I don’t think many from the evangelical Christian community are going to like what I am about to say, but as I usually intend to do, I am going to be honest here.
I am about 1000 percent over the purity, or “True Love Waits,” church culture and unbelievably glad that many churches are too. If you were a church attendee in the early 2000s, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the era when youth group was all about purity rings and purity necklaces and when I Kissed Dating Goodbye was the second only to the Bible. The new bling and the new books were cool and all. There was only one catch — they always came with a little slip of paper or a little card that you’d sign, declaring that you would commit yourself to sexual purity. In other words, through signing that tiny piece of paper, you were publicly committing to not engage in any sexual activity outside of marriage.
Contrary to what people think, though, my problem is not with the commitment to abstinence itself. After all, I personally decided to be abstinent. I did and still do believe that waiting until marriage is not only practical, but worth it.
My problem with the purity church culture is when abstinence and purity are no longer presented as an intentional choices but, rather, as an ultimatum.
In trying to avoid the discomfort and scandal of talking about sex and sexuality, churches too often took the easy way out, which was simply to not talk about it. Even if they did broach the subject, it often involved little discussion or critical thinking for the youth themselves. Marriage was the real place to figure all that out. Until then, it was an issue of virginity versus sexuality, purity versus sin. It was an easy binary to teach, and it avoided the hassle (not to mention, awkwardness) of trying to do the birds and bees talk — the slippery slope for young people to becoming immoral heathens, of course — on a community level. Unfortunately, it was also the undoing of an entire generation of youth.
While not theologically incorrect per se, the purity versus sin binary that many churches enforced was (or is, depending on the church) a gross and detrimental simplification of the biblical intention for sexuality. Because sexuality was constantly referenced in as something taboo and not to be talked about, churches intentionally or unintentionally taught youth to think that, according to Christianity, sexuality in itself was shameful. So when they, at the behest of hormones, discovered that they were sexual beings with sexual desire (the horror), there was little to prepare them on how to respond. Because of the shame and judgment associated with sexuality, church was no longer a safe place for them to share and get support for what they were going through physically and emotionally. After all, no one wants to be ostracized or thought of as less.
Consequently, what many individuals saw on their finger, or looking back at them in the mirror from around their neck, became a shadow of a vengeful God with a vengeful church, ready to strike if they ever messed up. It condemned them into staying pure, not because they understood the biblical heart for sexuality and personally wanted to commit to it, but because they didn’t want to be seen as a slut or a failure. If they managed to keep their desires in control, they earned the righteousness to stay in church and be loved by God. But if they didn’t, that was the end.
The problem with this is when purity leads to condemnation, purity has lost its biblical intention. Purity is not longer purity when it used to buy righteousness or the affections of God.
Contrary to what a whole lot of people think, the bible actually celebrates sexuality and sex. That is actually the reason the Bible encourages abstinence and discourages sexual activity outside of marriage. Sex and sexuality aren’t to be avoided because they are shameful or sinful. Rather, according to scripture (namely the controversially beautiful book of Song of Solomon), they are acts and parts of individuals sacred and beautiful enough to be worth saving to express in a setting where they will be valued for what they are worth.
This is the biblical intention of marriage. It is meant not just to be a legal arrangement or a place where it’s finally proper to have sex. Rather, it is meant to be a place where two people don’t just want each others bodies, but desire and follow through to commit to loving each other intentionally for life. It’s what the scripture means when it says that two shall actually become one. It’s a place where they might be wholly honest, completely vulnerable, fully given to one another and know that they are safe there. Sex and sexuality is the physical manifestation and expression of such intimacy, which is why it is both a joyful thing and also something considered so sacred that it ought not to not be treated lightly.
Ultimately, marriage, according to the Bible, is actually meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church. There is no other religion where God became human in order personally reach out to heal the people he loved, and to give his life as a sacrifice that they “might be with him” (John 17:24) In response, purity of heart — following Christ alone — for Christians was therefore meant not to be derived from fear, but in recognition of the fact that Jesus Christ, unlike any other god, found them worth dying for and “loved them till the end.”
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins … So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 10: 7-19)
“There is, then, a great gulf between the understanding that God accepts us because of our efforts and the understanding that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done. Religion operates on the principle “I obey — therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done —therefore I obey.” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God)
Thus, sexual purity, likewise, was was never about fear or earning acceptance and love from God or the Church. It was never about being good enough to deserve a spouse or deserving to be loved and valued. Instead, it is about recognizing the worth that has already been attributed to us by God — that He created and set both body and sexual desire apart for marriage not for the purpose of shame, but for the purpose that they might be best experienced in the context of committed relationship, intimacy and affection, for the lofty goal that they might ultimately reflect the affection and commitment He has already shown to us.
This is the actual biblical heart behind sexual purity and abstinence. Sadly, much of the purity culture movement completely missed it, either because churches didn’t understand the heart behind purity, or because they wanted to avoid talking about sexuality.
What a complete and utter tragedy. Because somewhere, lost in translation, is the fact that the heart of purity is not condemnation nor oppression, but love — the heart of God himself all along.