I became a Christian as a teenager in the late 90’s, which just so happened to be at the height of “purity culture,” in the Evangelical church.
I still remember when my older brother, a pastor, sent me Josh Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Being a recent convert to Christianity, I initially just chuckled at the book and ignored it. The title alone was hysterical to me. But as I became more serious about girls and dating, and also my faith, I decided to give the book a shot to see what God had to say about faith, dating, romance, love, and sex.
While I never fully embraced the teachings of the book, some of which I just found to be unreasonable and extreme, I did embrace the general thrust of the book. I decided I wanted to honor the Lord and women in my dating life, to practice abstinence, to not play games with girls hearts, and to be mostly intentional in my interactions with the opposite sex. But I did do things like go on dates with girls, hold hands, kiss, and otherwise ignore some other prescribed teachings with the book.
What Was Purity Culture?
For those of you who never read the book and aren’t familiar with it, Josh Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was a response to the 1960’s sexual revolution, which had upended traditional Christian teaching regarding sex and marriage. All of a sudden, there were no more rules or guardrails in our popular culture regarding dating and sex. All those guardrails were thrown off the side of the mountain. Shortly thereafter, the influence of popular culture started gaining a foothold in the church, and the church was looking for a response.
Josh Harris’s book sought to be a systematic guide in response to the trend in our culture, and attempted to put some guardrails back in place. Harris taught that a commitment to sexual abstinence wasn’t enough. For all the commitment Christians might make to sexual abstinence, far too many in the church were still falling for temptation.
The blame for all the moral failings was placed upon modern “dating” practices, which involved too many landmines for hormone filled teenagers to safely navigate. As a result, many were seen as being at risk in throwing their sexual “purity” away, which was not only bad for their walk with Jesus, but was also seen as robbing their future spouse of the “gift” of their sexual purity.
In response to these issues, individuals like Josh Harris said we must shun dating altogether, and put up new guardrails in order to safeguard one’s sexual purity. Harris taught that young men and women should only be permitted to be “friends” with the opposite sex, and if a strong mutual interest developed, with permission from the daughters father, a young man would be allowed to “court” his daughter. But, only under strict supervision of the parents, with minimal time for them to be alone together, lest they give into temptation. Physical affection was strictly off limits. The goal was to completely protect the sexual purity of all involved, especially of young women. And, if followed perfectly, the first time a young man and woman would ever kiss anyone would be on their wedding day.
More extreme practices were developed, but not prescribed in this book. In some circles it was semi-popular to take do things like take “purity pledges,” as teenagers, in which one pledged their sexual purity to Jesus. Sometimes people would wear “purity” rings, a wedding band for Jesus, just to let the world know their bodies were off the market. And in super creepy circles, there would be “purity balls,” in which fathers pledged to safeguard their daughters virginity.
Some of these practices were seen particularly as cringe, even in Evangelical circles at the time. But for as cringe worthy as these things might have been, practices like these definitely had a following. And overall, they found an acceptance in the broader Evangelical church culture. For we realized that our culture had radically shifted in its mores, that culture was impacting the church, and we largely agreed that some guardrails were definitely needed to protect the sexual purity of young men and women everywhere. Something “more” was needed.
Personally speaking, most people I knew in the church took the book with a huge pinch of salt. At the most extreme, I knew some parents who refused to let their teenagers date, or some of my friends in college and 20’s, who would only be “friends” with the opposite sex. I personally never knew of nor was involved with churches that prescribed the teachings of Josh Harris outright. And while I had heard of the more cringe worthy practices, I personally did not know of any church that practiced such rituals.
And I say all this as a guy who went to very conservative churches, and went to Bible College and Seminary, and had quite a few connections. Most people I knew, if they practiced anything taught in that book, did so rather loosely. I did occasionally rub elbows with people who literally walked out the teachings of this book, but such was very rare in my experience.
