Introduction

“No one can tell me who I can and can’t sleep with.” A common beliefs of some Evangelical churches is that all intellectual arguments against God ultimately boil down to the sexual and moral issue of human autonomy. Whether or not the arguments do actually boil down to this matter is something that can be argued.  Yet, the fact that this perspective can be found in the Christian community is an indication of the importance the rolesexual ethics plays in raising the next generation. Sexual desire is one of the most powerful motivators of human beings, particularly of the youth, and it is correct to take it seriously. However, Christians can place such an emphasis on sexual sin and behavior that it can overshadow all other parts of their theology and end up distorting a healthy view of the body and of sexual desire itself.

Secular Ideas about Sexuality and Dating

One does not need to look very far to see what the secular world thinks about human sexuality. There are two aspects of sexuality that are prevalent and coexist in the secular culture. Yet, if looked at together they produce conflict and contradiction.  One aspect is that sexuality is simply a primitive biological drive to reproduce. In this view, sexual urges are natural. Acting on them therefore is merely an instinctual way of ensuring that one’s genes are passed on.  Science programs on TV often try to reduce everything, even emotional responses, to chemical reactions in the brain.

The other main secular view is that finding one’s “soul mate” holds the answer to all of life’s problems. According to popular culture, sexual compatibility is a big part of determining whether one has found one’s soul mate is.  Almost every movie and TV show bears this out. As soon as a couple show a romantic interest in each other they will be thrown into bed together.  This pattern happens regardless of whether or not the program is aimed at youth or adults. Dating is portrayed as a pathway to sex rather than a way of getting to know a person of the opposite sex and oneself at the same time.  If perchance a couple does get together and decides to get married, the commitment is only as long as the sexual romance lasts. As soon as problems show up, and they must if the show is to remain interesting, it is time to split up and prepare the couples for the next round.  Shows like the immensely popular Grey’s Anatomy, are perfect examples of this. Romantic attachment is portrayed as the ultimate goal for each of the characters, and yet there is never really any satisfaction or fulfillment gained.

Both of these views are a heritage of Modernity’s shift to the supremacy of the autonomous self. Many kids are getting the message from our culture that if something feels natural then it must be good; and that the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. It is ironic that when Shakespeare had Polonius say “to thine own self be true” he was being facetious and everybody knew it.  Nowadays that phrase is bandied about as sage advice by talk show hosts and psychologists and the youth are swallowing it hook line and sinker. Yet, as many young people inevitably discover, we don’t always know what is good for us. In fact, most of the time our basic desires are damaging to us. The prophet Jeremiah says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”[1] Since God and His design for relationship has been rejected by our culture, something else must step in and fill the gap.  Human reason rejecting God fills the gap with Scientism which explains relationship in terms of an evolutionary mechanism for passing on human genes. Popular culture tells us that relationship is a way of attaining personal fulfillment. Manufactured temporal purpose is based on the shifting sands of personal pleasure. Each of these views is reductionist in nature. Either one sees sex and relationship as merely complex chemical reactions determined by evolution, or one flies from the dark cold despair of determinism into hedonism.

The Evangelical Response – Purity Culture and Courtship

            The Church is right to fight back against these reductionist views and point to a more holistic understanding of the human person and his relationships. However, as with many human endeavors, when this is attempted without humbly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit through scripture, the results can be reductionist in their own way.  When we look at the rise of the “purity culture,” and its intersection with courtship in the Evangelical Church, we can see just such an example. The emphasis on purity and courtship is intended to remind the youth that the ultimate reason for dating is marriage and to guard against the damage that the trivialization of sex can do to an eventual marriage.  Yet, unintended consequences arise from this model that stem from a misunderstanding of the purposes of God’s commandments to us. God’s commandments cannot be reduced to some arbitrary set of standards that we must measure up to in order to have value and bring Him glory.  They are there for our own benefit, handed down in order that we might flourish. God receives glory from our flourishing. A wrongheaded response to pagan sexualization of everything in popular culture easily leads to a skewed focus on Christian purity which unmoors this vital expression of gospel faith from its purpose and meaning.

The purity subculture in the Evangelical Church is characterized by an extreme focus on abstinence from anything sexual; with rituals resembling marriage ceremonies where young girls as young as 11 pledge to remain virgins.[2] There are rings and tokens that accompany these rituals that act as constant reminders of the commitments that are made. Young people, especially girls, are told that their purity is the most valuable thing that they possess, and that there are dire consequences to even the smallest lapse, even in their thought life the extreme focus on external behaviors to express purity can have the effect of disassociating it from a matter of the heart. When purity does not flow from the internal spring of a loving obedient heart, it becomes an idol.

