I have observed two kinds of tyranny in the media and public forum when it comes to moral, religious, or political conflict. The first kind is a tyranny of bigotry which takes firm held beliefs about politics, religion, ethics, etc., and attempts to coerce or shame others into agreement. It disregards the humanity and dignity of those with whom it disagrees. The second kind is a tyranny of tolerance. This tyranny regards “tolerance” as the highest (if not the only) virtue, and then attempts to coerce or shame others into a malleability of all other beliefs besides tolerance. It is as though anything but indifferent relativism is a hate crime.
It is that time of year when, once again, Churches of all denominations ramp up their hospitality. One need not look far to find flier invitations for Easter egg hunts, local ads for sunrise services, or Church billboards declaring that all are invited to join them for Easter service. According to Christian tradition, this is exactly as it should be. Easter is the most important day in the Church calendar – the Feast of all Feasts – and is the greatest declaration of our salvation.
However, when we take this opportunity to tell people about the Christianity, our advertisements often betray bad beliefs which we have adopted alongside the good. I have observed two strong motivational trends which I think betray such bad ideas: (1) the “Jesus wants to give you stuff” message, and (2) the “You should pay Jesus back for all He did” message. The first invites me to come to Jesus because I want stuff for myself, the second invites me to come to Jesus because I feel badly for Him. Continue reading Codependency and Egoism: Two Ways To Obscure Easter
When I got married, I had a new experience of association which I had never had as a single person. My husband and I were together for three and a half years before we got married, and yet, in all of that time, people rarely expected him to be with me everywhere I went. But once we were married, if I came to any social gathering alone, people started asking “Where is your husband?” or “Where is your other half?” Continue reading Why My Husband Is Not My “Other Half”
I have previously written a post on what I believe to be missing in the teachings of the Purity Movement. I am writing now about what I believe is problematically present in the Purity Movement. The calling to pre-marital abstinence is consistent with what Christianity has always taught. However, the Purity Movement took this teaching, and twisted it beyond recognition with false motives, false methods, and false consequences which not only surpass the tenets of Christian teaching, but actually contradict them.
The Purity Movement often employs two different methods to promote a subculture of abstinence in a post-sexual-revolution world. The first method is to motivate with a stick, the second a carrot. The stick method is to teach young people that the one thing of value which they possess is their virginity, and that if they fail to abstain from premarital sex then they are worthless. The carrot method is to promise young people that if they abstain from premarital sex, they will have happy, sexually satisfying marriages that will last a lifetime.
The Stick Method
There are countless analogies which the movement will employ in order to reinforce this notion that virginity = worth. It is vital to recognize that – no matter how well meaning speakers, authors, youth leaders, and parents have been – these analogies damage the dignity, the hope, and the self-worth of those who hear them. One example is comparing a non-virgin to a pair of underwear which someone else has worn. Other analogies compare a person’s virginity to a rose designed to be a wedding gift to their spouse – if you give it away you have nothing left to offer. A further analogy, and perhaps the most disgusting, is that virginity is a cup of fresh water for your spouse to drink and any person you have slept with has spit into that water. Who would want to drink from a cup in which other people had spit their saliva? The analogies continue. Each of them create either tragic or repulsive images with which a person is to associate themselves if they have lost their virginity, or with which they should fear to to be associated if they lose their virginity in the future.
The first thing I want to say about these analogies and this teaching is that they are absolutely contrary to reality. The second, is that they offend even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. It is evident that self-worth does not reside in virginity by the mere fact that, if it did, then marriage would be stupid. Why commit yourself to a lifetime of monogamy if sex is a one-time gift? If the first time is the only time that counts, why do we want to have it more than once in our life? It just seems obvious that sex is one of those recurring gifts, otherwise we would do it once and be done. In addition, these disturbing analogies are equal propaganda against monogamy; after all, who would want to drink from a cup of their own saliva? Or who wants to re-wear their own underwear? Or, regardless of who has plucked off the petals, what good is a stump of rose? These analogies do not speak against fornication or promiscuity, they really just speak against sex and against finding self-worth in anything else.
Furthermore, the first teaching of a Christian anthropology is that God made men and women in His own Image. If we are created in God’s image, then to ascribe our innate worth to our sexual behavior is somewhat sacrilegious. Our worth, our identity, is in the Image of God which we bear. Contrary to this theology, Christianity actually teaches us that even in our sins, God loves us. God doesn’t merely tolerate us if we are willing to follow the rules. God is willing to incarnate Himself with our very flesh and blood, to suffer, to die, to be rejected by us even still, because He loves us. How many times in the Old and New Testaments do the Scriptures compare God’s people to an unfaithful spouse whom He loves and desires to return to Him? God still wants us – no matter what. To pretend that God, or anyone else, will hate us if we fornicate is not just to lie about sex, it is to lie about God.
