The Christian world was shaken (at least my corner of it) a few weeks ago when Joshua Harris announced that he and his wife were separating. A week later, he announced that he was no longer a Christian “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian”. Most recently, he posted a photo of himself attending a gay pride event. It was a huge change for the man who was the poster child for the purity movement.
Somewhere along the line, we got the term “purity culture”. There are various definitions, depending on who you talk to. Some people use it to refer to anyone who teaches abstinence before marriage. Others, such as myself, use it to refer to the culture that sprang up in the church throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s as a response to the Sexual Revolution and its ripples through secular culture. Purity culture varied from group to group, but generally contained the following characteristics:
- No sex until marriage
- “Courtship” as a replacement for dating
- Parental involvement in romance, often meaning that all four parents needed to approve the match before any relationship could commence
- Don’t be alone with the opposite sex
- All male-female relationships needed to either be platonic, friendly, and low-key, or a serious, committed relationship for the purpose of marriage
- Male-female interaction being frowned upon, especially one-on-one interaction
- Various forms of “hands off” rules, ranging from waiting to kiss until engagement, all the way to the couple not physically touching each other until the wedding day
- Guys needed to guard their eyes; girls needed to dress modestly
- Sex was implied to be dirty; if you were thinking about sex (or heaven forbid, talking about it!) prior to marriage, your mind was in the gutter
- If you messed up, you were liked an unwrapped candy bar; chewed gum; a de-petaled flower; spit-in water; a candy cane that had already been licked
- Crushes were potentially lusting after someone else’s future spouse
- The bottom line: don’t think romantic thoughts about the opposite sex; if God leads you to someone, make sure it’s His will before exhibiting any interest; involve all four parents; and above all, don’t have sex!
All of this started with the best of intentions: let’s help our kids to save sex for marriage. But along the way, things got screwed up.
The flagship “purity culture” book was Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which sold well over a million copies. But there was another, somewhat less popular book: When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy. Both books were published around the same time, and both were a reaction to the “easy love and sex” culture of the world.
In reality, both books were tame compared to the hardcore stuff that went around the circles I occupied. For example, while both promoted parental involvement, neither one taught (as far as I remember) that parents’ disapproval was God’s disapproval of your marriage. That was part and parcel of Bill Gothard’s teaching, which spread like cancer through the conservative homeschool movement. And it was inside that movement that purity culture was at its worst. There were kids who believed that dating was a sin. No joke. I was sort of one of them, although I don’t know that I would have said it flat-out.
To be honest, I feel that there was a lot of good in When God Writes Your Love Story. Because, ultimately, we should each live our lives the way God wants us to live, not the way we want to live. He actually knows what’s best, after all. It’s been so long since I read it that I have no comment on its actual content.
Eric and Leslie are still teaching. They’ve gone on to write numerous other books, and they currently run Ellerslie Discipleship Training, a Bible school. Eric is currently in the process of blogging his response to the recent events with Joshua Harris.
I personally met Eric and his son, Hudson, several months ago. I respect his commitment to Christ and his desire to help others follow Him. He has a lot of good to say. However, I also feel that he is missing something important. Maybe several things.
What Purity Culture?
Eric starts off his first post with the statement that “I officially retired from this platform 12 years ago. And with this so-called ‘retirement’ I set the topic of sexual purity aside, believing someone younger and more hip was supposed to carry this social hot potato.”
However, later in the same post, he writes: “…the term ‘Purity Culture’ has stepped onto the scene. I have been on the front lines of this movement for twenty-five years and I’ve never heard that term until Josh Harris launched his Apology Tour. When new-fangled terminology emerges it often has a revisionist agenda — desiring to overwrite past realities with new ones.”
I would appreciate if Eric would decide whether he’s been on the front lines for 25 years, or if he retired 12 years ago. Given that he’s just heard about purity culture, I would guess the latter.
This goes for everyone, not just Eric: before you react to people talking about Purity Culture, please take time to listen to some stories!
I still remember when I read an article from Salon a few years ago. The author described making a virginity pledge at age 10, and staying a virgin until marriage. But then something terrible happened:
“Everyone told me [sex] would be uncomfortable the first time. What they didn’t tell me is that… I’d be on my honeymoon, crying again, because sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married and it was supposed to be okay now.”
And then this: “I don’t go to church anymore, nor am I religious. As I started to heal, I realized that I couldn’t figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time. I chose sex.”
