The Church has always encouraged Christians to stay morally pure, especially in areas of sexual behavior. During the 1990s, the call to moral purity included public vows, promise-rings, and other expressions of what is now called “purity culture.” For many believers, the efforts were helpful, and they were able to build healthy, flourishing marriages. Others were left with guilt and shame.
As our wider society has become more sexually broken, many have condemned not only incidental aspects of “purity culture,” but all efforts to cultivate sexual purity. Some also question the entire concept of Christian sexual morality.
In light of recent headlines, we asked select Christian thinkers to answer the following question:
“Purity Culture,” which has become shorthand for the ways in which Christians have attempted to promote sexual chastity, has been the target of significant criticism in recent months, especially in the wake of scandals and the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. Are criticisms of “purity culture” legitimate, and in what ways should Christians change how we advance a Biblical sexual ethic in this cultural moment?
Click on the names below to jump to a particular contributor:
Matt Lee Anderson; Joseph Backholm; Brooke Boriack; S. Michael Craven; Jim Daly; Brett Kunkle; Peter J. Leithart; Frederica Mathewes-Green; Sean McDowell; G. Shane Morris; Karen Swallow Prior; Warren Cole Smith; Owen Strachan; Glenn Sunshine; Andrew Walker
Is it possible to give two half-hearted cheers for the critiques of purity culture that have been advanced in recent years? The attempts many have made to promote modesty and abstinence tended to both exacerbate anxious, legalistic tendencies in the communities where they were adopted and reduced Christian ethics of marriage and family to a narrow-minded concern for whether someone was having sex inside of marriage or not. Such an approach left a void for a post-married sexual life, creating the impression that the aim and purpose of abstinence was to maximize sexual pleasure while being swept up into a romanticized vision of marriage.
In other words, purity culture failed because it was not promoting chastity, at least not in the sense as Christian ethics understands the virtue.
So why only two half-hearted cheers? Those critiques have often been made in service of overturning that ethic in its entirety. The abuses and missteps within ‘purity culture’ do not arise from Christian sexual ethics themselves, but from an anxious, reactionary resistence to a culture turning away from that ethic. In correcting, purity culture overcorrected—and now its critics are at risk of repeating the error, and repudiating purity culture while having nothing substantive with which to replace it. Untangling it from the hollow, lifeless versions on offer in “purity culture” is a critical task—provided that, in doing so, we retrieve and recover the heartbeat of the sexual ethic, rather than reject it.
To do that, though, is the challenge. For my own part, I think our Lord’s advice to Christians remains paramount: “You hypocrite, first take out the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Matthew Lee Anderson is a D.Phil. Candidate in Christian Ethics at Oxford University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion at Baylor University.
Purity culture, however we define that, has a point; what we do with our bodies, sexually and otherwise, matters. The contrast with the world’s view of sexuality couldn’t be clearer. While God offers marriage as the context of sexual expression, the world offers “if it feels good do it.” Despite assurances that no one will be hurt if everyone consents, fatherless homes, broken marriages, porn addictions, and epidemic levels of sexually transmitted infections say otherwise.
But if “purity” is clearly a better path, why all the trouble? Because somewhere along the way we forgot that the purity that matters most is something Jesus purchased for us on the cross, not something we earn by being chaste. While the Gospel tells us that God casts our sin as far as the east is from the west, we told our young people that some mistakes stain us forever. Where people were looking for hope and forgiveness, they were offered shame instead. To the extent this happened, it was wrong.
Still, we shouldn’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater, however fashionable it may seem. Virtue is still a foundation of human flourishing, but leave no doubt that the ultimate goal is Jesus. “Purity” without Jesus may help prevent an infection of the body, but self-righteousness of the soul is a far more serious condition. Yes, raise the standard and call people to be better than their impulses, but don’t do it because it will make us pure; do it because Jesus already did.
Joseph Backholm is Legal Counsel and Director of “What Would You Say?” for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview
As a teenager, I was attracted to this set of behaviors – now described as the stuff of “Purity Culture” – and the promises of what it would deliver. I was fearful of getting life wrong and getting hurt, and this offered me safety and control.
My exit from that season began when I realized that life is not something you can bargain your way through, and that I had more to live for than the great “end” that Purity Culture promised. I was lifted out by a holistic theology of my body, sexual ethics, and life purpose that deepened and adjusted my perspective and priorities.
