Chastity:

How Purity Culture Missed Out On True Chastity

Edited by Phillip Hanson

By Drew Friesen

    12 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

            Popular Christian figures recanting their beliefs and teachings are nothing new. One of the more recent examples comes courtesy of author Joshua Harris, who penned the inimical manifesto of the purity movement entitled, I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance.[1] In his book, (written when Harris was only 21), the author relates the scene of a wedding, where not only are the groom and bride standing before the congregation, but also the ghosts of past dating relationships to whom the happy couple had already irrevocably divided their loves. In this dream (or nightmare), Harris sought to intimate the haunting nature of our experiences, and the revenants that never really leave us. But over twenty years later, Harris says he is haunted by the message his own book helped promulgate.[2]
            What was the message that Harris finds so troubling--enough so that a thorough revocation of his own work is offered in great detail in numerous articles and even a documentary? In his book, a young Harris lays the groundwork for a successful “courtship” (a replacement for dating); certainly no sex before marriage (on that the Bible is clear), but also no kissing and a great many other rules. True love waits, after all. What unfolded in conjunction with his book could be compared to the temperance movement, this time modified for battle against sexual promiscuity. The movement was also rooted primarily in conservative, Protestant circles. Julie Ingersoll writes, “In 1993...the Southern Baptist Convention launched its ‘True Love Waits campaign, seeking to promote sexual abstinence among Christian youth with conferences, concerts and purity pledges. These are reminiscent of 19th-century evangelical temperance pledges, in which people signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol.”[3]
            Why was this movement primarily coming from the evangelical community? Several  studies offer us psychological answers. Inquiries seeking to articulate psychological differences between political conservatives and liberals have shown that those who are lower in trait openness (meaning openness to new ideas and experiences) are far more likely to align with conservatism broadly than their more open counterparts.[4] These individuals tend to have a far greater “disgust sensitivity,” and tend toward purity over diversity across a wide range of categories including sexual expression and practice.[5] This can be seen in conservative Christianity’s insistence in maintaining purity of doctrine, while more progressive veins of Christianity tend to emphasize social issues and the continued development of doctrine. This conservative structuring certainly typified the evangelical movement of purity culture. With the broad inoculation of the sexual revolution, conservatism certainly had necessary business to attend to regarding the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Christianity has always maintained a rule of faith--that is certainly unavoidable. But the  subculture of the purity movement wasn’t content with limiting its scope to the pages of Scripture--it had its own vision of godliness.    
            All this helps explain the phenomenon psychologically, but what of the theological underpinnings? What did this movement get wrong enough for one of its “founding members” to recant its central tenets twenty years later? The vision painted by the purity movement “used sex to sell abstinence,”[6] elevated sexuality to a place of preeminence foreign to Scripture, and attempted to wage war against the Animal self and its outward manifestations, but left the far more dangerous Diabolical self unchecked and unwatched.[7] 
            In light of these failures, we will seek to answer a difficult question: what is true chastity? For the sake of clarity, I will give a definition of chastity that will hopefully be helpful in the following: chastity is the practice of abstinence in singleness and faithfulness in marriage, rooted in a proper relationship of God, self, and neighbor. It necessarily and primarily originates in the heart and mind, only secondarily manifesting itself in action. “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28 ESV). These difficult words from Jesus in his sermon on the mount demonstrate the geographical center of chastity, rooted firmly in the heart and mind before action even enters the conversation. It is only from this vantage point that a beneficial discussion of chastity is possible.

