Exploring The Damage Caused by the Evangelical Purity Culture

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What exactly is the motivation, and the theology, behind the evangelical so-called “purity culture”? Does it actually work in reality, or does it result in psychological and sexual harm being done to those who follow its tenets? And finally, we want to know: has it contributed to creating a culture of sexual abuse in the church?

According to Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition, a helpful definition of the so-called “evangelical purity culture” is as follows. He states that “‘Purity culture’ is the term often used for the evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3–8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls.”

The purity culture certainly seems to be an evangelical phenomenon, particularly in the United States. Christian celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin announced they would wait until marriage to have sex; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his then-fiancée Ciara spoke often in public about their abstinence prior to marriage, as did model Ashley Graham and her then-fiancée Justin Ervin.

Sexual abstinence teaching has been popularized by such movements as The Silver Ring Thing movement, which over the last few years received over $1 million in funding from the US federal government. This evangelical organization puts on shows at public schools encouraging young people to “put on the ring” and thereby publicly pledge themselves to sexual abstinence until marriage. Denny Pattyn, who founded the movement in 1996, stated in a CBS interview that “Our goal actually is to create a culture shift in America. We want to see the concept of abstinence be the norm rather than the exception.” Pattyn claims that over 75% of attendees become convinced and put on the ring after participating in their show.

The evangelical purity culture, and accompanying modesty teachings, has been heavily impacted by the teachings of such evangelical leaders as Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family. A second prominent figure has been Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (now Institutes in Basic Life Principles). Television reality shows such as the Duggars’ 19 Kids and Counting helped popularize Gothard’s modesty teachings also. In addition, there were also hugely influential books like Josh Harris’s 1997 bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye (that he has since denounced, ironically, along with the divorce from his wife of over 20 years). Together with evangelical organizations such as LifeWay’s True Love Waits, which dates as far back as 1992, the evangelical purity culture movement has influenced countless thousands of children, young adults and singles in evangelical or fundamentalist churches.

In churches promoting purity dogma, leaders encourage young people and singles to state their commitment to sexual purity by publicly vowing to abstain from any sexual activity until marriage. Interested individuals can participate in an online seminar offered by LifeWay ministries entitled Authentic Love: Christ, Culture and the Pursuit of Purity. According to their website advertising this two-part series, it “exposes culture’s distorted messages about purity and love and reveals how God has created us for a lifestyle of personal holiness.”

Companion Bible study books that go along with the seminar are Authentic Love by Dr DA Horton (for guys), and Authentic Love by Amy-Jo Girardier (for girls). The reality is that a very large part of the evangelical purity culture is its message that views the “secular world” as highly suspect at best, and downright evil or satanic at worst— since it promotes sexual promiscuity, pornography, illicit sex outside of marriage, homosexuality and so on. These are all viewed as anathema to God’s design for the family — one man, one woman bound together in a monogamous marriage.

From the evangelical point of view, therefore, given the fact that the secular culture promotes such a “distorted message” around sexuality, pushing sexual purity and abstinence on young people and singles should be a good thing. Surely adopting God’s view of purity and sexuality must be the best way to live one’s life. It certainly couldn’t do any harm…right?

The Damage Caused by the Purity Culture

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous dark side to the whole evangelical purity culture. For example, on the most basic level, it can affect young people’s mental health by putting them under tremendous pressure to conform to unrealistic expectations and standards. This can lead to such mental health issues as anxiety, depression, PTSD, religious scrupulosity, and religious trauma syndrome.

Moreover, how might the teaching that “marriage is only for a man and woman” affect a closeted gay teen in a church? At best, in order to fit in, they must suppress any elements of same-sex attraction, since they are told it is sinful and evil; at worst, some are made to participate in “conversion therapy” in an attempt to “fix” the flaws to their sexual orientation. There have even been examples of gay teens in churches who, in their despair, end up committing suicide out of sheer hopelessness that God would ever accept them, or that they would go to heaven. This is also widespread in Mormonism also, due to its teachings on homosexuality. Moreover, multiple studies have demonstrated that the purity culture contributes to later marital problems, both relationally and sexually.