In his book, Courtship in Crisis, Thomas Umstaddt writes: “…purity culture tells us that both sex and sexual attraction are evil… The Purity Police think that if they can make sex look dirty and dangerous, young people will be less likely to fool around.” He concludes, “Once someone is convinced that sex is evil, how can he or she enjoy having it? An hour-long marriage ceremony cannot undo a lifetime of trying not to think about [sex].”
And he tells the story of another woman whose wedding-night sex left her feeling dirty.
Since then, I’ve heard more of these stories. It’s not an isolated problem.
But it’s only a problem if you actually make it into marriage. There are countless young people who are still single because they don’t know how to find a mate. This gets really personal, because it applies to me. Let me say it this way:
Imagine being 30 years old and uncertain about how to interact with the opposite sex, both romantically and non-romantically.
This is why people are talking about purity culture. Because it isn’t just about “tossing the purity crap” so we can have premarital sex. We have people who desire to save sex for marriage, but are fed up with the culture they grew up in.
So I will repeat: please listen before you speak.
If you don’t know what purity culture is, educate yourself before you talk about it. Read Courtship in Crisis, and also Rebecca Lemke’s great book The Scarlet Virgins, which I reviewed a couple years ago. Both address purity culture from a Christian, save-sex-for-marriage viewpoint.
And, by the way, Courtship in Crisis was talking about Purity Culture four years ago.
The Confusing Case of Joshua Harris
Josh Harris is hard to pin down, because he doesn’t fit neatly into a box. Bill Gothard was a perpetrator of purity culture. I was a victim.
Josh was both a victim and a perpetrator.
Josh was indoctrinated with courtship teachings long before writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Courtship was already popular in conservative homeschool circles by the time IKDG came out. And purity culture had been around in various shapes and forms for decades already.
But Josh wrote the bestseller that made purity culture hip and cool. He became the poster child for the movement. It was through his works that purity culture spread into less conservative circles.
All that explains why some purity culture survivors want to extend an olive branch to Josh, and others cheer his downfall. He doesn’t fit neatly into one category or the other.
Which is probably also why Eric Ludy seems so concerned about Josh:
“He has stationed himself against the Truth. And as a result, my fatherly vantage point on this leads me to see this whole Apology Tour as a tactical bait designed to lure young and vulnerable Christians away from God’s immovable reality. As such, I see him as a threat to me as a godly father as I seek to ground my children in God’s ways.”
I also see a broken, confused man who watched his church crumble around his ears as scandals came to light, and then saw that his seminal work had caused harm in the lives of thousands of people. It’s enough to drive a lot of people off the rails.
If Josh writes another book that is essentially the opposite of IKDG and promotes premarital sex, I will agree with Eric. For now, though, I am in wait-and-see mode. The last chapter of Josh’s life has not been written. Nor do I see him promoting premarital sex. He might believe it’s okay, but he doesn’t appear to be advocating for it with the fervor of IKDG.
The Problem is Purity Culture, Not Just Purity Teaching
The problems we currently face are not simple teaching problems. They are cultural problems. In multiple ways.
Purity culture formed the backdrop for my life. Courtship teaching and purity culture were all around me. I have heard stories of young people, working for Bill Gothard, who were sent home for having a friendly conversation with someone of the opposite sex. While no one around me was that hardcore, those same vibes trickled down to my level.
I well remember when I was 13 and my family held a hymn sing in our barn. The next day, I was working with my dad in our solar kiln, stacking lumber. He commented that if we were going to promote courtship, we needed to have events like this hymn sing so that young people could get to know each other in group settings.
I didn’t say much.
Because I had a crush on a girl that I had sat beside that evening.
And I felt guilty about it.
I couldn’t even tell you why for sure, now. But I think a big part of it was that I was only 13, a long way from marriageable age. So I wasn’t supposed to be interested in girls yet. Not until I was, oh, maybe 20 or so.
That’s so screwed up. But I honestly believed it.
I couldn’t even tell you where I would have learned it. It was just part of the culture.
Secular society provided a lousy culture. In secular culture, teenagers were dating and having sex. We didn’t want that. Gone were the days of innocent dates at the drugstore soda fountain.
But the church around me provided a lousy alternative. An alternative that has, in the end, driven some people into the secular hookups-and-easy-sex culture, which has only gotten worse in the intervening years.