Sex-Promulgated Abstinence and the Truncating of Chastity

            The tremendous emphasis placed on sex by the purity movement led to what has been called “the prosperity gospel of relationships.”[8] Promising relational prosperity for those who would commit to the various plans for “biblical” purity, the movement traded a holistic understanding of chastity for the checklists proposed by conservative Christian leaders such as Harris. Central to this checklist (which will be examined next) was the guaranteed reward of “great sex in marriage.” 
            “Sex is great!” became a familiar chant at purity conferences across the country.[9] “We were advocating saving sex for marriage...but we had bought into the idea that sex was essential for fulfillment and happiness, and so the implication for Christians is that marriage is also essential for fulfillment and happiness.”[10] Harris’ own words describe how chastity was fundamentally linked to sexual fulfilment in marriage, and it is in this framework that a holistic understanding of chastity is lost in the shadow of sex itself. Moving beyond an aspect of chastity, it became an all-or-nothing quest for fulfilment by the means of “biblical” marriage as defined by the movement’s leaders.   
            This impulse of both repugnance and obsession surrounding sexuality led to the promotion of marital sex as the greatest achievable goal for Christian men and women, perhaps taking an approach closer to culture (broadly speaking) than the Church’s traditional approach. There was a subtle shift of emphasis taking place within conservative Christian circles away from asking “what is right?” to “what will ultimately bring me the most pleasure?”  The conversation actually drew from the language and attitude of sexual revolution by offering its own conditions for the ultimate sexual experience; from authors such as Harris, sexual fulfilment was framed as a guarantee--given the order of operations was carried out to the letter. Leaders of the movement knew, along with everyone else, that sex sells, and they also knew that doctrine was not going to sell itself when it came to young people. The conversation surrounding chastity became inextricably linked to sexual fulfilment in the context of a Christian marriage, thereby truncating true chastity to a far more narrow vision. 

Rules Foreign to Scripture

            Part in parcel with the expectation of sexual fulfilment was the roadmap to get there. This is potentially the greatest means to explicate and delineate the conservative purity movement (rules are always the easiest thing to point out; they are intrinsically meant to be identifiable and tangible). What was certainly noticeable (but not novel) was the insistence of leaders such as Harris to import new instructions to supplement Scripture. While the supplemental nature of the teaching is not wrong in itself, what soon became problematic was the way in which the teachings began to interact with Scripture. “‘The focus on virginity,’ [Harris] says, changes the focus from ‘who am I in relationship to God who loves and relates to sinners?’ to one of “Do I have this badge and this identity of being a virgin?” That, in turn, ‘overshadowed the Bible’s central message of grace.’”[11] In other words, it soon became more about the roadmap than about the road or even the destination. Truly foundational realities of the faith (even grace!) were minimized in the wake of the movement. 
            Rules such as no kissing until marriage and the necessity of the courtship model of dating became institutions in the purity community. Signing purity pledges was also just as common. Writing about purity culture under the name of “extreme abstinence,” Ingersoll writes, “Advocates of extreme abstinence advise women to be appropriately submissive, not pursue leadership roles and not speak out too much in mixed company. That may mean avoiding mixed company except in tightly regulated circumstances, such as with parents present. All of these concerns become part of how ‘purity’ is understood.”[12] Ingersoll identifies another import of purity culture to Scripture: the excessive gendering of the map to true purity. While this heavy-handed complementarianism unearths an entire discussion in itself (as Ingersoll and others offer), for our purposes it is sufficient to point out the structure itself, which developed from the movement towards hyper-biblical ends.
            A central teaching in Harris’s book is the necessity of replacing the practice of dating with the calculated institution of “courtship.” Dating, to summarize the book, is presented as the haphazard activity of the world--a practice destined for heartache and pain. On the book’s premise the author writes, “ the best way to avoid pre-marital sex was to stop dating altogether. Dating was a game — it hurt people and it was practice for divorce and a distraction from preparing for life. If you just trusted God, he would provide the right person at the right time.”[13] Dating was the recipe for the nightmare recounted in the introduction to this article; an irretrievably divided heart was the final damnation of those who failed to take seriously the relational prosperity gospel while time remained. 

