more of my story right here than I have in the articles I've submitted to this site! I hope you hear my heart and know that I love my heavenly Father and I'm on a constant journey to discover him as he really is, not as the caricature I received as a child. You may have a nice impression of Gothardism from having attended a couple seminars but I can tell you of many families who went whole-hog with his teachings and the home-school program (ATI) who experienced a very disappointing reality.

        I like the final sentence in your comment. I add my "amen" and wish for us to "walk in the Spirit" (Gal 5:16) and to experience God's love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. God bless you, brother, as you walk with him today.

        • Jane Smith March 12, 2012

          It seems that legalism is like adding fuel to the fire when there's an abusive person in authority. Thank you all of you for sharing your stories here. I am in the midst of an abusive situation and trying to find the way to God's peace.

        • Randell March 29, 2012

          Matthew, I am sorry your father saw the "hammer and chisle" diagram as an excuse to treat you "harshly and in anger". I never saw it that way. A quote I remember from a textbook I had once, I think, goes like this: "We only communicate messages, not meanings." Every person has to translate what another person says or writes, and that's why sometimes we have what we call misunderstandings. (By the way, let me clarify something. I didn't just attend a couple of Basics. I attended maybe 10 over the years, maybe 3 or 4 Advance and maybe 2 or 3 Anger Resolution Seminars.)

          I remember the Institute came out with one of the early supplements called "How to Make an Appeal". I believe this was an effort to clarify the teaching on authority, i.e. that there is a time to make an appeal to our authority and not do wrong even if they were requiring you to do it. Daniel was the Biblical model for making the appeal in the right attitude and offering a creative alternative. So, it seems to me there was an effort to correct misconceptions parents may have had as well as demonstrate that the Institute was trying to emphasize the balance between the extremes of tyrannical authority and rebellious rejection of authority. With all authority comes a responsibility to use it properly. Just as in our US Constitution, our founders seemed to attempt to balance necessary, limited governmental authority while protecting the God-given, basic rights of the people. They were wise enough to realize that tyranny breeds revolution.

          I come from a fairly conservative Christian background based upon the Armenian approach to scripture. I'm not sure exactly how Armenian. I think some Armenians believe in repeated regeneration, but our denominational position excludes this, and so do I personally. Some may claim that Armenism deserves the label "legalism". At any rate, I am concerned that in our day in particular "liberty" has been stretched completely out of shape. I saw its beginning signs in the early 80s. I saw and heard some "interesting" things in a singles Bible study I attended in those days.

          It seems to me that obedience is an essential part of the Christian life, and we are all failing at some level on the practical side though our position in Christ is bridging this gap as we grow. I believe it isn't a question of whether God expects us to do certain things but of what is our motivation. Is it love for Him or merely an obligation or even fear of punishment.

          Love for Him has to be the best of the three although the other two are part of the whole reality. We are obligated to obey Him, and we should fear the consequences should we disobey Him. But grace - I firmly believe - is "the desire and power to do God's will". I like to put it this way. We as fallen humans are naturally foolish, blind and weak. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life". He is the answer for all three of our basic deficiencies. He is the wisdom of God, the power or God and the truth of God! Let's all keep our eyes on Him!

        • Randell March 29, 2012

          Since there doesn't seem to be a way to edit my previous comment, I want to modify my choice of words in two places in my comment above.

        • Randell March 29, 2012

          1) "It seems to me that obedience is an essential part of the Christian life, and we are all failing at some level on the practical side though our position in Christ is a complete covering of righteousness as we grow."

          2) "I believe it isn't a question of whether God expects us to do certain things but of what is our motivation. Is it love for Him or merely an obligation or even fear of chastisement."

        • "Hannah" March 29, 2012

          Wow, don't get me started on the "appeal" teachings! I quickly learned that it was nothing but words. No matter how carefully the steps were followed, it was never considered a "proper appeal" if the "authority" did not wish to change what they were doing. Yes, this was true of Gothard himself, as well.

          BTW, I believe the model RG is following is that of Paul, to publicly expose false teachers. Mt 18 is not necessarily applicable at this time or in this situation.

        • MatthewS March 29, 2012

          Randall, again I appreciate your heart. I am not arminian but I recognize that some wonderful, Godly men are of that persuasion. I occasionally read the blogs of some well-known arminians.

          I understand where you are coming from and I don't doubt the reality of your meaningful experiences. Those experiences would still matter and would still be valid even if you were to discover that Bill Gothard is not the same person in private as he is in public.

          However, Gothardism is a world in which sick people often get sicker, not better. Some sick people got better, sure, but many sick families got sicker. My family is by far not an exception and by far not the worst example of that happening.

          The "How to make an appeal" document is really not a helpful document. I am intending to blog about it before too long. Those steps did not work on Bill himself and they don't work on abusers in real life. The document ends up concluding that Balaam's donkey is the best Scriptural example of someone making an appeal!!! (never mind that a donkey is a non-human beast and there was an angel with a sword that actually made the difference). If you know anything at all about the "cycle of violence" and you read the "Appeal" document looking for how it would help break out of that cycle, you will see that it is unhelpful at best. At least, that's my own opinion based on personal experience.

