Where purity culture erred or was unclear, it wasn’t because Christian leaders called for sexual purity, but because sex and marriage threatened to become bigger than God. Wherever the messaging downplayed grace, or relied disproportionately on fear, or reduced purity to sexual ethics, it plundered the riveting and appealing beauty of purity in Christ — and, ironically, robbed purity of its power to overcome temptation.
Not long ago, purity was something all Christians seemed to admire, and want, without qualification. Now, many professing believers associate the pursuit of personal purity with the scandal of “purity culture.” Christian pleas for purity, some claim, have spread fear, guilt, and shame instead. I encountered these concerns again as I researched and published a fresh plea for sexual purity.
Some reformation was warranted. In some circles, the concerted effort for sexual purity in the nineties was a desperate effort to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion. In the eyes of many, sexual sin and temptation were the hordes outside the gate, and we needed extraordinary measures to hold them back. So they held rallies, published books, printed cards, and fashioned rings. And also (in the eyes of some, anyway) mass-produced shame, even as untold numbers made admirable resolves and were spared great miseries.
Some, it seems, came away thinking of purity mainly as a means to marriage, to health, to earthly happiness, even to salvation, and not mainly as fruit of knowing and enjoying Jesus. Purity was not the final solution to AIDS, pornography, or teenage pregnancy; worship was. Purity wasn’t the ultimate key to a better marriage or better sex; worship was. But teenagers weren’t angsty about worship; they were angsty about marriage, sex, pregnancy, and disease, so that’s where the messaging often went (or at least what many kids came away with). Therefore, while teenage pregnancy and STDs did decline over the next couple decades (truly amazing when you think about it), many testified to experiencing more shame than freedom, more disillusionment than worship, more self than Jesus.
And, in the process, some (certainly not all) missed the gift and peace of true purity. They may not have dated young or kissed someone before marriage, but they didn’t get to taste what God means by purity either.
Lies That Spread in Purity Culture
Calls for sexual purity were (and are) biblical and needed. Even in the midst of the good that was done through lots of preaching and discipleship during those years, several lies seemed to spread in the renewed emphasis on purity — each laced with enough truth to be taken seriously and yet with enough deceit to lead some astray.
Lie 1: Sexual purity guarantees a happy marriage.
Some heard, If you want to get married to a great guy (or girl), have a great marriage, and enjoy a great sex life, then abstain from any sexual sin. One commentator has called this “the sexual prosperity gospel.”
It is true that sexual purity before marriage does guard and bless our future marriage, and it may improve our chances of marrying well and enjoying a healthy and happy sex life. But it doesn’t guarantee a great marriage. Sexual purity does not guarantee we will marry, or that our spouse will be wonderful and faithful, or that sex will easy or satisfying.
Marriage is not a reward for purity in singleness, and prolonged singleness is not a curse for sexual sin. Sexual purity before marriage is a profound way to love your future spouse (if God brings you a spouse). More than that, though, it’s a profound way to honor God and experience more of his presence and power. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Lie 2: Virginity is what makes someone desirable.
Some heard, If I want a godly guy (or girl) to want to marry me, then I should abstain from sexual sin. They went away thinking that virginity was the greatest gift anyone could give a future spouse and that those who kept their virginity would, again, receive marriage as a reward for their waiting.
Virginity is a precious gift to give a spouse. Perhaps my greatest regret as a husband, a father, as a man, is that I did not practice the love and self-control of waiting for the marriage bed. Virginity, however, is not the greatest gift anyone can give a future spouse; a genuine faith in Jesus is. Make no mistake, your sexual history (or lack thereof) will affect your marriage for better or worse, if God gives you a spouse, but the effect will not compare to your lived-out love for Christ (or lack thereof). Virginity is not at the top of a godly man’s or woman’s priorities; Jesus is. Whatever the history, he or she is now most committed to marrying in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39).
That means sexual sinners are not ruined for happy marriages if we turn from our sin and commit to pursuing purity in Christ.
Lie 3: Girls are why men sin.
Some pushback against “purity culture” has come from women who felt the burden was unfairly laid on them to keep men from sinning. Lust is every young man’s battle, and they’re tempted and fall because women dress and act immodestly. As a result, some women may have carried shame and guilt over the sins of their brothers — and some men may have left thinking they experienced lust mainly because women dressed inappropriately.
Jesus did not diagnose lust this way. He pointed first to our own hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19–20).