We were wrong about purity culture. It was damaging and repressive. That is the claim of a Lutheran pastor who is asking men and women to send her the purity rings from their teen years to be melted down to create a sculpture. And in some ways, I would agree with her. She is right that evangelicals have struggled with a healthy view of sex. But before we all send in our rings, I would offer some suggestions.
I learned a great deal that was right and healthy and true in church regarding purity. First, I learned that sex was precious. Sometimes that preciousness was described in ways that were unhealthy, but the core of the message that sex was a good gift designed by God was there. I also learned that my desire for sex was healthy. While I know that there are stories of men and women who were told that sex was something you had to endure, I was not told that in my church. My parents had very frank conversations with my siblings and me about a desire for sex. Finally, I was given clear boundaries that were meant to structure that desire. Those boundaries—of marriage between a man and a woman—seemed restrictive and unrealistic as a teenager, but they were for my good.
So if purity culture got so much right, what did it get wrong?
Where the purity culture went wrong, however, was when virginity was conflated with chastity or purity. Ironically, there was a greater interest placed on physical virginity (though this is a good thing) than spiritual chastity. To be chaste is not to be free from sex. A married couple is called to chastity as well. Karen Swallow Prior, in her book On Reading Well, quotes Lauren Winner, who describes chastity in this way: Chastity, then, is “not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.” To be chaste spiritually is to pledge yourself to one person, the Lord Jesus.
In purity culture, to be chaste typically meant pledging to abstain from sex until your wedding night. However, that is only one part of it. As Winner points out, it is not merely an abstaining from but a conforming to that marks chastity—specifically, to the “arc of the gospel.” What is the arc of the gospel? It is the arc from enslaved to sin to bondservant of Christ; from outsider to brother or sister of Christ; from fallen nature to redeemed creation. That arc includes so much more than physical body parts. It includes the other crucial part of humanity: our souls. We are soul-body creatures. Therefore, we cannot only think of our chastity in relationship to our bodies, but to the very way that we are forming and being conformed in our inmost being to the image of Christ as pure, faithful, and chaste beings (Rom. 8: 29; 12:1-2).
The other major thing that purity culture often emphasized, to its detriment, is that if you were to lose your virginity, you were beyond redemption. This is one of the most dangerous and problematic things that could come out of a teaching about sex or purity. The man who has multiple sexual partners is not beyond the redemption of Christ; neither is the unwed mother.
Where the purity culture went wrong, however, was when virginity was conflated with chastity or purity.
Sexual sin is not any worse than the sin of pride that would lead us to think that we are about sinning in this way. Jesus does not bring us into the family with the condition that we are cleaned up first. We are brought in and invited to the table where we join a motley crew who look different than us but share one thing in common—none of us should be sitting where we are. Purity culture can sometimes emphasize maintaining purity so much that it leaves no room for restoring it. It ought not be so because our Lord is in the business of restoration (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Suggestions for a more holistic purity culture
I would like to offer some suggestions for how the church can correct the two problems I mentioned above. The first is to continue presenting sex as a beautiful and amazing gift from God. Sex is a good gift from God. It is meant to be enjoyed in the marital union. The love poem between Solomon and his wife in the Song of Solomon should encourage us to see the beauty in what God has designed.
Second, be willing to have awkward conversations continually with your children in age-appropriate ways. If you won’t talk to them, someone else will. And the story that we have of sex is much better than that of the world. In particular, we should teach them that chastity is not the same as abstinence. Abstinence can be done alone; chastity requires community. As Lauren Winner explains, “The community is not so much cop as it is storyteller, telling and retelling the foundational stories that make sense of the community’s norms.” If we truly want a culture of purity, then we need to tell a story that urges us to pursue purity, not use fear and shame to keep members in line.
Finally, remember that while virginity may be lost, purity and chastity can always be regained. The story of Christianity is the story of redemption. It is the movement from the filthy rags of our works to the white robes of the redeemed. So don’t let the pursuit of purity keep out those who no longer fit your definition of morality. Jesus wants his bride. She is kept pure not by her doing, but by the work of the truly faithful one, Christ.