The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelical Purity Culture

Lately we have been talking about unresolved tensions, both in my own life and in the world of evangelicalism at large.  Today we are going to talk about the unresolved tensions of evangelical purity culture.

In any discussion of evangelical purity culture, I feel it is important to state at the outset that reserving sex for marriage is an important discipline of the Christian life.  There are good reasons for this, and there isn’t a single place in all of Christianity which will tell you otherwise, except perhaps the most liberal of the liberal mainlines.  Yet in most places, though the Church lays down some pretty hard and fast boundaries concerning sexual purity, there is a surprising amount of freedom within those boundaries as believers are free to negotiate the territory on their own without celebrity pastors, authors, bloggers, and other authority figures rushing in with all sorts of dogmatic pronouncements on anything and everything.

harrisBut in the world of evangelicalism, Josh Harris’ 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a gamechanger.  Packed with youthful fervor for holy living and the oh-so-romantic sepia-toned image of a young guy rocking old-school charm in a pressed white shirt, wool sportcoat and tipped fedora, the book swept through the hearts and minds of evangelicals everywhere.  Suddenly it was no longer enough to not jump in the sack before you got married, you couldn’t even kiss or hold hands before you got married.  You couldn’t even have any sort of romantic feelings for anyone of the opposite sex unless it was someone whom you were seriously intending to marry.  Purity conferences, purity rings, and purity pledges were all the rage in evangelicalism through the late 90’s and deep into the 00’s.  In evangelical youth groups all across the board, the discussion was all about sex and the not having of it.  Many of you probably came from such youth groups.  Why?  Because this was how you distinguished yourself as a Christian and showed yourself faithful to Christ.

Thankfully the purity culture movement is now dead.  In most parts of evangelicalism, at least.  But dead movements, like dead people, never just go away.  They always leave behind a stinking, rotting corpse.  In this case the corpse is an entire generation of young and young-ish adults who grew up in a purity-culture-obsessed evangelicalism and now have all sorts of unresolved tensions about dating and relationships and even their own self-conception that were brought on by purity culture.  Even those who are now married are having difficulty in their relationships because of the unresolved tensions of purity culture.

At this time I direct your attention to a group discussion at The Toast consisting of five young writers who grew up in an evangelical purity culture shaped by Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  In this post they share their thoughts on the book, on growing up in purity culture, and on the unresolved tensions in their lives as a result of growing up in purity culture.

These writers come from a progressive perspective which may be unnerving to conservative evangelicals.  After all, much of what progressive Christianity has to say on the subject of sexual purity is vague and generally not distinctively Christian.  It takes the sovereign, self-determining individual as the starting point, as does much of Western liberalism in general.  This is a problem, because the whole point of Christian sexuality is that you are not your own.  You are not an autonomous, disembodied unit; instead you are now part of the body of Christ and you should conduct your sex life accordingly.  Scripture is quite clear on what this looks like:  Adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual activity, lasciviousness, public celebration of lust, debauchery, coarse jesting, obscenity, etc. are all strictly forbidden.  Christianity is all about our integration into realities much bigger than ourselves; thus any truly Christian sexual ethic must come from outside of ourselves.  It has to be revealed to us via Scripture; we are incapable of figuring this out on our own.  We are being conformed to the image of Christ, but we are not yet there, at least not enough to fully understand the guiding principles behind Scriptural prohibitions with respect to sexual activity.  Much of what progressive Christianity has to say about sexuality does not seem to recognize this.

But consider that the burden of purity culture has fallen disproportionately upon women.  How right is it that we were part of a movement whose message was that women are essentially the property of their parents until given to their husbands on their wedding day, that women are essentially a commodity whose worth rises and falls like a stock, said worth entirely tied to their virginity and ability to bear children?  Consider also that the impact of purity culture has been felt all around the world, in people of all races.  Surely we will someday have to answer for the fact that a movement originating in the world of white American evangelicalism has had adverse effects upon people of all races in all parts of the world.

Also consider that Christianity (and evangelicalism in particular) has taken on board an awful lot of bad Western philosophy over the course of its history.  Dualism, in which the spiritual is considered good and the material evil, is all over the place.  Our bodies and everything else about this material world are considered evil and subject to decay and eventual destruction; our purpose is to escape our bodies and the material world for an eternal, spiritual home with God in the sweet by and by.  These ideas, which have their roots in first century gnosticism and in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle prior to that, are all over the place in evangelical hymnody, in how we talk about death, and in how we talk about the last days.  This dualism lies at the heart of purity culture:  The body (or “the flesh” as it is frequently called), and all the sexual desires associated with it, are evil and must be kept under the strongest possible subjugation so that the spirit may remain pure before God.

Yet we are not divided into two: flesh and spirit.  We are each singular creatures, with a body and a spirit seamlessly integrated into one being.  We are not going to some faraway spiritual kingdom to dwell with God in a state of disembodied spiritual bliss; instead we are going to a redeemed and restored version of this present world.  And when we are resurrected at the end of the age, it is not going to be a spiritual event but instead a bodily resurrection.  The body you have now is the exact same body you will have then, though it will be redeemed and restored.  Anything we say about human sexuality must take this into account.  Purity culture does not.

The commands of Scripture with regard to sexual purity are clear.  But evangelical purity culture goes way beyond those commands and places burdens upon people that are impossible to bear.  The weight of these burdens falls disproportionately upon women.  That is not right.  Someday we will have to answer for that, just as we will someday have to answer for the fact that this movement, though it is strictly a white American evangelical movement, has placed unbearable burdens upon people of all different races all over the world, as noted above.  Purity culture is a dead end, and the sooner it is consigned to the ash heap of history, the better off we will all be.