Is “Purity Culture” a Problem?

Why the excesses of conservative evangelicalism won’t be fixed by unbelief.

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

This post was originally published in 2016.

 

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.