Idolizing Purity is a Shameful Business

Shameful Purity

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.

Does this lawn cause you to stumble? (Photo: Scotts)

Does this well-watered lawn cause you to stumble?
(Photo: Scotts)

Purifying Purity

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.


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29 Responses to Idolizing Purity is a Shameful Business

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    As in other postings about man’s (human?) views on purity, this seems to be a great collection facts, well researched ideas, biblical points that do not reinforce the main premise. When she dresses immodestly, whether by accident or deliberately you would posit that she has less responsibility or none? If he stares he has more to all responsibility?

    The balance is she needs to be aware of potential for creating these eye targets, he needs to recognize the trap of staring when he finds one. We “aim” our presentations at the most vulnerable, the most open. The present to those who have NO information from a Christian perspective, and when they are most receptive to hearing it. That means the young among us.

    the approach to singles is refresher, while the video is aimed at reinforcing what has been shared in the past. The Christian does not idolize purity for its own merit, but the source and who who we represent by putting these practices into daily living.

    Watching a movie based on 1700’s France I saw the talk of “virtue,” “her virtue,” and “His / her honor,” but nothing of the source. Whether true or not for the moral codes of the day (Hollywood interfering?) the SOURCE of the dilemma was obvious — God’s word, the reason why and who it reflects.

    • Tim says:

      This still puts the emphasis on sexual immorality, rather than the more important spiritual purity that the Bible really gets at. Besides, what does dressing immodestly mean? Is it a woman failing to wear socks? ISIS will fine a woman for that lack of clothing.

      • Pastor Bob says:

        Simple Application – for there is more. Rules, NO (we all break rules)
        Guidelines based on scripture (self control is for all)

        MEN: keep your eyes north of the neckline.
        LADIES: Reduce the reason others to look south of the neckline.

        ALL will look south, discipline will reduce the duration of the glance, self-confidence will not let her unbutton the extra button or two. Before you say she should have the freedom, I agree but we are living in a fallen world.

  2. Jean says:

    Pastor Bob, you’re missing the point. This is not a rule book on the length of stares, hem or neck lines, or a grading system of purity/immorality – it’s about treating each other as made-in-the-image-of-God – as humans – not as objects of desire or impurity. This is not about setting rules – it is about adjusting the attitude of our hearts. We should all respect and love others – not because of how they are dressed or because they meet our standards – but because they are fearfully and wonderfully made – they are image bearers of Almighty God.

    This video is incredibly subversive and I’m so glad you took the time to point out the reasons WHY it is offensive. Unfortunately, in the evangelical circles I grew up in, this perspective is the norm. I can just hear the reactions of dear friends – ‘It’s telling husbands to care for their wives…what’s wrong with that?’

    The relationship – the power differential makes all the difference. For too long, Christian woman have bought the lie (expressed so eloquently by Milton) that man was made…”for God only, (woman) for God in (man).” NO. Women were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever to the same degree as men. We are not moons orbiting a planet which is orbiting the Son – we equally and uniquely reflect God’s character and qualities.

    I also have concerns about the selfish overtones of the video. A man is urged to care for his ‘lawn’ because…it will make things better for HIM. Give your wife some love and you’ll reap the benefits. It’s the Christianized version of, “Treat Her Like A Lady” (Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose) – she’ll give it to you. On the outside, this may look like sacrificial love – but the motive is utterly self centered.

    • Tim says:

      “I can just hear the reactions of dear friends – ‘It’s telling husbands to care for their wives…what’s wrong with that?’”

      I thought the same thing, Jean. Too many people will stay on the superficial level and conclude that there’s nothing wrong with a video that tells a husband to love his wife. But, as you say, this video is subversive. It doesn’t tell the husband to love his wife. It tells him to treat her like a possession – a well maintained yard, for crying out loud – and that he will thus make her beautiful. Really. He’s making her beautiful? The video puts the husband in place of God in this scenario.

    • Loura Shares A Story says:

      Beautifully put, Jean!

    • Pastor Bob says:

      One has to start somewhere……
      One does not say respect, do it or …….. !!!!!
      Models and examples if we ignore the obvious and skip the starting points, catchup is hard, and may never happen,
      You are all RIGHT!!!!
      But go on a different level.

      Application and theory need each other.
      We communicate respect by doing and NOT doing.
      Why does one do ………… ?

  3. Jean says:

    The secular world gets it – why don’t Christians?

  4. That video creeped me out. Besides the questionable decision to set a cartoon to an Enya-esque soundtrack :-), Isn’t a woman “already beautiful” simply because she’s created by God in God’s image (as is any man)? Wouldn’t it be better to rejoice in that fact than focus on how it’s a man’s job to “make” her beautiful?

    It’s true, and a little scary, that ANY good thing can become an idol. Your point about how that shows itself in objectification of others is really helpful.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jeannie. If the marriage is al about the husband’s responsibility to make his wife beautiful, what does that tell the wife on entering the marriage? That she’s sub-beautiful?

  5. Persis says:

    That video tried, but boy did it objectify women! Some blame women for their immodesty, but who are they dressing for? Men. If it has been ingrained throughout human history that your worth is only in how men see you, and they see you as an object? Well, there you go. A fundamental mind shift needs to take place that goes far deeper than clothing regulations.

    • Tim says:

      Exactly, Persis, there you go. This video might use modern technology but it is telling the same old story about women existing solely for the men who are able to possess them.

      Like a great yard.

      That the neighbor covets.

      Because it’s more beautiful than his.

