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How Purity Culture is Destroying the Church

“Ring by spring.”

This was a really popular phrase at the Christian undergraduate school I attended. It was a tongue-in-cheek saying but had a lot of truth to it, too. It didn’t really affect freshmen or sophomores, but with juniors and seniors? Oh yeah. Ohhhhhhhh yeah.

You see, when every student entered campus, we all had to sign a contract of sorts called “the covenant” that basically enforced a strong purity culture in its students, even while off campus. So, true story, I had 2 different friends at 2 different times legally go consume a single beer at a Buffalo Wild Wings get in trouble because a staff member coincidentally walked in and catch them.

1 beer. Totally legal at 21 years old. Not even in the same town as campus.

So that covenant was chalked full of things like no smoking and no drinking, but the stickiest of the ickies came from the rules around physical intimacy and sex. If you’ve grown up in any evangelical church, it’s all the same. Basically anything past hand holding was a big no-no, and God sheds a tear any time you grab a boob before marriage. (And by shed a tear… I mean you’re totally going to hell if you don’t repent.)

But the other perhaps bigger piece of this had to do with cohabitation — living together before marriage. A lot of people who came out of that school were set to be pastors, and let me tell you… a church likes a married pastor a lot more than a single one. Couple that with the general marriage culture on campus and the fact that people didn’t want to leave school alone, and marriages directly following graduation were aplenty. (My wife and I fall into this camp, too.)

Let’s fast forward 8 years to see how things are going now.

Few are the people who remain married and remain working in the church. Many are still thankfully married but have left the church entirely. Likewise, several are now unfortunately divorced.

Here’s the deal, especially amongst my generation, the church is trying to force this purity culture agenda without at all cultivating mature mindsets that would enable young adults to make wise decisions. So these YAs feel like they have to get married but are nowhere near a mature state to understand what marriage really is and the implications of it.

I’ll raise my hand a call myself out as one of those people. I do love my wife, but marriage especially in those first couple years are so tough. Balancing the establishment of my own career with my wife’s career, ensuring we’re making enough money to not live in destitute conditions, and coping with existential crises following continued problems with the church… that time was extremely difficult.

My wife has been very gracious throughout it all, otherwise I don’t think we’d still be married today.

Oh, and we can’t forget those who didn’t get married after school. While some of them remained fairly normal, many of them became social outcasts. They can’t hold a job in a church because — as stated before — it’s too weird to have a single guy in a pastoral position. So they end up taking jobs at pizza places, as baristas, or as warehouse workers. (So much for that private school 4 year education.)

Rightly or wrongly, all these parties who find this purity culture life to be less than desirable end up blaming the church for putting them there. And unfortunately, God gets looped right in there because “God’s Word” (the Bible) told the church what to do, and the church relayed “God’s Word” faithfully.

(Except for the fact that God’s Word can easily be used wrongly to promote genocide, slavery, and other heinous acts. We simply like to glance over the dirty parts. *wink*)

So what do we do? Do we ease up or eliminate purity culture rules altogether?

Some of them I believe can be eliminated (e.g. the BWW beer situations), but there are others that I’m not so sure about quite honestly. Like, I was reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s recent book on sex and found myself agreeing with a lot of it… but then totally lost me when she allowed her high school age daughter to spend the night at boyfriend’s house.

I get where she was going with that. She believed her daughter to be emotionally mature enough to be in an intimate relationship like that, but I don’t believe she knew the boy that well. And sadly, most 18 year old boys aren’t thinking “divine unity” when strapping on a condom. Kids these days just aren’t that mature at age 18 (or even age 22) in general, so I don’t expect them to be mature enough to understand the purpose of physical intimacy.

But that’s the thing: the church only says no. The church does a crap job at explaining their rationale, often defaulting to the lazy answer of “The Bible says so.” Well, the Bible tells us how we should rightly treat our slaves, so does that mean we’re cool owning slaves??

My biggest issue with the church is that it is far more a social group that it is a divine seeking congregation. This is why you hear much more about enforcing cultural norms than spirituality in general. Even amongst liberal churches, you’ll hear far more about enforcing liberal agendas than focusing on divinity or mystical experiences. There’s certainly a place for that, but the fact that that is the overarching narrative is what’s really destroying the church.

“People like us do things like this.”

And if you want to be one of those people, you have to do those things.

But when culture in general moves beyond what is established within the walls of the church, you start to see a schism. This is why church attendance, especially amongst younger people, is declining significantly. The church is trying to enforce a purity “we’re so wonderful and great” culture without looking at more intrinsic factors. (And lets be real… coffee shops and guitars on stage is a tiny bandaid on a gaping, infected wound.)

Still, people like me resonate with some level of divinity and are looking to understand what the next phase of spirituality looks like. Father Richard Rohr often states that he thinks we in this present time are still very much in baby Christianity. We focus so much on a symbol system and don’t understand what those symbols even mean. This isn’t to say the symbols are necessarily bad themselves, but when you start using them to enforce a culture that suits you well, don’t be surprised when people attack the symbols because of how you culturally interpreted them.

I’m going too far down this rabbit hole, so let’s pull ourselves back up. I usually like to end with a “So, now what do we do?” But truthfully, I am not sure. Thankfully, I have a decade yet to figure that out with my own daughters, but the first step to fixing any problem is admitting there is a problem. I suppose that’s what this post is for: admitting that there is a purity culture problem destroying the church from the inside out.

Anyway, that’s it for this week, folks. Catch you in the next post.

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