Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

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.

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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:

“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’? 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’? 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.

“Loving” – Quietly Changing the World

“I’m pregnant.”

A young woman nervously shifts after blurting out this news, waiting for her boyfriend to respond.  To her relief, he’s happy and excited. He loves her and is committed to her and to their child. Soon afterwards he proposes and they sneak off for a simple wedding. Sounds pretty unremarkable. This young couple who are poor and living in the same rural community have fallen in love and want to build a life together. Except that it’s 1958 in Virginia and he’s white and she’s black, and it’s illegal for them to marry.

Thus begins the film “Loving” which tells the true story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were behind the Supreme Court case to legalize interracial marriage. Their struggle to live in their home state as a married couple and family became a turning point court case during the Civil Rights Movement. A landmark ruling that broke down racial barriers and changed our country forever.

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The film quietly asks a very powerful question, “What kind of people change the world?” On the surface, the Lovings are not a splashy and charismatic couple. The film’s director Jeff Nichols pointedly depicts their deep normalcy and simple desire to be a healthy family. Both Mildred and Richard are poor and not college educated. They seemed to be kind and friendly people, but they largely kept to themselves and were by no means on a crusade of epic proportions. Their path to world-changing was marked by small decisions based on what was in front of them at the time.

The first decision was to marry and honor their relationship and child with fidelity and love. Then when they were forced to leave the state or be jailed, they moved to DC and did the best they could to build a home for their growing family. But they missed their relatives and the peace of the country, and wanted their children to be in a safer environment closer to family. So when Mildred is presented with the suggestion to write to the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, she takes a chance to ask for help. From there it was small steps of meeting with a lawyer, continuing to communicate with him about their case, being photographed for Life Magazine, and hoping that things could be better. We see Mildred in particular gain a growing sense that their case could benefit many other people and she exudes a quiet optimism that change could be possible. On the day that their case is heard before the Supreme Court, the Lovings weren’t in attendance. The day in court is a very minor part of the film, Nichols choosing instead to focus on the family at home going about their normal lives together (but still nervously waiting for the phone to ring.) Because of their persistence to believe the life they wanted together was possible, 9 years and 3 children after they first married they are able to see an outcome that changed their lives and opportunities for countless other couples since.

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Who comes to mind when you think of people that changed the world? Is it famous people in history books? People that have biographies and Broadway musicals written about them? For most of us, we don’t immediately think of the ordinary people around us in our daily lives, and we probably don’t think of ourselves. But world-changing doesn’t happen all at once when we decide it should, it happens gradually when people begin taking small steps to do what they can in their realm of influence. Richard and Mildred didn’t decide in 1958 that they wanted to catalyze a Supreme Court case and force the government’s hand to change federal legislation. They decided that they wanted to do right by each other in their immediate situation, and then went from there.

I once heard a speaker at the Jubilee Conference talk about Daniel in the Bible and the long road of faithfulness over our lifetimes. Daniel is known for facing off with lions and having God save him when he was thrown into a den of the ferocious beasts. What we don’t often think about is that Daniel was in his 80s when that happened. He’s known for a spectacular event that every Sunday school kid has heard, but we don’t write songs about all the normal years he spent in Babylon quietly honoring God every day with the work and opportunities that were before him. Scripture is filled with other ordinary people who were under-qualified and unremarkable and yet who were invited to join God in doing spectacular things.

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You may or may not have to chance to do something that changes history in a way that other people will notice and remember, but maybe being extraordinary isn’t the point. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen challenges and gifts. Each day is an opportunity to honor God in our decisions and relationships. Only God knows where it might go from there.

“God must love ordinary people, He made so many of them.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

Solitaire

That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill

Strong Moore: What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet

Flipping through my grade school notebooks you will come to understand a couple truths about who I was in my youth. One, I was definitely a wildly nonsensical doodler. Two, these doodles often starred the jacked, tights-and-cape alter ego of all of my wildest dreams…Codeman. Codeman was a hero fashioned from Superman but with a ‘C’ gracing the diamond on his chest. He was bold, he was strong, he was everything a man would want to be. He was me.

