I can still see all those book covers in my mind’s eye.
If you’re around my age and grew up in a conservative Christian home, you, too, would probably recognize some of the ones I’m talking about: the publications from the late ‘90’s-early 2000’s on dating (or not dating) and romantic relationships. Compiled, they were a core facet of what has now been termed “Purity Culture.”
These books and messages had quite the impact on my teenage mind and heart. They played a roll in my decision to keep my first kiss until my wedding day. My parents gave me a purity ring when I was 13, and I was a staunch advocate of walking through romantic relationships to the glory of God.
And God did graciously and beautifully bring my husband and I together in our late teen years. I suppose people could have called ours a “success” story of this era. I had no idea, however, that even at that time there were some rumblings beginning to shake the foundation of this “purity culture.” And, in the past few years those rumblings have turned into an all-out roar, with many rejecting everything that has a similar flavor to those messages; some even throwing out Christianity altogether. What in the world went wrong?
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about this, and have had literally countless discussions with others about dating/courting/romantic relationships. And, with my husband being a pastor for six years, we’ve had many “formal” conversations surrounding this sphere as well. Ask anyone who has spent a good amount of time with me, and they’ll attest to the fact that I literally become giddy over Christ-centered romance, (and am certainly not afraid to show it).
Since this topic is very close to my heart, I wanted to take a little time to talk about it here. Because, as I mentioned, some would call my love story a “purity culture” success story, but I believe it is more accurately described as a story of God’s mercy and grace in my life due in large part to having a strong foundation in the gospel (my deepest thanks, Dad and Mom, for your faithfulness). And, I am convinced that God can write incredible love stories (or bring healing and redemption) when this area is committed to Him.
In the rest of the post I’ll address several of the problems that I believe have played into the disillusionment and misconceptions that come along with this particular sphere of purity and romantic relationships. It won’t be fully comprehensive, but I pray it will be helpful.
[Side Note: Not all of the books I mentioned above were “created equal.” if you will. There are some that I would still highly recommend today, and others I definitely would not. That is due in large part to what their emphasis is, which would align (or not) with what I share in this post.]
1. Motivated by Legalism instead of Love
This may be where all the problems with this topic of “purity culture” ultimately stem from: functioning from legalism instead of from love.
Every act of obedience as a Christian should stem from living out the first and greatest commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”Matthew 22:37
When love for God is our source of obedience, we are empowered by His grace to live in a manner pleasing to Him, and to be continually sanctified to be more and more like Jesus. This then translates into how we interact with others, including our romantic relationships.
Legalism, however, is trying to maintain an outward standard of morality by checking off boxes that make us look good and holy to others. This is not empowered by God’s grace: it’s fueled by self-effort and pride. Legalism cannot change our hearts, so although we might look clean on the outside, the inside isn’t transformed. As Jesus said to the religious leaders who were, in many ways, the embodiment of legalism:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”Matthew 23:27-28
True purity can only be an outflow of a heart that has been purified by the shed blood of Christ. When kids grow up hearing only about outward rules rather than inward transformation, they will certainly grow disillusioned. They will quickly realize as they face the reality of their sexual brokenness that the only way to maintain this outward facade is to be hypocritical, because their hearts have not been changed. And eventually they may throw it all out, because they have been relying on their own effort rather than the hope of the gospel. But when kids are taught to love God first and foremost—when He becomes their passion and pursuit—this is where they will gain a solid foundation and framework on which their theology of purity will stand fast.
2. Turning Methods into “musts”
Judah and I often talk with others about the difference between principles (musts) and methods. In short, principles are foundational truths that should be lived out by everyone. Methods are the ways in which these are lived out, but can differ from person to person.
For example, every Christian is called to live in purity: this is a biblical principle that starts in the heart and is an outflow of God’s transforming grace. But the ways this is lived out in various contexts will often vary slightly from person to person; these would be the methods.
