Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. ~ 1 Timothy 4:12
In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I’ve seen a lot of conversations about “Purity Culture”, especially amongst women who grew up in the 80s and 90s. For those unfamiliar with this idea, allow me to provide a brief explanation:
Coming out of the 60s and 70s – the age of free love and “Make Love, not War” – churches attempted to force the pendulum to the far opposite side of the love and sex spectrum. The result is what we refer to now as “Purity Culture”, filled with True Love Waits retreats for teenagers, Purity Contracts, and Father-Daughter date nights wherein daughters pledged to their fathers that they would save sex for their wedding night, and in some extreme cases, agreed that their fathers “owned” their virginity until that night. Rings were given, pledges were signed, and fathers shared such hilarious documents such as “The Contract to Date My Daughter“.
You’ll note, I only talked about daughters in the previous paragraph. Well, that’s because all of this purity talk was almost exclusively directed at girls. Yes, boys got the talk too, but in all my time in fundamental churches, never once was a boy dragged to the front of the church to confess that he had had sex before marriage and gotten a girl pregnant. On the other hand, girls who got pregnant were often required to make a public apology to the church, and for some reason, weren’t seen very much in public after that.
Girls were talked to about wearing one-piece bathing suits with a t-shirt over top at Youth Group pool nights. Girls were talked to about the length of their skirts or how low cut their dresses were. Girls were talked to about modesty, about not being a temptation to boys (and horrifyingly, grown men). The message we girls received was that the most valuable, important thing about us was our virginity. This message was delivered through skits about torn up paper hearts and wilted flowers, and through object lessons using white t-shirts, dirt, mustard, and chocolate sauce. Imagine for a moment what that message did to the 1 in 4 girls who had already experienced sexual abuse, and worse, the 1 in 6 who had already lost that precious virginity through no fault of our own!
Basically, Purity Culture was 100% about sex, and 98% of it, about girls’ sexual behavior. “Boys will be boys” but “Girls must pursue purity”.
Up until just a few hours ago, I still associated purity with my sexuality and only my sexuality. As a single woman, I assumed the directives in Scripture to be pure and to pursue purity were obeyed in my celibacy, in overcoming the addiction to pornography that plagued my 20s and 30s, and in being very, very careful about how I interacted with men, even my friends.
But this view has caused a lot of hurt and confusion as I’ve watched my friends who had had sex before marriage get married, buy houses, drive nice cars, and give birth to or adopt beautiful children, while I sit in my rented apartment alone, trying to avoid Mothers’ Day posts on social media, and hoping my car would start the next time I needed to go somewhere. Something wasn’t adding up – I had stayed pure, they hadn’t, and they were getting everything I thought (and had been told) would be the reward for my purity.
I was reading A.W. Tozer’s The Dangers of a Shallow Faith this morning (which I HIGHLY recommend to every Christian, but especially church leaders), and in the very last chapter, in just a few paragraphs, Tozer talks very briefly about purity, but here’s what grabbed my attention: He didn’t even mention sex. Rather, Tozer simply shared the definition of “purity”, stating that purity simply means that something isn’t mixed with anything else. Think pure, clean water. Think a diamond that scores high on all 5 Cs. Think Ivory soap (it’s 99 44/100% pure!).
Obviously, I see how this connects to my sexuality, but it’s so much more than just one small aspect of who I am! This simple definition completely changes how I read verses like the one quoted above, like Philippians 1:9-11, and like 1 Peter 3:1-2, all verses that were used in my Youth Group growing up to tell us girls not to have sex before marriage, to wear one-piece bathing suits, and to avoid wearing skirts and shorts that might tempt the boys.
Peter, Paul, James, and Jesus weren’t just talking about sex. They were talking about things like racism, misogyny, pride, bitterness, gluttony, lying, cheating, stealing, gossip, and every other sin that we in the church seem to have labeled as “minor” sins, and have allowed to continue unchecked in some of our leaders. They were talking about anything that doesn’t look like Jesus. It’s these things that make us impure, not just having sex before we’re married.
I have to tell you, the reason I’m writing this post is that this one truth gave me a new sense of freedom. What this told me is that as a woman, my pursuit of purity encompasses so much more than just my sexual behaviors. My pursuit of purity encompasses every part of my self – my mind, my soul, my spirit, and my body. It also means there is no “boys will be boys” exemption. All of us who wear Christ’s name are called to whole-life purity.
This definition of purity also means that those verses about being washed in the blood of the Lamb, about being made whiter than snow, and about how God sees the righteousness of Christ when He looks at me covers every part of my life. This may seem obvious, but for those of us raised in the Purity Culture, who were told that sexual sin was the one sin that could never be fully “repaired” (like that torn and crumpled paper heart), this is freedom.
Someone today needs to know that their sexual past doesn’t preclude them from ever being fully pure. That someone is probably somewhere between high school and their 50s or 60s. That someone has probably carried a lot of guilt for a long time. That someone has probably been confused and hurt that he or she isn’t married in spite of following all of the rules.
Purity is not something only the good people can experience. Purity is not something we either have or don’t depending on the decision we made that night in 11th Grade. Purity is a lifestyle that is made possible only through the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit living within us. Purity is a state of being wherein God sees no blemish or stain when He looks at us. Purity is something we continue to pursue in our businesses, our Netflix choices, and how we treat our neighbors. Purity is demonstrated in our genuine love for others, in our work, and in our personal spiritual practices that focus our hearts and minds on the God who gave Himself to make us pure.
Purity is not a burden. Purity is freedom. And you don’t even have to sign a contract with your dad to get it.