Four Steps to Navigating Life after Purity Culture
A pastor’s daughter involved in a large youth group growing up, RZIM Speaker Michelle Tepper takes an honest look at purity culture, offering four areas to consider as the church continues the conversation on Christian dating, sex, and relationships.
I was in high school at the height of what is now referred to as the evangelical “purity culture” movement. I remember vividly when the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. The best seller by Joshua Harris was recently back in the spotlight when Harris announced on social media that he separated from his wife and left the Christian faith. As a pastor’s daughter in a large youth group, I was frequently asked what I thought about the book’s teaching against dating, and my response was always the same: “I never got the chance to kiss dating hello, so I don’t need to kiss it goodbye.”
My parents, like many other Christian leaders and parents at that time, came of age in the sexual revolution. They were personally impacted by the dramatic cultural changes that came as their generation denounced previously accepted sexual values such as saving sex for marriage, marital fidelity, and sexual self-restraint. As they came to faith and later went on to become parents and leaders in Christian ministry, one of their main goals was to create a church environment that modeled an alternative lifestyle to the increasing promiscuity in secular culture, with the hopes of protecting the next generation from making the same relational mistakes that they made. For many, this took shape through teachings on the importance of sexual purity, home and private faith-based schooling, and the elimination of dating in church youth groups. Long before I ever heard of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I was told that I wasn’t permitted to date until I was ready for marriage. The explanation was that dating was a slippery slope that led to premature emotional, physical, and spiritual intimacy that would compromise personal holiness and weaken Christian commitment. What Harris’s book did for many was to provide a manual for how to put these ideas into practice. In theory, if Christian youth were kept from dating until they were old enough to consider marriage, then it would minimize the opportunity for sexual mistakes and relational breakdown and pave the way for them to arrive at their wedding day spiritually, emotionally, and sexually whole.
I genuinely believe that at the heart of these teachings there was a healthy desire to promote a biblically based and Christ-centered culture of mutual honor, spiritual purity, and personal holiness. However, even the soundest of theological teachings can at best be difficult to translate into daily practice and at worst, misinterpreted or reframed as legalistic requirements for Christian living that far exceed what is written in Scripture. Two decades later, the generation that grew up during this time have the personal data of how this teaching shaped their understanding and practice of love and relationships, and they’re now speaking up about how it impacted them.
Life After Purity Culture
Drawing from fourteen years of fulltime Christian ministry combined with the experiences of friends and family, I have journeyed with many raised under similar teaching through very mixed feelings and outcomes. Numerous couples didn’t date, practiced sexual abstinence, and “followed all of the rules” for a healthy marriage, only to, sadly, have those same marriages end in divorce five to fifteen years later. In their own words, some felt they married too soon to know the other person well enough, or with too little experience of romantic relationships to truly know what real love and commitment was. Others felt they were cheated out of what they later perceived as “normal” teenage or college experiences, and either one or both spouses went looking outside of their marriages for fulfillment, ultimately leading to the painful breakdown of their families.
Both friends and loved ones shared how a strict, no-dating policy drove them to hide their relationships from their family and faith community. The fear and shame of breaking the rules and living a double life often left them feeling trapped or isolated in relationships, making naïve and sometimes unhealthy choices with no idea who to talk to or how to move forward. In the words of a close friend:
“Growing up, dating was prohibited. In fact, the very mention of boys was frowned upon in my house. I did not feel I had the freedom to talk about boys or the thoughts and emotions I had about the opposite sex with my parents. I was naive in every way when it came to relationships. When I turned 17, I married the first boy I could date. Inexperience and naivety did me no favors. I had no idea what love was. No idea how to be a girlfriend, no less a wife. I was in uncharted waters and almost drowned. Two babies later, I found myself a beaten down, divorced, single mom at age 20.”
Many who grew up during this time either took a long period away from the faith or left entirely. The main message they took from purity culture was that if they broke the rules they were now “damaged goods,” and the shame of this often drove them far from Christian community. Those who wrestled through the pain, broken relationships, and misguided elements of the teaching still found that the Christian community lacked practical teaching and pastoral care for those navigating sex and relationships past the teenage years.
What About Singleness?
One of the weakest aspects of purity culture was that its vision of sexual purity was tied exclusively to marriage. It gave rules for how to save yourself until marriage, but it substantially overlooked and undervalued singleness. The assumption of much of the teaching was that marriage was a foregone conclusion. Consequently, many people who were raised with this teaching and are still single now feel woefully unprepared as they began to navigate dating at a much later age than others in a similar stage of life. Many are desperately hungry for a more robust theology that acknowledges human sexuality and offers a path to satisfaction and intimacy greater than marriage.