  6. Anon3 says:

    I was brought up in a church that idolized purity so much, it was touted as insurance that you’d have a fantastic marriage and great sex.

    Many of us high school and college students bought into that, and followed the purity formula perfectly (met at church, no sex before marriage, prayed together, he asked for permission to date girl, girl dresses modestly and acts coy, he asked dad for her hand in marriage).

    The problem is: No formula insures a happy marriage.

    The Christian life is learning to walk with Jesus through all of the ups and downs, not trying desperately to game the system and avoid hurt and pain.

    As you might guess, my marriage was a disaster. My husband was a pedophile. He had more than 50 victims that he’s admitted to (and yes, the authorities know about him).

    We divorced, and that divorce taught me to follow Jesus rather than a formula.

    The Lord has been my rock and shield and shelter for many years. I am grateful for the tragedy because it taught me the truth: Formulas are idols. God loves me and will never leave or forsake me as we walk through the hurt and pain of life together. (I’m happy to report that I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life, doing a ton of ministry, and very satisfied with the deep friendships I’ve developed.)

    Today I am still a purity advocate, but not for the same reasons. Now it is a matter of respect for one another, not a way to manipulate God.

    • Tim says:

      I am so sorry for the people your husband victimized and for the pain he brought to your marriage. You have grown past this and I hope his victims have found comfort as well.

      I especially value this insight: “The Christian life is learning to walk with Jesus through all of the ups and downs, not trying desperately to game the system and avoid hurt and pain.”

      That’s the way to prepare for and grow in a marriage relationship.

      • Anon3 says:

        Thank you, Tim, I am grateful to God.
        By the way, I reached out to all of the parents of the victims I knew of (only 3 of the 50+). I hope they found comfort and healing. At least they got the truth.

        • Tori says:

          Thankyou for your act of courage. As a victim of abuse I would if been immensely comforted if someone had done that. Yes they got the truth. And you did a brave thing. Its not easy to admit you were bamboozled. you have my respect x

  7. Lucie Winborne says:

    What would we do without your blog, Tim. Always such wisdom that needs to be heard.

  8. Ruth says:

    Poor woman looks like a toy doll…from Raggedy Anne to Barbie Beautiful, all because he showers her with physical attention. Where is the conversation, interaction, or anything other than implied sex in this?
    Of course men find other women beautiful just as women find men handsome or appealing..admire by all means, gasp quietly at some one magnificent, but that’s not about a full relationship. I want my husband to see me as beautiful inside and out ( perhaps not my intestines!) for who I am and how we relate in the marriage with God as our Head.
    How women dress is a moot point, after all, shaved eye-brows and hair-lines, ankles, waists, high, protruding bosoms, bound, flat chests, huge behinds…think bustle…pure white skin, skinny, Rubenesque weight have all been head- turners at some point in history.
    Purity doesn’t mean a fake modesty put just on women, but an equal reality check for men and women.

  9. Pastor Bob says:

    Through all of this I see:
    *** (trying to simplify)
    – letter of the law and no spirit
    – spirit of the law coming out
    – we need the law to guide
    – we need the spirit as the basis for everything
    – I stress examples above, but the underlying issue/need cannot be expressed by the actions
    – many above stressed the spirit (in this case “why”, but the applications of “how” without the “why” leads to problems, shall we say imbalance.
    – I stress BOTH within the programs I work with.

    Much as it has been decried, we really do need the “how’s” but if you are stressing the lack “why”, I can fully understand this. separate the menfolk from the lady-folk and talk, put them together talk, without the depth of WHY.

    IF one relies on one and only principle only in life (apply here primarily) good may come, but simply becasue the principles when applied this one way work for one/few does not mean it works for many/most/all.

    HOW points to WHY and this reflects Him.

    Anyone care to guess the “R” word to most of what I share?

    • Tim says:

      When purity is at the center, it’s an idol like any other. If we focus on Jesus instead, where our focus is always supposed to be, then there’s no room for idols of any sort – purity or otherwise.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The woman you gave me, she made me do it.

  11. Zoe says:

    I’ve had so much more indoctrination into modesty and purity than ANY of my male peers. They could live out the rest of their natural lifespans and they still wouldn’t have as much as I’ve gotten so far in my life.

    As far as this imbalance continues, I am done listening to it altogether. Whatever you (the collective “you”) want to say to me about this topic, whatever admonishments you want to speak, whatever corrections you wish to share, I’ve already heard it a thousand times, and I’m not listening anymore.

    We’ve come to the point of diminishing returns in admonishing women and girls. There is no more value to be had in *only doing that half of the job. Yet still men (and some women) are insisting that it is women who must do more–or at least step up and do half. They’re telling this to the gender at whose doorstep the WHOLE has been laid historically, and it still is today. Sure, there are throwaway comments to the men to guard their eyes and hearts and wear shirts. But women know this is really nothing like what we are deluged with for being born female into Christianity.

    Obviously, I have my issues with this. I acknowledge that and realize it. Still not listening. I have already done more listening than I should have and WAY more listening than the average man will ever do on this subject. It’s your turn, guys. Seriously, take a turn.

    • Tim says:

      I have a post going up tomorrow that hits a couple of the points you make, Zoe: guys taking responsibility for their own lusts/actions, and that it’s time to stop telling women and girls that if only they did more the problem would go away.

  12. Joanne says:

    If the man didn’t already have a sexual sin problem then how a woman dressed wouldn’t affect him. And of course it is much easier in life to blame someone else for your own sinful behaviour—Lust.

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