Critics of Purity Culture might rightfully point out that a formula of behaviors can’t guarantee we’ll get what we want or don’t want, but pretending that freedom is possible without boundaries is just going to send us into another painful ride on the pendulum swing.
The Biblical sexual ethic does deliver. It may not deliver what you want, when you want – it doesn’t guarantee a spouse, or the absence of pain, or more sexual pleasure. But if you’re after an ethic that affirms and celebrates your sexuality without idolizing it, and creates the space for its true freedom, then it will deliver.
And it delivers more than what Purity Culture offered. It affirms that my life is complete and valuable and satisfying today. Delight my imagination with that truth and I’ll be motivated to do more than save sex for marriage – I’ll live a creative, productive, fulfilling life right now.
Brooke Boriack, Program Director for the Colson Fellows with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview
It is inadequate to only instruct young people in what they ought not do when it comes to sexuality. The temptation of sex is too ubiquitous and powerful, and besides, we shouldn’t focus on renouncing what it is shallow and empty when we can promote what is true, and good, and beautiful.
The Church would be better served by unreservedly promoting the extraordinary gift and beauty of the sexual union as designed by the Creator within its ideal relationship. Sex is the ultimate integrating act between a man and woman; it unites them not only biologically but psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually as well. There is no other equivalent physical human experience. As such, biblical—and therefore human—sexuality is a singularly distinct experience that warrants particular and exclusive consideration.
That consideration is for the other person as well as for other human beings who may come into existence. This is what distinguishes biblical sexuality. Biblical sexuality acknowledges the uniquely integrating nature of sex and thus establishes sex as an other-centered act of mutual giving and receiving in a relationship that is committed to the consideration and care of all aspects of the people involved.
By design, sex is proven to be best experienced within a relationship of self-giving agape love versus self-satisfying eros or erotic “love” of the world. We should help young people commit to and pursue, for their sake, and the sake of their potential offspring, the higher good of the only relationship (marriage) that truly offers the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual safety in which true sexual freedom can be most enjoyed.
S. Michael Craven is the Director of the Colson Fellows Program with the Colson Center For Christian Worldview
Jesus held a high view of human life, relationships, sexuality and marriage. In his teaching, He referred back to Genesis, explaining that God made us in His image male and female – and that this is the basis for marriage between a husband and wife. He understood the beauty and joy of healthy sexuality – as a single man. He knew the good things that spring from healthy sexuality, such as love, marriage, life, children, and relationships.
The “purity culture” placed a lot of emphasis on waiting for marriage to have sex. And while Jesus did teach that sex outside of marriage was sin, He pointed to something deeper than our actions – sinful desires in our hearts. What He offers, through forgiveness, truth, healing, and the power of the Holy Spirit, is a transformation of our hearts that leads to right behaviors.
As I read about those who say the “purity movement” hurt them, a few themes keep recurring. Some people tried to live up to a standard and failed – so they gave up. Some felt shame and condemnation from those they saw as rigid and judgmental. Some internalized a negative view of sex and tried to stifle their sexuality. And, sadly, some were deeply wounded through sexual abuse or harassment.
Does this mean we throw out Jesus’ teaching on sexuality and align with a broken, hyper-sexualized culture? Of course not! We see the devastation and destruction from broken sexuality all around us. Christians must continue to teach God’s design for marriage and work to live out the biblical sexual ethic. This includes offering grace, healing, and restoration for all of us sinners. We can’t force the world to follow God’s standards, but we can point people toward a better way with God’s truth and our lives.
Jim Daly is the President of Focus on the Family
It depends on what we mean by “Purity Culture” (PC). As far as it makes purity an if/then proposition—if you stay a virgin, then marital bliss will follow—criticism is legitimate. If PC relegates non-virgins to damaged goods, count me out. However, if it means pointing to God’s design for human sexuality—one man, one woman, one flesh, one lifetime—and challenging God’s people to live in obedience, then I’m in. So, we first need a clear picture of what’s being criticized to know if it’s legitimate. Much of the PC criticism I’ve seen caricatures the movement or extrapolates from one’s personal experience to the entire movement and thus, is largely unhelpful.
