Earlier this week my workplace got rid of some old study materials, and among them were promotional wristbands given to youth as part of a purity conference. I left these wristbands in a public space, and upon inviting an enquiring peer to help himself was asked if I minded if he took them and burned them. He was joking, not joking. And I immediately knew what he meant. This little cultural artifact didn’t specifically offend him, it was what it represented: the purity movement that bowled so many of us over in our youth groups.
While the culture surrounding sexual purity does vary from church to church even within a denomination, within evangelical culture I keep running across young people in their twenties and thirties who have a lynch pin reaction to the word “purity.” These same people heartily ascribe to the belief that sex should be saved for marriage and seek to live lives that answer Peter’s admonition: “He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16 NKJV). So what happened within the purity movement that caused so many of us to kiss common sense goodbye and dwell in the realm of mixed messages? Here’s three things:
You Made Us Afraid
Purity was taught within my youth group with such scriptures as 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” taken to mean any touch that could have sexual connotation or tone whatsoever. The context of the passage as addressed to the Corinthian church was jettisoned in favor of partnering this verse with several others from proverbs about self-control, and how the lack of it lead to disaster and death.
What was our take-away? Any touch had the power of destruction within it, and even if you didn’t intend that shoulder squeeze sexually, you might stumble your weaker brother. Because any match could start a fire, rather than learn how fire worked and the proper context for it, we had better be paranoid that we never unintentionally handled matches. Sexual sin is powerful, and it is serious, but in the vacuum of teaching about the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and the victory over sexual sin that can be had in Christ working in us, we received from this teaching, repeated over time, a spirit of fear. Many of us have carried that fear consciously or unconsciously into adulthood to the extent that it has prevented us from dating, or pursuing, or being open to romantic relationships in any context despite our very strong desire to be married. Why? It is that pervasive of a fear.
Our answer to this fear is to be grounded in faith in Christ’s transformative work in us and the Holy Spirit’s power to be present in any relationship we engage in, including those with a romantic or sexual component. This does not mean we go alone, but in all things partner with others in the church, confessing our sins, asking for help in facing temptations, and we hold each other accountable before the Lord. But we do this in a spirit of confidence in God’s sovereignty, not in a spirit of fear. Paul serves with a pure conscience; he expresses confidence in God’s work in Timothy urging him to remember the gift of God and reminding him that in our faith that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love and of a sound mind” (1 Timothy 1:3–7 NKJV).
You Gave Us False Shame
From this same spirit of fear came a lot of policies, both written and unwritten about how we should dress that for young women in the church has created a lot of body shame. As my church grew up in their pursuit of purity, we had conversations that shifted away from skirt lengths and bra straps showing to cultivating a heart of modesty that honors God. But before we got there we had women in church leadership who only wore Mumu dresses, and didn’t hesitate to tell us why.
I respect every individual woman’s discernment as prayerfully applies scripture and listens to leading of the Spirit to know how modesty should be worked out in practical application in her life. It’s not standardization I am calling for here, because where I may have freedom my sister may not and it is good to consider my weaker sister or brother in what I am free to do (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8). But we also ought to look at what implicit messages are sent by mumu dresses only and never a fitted dress, are they messages of body shaming?
Again, do we see the body as only an instrument of danger, or something beautiful and good that exists in the service of Christ?
In addition to unnecessary body shaming, many of us, male and female, were taught to feel shame for any biological sexual occurrence we experienced. The spirit of fear encouraged us to a false shame where a sexual thought or bodily reaction (which anyone with the slightest acquaintance with hormones can testify cannot be regulated) was construed as sin.
Our answer to false shame is to remember the truth of scripture: that a bodily reaction or occurrence is not sin, even experiencing temptation is not sin, but it is when we give our consent to temptation that sin occurs. James writes of temptation: “But each one is tempted when he is draw away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). James’ reproduction analogy makes it clear, our desire has to meet our will, our choice, and our consent to give birth to sin. If we do not give that consent, we are clean.
You Undercut the Sovereignty of God to Redeem
I was horrified recently, to hear from a friend about a visual illustration used in her youth group in regards to purity: the Rose Analogy. Others have confirmed experiencing the same or a similar illustration in their church. The church leader held up a perfect rose, and told the youth that this rose represented them, and their purity: beautiful and enact. The leader then proceeded to pull a petals off the rose slowly, each one representing a sexual act or a boundary crossed, until the rose was finally a barren nub and a stem. The audience was then asked, is this what they wished to present to their future spouses on their wedding nights?
This illustration is both visually effective and entirely counter-gospel. Young people have enough hang ups about their self-worth and with this kind of exercise you are taking Paul’s powerful declaration that we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and cutting it at the knees with a Samurai sword. Consider the impact this analogy may have on a young person who has already engaged in sexual acts or even had sex. It’s over, done, they are the nub. What about those young men and women who have experienced sexual acts that were not consensual? There is no hope for them and they now have a stark understanding of what has been done to them that cannot be repaired.
This is not the gospel that Christ died to bring us.
We’re either new creations or we’re not. Sin stains us, we confess, Christ is faithful to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness or He isn’t. (1 John 1:9 NKJV emphasis added). Both confession and forgiveness are spoken of here in present tense. By treating our purity and ourselves like that rose, you are making God’s grace exhaustible, limited, and the blood of Christ ineffective. John tells us, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). My brothers and sisters, this is the truth that sets us free, let us confess and believe and rest in the sovereignty of God who redeems and cleanses us.
The Good News: Christ has Redeemed the Body
The more we learn about Jesus, bodily incarnate and good, the less we are able to hate our bodies and into a trap of shame or a spirit of fear. The more intimately we know Him, the more we are able to believe the gospel we confess. For example, we affirm the doctrine of the Hypostatic union, that Christ is fully God and fully man, and still is today, and will be for all eternity. God did condescend to take on humanity’s form, but neither did He put it off once resurrected. What He created and declared good at the start of creation, and He has made good through His incarnation.
That doesn’t mean that accepting our bodies as good and even as beautiful isn’t difficult. I recently sat in a church service (link to the sermon below) about the redemption of the body that we have in Christ that opened with the worship band playing Bruno Mars’ song, Just the Way You Are. This song was so hard for me to sit through. I disqualified myself from every verse in my head, doing a snarky internal battle with a pop ballad that was too idealistic to be believed.
Yet I am amazing as God created me. He has made and is making me beautiful as He makes me more and more into His likeness. This is the theology we need to lead with when teaching about sexual purity in the Church. We should also earnestly search the scriptures for what they say about sexuality, and develop sexual ethics for both married and single church members. And in all this if we keep our pursuit of purity Christocentric, we will not only remain in the truth, we shall also be purified in a spirit of hope.
Dear Christians, this is what we know about our bodies and ourselves:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And all who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as he is pure ” (1 John 3:15–16 NRSV capitalization added).
An Excellent Sermon on the Beauty & Redemption of the Body I Attended Recently: