the point (reflections on Christian purity culture)
Below is a guest post written by my good friend Madeline Booton. She is an engaging and insightful writer.
Please take the time to give this a read; it’s good stuff.
So I don’t really know how to start this, so I’ll just dive right in.
A few days ago, one of my friends posted a link to an article “The Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture.” I, being the curious person that I am, clicked on it, and I read this article that talked about some things, namely that the Christian culture has framed the loss of purity as irreversible and psychologically damaging and that the burden of purity normally falls only on women. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s sorta always been socially acceptable for a man to go have sex with whomever, but a woman must remain a virgin until her wedding night or else she’s… I don’t know? Bad? Impure? Ruined? Damaged goods? The author of this post called this idea of purity “toxic,” especially since we classify sexual sins differently from other sins, and I had to agree.
So, up to this point, I was basically reacting like, “Well amen. I agree. It’s an unfair system.” But, at this point there was a lack of resolution to this idea- like, “Ok, I get it, it’s bad, so what do you propose as an alternative?”
So, what do I do? I click on three links that the author referenced: Rachel Held Evan’s Do Christians Idolize Virginity?, which also referenced these same articles: Sarah Bessey’s I am Damaged Goods and Elizabeth Esther’s Virginity: New and Improved! All of these blog posts basically talked more about how the purity culture is toxic and shames women and how we as a Christian culture idolize virginity. Yes, idolize. Several groups in society, particularly religious groups, place an uber-high degree of importance on the idea of virginity, and well, if you give that up, you screwed up big time and you can never take it back. Basically, as Elizabeth Esther said, there’s a lack of compassion associated with the Christian purity culture. The point these blogs made in response to this toxicity was that, “Yes, people screw up. People have sex before marriage. But, in the eyes of Jesus, you are more than your mistakes, and as a society, we need to love more like Jesus and stop this culture of shaming those who have made mistakes because in the eyes of Jesus, you are way more precious than that. Not to mention that everyone screws up something.”
After reading these posts, I was mildly disconcerted. I was kinda like, “Well, this is a new perspective…”
See, growing up, probably like many other Christians, I was told that purity is really important, and once you have sex, you can’t undo that, so just wait until after marriage, and life will be good. And on that same note, you should really date with the idea of marriage in mind and not just for fun. Oh, and don’t forget that when you date and get married, it must be a Christian. You know, don’t be unequally yoked and all that. Now, I’m not stupid. Growing up, I realized that Christians are people too and definitely don’t always adhere to these ideas. But the idea these articles were posing, that purity should not be viewed so sacredly, as Esther phrased it, was definitely new to me.
Then, Sarah Bessey’s blog post referenced a news article: Why Young Christians Weren’t Waiting Anymore. This article referenced several studies and surveys that had been done, and basically, 80% of young unmarried Christians have had sex, compared to 88% of non-Christians.
And basically, this destroyed me, and I don’t tend to be melodramatic. I almost can’t even describe the emotions I was feeling or the thoughts running through my head. I started sobbing just uncontrollably, and anyone who knows me knows that I do not cry. I felt a part of me die, but I didn’t know which part, but I was grieving. There is no other way to describe it: I was grieving. I didn’t know what was happening or why I was so upset.
Being super honest here: when I was growing up being told over and over again that purity is important, that dating is serious and that marriage to a Christian is what you should strive for.
All that, I made important to myself, and so I have remained pure. I took what I was told to heart, and at the ripe old age of 19, I have not had a boyfriend, never been kissed, and never had sex. I was told by pastors, by youth leaders, (in mildly awkward conversations) by my parents that this is all important and what you should be doing to be a good Christian. So, I made it important to myself, and I struggled because let’s be really honest: it is HARD to remain a virgin. It is HARD to not date someone and I’m not going to deny that I haven’t been tempted to start dating a random guy and do who knows what. It is a struggle to refrain from even starting to go down that road. And like I said, I’m not stupid: I realized that there were Christians who were having sex. But in reading these blogs and those statistics, I (maybe erroneously) concluded that while the Christian culture says that purity is important, by their actions the majority of the Christian culture was saying that purity was not important.
And that is where I thought my true grief lay: I had had these fantastical romantic (probably naïve) notions/dreams/ideas that someday, a Christian guy would come along and he would love that I had stayed a virgin despite the difficulty and we would get married and it would all be good and godly. But I was looking at these statistics, and I immediately took it to the extreme and I was just kept thinking: “Purity is so important to me, but it’s obviously not important to anyone else. Was it all worth it? Has the waiting and the struggle been worth it? What is the point of purity if no one cares?”
And that was what I kept asking myself: What is the point of purity? If I’m in the tiny little minority of Christians who have shown by their actions that they care about purity, has this struggle been worth it? I thought I had lost those dreams and that ultimately my waiting meant nothing because no one else seemed to care and that eventually, statistically, I would probably do something I thought I would never do and have sex before marriage and all that. I thought my waiting and my struggle and my purity ultimately meant nothing. And I cried as I prayed to God asking for an answer:
what is the point of purity?
But, I realized something else in my grief.
For once, I was not judging other Christians or anyone else.
See, keeping myself pure had been a point of pride for me. That’s something I have always struggled with, my sense of pride and a need to be better than others, so I thought of myself as a superior Christian for staying a virgin. But, in my grief, in my sobbing, crying grief, I realized that my pride was gone. I was not looking down on the 80% of Christians who had had sex. For one of the few times in my life, I could not look at them and say that I was better than them. I was not judging them, I was not condemning them, I was not being superior.
I felt a humility that I have only rarely, if ever, felt.
