First there were rings. Then there were pledges. Then there were balls and dances and books.
Within Christian culture, purity got its own gig. In fact, a search of “purity” on ChristianBook.com turns up 709 products.
As a teen, I was not a stranger to the purity movement. I embraced the whole idea of saving sex for marriage (physical purity) and guarding my heart (emotional purity). My passion for the subject was fueled by verses like Ephesians 5:3, which says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.”
It’s not surprising, really, that abstinence seems to be the main “talking point” between the church and teens. Maintaining sexual purity as a teen and young adult is a big challenge. And it doesn’t help that the world tells a radically different story about sex — and what’s allowable and “normal” — than God does.
In reaction, some Christians have become almost fanatical about purity. And, in doing so, they have taken something good and vitally important — holiness in a Christian’s life — and turned it into a campaign.
Here are four ways I believe purity can become a problem.
1. We make purity an idol.
When I first decided to save sex for marriage, it seemed like the obvious choice, given God’s commands and my commitment to my faith. But as the years went on, and I became more and more of a minority, I began to view my purity as a badge of honor — possibly even something I did better than others.
A lot of the apostle Paul’s best purity stuff was written to those living in sexually decadent cultures. Thousands of people seeking sexual satisfaction filled the great Temple of Diana, which overlooked the city of Ephesus. Temple prostitution, homosexuality and pedophilia were rampant.
Paul sought to instruct the Christians in these cities and communities to live in new and counter-cultural ways. Instead of indulging the flesh and making all kinds of illicit unions, Paul advocated for a better way — God’s way — sex within marriage only.
With this goal in mind, Paul talks about sexual immorality a lot — but often among other sins, such as greed, disobedience to parents, and idolatry. In context, sexual purity is part of a greater lifestyle of righteousness that is fueled by our relationship with Christ and His grace poured out on us.
When we elevate the cause of sexual purity to the same level of importance as God himself, it becomes an idol. Someone in this position may feel more of a passion for modesty, and emotional and physical purity, than for experiencing a close and abiding relationship with Christ.
2. We think purity is a virtue that can be bartered for good married sex.
I vividly remember a message on abstinence I heard as a teen. In it, the speaker said, “Why would you want to have rushed sex in the back of a car? I take my wife to a cabin for three days. Now that’s sex.”
While he does make a point on the potential quality of those two encounters, his implication was that if you save sex for marriage, your reward will be amazing sex with your spouse.
As Christ-followers, we know that adhering to God’s ways is best for us. And it’s true that there are many benefits to remaining chaste before marriage. But we may be tempted to make the leap that the “best” sex (and it’s helpful to note we’re generally basing our notion of “good” sex on the media’s portrayal) is reserved for those who remain virgins until marriage.
A performance-based rewards system in any area of our spiritual lives can become a problem, but it is particularly damaging in this case. God designed sex to be a sacred bonding between a man and woman in a committed, covenant relationship. That is the reason sex is good. While saving intimacy for marriage is always best, we devalue God’s intent for sex when we view it as a reward for good behavior.
Adam Holtz recently addressed this topic on the Boundless blog. He pointed out that the perceived quality of married sex varies based on many factors. But that’s not the point.
The promise of marital oneness, then, is not one of ongoing nuclear chemistry that starts out hot and then just gets even hotter. Rather, it’s knowing that there’s a safe place to love and experience one another throughout our lives together, throughout the peaks and valleys that virtually every couple eventually walks through.
3. We allow purity to hinder us from engaging in godly relationships with the opposite sex.
Recently a young woman wrote to Boundless concerned that her devotion to purity was getting in the way of forming relationships with young men.
My mother and other family members have been wonderful models of what pure and holy women of God look like. I see purity as vital, God-designed and beautiful. To put it simply, I take my purity very seriously.
My heart’s desire is to marry someday, and I am happy to wait for the man God has for me. But I have a hard time simply being friends with men. I’m afraid of giving too much away. Because of this, I think I push men back.
It’s crazy how much I know about the topic of purity — what purity looks like, how to embrace the feminine heart, how to not lead men on — but when it comes to real interactions with Christian men, I feel like all that knowledge runs into an alley of pitch black darkness, never to be seen again. I don’t want to carelessly marry any man, but I also don’t want to remain unmarried because being ‘too pure’ stood in the way.
This young woman raises an important question. Can a fixation on sexual purity become a hindrance to relationships with the opposite sex? I believe so. When we allow purity, or virginity, to become our identity rather than our relationship with Christ, we can begin to act in legalistic and unnatural ways.
It’s helpful to remember that Paul instructed Timothy to treat younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). The purity was there, but Paul also condoned familiarity — even affection and love — with those of the opposite gender. Healthy relationships require sincerity and a lack of fear. As we abide in Christ, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to convict us when our interactions with others stray outside of holiness and purity.
A friend of mine, who experienced a legalistic upbringing, pointed out that an unhealthy “passion for purity” can also have a negative effect on married women.
Something I encountered early in my marriage was the fact that it’s impossible to flip a switch in your mind that sex is all of a sudden ‘good,’ when for so long you thought of it as ‘bad.’ It was hard to ignore some early feelings of guilt because suddenly it’s magically OK that a man is seeing and experiencing all the things you’d saved up.
These feelings come from viewing sex as the enemy rather than Satan, whose goal is to corrupt all of the good things God has created. Yes, purity is beautiful, but engaging with another individual in meaningful and intimate ways within the proper context is equally beautiful. (For more on God’s purposes for sex, read “When Pigs Fly.”)
4. We place purity above salvation.
Last year, there was a minor hoopla over Sean Lowe, who appeared on ABC’s The Bachelor. Sean claimed to be a “born-again virgin” (someone who is not a virgin but has made a renewed commitment to wait until marriage for sex). Because of this, he said he would not have sex with any of the ladies on the show.
From her article on the topic, “Virginity is Not the Point,” Lisa Velthouse writes:
Let’s move past the syntax and definitions, though, because the real issue with born-again virginity is not a matter of what or even who. The real issue—the problem, too—is about why. Why do we have this term and justify using it? Why does the Church, which the Bible insists is made of all broken people, think that lost virginities need their own particular fix?
Of course, virginity is a big deal to Christians. And the heart of this is an entirely good thing—God has made His design for marriage clear, and Scripture shows us a beautiful picture of a man and a woman who are ‘one flesh’—exclusively and only with each other. This is to be celebrated, preserved and respected.
And yet, perhaps the fact that we put it linguistically on par with Gospel transformation—something lost, needing to be ‘born again’—indicates we have misunderstood something foundational about not just sex, but purity at large.
Velthouse hit the nail on the head. As Christians, our lives should be about Gospel transformation — one part of which is purity. When we make it our life’s work to maintain our sexual purity through an elaborate list of do’s and don’ts, we miss the bigger picture: Through His death, Christ has freed us from the burden of our sin and saved us from its destructive force in our lives.
We live pure lives because we can — it is our privilege and joy to walk in God’s perfect ways. Purity is beautiful because it is the overflow of a life filled with Christ. Don’t let it become a problem.
Copyright 2013 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.