The Aim Of Purity Culture
Overall, I will say, even to this day, I think there were some very good and well intentioned ideas presented by individuals like Josh Harris. I personally followed some of those teachings and bought into some of the ideas. Some of which I think, aren’t entirely half bad to this day. However, with that said, I think the book and the purity culture that surrounded it, severely missed the mark.
Purity culture, in its quest to protect the sacred mystery of the gift of sexual intimacy, destroyed that mystery with the only thing capable of destroying mystery— a precise formula wrapped in certainty. And there’s nothing more that we love in Evangelical circles than precise formulas.
It was the idea that, “If only you do things exactly right before marriage, exactly as we tell you, then sex and marriage will be everything you could ever hope for! Sex will be this amazing gift you can not only experience, but a special present you can give your spouse.”
Unfortunately, that’s not how relationships work, whether or not one is 100% kosher in all their premarital romantic practices. Even the greatest of relationships and marriages take work and communication. Great sex isn’t an automatic. And, there is no pot full of gold at the end of a rainbow just because you follow some specialized courtship rituals.
The goal behind these books and the purity culture movement was in some sense honorable. It was an attempt to fight back against the sex saturated culture we found ourselves in since the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, in which everyone just seemed okay with having sex whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, and without apology. It was a culture saturated in a secular humanism that taught that human beings are fundamentally nothing more than animals, and that it’s okay if our sexual practices mimic the animal kingdom.
I recall a popular song growing up that said, “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” That song embodied the ethos of the time, and continues to reflect the prevailing attitude we have towards sex today.
So, is it really any shock that the Evangelical church felt the need to develop a more extensive teaching that went beyond simply, “Don’t have sex until you are married?” And that it felt the need to install some guardrails? The Evangelical church was simply responding to what it perceived as a very real moral danger. And book’s like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” not only sought to protect one’s moral sexual purity, but, to protect against the pain of heartbreak that came from hookup culture and serial dating.
However, the guardrails that purity culture sought to install didn’t just merely promise to protect you from pitfalls. It also came with promises. The end result of purity culture and the teachings of Josh Harris was a sort of sexual prosperity gospel. And, as with any prosperity gospel, it failed to actually deliver you the riches that it promised if you just jumped on its treadmill. You’ll do a lot of running, but in the end you don’t actually get anywhere with it.
Eventually, the weight of the shortcomings of the purity culture teaching would catch up with Josh Harris. By 2018, Josh Harris eventually repudiated the teachings of his once popular book. And by 2019 Josh Harris and his wife eventually divorced, and to this day Josh Harris no longer considers himself a practicing Christian.
Beyond Purity Culture
So, with all this history explored, what do we do now that purity culture is largely dead?
Do we just embrace everything that the world has to offer in regard to love, romance, and sexuality? Or, do we pursue something else? And if so, what?
I will say, as someone who sorta bought into some of the teachings and practices of the Evangelical “purity culture” movement, and having known others who did as well, I think I can safely say this approach to dating and sex is ultimately a broken approach. The theology of the purity culture teaching is ultimately as broken of a system, and leads to just as much frustration, as someone who sends a televangelist $1,000 hoping to become rich.
Such is simply, if I can borrow a southern idiom, “a dog that just don’t hunt.”
Yet here we are, Christians still living in a culture where the 1960’s sexual revolution has not only won the day, but has given us dating apps like Tinder. Dear Lord!!!
And, while there is nothing wrong about Tinder in and of itself, it’s just a dating app at the end of the day, as someone who has recently started trying to date again since my marriage ended, I can’t help but exhale a deep and painful sigh. A sigh that I think millions of people, Christian and non Christian can probably relate to.
I think the alternative answer was always right beneath our nose in the church, but we rejected it, because we wanted rules and systems to follow. We wanted someone to tell us what to do, instead of someone that could help us find out who to be. For, it is always easier to throw off or follow a legalistic set of rules than it is to experience a genuine change of heart, and take up a new identity.
In Matthew 19, Jesus entered into a discussion over marriage, divorce, and human sexuality. Jesus talks with the disciples about marriage and divorce. Jesus states that while the law of Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all, such was only because of the hardness of men’s hearts.