          These skinny little comments aren't the best for a long conversation, LOL. I just wanted to add quickly that I love Ephesians 5 and agree that sin is sin and to be avoided. We are to walk in love, walk in the light, walk in wisdom. Just because I reject Gothardism does not mean I am antinomian (not that you were accusing of this but the accusation is often made).

        • MatthewS March 29, 2012

          By the way, about the hammer and chisel diagram -

          In 1974, Time Magazine said this:
          God holds in his hands a hammer (symbolizing a husband). The husband/hammer bangs a chisel (representing the obedient wife) that "chips away the rough edges" to turn a diamond in the rough (a teenager) into a gem.

          Also in 1974, Fred Bockelman said this:
          ... Bill Gothard makes me nervous. He has an almost fascistic view of power, and he comes on the scene at a time when people are searching for an answer man, a man with authority and power. My fear is that, without intending to do so, Gothard will make people so rigid and assured of their own Tightness that they will be unable to understand, much less to sympathize with, those of their fellow human beings who hold other views. History tells us what happens when well-meaning, deeply committed religious people substitute law for gospel — and what it tells us is not pleasant.

          It is my opinion that that 30 years hence, the fears about what this diagram implied were justified. Many people did not interpret the diagram as a license to be abusive, thankfully. But I fear that far too many did. From my perspective, this sends the message to a child that the abuse is being sent directly from God to the child. Which leaves the child with the impression that God himself is an abuser, and that's a very sad thing to do to a child.

  12. ruthsongs January 20, 2012 Reply

    "When well-meaning parents who want the best for their children are presented with a formula that promises godly, brilliant children with outstanding character–there aren’t many parents who wouldn’t listen and implement said program. Especially when it seems to be scriptural, and is backed up with countless anecdotes and “testimonies” supporting that formula."

    I was stunned reading this account. I have no experience with Gothard. I don't know what ATI or IBLP means, but my husband and I left a very controlling charismatic church about four years ago. We were taught many of the same principles, and we were well on our way to pushing our kids down this road for reasons the above quote states so well.

    I have an extreme sense of thankfulness as I read this, because we would have pushed our kids away as we strived for some perfect standard of the perfect Christian family. Some of that pushing had to do with the fear that kids poor behavior would reflect poorly on us.

    We are cautiously putting our toes into the issues that arise with teenagers, but I agree that my kids will be armed with the facts. And we will concentrate on building relationship with them as they navigate the teenage to adult years. We all live by His grace and mercy and these years are no different. In fact, they are the years where kids can learn how to lean on Him as adults outside of their childhood home.

    • MatthewS January 23, 2012 Reply

      Wow, ruthsongs, what an amazing story to read - thank you for sharing that! On this web site, there are some links to some good books about parenting if you are interested in reading them. The books are a much better alternative to those formulas and rules. You can click on the "Resources" tab at the top of this page, then click the menu item for Books. Finally, select the category over on the right side for Parenting. I believe this link will take you there:

      I personally have benefited greatly from "Age of Opportunity" by Tripp. I like how he addresses the issue of the parent's own spiritual idolatry and helping the parents to truly act in the best long-term interest of their child rather than in the parent's personal best interest.

  13. Megan January 25, 2012 Reply

    Mary Elizabeth, this was my story almost to a T. My first high school boyfriend had to be kept a secret because of the wrath I knew it would bring, and when my parents found out about him they had the same reaction yours did - that I must be a vile whore. (if only they knew how innocent and pure that childhood puppy love was compared to the destructive road I traveled through college since I didn't think I had anything left to lose of my self-worth after that!) I struggled with bisexuality and porn, and had to figure out a lot of those things for myself since my parents had no ability in ATI-land to provide the safety of a loving haven of wisdom for me. I only learned the redemption of what it means to be a daughter in Christ after reading Captivating by Stasi Elderege... And finding a man who treated me as something other then "a real joyride" (quote from my ex) - something valuable instead. I'm redeemed, saved, and healing now... But those scars will always be reminders, and if I can ever get up the spine to get over my enormous fears of having a child of my own I know I will do things differently.

  14. Sally January 26, 2012 Reply

    This account has so many notes of familiarity in it. Thank you for sharing. I know you will touch many with your testimony. Jesus was sent to die for a people who were not "good enough" because our heavenly father had compassion on us, not because he condemned us. Praise God that you came to that truth.

    ~Sally : )