Finally, the purity culture has fostered a culture that promotes sexual abuse in many churches also. The recent #metoo campaign of those who are speaking out about their sexual abuse stories has given rise to another, related campaign: #churchtoo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual.

On the one hand, young boys and men are told that they have raging sexual drives that cannot be controlled. The only solution for men is to suppress their sexual drive and ask God for help to keep the raging beast under control. Boys are taught that “men are visually stimulated,” so if they look at pornography, this can lead to addiction and ultimately acting out on their desires in inappropriate ways — like having sex, masturbation, or other forms of unhealthy sexual exploration — all of which are sinful and evil in God’s eyes.

On the other hand, the “modesty culture” inculcates the belief that women are potentially foul seductresses — wicked temptresses who have the capacity, simply by dressing “inappropriately” or provocatively, to lead men astray sexually. Heaven forbid that she should show too much cleavage or thigh, because she might end up getting raped by an out-of-control man. Keep in mind that historically, the church has long taught that it was Eve who led Adam — the man — astray in the Garden of Eden. In the church’s view, women simply can’t be trusted…

In the purity culture, the onus is placed on women to cover up their body parts and to dress modestly. In many cases, unfortunately, if she does end up being sexually assaulted by a man, more often than not she is told that it was her fault for leading her abuser astray into lust and sin. More and more women are coming forward with their horrific and heartrending stories of how they were sexually abused, raped, molested and assaulted by people in churches — clergy, leaders, or church members alike. Sadly, so many of these victims were marginalized, silenced, and shamed by church leadership.

For example, a few years ago, a disturbing story surfaced of teaching pastor Andy Savage of Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN. 20 years previously, as a youth pastor in Texas, Savage had sexually assaulted a 17-year old teen in his youth group. At the time, church leadership hushed up the incident, and discouraged the victim from bringing forward her allegations about the assault publicly. Church leaders allowed Savage simply to resign without telling the truth about what had happened to the congregation. Following his resignation, Savage moved to another state and became a successful minister for decades — that is, until the story broke decades later. Even when the story broke, the church of which he was a minister initially displayed nothing but sympathy for his plight.

This shameful incident — and so many others like it — has once again pulled back the curtain on many churches’ treatment of such offenders. In case after case, the female victim is silenced, shunned and shamed. Those in leadership oftentimes cover up the story and possibly even ostracize the victim or her family if they dare to speak out about the abuse. In such an environment of shame and silence, the offender suffers little to no consequences and unfortunately is oftentimes free to continue abusing other victims. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there have been numerous examples worldwide of priests who abused children, but when allegations began to surface, the Church’s response was to move the priest to another parish. The priest then continues to abuse more unsuspecting victims, which has happened sadly more times than can be counted.

The Motivation Behind Purity Culture Teaching

Let’s take a closer look at some of the theology or doctrine behind the purity culture. In many churches that teach purity culture doctrine, one common feature involves a continuing culture of patriarchy — both in the home and the church. Specifically, women’s purity and virginity is treated as a commodity both by the church and by the parents of their female child. Oftentimes it would appear that fathers in particular are seeking to maintain control over their daughters, with the aim of successfully delivering a virgin to the altar on her wedding day.

In Bill Gothard’s patriarchal purity culture theology, for example, with the special attention paid to a father’s position of “godly authority” over the family, everything ultimately rises and falls upon the father to do everything in his power to guarantee and shepherd his son or daughter’s sexual purity until wedding night. As pointed out above, in the biblical view, it was Eve who, in her foolishness, was led astray by the serpent. Paul indicates that Adam was not led astray, but rather followed the lead of Eve — and that plunged all of subsequent humanity into sin.

On this basis, women in particular are viewed as “the weaker sex.” Gothard taught that they should submit to their fathers and ultimately their husbands, so there is special care needed by the father to safeguard his daughter’s virginity while she is under his oversight and protection. Once she is handed over to her husband, it will then be his responsibility to lead his wife and family in the ways of God; her only option is to submit to him.

Viewed negatively in the Gothard construct, if the son or daughter fails to maintain their virginity and sexual purity, the judgement of God will land not just on them — but on the father also, as a responsible party. Being involved in sexual sin removes that son or daughter out from under the father’s “umbrella of authority” and opens them up to the attacks of Satan and his demons.