There are many consequences to the idolization of purity. Purity culture can set an almost impossible standard for young people to reach.  The inevitable failures can produce a tremendous amount of guilt in the individual. One young man puts it this way: “I’m supposed to be a great Christian guy and I have sexual feelings, and with God I feel guilty, and I ask God to forgive me, and I feel that I’m going to run out of grace. And I feel that I’m messing up sometimes and living a lie.”[3] This comment highlights another problem with idolizing purity, the lack of grace. It is typical in communities where purity culture is strong to ostracize those who fail to keep the standards. Once a reputation for falling is gained, it is almost impossible to shake it off.  A young lady who grew up in just such a culture and was seduced by a boy tells of the reaction of her community:  “Word got out to my circle of friends that I was “promiscuous,” and my fate was sealed. I was now the resident whore. I reached out to the few people in my life whom I thought could help me, but even they turned their backs on me.”[4] When someone fails to reach the standard, they must be punished because idols are incapable of giving grace.[5]

            The sexualization of the culture around us and the noetic effects of sin on human nature do present very real for helping young people avoid destructive decisions regarding their sexual desires. We have seen that purity culture reflects guilting and rituals more than biblical principles. In many cases the cure is worse than the disease. Still, there exists another idol in the Church that is born out of purity culture: marriage.  With the extreme negative emphasis that is placed on any kind of private interaction between boys and girls because of the risk of physical or even mental sexual impurity a problem arises as to how to bring two people together into that highest of Christian values for adults: the marriage bond. As the dating model of the popular culture is obviously fatally flawed, many in the Evangelical community have resorted to a courtship model. The courtship model that is supported by purity culture tries to address the problems of sexual temptation by taking private interaction between a boy and girl off of the table, and placing all the authority externally in the parents. According to Thomas Umstattd, who was originally a proponent of courtship, but has since abandoned it in favor of a more traditional model of dating, are:

  • The man must ask the woman’s father’s permission before pursuing the woman romantically.
  • High accountability (chaperones, monitored correspondence, etc).
  • Rules about physical contact and purity. (The specific rules vary from community to community).
  • The purpose of the courtship is marriage
  • High relational intentionality and intensity
  • High parental involvement. Fathers typically hold a “permission and control” role rather than the traditional “advice and blessing” role held by their fathers.[6]

There are aspects of the courtship model that do have value which is evidenced by the popularity, among evangelical youth of books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. The casual attitude towards sex and dating in the popular culture has left many young adults feeling lost and empty and wanting something more.  As noted by Donna Freitas in her book Sex and the Soul, the hook up culture in college has actually reversed the way that intimacy works in the relationship between two people. The process is not: get to know a person through a series of dates, the development of mutual feelings, marriage, and finally the intimacy of sex. It has become “one night after a party, two people hook up, then it happens again, then it becomes a regular thing, and eventually they find that they are in a relationship.”[7] These kinds of relationships rarely develop into marriage. With the hookup as the predominant secular model of dating it is natural that the Evangelical community would want something different, something with higher parental involvement so that a more mature person can help the young person avoid highly charged situations through a strong focus on the ultimate purpose of dating which is to find a marriage partner.

Those young people and parents who read Joshua Harris’s book saw the courtship model as a way to counter the cultural hook-up mandate and bring a more spiritually mature adult alongside the immature party in order to share the responsibility. The high parental involvement could slow down the quick progression of intimacy that plagues the current dating scene and allow the couple to develop a “deep friendship that could lead to marriage.”[8] The courtship model itself is not really the problem. Parental involvement and counsel in the choice of a potential mate, providing means to avoid temptation to sexual immorality, and keeping in mind the ultimate goal of marriage are all good things and should be a part of a healthy dating process.

Intersection of Purity Culture and Courtship

However, the problem with courtship when it intersects with purity culture is that the focus becomes almost exclusively, “how do we keep the couple from having sex before they are married?” When we look at early America where the courtship model was practiced successfully in the Christian community the sexual issue was not a problem.  Take for example the courtship of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder recorded in These Happy Golden Years. In that situation Almanzo did approach Laura’s father about pursuing Laura,[9] but there was not the suffocating oversight that is prevalent in today’s courtship rituals. Almanzo and Laura were able to go out on sleigh and carriage rides into the country completely unsupervised and yet there was no specter of sexual sin hanging over their interactions.

