Purity was a big deal in the 90s. I grew up with purity rings, purity pledges, purity conferences, books, and songs. But, as an adult who speaks to teenagers, I have to ask myself, is “purity” outdated?
I don’t mean the idea of abstinence, but the actual language itself. Over the years I have seen the damage done by what can sometimes be a very legalistic, unforgiving, black-and-white, and very confusing so-called purity culture. Depending on where you are, “purity” can also encompass rules about modesty, dating vs. courting, kissing, hugging, etc.
Over the next few posts, I want to look at the “purity culture” and challenge those who promote abstinence to rethink how they talk about it.
The Death of “Purity”
It’s evident that culture can change the definition of words. Take “literally” for example. It is an adverb meant to contrast with “figuratively.” If something is literal, that means it happened exactly as I am recalling it. If something is figurative, that means I am using a figure of speech.
My heart literally exploded.
No, it actually didn’t. That would be messy, and you would be dead. Your heart didn’t literally explode, break, or get stuck in your throat. Nevertheless, literally has gone the way of “totally” and “as if.” It’s going to be one of those word usages that characterizes a generation. Hashtag: Literally.
What does literally have to do with purity? Nothing, except to show that sometimes culture can change a word- misuse it, make it mean something it doesn’t, and, in the case of “literally” make it mean exactly the opposite.
C.S. Lewis called this verbicide- the killing of a word.
I think the idea of purity has gone that way in the church and in culture. That’s important, because if you keep using a word after it’s “dead” (or after you killed it), your message loses its power.
The problem is, the church killed the word “purity.”
Purity is a Bible word. It’s also a cultural word. In cultural applications, we might talk about the purity of water, or of gold. The idea, in the culture if something is pure is that it lacks filth or contamination. The actual Meriam Webster definition is this:
unmixed with any other matter: free from dust, dirt, or taint: spotless, stainless
This is also the Biblical use of the word, simply with a different application. While in culture, things like water, gold, and intentions may be pure, as Christians we are also encouraged to have pure hearts, pure minds, pure worship, and to conduct ourselves in purity.
Here’s part of the problem, when we take a word that means “absent from dirt and filth” and use it solely as an adjective for someone who hasn’t had sex, we make the unfortunate (and wrong) implication that sex, itself, is the dirt and filth.
The Greek word ἁγνός (hagnos) is an adjective that can be used to refer to something as chaste, virginal, uncontaminated, or prepared ceremonially for worship. A similar word (possible cognate) is ἅγιος (hagios) which means “holy or sacred.” (You can check my Greek here)
Biblically, “purity” carries more meaning than “hasn’t had sex yet.” Still, in the so-called “purity movement” that is the only meaning that word took on. If a church was having a lesson on purity, it was a lesson on sex, and why you shouldn’t have it.
Perhaps this wasn’t the intention, but the implication was that the most important information you could know about a future mate was whether or not they were a virgin.
“Purity” had no answer for girls (or boys) who were raped, sexually abused or assaulted. If purity is about whether or not you are a virgin, what happens when your virginity is taken against your will?
“Purity” had no answer for things like pornography, because hey! I’m still a virgin, so it doesn’t count, right?
“Purity” had no answer for alternatives like oral sex, or masturbation, other than to get frustrated by people “pushing the boundaries.” I sat through many a sermon saying, “Stop asking how close you can get to the line without technically crossing over it. You should be more concerned about staying as far away as possible.” The unintended implication, again, being sex is bad.
“Purity” had no answer for the cultural shift of delayed marriage. With more and more Christians single into their 30s or older, the powerhouses of the purity movement (most of whom were married in their early 20s) became irrelevant.
Tell me to get married, that’s all fine well and good, but what happens when I don’t? What happens when we try and it doesn’t happen? How do you navigate “purity” in the midst of frustrated singleness? More importantly, what do you do when the idea of “purity” seems to frustrate your faith?
“Purity” had no answer for after marriage, either. It’s like it just stopped. Once you got to your wedding night, poof, you didn’t have to be “pure” anymore…
The problem is “purity” is an all or nothing thing, so you are either pure or you are impure. There is no neutral. If purity is synonymous for virginity, then, once you get married and lose your virginity, you lose your purity. Which, again, implies that sex is bad and leaves more than a few Christian women terrified of sex after marriage (which we’re going to talk about in an upcoming post).
Purity is not about sex.
When the Bible talks about purity, it more times than not refers to a state of the heart, not what you do with your body. The problem is, in church cultures, purity has been solely used as a reference to sexual status, when Biblically, it is far more holistic. In the Bible, purity has more to do with worship than it does with virginity.
That’s not to say that what you do with your body is not important, but what we’ve done has failed to address the deeper heart issues that lead to sexual struggles. We have made our faith all about the physical act of sex and have, in the process, damaged both sex and our faith.
When we make purity a shallow thing- saving sex for marriage and nothing else- we water down the gravity of what it means to be the bride of Christ.
When we make purity solely sexual, we confuse the need for having a heart right before God. It’s like the sexual idol worship of Greece, but in reverse. I worship God by not having sex. As long as I meet all of this sexual criteria, then God will be happy.
And now, we have a culture that believes the Christian approach to sex is one that suppresses women, excuses men’s impulses, and slut-shames. Regardless of how you interpret purity as a Christian, I hope you will realize slut-shaming was never the point.
So, is it wise to keep talking about “purity” the way we always have? With analogies of ripped napkins, greasy cheeseburgers, and half-eaten candy bars? Personally, I say the answer is no. I don’t use the word purity when I refer to sex, and if someone asks me in a Q & A, anything about “purity,” I first dismantle the word.
Again, I am all for abstinence.
But call it that. Don’t cloud it, muddy it and Christianese it by dubbing it purity. If I am encouraging a room full of high schoolers to save sex for marriage, that is abstinence. I can do that without a single appeal to my faith. As a teenager, I had no moral reasoning to wait until marriage- it was all logical. Abstinence does not have to be a faith decision.
If I am going to bring my faith into it, that doesn’t make it “purity.” That’s just abstinence with extra reasons.
If I am going to talk about purity, that conversation encompasses our entire lives, not just our sexual activity. It is a conversation that talks about living a life that honors God in all aspects- in how I interact with others, how I use my time, how I treat my friends, what I watch online, how I use my money, what I fill my mind with. It’s not about sex, and it’s time we stopped making it about sex.
True Biblical purity is about my relationship with God. Teach young people to love God, to honor Him, and to let that love infiltrate every area of their lives. It’s not about their virginity. It’s about their hearts.
If you’re going to talk about purity, talk about it in that context. If not, just call it abstinence.