Purity Culture, Shame, and the Gospel

Purity Culture, Shame, and the Gospel October 11, 2022

hand reaching out of water

The purity movement of the 90s and 2000s has been the source of enduring shame for countless people raised under its teachings. As purity culture’s critics are quick to point out, the movement frequently painted sexual sin as something that was irredeemable. Have sex before marriage and you’re now chewed gum, a crushed rose, or a broken teacup. In short, you’re damaged goods, and nothing can make you pure again.

I’m not the first to point out that this messaging was hurtful, even devastating in some cases, and that we need to do better.

But I also think the pervasiveness of these messages in the evangelical church raises some very difficult questions. Specifically, I think we need to ask why evangelicals, who pride themselves above all else on their commitment to the gospel, bought into a movement that viewed sexual sin as irredeemable.

Isn’t the entire message of the gospel that God is in the business of redeeming our sin? And didn’t purity culture undermine that at a very basic level? How did evangelicals get this so wrong?

I believe the answer to these questions lies in the difference between shame and guilt. The purity movement talked about sexual sin using the language of shame. And then it offered a gospel articulated in terms of guilt, punishment, and forgiveness as the solution.

While forgiveness is the answer to guilt, it’s not the answer to shame. I believe this disconnect contributed to the ongoing shame and hurt felt by so many who grew up under purity culture’s teachings.

But thankfully, the biblical gospel is about more than just guilt and forgiveness. The biblical gospel also answers to our shame in powerful ways.

Purity Culture and the Language of Shame

To see the relationship between purity culture and shame, we only need to look at a single word: “pure.” Purity was the defining language of the movement that bears its name, and the concept was there from the very beginning. Indeed, the original True Love Waits pledge cards signed by those first teenagers in 1993 included a promise to be “sexually pure” until marriage.

Purity is, of course, directly connected to shame. After all, the opposite of pure is dirty, unclean, tainted, or spoiled. If you had sex before marriage (or committed any number of lesser infractions, sinful or otherwise), purity culture implied with a single word that you were now dirty—impure.

I’m not the only one to point this out. Indeed, in her book Pure, purity culture critic Linda Kay Klein refers to the messaging of the purity movement as the “language of shame.” She says it’s the feeling that you are bad, rather than the recognition that you’ve done something bad.

And in that sense, shame is different from guilt. Guilt is an objective recognition that you’ve broken the law or that you’ve overstepped some boundary. Shame is the humiliating feeling of being worthless, rejected, or unclean. You can be guilty and have no shame, and you can also feel shame without being guilty.

By focusing on the language of “sexual purity,” purity culture viewed sexual sin primarily through the lens of shame. But it never articulated a gospel that was capable of dealing with that shame. Let me show you what I mean.

The Evangelical Gospel Overlooks Shame

If you grew up in an evangelical church, you’ve likely heard “the gospel” presented hundreds of times. And I’m sure it essentially boiled down to this message: all of us have broken God’s law, we deserve to be punished, Jesus was punished instead, so now we can be forgiven and enjoy eternal life.

I want to be clear that I don’t deny any of that message. But I do want to point out that it’s too narrowly focused, especially in the context of the messaging of purity culture. After all, the gospel as I just summarized it focuses exclusively on guilt. I’ve done things which are objectively wrong, I’m guilty in an objective judicial sense, and I can be forgiven because Jesus stood in my place. Guilt, punishment, forgiveness. They are undoubtedly glorious truths.

But they don’t address shame. After all, if something is dirty, you don’t forgive it, you wash it. Similarly, if someone feels dirty, telling them they’re forgiven won’t remove their sense of having been spoiled. Forgiveness doesn’t address the shame problem.

This is why Joshua Harris himself could recognize a gulf between gospel forgiveness and ongoing feelings of brokenness. In the opening chapter of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he suggests that those who “give their heart away” in too many romantic relationships might risk “having nothing left” to give their spouse. And he points out that, while he knows God has forgiven him for his past relational mistakes, he still feels the ache of having given too much of his heart away.

Joshua Harris’s gospel could forgive his sin. But it apparently couldn’t restore his spoiled heart.

The True Gospel is More than Guilt and Forgiveness

Thankfully, when we turn to the scriptures, we find a gospel that’s articulated very differently.

We find that the shed blood of Jesus “cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We find the author of Hebrews affirming that Jesus’ blood “purifies our conscience” just as the animals sacrificed under the old covenant purified the people from their uncleanness.

We find that Jesus gave himself up for his bride the church, “cleansing her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5). And we find that same bride presented to Jesus at the end of time, “clothed in fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19).

Did you catch it? This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, articulated in the language of clean and unclean, pure and impure. It unambiguously affirms that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are sufficient to deal not only with our guilt, but also with our shame. Jesus can cleanse us. He can make us pure and spotless. He can make us white as snow.

And what about Joshua Harris’ broken heart? The prophet Isaiah spoke of a day when God would “bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61). And Jesus made very clear that his ministry was a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s words (Luke 4).

Nothing, it seems, is beyond God’s ability to redeem.

Moving Forward

Of course, none of this means that we’ve solved the thorny issues that purity culture has created for so many. My quoting a few verses about cleansing and purification doesn’t magically overturn years of internalized messages about sexual sin. Dealing with purity culture’s legacy will be something many of us work through for years to come, in community with friends, loved ones, pastors, and sometimes professional counselors and therapists.

But I do hope that I’ve demonstrated that there’s cleansing gospel hope for those of us who have been told we’re dirty, impure. Experiencing the full reality promised by that hope is the project of a lifetime, and it will never be complete this side of glory. But it is the real hope of every Christian nonetheless.

And so we need to be talking about it, just as much as we talk about guilt and forgiveness. The gospel truth that we can be made clean again should come out in our preaching. It should infuse our conversations. It should impact the way we treat one another. And it should slowly but surely invade our thoughts until we start to truly see ourselves the way God sees us: as those who have taken off the old self and put on Christ himself (Romans 13) so that we reflect his unspoiled, glorious image.

Further Thoughts?

Has purity culture impacted you? Do my thoughts on shame and the gospel make sense? Got any other comments or questions? Please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

Also, if the topic of purity culture interests you, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Consider following me on Twitter if you’d like to stay involved in the conversation.

You might also check out some of my other articles. For example, I’ve written about moving past purity culture by rediscovering the gospel-soaked story of God and his people as bride and groom (something I referenced today). I’ve written about how purity culture appropriated the logic of virginity as its main framework for understanding sexual hurt and sin, which is the reason it caused so much shame. And I’ve argued, further, that purity culture’s expanded use of virginity logic was unbiblical.

Image Credit: Stormseeker / Unsplash

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