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youth ministry

Is Purity the Right Word?

Photo by Boris Drenec via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I didn’t grow up in church. As a result, I am still learning Christianese. You know, the weird language Christians use when talking to each other.

  • Sanctification = I’m less a jerk today than I was yesterday.
  • But it’s a blessing = I’m really disappointed by what happened to me, but I’m trying to make the best of it.
  • That was Spirit-filled = I liked how that made me feel.
  • I’m pursuing righteousness = My choices have screwed things up, but I’m learning from them and trying to do better.
  • We go to a Bible-believing church = I go to a Baptist church.

Every subculture has code language. As we get to know a subculture, picking up on the code language is key to being accepted.

It’s mostly harmless. Mostly.

That said, I have an issue with the code word “purity” as we talk to adolescents about human sexuality.

We have a whole batch of code language which I don’t think is helpful.

  • Purity = Abstinence
  • We’re going to have a purity weekend = A scared straight weekend, similar to drivers education where we will fill a room with sexualized language, then tell them not to act on it.
  • We want you to commit to sexual purity = Even though we don’t want to talk about sex, we want you to promise us you won’t have sex until marriage.
  • You can chose a new purity in Christ = It’s not OK that you’ve had sex, but we’ll accept you anyway.

On and on.

My problem with purity language is three-fold.

Biblically, it’s not true

There is a disconnect between language of purity and our own sinfulness. Outside of Jesus, no person has ever been truly sexually pure, by Jesus’ definition. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) There are a lot more verses in the Bible that emphasize our innate sinfulness. I have a feeling that even Mother Theresa may have had a naughty thought once or twice in her life. Certainly, the Bible is full of stories of sexually impure people doing awesome things for God.

David slept with a woman and got her pregnant. (After watching her bathe from a rooftop!) Then he had her husband killed to cover it up. And yet he is called, “A man after God’s own heart.” Solomon, whom the Bible proclaims as one of the wisest men in history, had sex with hundreds of women. God even chose to create a sexual scandal to bring his Son to earth. The Bible is FULL of impurity when it comes to sex.

Maybe I’m just too Calvinist? But I believe that Jesus is unique in all human history as the only person to truly be pure. So standing in front of a group of teenagers and telling them to chose sexual purity is starting the discussion from a guilt-inducing place and coming from a hypocritical mouth.

Purity isn’t the right word. Biblically. It’s too loaded.

Physiologically, it’s not true

Sex isn’t dirty but pure isn’t quite the right word either. Purity language makes it seem as though sex is something that it isn’t, physiologically.

As we describe sex– bathed in the language of purity— we are setting our students up for disappointment. They already know their bodies aren’t pure. And as they later explore their sexuality with another person purity won’t be a useful word for it.

Statistically, most of the students you are talking to about their sexuality have already experienced some levels of sex. (With another person, alone, or watching it online.) So when you stand in front of them and use language of purity to describe sexuality, they probably think you are crazy.

From a physiological standpoint, purity isn’t the right word.

Developmentally, purity is too symbolic

Adults all know that “sexual purity” is a symbolic term. It’s code language. It’s a way that we’ve come up with to talk about our sexuality in a way we are comfortable with. We justify, even if it isn’t helpful at least we are teaching something.

The problem with using symbolism to talk about sexuality is that the early adolescent mind can’t decode it. You use the term “purity” symbolically; they hear it literally. So you teach on sexuality using language that they don’t understand and seems completely devoid of their own experience. You finish feeling like you’ve really expressed your view and they leave more confused.

Purity is a good word symbolically, but it might not be developmentally appropriate.

Just to be clear

I’ve got no problem teaching students that they should live their sexual life in a way pleasing to God. I’ve long taught my students, “My desire for you is that you will grow up to have happy, healthy, and simple adult relationships.” And I’ve used purity language tons!

I’m only questioning our choice of words. Is purity the most useful word to describe glorifying God with our sexual selves?

For discussion

  • Do you agree or disagree with my premise that purity isn’t the right word to talk to adolescents about human sexuality?
  • What would be better words we should use to talk to students about sexual health?
  • We all know parents are the best people to talk to their kids about sex… so how can we better partner with parents?

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

13 replies on “Is Purity the Right Word?”