To advance God’s vision of sexuality, the church must first equip its own people, emphasizing two things: flourishing according to God’s design and redemption/restoration according to God’s grace. God’s intention is sexual purity: “It is God’s will…that you should avoid sexual immorality…For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (I Thess. 4:3&7). Without guaranteeing outcomes, we confidently teach the biblical connection between obedience and flourishing. However, a sexually broken culture also needs the restorative power of the gospel. When I met my wife in college, she was a single mom. Obviously, she had lived outside of God’s intent for her sexuality. But any PC message that stops there is entirely deficient. When she tells the rest of her story, an amazing picture of God’s redemption emerges.
The beauty of flourishing and forgiveness, borne out in real lives. Our culture needs to see both in full display.
Brett Kunkle is the founder and president of MAVEN (www.maventruth.com) and the co-author of A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.
Evangelicals aren’t wrong to connect purity to sexual behavior. The Bible does the same. Under the Law, sexual sin, idolatry, and shedding innocent blood polluted and sickened the land until it vomited Israel into exile. These same sins pollute the church, and Jesus threatens to remove the lampstand from churches that don’t repent of idolatry and immorality (Greek, porneia; Revelation 2-3).
But since Jesus, purity and pollution don’t work the same. Impurity besieged Israel. The world overwhelmed them with uncleanness, and so did their own bodies. A woman was unclean during menstruation and for weeks after having a child. A daughter became impure if attended her mother’s funeral. Even within marriage, sex made both husband and wife unclean.
Impurity is symbolic death. Impurity threatened Israel because Death ruled the world, including Israel, after Adam’s sin.
That’s all changed. Because of Jesus, the reign of Death has been replaced by the “reign in life” of “those who receive the abundance of grace” (Romans 5:17). The reign of Death has given way to the reign of the saints.
Christians haven’t always gotten the memo. We cower behind protective barricades, as if Death were all-powerful. Too often, we overemphasize the “Don’ts.” The sole imperative, especially for young women, is to preserve the negative state of virginity.
The gospel needs to be our starting point. Jesus defeated Death. Sexual sin still pollutes; sex itself doesn’t. Our bodies aren’t sources of pollution. On the contrary, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and walking in the Spirit, our bodies are victorious instruments of God’s justice and holiness (Romans 6).
We need to relearn the lesson of Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene, whose heroine of chastity isn’t a swooning flower but a conquering knight.
Peter J. Leithart, President, Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama
Our culture understands “purity” very well, and embraces it enthusiastically—that is, when we’re shopping for food. It defends “purity” zealously—when we’re talking about the environment. It only balks at “purity” when the subject is sex.
In my hippie college days I claimed to celebrate all religions, but I deeply resented Christianity. We mocked Christians and argued with them, trying to undermine their faith. Someone donated paperback Bibles to the dorms, and my friend tore them up; we thought that was hilarious.
Why did we want to bully Christians, and delight to sadden them? I used to say, “There’s something wrong with those Christians. They’re too clean.”
I think it was their purity that annoyed me. We felt somehow judged by them, though they never said judgmental things. Sexual purity somehow challenges people, even when it’s just minding its own business.
That’s because there is spiritual power in purity. This is a deep and ancient spiritual battle we’ve stumbled into, with a scope much broader than sex. Purity addresses all Creation, putting everything in tune so it can function and flourish according to its design. That’s what people mean when they call for purity in the environment, and human sexual behavior is really just a part of that environment.
So instead of apologizing for purity, let’s get better at living it. All of us, not just singles; we can all get better at governing the thoughts and images we allow in our heads, as St. Paul said, preferring “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Phil 4:8). Let’s honor purity, even if that makes us more annoyingly “clean.” Coming up with new phrasing wouldn’t help; it’s purity itself that they are rejecting. Perhaps they sense its power better than we do.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a leading author and speaker on topics related to Eastern Orthodox belief and practice. She holds a degree in Theological Studies from Virginia Theological Seminary
Given recent criticism of purity culture, it is easy to fall into one of two traps: blindly defending it or rejecting every facet of it. The reality is that purity culture was a well-intentioned, but misguided, movement.
Yes, purity culture overplayed marriage, took a formulaic approach to relationships, ignored the value and beauty of singleness, and used the broader societal script of using sex to sell a product (in the case of the purity movement, sex was used to “sell” abstinence).
But purity culture also brought sex to the forefront of discussion in the church, aimed to communicate to girls and boys that they have intrinsic value and can say no to sexual pressure, and it reminded young people that sex really does matter.