The Carrot Method
If the purity movement has not succeeded in motivating us with the stick of worthlessness, it will attempt to motivate us with the carrot of bliss. This is where things get really creative. Employing a short term interpretation of the rewards which accompany obedience, the Purity Movement advertises a list of rewards that you will receive if you wait to have sex until your wedding night. If you abstain from sex while dating, you will have less marital conflict, total lifelong fidelity, little-to-no risk of divorce, unwavering attraction to your spouse, and instant and continual sexual compatibility. Contrary to physiology, experience, and reason, the movement tells us that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are cumulative. In other words, if you wait until marriage to have sex, it will be all orgasm all the time.
In his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Josh Harris tells a story of a couple who did not hold hands before marriage and therefore could not keep their hands off of each other after they were married. In her book “Passion and Purity,” Elizabeth Elliot describes her own experience of waiting as if waiting produces sexual fireworks. Young women are told that if a man can prove that he is willing to wait for you, then he will never leave you. If you abstain from sex, then God will bless you with a peaceful, fun, fulfilling marriage.
Now there are several big problems with this prosperity propaganda. First, no one in the purity movement tells the other stories. They don’t tell the stories of the men and women who suppressed their sexuality so that even after marriage they still feel guilty after sex. Or the stories of people who abstain from sex and dating only never to find a spouse. Or the stories of men and women who have closed themselves off so much that they can’t detect whether or not they are sexually attracted to their partner. Or the stories of how long it takes to become sexually compatible with your spouse, or how sex can be challenging even for healthy couples, or how jealousy can poison even secure relationships. In short, they don’t tell the stories of how you can be faithful to follow all of the rules and still suffer just like everyone else.
In this way, the Purity Movement lied to us. No one can guarantee any of the promises which were made to us. No one can guarantee bliss because life isn’t fair. And no one should guarantee bliss because God does not promise us a lack of suffering in exchange for obedience. If we took half a glance at reality we would realize this, or if we have ever read the book of Job. The world would make conveniently more sense if judgment took place this side of heaven and everyone always received what they deserved. However, so long as the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, it is vital to realize that not all suffering is punishment and not all blessing is reward. God does not promise to reduce our suffering but to restore us through it.
This brings me to a further problem with the carrot method. If someone actually does experience the gifts which the Purity Movement has promised them, they think it is because the formula worked. This means that, not only do we believe all disappointments are merited, we also believe that the blessings in our lives are really rewards. The Purity Movement taught us to look down on people whose marriages struggle as though they are doing something wrong. We were hindered from being grateful for the real blessings in our lives because we thought that we (meritoriously) had merely done the right thing to acquire them. If someone was emotionally hurting, it was their own fault. We were not taught to feel compassion for young women who were going through pregnancy alone, or young people dealing with the heartbreaks of broken relationships, or men and women who felt they had lost all self worth because they had been promiscuous, or people who were lonely because no one wanted to date them. We were taught that they were in some way getting what they deserved. Perhaps the worst part, if we believe that bad things don’t happen to good people then how do we respond if a woman is raped? We ask what she was wearing.
Finally, if someone once makes a sexual mistake they often stop looking for a healthy marriage. They were told that a happy marriage is something people must earn, therefore they think that God does not want to give it to them anymore. Even if God could be persuaded to forgive them for their sin and not send them to hell, they are certainly in some sort of timeout for the rest of their earthly life so they can think about what they’ve done. People stop looking for good things because they have been taught that they themselves are worthless and that good things don’t apply to them anymore.
If we are to promote abstinence, it must not be by contradicting reason and lying about Christianity. We have truly lost sight of the goal with which we began if we are willing to feed people false beliefs about the gospel in order to manipulate their behavior into living as if the gospel were true. If we want to promote chastity and healthy marriages, we will not accomplish this by lying to young people and abolishing all sense of grace, forgiveness, self-worth, and Christ’s power to restore the brokenness in our lives. In fact, it is the grace of God that inspires us to be chaste. Why would we trust a God who commands us to be chaste if we have established that he is fickle and perfectionistic? It is the help, grace, and compassion of God that enables us to be holy, leads us to repentance, and inspires us to follow after Him even when His commands are hard.
Growing up, I was a strong advocate for the “purity movement” of the late 90’s. This was a movement primarily in the Christian evangelical church which encouraged teenage boys and girls (predominantly girls) to avoid having sex before marriage. Some churches had purity ceremonies where teenage girls walked down the aisle and were symbolically given to Jesus by their fathers. They would wear a white dress and receive a ring and make a promise to “stay pure” until marriage. Some churches had purity bible studies where, without ever talking about healthy sexuality, young girls were told that “sleeping with someone” when you’re not married makes your heart grimy and dirty and means you are turning away from Jesus.
