“True Love Waits.” “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Promise rings. For the past several decades, the Christian community promoted these touchstones of sexual purity with arguably good intentions. Yet the word purity among today’s Christian adults can elicit feelings of shame and even anger.
Why? Because the “purity narrative” has proven to be ineffective for many and harmful for others. If you attended church youth group as a teen, you’re probably familiar with the importance of “saving yourself for marriage.” You learned that God created sex for marriage and that staying sexually pure is one of the greatest goals of Christian singles (and their parents). Implicit in the narrative is a quasi-promise that if you say no to sex now, someday God will bring a wonderful spouse and you will have incredible, guilt-free sex. If you have messed up sexually, God still loves you and has a plan (though maybe plan B) for your life.
As the mother of teenagers, I understand the importance of emphasizing sexual purity. However, sexuality within our chaotic relational culture is not so cut and dry as “save yourself for marriage, get married and then enjoy great sex.” In our efforts to simplify the message, we have failed to communicate the greater vision of God’s design for sexuality.
The Purity Narrative Fails
Jenna is one example of the purity narrative failing to teach about God and sexuality. A child of the 90s, Jenna was raised in a godly, loving family and went to church every week. In terms of sexual purity, she’s been there and bought the T-shirt (and the promise ring). Now in her late 20s, Jenna’s view of sexuality is a hot mess.
Jenna recently broke up with a Christian guy who persuaded her to do everything but have sexual intercourse. She’s shackled by guilt because of the lines she has crossed. She’s angry at her parents for their narrow views on sexuality and wonders if her whole Christian life has been a sham. All the while, Jenna has friends (Christians and non-Christians) who claim to be reveling in shame-free sex and every form of sexual experimentation. Where is God in the middle of this chaos? Where is the Prince Charming she was promised if she stayed pure? Did she ruin her chances for great sex in marriage by going too far with her boyfriend? Why do her friends seem so much happier than she feels?
The purity narrative, while emphasizing the importance of saving sex for marriage, failed to prepare Jenna and people like her for a biblical approach to sexuality. Here are a few reasons why.
The purity narrative doesn’t give context for other sexual struggles.
The power of a narrative is being able to identify your story within the larger story. Many people simply can’t find themselves in the story of the purity narrative. What does “save sex for marriage” mean to a Christian who struggles with compulsive masturbation? To a Christian who battles same-sex attraction? How does the purity narrative help if you get married only to find that sex is a major source of conflict? What if you get married and find you or your spouse has no sexual desire?
Honoring God with our sexuality involves so much more than saving sex for marriage. It encompasses how we think and respond to every sexual issue, including how we love people who disagree with a biblical sexual ethic. As the sexual challenges and questions in our day expand, we need a narrative that is large enough to encompass all aspects of our sexuality.
The purity narrative doesn’t acknowledge that singles are sexual.
There is far more to our sexuality than what we choose to do with our bodies. Many who grew up with a purity emphasis translated “save sex for marriage” into “it’s wrong to be sexual.” Christian singles naturally experience sexual physical longings as well as the emotional desire to share life with someone. Those are natural aspects of our sexuality. We don’t magically become sexual people because we get married. We choose to steward those desires differently based on marital status.
Simply acknowledging that Christian singles are sexual people brings clarity and relief to those who have been taught otherwise. Our encouragement and teaching on sexuality must go beyond “God created sex for marriage.” God also has a purpose for our sexuality as singles.
The purity narrative reinforces the idea that sexual desire is shameful.
A hangover of the purity movement is the assumption that sexual passion is always wrong. I’ve talked to many Christian married people who have carried this lie into marriage (so many that I can’t even tell you the number). Christian women hope for a switch to flip on when they get married. For some, it never seems to activate. Sexual responses are wired into the brain as a sensation or action is linked with an emotional response. The brain can be rewired, yet consistently pairing sexual sensations with feelings of guilt can lead to sex and shame consistently co-existing.
Without realizing it, a person can suppress sexual desire, expression and passion in marriage, afraid of violating God’s standard of holiness. The majority of those who have emphasized sexual purity never intended for this outcome, but we can’t deny the unintentional fallout.
The purity narrative divides people into categories.
One of the greatest complaints against the purity movement is that it inherently divides people into two categories — those who are sexually pure and those who are not. Those categories easily become the self-righteous saint and the shameful sinner described by Jesus in Luke 18. The determining factor of where you fit is whether or not you are a technical virgin — saving sexual intercourse for marriage. Yet our sexual purity is not so cut and dry.
What about the woman who has done everything except have sex with a guy? And what about using porn, erotica, fantasy or masturbation? Are these people pure or not? And after getting married, what about the husband who uses his wife as an outlet for his lust? Is he pure? Where do those who have been sexually violated fit in? Even though date rape or sexual abuse wasn’t their choice, those who have experienced such trauma usually wrestle with feelings of defilement and often act out sexually as a result.
Sexual purity is not as simple as the purity narrative suggests.
The purity narrative is inconsistent with biblical truth.
Think about the overarching message of the Gospel. The fact is none of us is 100 percent sexually pure — we have all missed God’s “plan A” of perfection. Our purity, according to Scripture, is determined by the blood of Jesus Christ, not by our sexual choices. There are not some people who need Jesus more than others; as the Bible says, all of us have sinned and are “dirty” before God. It is only Jesus’ atoning death on the cross that supernaturally presents us as a pure and spotless bride.
I don’t want to diminish the value of purity and sexual integrity. I was blessed to first experience sex on my honeymoon and am grateful for my parents and teachers who encouraged sexual purity. However, I’ve been humbled by dear friends who didn’t grow up like I did … friends who experienced sexual trauma and friends who slept around. The truth is I need the redeeming blood of Christ as much as my friends do. Living as the “pure in heart” is a lifelong challenge in all areas of life, made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the purity narrative fails to communicate this.
Finding a Biblical Narrative
If the purity narrative is failing, what do we do? Secular culture is aggressively promoting a compelling sexual narrative rooted in humanistic thought. It goes like this: Your sexuality is an important part of your identity and personal expression. To be a mature person, you should explore your sexuality. This is part of becoming who you are as an individual. Anyone who discourages or limits your sexual expression is doing you harm. As this cultural narrative is gaining momentum, the church does need to respond, but its response needs to be more comprehensive and compelling than “save sex for marriage.”
Sexual integrity is an important element of following Jesus Christ, but it is not so narrowly defined as walking down the aisle as a virgin. In contrast to the purity narrative, the biblical narrative of sexuality gives us a broader context from which we can understand the bigger picture of why our sexuality matters to God.
In the biblical narrative, we affirm that God created sexuality as a powerful metaphor to teach us of His covenant love. Every one of us — single or married, male or female, sexually active or celibate — has something to learn about God’s love through the experience of our sexuality.
The Bible, from cover to cover, presents a rich explanation of our sexuality, which goes far beyond what many churches have traditionally taught. In the wake of the purity movement, many Christians are giving up on biblical sexuality, choosing instead to embrace a cultural, humanistic view of sexuality. It’s time to discover the biblical narrative that can help us make sense of the real challenges we face within the realm of human sexuality.
Copyright 2018 Juli Slattery. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: For more on your role in the biblical narrative of sexuality, read “What’s the Purpose of Sexuality if I’m Single?“