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Purity Culture: A Corrective (Part 2)

Part 2: A Better Way

Last time we looked at the some of the developments in purity-culture trends among evangelicals in the US over the past thirty years. Teaching on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit was noticeably absent from much of the instruction focused on making vows to tame the flesh till marriage.

In Song of Songs we read that the beloved tells her lover: “I would lead you and bring you to the house of my mother who taught me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the nectar of my pomegranates” (Song of Songs 8:2). Having been taught the facts of life by her mother, the beloved apparently wants to return to her mother’s home to show how well she has learned. She may be fantasizing about taking her man to the very place where she was conceived to complete the circle of love. Note that her mother is at the center of her instruction in healthy sexuality. 

Contrast this biblical poetry with the absence of mothers’ involvement in their daughters’ sexuality training in much of US purity-culture teachings. Where were the parents partnering? Or the promises to model purity for sons? Why do we find so much stereotyping that see men as the protectors of (for some the police-ers of) girls’ sexuality? Father/daughter purity balls. Fathers giving daughters rings. Fathers promising to model purity for their daughters. Where are the parents partnering? Where are the mother/child relationships in this? One woman, a seminary student recovering from purity-culture damage in her marriage, noted that such male-centric supervision is “just another upside-down way of objectifying and hypersexualizing us…but this time in the name of Jesus.”  

Adjacent to these approaches to virginal girls we have often seen a swirling suggestion that after she saves herself for marriage, the wife has the responsibility to be gorgeous and super sexy so her husband won’t be tempted to sin with another woman. In other words, responsibility falls on females for male purity. The wife was (and often still is) viewed as her husband’s at-home p*rn star so he won’t need to look anywhere else. (One Bible teacher has wondered why she’s never heard the flip side of the stereotype, that “women have emotional needs their husbands must meet to prevent emotionally-starved wives from straying.”) As part of these emphases, pastors in pulpits have been heard describing their partners as “my smokin-hot wife” or saying (if quoting the line from “Talladega Nights”) she’s “red-hot smokin.’” 

All of this has given the impression to many that while men’s thoughts are evil and untamable, women’s bodies are evil. And whereas men’s thoughts might be pure or impure, women themselves are pure or impure.  

Women have been told they needed to walk, talk, and dress in a certain way to keep from being mental “stumbling blocks” between hetero males and God. Cleavage was deemed shameful, while men could go shirtless or wear Speedo swimwear in mixed groups, because “women aren’t visual.” (Someone needs to notify Pinterest.) 

Meanwhile, males have been painted as the leaders around whom women must revolve as pretty, feminine, sweet, and supportive. Yet these same born-to-lead males were described as unable to control their thoughts; thus, responsibility has fallen entirely on females to “prevent men from stumbling.” What a low view of men!  Not long ago, a man told me, “I realized I’ve been putting the responsibility on women for my thought life rather than on myself.” Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin…” not “if a woman….” 

You’ll recall from Part 1 of this series that the movement came about to reverse the trend of people dying of AIDS and engaging in sexual relationships with multiple partners. And the movement did seem to see some success. Over a thirty-year period, teen pregnancies did drop significantly. But then, 82% percent of pledgers denied ever having pledged; and the STD rate of those who’d made pledges matched that of non-pledgers. So maybe por* use or video games kept people in virtual spaces rather than actual ones? Maybe the improvement in trends was not actually the result of more purity but due to other factors.

Looking back, Josh Harris has big regrets. Of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he now admits, “The book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible… It instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy-ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by Scripture.” 

Sad, but true.

A seminary student I know is triggered by conversations on this topic. She describes the evangelical version of purity culture as “an extension of southern and patriarchal culture, just aimed at a more specific demographic and well-disguised in biblical language. Essentially:  Women are primarily either a threat to or an outlet for men. We exist for their pleasure on their terms. And shame is the greatest weapon against our awakening to the truth of it all.” 

Why has the church offered a fear-based approach? Or a shame-based approach in which those who fail are “withered petals” and “chewed gum”? Where is grace for sinners in these “damaged-goods” images that lack all ability for restoration? If Christians are temples, and we are, temples can be re-consecrated. That which has been defiled can be cleansed. Jesus can loose the chains of all in bondage. Where is grace?

Why has so much legalism accompanied purity teaching? And why the prosperity-theology mindset? Why is responsibility for men shifted to women? And further, why is heterosexual attraction (“women causing brothers to sin”) the sole danger? Why have we heard little to nothing of brothers causing sisters to sin, or brothers against other brothers who struggle…or sisters against sisters…?

Reacting against purity-culture emphases, some swing the pendulum to the other extreme. Some even advocate dumping biblical teaching on sexual ethics. But being holy in body is part of being a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). And that’s not just for the unmarried, but for every Christian. Love should show itself in how we dress—both sexually and socio-economically (which was part of Paul’s thinking on modesty; see 1 Tim. 2:9) because we belong to Christ. Indeed, being holy in body is for every Christian.

Sexuality is a good gift from our Father. That’s the foundation for our teaching on this topic. Not fear. Not shame. But beautiful design.

And love is the foundation for our teaching about human interactions. Not fear. Not shame. But love. The focus on purity should look at something other than how holiness in body might benefit us. Rather, at the center of motivation we should find “love your neighbor.” Christ loved and bought us, so our bodies belong to him. And he calls us to love deeply from the heart and to abstain from defrauding—that is, purposely seeking to arouse a desire we cannot righteously meet. Love makes us want each other’s flourishing. That means helping each other avoid sin and shame and guilt and, instead, embracing righteousness and joy and flourishing. Love wants the best for each other.

But even more fundamentally than loving other humans is loving God. And that’s something sorely missing from these conversations—that teaching on the best motivation of all comes right out of the mouth of Jesus: “The pure in heart shall see God.”    

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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