  15. Deveney Tucker January 30, 2012 Reply

    As a parent I would like to share my perspective as well. I came from the opposite background- total nonChristian background. Most of the convictions I came to were B.G. (Before Gothard). The original families (the few that had their head on straight)really had strong faith. Unfortunately, Gothard saw a "marketing opportunity" in these families.
    My approach I tried to take was to scrutinize carefully ALL teachings from ATI as well as our church. My son was encouraged to think through what he was being fed. However, I found out later he was not allowed to talk with me about what was really going on inside ATI until he left. that really greived me because we parents were UNAWARE of what was really going on. I also was IN FAVOR of college. Having evaluated the ATI families and the programs offered, I felt that college was the best option. I did encourage him to take advantage of the opportunities in ATI until he was at least 17 and was old enough to go off to college. He would have to support himself as I had no money being a single parent. I do not think "pendulum swings" are the answer (legalism or license). I feel knowing God and being led by the Holy Spirit is critical. I also feel parents who do NOT teach their children to think for themselves and who, as parents, swallow every teaching that comes from a "leader" are worst than those in the so called "world". At least worldly parents have common sense! (Sorry parents but you bear a lot of blame here as well). There is NO ministry, church, etc. that can take the place of God. Our job as parents is to lead our children to Christ, teach them the LOVE of their Heavenly Father, and encourage them to discern ANYTHING not of God, regardless of what that leader says. I am not so sure I did a good job, only God knows. Morality can NEVER be legislated, it must be a lifestyle of the love of God lived out daily. God restores, He NEVER condemns. So that is what we should do, first as parents, then in the community. Anything that condemns is NOT of God. May God heal the families, bring the children back to His heart, and bring these parents to repentance and restoration. I hurt for so many of you. I know only the love of God can overcome the hurt of a controlling, condemning family and ministry. BTW, ATI is not the only one who did this, cults (ATI qualifies as one), churches, and many ministries I am familiar with also did this. The destroyed lives from all these wicked leaders and clueless parents are all over the place. Hugs, Deveney

  16. my story too January 30, 2012 Reply

    This was my story too. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for sharing it.

  17. Brandy February 13, 2012 Reply

    happily for me, my parents didn't get sucked into the nonsense like I did. and to make my life even easier, I was a natural prude. ;)

    still, I remember SO many times, from a very young age, when I was devestated by my own feelings of attraction to boys. how could I, who was the utter opposite of boy crazy, still be giving pieces of my heart away *all the time*! (in most cases, I never even spoke to these boys - just felt little flutteries from a distance is all)

    it was years before it slowly dawned on me that feeling attracted to someone and giving my heart away to them were WORLDS apart. I hadn't been sinning all this time afterall. and furthermore God had hardwired me as a sexual being with hormones I couldn't turn off no matter how badly I might want to, and that was ok.

    but for years now I honestly couldn't remember if I had actually been taught that having a crush = giving part of my heart away, or if I had just made that up myself.

    so it wasn't just me...

    Mary, thanks for having the courage to share.

  18. Thadd Harrington May 9, 2012 Reply

    I can't thank you enough for sharing such a difficult post. This post, this site, are endlessly encouraging to me, and I'm sure to a number of people. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Jen Baker May 13, 2012 Reply

    I recently found this website through a friend and I have spent the past few weeks pouring over the stories on here. This post brought me to tears. I started down that road, and thankfully I started dating my amazing husband before I could really destroy myself. I have been out of ATI for about 8 years now and it was the best decision I have ever made. The word I use to describe myself is "Princess". I know that I am God's princess and I will not let anyone treat me differently. Thats why I like this article so much! :)

    I have seen ATI destroy not only my own parents and my own family, but many other families as well. I still know people who are in ATI and I know girls who are in their late 20's and early 30's still living at home thinking that their lives will start when a man (any man) wants to court them. I just want to scream at them and tell them thats not how life is and they can do so much more than taking care of their parents kids, cleaning their parents houses, and wishing for something more for years at a time. But, I have come to the realization that those girls are fully capable adults who make their own decisions. Its just so sad that they are so brain-washed.

    I praise God that you have realized your worth and are healing and teaching your daughters a different way of life! I hope to do the same when I have children of my own!

    • Heather June 15, 2012 Reply

      i agree. it breaks my heart to see it. I'm so grateful God pulled me out of that thinking!

  20. Elizabeth June 3, 2012 Reply

    I too recently found this website and have spent many tearful hours reading through various posts. I could probably cut and paste from the various stories of ATI students and the testimonies of their parents to tell my own story. So many striking similarities that have really opened my eyes.

    This post particularly stuck a chord, and I can't stop my tears from running as I type. As a pre-teen, I also discovered masturbation. I didn't know what it was at first -- my parents to this day have never once talked to me about sex. (I'm 26 now, so it's really not necessary anymore, but I wish my mom had sat down and explained it all to me at a healthy age.) Once I was old enough to fit the pieces together, sex fascinated me. But I thought that I must be the most sinful girl in the whole world. I felt so incredibly guilty each time I "succumbed" to my urges, I could almost feel the flames of hell lapping at my feet. I continued in my self-indulgent sin until I was a little older and had more self control. I actually remember the periods of time that I did NOT masturbate. I tallied off each month that passed in my journal that I did not give in, and when I relapsed, I was on my face before God, crying in shame.

    Thankfully (for me but even more-so for my younger siblings) the older I got, the more tired my parents were of maintaining ATI's high standards. My mom was constantly pregnant, and my father bogged down by the stress of his business. They only fought me a little when I said I wanted to go to college. I am so grateful that they let me, because, as miserable as I often feel now (the roots of my misery being a result of my upbringing) I would undoubtedly be in an even deeper depression than I now find myself.