Right on. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to not use the word “purity” in sexuality talks, but your post really rings true for me. While the word “pure” is definitely Biblical–and I don’t think you’re arguing against that–what we deem as pursuing “purity” usually translates into “hide my sin well enough so that others think I’m pure.”

As for sexuality language, I don’t know if it’s the best choice of words or not, but I choose to talk about “God-honoring sexuality” or “healthy sexuality” or “real sexuality” instead of purity, painting a theological picture of what God always intended for us with our sexuality while avoiding the scare tactics. It seems to be going working; I combined a parent information night with a sexuality talk two weeks ago and got great feedback from both parents and students about it, despite the uber-awkwardness in the room before we began.

I agree.

First, we need to encourage our student’s parents and educate them to help get them away from anti-productive language when talking about sex. Also, parents need to understand that teen culture/pre-teen culture is NOTHING like when they were in school. Things are just not the same. Our students in the 7th-8th grades are dealing with subjects with their classmates on a daily basis that their parent’s didn’t deal with until they were 16 or 17.

Second, when we do talk to our students about sex, by the time they get into junior high, they already have been bathed in the things youth culture teaches about sex and relationships. I think, the best way to go is to be blunt. To use language that they use (non-derogatory language that is). These kids aren’t stupid and they won’t be played to. It is more uncomfortable for us but I think it more appropriate and more informative to be honest and open when discussing sex with our students. Using “purity” language tends to skirt the real issues. That language leaves too many blanks to be filled in by the imaginations of our students.

I think my disagreement with you in this rests in the assumption that purity = abstinence. I suppose if we were to accept that as given, then I would probably agree with you. However, since I begin from the assumption that purity = holiness, purity is, in fact, indispensable to all our teaching, including and perhaps especially our teaching about God’s plans for our sexuality and relationships.

Why insist on using the word purity? Perhaps I’m just too Wesleyan, but I find merit in Wesley’s advice to “speak as the very oracles of God.” As often as possible I try to use biblical language to teach about biblical truth. Obviously, biblical language requires some unpacking for students, but part of the teachers job is to help students develop the ability to think and speak theologically. Because the Bible talks about purity, we talk about purity. Of course that also means we can’t allow purity to morph into a code word for abstinence. Purity means holiness not virginity.

And I believe that holiness is God’s standard for us. The fact that all have fallen short of holiness does not imply that God expects something less from us, nor does the frequency of our failure mean that holiness is impossible.

Our ministry emphasizes the message of sexual purity every three years to make sure students have the opportunity to be a part of our True Love Waits series before they get out of Junior High. That’s not to say we only teach about this every three years, but in addition to the occasional teaching on the subject, it has an intentional place in our curriculum once every three years. The first lesson for students in the series specifically addresses the difference between virginity and purity. Despite the tendency in religious jargon to conflate the two terms, God calls us to more than just virginity until marriage, he calls us to lives of holiness. I definitely don’t believe the call to holiness is wrong biblically, physiologically, or developmentally.

We do not shy away from using realistic and specific language when teaching about sexuality. However, the issue of what we do or do not do sexually is a secondary issue. Pursue holiness, and the other issues fall into place.

And if purity is too abstract a term for teens, aren’t adjectives like happy, healthy and simple even more ambiguous. Even adult is misleading. God’s standard for sex isn’t adult, it is married. In fact, the research into purity pledges already suggests that when we talk about abstinence, our students hear us say wait until you are an adult, not wait until you are married. If we’re not specific about the difference between married and older, we risk miscommunication.

I would certainly agree that the most important and influential voices in the life of a teenager is that of his parents. We seek to partner with them two ways, both by educating them about the issues surrounding their children and by seeking to provide opportunities for them to speak with their children about it.

Your comment begs the questions… if Wesley were alive today, what word would he use?

I don’t think the principles you are trying to teach are bad at all. I teach the same things. I just don’t think the language is working. I’m trying to dig up the source, but I remember reading a study that said that students who make virginity pledges are just as sexually active as those who don’t. Likewise, when we are reaching less than 10% of the population… that is probably a good indicator that we aren’t using the best methods.

I never, EVER point out spelling errors. Too human.

Unless they are funny. And this one made me laugh out loud:

“Even though we don’t want to talk about sex, we want you to promise us you want have sex until marriage.”