To make better sense of this movement, I need to go back to the Home-school Revolution of the early 80’s. In deference to James Dobson and several other fundamentalist leaders, evangelical Christians were encouraged to break out of societal norms and to revolutionize the world by keeping their children untainted by it. Many parents chose to pull their children out of school in order to shelter, protect, and influence their children in the way they saw fit. Others chose to have their children in private Christian education but kept a close eye. Many watched only “Christian” movies, listened only to “Christian” music, and only socialized with Christian friends.
Now, jump ahead to the late 90’s. All of these parents who had experimented with sheltering the children of the early 80’s found themselves parenting pubescent teenagers with romantic interests. How were they to parent young adults and find them mates in a post-sexual-revolution culture? The home-school and fundamentalist movements placed great emphasis on family – in fact the idea of living a life in singleness was predominantly viewed as tragic – but how were they to get their children to the altar?
It was on this fertile ground and with this high demand for Christian advice on romance that Joshua Harris published his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” In this book, Harris advocates not only sexual abstinence but romantic abstinence until marriage. Saving one’s heart as well as one’s body for the wedding night. The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.” Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”
Now, I am not here to speak against abstinence; historic Christianity has always been pro-marriage and anti-promiscuity. Nor am I speaking against emotional self-control; anyone in a committed relationship knows that sometimes fidelity requires more than just physical boundaries. What I am saying is that the purity movement addressed pre-marital sex without addressing marriage. Instead of painting a beautiful, fascinating, healthy and realistic picture of marital sex, they attempted to control the behaviour of teenagers and left marital sex almost entirely out of the conversation. No one was preparing young people for sex, they were trying their best to get them not to have it.
The purity movement didn’t address things like the dangers of sexual anorexia, male chauvinism, the prevalence of sexual abuse, or the path to healing. The movement didn’t acknowledge that marriage is less like a chic-flick and more like Baptism. Instead it only spoke of marital sex in order to promote a prosperity gospel that promises sexual bliss for the price of pre-marital abstinence. Empty promises were given, like, “If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will enjoy it so much more once you have it.” In addition to this, we must not forget the “petal plucking” philosophy which states that virginity is a rose and every romantic experience is plucking a petal off of that rose…on your wedding night don’t you want more than a stem to offer your spouse? Furthermore, no one explained what the poor little flower supposedly looked like the morning after the wedding. After all, if they got you to the wedding pure, you were on your own.
Even if a young Christian adult was strong enough or sheltered enough to avoid sex before marriage, many have been left to walk into marriage with all of the same polluted ideas of sex that they learned from the culture but with a hovering sense of guilt that sex is morally bad. Sadly, some learned this not just from the culture but from their “purity” promoting parents. Many Christian men were not taught that hedonism is false and to learn self-control; they were taught that hedonism is true but delayed gratification is more pleasurable. Wait for the wedding night, then have sex whenever you want. Many women were not taught that sex is for them too; they were taught female subjugation and that the real value of sex is the power to keep your husband. Don’t ever say “yes” to a boyfriend and don’t ever say “no” to a husband. A man will not stay with you if you don’t give him his pleasure, but nor will he buy the cow if the milk is free. I can’t even repeat that phrase without gagging a little. Comparing marriage to the purchase of livestock is just icky.
The purity movement didn’t speak out against marital utilitarianism like that found in Dr. Laura’s book, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.” They didn’t address how placating men by debasing women is degrading to both sexes. For some her book is even considered good ol’ practical advice for a Christian home. I even read a review that described it as “a wonderful instruction manual on how to carry out the New Testament’s principles for wives.” In addition to this, consider that the Scripture refers to marriage as an image of Christ and His Church. Can you imagine how disturbing it would be to read a theological book entitled, “The Proper Care and Feeding of God”? This would be disturbing because God is a Person! I’m sure such a book would include all the necessary prayers and actions required to keep a simple God placated into not abandoning His people. It is philosophies like these that continue to poison our marriages. Men are not beasts or loyal pets. Women are not mere things – even pure things.
To call this a “purity” movement is a misnomer – this was a “virginity” movement. We taught people about abstinence; we taught them nothing about sex. Even worse, we taught them nothing about grace, about forgiveness, about salvation, about healing. We did not teach them how to love their spouse, we taught them how to keep record of wrongs. We did not teach them sacrifice, but mutual jealousy. We gave them a movie plot that ends with a wedding. But the altar is not meant to be a finish but a beginning: the beginning of a life of sanctification with another person. Marriage is like Baptism. Baptism is not where we demonstrate our purity, it is where we wash off our sins. Marriage is a place where we learn to love a sinner and so become less sinful ourselves. It is a place where we may be so loved by a sinner that we realize we can’t begin to glimpse the kind of love God must have for us.