    As an adolescent, I also struggled with ridiculous crushes on boys. I obsessed over them. I spent hours every day making believe that we were together and happy. Married and having babies. Taking our kids to Disneyland. Actually interacting with real-life boys was another story. I didn't know how to make eye contact with males of any age because my dad had made it clear that they just wanted to get into my pants (or ankle length navy skirts, as it were.) I recognized and acknowledged my shyness as something that I needed to move past. I have made leaps and bounds, but still frequently find myself nervous and embarrassed when talking to the opposite sex.

    I eventually moved away from home to attend a university. My tendency to crush easily continued. In my four years at school, I ended up dating one guy for a month, and another for a little longer: a whole four months. The first had to end as soon as it started because the guy wasn't a Christian. I couldn't tell my parents about him, because I felt so guilty and was so afraid of their disappointment. After I ended things with him, I still thought of him constantly, and had myself convinced that I had fallen in love with him and would never be ok again. The second was actually a very godly young man (married with a kid now) but we just were not meant to be.

    After I graduated, an interest sparked between me and a friend who had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He flirted with me. I flirted back. We "went out" for about a month, but I decreed from the start that it couldn't last because he was unsaved. For this reason, it was another relationship I felt I had to hide from my parents. The guilt I felt in not telling them couldn't even compare to the guilt I imagined feeling should they find out. I regret feeling this because now, I wish I had the support that only a mother can offer an aching heart.

    We were hardly physical, never even kissed, and I ended things after a month. But I couldn't get him out of my mind. For the first time ever, I had felt safe with a man. I felt cared for. He gave me a new appreciation for my intellectual and spiritual beauty. After a few months of pining for each other, we got back together. The six months that followed were the best of my life. I was with a man who put his care for me above that of himself, and I did the same for him. He supported me, protected me, encouraged me, valued me, loved me, and I was truly content. It was all we could do to abstain from sex, but he respected and supported that decision every step of the way.

    I was in complete denial about my feelings for him. It wasn't until I moved away for graduate school that I realized how deeply I love him. It's been 10 months since we've ended our romantic relationship and I still think of him 1,000 times a day. The obsessive nature that began when I was 12 still dominates my thoughts.

    For years, I have been afraid of giving away too many pieces of my heart for fear of having nothing left for my partner-to-be. Now, the fear that I won't be able to stop loving my ex-boyfriend has crippled me. Somehow, I am also afraid of losing my love for him. How do I shake the vicious cycle?

    I fought off depression throughout my high school years and last year, mentally exhausted, I succumbed. I was suicidal and put on anti-depressants and I've been in counseling. My frustrations surrounding my "love life" frequently arise. A couple months ago I had an epiphany. I have been good. So good. I have followed all the rules. I have prayed. I have read my Bible. I was obedient to my parents. I wore the homemade skirts and jumpers with hardly a complaint. I memorized Matthew 5-7 and recite it at night when I can't sleep. I kept my hair long because my father wished it. I am still a virgin. I do not lie or steal. I love my neighbor as myself. I serve whenever I can. So what the HECK is the problem?? Isn't all of this supposed to bring me happiness and contentment in the LORD?

    Being a recovering ATI-er is hard. When it comes to my faith, I feel powerless to think for myself. We have been brought up to rely on and live up to so many rules and standards. I wish I could wipe my mind and soul clean of the all the fallacies and non-truths and start over. I want to wrap my head and heart around this freedom in Christ that everyone talks about, and I want to find this Jesus that so many are head over heels in love with. I see it in my friends' hearts, and I read about it here, but the gunk I was raised to believe has a grip on me that I can't shake. One of the most difficult to grasp is the concept of guarding my heart. It takes every fiber of my being to remember that though it is hurting, my heart is not spread around in pieces but still whole and able to love tremendously.

    This turned out to be extremely long winded, so thank you for making it to the end. There is a nice freedom in laying it all out so honestly. I ask for any and all prayers to soften my doubting and confused heart. There is such a need for God's grace, but I don't know how to let myself accept it. I suppose desiring it is the first step, right?

    • WendyA June 3, 2012 Reply

      Oh, my dear, I empathize with you so! How I wish I could put my arms around you and hug you tight!

      There IS grace, and it is for YOU. God understands fear, and doubt, and pain. But we were taught that it was our actions, our works, that earned us grace with God, and that fear and doubt were bad and would get us in trouble. That is a lie. Fear and doubt are NORMAL.

      Right now, just cling to the truth that THERE IS GRACE and it is yours. Repeat it like a mantra if you have to. You don't have to do anything more than hold out your hands and say "Here I am, God," and He will fill you with it. To overflowing. You don't have to be good. You don't have to wear anything special, go to any special church, say any special prayer. You just have to be with Him and be willing for Him to dump Grace on you in showers.

      Grace is NOT "the desire and power to do God's will," as we were taught. Grace is God's unmerited favour. Unmerited. You didn't earn it. You didn't buy it. You didn't do anything at all to get it. It just came to you. A gift. Just because God wanted to. And not only is it unmerited, it's unlimited. God will pour grace on you in waterfalls until you are gasping for breath.

      How do you let yourself accept it? Start small. Recognize the little sprinkles of grace. Thank Him for them. For the glimpse of a glorious sunset as you drive home from a hard day at work. For the joy of a warm shower after a sweaty workout. For the pleasure of coffee with a friend.