Granted, we do live in a different time. In early America, sex was not one of the dominant aspects of the surrounding culture like it is today. Back then young people were not confronted with a constant barrage of images promoting and normalizing pre-marital sex. Back then communities were very strong and close knit.  However if one observes the typical Evangelical purity community now, strength and unity would certainly be an accurate way of describing it. The difference is that Laura’s parents trusted her and they trusted God. They raised her to know what was right and wrong and what God’s purpose was for her and then trusted her to act on the teaching which she had herself internalized. One aspect of the purity culture courtship model as noted earlier is extreme parental control. This kind of control is an example of a distinct lack of trust in God. The youth are taught the precepts of purity but are never given the opportunity to stand on their own two feet and make the choices while listening to the Holy Spirit. The parents have taken on the role of God.

Another pitfall arises from the literature that espouses courtship over any other method of dating. Much of the purity language is focused almost exclusively on sexual abstinence both physical and mental.  For example, a statement on the IBLP web site says: “Courtship is a choice to avoid temptation and experience the blessings of purity.”[10] In this one article on courtship and its purposes, almost every single paragraph has something in it that speaks of avoiding temptation or puts a negative spin on physical desires. With lines like “couples usually date with the selfish goals of having fun and enjoying romantic attachments,”[11] and  “In a dating relationship, self-gratification is normally the basis of the relationship,”[12] the article gives the impression that sexuality is a negative thing that needs to be suppressed.

I am not saying that expressing one’s sexuality in a relationship before marriage should be treated cavalierly. Yet, sex and the pleasure one experiences from it, are created by God and are good. To place a negative connotation on them can leave a young person with the impression that sex and his body are bad. This non-Incarnational way of thinking about the body and sexual desire often has many unintended consequences for couples once they do get married.  Those feelings that sex, and one’s desire for it are bad don’t disappear once the vows have been said.  Many women speak of the sexual dysfunction within marriage that they deal with as a result of the methods they used to maintain their purity before marriage.[13] When a girl sees her purity as her ultimate gift to her husband, it objectifies her in a way that is contradictory to the intent. Another tragic unintended consequence comes when a girl does manage to keep herself completely pure. It becomes extremely difficult for any young man to measure up to her father’s standards. This can keep many young women from even the potential of courtship and marriage because their fathers run off any potential suitors. As one young man puts it that returned home from college expecting to find many of the young ladies he grew up with available for courting:

It is a cruel irony: a culture which esteems marriage and family as the highest ideal ultimately makes it unattainable. Organizations like ATI and Vision Forum that claim that women only have a role in the house ultimately doom them to a lifestyle apart from their ideal. By idolizing marriage, finding a spouse becomes almost impossible.[14]

This notion of one’s purity as the ultimate gift turns sexual purity into a commodity by which the value of a potential spouse is judged. Much of the teaching that is put forth in purity culture is about saving one’s self for one’s eventual mate.  Not only are many young people pledging that they will be virgins until they get married, many are also pledging that they won’t have their first kiss until the altar. This is not to say that avoiding physical temptation is not a wise thing to do, however when one’s value as a person is determined by how successful one is at self-control, the damage can be catastrophic. For example, photographer Amy Almasy writing about her experience with purity culture says:

What purity teaching did for me, and for many of the women I know who were raised in similar environments, was distill me down to my body. Sure, leaders paid lip service to concepts like, you know, women having brains and personalities. But the core of purity culture was that my mind didn’t matter, my personality didn’t matter, my dreams and desires and goals didn’t matter — if my shorts were too short. Or if I wore a bikini, if I kissed a boy, if I kissed a GIRL, if I shook my bootie when I danced, if I ever-ever-ever had sex for any reason whatsoever before I was married. Because my REAL value, my ultimate worth, came from my body. I learned that the assumed, innate “impurity” of my body would overshadow any other valuable trait I may possess.[15]

Yet another pitfall is that purity culture can set such an impossibly high standard for physical and mental purity, with dire consequences from the community for failure, that young people are saddled with tremendous guilt.  Unfortunately failure in this area tends to be enormous. A young woman who calls herself “Mary Elizabeth” started out as a happy and well-adjusted girl whose parents wanted the best for her. However, once her parents got involved with ATI, an Evangelical group espousing purity culture, everything changed. She writes:

Around the age of fourteen, my Dad introduced the concept of courtship. It was painted in such a romantic light–my hand being won by a dashing young man who proved his honor and godliness and would be the perfect husband. What girl DIDN’T want that?? All we had to do was keep working on becoming the perfect little home-maker. Everywhere we went, we must dress modestly so as not to turn off potential suitors with our brazenness. We must act like and be ladies at all times… We were to give our Dad our hearts and treat him like our husband in the mean-time, so as not to give away the unsoiled ground of our hearts. For if we were to give even a piece of our heart away it was “un-whole” and not worth as much.[16]

Already it is easy to see that a good thing turned into an ultimate thing becomes an idol. Idols created from very good things, like wanting a good marriage to a Godly man, can be especially vicious in their demands. The perceived consequences of not measuring up are so dire that any slip is treated with extreme prejudice as noted by Mary Elizabeth when things for her started to go wrong: “the standard that had been set was so impossibly high, and the verbal attacks I suffered on an almost daily basis drove me into a deep depression. I felt worthless. There was no hope. I was capable of no good. I was no good.”[17] Ultimately her community turned away from her when she reached out for support.