For the next few days, these emotions and thoughts were running through my head. I was, in a sense, depressed. I skipped a class. I skipped a friend’s birthday. I skipped All Campus Worship, a night of praise and worship that I had been looking forward to all semester. I didn’t want to do anything or be around people. I stayed in my room and did my homework or read my books or watched TV or organized my room (which is also a really weird thing for me to just randomly do). I was just so overwhelmed by the sense of grief and humility that I just could not make myself do anything. I didn’t have answers, just thoughts running around my mind.
And then, I met one of my best friends to do our Bible study together. Last semester, he and I had several classes together, and we discovered we were both Christians, and we grew really close, and we started studying Revelation. We were catching up that day because we had hardly seen each other this semester, and he just looked at me, and he asked, “How’s your spiritual life going?” And, I just looked away and answered (honestly) that it was fine but I was just working through something but I was trusting in God to give me the answers when I needed them. He gently kept prodding at me to get me to open up, and the waterworks started again, and I couldn’t stop. So I just started telling him that I was questioning something. But, I didn’t even give him any details because I was embarrassed that I was reacting this way over purity. I mean, come on; it’s purity. And he just looked at me and was like, “Does this have anything to do with living a pure life?” And since he had pretty much guessed what was upsetting me, I just started telling him all of this. Yes, I was telling one of my male best friends about all of this.
It was less awkward than it might sound.
So as I was telling him all of this, I noticed he was kinda weirdly smiling but not maliciously or creepily or anything, and when I was finally done telling my story, he just said, “Madeline, that was beautiful. You don’t even know what it was like to hear that.” And of course, I was just like, “Yeah, right. It’s kinda pathetic, and I still don’t have answers, and I’m not usually upset for so many days in a row. This is not beautiful.” But he insisted, “No, it’s beautiful. That’s why I’m smiling, because in your grief, God is so happy with you right now. God sees this struggle, but he is happy with your questions, with your tears, with your faith.” He told me, “God is not going to take this thing that has been so important to you and just give it to a random person. The devil is f*cking with your mind right now, getting you to question this; this is the time when the devil can get you to go back on all those promises you have made to God and yourself. Because purity is important to you, it is also important to God, and he will not let you down. There is a man out there that has waited for you as you’ve waited for him, and if you keep true to what you believe to be important, God will show you who he has chosen for you.”
When I told him about how I could tell that I had lost some of my pride, he basically just said, “Madeline, that is what you are grieving. You have lost your pride, and you have changed. You have grown up, you have matured, and you are grieving your loss of pride. God is shaping you so that through you, others may see God.”
At this point, I was still numb from the fresh wave of grief that had crashed over me when I was telling him all of this. But, I started thinking. God had just taught me two things: a new way of looking at Christians and a new way of looking at purity.
1) In believing that purity suddenly didn’t mean anything except to me, I had lost a way of comparing myself to the world. I lost some of my pride and gained a whole new humility and compassion. Suddenly, I look at others, Christians and non-Christians alike, and I realize that I do not, even deep deep deeeeeep down, feel any better than or superior to them because no matter what, we are all sinners in our own ways, and no sin is better or worse than any other, no behavior or thought or creed or word is better or worse than other. My pride was no better than anyone else’s sexual immorality, and the moment that I realized that, I had a whole new perspective on loving others as Jesus loved us.
2) I realized that impurity is no better or worse than any other sin. Purity should not be held to such high standards in the church because of associated psychological and social consequences, namely the shame we encourage in those who have “failed” at purity and the lack of compassion Christians can show toward those same people. Christianity has placed purity on its own altar, and it is this idolatrous purity that I had been holding fast to my entire life. Purity is not a purity ring or pledging to your dad that you’ll remain a virgin until marriage or any of that (although these are not inherently bad). This purity has become about the outward symbols, and while I don’t have a purity ring and while I never pledged anything to my dad, I had inadvertently become attached to this external purity.
What I realized was that purity is only between God and me. That is what I believe purity should be: a matter between you and God, just like any other aspect of your faith, not outward signs or a reason to judge others. Don’t get me wrong: purity should still be important but it is between you and God. Purity is important not because your church or your pastor or your youth leader says it’s important; it’s important because God says it’s important.
In Matthew 15:19, Jesus says that the certain “evil thoughts” such as sexual immorality defile us, but in John 8, after his famous quote, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus says to a woman caught in adultery that he does not condemn her. Jesus at the same time emphasizes the importance of purity and extends forgiveness for any transgression. Unlike many people, Jesus responds to impurity with the same love, compassion, and forgiveness as he does to every other sin
… so why don’t we do that?
The church is not wrong to say that purity is important to God, but the emphasis should be placed on the personal faith aspect of purity and the love and compassion we should show others when they stumble, not the shame they should feel. I will choose purity not for others or for society or for outward purity, but I will choose purity because I believe that it is the path that God has personally called me on.
And that is the point of purity for me- my personal relationship with Jesus.
Madeline basically grew up in Springfield, IL.
Her dad is an anesthesiologist and her mom is a stay-at-home mom, both of whom are now involved in Bible Study Fellowship, an international organization. She became a Christian when she was 12, the year her grandmother died, after her mom kept poking and prodding and questioning her. She was confirmed in the Methodist church when she was 13, and later that year, was baptized in the Baptist church. Madeline went on a mission trip to the Philippines when she was 16 and worked at a medical clinic, and there decided that she wanted to go on medical mission trips when she became a doctor.
Madeline is a sophomore at the University of Illinois pursuing a degree in integrative biology with a pre-medicine focus.
She can be reached at email@example.com