      These small recognitions helped me pave the way to that "head over heels in love" relationship, where I could accept the showers of grace --- the friend who unexpectedly showed up with a couple of meals when I'd been sick. The unexpected refund check in the mail on the day when I was choosing whether to buy milk and bread or put gas in the car. The encouraging email from a friend on the day when a boss had given me hell for something not my fault.

      Another thing is, don't beat up on yourself for the things that you think you "should" be doing but don't. If you don't have a "quiet time" or a set prayer time, or if you don't go to church, or whatever, don't sweat it. God knows that His wounded children sometimes need a break. We darn near killed ourselves in what we thought was His service. We're combat troops returning from the front. We need some months of rest and recuperation before we can rejoin the fray ... or even interact normally. He gets that. And He will give us grace for that, too.

      Rest, my sister. God has taught me that the glory of grace is rest. Rest in Him. He will do the heavy lifting, and all you need to do is let His love and care work through you. I will be praying for you. <3

    • Heather January 8, 2013 Reply

      Elizabeth, I feel like God gave me a real gift the other day. I was reading another article on RG, and through that article, and some of the comments, I felt as if God said just one word to me. "Detox."

      It hit me like a sledge hammer, in a really great way. Wow. Detox. Spiritual detox. Get all that garbage out, because otherwise I keep hearing this teaching, or that interpretation, or Bill's voice, or my mom's confused instruction... And what hit me even harder was the thought that that is EXACTLY where God wanted me to be. He has been waiting patiently all this time, for me to be at a point in my life where I'd hear this from Him. And you know what, for the first time, I am starting to feel excited about Jesus. I feel like I'm waking up. I feel like I'm on the verge of that discovery that I've seen and heard from so many other people. And I feel so relieved. I'd been struggling with guilt so long. Guilty that while yes, I believed, I did not want to study my Bible, and often did not want to go to church. How could I be a believer and not want that? Where was my joy? Wrapped up in religious duty because that's all it had ever been to me. I am looking forward to my 'new' life. I really am. There's still a few spots of fear here and there, but it's ok. It's not overwhelming anymore. I'm going to be ok. God's got my back, and it's going to be ok!

      I hope very much that this helps you, God wants you to rejoice in Him as much as He does, and He wants a mutual relationship (as mutual as humans can get anyway), but He's willing to wait and work what needs to be done, and take those burdens off of you! I'm tearing up as I write this, I hope so much that this becomes your story, and soon!

      Prayers and love..

  21. HCH June 4, 2012 Reply

    Your story was very interesting and it's wonderful to see that the Lord powerfully changed your life!

    I am- however- reluctant/can't agree with everything I've read on this site. I grew up in a church where there were "ATI families" and where there was a high standard for dress, music, courtship, etc.

    I've seen young men rebel against their parents- parents who were nothing like your parents in this story.

    My own parents- especially my mom- was very leary of becoming an "ATI family" and my parents are very level-headed people. We aren't (and never have been that I remember) required to wear skirts, listen to Chris Tomlin and Casting Crowns (though my parents prefer hymns) and can be friends with the opposite gender.

    However, both of my married siblings used a brand of the courtship model and had beautiful love stories and wonderful marriages.

    Formulas don't work. God wants us to walk in the Spirit and submit to Him and love Him.

    However, I think there is a danger (especially in those who have had horrible experiences like you) to "throw out the baby with the bath water". E.g., just because it isn't necessary to follow a Bill Gothard style of courtship, Song of Solomon does say, "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases." (Songs 3:5) and to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (Prov 4:23)

    Stand fast in the liberty of the Lord!

    • MatthewS June 4, 2012 Reply

      Just wanted to say I appreciated your comment. Using a courtship model certainly has worked out for some, and it's fun to read of the ones where it worked out as beautifully as it has for your family.

      Formulas don't work. God wants us to walk in the Spirit and submit to Him and love Him.
      That is so right on. Honestly, if Gothard's followers were to grasp that, so many of them would leave in droves. I'll be honest that I don't personally care for the baby and bathwater phrase too much; for me personally the idea of a pendulum swing works better. I think it's to be expected that there will be somewhat of a pendulum swing when someone quits drinking the kool-aid, but the real issue is whether a person trades in the formulas for walking in the Spirit and loving God and other people. Legalism and license both create pain and loss - walking in the Spirit is the thing.

    • Heather July 3, 2012 Reply

      I would like to make a comment regarding your statement, "I've seen young men rebel against their parents- parents who were nothing like your parents in this story. "

      My comment is that you would most likely not have been able to know if their parents were like the parents in this story, because ATI families are FREAKIN good at hiding stuff. I speak from experience. So yes, while there are definitely families that are balanced and healthy (I know only two or three out of many who seem to be balanced, and I thank God that they are). Just wanted to throw that out there. Of course some people rebel no matter what their situation is, I just wanted to offer another perspective.

  22. ECB June 4, 2012 Reply

    I want to say that my husband and I *DID* use the courtship model and we have the happiest marriage I've ever seen. But I think we would have had a happy marriage either way. It would have helped us tremendously to have been treated as adults instead of children when making such a life-altering decision.

