Is Purity Culture Actually Harming Singles?

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Two days ago Joshua Harris, the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” announced that he and his wife are separating after 20 years of marriage. 

It’s a very sobering thought because his book became required reading in some Christian schools, and a lot of churches and leaders used it as a dating manual to teach young people the “right” way to go about dating and courting. There was a whole purity movement in the late 90s and early 2000s called True Love Waits, started by the Southern Baptist church, that emphasized waiting until marriage for sex. Teenagers and young adults wore “purity rings” to publicize their decision to practice abstinence until marriage. 

But almost 20 years after the publication of his book, Harris teamed up with people who had read his book and found that it had done a lot of damage to their view of dating, marriage, and God. His words had come to define how people viewed these ideas, and realized that his book had taken on a life of its own, and been used to restrict single people in a way that traumatized some of them.

I don’t have time to go into all the details of his book, but the main ideas of his book were:

  • In a popular “hookup” culture, Christians are called to wait until marriage sex. 

  • Mainstream dating is unhealthy because it causes people to enter into a cycle of getting together, hook up, break up, that doesn’t set a good foundation for the lifelong commitment of marriage.

  • Courtship is a godly alternative where you start to date a girl only with the permission of their parents, and only when you are ready for marriage. 

  • Physical contact during courtship was discouraged. In fact, Harris shared that he waited until their wedding day to kiss his wife. 

How It Affected Singles in the Church

I’m sure you can see how restrictive these beliefs can become, especially in a generation where people are staying single longer than they used to. 

People in the interviews expressed that the ideas in the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” basically put shame around dating in their church culture because if you weren’t ready for marriage, you shouldn’t be dating (supposedly).

People who lost their virginity before marriage were not “whole”. In so many youth programs, people used the analogy of a flower with no petals to represent what happens to someone who has multiple boyfriends or sexual encounters. 

In short, it basically made single people feel like they were not supposed to interact with any one of the opposite sex unless they wanted to marry them. But what if you just wanted to get to know them better? What if you did mess up and have sex before marriage? Would your sex life be doomed? Were a great marriage and great sex life only for people who had never “messed up?”

It’s no secret that the number of young adults in churches is surprisingly small in comparison to other demographics. Is it possible that young adults are leaving the church because they are being told that they should repress their sexuality until they are “ready for marriage,” whatever that means? Should they just avoid the opposite sex until God drops their mates onto their laps? Does a failed “courtship” mean dating that particular person was a mistake? 

These are serious questions that I don’t think believers talk about enough. Singles are simply encouraged to work on themselves until God thinks they’re holy enough to have a spouse, and abstinence is heavily emphasized. Is it any wonder that young people feel like the church isn’t meeting their needs, and thus walk away? 

A Call To Action

I think that we all, like Joshua Harris, need to re-evaluate our thinking about what it means to be “pure,” how to go about dating, and having healthy relationships with the opposite sex without bringing the pressure of being marriage-ready into the equation.

We need to address questions such as, “How do I explore or express my sexuality in a way that honors the body that God gave me?” “What about masturbation?” “How do I approach someone I’m attracted to with confidence?” “How do I develop healthy communication and solve conflicts in my relationships?” 

I understand the need to protect people from making mistakes that have the potential to affect the rest of their lives. I understand that we want to discourage sin and encourage people to live by godly principles. But sometimes we take it too far and try to control people’s minds with fear. We restrict people so much that they end up feeling like the church and God are holding them back, and they break free. We end up pushing people away from God instead of towards Him. 

God loves us. God loves the teenagers and singles we are trying to protect even more than we do. But love requires freedom. We have to give people the freedom to make their own choices without making them feel like they will have less value if they make the “wrong” choice. Or that God won’t want anything to do with them if they go down a certain path. We try to make rules where God hasn’t been very specific in the Bible.

What if we just focus on showing people who God is, instead of showing them all these rules? What if we focus on helping people walk with God in genuine friendship, rather than introducing them to a critical God who needs to be appeased with sexual purity in order to bless them with a great marriage? 

After all, following a certain formula doesn’t mean your life will be free of problems. Joshua Harris did things the “right” way but is currently suffering loss because his marriage is ending. Job did things the “right” way but still ended up losing his children, his health, and all his possessions.

But I’m still convinced that Joshua Harris, his wife, and their family-like Job-are still in the palm of God’s hands, and they will be okay in the end. I believe that as long as your treasure is God Himself, and not the stuff He will give you, He’ll make sure that all the detours you take, the mistakes you make, will still lead you back to Him. 

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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