The Animal vs the Diabolical

            The final aspect of the movement that we will examine is its emphasis on what C.S. Lewis refers to as the Animal man at the expense of addressing the far more dangerous Diabolical man.  The purity movement attempted to wage war against the Animal self and its outward manifestations, but left the far more dangerous Diabolical self unchecked and unwatched. The Animal self is the id of Freud,[14] the bodily appetite for unrestrained sexual pleasure. This is what the purity movement was right to address. But what they deemphasized is far worse. Lewis writes,

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self.  The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.[15]

            What Lewis here points out strikes the underreach of the purity movement at its very core. While some may say the movement went too far, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it didn’t go far enough. While it sought to mitigate the ever spiraling effects of the Animal self, it failed to begin at the most fundamental levels of the human soul with the Shadow of the Pharisee that lives in us all; it sought in action what was not yet born of the Spirit. It attempted to place the locus of Christianity around an axis far from its true geographical center and the result was more like the havoc of a vibration motor than the harmony of a spinning globe. True chastity is found in the vigilant watch of both the Animal and the Diabolical self. To take watch over one and not the other is to do violence to a holistic understanding of our very bodies. In this misunderstanding comes the spiraling insistence on structures to the detriment of the gospel, and to bring pain and unlove to our neighbor. May we insist on a chastity which deals with not just our outward practice, but delves into the depths of our inward being. 
            In overemphasizing the sexual union of marriage, the movement also alienated those who sought to pursue chastity while being unmarried. If the pinnacle of virtue is the fulfilment of marital sex, then what remains for those who never marry? While ‘“good” answers may have been given on paper, the voice was drowned out in the pulsing waves of “sex is good!” 
            In her book Real Sex, Lauren Winner writes “[Chastity] is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.”[16] [17] Her statement could be rephrased to say that chastity is likewise not the mere enjoyment of marital sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel. Whether married or unmarried, we all look with longing to the fulfilment of God’s work in our lives and in the very earth we inhabit. While the world and our Animal selves draw us drown in a sea of unrestrained venial pleasures, and the Diabolical self draws us to tempt and judge others in a heart of spiritual aggrandizement, we are confronted with the truth of the gospel. This is a beautiful perspective to take in the face of a truly perilous calling. Our best intentions often fail and nearly always fall short of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Regardless of our best efforts, we remain dependent on the work of our forgiving Father, who for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ, has mercy on us and forgives us all our sins that we might delight in His will and Walk in His ways to the Glory of His name.   

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance (New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2012).
            [2] Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, "I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye," YouTube video, 1:18:06, Aug. 30, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybYTkkQJw_M.   
            [3]  Benjamin B. Taylor, “How the ‘Extreme Abstinence’ of the Purity Movement Created a Sense of Shame in Evangelical Women” The Conversation (Dec. 10 2019), Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://theconversation.com/how-the-extreme-abstinence-of-the-purity-movement-created-a-sense-of-shame-in-evangelical-women-127589 
            [4] Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, “Personality, Childhood Experience, and Political Ideology” Political Psychology vol. 36,1 (2015), 55-73: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6867614/.  
            [5] M.F Sherman Druschel. “Disgust Sensitivity as a Function of the Big Five and Gender, Personality and Individual Differences” ScienceDirect. Volume 26, Is. 4, (1999), 739-748: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00196-2. 
            [6] "I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye" 18:05
            [7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (eBook, 1952), Book 3, 5. 
            [8] "I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (29:30).  
            [9] Michael Foust, “3 Things Joshua Harris Regrets about I Kissed Dating Goodbye” Crosswalk (Dec. 6, 2018) Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://www.crosswalk.com/culture/features/3-things-joshua-harris-regrets-about-i-kissed-dating-goodbye.html 
            [10] Ibid.
            [11] Ibid.
            [12] Julie Ingersoll, “How the ‘extreme abstinence’ of the purity movement created a sense of shame in evangelical women” The Conversation (Dec. 10, 2019). Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://theconversation.com/how-the-extreme-abstinence-of-the-purity-movement-created-a-sense-of-shame-in-evangelical-women-127589
            [13] Joshua Harris. “'I Kissed Dating Goodbye' author: How and why I've rethought dating and purity culture” 
            [14] Saul McLeod, "Id, Ego and Superego" SimplyPsychology (2019). Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://www.simplypsychology.org/psyche.html 
            [15] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, 5. 
            [16] Lauren F. Winner, Real Sex (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2006, Kindle), 126.
            [17] Joseph Carter “The FAQs: What You Should Know About Purity Culture.” The Gospel Coalition (July 24, 2019). Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-know-purity-culture/

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