Purity culture courtship is an all or nothing game. The prep for this game begins before there is even the possibility of marriage and if one slips up with the mental part one doesn’t even get a chance to play. Mary Elizabeth puts it this way: “If my worth was wrapped up in my mental purity then I had destroyed that, because I had given my heart to more than one boy.”[18] The depression and feelings of worthlessness actually drove her away from God, the only one who could give her worth, and into a destructive lifestyle of reckless promiscuity because it at least gave her the illusion of value but ultimately left her despondent at the brink of suicide.

Conclusion    

            What is the answer to all of this?  How can we as apologists provide a different answer for those who have been hurt both by the secular de-emphasis on purity and the Christian wrong-headed emphasis on purity? We can start with is a better definition of sex.  By knowing what sex and its purpose is, we can better understand that the rules that God has instituted for its expression are for our benefit. God’s rules are never just some arbitrary standard to strive for. The Bible speaks of the sexual act between Adam and Eve as Adam “knowing” Eve. This speaks of sex in a much more relational way as a multi-faceted connection between two people. Sex obviously has a biological function of regenerating mankind, and it is also obviously very gratifying and pleasurable, but it is only satisfying when it is accompanied by the intimacy in the God-given parameters of “knowing” the other person.  This better definition highlights the fact that immorality not the sex is sin. This will help couples to avoid the baggage of guilt about sex once they are married.  This “knowing” aspect of sex can also provide an answer to those who are called to celibacy. Intimate friendship need not be sexual in nature. That is a lie that popular culture tells. A community within the body of Christ where everyone is “known” and valued for their differences can give those called to singleness, for whatever reason, a place to belong.

Realizing that the rules God sets for our relationships with the opposite sex are there for our benefit, and not just to bring God glory, can avoid idolizing those standards. It can remind us that our value flows from God’s love and the fact that He has created us in His image, not from how well we keep the rules. Sexual purity is a part of God’s plan for all of humanity, not just those who are called to marriage. Recognition of fallen man’s tendency, Christians included, to autonomous self-centeredness is a good antidote to help us return to a focus on the fact that we exist for God, the source of blessing in community. God’s intention for the Christian community is beautifully expressed in Hebrews: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”[19]  We can encourage one another to guard against and fight the idol factory in our hearts.

[1] Jerimiah 17:9 NIV.

[2] Betsy, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2011/10/courtship-covenants/ (accessed October 24 2014).

[3] Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 180.

[4] Mary Elizabeth, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2012/01/the-thing-about-purity/ (accessed on October 22 2014).

[5] Yong men can also experience this separation from community. For boys this comes in the form of being the right kind of friend.  As a boy I was ostracized by some of the parents of my friends because I had begun to question the tenets of the program we were involved in. The idolization of purity is a symptom of a larger tendency in the church to place unquestioning adherence to narrow interpretations of doctrine on a pedestal.

[6] Thomas Umstattd “ Thomas Umstattd Jr. An Unusual Perspective on Religion, Politics and Life.” http://www.thomasumstattd.com/2014/08/courtship-fundamentally-flawed/ (accessed on October 22 2014).

[7] Donna Freitas, Sex And The Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 139.

[8] “Institute in Basic Life Principles: Giving the World a “New” Approach to Life,” http://iblp.org/questions/how-courtship-different-dating (accessed on October 23 2014).

[9] Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1971), 31.

[10]“Institute in Basic Life Principles: Giving the World a “New” Approach to Life,” http://iblp.org/questions/how-courtship-different-dating (accessed on October 23 2014).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For more stories that speak of the tragedy resulting from an non-Incarnational view of sexuality see the link

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2011/11/the-purity-culture-and-sexual-dysfunction.html

[14] The Graduate, “Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2012/03/why-courtship-fails-a-males-perspective/ (Accessed on October 25, 2014).

[15] Anne Almasy, “Huff Post Women,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-almasy/the-vulgar-face-of-purity_b_3882864.html (accessed on October 24, 2014).

[16] Mary Elizabeth, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2012/01/the-thing-about-purity/ (accessed on October 25, 2014).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV.

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