In the last several years, both conservative and progressive Christians, as well as the secular world, have given purity culture a critical examination. Many of the critiques are warranted, but the purity movement’s departure has also left a void in many church’s efforts to teach sexual morality to teens.
As parents and churches consider leading our children in a healthy, biblical direction, here are six lessons we can learn, in light of the purity movement, that will help us to teach our teens about sex wisely in the generations to come:
1. Speak about sex in positive terms.
Because fear tended to drive “purity culture,” many churches talked about sex in almost exclusively harmful terms. They emphasized the dangerous consequences and potential pain of sexual sin. As a result, youth ministries often portrayed sex as something dirty, bad, and shameful.
The Bible speaks candidly about some of the consequences associated with sexual sin, but it also talks about sex in affirming terms. God created sex out of his goodness in the creation account of Genesis. Solomon uses poetic, beautiful language in describing sex in the Song of Songs. Sex is a gift of the Lord. He created and designed it. At the biological level, he uses sex to bring new lives into the world. Sex is good.
We have a rule in our children and youth ministry: if we ever talk about sex, we start by saying that sex is a good gift from God. We even say that we that we want our kids to enjoy sex as much as possible within the confines of God’s law and intent, because it’s a blessing that the Lord has given us.
We have a rule in our children and youth ministry: if we ever talk about sex, we start by saying that sex is a good gift from God.
2. Don’t focus on virginity.
The focus of purity culture was generally on making sure that kids did not engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. The objective was to make it to marriage without crossing that threshold.
This created a number of problems. First, if your children did have intercourse, then they had failed the test. There was no longer any reason to abstain because so much of the focus was on not having intercourse. Meanwhile, lots of “technical virginity” was being practiced. Kids had plenty of oral sex and “everything but intercourse” because the message they were hearing focused so much on that one manifestation of sexual sin.
Porneo, the word translated “sexual sin” in the New Testament, encompasses a very wide variety of sinful behaviors. Further, Jesus in Matthew 5 teaches that any lust in the heart is tantamount to committing adultery. In the Gospels, Christ speaks of sexual sin in broad terms without an exclusive focus on intercourse.
We are trying to lead our kids toward a healthy sexuality within the blessed boundaries of God’s law. This means truth, obedience, and repentance in all areas without amplification of one particular sin—or the exclusion of others.
3. Quit saying ‘purity.’
A Rooted workshop led by Mark Howard in 2014 convinced me that we should abstain from the language of purity when we talk about sex. Howard gives a number of compelling reasons why. I would offer two:
First, for something to be pure it must be perfect. If there is any imperfection or flaw, then a substance or concept loses its purity. Newsflash: most people sin sexually every day in heart, mind, or body. As a result, we lose the status of purity daily, if not hourly. Making “purity” the standard is exceedingly unwise for this reason: it leads students to think in “all or nothing” terms, which is inherently a losing battle in such a mistake-filled area of life.
We lose the status of sexual purity daily, if not hourly.
Second, talking about sex in terms of purity automatically creates a shame dynamic in an area that already has a great deal of potential for shame. Shame tends to arise when only two options exist: perfection or failure. And tenderhearted teens who feel ashamed without understanding the remedy for shame—the cleansing blood of Christ—will be driven to despair. Given the “all or nothing” connotations of purity language, we can create a shame dynamic if we use this terminology.
Purity comes from one place, the blood of the Lamb, not from our behavior. Our purity comes through the imputed righteousness of Jesus that God gives to us by grace through faith. Talking about sexual ethics in terms of sin and obedience—using terms like “holiness” or “godliness”—is better than talking about “purity.”
4. Robustly teach what the Bible says about sexual morality.
One positive thing the purity movement did was educate kids on the ethics of sexuality in the Bible. I think many of us would be surprised at how illiterate many churchgoing young people are on what the Bible and biblical theology say about premarital sex, pornography, and cohabitation.
Today, secular culture espouses sexual ethics that are in many cases antithetical to the moral code of the Bible. Furthermore, we can hardly watch a hamburger commercial without these values being thrown in our children’s faces. As a result, we do actually need to educate young people on biblical morality.
Churches that rightly reject many of the problems with purity movement must beware of failing to teach sexual ethics at all. In every generation, teens need a robust and redemptive understanding of what God says about sex.
5. Anticipate and prepare kids for failure.
Purity culture struggled quite a bit with denial. It did not want to admit or acknowledge that students will sin sexually in significant ways. As a result, it did not offer help or hope when teens did fail.
Instead, we need to repeatedly tell our young people: “Hey guys, we hope that you avoid sexual sin as much as possible and are spared by God’s mercy from major mistakes. But here’s the reality: you may mess up in ways that are more drastic than you expect. There is good news: God’s grace awaits you in your failure. And if you fail, come talk to a safe, Christian adult. We’ve made many mistakes too, and we will show you grace.”
While encouraging obedience, we also want to prepare kids for what to do with their failure.
6. Emphasize the place of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the fatal flaw of purity culture contains its emphasis on human performance. Purity pledges and rings often communicate: “I can remain pure! I will remain pure! I am determined!”
No one would deny that obedience to God’s law in sexual matters involves effort and diligence. To remain faithful, people need boundaries and protections.
For example, many (if not all) people need filters and accountability software on their technology to protect them from pornographic content. Some engaged or dating Christian couples need boundaries on where and how late they spend time one on one. People need to have supportive relationships of accountability where they confess their temptations and sins to other believers. The Bible describes the temptation of sexual sin as so powerful that we don’t just resist but we deliberately take steps to remove ourselves from it (1 Cor. 6:18).
With that said, we also must remind our teens that if you fight that battle alone, without the power of God, then you are in big trouble.
We must remind our teens that if you fight the sexual battle alone, without the power of God, then you are in big trouble.
Resisting sexual temptation requires a daily humbling of ourselves before God. It’s a daily, desperate dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a frequent returning to the gospel and remembrance of the unconditional love of God when we struggle and fail.
The emphasis of biblical sexual ethics needs to be on the victory of Christ on the cross and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The power and grace of God is superior to any human effort. And, ultimately, it’s what we all desperately need.