A Brief Examination of Certain Criticisms of “Purity Culture”

I have recently seen a great deal of blowback against “Purity Culture” on certain blogs that claim the name Christian. This is interesting to me, because the central focus of purity culture, that of behaving in a chaste manner, is both biblical and consistent with historic Christian faith and practice. Why would professing Christians push back against this?

For background, “purity culture” can be generally defined as a heavy focus on sexual purity by evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000’s. This movement was characterized by such things as purity rings, large youth conferences, and books like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (written by the now apostate Joshua Harris). A large focus of the movement was in teaching single Christians to abstain from sexual activity before marriage.

The most valid critique of this movement, at least in my perception, is that it oversold sexual purity as a foundation for a good marriage. By this I mean that, if our singles believe that all they have to do to have a good marriage is to keep their pants on, they will be severely let down by the realities of marriage. True, sexual purity is part of preparing well for marriage, and once married it is absolutely necessary in order to have a good marriage, but it is not all that a good marriage requires. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” and “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5) require a self-denial that encompasses far more than sex, extending to every hobby, every word, and every habit. In other words, if you want a good marriage, it will demand much greater sacrifices than just sexual purity.

A second critique of purity culture says that it is wrong and damaging to teach that those who have been sexually impure are “damaged goods” or to teach that there is anything special about virginity. This, I think, is a critique with an ounce of truth and a pound of satanic rebellion. First off, the biblical sexual ethic is harder than even many “purity culture” teachers have made it. Fornicators and adulterers are marked by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (i.e. will be damned). Proverbs 7 decries the harlot as one who leads men down to the grave. The prophets constantly use the picture of fornication and adultery to describe how Israel has defiled themselves and incurred the righteous wrath of God. In application, a person who is unrepentant of sexual sin is absolutely not someone you should date or marry. In fact, this is a person who should be brought under church discipline, and, if they remain unrepentant, cast out of the church and cut off from fellowship with other Christians (1 Corinthians 5:10-13). This assumes that said person is a Christian and is part of a church. If neither of these things apply, then the Christian single has no business dating or marrying that person regardless of their sexual purity (or lack thereof).

On the other hand, forgiveness in Christ extends to all who will repent, and that includes those who have committed sexual sin. If you have committed such sin, and repented of it, you are absolutely welcome in the church, as a fellow brother or sister, and not as a second-class member or pariah. That being said, all sin has consequences. Forgiveness reconciles us with God and with our fellow Christians, but it does not make all of the consequences of sin magically go away. Any sexual sin will carry baggage into marriage, such as a difficulty desiring one’s spouse and greater temptation to infidelity, or physical consequences such as children from another parent or venereal disease. These may or may not be something that a potential mate is willing to take on. As for feelings of shame or worthlessness, the truth of the matter is that sexual sin is a shameful thing, and it is a sin against yourself, against God, and against your partner. The way through those feelings is in repentance, which, by necessity acknowledges personal responsibility for the sin and forsakes that sin. If you wonder how the Lord will receive you, consider the words recorded in Isaiah, where the Lord implores his people to repent, saying:

“Come now, and let us reason together,

Says the Lord,

Though your sins are as scarlet,

They will be as white as snow;

Though they are red like crimson,

They will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

A third potential criticism is that “purity culture” may have conditioned some to have unattainable standards for a mate. In regards to this, I encourage any person to consider the character of Christ, and the character of their potential mate. Christ was incredibly kind and patient with any who met him on the grounds of brokenness and repentance. As king, His kingdom welcomes the repentant prostitute, homosexual, whoremonger, adulterer, pornographer, and rapist as much as any other sinner. Our character should be much the same. As for the character of a potential mate, sexual sin needs to be discussed early and clearly in your relationship. Has your potential mate sinned in the past, but is now marked by a deep contrition for that sin, accompanied by a desire to pursue God and obey His word? Such character is rare and precious. On the other hand, a supposedly “pure” individual who is apathetic about God and halfhearted in their obedience is someone to walk away from. If these qualities are not clear, the Christian would do well to seek the input of their parents and pastor.

All told, there are some criticisms of purity culture that are valid, and some that are less so. What is true, and what any orthodox preacher or teacher must teach, is that the scriptures demand more of men and women than simple adherence to chaste behavior, they do not demand less. 

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