Observe a discussion on purity and most of the talk in modern American Christianity is aimed at teens and young single adults. Listen closer and you’ll also find that the talk is principally aimed at the behavior of the girls and women rather than that of the boys and men.
The books and videos and conferences that dominate the purity movement have one over-arching message: remain pure or you won’t be as good as God wants you to be.
For girls and women, this is expressed as: You’re responsible for how you look and act, you’re responsible for the way boys and men interpret how you look and act, and you’re responsible if they lust after you because it’s your fault for looking and acting the way you do.
If the guys lust, it’s the women who are shamed.
The responsibility this places on young women is more than any person should have to bear.
Greener – and Purer – Pastures
It was almost refreshing to see a purity video aimed at married men rather than teenage girls. Almost, but not quite.
The 60 second video focused on the man’s actions but did so at the expense of the woman’s humanity. I’ll describe the concepts (since the video is no longer available online) as this type of teaching keeps cropping up.
Objectification: The woman is compared to a lawn, and is referred to as “it” rather than “she” more than once. The language of the video objectifies women: it speaks of “what’s on the other side” rather than “who” is in the relationship with the man, and tells him to “water it, cherish it” – as if she were his property – rather than cherish the woman and care for her as a person. Objectifying women is one of the constant characteristics of the purity movement, whether the focus is on men or women. (See, Patriarchy: When Husbands Possess Wives.
Only Men Can Beautify Women: The man is told that the reason he finds other women attractive isn’t because of who they are but because of the fact that another man has made the woman beautiful by how he treats her. It’s completely up to the man to make his own wife beautiful, and he better measure up to the task: “It takes a true gentleman to make a woman beautiful.” (There’s no mention of what it takes to make a man attractive.)
Hyper-Sexualization: And then there’s the seminal line found at 23 seconds into the video: “The grass is always greener when it’s watered.” Putting aside the continuing objectification of the woman as yard work, look at the way the man and woman are depicted in the video to accompany that line. Is she napping, passed out, tired, sated? He has his hand on her with a cryptic smile. Is he possessive, adoring, protective? Or has he just finished watering and she’s laying there like a well-watered lawn?
This may not be at the level of hyper-sexualization found in some materials produced by purity movement resources, but it seems to suggest that the watering metaphor is to be understood as a way to enhance one’s sexuality on top of being pure for purity’s sake. It reminds me of the teen purity talks that insist that if only the teens will abstain from premarital sex they’ll later find that married sex is a mind-blowing banquet night after night.
These are the problems typical when the focus is placed on purity.
Purity is Not the Problem
The problem is not with purity, of course. The problem is focusing on purity instead of on Jesus. That’s how idols are made.
OT prophets warned against worshiping idols.
With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple. (Isaiah 40:18-20.)
But why mention wooden idols in a discussion of the purity movement’s improper focus? It’s because an idol is anything that a person sets up in place of God. Paul listed “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” as idols in Colossians 3:5, but that doesn’t mean their opposites cannot be idols as well.
Something is an idol when it not only becomes your focus in place of God, but also causes you to treat people as objects in order to line them up with that misplaced focus. For purity issues, look at that video for how it refers to women (objects desired by men) and what a burden it places on the man (taking the place of God?) to be the one who makes her desirable – and in consequence she is desirable not only to him but also to any other men who might lust after her for having greener grass than their own lawns … um, wives.
True purity can be godly, of course. Jesus said so:
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8.)
The pursuit of purity is also godly:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8.)
But the Bible’s purity is concerned with much more than sexual morality (although that is the context of some of the purity passages on occasion). Biblical purity is primarily spiritual, rather than physical, and comes to us only through God himself:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22, emphasis added.)
Being pure isn’t the point. God is the point.
This is why focusing on purity can lead to idolatry: it takes your eye off the one who has made you pure, the one you should always be focused on. In fact, your focus should never be on any virtue no matter how much the Bible encourages it. Otherwise that virtue – whether purity or any other – becomes an idol in place of Christ.
There’s no purity in that.