I recently read a very sad book, Pure by Linda Kay Klein. This book keeps popping up in my newsfeed which tells me that people want to talk about it. The subtitle of the book hits precisely why this book caused my heart to ache: “Inside the evangelical movement that shamed a generation of young women and how I broke free.”
Within the book, the author shares her journey of shame, confusion and turmoil around sexual issues resulting from the way she learned about sex from a conservative evangelical church. Her upbringing was much like mine. She describes moments in her teen years of passionately committing her life to the Lord and His work around the world. She would have been one of my good friends had we gone to the same church or youth group. But Linda’s faith journey was radically derailed because of harmful messages she heard about sexuality, sexual sin, sexual abuse and femininity. As I’ve said before, every sexual issue is ultimately a spiritual issue. When sex becomes confusing, God becomes confusing.
Throughout the book Pure Linda shares the stories of dozens of women who experienced deep rooted shame and trauma related to their sexual choices and experiences and not fitting the evangelical stereotypes of a “pure woman.” The problem, as well as the solution, are summed up in the book's subtitle. The Church has mishandled sexuality and femininity. Freedom is found apart from the evangelical church. Both statements are heart-wrenching.
The problem: My heart literally ached as I read the words of women who have been damaged by insensitivity and harmful teaching. Women who were blamed for a pastor’s sexual advances and those who felt shame not for having sex but simply for being sexual creatures with beautiful bodies. I read about women struggling with gender and same sex attraction who were shunned, sexual abuse victims who were minimized rather than offered help, and women with strong personalities and opinions who were told to conform or leave. Others told stories of extreme anxiety in the marriage bed because of consistently pairing sex with shame. What Linda Kay Klein has documented is real, pervasive and must not be ignored. There is ample evidence that the way the church has addressed (or flat out ignored) sexual issues has caused harm for men, women and marriages. We must also note that while this problem is widespread, it certainly does not represent every Christian woman’s experience. Many within the evangelical churches have lovingly and truthfully guided young women through the challenges of adolescence, dating, romance and sexuality. However, by-in-large, Christians have not been beacons of hope offering truth and love within an area that is intrinsically tied to human worth and dignity.
By distorting God’s truth on sexuality, we have unwittingly distorted the larger message of God’s love. Linda writes:
My friends and I were told in one breath we were loved unconditionally, accepted just as we were, and headed for Heaven, and in the next we were warned of the evils of feminists, homosexuals, women who had sex outside of marriage, and other Hell-bound individuals. It didn’t even occur to me that some people in youth group might already see themselves as fitting into some of these categories that I wouldn’t see myself in for years, and how that must have felt to them then, but what did occur to me was this: The unconditional love that I had fallen for in my early days in the church? It was conditional.
The solution: The second reason why the book Pure is so sad is the author’s conclusion that freedom from shame comes from walking away from God, or at least from the version of God that limits our sexual expression. Practically every woman interviewed for the book has resolved her conflict by distancing herself from the biblical teaching that sexual intimacy was created for the covenant of marriage between a man and woman. The tension of sexuality and God, according to Linda, disappears as we choose for ourselves a sexual ethic that feels right. If you also choose to hang onto God in the process, He is perfectly fine with your own personal sexual morality.
We must make a distinction between God’s design for sexuality and the ways in which we have failed to appropriately teach it. Biblical teaching about sexuality is not a random form of morality but reflects how we were designed to thrive and function. Throwing off moral restraint does not bring freedom but ultimately leads to yet another form of bondage.
Linda’s book, while compelling, is also very one-sided. I could compile an equally compelling book of women who wish that someone would have taught them to value themselves enough to say “no” to a dozen guys in high school. Women who wish they could turn back the clock to undo the abortions or reverse the effect of herpes. There are many more women who carry shame not because of what they learned in church but because they have gone from man to man to man, only to be discarded yet again.
Freedom will never be found in walking away from God but rather in running toward Him. The message that sexuality is shameful is not found within the pages of Scripture. God created us as sexual people. Our sexuality is a wonderful gift that teaches us about the nature of God’s passionate and faithful love. (Listen to our "Why God Created You to Be Sexual" podcast and read our "Why Does Sex Matter?" blog to learn more.) Because sexuality is so powerful and sacred, the Bible clearly teaches how our sexual passions are to be directed. The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, emphatically tells us to avoid sexual immorality (this includes things like sex outside of marriage, pornography and same-sex activity). But here’s the key: Our “purity” has never been based on our sexual choices but upon our reliance on the finished work of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. We will not “go to Hell” because we had sex before marriage or slept with another woman. We go to Hell because we reject Jesus as Lord and Savior who has given His life to pay for our sin. This is the heart of the Gospel and must not be lost in the midst of our efforts to teach people about biblical sexuality. After all, God is not after our “sex lives,” He’s after our hearts.
As I interact with more and more women, I recognize that we must go beyond talking only about sexual morality, but we must also address sexual maturity. Following God’s design for our sexuality isn’t just about our behavior conforming to a certain moral code. Maturity means surrendering our wounds, our questions and our confusion to an unchanging, all-wise God who is able to bring healing and redemption. As our hearts change, so eventually will our behavior. We are all on this journey with a long way to go. That’s called discipleship.
Although I am grieved by her conclusion, I am grateful that Linda Kay Klein has sounded the alarm. We must do better in representing the heart of Jesus as we present God’s design for sexuality.
Where do we start? How do we know and communicate God’s design? Check out Dr. Juli Slattery’s newest book, Rethinking Sexuality.