Was the purity culture movement a mistake?

By Randy Alcorn,
Eternal Perspectives Ministry
Ministry headquartered in Sandy, Oregon

A reader asked me,

I see a lot of people pointing out the harm done by the “purity culture” of the 90s and early 2000s. But it seems like it’s easy to throw out the baby of purity with the bathwater of a manmade culture. God says purity is His will for us, but perhaps some people had the wrong motives and thought there was a guaranteed outcome if they followed a formula and set of rules?

The problem is certainly not purity itself! “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

However, it’s true that one of the weaknesses of the purity movement was the false belief that following a formula of courtship instead of dating will buy you or guarantee you a great marriage. I’ve heard it called the “sexual prosperity gospel”; I would call it the “marital prosperity gospel.” Like all formulas, it helped some and hurt others.

Unfortunately, some youth and their parents failed to understand there are no formulas, no legalistic guarantees in this life that is under the Curse, except the presence and faithfulness and love of our Lord and the blood-bought promises of redemption in Him.

I vividly remember speaking in the 1990s at a large church youth conference about the biblical calling to save sex for marriage, and also asking God’s forgiveness for past sexual sin, which He graciously grants. After I spoke, they invited young people who wanted to commit themselves to sexual purity to come forward. If they wanted, they could receive a purity ring or necklace.

So many teenagers came forward that the youth pastor and his staff were immediately overwhelmed. So they handed me rings and necklaces and asked me if I would talk and pray with some of the kids who came forward. I gladly did so and saw a clear work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of a number of young people who wanted to honor Jesus. There was nothing superficial, inauthentic, or legalistic about the message or the responses of those I talked with afterward.

Yet in the modern-day backlash to such commitments, it’s like many who chose to wear a purity ring or to wait until marriage to have sex are now saying that messed up their lives! I don’t think so; I witnessed firsthand that many were helped immensely. Our daughters and many of their friends are far better off because of committing to purity. The dangers of impurity were—and are—very real and consequential.

Joe Carter writes, “Where purity culture has failed is in keeping the focus on the body and on sex rather than on Christ.” Though we raised our daughters during the height of the purity culture movement, Nanci and I tried to emphasize that the motivation for purity is following and honoring Christ.

On her thirteenth birthday, I gave my oldest daughter a heart necklace with a keyhole, symbolizing a commitment to saving herself for one man, giving him the key to her body on her wedding night and not before. I did the same for my younger daughter two years later. Of course, I believed then and still believe now that our children must own the conviction themselves, but it is our duty and privilege as parents to encourage them to follow the Lord in sexual purity, which is not only for His glory, but for their good.

Had my daughters not followed our counsel, I would have loved them just as much. Certainly we made many mistakes as parents, but I don’t think helping them set their bars high in terms of personal holiness and purity was one of them.

Years ago, I developed guidelines for sexual purity and presented it to many young people and their parents. When my now married daughters were teenagers, I honed it further for sharing and discussion with them and the young men who asked to date them. We had honest conversations together. These guidelines weren’t legalistic rules; they were principles based on Scripture to help young people understand what God’s Word says about sexual purity. Our Creator and Savior is the One who tells us, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

Scripture warns against man-made rules involving a “harsh treatment of the body,” but lacking “value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20–23). Guidelines are valuable if and only if they are biblical and wise, are Spirit empowered, and point us to Christ. All guidelines can be legalistically and proudly followed, but guidelines are not inherently legalistic. For example, as I share in my book The Purity Principle,  Proverbs calls us to live wisely, exercising God-honoring common sense. In a context encouraging sexual purity we’re told in Proverbs 4:

13 Hold on to instruction, do not let it go;
guard it well, for it is your life.
14 Do not set foot on the path of the wicked
or walk in the way of evildoers.
15 Avoid it, do not travel on it;
turn from it and go on your way…
18 The path of the righteous is like the morning sun,
shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
19 But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know what makes them stumble.

20 My son, pay attention to what I say;
turn your ear to my words.
21 Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;
22 for they are life to those who find them
and health to one’s whole body.
23 Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Alex Ward says, “Where the purity culture went wrong…was when virginity was conflated with chastity or purity. Ironically, there was a greater interest placed on physical virginity (though this is a good thing) than spiritual chastity. To be chaste is not to be free from sex. A married couple is called to chastity as well.”

I agree. Whether we’re married or single, purity begins in the heart, and that’s why God tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart [mind, inner being], for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

Let’s be willing to take an honest look at the shortcomings of the purity movement and seek more Christ-honoring ways to train our children and young people that emphasize His grace and truth and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. But let’s not forget that it’s God Himself who calls each of His followers to pursue purity—for His glory, and for our good.

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