This type of purity culture mentality, in turn, can lead to an all-pervading sense of guilt and shame about anything that might damage that commodity or loss of potential blessing for all parties involved in the transaction. Therefore, if that son or daughter loses his or her virginity, the blessing is potentially put in jeopardy, and God is surely angry with all parties for failing to live up to his righteous standards.

Viewed positively, the entire construct becomes a potential “twofold blessing” for the parties involved if all of the purity guidelines are followed carefully. On the one hand, the parents believe God will bless them for their hard work in preserving their son or daughter’s virginity. On the other hand, God will especially bless the obedient, newly-married, sexually pure couple, who worked so hard to maintain their virginity until their wedding night.

Of course, the purity culture does not merely conclude on the wedding night. Once the handoff of that virginal couple occurs on the altar, so the purity culture thinking goes, the newlyweds will enjoy not just an incredible sex life, but a marriage and family that are blessed and honored by God — since they both preserved their purity until the appropriate time. Essentially, both parties view the entire construct as a transaction — it’s seen as a “win-win” for all involved.

As a third party involved in the transaction, the church also partakes in the blessing for having done its part to promote the “truth” from the Bible about the priority of purity in the lives of its congregants. But why should the church as an institution be so concerned with delivering virginal couples to the altar? It stands to reason, given the theological underpinnings of the entire movement, that some of that godly blessing delivered to both the parents and the happily-married virginal couple would overflow on the church also — for having done its part too.

Purity Culture Doctrine

But where do the notions of purity and modesty originate? The theology behind such a desire is rooted in two core purity culture teachings: first, that personal holiness and purity are incredibly important to God. Sinfulness in general results in alienation from God, backsliding into sin, and (in some traditions) possibly even the loss of one’s salvation. A key element to this pursuit of godly holiness involves “abstaining from fleshly desires,” which of course includes sexual activities. Often this is presented to young people, who are battling their sexual urges and struggling to maintain their purity and personal holiness, as an “ongoing battle against the influences of the pervading secular culture.” The world is seeking to drag you down into the pit of Hell…

A second core part of the purity culture theology, as noted above, is the belief that “God reserves a special blessing for those two people who preserve their virginity until their wedding night.” Church leaders explain that this is God’s vision both for the family and the institution of marriage itself. One common analogy used is that a person’s virginity is likened to a Christmas or birthday present; that special, unopened gift is to be presented to their partner on the wedding night. If, however, the gift is opened prematurely (i.e., the person losing their virginity), it is forever spoiled and can never be repackaged the way it was originally. It is damaged beyond repair, so clearly maintaining virginity, in this line of thinking, is hugely important.

Thus, in the purity culture, teens and singles are encouraged (mostly by a concerned parent, it appears), to maintain their purity by engaging in the following activities: to take a vow of chastity, to sign a virginity pledge, and wear “purity rings.” The purity rings are a public symbol that the person has committed to a life of chastity and sexual abstinence until their wedding night.

Some evangelical churches hold father-daughter “purity balls” or put on “purity pledge” services for their teens and singles so they can make their vows, both to God and to their parents, in front of the entire congregation, all of whom act as witnesses to their covenant. The young person enters into a covenant between God, their parents and the entire church; thus the stakes for getting it right are incredibly high, as is the pressure to conform.

Damage by Purity Culture Doctrine

Ironically, however, despite all of these seemingly honorable and earnest intentions, multiple studies have demonstrated that the purity movement in fact leads to the very opposite sort of behavior it intends to promote. Just as one example, in a legalistic move to avoid vaginal sex and remain “sexually pure,” the culture contributes to many teens experimenting with oral and anal sex. In this way of thinking, teens and single adults believe that they are sidestepping having “real sex” (vaginal) by engaging in these activities; but the reality is that they are just as likely to contract an STD by not using condoms, or by practicing unsafe sexual activity.

