If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.
A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.
I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.
My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead.
Purity is the wrong word
The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.
The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.
Celibacy is not a vending machine
I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10
On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.
This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.
God asks hard things for good reasons
Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.
There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.
Friendship and marriage are equally important
Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.
Sexuality is highly spiritual
When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.
In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.
Waiting until marriage is a blessing
It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.
This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.