Reclaiming purity: Unpacking the unintended messages of The Purity Movement

The Purity Movement of the 1990s and early 2000s communicated many Biblical truths but also conveyed a lot of unintended messages.

Growing up in The Purity Movement of the 1990s

Your neckline must be two finger lengths from your collarbone. You can’t watch that movie. Your shorts are too short. You shouldn’t date. Sound familiar?

Like many of you, I grew up in The Purity Movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. To be honest, purity seemed kind of cool at the time. There were giant conferences promoting it, teen pop stars modeling abstinence, and parents buying their daughters fancy rings if they committed to saving sex for marriage.

You could even say that purity was popular.

But today, the word “purity” is anything but. Due to The Purity Movement’s strict guidelines for how to please God and how to win a husband, the word “purity” carries negative connotations and disappointment for many. Some women even associate it with strong feelings of shame and anger.  

Why? The church wanted us to save sex for marriage, dress modestly, protect our hearts and have successful marriages. All good things. But too often their messages came across like this:

  • Purity is the same thing as abstinence
  • Virginity makes you more valuable
  • Sex is an evil to be avoided
  • Pornography is just a man’s issue
  • You shouldn’t date
  • If you do everything right, your marriage will be perfect
  • Modest is hottest

Purity became a list of do’s and don’ts….

Missing the mark by missing the heart

When the life Jesus calls us to becomes a list of rules, we miss the heart behind it all. Our self-inflicted guidelines quickly turn into legalism and spiral into spiritual disappointment. That’s exactly what happened to Linda Kay Klein, the author of “Pure”, a book chronicling the damage that The Purity Movement inflicted on her life.

I was saddened when I read about the book. Because I know she’s not alone. As a full-figured girl, Klein felt ashamed for being curvy, often accused of dressing immodestly. She did not know how to handle her God-given sexuality. Due to a traditionally narrow view of sexuality, her church failed to communicate a narrative for singles, equated purity with abstinence, and implied that virgins were somehow worth more. Girls were told to sign an abstinence pledge, stifle any sexual desire and think of sex as an evil to be feared, instead of a sacred thing to be protected.

This message missed the heart of God.

Rather than loving God and His ways, girls her age were whimsically wishing for a romantic reward. Rather than honoring God with their bodies, girls fell into thinking that abstinence was about earning the promise of a happier life. I’ve been a good girl, so God should bless me with the perfect husband.

Klein says she followed all the rules, but the promises of The Purity Movement came up empty, leaving her bitter and causing her to reject what she’d been told.

Calling ourselves a “purity ministry”

Because of the hurt and confusion that women like Klein experienced, some popular authors have chosen to exchange the word “purity” for “sexual integrity”, but we want to reclaim it.

As with many biblical truths, our misconceptions about purity come from misconceptions about God.

God doesn’t just want us to have sexual integrity. He wants our hearts. God desires that His daughters passionately pursue a relationship with Him instead of just  following a list of rules.

We call ourselves a “purity ministry” because we believe the word “purity” communicates a fuller picture of God’s redemptive and relational heart. After all, none of us are pure on our own. We are sinners in need of Jesus. Our purity is not our own. It’s God’s to give. He washes us clean by the blood of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Perhaps that’s why the word “purity” refers to both our sexuality AND our relationship with God throughout Scripture.

“You should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God. . . . For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 7 

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose…so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Philippians 2:12-13,15

I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 11:2-3

And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” 1 John 3:3

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8

Re-read those verses and notice how purity sometimes refers to our sexuality and other times it refers to our relationship with God. Purity is about so much more than abstinence, it’s about our faultless standing before the throne. Because of Christ, we are pure and blameless before Him. We are to pursue Him wholeheartedly with pure devotion and a pure heart.

Does we want us to live sexually pure lives as well? Of course! But our external actions flow from an inward purity of the heart, not the other way around. Loving Him means living for Him.

Matthew 5:8 doesn’t say that the rule followers will see God,  it says that the pure in heart will see God.

Putting relationship before the rules

Remember how I said I grew up in The Purity Movement of the 1990s and early 2000s? Well, all things considered, I am grateful I grew up in a household that put a love for God before a list of rules. When I was eleven, my dad bought me a beautiful diamond ring, but he didn’t try to tie it to sexual purity. As new Christians, my parents didn’t exactly buy into the typical Christian fads. In fact, I don’t think he even knew what a purity ring was! He just wanted to let me know me how much he loved me so I didn’t have to look for that love elsewhere.

Later I decided to buy myself a purity ring. But it was only after I understood what it really meant to love God with all of me.

My parents always emphasized relationship before rules, encouraging us to be sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and to be aware when something would grieve God. And they were on to something.

God wants our hearts not our rules. He created us to love Him. That’s why we are reclaiming purity as passionately pursuing the heart of God.

Join us on the journey.

Recommended resources on understanding God’s design for sexuality:

  • Sex, Jesus and the Conversations the Church Forgot by Mo Isom
  • Christian Cosmo by Phylicia Masonheimer
  • Rethinking Sexuality by Juli Slattery

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