Purity Culture Unshackled

There has, of late, been a growing interest and challenge among younger people on what has become known as “purity culture.”  For some that is a warning signal that Christian values are being compromised. For others, it’s a signal that finally the imposition of warped expectations is being resisted – even modified.  At the crux of the discussion is the role of sex and the roles of women and men in the sexual arena. In that discussion, there is a gentle push-back to a fairly rigid set of rules that are established, lived, and reinforced by the evangelical mainstream.  

As more and more voices are talking back, it is important to note that they are doing so with respect in an effort not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In other words, there is deep recognition that in the story of God with people throughout history, clear evidence is seen of God’s invitation to wholeness and purity that epitomizes God’s intended vision for us.  

The purity culture tends to impose behavioral standards and measurable objectives on young people. Those expectations, roles, and behaviors are being questioned as practices and thinking that presume to express God’s heart for purity. In fact, they often warp the whole idea purity and imprison young people. Great sex is a reward for purity; tame the monster within; you’re responsible for his purity; once you start, you cannot stop; avoid women so you don’t fall prey; be a polite princess and you will be rescued by your knight; sex is an entitlement. 

On and on – in book after book the roles, expectations, formulas and images are formed that ultimately force the young mind to equate purity with sex and the resulting assumption that prescribed sexual behavior is the path to purity. There is no doubt that sexual expression has a deep and impactful influence on every person. The difficulty comes when the church equates purity with accepted sexual behavior and thinking. 

Without attempting to address the many nuances within “Purity Culture” thinking, it seems that the very title is problematic. Equating the name “Purity Culture” with sexual behavior and attitudes toward others places the entire concept of purity on the platform of sexuality.  In fact, purity is Godly. It is good. It is something that God envisions for all people. Further, God seems to hope that such intrinsic purity will find expression in external social engagement that represents the very heart of God.

Purity is much more than appropriate sexual behavior; it does not come from mere compliance with pre-established expectations of sexual roles or attitudes. Most importantly, the agency of purity is not self-control or even the will of any man or woman to control their urges. Purity comes from a posture of the heart and life in complete and full devotion to God in all-consuming and transforming devotion.

To the extent that this posture results in healthy recognition of roles, expectations and behaviors of men toward women, and women toward men – seeing God’s imprint in each – purity will affect sexual expressions and behaviors among us. 

As is often the case, perhaps we have allowed a good and Godly word to become limited too much to sexuality thereby resulting in the extremes that usually come with narrowed thinking. Unshackling purity from such a limited scope does not mean an automatic swing to sexual promiscuity. It does mean a proper understanding of sexual behavior in the larger pursuit of purity that affects the whole person. Healthy relationships and sexual behaviors are certainly part of a life that pursues purity; but purity is much more the result of pursuing the holiness of God and the effect that has on the fullness of our lives.

Kevin Mannoia