But what if the unthinkable happens, and that romantic vision is shattered? What if the young person, or single adult who originally committed to a purity pledge does indeed make a mistake and falls into “sexual sin?” In this case, the purity culture teaches that it’s their fault, and the result of their own, individual sin. Like spoiling that Christmas or birthday present, losing one’s virginity prior to marriage is viewed as something irretrievably lost; there is oftentimes a sense that the person has forever altered God’s original will for their lives.

I’ve personally seen this in the case of two of my siblings. Raised in the midst of the Gothard purity culture theology, once they lost their virginity, they were devastated, and were convinced that they had destroyed God’s original plan for their lives. From that point on, the best they could hope for was Plan B, C, D, etc., but there was never any chance they’d get back to plan A. That one was forever gone, and lost to them.

Purity Culture and Sexual Abuse in Churches

Beyond the tradition of purity culture in terms of parenting and church culture, what connection is there between that culture and sexual assault of young women and boys within churches by clergy, those in leadership, or church members? The purity culture is intimately connected to this type of situation, unfortunately. Many churches have an unwritten rule: “silence is golden.” Unfortunately, many times abuse victims say nothing if they have been abused. There is an unbroken rule of silence in many churches.

All too often, men in positions of authority (typically clergy) are rewarded with virtually unchecked power; there’s a sense that “holy men serving God can do no wrong.” One is wrong to question that authority as a layperson (or even as a fellow leader) within the church. That clergyman in authority is “anointed by God,” placed by God in that position, and alone has the ability to “rightfully divide the Word of God,” both teaching and applying it to the congregation. Who are they to question his authority and leadership?

But if that clergyman does do something to a girl or a woman in terms of sexual assault, the modesty culture teaches that it’s typically because “she led him astray.” Much of the time she is blamed for it, and he (at worst) only has to deal with his “individual sin,” rather than face legal or professional consequences of committing a crime. Thus, as mentioned above, in the case of pastor Andy Savage of Highpoint Church, in the church’s view his individual sin never crossed over into the commission of a crime, which it was. This goes a long way toward explaining why Savage received such sympathetic treatment, both currently and at his former church; “he fell into sin” so we should feel sorry for the guy, and blame the unfortunate victim for leading him astray.

Conclusion

Purity culture is a twisted theology that does incredible damage by teaching its adherents that on the one hand, women must be constantly aware of the “fact” that all men — regardless of age — are constantly lusting after them, and only have one desire: to have sex with them. Simply on the face of it, such a view cannot possibly lead to healthy or constructive relationships between men and women.

In the purity culture, young girls and women are taught that they must always dress modestly (even covering up ankles and shoulders), because there is every possibility that they will cause a man to stumble, and lead them astray into lust and sexual sin. Women who are the victims of sexual assault are oftentimes blamed for their part in “leading the man astray.”

Boys and men, on the other hand, are taught that their sexual drive and libido is like a raging (but sleeping) beast that, once awakened, cannot be tamed. The best approach, they are informed, is to suppress their sexual drive and pray to God for help to overcome addictions to pornography or sexual activity. This type of thinking can be witnessed in the behavior of prominent evangelical leaders who adhere to “The Billy Graham Rule,” or the “Modesty Manifesto,” which is followed by such high-profile Christians as Vice President Mike Pence as well as many other evangelical leaders.

In this way of thinking, purity is maintained by the man never being alone with any woman (other than his wife). The rule is followed in order to avoid the “appearance of evil” and the temptation that he might slip into (apparently unavoidable) sexual sin if left alone with a woman who is not his wife for any length of time. Moreover, in this view women are cast as fundamentally dangerous — they are foul temptresses who will, most likely, lead that man astray, who obviously cannot control his sexual urges.

Ultimately, then, the purity or modesty culture can be incredibly damaging, both to girls and boys growing up in evangelical churches who promote such twisted theology. Then they grow up to adulthood, and are left with many broken pieces of their lives to pick up, and deal with such issues like religious trauma syndrome, shame and guilt, sexual dysfunctions or their sexual orientation, anxiety, PTSD, recovery from sexual abuse and more. Many have had to seek counseling or therapy to recover from the damage caused by purity and modesty culture teaching.

The truth is that religion has had a long history of controlling its followers by manipulating their “guilt and shame levers” around the area of sexuality. The evangelical purity culture, it would seem, fits that description all too well.

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