True Love Waits. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Promise rings. These are the touchstones of predominant teaching on sexual purity promoted by the Christian community throughout the past several decades. Yet, the word purity among today’s Christian adults can elicit feelings of shame and even anger. Why? Because the purity narrative has proven to be ineffective for many and harmful for others.
The “purity narrative” teaches that God created sex for marriage. Saving yourself for marriage is one of the greatest goals of Christian singles (and their parents). If you say “no” to sex now, someday God will bring a wonderful spouse and you will have incredible, guilt-free sex. If you have messed up sexually, God still loves you and has a plan (likely a plan B) for your life.
But even those who proclaim a commitment to God are not quite so convinced that the purity narrative is a compelling strategy to teach about God and sexuality. Jenna is just one example of why. A child of the 90’s, Jenna was raised in a godly, loving family and went to church every week. In terms of sexual purity, she’s been there and bought the t-shirt (or promise ring). Now in her late twenties, Jenna’s view of sexuality is a hot mess.
Jenna recently broke up with a Christian guy who persuaded her to do everything but have intercourse. She is shackled by guilt because of the lines she has crossed, angry at her parents for their narrow views on sexuality, and wonders if her whole Christian life has been a sham. All the while, Jenna has friends, Christian and non-Christian, who claim to be reveling in shame-free sex and every form of sexual experimentation. Where is God in the middle of this chaos? Where is the Prince Charming she was promised if she stayed pure? Did she ruin her chances for great sex in marriage by going too far with her boyfriend? Why do her friends seem so much happier than she feels?
Here are a few reasons why the purity narrative fails to prepare people like Jenna for a biblical approach to sexuality.
The power of a narrative is being able to identify your story within the larger story. Many people simply can’t find themselves within the story of the purity narrative. For example, what does “save sex for marriage” mean to a Christian who battles same-sex attraction or compulsive masturbation? What help does it offer to the Christian married couple who is experiencing conflict around sex or the Christian husband who has no sexual desire?
Honoring God with our sexuality involves so much more than simply saving sex for marriage. It encompasses how we think and respond to every sexual issue, including how we love people who disagree with a biblical sexual ethic. As the sexual challenges and questions in our day expand, we need a narrative that is large enough to encompass all aspects of our sexuality.
One of the greatest complaints against the purity movement is that it inherently divides people into two categories—those who are sexually pure and those who are not. Those categories easily become the self-righteous saint and the shameful sinner described by Jesus in Luke 18. The determining factor of where you fit is whether or not you are a technical virgin who saved sexual intercourse for marriage. But what about the woman who has done everything except have sex with a guy? And what about using porn, erotica, fantasy, or masturbation? Are these people “pure” or not? And what about the married man who uses his wife as an outlet for his lust? Is he pure? Where do those who have been sexually violated fit in?
There is far more to our sexuality than what we choose to do with our bodies. Many who grew up with a purity emphasis translated “save sex for marriage” into “it’s wrong to be sexual.” Christian singles naturally experience sexual physical longings as well as the emotional desire to share life with someone. Those are natural aspects of our sexuality. We don’t magically become sexual people because we get married. We choose to steward those desires differently based on marital status. Simply acknowledging that Christian singles are sexual beings brings clarity and relief to those who have been taught otherwise. Our encouragement and teaching on sexuality must go beyond “God created sex for marriage.” God also has a purpose for our sexuality as singles.
A hangover of the purity movement is the assumption that sexual passion is always wrong. I can’t tell you the number of married Christians I’ve talked to who have carried this lie into marriage. All the years of associating sexual experiences and desire with shame can’t be erased with a determination to now believe that sex is good. Without realizing it, they suppress sexual desire, expression, and passion in marriage, afraid of violating God’s standard of holiness. The majority of those who have emphasized sexual purity never intended for this outcome, but we can’t deny the unintentional fallout.
Let’s begin with the fact that God never promised to reward purity with a happy marriage. When we imply promises that God Himself has never made, we set people up to doubt His faithfulness. Confusion about sexuality translates into confusion about God.
More importantly, the purity narrative is not consistent with the overarching message of the gospel. The fact is that none of us are 100% sexually pure—we have all missed God’s “Plan A” of perfection. Our purity, according to Scripture, is determined by the blood of Jesus Christ, not by our sexual choices. There are not some people who need Jesus more than others. As the Bible says, all of us have sinned and are “dirty” before God. It is only Jesus’ atoning death on the cross that supernaturally presents us as a pure and spotless bride. Sure, some may save sexual intimacy for marriage, but that itself represents the grace of God in our lives. Living as the “pure in heart” will be a lifelong challenge in all areas of life, made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our sexual narrative is the framework from which we make sense of all sexual issues. It is the grid through which we see our own sexual questions as well as those presented by the larger culture. As we seek to understand our sexuality, we can either choose to believe the biblical narrative or the cultural narrative. We’ll explore these two narratives in-depth as we continue this blog series, but the short answer is that the Bible, from cover to cover, presents a rich explanation of our sexuality that goes far beyond what many churches have traditionally taught. Sexual purity is an important element of following Jesus Christ, but it is not so narrowly defined as saving sex for marriage. In the wake of the purity movement, many Christians are giving up on biblical sexuality altogether, choosing instead to embrace a cultural, humanistic view of sexuality—one that says your sexuality is an important part of your identity and personal expression, and that anyone who discourages or limits your sexual expression is doing you harm.
As this cultural narrative is gaining momentum, the church’s response must be more comprehensive and compelling. It’s time to discover a biblical narrative that can help us make sense of the real challenges we face within the realm of human sexuality.
You may also find these follow-up resources helpful:
They’re Right, Abstinence-Only Education Doesn’t Work (blog)
Pure Sadness and a Better Way Forward (blog)
Why the Word “Purity” is Cringy (blog)
Java with Juli Bonus! #235: How the Purity Movement Hurt Us (member exclusive)
Java with Juli Bonus! #236: Pursue Wholeness, Not Purity (member exclusive)
Java with Juli #160: Why God Created You to Be Sexual
Java with Juli #166: We Are All Sexually Broken