    We had no idea what we believed when we got married. We knew we disagreed with our parents' stance on several issues but we could never discuss because we were WITH OUR PARENTS all.the.time. This is hardly a good way to start a marriage. I consider us very, very fortunate that as we matured and learned to make decisions on our own, that we grew the same way, and desired the same things. Our courtship was focused totally on making sure we were virgins when we married vs. helping us create a foundation for a strong marriage (our parents both modeled good marriages but that would have been the case in either courtship or dating). We received zero advice on how to deal with common marriage issues and we were pressured to have children right away instead of focusing on getting to know one another first. Our courtship counsel was focused on how NOT TO HAVE SEX, and NOT TO KISS. Uhm, marriage should involve both.

    We have survived and are very happy. I shudder to think of what would have happened to our marriage if we had discovered that we wanted totally different things after we were able to get away from the constant supervision of our parents and discuss our true feelings on issues that define us as people.

  23. Cat August 16, 2012 Reply

    My parents involved me in a "ceremony" wherein I basically was married to my father until the time that I "remarried" the man my father had chosen for me, in order to keep me pure physically and emotionally. Looking back on it now,I see how wrong it was, and how afraid I truly was in order to go through with it.
    Oh well, I'm still unmarried (for many reasons) and have limited contact with my parents. I wonder, should I have filed for divorce from my dad? I'd be rich right now, if I had!!!
    Lol, tongue in cheek on the last part.....

    • Heather September 6, 2012 Reply

      Cat, EWWWW! That's bizarre and gross! I'm really sorry they made you do that. Seriously, all this talk about, 'treating your father like your husband' is disgusting, because how does Paul tell wives to treat their husbands? 'Do not ABSTAIN...' from SEX!!!! No way in heaven, hell, or anyplace in between, that I'd EVER consider my father in such a way, emotionally or physically, yet that is the first thing that comes to my mind when I read this!

      (Note: I do NOT believe for one second that that is what Bill, or any parent had in mind, of course not.. this is simply how I see it, and it strikes me as utterly disgusting and wrong.) Did anyone else have similar thoughts?

  24. Ruth September 20, 2012 Reply

    Beautiful story. Thankyou for sharing.

  25. [...] (7,268 views): The Thing About Purity. Mary Elizabeth shares a heart-breaking story about how the extreme emphasis on purity in ATI [...]

  26. Nagerjaeger January 7, 2013 Reply

    Mary Elizabeth, thank you for sharing. What an eye opener. I went to IBYC in the late 70's and early 80's but didn't use it for parenting. Even so, or in spite of, I'm the father of 2 amazing young men, ages 21 and 19 so I have no experience with girls. I have 2 very good friends whose daughters are 10 and 12. Is there some resource I can point them to so they can navigate the boy crazy stage, if it happens, with dignity and purity? Anyone in this forum can answer that. Thank you so much in advance.

  27. Lynn January 8, 2013 Reply

    Nagerjaeger, it is going to happen, and there is no healthy way to stop it. I have 4 daughters aged 13,17,20,and 24 and my advice is to have a safe way to express it. Let them have mixed parties at the house or skating rink. Let them play volleyball and eat pizza after church. Surround them with possibilities in the rough. All these ideas should be chaparoned at young ages, of course. Crushes are going to happen and probably already have by 10 and 12. Girls have very big hearts- a heart for God, a heart for their dad,a heart for their family, and plenty of heart for guys. As far as resources go, of course the Bible is the best guide. My girls have read and like the following books: Lies Young Women Believe and Secrets About Guys (that shoudn"t be secret). Passion and Purity by Elizabeth Elliot is good for older teens. I hope this helps.

  28. Lynn January 8, 2013 Reply

    Heather, my father and I had a healthy relationship growing up. Yet, we grew further and further apart in a healthy way as I grew older, I guess,as I was preparing to one day meet my spouse. By the way, I have been extremely happily married for 27 years. And I probably had 100 crushes.

  29. [...] so, failed the number one requirement of parents: to protect their children from spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical [...]

