Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

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I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.

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“Anne with an E” – Breaking the slate clean

“Hey, Carrots…Carrots!”

For any Anne of Green Gables fans, this is one of the most iconic scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved first book. Anne is an orphan who has been mistreated and used for free labor her whole life. Living at the turn of the 20th century, this was no joke. We’ve all seen Newsies. We know that child labor laws weren’t exactly a thing. Not only has Anne been an orphan her whole life, she’s also a red-head. Long before Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone, having red hair was considered a source of shame and inferiority.

So here Anne is, sitting in a new classroom surrounded by new children, in a new home with a dubious level of security, and a popular boy immediately teases her about her hair. In the midst of Anne hoping that her life might be different, she is reminded of all that she can’t leave behind. She responds by doing what most of us have wanted to do at one time or another, breaking her slate over the offender’s head.

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A lot of buzz has surrounded Netflix’s new adaption “Anne with an E.” A grittier and more realistic take on the classic children’s book, Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation for the CBC has been drawing mixed reactions. On the positive side, the casting is excellent and the personality of each character is consistent with the source material. The setting of Prince Edward Island during the time period is brought to life in vivid detail. You feel immersed in the difficulty as well as the magic of life on a rural Canadian island. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening episode, are word-for-word from the book. What is different about this Anne (and drawing much of the criticism) is highlighting her background of trauma and uncertainty. The first few episodes include flashbacks from Anne’s life before Green Gables and take some creative license in speculating on this theme. At some points I found the backstory embellishing to be a bit excessive, and the last few episodes have a darker tone that departs further from the source material than I would prefer. But in general Walley-Beckett invites us to think about Anne as a human, not just a heroine.

Montgomery implied that Anne’s life before Green Gables was marked by servitude, being shuffled between homes and the asylum, and having experienced cruelty. Anne is continually penalized with suspicion and fear for being an orphan, as though that were somehow her fault. Her entire young life has been a struggle to belong, to feel wanted. She only arrives at Green Gables by mistake, the Cuthberts having sent for a boy but receiving a girl. Her hopes and dreams of having a home and a family are initially dashed when she finds out that she is not what they were expecting. “Anne with an E” explores what a real child would think and feel if that was her reality. A real child would experience flashbacks, would be paranoid about people’s motives, and would need to have found ways to cope.

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This is the greatest strength of “Anne”, blending the character’s famous imagination and optimism with her suffering. While Anne’s carpetbag might have been light, she arrived with some real baggage. Her way of processing her bleak life was to find resiliency in imagining something much better. She was instinctively drawn to books and stories and words in order to draw beauty from barrenness. Rather than detracting from the positivity of the book, I think this approach only enhances the power of Anne as a role model. Anyone can be optimistic who has never suffered, it takes real strength to go through the fire and still find beauty and joy in the world around you.

“Anne” also asks more of its audience than the popular 1980s adaptation. Part of the backlash against the new series is that it shows too much of the harsh reality and not enough of the whimsy and flowering landscapes. But in this response, viewers are sending a dangerous message to Anne and each other. We are functionally saying that you can only be beloved if you leave your baggage at the door and embody what others want you to be. Be upbeat, be charming, be pretty, and people will like you.

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And yet none of us are a blank slate. We all carry around painful experiences and sources of shame that cause us to feel trepidation about our place in the world. As with Anne, many of those things have occurred outside our control. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Til We Have Faces” there is a profound line

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

We are at our most vulnerable when confronted with things inside us and around us that are not our choice. Our greatest shame is our powerlessness to make ourselves and our lives exactly how we think they should be. We want to just break the slate of our past and powerlessness and act like we are everything we want to be.

But at the end of the day we don’t actually want to be a blank slate, we want to be fully known and fully loved for all that we are. We want to be able to tell our whole stories and see that who we are is still worthy and lovable. In “Anne with an E,” Anne doesn’t break her slate in half over Gilbert’s head, she only cracks it. Perhaps this is the invitation “Anne” offers. To not try to leave our histories behind and pretend to be blank slates, but to find love and belonging as whole people.

Everyone should read this book!

It was the Spring of 2007 and I stood before a collection of fellow college seniors, a random collection of communication professors, and, by chance, the president of my university. This was one of my first attempts at wearing a full suit and tie combo that matched. The assignment was the capstone to our Senior Seminar course, a class designed to prepare us to enter the workforce. It was a presentation of what we’d learned throughout college and where we planned to be once we graduated. In the chaos of my final months at Slippery Rock University, I had no idea what was next. So I stood there and, in front of that eclectic group, said, “Maybe I’ll become President of the United States of America!”

Obviously, I was the most ready to graduate. (Side note: I graduated a semester after all of my roommates)

Aside from POTUS, the only other career path I was considering at the time was professional wrestler. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing. My Senior Seminar and other classes did prepare me for certain aspects of life after college, but there were still many, many gaps in my expectations and understanding of life after college. The wisdom I wish I had, the topics I wish my courses talked about more, are now featured in one of the most practical books I’ve read this year, Erica Young Reitz’s After College.

At first, the book made a lot of sense for my current work with college students. I approached it as a tool to help me talk to my students about what to expect once they graduate. However, it had me asking the question, “Do we really ever stop transitioning?” Yes, After College is really helpful for a college audience, but it was an incredible oil check for me. It allowed me, many years after graduating, some space to drop my dipstick in and see how I’ve been doing in the years since leaving college.


Reitz is a co-worker of mine in the CCO. She works on the campus of Penn State University and some time ago realized that transitioning out of college was one of the major struggles her students were facing and one that some of their broader campus ministry efforts were missing. So she decided to focus on it, figure it out, do research, collect stories, and invite powerful voices into her students’ most stressful seasons of transition. The Senior EXIT program was born and for years Reitz has been fine-tuning this content and that work really shows.

After College is comprehensive. Topics cover everything from dating, finding a church, a theology of work and place, handling money, making decisions, setting expectations, and learning to love your family as you enter adulthood. These are not easy topics, but Reitz’s poetry and experience alleviate much of the immediate stress of these areas of life with loving, pastoral care. She ushers her readers through teaching that can range from comforting to convicting with powerful sensitivity. It is obvious that she deeply cares for her students and, while reading, I knew she deeply cares for me.

For anyone thinking about using this resource with college students it is formatted to easily cover over the course of an academic year (as Reitz does through her Senior EXIT program) or even through a single semester. The chapters are the perfect length for students to incorporate into their weekly workload and each chapter includes sources for further Biblical and extra-Biblical reading. Also included are discussion questions sure to help even the most stoic student process these transformational topics.


I wouldn’t limit this resource to just graduating seniors. After College will be life giving to anyone in the tumultuous decades following college and beyond. My wife and I are both in our early thirties and while I was reading this book we were in the midst of making a major life decision. Reitz’s words spoke to me in that season and helped us approach our upcoming giant leap of faith with confidence that our lives will constantly be changing but God never does.

God was faithful to me when I left college, when I eventually went on to grad school, when I started my career in campus ministry, when we made the decision to move several states away, and will be there for me at every stage of life. If you or anyone you know would benefit from that reminder and more, you will be hard-pressed to find a better voice to present it.