I was led to the Lord in the height of the purity movement of the early two thousands. I remember as a brand new teenage Christian going to the local Christian bookstore to buy some worship cds and immediately being surrounded by the best seller list that consisted of end times novels and short books that extolled the values of sexual “purity.” I didn’t think about it then but now I realize those two seemingly unrelated genres were both an expression of a theological lens that had influenced Christianity in America at the time and to a lesser degree still does. That lens which was surprisingly fundamentalist from those who deny fundamentalism was antagonistic towards the world, immersed in legalism, and promoted shame over Biblical conviction. When I was sixteen and a baby Christian I didn’t think about any of this stuff, instead what I did was consume as much of it as I could in my busy life. Prior to coming to Christ I actually had a great deal of familiarity with what has been called the purity movement as I went to a Christian high-school that championed it (maybe more than the Gospel sometimes) and I had a very close friend who’s wonderful Christian family talked about it a fair bit. All of this purity movement stew I swam in shaped the form my early faith would take both for good and for bad. High-school Tony very much had the thought life and struggles of the average teenager but God did use that purity stuff to keep me from sinning through sex outside of marriage. I was actually led to the Lord within days of a date that would have likely ended my virginity. After that event I almost bought myself a “purity ring” but was too embarrassed. I made it through high-school pure by the purity movement standards if you can ignore my private sexual sins which were far less condemned by the purity movement.
I made it by hook or by crook through high-school but according to studies from the time I went to college the vast majority of the 40 or so percent of young people to graduate high-school as virgins would lose their virginity in college. College was actually more of the same for me. In high-school I swam in the waters of the purity movement but in college “purity” was the air I breathed despite the movement quietly beginning a massive decline. My college stressed “purity” hard. We could never be alone with a member of the opposite sex we weren’t related to even to the point that my now wife had to have a letter written and signed by my parents when she visited my parents over winter break. Our college was pro-life but would expel girls that got pregnant out of wedlock and didn’t cover it up through abortion. Ironically this school also made it hard to get married without being punished apart from summer breaks. For many people these things only caused them to hide their sexual sins but for me along with some others it allowed me to switch out the sin of premarital sex with the sin of scornful pride towards those who make it a mistake. In college I think my path to purity was probably less costly than most for multiple reasons surrounding my amazing wife Danielle. Firstly, I was engaged at 21 which is not the reality for most young people in the 21st century. Secondly and more significantly, Danielle was super committed to purity to the point that she was determined not only to marry as a virgin but to only marry a virgin. Both of us have evolved away from this pedestal of virginity but for me if I wanted Danielle (which I very much did) the only way to get her was through virginity. On top of that, out of our own knowledge of self weakness we set physical guidelines that were not authoritative scripture but were healthy for us. Those self imposed rules undoubtedly had far more impact than the rules our college set but that kind of principle doesn’t sell books to parents or private school boards very well.
After we finally made it and got married we learned that the promises of the purity movement were mostly lies. There was no virgin couple fairy dust sprinkled during our wedding day and for our friends that didn’t wait there were no ghosts of girlfriends past at their ceremonies. Our wedding was a beautiful union and so were the weddings of our friends; no more, no less. We quickly learned that even though the Bible does rightly hold up the ideal of waiting for sex within marriage, non-Christian experts are still right that intimacy gets better over time. I got married and lost my virginity while still in college but surprisingly over the next ten years or so I grew more and more bothered with the purity culture that held my kind of story as a model of it’s success.
It wouldn’t be long into grad school that I would learn most of my friends that claimed they would wait didn’t actually wait until marriage. In seminary I also met some people that are far more Godly than me that made commitments to wait in the past and subsequently failed. Around that time sociologists were able to pretty definitively prove the purity culture and all of it’s token staples didn’t actually work for the majority of people unless their goals were to add shame and lying to the sin of sex outside of marriage. The denomination that I have over time come to align with even acknowledged around that time that their expensive, giant purity conferences didn’t substantially decrease sex outside of marriage and may have even promoted sex into an idol for young people. Seminary also forced me to see that scripture does not really treat sex outside of marriage as worse than other sins like lying. It also taught me that shaming people who have repented of their sins starkly contradicts a Christian Gospel centrality that views our past sins being as far as the East is from the West. My unease with the purity movement that I supposedly lived out was heightened all the more during my ministry when an engaged couple opened up to us about their sexual failures. I realized that the Tony that had stayed “pure” at seventeen and nineteen was far less spiritually mature than either of these individuals that fell into sexual sins. I also realized that my “purity” had a couch quarterback element to it; I was “pure” when it was easy to be pure and it’s impossible for me to know if I would have stayed a virgin in their much harder circumstances. I think the purity movement to some degree or another did help me stay a virgin when my flesh wanted anything but that but my case was the exception rather than the rule. People were hurt and still battle shame because of the elevation of this sin over other sins like gossip and pride. One could amplify all of this times one thousand in the ways the purity movement hurt those who were raped or otherwise sexually violated.
The purity movement does still exist and may be growing again right now but my guess is it will never have the hold on the church it did in the late 90s and early 2000s. This said, I think the truths that God forced me to see are so relevant to Christians today. If we are honest with ourselves, do we think our churches would be more scandalized if one of our teens got pregnant after a regretted high-school hook up or if one of our teens got fired from their job for always playing Fortnite on their phone? Would Christian parents of a college students be more angry if they found out their son lost his virginity in his door room or if he was skipping church each week asleep in that same dorm room? I suspect we know the answers to those questions and they aren’t really what the Bible teaches. Further, some false assumptions magnified by the purity movement are still assumed harmfully today. A white wedding dress historically has nothing to do with being a virgin and even entertaining this kind of mentality does a whole lot of harm to Christians that might already deeply regret sin.
I want to close this somewhat random musing by communicating with any Christian who could read this. Unwed Christians who are still virgins; praise the Lord that he has kept you from this sin! Keep faithful and watch your soul not only to stay away from sexual sin but to stay away from the pride that doesn’t realize there by the grace of God go you. Unwed Christians who have fallen into sexual sin; if Jesus is your Lord and Savior God has forgiven you for this sin no matter who it happened with or how often it happened. Open up with a more mature Christian who won’t condemn you about your struggle as you should with any sin battle but never accept the idea you are a second class Christian. Parents and married relatives of unwed Christians; your loved one might sinfully lose their virginity outside of marriage no matter what you do. Commit to love them and if they are brave enough to tell you, commend their bravery and offer them kind helps in their battle against sin. Christian leaders; recognize purity is something we are given in Christ because none of us are truly sexually pure by God’s standards. Stop giving a far higher percent of your attention to this sin than the Bible does and combine the confrontation of sin with deep compassion just as the Holy Spirit does for us.
I honestly don’t know if I would have been married as a virgin had I been surrounded by different people and been in different contexts. I do know that though I made it according to the purity movement it wasn’t because I’m better than those who fell or the youth that I work with that fall today. God has been kind and patient towards me when I sinned in ways that still allowed me to claim virginity before marriage. God is equally kind and gracious towards those who sinned in ways I didn’t and had victory where I fell.