  30. Krissy March 29, 2013 Reply

    When I read your story, I felt like I was reading mine.
    When I was 15 my parents pulled me from public school to home school me, and took me from our home church to a church that was "ATI approved." My parents who were not raised in Christian homes and were pregnant with me at a very early age, wanted to save me from their pain..(if they only knew) I lost all my friends (it just happens when your not around each other), and I couldn't play my sports. I was forced to wear skirts to church events (even picnics), and this tomboy sport loving girl wasn't even allowed to be friends with 'boys'.
    I found a friend - someone a lot like me - and we became the rebels. We already wore pants (How dare us?), and we talked to those of the opposite sex. Though I wasn't allowed to have phone conversations, or be alone with them, we were outcast for what I feel was 'normal'.
    When your a teenager you want boys to like you - and I felt worthless because none did (or were allowed to say so), the 1 who did brave and tell me..he became my 1st of many. I gave my heart and soul. I forsook my family and everyone to try to be with this man, the one I assumed was the one I was to marry (since that's what was put in my head for 3 years).
    We broke up (of course), and he told his friend. Who in return, told his Father, who called our Pastor. Who called our Dad's into his office to tell them tell MY Dad that his 17 yr old little girl was no longer a virgin.
    I will never forget that day. When you try soo hard to get your Dad's approval, to make him proud, and to see the look in his eye when you tell him your not a virgin. Of course he assumed I was pregnant, which thank you JESUS I was not. But everyone was going to find out - because the Pastor was going to announce that BOTH OF US were living in sin, and we were to be excommunicated from the church.
    My family in shame, didn't show up for that church service..well except my Dad. He was told by the Pastor and the elders that we must do a public confession in front of the church in order to be accepted back. Though my Dad didn't agree, (I LOVE MY PARENTS) but he felt that I should at least write a letter so this wouldn't hang over my head for the rest of my life.
    Did anyone even understand what this does to a 17 yr old girl? Did they know that I didn't need their forgiveness, but only God's??
    My letter said as much - that though I was ashamed for my sin, that God is the only one that I needed forgiveness from; and when I needed a church to have my back and help me, they turned their back on me.
    My eyes actually tear up when I think back to the shame and hurt I felt and how that changed my life forever.
    I like you, drank and slept around, and only by the grace of God did He show me what I was doing, and by getting pregnant with my first daughter, save my life!
    It is hard, but I have learned to forgive the people who did that to me. Who tried to make me an example, and cast the first stone.
    If anything God has shown me to accept people and just show them His LOVE. I am by no means perfect, or healed, but each day I start to realize more of my worth.
    I pray that this never happens to any young woman or man again. And that is my ministry - to be there for these young people when they need it most.

  31. Andrew August 4, 2013 Reply

    Reading stories like this just enrage me. Having been through ATI between ages 13-17, I could tell even then that Gothard was basically running a cult. I remember the year in Knoxville when they introduced ALERT and for three straight days my mother was insisting that I sign up for the program. There was no way I was joining Gothard's Delta Force ATI posse. I can't begin to tell you all the years wasted with Wisdom books substituted for actual high school curriculum. All the demonizing of college set me and my siblings back years on careers. I read a lot of forgiveness going on in these posts but I struggle with that given the thousands that are still in the darkness that IBLP and ATI construct. For parents that swallow this garbage, there is no excuse for loving a cult leader more than your own children. My mother still to this day justifies her actions but the bottom line is that Bill Gothard doesn't have some magical special insight to the Bible. He is more like Matthew 18:6, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." People who are still into ATI need to wake up before they lose their children forever.

  32. Jane February 10, 2014 Reply

    Such a very humbling sharing.

  33. Sheryl March 4, 2014 Reply

    Did your parents say they were sorry for the way they treated you? Did they acknowledge the changes that occurred in your home growing up?

  34. Beth April 30, 2014 Reply

    I didn't have anything to do with ATI growing up, but I was in church as a teenager and it seems that a lot of the ideas (although not in their weird, unadulterated form) were communicated to me.

    As a little girl, I certainly never had anyone tell me that marriage was my mission in life. My mom and grandmother were both working moms and I never saw my parents' marriage as particularly desirous. But from my earliest memories I obsessed about getting married. Maybe it came from Disney movies??

    Anyway, my friends at a Christian middle school taught me that any boy I talked to should immediately be a boy I tried to "date." Even with a marriage obsession, I didn't think of every boy as a potential boyfriend. I remember being the new girl in school, talking to a boy, then getting forced by friends into being "boyfriend / girlfriend" then having lots of pressure from everyone to hold hands, then to kiss. I remember making a fake kiss print on his cheek so people would leave us alone.

    Later, I had several other relationships with boys. By that time, I had a sense that a person should never kiss until engaged and that holding hands might be some kind of issue.

    At a different Christian high school, I was found holding hands with a boy and we were paraded through the halls by the "headmaster" to be an example. There was no standards taught, just some vague idea that if you stepped out of line in an indefinable way, someone might fly off the handle at you. Later I broke up with said boy and he tried to commit suicide and everyone blamed me. How's that for a confusing standard?

    I remember communicating much of what happened to me to my mom, but never got any guidance or advice. So I just continued to fumble along, feeling inexpressibly lonely. Another time, this guy and I liked each other and I remember my parents called it a "courtship." I didn't even know what that meant. I was 15.

    Later when at 19 I started dating my (now) husband, I had total free reign. Apparently my dad told him "you hurt her I'll hurt you" but we all knew that was bunk. My mom questioned me closely at one point about whether we'd had sex, and I answered "no, but we've done more than we should." We did end up sleeping together before we were married. I was very depressed about it and felt worthless, and also had a vague notion that I was "damaged goods." But I had felt that way since the headmaster paraded me around just for holding hands. There was no one to talk to. My parents' reaction would be unpredictable. I knew no adults or mentors that gave messages of grace.

    It was only after 5 years of marriage when my husband confessed adultery that I began to sort through my own broken sexual past. What did it all mean? As a child in public school, I was told about every kind of sexual act. Then later in Christian schools I got all kinds of mixed messages about needing to have a boyfriend, then later I should never hold hands, but then got the blame for "making" my messed up boyfriend attempt suicide. I wanted to be loved, cherished, and married, but what did that even mean? I had some kind of mixture of Disney movies and Gothard-esque principles and a lot of unknowns.