Let’s acknowledge and repent of the bad from purity culture without losing what is good. Now is the time for a measured response. It matters deeply for this generation of young people, and for a watching world, that we get the biblical sexual ethic right.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a Professor at Biola University
The first thing I insist on when anyone brings up “purity culture” is that they define what they’re talking about. Do they mean their old church youth group? Their parents? A particular book? A home schooling curriculum or conference? I ask this because the term often functions like a Rorschach blot test, signifying something different to everyone who uses it. In fact, the teachers, writers, and organizations lumped together under this heading often contradict one another.
More confusingly, Joshua Harris and his now-repudiated book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” have come to symbolize all of “purity culture.” This is a pity, because in my view the book is a vanilla call to Christian morality. Almost none of the bad ideas often imputed to Harris come with page numbers, and there’s a reason for that. He never promised anyone that preserving their virginity would guarantee a happy marriage—what some have dubbed the “sexual prosperity gospel.” Rather, he gave prudential advice (which, by the way, is thoroughly backed up by social science). He never told anyone that their worth is based on their sexual history. As a matter of fact, he explicitly denied this, pointing readers to the “greater love” of Christ’s cross.
Sadly, Harris has now turned away from Christ and His cross, as well as his marriage. After watching many inside and outside the church cheer his mea culpas over “purity culture,” I wonder: do they realize they were cheering the early stages of a man’s apostasy? I also wonder: to what extent has “purity culture” come to mean purity, itself? Have we noticed how many writers have used the term to denounce not only the kitschy ways Christian sexual morality was taught to us as teenagers, but Christian sexual morality, itself? How many of those who celebrated the passing of “purity culture” have taken similarly bold stands on unpopular biblical truths about sex and marriage?
I won’t defend everything that sometimes goes under the “purity culture” label any more than I will denounce it all. I think that’s sloppy, lazy, and (in a time when the cultural currents are all pulling us toward impurity), reckless. There have always been good and bad ways of teaching Christian sexual morality. Sometimes, generalizations and proverbs can come across as absolutes and guarantees. Sometimes, the tree of grace is planted in a garden of law, instead of the other way around. Where false things were taught, we should denounce them unequivocally and specifically. But we can never back down from eternal moral truths about who God is and how He designed us to live and love, no matter how culturally unpopular they are.
G. Shane Morris is a Senior Writer at BreakPoint
While the question framing this discussion about purity culture mentions chastity, purity culture’s greatest weakness, as I see it, is its failure to embrace a full, robust understanding of chastity.
I devote an entire chapter to this long-forgotten virtue in my book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. There I argue that, however well-intended, purity culture focuses too much on virginity rather than virtue. As a virtue—a habitual moderation between an extreme of excess and an extreme of deficiency—chastity is a positive discipline that involves the whole person and affects the whole person. Chastity is the proper ordering of one good thing (sexual desire) within a hierarchy of other good things. It is something both married and single people are called to. Chastity, most simply, is fidelity.
Apart from a holistic sense of virtue, virginity itself means little—as evidenced by the creative ways people maintain their virginity while remaining anything but sexually pure or by situations in which virginity is lost unwillingly through sexual assault. The person who is raped is not guilty of being unchaste. On the other hand, the consumer of pornography is.
Purity culture’s overemphasis on remaining a virgin until marriage misses the mark by inadvertently making sexual purity a means to an end (such as alluring a fine marriage partner or being rewarded with a great sex life once married) rather than focusing on the virtue that is a quality of one’s character.
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D, is a Professor of English at Liberty University
God’s moral law reflects God’s character. It, like God Himself, never changes. But we fallen humans sometimes describe God and His character imperfectly. We use language that may not be false, but is incomplete. “Purity culture” was a noble if imperfect attempt to teach young people that God desires the best for us, and that Biblical marriage offers the best opportunity for sexual fulfillment and human flourishing.
Recently, some former “purity culture” adherents – including celebrity pastor Josh Harris — are renouncing the message they once championed. They have seen that such expressions as “purity culture,” like all over-simplifications, do not adequately describe the robust and expansive understanding of sexuality and marriage that a mature Christian worldview can bring to this conversation. But it is important that we not throw out a biblical sexual ethic even as we reject transient and incomplete expressions of that ethic. Marriage is a central metaphor of the biblical story. The Bible begins with a marriage. Jesus begins His public ministry with a miracle at a wedding. The Bible concludes with a marriage and a wedding feast. To undermine a biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality is – in a very real sense – to undermine the gospel and the entire biblical narrative.