For example, someone might decide that they aren’t going to kiss until marriage out of a desire to help them practice purity in their romantic relationships. But if that person then starts telling everyone else that not kissing until marriage is a non-negotiable aspect of being pure, it’s being turned from a method into a principle. That’s where the problems start. Why? Because nowhere in Scripture does it say this is a foundational aspect of “being pure.” Is it often a wise choice? Yes. But you can choose to kiss before marriage while still being careful to honor God and one another through other means (i.e. methods) that help you live out that non-negotiable principle of purity.
Unfortunately, this has happened far too often in the realm of conservative Christian circles. Someone’s good method gets turned into a “must” that everyone now needs to follow in order to be pure. But when kids are taught that purity means keeping and practicing all these methods that aren’t clearly outlined in Scripture, it creates a crack that can allow the enemy to sneak in and undermine everything about the Christian life in their mind and heart.
This is why a focus on the core aspects – the principles – is so key. Young people need to understand the why behind purity according to the Bible, but this should also fit into the greater context of how we ought to live as Christians. And, they should understand that when a method is put in place, it is simply a means of helping us practice those core principles, not the principle itself.
3. Overemphasis on physical purity
Often we can overemphasize some good aspect of the Christian life we are passionate about to the unintentional diminishment of other areas. For instance, someone might be very passionate about the judgement of Christ, while forgetting that His love is equally important (and that to understand both correctly they can’t be separated from each other).
This can easily happen with purity, too. When parents have the desire to see their children steer clear of the heartache that comes with living a promiscuous lifestyle, there can be such a hammering of purity that other aspects of a Spirit-filled life are neglected. But purity can only be correctly understood and lived out when there is a fuller understanding of how it fits into the Christian life as a whole.
Also, I think it’s important to mention the physical (or sexual) purity is often what is emphasized over purity in general. When we see purity talked about in Scripture it isn’t just addressing the sexual aspect of life: it is holistic, encompassing every facet of living as a believer. It certainly includes sexual/physical purity, but it also involves anything we think about, activities we participate in, how we speak, and so on. And, it all stems from a heart that has been purified by Jesus.
Here are some verses in light of that reality:
“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”1 Timothy 1:5
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”2 Timothy 2:22
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”James 1:27
When people understand purity in the context of the gospel, it finds its rightful place in our minds and hearts. Purity is not something we keep until we get married, but something we are called to live out in every single season regardless of our relationship status.
4. no room for grace
And last, this “purity culture” message often forgets to add that God’s grace is greater than all our sin. I know of too many people who have despaired or thrown out the idea of purity because of mistakes they have made in the past (or in the present) in the area of sexual purity, and think there is no hope for them due to the messages they’ve heard. But that goes completely against the story of the gospel; it leaves out grace.
We are all sinful, broken people apart from Christ. And even as Christians, we will find ourselves in need of continual sanctification and repentance when we do sin (because, we will). This is the very hope of the gospel. Our righteousness is not in “being pure” or anything else, but is only found in Jesus. He is perfect and sinless and has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). So, when we fall short, or those in our lives fall short in the area of purity, it’s critical that we have a firm grasp on grace.
Is grace an excuse to live however we want? Absolutely not. As Romans 6:1-2 says,
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
No, God’s grace brings us out of our sin, and sanctifies us to become more and more like Christ. When we sin in any area, sexual or otherwise, we need to understand that by God’s grace we can repent, resist temptation, and choose to obey His pattern. We must understand that it’s only by His strength—not by our own—that we can obey any of God’s commands for us as His followers.
Does sexual sin have consequences? Yes. But is this outside of God’s beautiful, gracious redemption? No. God can turn anything around that the enemy intended for evil and use it for our good and His glory.
God is the perfect Designer of life. Which means that He can be trusted with any command He calls us to obey. In Him we find wisdom for everything we need, including the area of purity and romantic relationships. He redeems what was lost, and heals what was broken. And the more we pursue Him, the more we will understand His heart for this and every sphere of life.