Today I would like to direct your attention to a post over at Alastair’s Adversaria entitled “The New Purity Ethic“. Alastair is a favorite blogger of mine that I like to check in with every so often. His posts are long and heady and it takes a good deal of effort to wrap your mind around what he is saying, but you will find it to be well worth the effort.
This piece starts out as a riff on another piece on the subject of Christian purity by Elizabeth Esther at A Deeper Story entitled “Purity Culture vs. Purity Ethic“. The problem in the discussion of Christian purity these days is that much of it centers around rule-keeping, where the rules are seemingly arbitrary lists of taboos. Esther’s piece attempts to create a positive purity ethic where purity consists not of avoiding things but pursuing something, and finds its meaning in the context of a consistent, integrated moral ethic.
Esther’s piece is not without problems, which Alastair goes on to enumerate.
For starters, it is vague. For example, Esther says that “purity is similar to integrity in that it means acting in accordance with a set of core values” but she never says what those core values actually are. Instead, she relies on buzzwords such as “wholeness of humanness” and “living wholly”. These can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean. Furthermore, these words carry positive connotations; this leads to fewer searching questions or attempts to pin her down on what exactly she is saying here.
But there is a bigger problem here: Is any of this stuff recognizably Christian?
Some money quotes from the Esther piece:
Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me.
Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?
Purity is knowing myself and honoring the whole of my personhood – because once I know myself, I am living honestly.
Sounds great to Western ears, but is any of this recognizably Christian?
A Christian sexual ethic does not take ourselves as a starting point. Instead, it all starts with God. It is all about realities much greater than you or your own personal authenticity. As a Christian, you are now integrated into Christ’s body and you should conduct your sexual life accordingly. Scripture is quite clear on what this looks like: Adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual practice, lasciviousness, public celebration of lust, debauchery, coarse jesting, obscenity, etc. are all strictly forbidden. This is in sharp contrast to the pagan culture of the day, which tended to regard all sins as more or less equal. Instead, sexual sin, along with murder, is held to be in a class all its own because it is a direct attack upon the image of God which we as Christians are to represent to the world.
As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: ‘In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.”’ Or as Paul says, ‘Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.’ In Scripture, our purity is not about some private ‘authenticity’, but about the worship that we owe to God, and the honour that we owe to each other. Christian sexual ethics are about community, about the way that we are stewards of our bodies for the sake of God and each other, rather than predicated upon the notion of bodily autonomy as contemporary liberal and feminist sexual ethics typically are. I am responsible to people beyond myself in my use of my body and consent and authenticity alone aren’t a sufficient foundation for a Christian sexual ethic.
Because Christianity is about our integration into realities that are much bigger than ourselves, the true center of Christian sexual ethics comes from outside of us. It has to; we are not capable of figuring this out on our own. As Christians we are daily and gradually being conformed to the image of Christ, but we aren’t there yet; thus the Christian sexual ethic and its integrating principles are not yet internalized and must come to us from without. We may not understand the integrating rationale behind the Scriptural commands and prohibitions concerning sexuality, but they are still in force.
Furthermore, Esther’s ideas on purity are virtually indistinguishable from modern liberal ideas about the body beautiful and self-expression:
Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me. I must ask myself: am I taking care of myself? Am I taking drugs? Am I drinking too much? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I over-eating? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?
There is nothing here that wouldn’t be said by those of the modern liberal bent who want us all to eat healthy, quit smoking, exercise, get lots of sleep, buy organic food, be environmentally friendly, etc. so we all can have lots of casual, adventurous sex. It’s all about health and wholeness of the body. Nothing about health and wholeness of the soul.
The Bible is the exact opposite of this. It has little if anything to say about our distinctively American fixation upon exercise and dieting. Instead, Christ and the apostles had horrible things done to their bodies and were quite willing to forgo sexual relations. They did not give a rip about bodily/sexual fulfillment or actualization. Instead they had much more to say about glorifying Christ through suffering in the flesh as the inward man was renewed daily.
It is right to push back against the abuses of the purity culture that make it all about keeping lengthy lists of petty rules. But we must do so because it goes against a proper Christian purity ethic, not because it goes against the bourgeois liberal sensibilities of our day.