Purity Culture: Lose the Lies, Keep Your Faith
If you want to get “cancelled” in Christian culture, try using the phrase “sexual purity.” Even for many committed Christians, sexual purity has lost its luster. Women are writing dissertations and books about how the Church’s teaching on sex has not only harmed them sexually, but shaken the foundations of their faith in God. What is going on?
In the mid 80s and 90s, the message to “save sex for marriage” became the predominant theme of Christian books and conferences. Modesty and abstinence were all the rage in the average church youth group. Young women were told not to “cause their brothers to stumble,” and wives were encouraged to “perform their wifely duty” to keep their man from straying.
I’ve spent the past ten years working exclusively in the arena of Christian sexuality and have interacted with hundreds of men and women who grew up with these insufficient and unbalanced messages about sex. As part of the Christian culture, I was among them. I dutifully obeyed and experienced my own disillusionment and pain in my marriage.
My understanding of God and sex has dramatically evolved over the decades. I can see that metamorphosis in the emphasis and nuances in what I wrote twenty years ago versus what I’m writing and teaching today. My journey has brought me closer to the heart of God. It has been a parallel track of deepening my love for the Lord and understanding His word related to our sexuality. Unfortunately, in the journeys of others, the opposite has transpired.
For many, reconsidering the purity narrative has led to a rejection of the true Christian faith. I think of Janna who grew up in the church with messages about purity and modesty, feeling ashamed about the size of her breasts and the attention she received from boys. In college after she was date raped, the first question her father asked her was, “What were you wearing?” The double standard, body shaming, and lack of compassion eventually became enough to undermine her faith in God. Or I think of Brenda, who followed all the rules and got married as a virgin to a pastor. Within the first year of their marriage, her Christian husband cheated on her multiple times. Brenda is now an open advocate for a God who lovingly and non-judgmentally allows us to pursue whatever sexual longings we may experience.
Every sexual issue is at heart a spiritual issue. When sex becomes confusing, it causes us to reexamine what we believe about God. Getting sex wrong usually begins and ends with getting God’s character wrong. This is why it is critical that we personally and corporately revisit what the Bible actually says about sexuality. Yet as we deconstruct, we must be very careful in how we reconstruct, pressing further into the word of God rather than away from it.
Consider the whole counsel of the Bible.
Several years ago, I began to read the whole Bible each year. Yes, it gets tedious around Leviticus, repetitive in the gospels, and downright depressing in the prophets. Yet, I’m committed to this practice because it reminds me never to take out of context any particular passage.
In its entirety, the Bible is a Great Story. Within that story are lists of laws, teaching about holy life, songs of worship, times of judgment, and accounts of God’s work in unique times of history. Yet every part of the Bible must be understood within the larger framework of the Great Story. God created us for fellowship with Him. When sin entered the human race, every intent of the human heart became warped (see Genesis 6:5). All of creation has echoes of God, while also elements of brokenness that cause us to groan and suffer. God’s love for humanity prompted Him to send Jesus as the once-and-for-all remedy for human rebellion. God has offered us the choice to accept or reject this redemption. When we receive Jesus, we live in the tension of the finished work of the cross and in the “not yet” fulfillment of that completed work.
This story of the Bible must be the foreground and background of everything we teach, including sexuality. Our purity and righteousness ultimately have nothing to do with our sexual choices or struggles, but with our standing in Christ Jesus. We can never accomplish a pure life apart from His continual work in us, through the Holy Spirit. God loves the gay, the pastor, the virgin, the single, the married, the prostitute, and the divorced. Each one must choose whether or not to respond to that love with repentance, humility, and obedience. God is able and willing to redeem every story. He breaks down the self-righteous and builds up the broken.
