What’s Purity Culture Got To Do With It?

Category: Personal

In the wake of #ChurchToo there have been a lot of people wondering and asking, “What can we do?” “What’s next?” There have been calls to reach across the theological aisle to address the problem of sexual assault in the church, and questions about what could have led to the church – a place that many wish was the safest for women, children, and other vulnerable people – having the same disrespect and disregard for victims exhibited by so-called “secular” environments like Hollywood and Washington.

For those of us who have been talking about purity culture for a very long time, we’re sobered and saddened but not at all surprised by the stories coming out of #ChurchToo. We know that while patriarchy and cisheterosexism exist everywhere in the world, they are often theologically codified, ensconced, celebrated, and in some cases even mandated in evangelical church culture. These violent forces of oppression are what many of our families and faith communities of origin consider essential, “biblical” doctrine without which one is in danger of the very fires of hell.

I have said it many times in the past few weeks, but it bears repeating here: Any appropriate response to #ChurchToo and the problem of sexual assault and abuse in religious communities necessitates the total dismantling and rejecting of purity culture. Lest my words not be taken as radically as I mean them in my heart, what I mean is that we absolutely must stop believing in and teaching that:

A. Total sexual abstinence is morally mandated and required by God until marriage

B. Being heterosexual and cisgendered is “God’s best” and LGBTQ identities are a symptom of “broken” sexuality

C. Women have the responsibility to dress modestly to avoid causing others to stumble

D. Men are to be the leaders in the church and the family, and women are to follow their lead

I would say those are the main tenants of purity culture and most other beliefs that exist in purity culture branch off of those four. I don’t mean that we need to be nicer about how we teach purity, or that we need to make sure that the men in charge are better men and actually report instances of abuse. I mean we need to burn the whole damn system to the ground. Purity culture is one situation where the baby and the bathwater both need to go. And unfortunately, many Christians, pastors, and church communities are so desperately afraid of giving them up that they would rather continue to teach them and lay the bedrock upon which #ChurchToo stories are built rather than repent of their oppressive theology and risk not only falling out of the good graces of the Christian Abstinence Industrial Complex but also facing their own fears and uncertainties about the tenuousness of all theological belief.

Sadly, many pastors unwilling to examine their own theology’s complicity in abuse will implement a background check policy that is nothing more than a bandaid on a bullet wound that their “biblical” beliefs are constantly ripping open. I think every church regardless of where they fall on the theological spectrum SHOULD do things like implementing mandatory Texas background checks and criminal checks in other states as well; check if a church staff member or volunteer is on the sexual offenders register; take part in abuse prevention training; and creating a publicly available sexual abuse allegation policy to which they are held accountable. I hope every church does, from the most liberal to the most conservative. But if you believe A, B, C, or D above, I’m sorry to say that at the end of the day there’s not much you can do to solve the actual problem. You will have to content yourself with continuing to change the bandaid.

That may seem harsh, but harsher still are the consequences of those beliefs. The heartbreak, the dysfunction, the mental illnesses, the broken families, the lost lives of queer kids, the shame and self-loathing that sticks with you for life no matter how far away you get. Purity culture has blood on its hands – which is why calls to “reach across the theological aisle” are as offensive as they are ludicrous. You can’t “work for change” alongside those who don’t believe you’re fully human or that you’re fundamentally broken because you’re not like them – especially when they are so unwilling to admit that that is what they actually believe that they would rather call their hatred “love” than admit that their theology mandates behavior that is the farthest thing in the world from loving. We can’t agree on basic terms and definitions with Christians entrenched in purity culture – we are not even using the same words to mean the same basic and essential things. Concepts like “love” “God” “Jesus” “knowledge” “right” and “wrong” lose all meaningfulness in the rubric of purity culture that sorts the morality of actions based on whether they align with one’s narrow and limited interpretation of a holy text, not based on whether they contribute to greater human love and flourishing. And ultimately, if we don’t have that, then all we have is the empty promise of being rescued from a made-up hell in exchange for 70 years of being miserable and making others miserable here on earth. And that’s not good enough for me.

I say all of this to say that if there’s one thing I hope that churches and pastors will begin to take seriously in the wake of #ChurchToo, it’s that the sexual abuse and assault epidemic in the church isn’t just a practical failure of policy or a consequence of sin in the world that would have happened anywhere and just so happened to happen here. No. It’s a theological failure of belief and a consequence of purity culture which protects and enshrines sexual oppression in so many great and small ways. And there is nothing about purity culture that is worth preserving in any future manifestation of the Christian faith.


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