I think that is a promise they could actually keep!

(Not picking on you—just looking at the humor in life where I can find it.)

@toga- Freudian slip, anyone? I remember going on a “sex retreat” in high school. I remember the craziness of talking about sex for 4-5 hours and getting the room all horny… then giving us like 4 hours of free time before bed. I don’t think they thought that one through too well.

Wesley would probably use something like “sexual perfection” which would cause serious headaches for his followers for the next 300 years as they found themselves always having to say “No, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means, this is what it really means…”

Seriously though, I think Wesley would use purity, or its ancestor in the lingua franca of his day: chastity. That was in part my point. Wesley was a firm believer in using the language of scripture to speak about scriptural truths. And unlike so many of us, I think he also did a great job of taking the time to explain those words, mitigate misconceptions, and develop a real understanding in his hearers. We’d certainly do well to follow his lead there.

As for the studies, I blogged a couple years back on the Rosenbaum study based on the Add-Health data concerning the relationship between purity pledges and actual sexual practices of adolescents. The data seems to indicate that those who make purity pledges wait longer to have sex, but do not appear to wait until marriage at any higher rate than study participants from similar backgrounds who do not make pledges. What made her research so interesting is that she tried to factor out all the other factors that leads teens to wait until marriage like family background, religious participation, peer group, etc so she could isolate the effect of the purity pledge itself.

[And while it may grate, I use that phrase purity pledge intentionally. What our ministry emphasizes is that we are not asking students to make a pledge to virginity, but to purity.]

I found her study to be quite helpful actually. If you’re interested you can read my take on the Rosenbaum study here: http://www.samplertosower.com/2009/01/true-love-waiting-and-purity-pledges/

However, the problem with students having sex before marriage isn’t necessarily the fault of purity pledges, and even less the fault of the purity language. Since it appears from Rosenbaum’s research that other factors contribute to waiting until marriage more than purity pledges, we ought to focus on providing some of these other developmental assets to our students. (Something I address in that blog post above, and something we work through with parents in our parents’ training courses.) If doing a purity pledge is seen as a substitute for developing these other assets, then we do have a problem. And if we use purity as a code word for “not having intercourse” and fail to address the issue of holiness we have a problem But the problem is with these other mistakes, not with the word “purity” itself. There is no research that indicate purity pledges make students more likely to have sex before marriage.

There is, however, plenty of research that students who take purity pledges are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and STD’s if they do have sex before marriage. And that is a real problem we ought to find a way to address.

A few years back (okay, quite a few) I went to a session at a Youth Specialties conference titled, “Why We Shouldn’t Teach Abstinence.” As a single college guy, I was hoping against hope for a license to go get laid. The speaker there taught that we shouldn’t teach abstinence because God calls us to so much more–He wants us to strive for purity. Now I feel like I’m getting mixed messages. Still, no one wants the single guy to get laid. 😉

I don’t think the problem is the words “pure” or “purity.” I think it’s in the approach. We can tell our students this is the ideal: that we be sexually pure. But, it’s still an ideal. We can also tell them, “hey, look, I know you’re going to have thoughts, but you have a choice. You can control your own behavior” and so on.

Adam, I’m not sure that the word “purity” is the problem. It’s biblical in the sense that it’s used by the Bible. A more “biblical” term is sexual immorality, which is mentioned much more often than purity, and offered as something to avoid and flee from.

What I think is the problem is we’ve created a culture where we expect sexual perfection (purity) and offer little or no words of grace to those who fail (which, as you pointed out, is all of us).

What I mean to say is, when it comes to sex, the church is generally all LAW and no GOSPEL. Where is the good news that Jesus died for me, knowing full well in advance the sexual mistakes I would make? I think this is especially true with young men, who don’t feel like they can talk about their guilt from impure thoughts, wet dreams, or masturbation with anyone.

I think what would help is if we cultivated in young men and women a desire to follow headlong after Jesus. I think purity would fall into place, and even when it doesn’t, those young people will know Jesus loves them. It’s His kindness that leads us to repentance, not His wrath.

I do not like the use of the word “purity” when talking to teens about premarital sex. I do not like it’s connotations and I do not like how easily the word is thrown around. I am only stating my concerns with the word and I see here I am not alone.

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