This great story isn’t ultimately about how to live a holy life, sexually or otherwise. It is about the character of God. In every generation, the Church has failed to fully grasp the true character of God. Depending on the times, we overemphasize one of His traits at the expense of the others. We embrace and teach a lopsided version of God. The purity movement taught a God who gave us moral rules to follow, but underemphasized His redemptive nature. In our current day, we teach about God’s love and mercy, but tend to skip past His holiness and righteous judgment. This is a grave danger of which every Church generation must be aware. Reading, studying, and teaching the whole of Scripture within the context of the larger story brings us back to the “True North” from which we can make sense of our sexuality.
Discern tradition versus truth.
Traditions are not all bad. Although many of them are based on biblical wisdom, traditions should never hold the same weight as the word of God. Jesus confronted this in His day when He told the Pharisees: “You have disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men. You neatly set aside the command of God to maintain your own traditions.”
Why is this so essential to “reconstructing” from the purity narrative? Jesus said the greatest of all commandments are to love God completely and love our neighbors unselfishly. Church traditions about sex have established a moral hierarchy based on a person’s apparent sexual purity. Are you a virgin? Do you look at porn? Do you fall into accepted stereotypes of male and female? Are you in a second marriage? Even Christians who remain single in their thirties and forties often feel like “second-class citizens” because of their marital status. The Christian subculture has created traditions around sex, often unspoken, that cause us to violate and minimize the greatest commandments. For the sake of minor differences in theology, we alienate our brothers and sisters. Because we are confused and repulsed by various forms of sexual brokenness, we ignore the pain of our neighbors. We cling to our traditions while setting aside the most important commandments of how we are called to live and love.
Many who have “deconstructed” from faith in God do so because they have never seen genuine faith in God. What they have known as conservative Christianity is a judgmental, hypocritical, and dogmatic clinging to traditions.
We are often like the friends of Job, quoting the proper verses in a way that heaps on condemnation and ignores the heart of God. At the end of the book, God did not rebuke those friends because of what they said about Job, but because of the ways they falsely represented God Himself.
Learn the true narrative of sexuality.
The Bible has a lot to say about sex. Yes, there are passages like I Corinthians 6-7 that deal explicitly with our sexual conduct, but the larger message of God and sex is hidden within passages that many of us skip right past.
For example, the book of Hosea is all about sex. A prophet Hosea marries a woman who is unfaithful, and God tells Hosea to redeem his unfaithful wife. The book of Hosea is about sex in a way that ultimately points back to the story of God’s redemption. The same can be said of Ezekiel 16. If you read this passage, you may be shocked to find references to pubic hair, “large genitals,” and menstrual blood. This chapter is a graphic description of something sexual as a metaphor for something profoundly spiritual. The Song of Solomon, the only book in the Bible about marriage, praises the beauty of erotic passion. It seems to be out of place within the Law and the prophets until we see it as more like the Psalms, a song about love.
We cannot understand God’s prohibitions against sexual immorality, His heart for the abused and abandoned, or His passion for sexual intimacy within marriage until we understand the place that sex has within the larger story of God. Our sexuality, including our gendered bodies, is a form of revelation about the nature of God’s covenant love. As the apostle Paul says, this is a great mystery that refers to Christ and the Church.
The greatest failing of the Church is not the purity movement or even the reaction against it. Our greatest failing is in missing the larger message that our sexuality screams to us. We were made for intimacy. We were created for covenant. We have been pursued by a Bridegroom who awakens our love, redeems our sin, and invites us into eternal union with Him.
In 1990, it was far easier to say “save sex for marriage” than to wrestle through this narrative. And today, the easy road is to grant permission to embrace whatever our flesh desires. But to be true to the gospel, the word of the Lord, and the character of the Almighty God, we must press deeper into His story of love and how it is revealed in and through our sexuality.
This is why I’ve committed the last ten years of my life and the foreseeable future to learning, teaching, and writing about the most challenging topics of sexuality. What’s at stake is not sexual morality, but leading people to an intimate relationship with our Creator, our Redeemer, our Savior, and our Bridegroom.
You may also find these follow-up resources helpful:
Why Promise Rings & Purity Talks Fall Short
The World Has A Lot to Say About Sex
What's the Purpose of Your Sexuality, Really?