In the 1990s, a new movement grew in evangelical churches that promoted sexual purity as one of the most important aspects of Christian life. While Christians have always seen sexual intercourse as something limited to those who are married, this purity movement insisted on commitments from young singles, particularly young teens who were just beginning their journey to adulthood. The movement hit full stride with the 1997 publication of the Christian bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. One of seven children homeschooled in a Christian home, Harris encouraged young people to avoid dating and to reserve kissing for marriage.
Purity pledges and purity rings became a popular way to show others that you were serious about waiting for sex until marriage. Enthusiastic young teens promised to be faithful to their future spouses and, by extension, to God.
In Linda Kay Klein’s book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (Atria), she shares what she learned in interviews with women she knew in high school and others who grew up in churches that had similar teachings. While many Christian readers will be uncomfortable with some of her graphic stories and attitudes towards sexual ethics, the overarching theme hit home with me.
I went to a conservative nondenominational high school in the Bible belt in the early stages of the purity movement, and we had chapels about abstinence that could only lead a young woman to conclude that if she faltered sexually, no one would ever want to marry her in the future. “We all want new furniture, so why are we in the antiquing business?” asked one chapel speaker.
Klein explores that attitude as well as many others. Young women are admonished to be modest so as not to cause men to stumble, which leaves the responsibility for being treated with the most basic level of respect on women. If you believe that and then become a victim of rape, guess who is to blame?
Further, purity culture tended to define the ideal Christian woman as a lovely, pious, and supportive bride offered up to the man God has ordained for her. Women who waited and learned to deny their own sexuality found it difficult to suddenly be wholly sexual beings just hours after saying “I do.” And what if you aren’t chosen by a husband? What if you don’t fit the gender role described—perhaps you have dreams of a career or a call to ministry? And just imagine how this emphasis on purity would affect you if you are not attracted to a man at all.
Harris himself, as Klein notes, has changed his thinking, based in part on painful results of the purity culture some of his readers have shared with him. He noted this in a statement on his website and pointed out that his book “gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by Scripture.” He announced that he and the publishers came to agreement last year that they would no longer print the book.
Still, as Christian writer Katelyn Beatty pointed out on Twitter recently, the idea of being rewarded with all the good things in exchange for your purity remains prevalent. She shared part of Justin Bieber’s recent interview with Vogue magazine. After committing to celibacy as a way to focus on God, Bieber found his wife. “I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul. And I believe that God blessed me with Hailey as a result. There are perks. You get rewarded for good behavior.”
The effects of our sexual purity ethos are not limited to women. The recent movie Boy Erased (Focus) is the film version of a memoir of the same title by Garrard Conley, renamed Jared Eamons for the movie. Garrard grew up in a Baptist home; his father was a preacher. Garrard, a committed Christian at the time, knew he was attracted to other men, but he didn’t know what to do about it. When events led Garrard to come out to his parents, his father calls in spiritual advisors. In the film, one of them bows his head, saying “We pray, God, that you make him pure.” They decided he should attend conversion therapy (a practice that the CRC eventually cautioned against in its own position on homosexuality). He was enrolled in an ex-gay ministry called Love in Action.
The movie depicts the program as a volatile environment where he was made to speak his most private thoughts and experiences in front of the whole group and then humiliated and shamed for it. The youth in the program were told that God wouldn’t love them unless they changed. They were unacceptable as they were. While there is some argument over film’s depiction of that therapy, it is undeniable that the message of being unacceptable and unlovable is heard by people in the LGBTQ community from churches all over.
Impurity is as old as time, at least in human terms. As soon as humanity had the opportunity to make the wrong choice, that’s exactly what we did. In the Old Testament, God provided ways for the Israelites to purify themselves. In order to approach him, they cleansed themselves in washing rituals. In order to atone for their sins, they sacrificed animals.
Christ ultimately came as the sacrifice for all of us. He atoned for all of our sin. Even as we stand in the grace of God, we wonder if our sins can truly be forgiven. And sometimes we are prone to wonder even more how other people’s sins can truly be forgiven. How can we go on as sinners and still be God’s beloved? How many mistakes does it take to cast us from his presence? As Paul tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Regardless of how we feel about sex outside of marriage or homosexual relationships, we need to recognize that we all think and do things that are not pure. Take a look at the headlines about the #MeToo scandals or the horrifying abuse revealed in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church. The church is a long way from pure.
God’s love for us is pure. It is unaffected by even the worst of our abuses. His forgiveness is complete. We are called to love him wholeheartedly even as we realize that developing a Christ-like mind is a lifelong journey. Both Linda Klein and Garrard Conley still consider themselves Christians, though, without knowing them, I’m guessing they don’t fit the traditional profile. Rather than vilifying their perspectives or their faith differences, we can take this opportunity to examine ourselves and to see the church with the eyes of those outside of it. If the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale series has anything to tell us, it’s that our culture is afraid of the church’s attitude toward women and those who don’t fit the mold.
The challenge for all of us who are in the church is to be honest about the planks in our own eyes rather than searching for everyone else’s specks. We need to stop idolizing an artificial ideal of purity that none of us can uphold and instead love our neighbors as ourselves. We should never allow idolization of purity to take precedence over the beloved handiwork of our Father in heaven.