As a church we often teach on the goodness of marriage and offer countless resources for parents and families, but when was the last time we did a sermon series or could recommend resources on the blessing and goodness of singleness? Single people are often left feeling undervalued, out of place, or even forgotten in church community. However, this is far from what the Bible teaches about singleness. In 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, Paul says, “But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another. So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.” Paul mentions singleness multiple times in that same chapter—not as a sad, unwanted alternative to marriage, but as an highly valued, intentional choice to glorify God. We need to review our teaching, pastoral care, and community support for singleness in the body of Christ. Sam Allberry’s book, 7 Myths about Singleness, is a great place to start unpacking what the Bible says on the topic and applying it to our daily lives.
Four Considerations on Sexual Purity in the Wake of Purity Culture
Those who felt most negatively impacted by the purity culture have called for a complete rejection of any biblical boundaries for sexual expression and romantic relationships. But is this truly the best way forward? Will this heal the pain of past broken relationships and protect people from future heartache? Ethicist Matthew Lee Anderson wrote helpfully about the weakness of this approach:
“The abuses and missteps within ‘purity culture’ do not arise from Christian sexual ethics themselves, but from an anxious, reactionary resistance to a culture turning away from that ethic. In correcting, purity culture overcorrected—and now its critics are at risk of repeating the error, and repudiating purity culture while having nothing substantive with which to replace it. Untangling it from the hollow, lifeless versions on offer in ‘purity culture’ is a critical task—provided that, in doing so, we retrieve and recover the heartbeat of the sexual ethic, rather than reject it.”
So, where do we go from here? Is there a way to “untangle and recapture the heartbeat” of the Christian sexual ethic? This is the question I’ve been mulling over for some time now, from lots of different viewpoints. As a parent, what message about love, sex, and dating do I want to give to my daughter? My husband is a pastor and as we lead our local church together, I want to prayerfully consider how we recover and reframe a biblical sexual ethic in a way that inspires and supports people at every stage of discipleship. As a Christian, how does my answer and lived-out reality of these topics point to the good news of Jesus Christ?
Here are four areas to consider as we continue the conversation on Christian dating, sex, and relationships.
1. Return to biblical boundaries without imposing non-Scriptural requirements.
As noted in the previous quote, both the legalism of purity culture and the excesses of its reactionary critics are flawed by the same problem. Both promote a sexual ethic from a position of cultural reaction rather than from a moral foundation. As the RZIM team visits university campuses and engages with cultural leaders around the world, time and again we find that one of the biggest hurdles to the Christian faith is people’s perception of what the Bible has to say about our love lives.
What does the Bible actually say about our sexuality, our bodies, and how we should relate to each other? It is critical that we engage with people’s concerns on these issues. It’s time to unpack what the Bible says about sexuality and purity in a way that engages and inspires a hunger for the God who offers satisfaction for both the single and the married person. Beth Felkner Jones does a wonderful job of this in her book Faithful: A Theology of Sex:
“What if sex is not about a list of rules, a set of dos and don’ts? What if sex isn’t, most of all, about us?... Christian sexuality is not a series of legalistic morals but is instead meant to be a witness to the God who is faithful… to us. Sex matters to God because bodies matter to God, because God created our bodies and has good plans for us as embodied people. Sex is a witness to what God does in our lives… Christians have always acknowledged two routes for embodying faithfulness in a way that the world can see. We’ve always had these two routes for publicly declaring—and displaying—that God is faithful. The first route is celibate singleness; the second is faithful marriage. In both conditions, Christians testify, with their bodies, to the power of God… The path of celibate singleness is a sign of God’s faithfulness. When a single person doesn’t have sex, his body is a testament to God’s utter refusal to forsake us. When a married person remains faithful, her body is a testament to the same God.”
It is crucial that we lay a biblical foundation for God’s design for human relationships and uphold the biblical standards for sexual conduct. However, it’s of equal importance to recognize that matters relating to dating and relational boundaries which are not forbidden or commanded in Scripture are matters of conscience. As Christian leaders, in matters of conscience, we must encourage and create the freedom and support for church members of all ages to individually seek God, do their own study, and ultimately come to their own decisions of how they practically glorify God in their day to day lives.