Codeman

The hero of heroes, Codeman!

This moniker, of course, did not originate from an unreasonable affection for Cody Lambert, Kickboxer 2 star Sasha Mitchell’s character from the TGIF family sitcom Step by Step. Rather, it originated from my middle name, Cody. The name my mother gave me. To my family and oldest friends, I am Cody. But where is Codeman now? Why does my Facebook now read Ivan Strong Moore? Obviously, this action was a feminist uppercut to societal norms around the barbaric tradition of women changing their names when they marry! It’s not, not that, but it’s more than that. And it all started with our pre-marriage counseling.

Cody Step by Step

The most famous Cody of my childhood. Sasha Mitchell on Step by Step.

For those of you who are thinking of getting married, there are few practices that I can recommend more fervently than seeking out pre-marriage counseling. It is not a waste of time during the busy season of wedding planning. I am so thankful for my pastors and mentors that have led me through this process and began pouring wisdom into our marriage way before we said “I do.” One of the first exercises you may do in pre-marriage counseling is something called a family map. This is a storytelling process where you create a family history for your counselor citing family and relationship dynamics that you’ve observed throughout your lives. For me, this was a Picasso of wonderful, beautiful people who have done everything they possibly could to allow love to survive amidst a collection of abuses and tragedies.

Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes this exercise is hard. When recounting all of the relationships in your life, the good and the really, really bad, it can make you wonder if you’ll ever be ready for marriage. But then, our pastor let us in on one of the beauties of marriage. After illustrating all of the relational patterns that have existed in our families, he said that this is when we can take all of the things we think are helpful and important that we’ve witnessed in our family, scrap the things we thought were unhelpful or needing a change, and create something new.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24

I think this is why Genesis 2 talks so explicitly about leaving our father and mother. We leave one family to create a new one. Now would be a great time to tell you that I love my wife, and I honestly believe, from an unbiased-objective platform, she is the greatest wife in the history of wives. When we were getting to know each other I was blown away, absolutely floored by how brave and independent she is. The identity of Heather Strong was one that I admire. She is brilliant and compassionate in ways I haven’t yet discovered. This is an identity I never wanted to limit but to help flourish and I knew that would never happen if Heather completely lost her identity to mine. Nor did I want my identity to stay stagnant. God created us to be together and there are parts of who Heather is that I need to adopt in this marriage process. So, if I had anything to do with it, neither of us would completely loose ourselves. Rather, as we created this “something new,” we would be forming a new identity together.

Heather Strong

I fell in love so fast with Heather Strong.

To do this I couldn’t let Heather be the only one sacrificing a part of who she is. To do this we both had to create space in our lives, our families, our names for one another to come and adapt into something new. Hence the Strong Moore brand was born. To many Cody is still who I am. In many ways, to myself, Cody is still who I am. But Strong is who we are together.

Wedding Day Family

The Strongs and Moores together!

My desire is for people to hear Strong Moore and know that we are in this adventure together. I want people to hear our name and think about Heather’s late brother who was lost instilling even more honor and valor into the Strong name. I want people to hear our name and think about my mom and dad and the man they raised me to be. I want people to hear those two names together and think generosity, compassion, creativity, tenacity, grace, and love. After all, these were the words that came to mind for Heather when she created her Strong family map and what came to mind for me when I narrated the Moore family history. We want our marriage to be a blessing to everyone around us in the ways our families are. What’s in a name? For me, I hope it’s a picture of what our marriage will be.

“Married people, it’s up to you. It’s entirely on your shoulders to keep this sinking institution a float. It’s a stately old ship, and a lot of people, like me, want to get on board. Please be psyched, and convey that psychedness to us. And always remember: so many, many people are envious of what you have. You’re the star at the end of the Shakespearean play, wearing the wreath of flowers in your hair.” – Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?