Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Purity Conversation - My Two Cents

It appears to have started with a blog post called I am Damaged Goods by Sarah Bessey, in which she says:

In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me – as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.
[Emphasis in original.]

And then other bloggers weighed in.  Elizabeth Esther with Virginity, New and Improved!  Rachel Held Evans with Do Christians Idolize Virginity?  Sarah Markley with Two Different Things.  Perfect Number with Purity for the Sake of Purity.  Leanne Penny with Red Yarn, Purity and My Misplaced Worth.  Hopeful Leigh with The Morning After.  And many more. 

The Deeper Story (where Sarah Bessey blogs) even created a link list entitled Impromptu Sex Week, in which her fellow blogger Preston states:

[T]here have been a number of conversations cropping up around the blogosphere about sexuality and church. . . [W]e hope that as these important issues are continued conversation for all of us, we can all further listen and understand one another and our unique perspectives.

So I've decided to join the conversation too. 

I don't think it's a coincidence that this conversation sprang up at around the same time as the Superbowl.  As Perfect Number states in her blog post a few days earlier called Women are Your Reward for Being Awesome!:

It may be true that portraying half of the human population as objects that exist only for men's entertainment, whose only use is in their sexuality, somehow causes people to buy more of whatever you're selling.
But if that's true, something is terribly terribly wrong with our society.

[Emphasis in original]

I think reduction of women to sexuality for the sake of men's entertainment, and reduction of women to purity for the sake of Christian ideals (which is usually unintended by Christian ministries, but happens just the same), are just two sides of the same coin.  Either way, women are reduced.  

As Elizabeth Esther put it in with Virginity, New and Improved!

Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization.  
[Emphasis in original.]
"Reduced" is itself an ironic word.  Women are also reduced by the voices-- Christian and non-Christian alike-- that tell them their age and the size of their bodies are also indicators of their worth.  What it comes down to in Superbowl culture is, "If you're young, thin and sexy, you can become a man's reward and the object of his desire."  And in Christian culture, it's "If you're young, thin and virginal, you can become a man's reward and the object of his desire." 

Hooray.  Just what we women always wanted. 

I was a virgin on my wedding night.  And yes, I bought into the Christian idea that this somehow made me better than other women.  I still think I had a reason to be proud of myself for self-control, just as when I'm dieting I can be proud when I say "no" to the piece of cake.  But in truth, neither of these things gives me greater worth in God's eyes than I already had, just for being worth dying on a cross for

When it comes right down to it, there are good reasons for dieting (I want to be in better health) and there were good reasons for abstinence before marriage (for me, I think what it really came down to is that I'm a private person, and I didn't want to share that most-private part of myself with anyone who had not already committed to love me and live as one with me).  But to be a more pleasing object, to men or to God, is not a good reason

In Maranatha Campus Ministries, the coercive religious group I belonged to when I got married, purity was taken to ridiculous extremes.  This was long before today's purity and courtship movements, but Maranatha had what they called "the dating revelation," which meant that instead of dating, when you began to have feelings for someone in the church (looking anywhere else was out of the question), you went and talked to the pastor (if you were a guy) or to the pastor's wife (if you were a girl), and then the church leaders (we didn't really have elders, since none of us were over 35 and most of us under 30) would pray over the match and "hear from God" as to whether it was His will.

In one way this was better than today's purity/courtship movement, which insists that people should deny and suppress any feelings they have for the opposite sex until after they have been brought together.  Maranatha believed that if the match was from God, so were the feelings.  It was God putting the love in your heart for that other person-- unless, of course, the leaders didn't feel a "witness in their spirits" when they prayed, in which case those feelings were just from the flesh, sister, and you'd better pray and fast till they went away.

Once my husband and I were brought together by the church leaders, we were given the big lecture on staying pure until the wedding day.  This meant not doing anything that might tempt one another.  No kissing (our first kiss was supposed to be at the altar).  No touching (hey, holding hands wasn't exactly wrong, but did you really want to give the devil a foothold?)  Even a neck rub could be a problem, so better just not start. 

And all of this was presented in terms of, "We're not trying to control you; make your own decisions about this.  But these are our guidelines, and we believe we have wisdom in this."  But I remember one couple who got engaged shortly before we did, and decided that they were going to hold hands and kiss (I'm not talking about French kissing, just a peck on the lips) before the wedding day were treated with deep disapproval and held up to us as a negative, shameful example.  But no, there was no control going on here.  Nothing to see.  Just move on.

So my future husband and I, being deeply in love and desperately wanting/needing to learn to relate to one another physically as well as verbally/mentally/spiritually, found some silly ways to get around the rules.

I remember how when we were on the beach or in the woods, we'd take long blades of grass or tall weed stems and tickle one another on the neck and arms, giggling and flirting while we tried to avoid the tickles ourselves while getting in as many as we could on one another.

I remember how on a long drive home from my husband's sister's wedding, I took a piece of cloth and put it over my hand in order to massage his aching neck and shoulders.

I remember how sometimes we'd take a short stick and hold it between us as we walked, instead of holding hands. 

I also remember thinking how odd it was that before we were engaged, we could hug one another as all church members did, but now that we were officially together, we could no longer even do that.  "What do I do if she's crying about something?  I can't comfort her!" my husband once said in desperation to one of his friends who was also engaged.  "I know.  We have to find a sister to do it, or just leave her be," was the reply. 