Jesus said divorce was never God’s intent, and that God’s ultimate intent could be seen in Adam and Eve, for whom God gave no teaching about divorce. Jesus went on to say that divorce was only acceptable in case of adultery, and that whoever divorces his wife except for adultery, and marries someone else, is committing adultery in doing so.
The disciples, found this teaching of Jesus to be too extreme. Indeed, we still find it extreme today, and many in the church gladly ignore it. And our views and practices regarding divorce are largely reflective of our culture, which finds it acceptable to get a divorce for any reason whatsoever.
Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce are hard to accept. Who can uphold such a ridiculously high standard for marriage and divorce? The disciples didn’t like this teaching.
Knowing such was a tough pill to swallow, Jesus would go on to further elaborate:
“Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
In case you are not familiar with what a eunuch is, a eunuch is someone who, through either a birth defect or surgical procedure, has been castrated. Eunuchs had a special social function in antiquity. Since they were not seen as a sexual threat, but were men, they were seen as being able to be trustworthy guards of a king’s harem of women. They were strong enough to protect the king’s wives as men, but were someone the king could trust, since there was no sexual risk associated with them.
In the gospels, a eunuch is held up by Jesus as a paradigm and archetype of sexual identity and morality for those who consider themselves followers of Christ. Jesus calls upon all his followers to become spiritual eunuchs in regard to their sexuality for the sake of serving the kingdom of God. And if you are ever going to embrace the sexual ethics of Jesus, and what He prescribes for marriage and divorce, you will only be able to do so because you have chosen to embrace the spirit of a eunuch.
For the sake of serving Christ and His kingdom, you are making a clean cut with who you used to be, and you are taking up a completely new way of being. Your identity is now that of a eunuch who is serving the king. You are to no longer to be driven by your random whims that would cause you to divorce your spouse, or to engage in whatever sexual impulses your inner freak flag wants you to fly. Instead, you are are a eunuch, who lives to be a trusted servant of his king.
This of course, is a threat to everything regarding our understanding of sex.
Especially in an age in which our sexuality has become a core part of our identity. Are you straight, gay, or something in between? Are you a virgin? Are you married? Are you divorced? Are you polyamorous? Are you in a throuple? Are you in an open non monogamous open relationship? Are you just enjoying random hookups on Tinder? Are you in a committed long term relationship? Are you just having casual fun?
Whatever you are, whoever you are, and whatever you are doing, Jesus says we all need to cut something that’s a very real part of who we are completely off. Instead of being all these other things and engaging in all these other practices, Jesus taught a very hard thing, we must become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.
This transcends everything, and goes beyond simple (or complex) rules and regulations regarding romantic relationships like we see taught by the likes of Josh Harris.
Being a eunuch for the sake of Christ goes beyond anything purity culture attempted to offer us. Being a eunuch is a state of being. And while I certainly wouldn’t scoff at the idea of anyone setting up practical boundaries for themselves, something more is needed.
No amount of rules, rituals, or legalisms will ever make you spiritual. The apostle Paul repeatedly beat that drum over and over again, loud and clear.
What we need is an inward transformation of our hearts and minds that strike at the very core of who we are as people. Of course, such creates a difficulty. For it’s easier to change the rules of the game than to change the player playing that game.
If we are to become the type of people that follow the Lord in regard to our sexuality, the last thing we need is another giant guardrail that goes beyond the teachings that Scripture already prescribes. That sort of game was the type of game the Pharisees played, and Jesus saw it as something that did nothing but crush true spirituality.
What we need is a fundamental transformation of heart and mind that strikes at the very core of we are as people. Such is only possible if you can receive into the very depths of your being the teachings of Jesus on this issue, and become as a eunuch.
And you seek to become as a eunuch, not so that you can safeguard your sexual purity for you and your future spouse, and have a storybook romance.
Rather, you are to become a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Your sexuality is not a gift for your spouse, rather, it’s an offering you make to Christ. You are to become a eunuch for Christ’s sake, and His sake alone.