    Thankfully, I now have a beautiful marriage (10 years later). I have 3 boys and we want to teach them to respect their bodies, respect girls around them. I have a very vague understanding of whether masturbation is right or wrong. My boys are little and they see their privates as toys. And I really have no clue as to how to help them navigate the physical. I am just usually really honest if anything comes up. This is one of those areas, like discipline, where I feel pretty hazy from a biblical perspective. I can see why parents would grasp onto rules and guidelines, because it's tough to navigate. I mean, we have these precious innocent little babes and we hate to think of them going out and getting their hearts crushed and getting diseases but I also SO agree with this article...when you set up this system with standards that are SO impossibly high, kids who fail a little think "what the heck?" and their feelings of shame and worthlessness lead to further destruction.

    So what non-rule based advice have you former IBLP people found?

  35. Cappy January 9, 2016 Reply

    Huh. This sounds a lot like me. I gave my purity to someone I love, and while I don't regret it, I feel guilt whenever I think of the fact that I'm not pure by my parent's standards.

  36. MikeJ December 25, 2021 Reply

    My wife is a "Basic Institute in Youth Conflicts" graduate, 1974, and it's only now, 40+ years later, that the full extent of the damage from that course is becoming clear.
    In a nutshell, I feel that the issue is that everything Bill Gothard taught was binary. I'm not saying that there isn't a right and wrong, biblically, but when everything is presented so strongly black & white, as a preventive measure to scare you away from sex. The whole thing about giving your heart away first, how each breakup damages you, and then, heaven forbid, give away that thing that you're supposed to save for your husband as a "gift."

    So what happens to the young woman who fails? There is no path back! She is left to rationalize on her own that what she's doing is OK, and what, exactly, does that do? It encourages more of the same. And so my wife, at 17, lost her virginity, probably with the aid of some beer, to a new boyfriend, the boyfriend that came immediately after her week-long Basic Institute in Youth Conflicts" course. Because this guy paid attention to her (which she wasn't getting from her parents). My wife had written a diary and it was full of massive conflict beforehand, and then, finally, a few words written in big letters on a single page. "I am FREE! No more of her! I am going to conqeor the world!" Basically that she was going to have sex with this guy and no longer feel guilty about things.

    And of course, it didn't work out. Next guy was a Christian, and it's clear she was hoping that, if she could convince him to have sex, since he was a Christian, it must be OK. Ohmygosh. She cheated on him with her past boyfriend (the one she's lost her virginity to)... things didn't last much longer.

    Next guy? She's reinvented herself, again, presenting herself as a virgin to him, telling him she was saving sex as a gift to her husband on her wedding night. I later found this out talking with the guy, who absolutely believed he was her first. This lasted not too long partly, I think, because the guy was more than a bit scared, thinking she had plans for marrying him, which he didn't (have such plans).

    This stuff covered exacty a year. 4 months later she meets me, and she's all about her virginity story, how she's saving herself for her husband on their wedding. We became close over time, just friend at first. Fooling around, it really seemed she was more experienced than she should be, but when questioned, she fought back hard. How could I think such things. I knew she'd had quite a few boyfriends, and asked her, very specifically, "So, with those other guys, nobody ever took out a condom?" Her response, which is burned into my brain forever, even though 44 years ago- "No Mike, no guy ever took out a condom. I would never have let myself get in that situation." (Her diary, discovered 3 years ago, included a section where the second guy put on a condom...).

    After six months our relationship became fully intimate, and I definitely had the idea this would be long term, marriage-type stuff. But funny thing happened. As soon as we became intimate, had sex, the woman who was previously incredibly sexual, horny if you will, turned on a dime and didn't want to be intimate anymore. When asked, she said she was disappointed in herself that we'd had sex (which was her request, by the way) before marriage. So yeah, I was kind of guilted into getting married (which I wanted to anyway, but...). And hoping things would improve once married.

    Umm... nope. 40 years of intimacy gone bad. What the heck happened? How could I deal with rejection over and over and over. Shortly after marriage she told me sex once or twice a month would be fine with her, if that. Before we had sex, she was wildly sexual, if that makes sense.

    After discover of her diaries, after discovering 40+ years later that the virgin I'd married was anything but (and by the way, I wasn't a virgin, and she knew every detail before we got serious because I thought it important we know what we were getting into), it all get really weird. She claims not to remember any prior sexual encounters, and continued to deny that the events she wrote in her diary were real, until I finally contacted one of the former boyfriends.

    She's been in therapy for the past 2.5 years, she's been depressed for many many more (and now we know why). She's said things like "I've resented sex for over 40 years" and "If sex is so important to you, have an affair or go find a hooker." Not recently; she's very slowly showing signs of improvement.

    The biggest damage done by Bill Gothard's style of "teaching" is that there's no recovery from failure. It encourages the very worst thing. Keeping secrets. My wife essentially was leading two lives, a life with boys in the evening (sometimes literally climbing through her window when she was living at home), and another life in Church.

    Please do whatever you can to keep things like this from happening. Any time the answer to a big problem is to keep it secret... that's key, that tells you just how bad off someone really is.

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