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Christian purity culture robbed my generation and wrecked our consciences

The purity movement, which began in the US but quickly spread across the English speaking world at the turn of the millennium, gave my generation an unhealthy view of sin, sex and redemption, says Joel Bush

On the fifth track of his legendary debut album Are You Experienced, Jimi Hendrix sings, “Is this love, baby, or is it just confusion?”

I can relate. Everything within the realm of love and sexuality has become hazy for me. And Christian purity culture is largely to blame.

My conflicted feelings on sexuality stem from two warring views of God. I know that Jesus died for my sins, accepts me, and created sex for humanity’s good. However, I was also raised in an atmosphere of obsession over sexual purity. I felt (and often still feel) that God places sexual sins in a special envelope for the harshest punishment, even though I know this is illogical.

The Christian purity movement is a conservative Christian teaching that focuses heavily on marriage and family. Courtship - a formal process for marriage which rejects typical dating - is encouraged. Then, once you are married, there's Quiverfull - the teaching you should give birth to as many children as possible as they are a gift from God. The movement has also been associated with biblical patriarchy, which means enforcing male-only leadership in the church, home, and community.

Notably, a vast number of the purity movement’s leaders are either disgraced or have back-tracked on their own teaching. Last year in an interview with this magazine, Joshua Harris apologised for his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, before later announcing he was no longer a Christian. Others including Bill Gotthard, R.C. Sproul Jr., and Josh Duggar have been brought low. The severity of their misconduct ranges from drink-driving (with children in the car) to accusations of sexual assault to adultery and divorce.

Many of the families I knew growing up responded to the fallout of the purity movement in a surprisingly casual manner. They were sad about the demise of leaders they once admired, but, to them, these folks were merely bad apples in a good bunch. They maintain that the movement used the Bible well and had good intentions.

I am much more suspicious. It is not a coincidence to me that men who preached with such vehemence about marriage and family so efficiently destroyed both. Their conduct is certainly related to purity, but it is crucial to shift the discussion away from the mechanics of courtship, Quiverfull, and biblical Patriarchy and instead consider the core of faith.

Men who preached with such vehemence about marriage and family ended up destroying both

Christianity is founded on holiness that comes only from Jesus’ work on the cross. Refusing to kiss before marriage was a cheap, flimsy attempt at the purity God offers through his son. In obsessing over the minutiae of lifestyle choices, the purity movement robbed a generation of understanding redemption through Christ.

Young Christians were implicitly promised that their cooperation with extra-biblical thou-shalt-nots would achieve their dreams. Instead of the grueling process of sanctification one sees in saints from Abraham to Peter, we were offered legalistic shortcuts. These practices temporarily soothed the conscience but were untenable since they relied on human effort. These leaders made themselves role models for righteousness, then realised they could not live up to their own standards.

The result of the purity movement is thousands of confused young adults like me. Our consciences are wildly imbalanced. Once, in a college Bible class discussion, one of my classmates stopped mid-sentence. He stuttered and blushed. We encouraged him to continue, and soon found he was ashamed to even say the word “sex.” When some were confused, he explained that years ago his Sunday School teacher had made him apologise to the class for saying this fateful word. I could not resist chuckling at his story, despite identifying with his pain. The volatile nature of sex in parts of the Church is equal parts absurd and tragic.

I may struggle with similar guilt and shame about my sexuality for my entire life. I have prayed for forgiveness (and assurance of this forgiveness) countless times, but the unease is never totally gone. I am going to propose to my girlfriend soon, and we have decided we would like to have children one day. I hope my generation can give our children a better message than we were given. I hope they will know that Jesus loves them. I hope they will know that their sins do not define them.

Joel Bush is an English MA student at California State University Fullerton

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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