By Dayne Batten
Christian teaching on sex and relationships is in crisis. Believers on both sides of the evangelical/progressive divide are rapidly reaching the conclusion that the purity movement of the 1990s and early 2000s caused a lot of harm. But this growing rejection of “purity culture” is leaving behind an alarming gap.
After all, we still need to talk to our young people about singleness, sex, relationships, and marriage. We might need to do so now more than ever, given the current state of the secular world. So it’s therefore high time we consider the question posed by Rachel Joy Welcher in a recent article for Christianity Today: What comes after the purity culture reckoning?
If we’re serious about answering this question, I believe we’ll find that what comes after purity culture should actually be what came before purity culture. And not just a few years before. Thousands of years before.
You see, when the architects of the Christian sexual ethic (i.e., the authors of the New Testament) wanted to instruct their readers about purity, marriage, and sex, they frequently turned to an old Jewish metaphor: God and his people as bride and groom.
In Ephesians 5, for example, the apostle Paul argues that the husband-and-wife relationship between Christ and the church should set the standard for human marriages. Moreover, the “one flesh” marital union between Jesus and his followers lies at the center of 1 Corinthians 5-7, the longest discussion of singleness, sex, and marriage in all of scripture. These passages alone provide substantial biblical precedent for viewing our sexual ethics through the lens of God’s love for his bride.
I believe that, if we can wrap our minds around this ancient love story, we’ll find that it turns purity culture on its head, and gives us a new, redemptive vision for Christian relationships.
A Biblical Love Story
Of course, if we want to base our sexual ethics on this biblical story, it will help to know what it’s all about. So let me see if I can sketch a rough outline.
When God first set out to find himself a bride, he didn’t go looking for the purest, the most beautiful, or the most powerful. Instead, according to Ezekiel 16, he rescued a little pagan girl whom he found wallowing in blood and filth, abandoned to die by parents who “abhorred” her. Ezekiel’s orphan is, of course, a metaphor for ancient Israel, who were themselves descendants of pagans (Joshua 24) and who were rescued by God from their slavery in Egypt.
But despite God’s kindness to his orphan-bride, Israel, she turned away from him. She followed other gods. In the words of Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 2, she “played the whore.” God was repulsed by Israel’s behavior. And so, he sent her away to exile.
He didn’t turn his back on her forever, though. Instead, in texts like Hosea 2 and Isaiah 62, he promised to restore his relationship with his faithless wife.
It is against this prophetic backdrop that the New Testament unfolds. Many of Jesus’ parables involve grooms and wedding feasts, not because they’re a convenient analogy, but because Jesus is specifically asserting that the promised prophetic wedding is coming to pass, and that he is the ultimate groom. He’s come to a world full of unfaithful Jews and godless Gentiles, all of them a mess of sin and rebellion, and he’s going to call all of them to be his eternal bride.
And so, according to Ephesians 5, Jesus takes his bride-to-be, and he “gives himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25-26). He lays down his life, so that she may be washed in his shed blood. He begins to cleanse her, sanctifying her by the preaching of his word. And he looks forward to the day when he will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). He looks forward to the day when his church will come to him in glory as the perfect bride, “clothed in fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19:8).
This is a love story that’s as beautiful as it is powerful. It is, after all, the gospel. And it has the power to transform our thinking about sex and relationships.
The Bride of Christ and Purity Culture
As we seek to apply this gospel-soaked story in our own lives, we should first note that it is the exact inverse of purity culture. As so many of its critics have pointed out, the logic of purity culture was essentially the logic of virginity. You start out pure, the only way to go is down, and your worth as a marriage partner will be determined by how far you fall.
This was, of course, the point of all the now-infamous crass analogies and dramatic object lessons that were so common in purity culture teachings. Chewed gum is gross, undesirable, and impossible to return to its original form. Just like those that give away their purity—or so the thinking went.
But whereas purity culture said that perfect purity was the starting point, the gospel story of God and his bride recognizes that, in a fallen world, the starting point of our journey tends to look a lot more like the victimization and sin of the orphan and whore.
Moreover, whereas purity culture said that the only way to go is down, the story of God and his bride shows us a God who is in the business of redemption. He’s constantly rescuing his bride, cleansing her, giving her new clothes, and making her beautiful. And it is only at the very end of the story, in Revelation, that she’s finally pure and spotless!
Redemptive Human Relationships
We shouldn’t stop at seeing the bride-of-Christ story as a refutation of some of purity culture’s worst teachings, however. We should also see it as a new, radically biblical framework for talking to the next generation of Christian young people about singleness, marriage, and relationships. And that includes teaching the Christian sexual ethic—the very problem purity culture set out to address.
After all, we should not think that God looks any more fondly on our tendency to idolize sex than he did on Israel’s “playing the whore” with pagan deities. Moreover, given that Paul uses our one-flesh union with Christ to stress the seriousness of sexual misconduct in 1 Corinthians 6, we should not shy away from doing the same. But situating our warnings about these matters within the broader framework of the bride-of-Christ story will allow us to keep the focus on redemption rather than shame.
There’s more here than just sexual ethics, however. The story of God and his bride is also a tremendous example of the kind of love we should be exhibiting in our human relationships—romantic and otherwise. After all, it was Jesus who washed the filth from his disciples’ feet (echoing God’s repeated washing of his bride) and then instructed them to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13).
So then, all of us have a God-given call to show self-sacrificial, redeeming, cleansing, gospel love to those around us. We are to participate in washing and redeeming our fellow orphans and whores. For those of us that are called to marriage, the task of emulating God’s love remains the same, it’s just that we now have a definitive life-long call to show that love to one person in particular.
And this means that the best gift you can give your spouse is not your “purity” (as purity culture so frequently taught). You were never pure anyway. No, the greatest love that you can show to someone is to lay down your life for them (John 15:13). If that’s true, then the greatest gift that a person can give their spouse is a lifetime of dying to self. It’s also the greatest gift that you can give to your parents, your friends, your neighbors, and anyone else in your life.
And all of us, by God’s grace, are equipped to show that kind of redeeming love, no matter what we’ve done in the past, or what’s been done to us.
True Love Redeems
Many readers likely remember the phrase “true love waits.” There was truth to that idea, in the sense that engaging in sexual sin is not an act of love. But “true love waits” was an exercise in missing the forest for the sake of a single tree.
True love, as demonstrated in the story of God and his bride (i.e., as demonstrated in the gospel) is undeserved, self-sacrificial, redemptive, covenant love which embraces another despite their wounds and their sin, and which helps to make them more beautiful than they could ever imagine. That’s the true love that God’s shown to us, and that’s the true love that he calls us to show to one another.
And so, if we’re wondering what comes after purity culture, we can find no better framework for thinking about sex and relationships than the one used in scripture: God’s love for his bride. As we make sense of the beautiful, redemptive truth contained in that story, we might even find ourselves adopting a new slogan: True Love Redeems.