If Not “True Love Waits,” Then What?

More on the post-purity culture.

Rebecca Calhoun has a welcome piece in Christ and Pop Culture with roughly the same message as mine on Josh Harris last month. It’s a call to get over getting over dissatisfaction and disgust with late 90s purity culture, and move on toward living out the Christian sexual ethic proudly. She calls out

When true-love-waits theology didn’t match our experience with the real world, and when our experience with Scripture didn’t match what our pastors told us, we booted a biblical sexual ethic [in favor of] an un-Christian idea: as long as everyone is ready and consenting, we can do whatever we want. But how is it possible to have a complete biblical articulation about what this kind of “ready” means? And since when are virtuous Christian decisions rooted solely in personal preference?


Not only do we need a collective attitude adjustment, but we need more frequent and frank dialogue—among peers, pastoral leadership, biblical scholars, etc.—about this touchy subject. I can’t count the number of people who have told me they feel stalled in their understanding of this matter because it’s a taboo conversation to start in a church.

And the conversations will also serve as a path to forgiving our ill-advised and ill-prepared youth pastors for their mistakes. How were they to know that their metaphors would haunt us so deeply and lead us to distorted understandings of ourselves and Christian doctrine? As cliché as it sounds, most of them were probably only doing what they thought was best. It’s time we all stopped wallowing and moved on.

It’s refreshing, after the storm of recent criticism of purity culture, to hear someone calling the new generation to ante up with a new way of teaching and living out the Christian sexual ethic.

I think a good place to start the “frank conversations” Calhoun calls for is to ask whether the approach of late 90s purity culture needs to be done away with completely or just modified. Nearly every internet testimonial that’s been passed around millennial Christian blogs have assumed that the purity movement was an out and out moral catastrophe, but I haven’t ever been able to get good a fix on why. Every article I’ve read on the matter alludes to some psychological harm. These harms, they say, naturally flowed from “internalizing” the teaching, but doesn’t define the connection well enough for me. The objections (excepting those that would also be objections to the Christian sexual ethic writ large) seem to be that the purity movement:

1) Made people feel shame for their sexual desires or for being physically affectionate with people they are not (yet) married to.

2) Promising wedding night bliss if the Christian sexual ethic is adhered to.

3) Everything from hand-holding to kissing was considered to be nearly as bad as intercourse.

4) Sexual experiences outside the Christian sexual ethic harm the soul.

Of these, 2) is the only one that fully checks out with me. Purity culture did, I think, idolize sexuality in a way that unintentionally validated the adolescent fixation on sex as The Great Good Thing. Disappointment and disillusion is inevitable. But it seems to me that addressing that problem would call for an adjustment in tone and emphasis, not a reboot. While it’s silly to posit some sort of Biblically-defined pleasure ratio of abstinence to enjoyment, there are real-world benefits to monogamy that suggest that God’s design is, well, good.

3) seems like a red herring. It’s a common fallacy to assume the incoherence of a moral code if defining the thing it proscribes falls to matters of degree. Even coarse slang defines sex this way–the infamous “bases.” Purity culture wanted to teach unmarried people to resist the inevitable flow toward intercourse, asking instead of “how far is too far” rather “how far away can you stay for the sake of your future marriage?” This seems to me to be a completely sensible habit of thinking for unmarried couples. I have rarely heard anyone speak particularly fondly of their pre-marital relationships, and I imagine avoiding getting physical as much as possible until marriage could save some unnecessary embarrassment or pain.

I kind of understand 4) if one is actually objecting to fear mongering over a particular sin’s unique ability to harm the soul. But harming the soul is a feature of all Christian teaching on sin, sex included–though one could also make a strong scriptural case for being especially wary of sexual sin. Maybe one confusion is that it’s rare to invoke the category of sin when discussing the Christian sexual ethic. Calhoun prefers Lauren Winner’s language of sex outside of marriage as “partial truths.”

1) seems to be invoked as the most serious charge. But this is the one that I have the most trouble with. For myself and the guys I grew up with, nobody had to tell us to be ashamed. By and large, we already were. So the messages we heard in church based in the purity movement weren’t shaming but liberating. We were already ashamed of ourselves for our fantasies, for masturbation, for the scenes from movies we replayed in our head, (surfing the internet wasn’t really a thing yet) for letting things go too far with girlfriends. It took ministers and parents addressing sexuality head-on, including God’s unfailing forgiveness, to pull us out of a despairing spiral. My takeaway was that sex is a gift from God to be used rightly and that my sin, not my drive, was the problem.

If we’re going to have a conversation about how to teach and live out the Christian sexual ethic today, it really ought to be opened up to others who were affected positively by the purity movement and who carry away no shame from it.

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