2. Recognize and learn from past mistakes.
Throughout human history Christians and the church have gotten things wrong. Much of Paul’s writing to the early church is devoted to correcting sincere believers when they misinterpreted the teachings of Jesus or the early apostles. Today, Christians openly denounce the bloodshed and violence of medieval crusades. We rightfully celebrate the historical corrections to theological errors and corruption in the established church. The fact that Christians are open about the fact that we are humans who make mistakes, get things wrong, and are in constant need of the grace of God is a major strength of our message. We are to be confident in who Christ is and what he achieved for us on the cross, but Micah 6:8 requires us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly as we practice and pass on our Christian faith.
We must take time to evaluate past teaching on Christian dating, sex, and relationships and be honest about what was fruitful and what was unhelpful. I often say to my daughter that if we never make mistakes we never learn. As disciples of Christ, there is always more to learn, there is always room for growth as our relationship with Jesus matures. Hence, we should expect that our understanding, practice and method of teaching will change and grow as we do. We must be open, honest, and ready to revisit and revise things we have taught and practices we have accepted in the past if the long-term effects do not produce gospel fruit.
We must be open, honest, and ready to revisit and revise things we have taught and practices we have accepted in the past if the long-term effects do not produce gospel fruit.
3. Create space for early and ongoing conversation.
Christian communities and families should be the first, not the last, to talk about sex, dating, and all kinds of intimacy. Churches are beginning to address these topics much more than in the past, but still we need to start these conversations earlier and keep them going longer!
Christian communities and families should be the first, not the last, to talk about sex, dating, and all kinds of intimacy.
What do healthy relationships look like in every age and stage of life? How to relate to the opposite sex, the importance of honoring our bodies and those of others, and what to do with physical and sexual attractions when we are single or married are topics that are either rarely discussed or mostly directed to student audiences. Yet, Proverbs 22:6 argues, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (emphasis mine). This command includes relationship training. Parents, youth leaders, and pastors should create opportunities to not only teach, but also encourage questions and discussions about what Christian dating, sex, and relationships should look like. Precisely because these are difficult and often awkward discussions to have, leaders must initiate the conversations, provide ample time for discussion, and model the practice of listening first and then responding with good questions.
Precisely because these are difficult and often awkward discussions to have, leaders must initiate the conversations, provide ample time for discussion, and model the practice of listening first and then responding with good questions.
4. Make our sacred spaces training grounds for grace and redemption.
The development of Christian sexual ethics is a matter of discipleship. Discipleship requires continual patience, persistence, and surrender to Christ. Discipleship is often accelerated with communal teaching and support, but true growth will never be accomplished by saying either everything or nothing is permitted. Each individual has a responsibility to dig into what the Bible says, study the past and present teaching of the church, ask hard questions, and, with the help of Holy Spirit, put into practice what they have studied and learned. But they shouldn’t have to do this alone. What if our sacred spaces of church and home became places that created the freedom for individuals to practice living out every aspect of their Christian faith? In other words, the church and the home would be the principal training ground for things like starting and ending relationships well, responsible dating, navigating our sexuality as single or married people, and all other relational development. Would it be messy? Absolutely. Life is messy and relationships are messy, but so is the practice of grace and redemption. Success in discipleship should never be measured by perfection, but by how we grow as we apply the truth of the gospel to our mistakes.
What if our sacred spaces of church and home became places that created the freedom for individuals to practice living out every aspect of their Christian faith?
For the Christian, conflict and failure are opportunities for the glory of the cross to be displayed in and through our lives. This is the message of grace and redemption we teach on Sundays, and we are called to authenticate it in the culture we create in our churches and homes. We are made in the image of God—that means we were created with an inbuilt desire for love and intimacy. Sin and selfishness always lead to those desires becoming disordered and destructive, but the message of the cross is that Jesus came to redeem and reorder our hearts. Likewise, as Christians we are to show the beauty of redemption in our lives. May our churches, homes, and conversations be spaces that offer a redeemed model of dating, sex, and relationship that is good news for all people.
 Anderson, Matthew Lee. “Purity Culture and Christian Morality: A BreakPoint Symposium.” Breakpoint. John Stonestreet, August 14, 2019. http://www.breakpoint.org/2019/08/purity-culture-and-the-christian-faith-a-breakpoint-symposium/#MattLeeAnderson.
 Jones, Beth Felker. Faithful: A Theology of Sex. Zondervan, 2015. pp.10,18, 63,71.