Looking back on it now, my husband and I are bemused and a little embarrassed.  How could we have had so little faith in ourselves and in the grace of God, that a hug, a neck rub, holding hands or even a kiss would be more than we could handle and would end in steamy windows in the back seat of a car?   Neither of us wanted our first time to be like that-- we both wanted a quiet honeymoon suite to try in peace and privacy the techniques set out in Tim LaHaye's Christian sex manual The Act of Marriage.  (Ironically, this and other sexual-technique materials were required reading in Maranatha's mandatory pre-marital counseling.  I think it was a good idea to give us some advance preparation for that night when the sexual light-switch was somehow supposed to switch from full-off to full-on, but it was hard to read about doing all these things when apart, and then be unable even to touch when we met in person.)

But that's the way it was.  Ideology mattered more than human beings.  A thing called "purity" was more important than a thing called "common sense."  And even though Maranatha enforced these rules on guys and girls alike, it was on the females that shame for non-compliance fell most harshly.

Despite its claim to honor women unlike "the world" that objectifies them, today's purity/courtship culture (just like Maranatha's earlier one) many times objectifies women just as much, and for the same reasons.  Women exist not for themselves, but for others, and particularly for men.  

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."  But the purity teaching says, "The chief end of woman is to glorify man and be enjoyed by him, and it is incumbent upon man to keep her pure for these ends."

And when the Superbowl culture says "The chief end of woman is to glorify man and be enjoyed by him" and only leaves out that last idea that she should be kept pure-- then all I can see is the church upholding the traditions of men rather than the gospel of Christ. 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. . .  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. . . But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.  Romans 8:1-11.

It's good to wait until marriage, if we do it because we're walking in the Spirit.  But walking in condemnation because we didn't wait-- that's also of the flesh.

And reducing women to objects of the flesh in the name of purity?

As far as I can see, that is the most fleshly of all. 


perfectnumber628 said...

Great post- especially the part about when you and your husband were dating. "How could we have had so little faith in ourselves and in the grace of God, that a hug, a neck rub, holding hands or even a kiss would be more than we could handle and would end in steamy windows in the back seat of a car?" I wonder about that too- I've heard so many warnings about "the slippery slope", as if just touching my boyfriend will somehow cause us to suddenly, accidentally have sex and regret it forever. (I never understood how that would work...)

And thanks for linking to my blog! :)

The Blog bites better than the Bullet. said...

Thanks for this- my thoughts exactly. It encouraged me greatly to hear that even John MacArthur Jr. had kissed a girl (and he liked it-lol) before marriage, and I think the purity culture AND the extreme proscriptive sexual expectations of books such as the one you mention and another best-seller of our time are really demeaning to women and reduce them to objects for men. I grew up with a lot of Elisabeth Elliot (bless her heart), and had to grow out of it to grow up into a healthy (and Bible-based) view of sexuality. It helps to know am not the only one who sees this, and it is no surprise that such currents of thought are infiltrating the church. It is however shocking that so many are prepared to stand by such thought patterns rather than listening to what people burnt by them have to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you decided to weigh in on the purity discussion. Your posts are always thoughful and measured.

Whenever I read about your Maranatha Campus Ministries, it reminds me of my own experiences. At my church, supposing I liked Guy A. I'd tell my group leader who would tell Guy As group leader. Guy A and his group leader would pray for 3 months to find out if this was God's will, while me and my group leader would pray for 3 months. After 3 months we could start dating, but not be alone together until our group leaders decided.

I really feel that systmes like this are a form of superstition, not a safeguard.

Yeshua Hineni said...

Thank you so much for weighing in on this!

Leanne Penny said...

Thank you for the mention and for bringing this all together like this with links!

Anonymous said...

Great post, as always, Kristen. Here are a few cents' worth of thoughts from a lit teacher.

I LOVE the lens of metaphor through which one can glean various facets of truth in the scriptures. Take, for example, the comparison of the married man and woman as an illustration of the relationship of Christ and His Church.

We come to Christ in sin. We are "purified" in the only way that counts--by the blood of Jesus and our faith in Him as our atoning sacrifice. (And even "faith unto salvation" is an unmerited gift!)

What matters is not the condition of the "bride" (church)prior to salvation (i.e., "union" with the "husband," i.e., Christ) but the purity of the "one flesh," or "new body" (i.e., Body of Christ)when we become "new creatures in Him Who, by His blood, purifies us. This is the bigger picture of redemption.

This is not to demean the purity of both the literal man and woman at the time of their marriage, but, equally as important, it is not meant to elevate their fleshly purity to something that it is not, either, in the grander scheme of things.

All the focus on the temporal is to set up yet another idol to distract us from the eternal. And, more tragically, to cause those individuals to feel condemned who were sexually molested or otherwise exploited or who came to Christ after having had unmarried sex.

"Therefore there is no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus." This, I believe, is what the message should be, a man's or a woman's physical purity--or lack thereof--notwithstanding.


Kristen said...

Good points, Phyllis-- but I think, reading over what you're saying, that you're really talking about Christ and the church being an illustration for marriage, and not the other way around. See my posts at

Is Marriage an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 1


Is Marriage an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 2


Is Marriage an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Conclusion

But I do think it is a good metaphor to help us not put to much emphasis on external things like purity of the flesh rather than of the spirit.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes ;). Can't be said enough...