It is no wonder, then, that those want to undermine Christianity attack the biblical understanding of marriage. Neither is it a surprise that many who reject a biblical understanding of marriage often quickly reject other essential Christian doctrines, or reject Christianity altogether. Indeed, soon after Josh Harris repudiated “purity culture,” he repudiated the Gospel itself, saying he was no longer a Christian. Romans 1 and many other passages tell us that Christian doctrine and Christian morality and ethics travel together. You cannot reject one without inevitably rejecting the other.
My heart breaks for Josh Harris, his family, and the many who will be led astray by his words and actions. But we should remember that Josh Harris’s rejection notwithstanding, Christian morality and Christian marriage are gifts to the world. They point the way to God’s highest and best for us. They are blessings, not burdens, especially when compared to the burden of finding peace outside of God’s law. Let us therefore remain faithful both to teach and to live in the fertile and satisfying land whose boundaries are marked by God’s law and God’s love.
“Purity culture” is not monolithic, much as people often present it as such. It can in truth be many things: a moralistic ethos, a church’s gesture toward right living, an unattainable standard, a pledge made when one barely knows what sex is all about, and more. I personally feel little need to defend any and all manifestations of such a culture.
Where, however, this descriptor signifies a sound church’s effort to teach its people—in particular its young men and women—to pursue holiness and sexual innocence by the power of divine grace to the greater glory of God, I support “purity culture.” I was deeply impacted by some past writings and sermons to this effect. Though temped, I hated my lust, and wanted to mortify it (still do). I wanted to know sexual wholeness and enjoy God’s good gift on my wedding day. All this desire was prompted by biblical theology and the indwelling Spirit.
If Christians join the world in mocking “purity culture,” we only show how little purity we know. We must always press for God-centeredness in our spirituality and full recognition of the power of gospel grace for needy people like us. But to mock purity is at some level to mock God. Our hair should stand on end at this thought. Holiness fired by a grand vision of the Lord in all His resplendent excellency may occasion such a response, but true Christians care nothing for the scorn of unbelievers. We care about the praise and honor and renown of the One who has redeemed us in order that we might consciously reflect His purity.
Owen Strachan, professor at Midwestern Seminary and author of “Always in God’s Hands”
While we certainly should promote a biblical understanding of sexuality, it is also important to promote it in the right way. Purity Culture made a number of mistakes on this front, and it is thus not surprising that there has been a backlash against it.
Speaking in a different context, Paul asks, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ … These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:20-23) Purity Culture operated on this level, like the Pharisees establishing regulations that went well beyond Scripture, insisting on a kind of asceticism that was based on externals but that has proven to be “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
The proper approach to promoting biblical sexuality starts with education. We need to explain the reasons for the Bible’s teachings on sex, theologically and practically. The fact is, doing things God’s way produces the best results personally and socially, and there is plenty of evidence that demonstrates this. Understanding the “why” of biblical sexuality is critical to keeping people from falling for the lies of the Sexual Revolution and will help them draw the proper boundaries in their relationships with others.
Did “Purity Culture” breed a problematic paradigm of sex and sexuality? Sure, I’ve witnessed firsthand how youth group culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s had negative impacts on how Christians understood God’s gift of sexual difference and sexual union. A lot of this stems from a failure of evangelicals to develop a theology of the body that neither glorifies sex nor rejects it.
The response, however, is not to dismiss the very concept of biblical purity, which the Bible very much teaches (Col 3:5). Nor is it to adopt so-called “sex positive” secular theologies that end up discarding the biblical sexual ethic. And that’s my primary problem with “Purity Culture” critiques—they end up becoming proxy critiques and proxy dismissals of anything resembling the Bible’s teaching on sex.
Many of the critiques against so-called “Purity Culture” are coming either from secular progressives who rejects Christianity’s sexual ethic outright, or from jaded and disaffected progressive Christians—or “exvangelicals”—who very well may have experienced problematic teaching as it relates to sex and sexuality, but who now otherwise reject or are embarrassed by the Bible’s teaching that sexual intercourse should happen only within marriage. In their rejection of biblical sexuality, they have offered nothing that does not also collapse into either explicit or implicit sexual libertinism.
If “Purity Culture” is a synonym for fear and legalism, then by all means, let’s offer a better paradigm. But in the rush to condemn, let’s make sure we’re not railing against a caricature of an otherwise historic, biblical, and beautiful orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality.
Andrew T. Walker is Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.