It wasn’t a simple matter of taking Josh Harris with a grain of salt. I would literally have had to leave my home and church in order to find a healthier culture. But, thanks to my indoctrination, I had no desire to leave purity culture. I thought it was great.
Culture tells us what is normal. For example, culture tells us what is the usual process for a guy and girl to get married. In the culture of the US, you find someone, fall in love, and get married. In some places, your parents find someone, you get married, and then fall in love. (Don’t laugh. I’m told that, statistically, you have a better chance of a happy marriage through an arranged marriage than through online dating.)
We can’t simply pretend that we’re in the 50’s and act like nothing has changed. It has.
The question is, what do we do now?
Start Seeking Jesus
We need to observe what is going on. Is it working? What is the pattern? A few cases that don’t work, or a few that do, do not negate the majority.
If we observe that our teachings, methods, traditions, and culture are having bad results, we need to make changes. Plain and simple. Period. End of subject.
But I suggest that we stop teaching on purity. Sure, keep on teaching that you should wait for sex till you’re married. Give them real reasons, like those that Debra Fileta lays out in True Love Dates. Encourage people to treat each other with respect and honor.
However, the overall narrative needs to shift. Focus on Jesus, not on purity.
Truly pure behavior comes from a pure heart. A pure heart comes from the sanctifying power of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Dear brother or sister, no amount of refraining from touching the opposite sex will ever make you pure. If you’re struggling with sexual temptation, making rules to stop you from “going too far” won’t keep you pure in heart.
In fact, you will only hyper-sexualize everything. Instead of sharing a friendly hug with your sibling-in-Christ, it becomes something that is tantamount to taking your clothes off.
Jesus died to set us free from sin. Sexual sin and sexual temptation may be common, but they do not have to be part of the Christian life. If you seek Jesus, He will lead you into righteousness.
What is most important, brothers and sisters: that our young people stay virgins until marriage, or that they have an intimate relationship with Jesus that transforms their lives and completely changes their behavior? Which is worse: to fall into temptation and have sex with your girlfriend one time, or to have a dead spiritual life 24/7?
Satan and his temptations are not more powerful than the Spirit within us. Recently, I read a simple tip: if you are tempted to sin, command the tempting thoughts to leave in the name of Jesus. I have tried it. It works!
My final words are going to be raw, open, and vulnerable. They come from someone who finds himself sort of hanging in limbo, having rejected both purity culture and secular culture, and looking for the right way to go.
I am not an average Christian. I am not content to live an average life. Nor am I content to have an average wife.
Beautiful women are a dime-a-dozen. I see them all the time. I interact with women who have attractive personalities and winning smiles. But without a strong commitment to Christ, I’m not going to bite.
I would love to just “fit in” with popular culture, but yet I don’t want the status quo. My conservative, legalistic past is where my roots are, and yet I don’t want to go back.
Various people give me advice. Get out there, go places, meet people, find someone. But where? And how do I overcome the fear, insecurity, and uncertainty that purity culture instilled? How do I proceed forward? I got here from people pushing formulas. The last thing I want is more formulaic advice.
In addition, I don’t exist in a vacuum. Purity culture has affected many Christian ladies from my generation. In the aftermath of purity culture, how do I get to know someone without jumping directly into a relationship? How do I avoid sending the wrong messages? How do I send the right ones?
People say that you have to step out of your comfort zone. But we’re talking about entering into a life-long relationship. I don’t believe that divorcing our spouses and looking for someone more “compatible” is what God wants us to do. How far out of my comfort zone can I safely step before I end up in a relationship that is a life-long disaster?
Before you start sending me answers, I want to clarify that I’m not really interested in them. Especially not clichés and pat answers. I’m writing these things because I want people to understand what it’s like to come out of purity culture. To come out of the isolationism of the conservative homeschool movement that I came from.
There’s one person I know I can trust. That’s my Heavenly Father. And He is faithful in leading me, and I rest in Him. Some people might be laughing at that idea or telling me that God doesn’t have a particular someone picked out for me, and I’m free to marry any compatible Christian girl.
Does God pick your spouse, or not? The Bible doesn’t say. I think the question is too limited, sort of like the age-old debate about God’s sovereignty and our free will. One thing I do know: God knows if I will marry, and He knows who I will marry. And He is perfectly capable of guiding our paths together.
So I will continue seeking Him. Because I know that He has all the answers.