I came across a blog post by a professor at Abilene Christian University recently on Facebook, which discusses the plight of Elizabeth Smart and the problem of the so-called “Christian purity culture” of the church. As many know, Elizabeth Smart was abducted as a girl and sexually abused by her kidnapper, and many people wondered why she did not scream, flee, or otherwise call for help during this time even though she seemed to have ample opportunity to do so (some people even deemed it necessary to poke fun at her for it, making jabs at her lack of action and her last name being “Smart”). As she explains in her book, though, Smart stayed with her abductor because, in part, she“felt so dirty and so filthy” to the point that she felt that she could not return to the outside world; after all, she would just come back as “damaged goods,” especially in her Christian culture, and no good Christian guy is going to want to touch that. What did it matter if she escaped? She was like a piece of a gum, because after she was chewed up and enjoyed, she had no value. No one wants to chew gum after someone else, so the only place for her was the trash (apparently, this metaphor was given to her by a lecture on abstinence).
The article continues on to identify the problem here as one of classification: The author argues that it is wrong to put sexual sins into their own class where people think there is something very “impure” about it. He describes a fascinating study about the psychology of purity:
One aspect of purity psychology is how we make contamination appraisals. The psychologist Paul Rozin has been a pioneer in naming and describing these appraisals. And one of these appraisals is the judgment of permanence.
To illustrate this Rozin will put, say, a cockroach in a glass of juice and swish it around. He then removes the bug and offers the juice for participants to drink. They, of course, refuse. That’s to be expected. But then the interesting part of the experiment begins. Rozin goes on to sterilize the juice in front of the watching participant. He then makes another offer. Participants continue to refuse. This despite knowing, at a rational level, that the juice has been sanitized. So why refuse? Because at the affective level a judgment of contamination continues to dominate. The juice is judged as unclean. Despite all efforts to purify, sanitize, or rehabilitate.
Rozin’s demo illustrates the attribution of permanence, which is a key part of purity psychology. The judgment appears to be “once contaminated, always contaminated.” The implication here is that contamination–a loss of purity–is a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated. The foodstuff is, as we say, ruined. And if ruined it’s only fit for the trash.
Just as people are disgusted with the juice, they are also taught to be disgusted by those who have fallen into sexual sin… especially if it is themselves. And this disgust is permanent because the state of contamination is considered permanent. Clearly, then, this Christian purity culture is “toxic” and damaging and needs to be reworked.
I think the article is very interesting, and I think it makes some very good points. Furthermore, whatever Smart went through could hardly be called sexual sin because she was clearly taken against her will, which is a far cry from her willingly giving up her virginity to her boyfriend or something. However, not only does the author fail to talk about how Scripture does in fact classify sexual sins differently, he misplaces the blame for this apparent problem of the psychology of permanence.
Sexual Sin IS Impure and Can Have Tough Consequences
First, let’s talk frankly about sexual sin. There are several verses I could go through, but I think one will suffice for my point:
13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. – 1 Cor 6:13-20
There is unfortunately not space here to really pick apart this text, but a few observations will be enough:
1. Sexual sins ARE different in some way. Verse 18 states that all other sins are “outside of the body,” but sexual sins are against one’s own body. You cannot read that text and not see that sexual sins are in a class of their own.
2. The reason sexual sins are different is because of the radical union that sex was meant to forge between a man and woman in marriage. C.S. Lewis stated that the monstrosity of sex outside of marriage is that it tries to divorce the spiritual aspect of sex away from the physical and even emotional aspect of it. In other words, sex is meant to intimately connect husband and wife in a spiritual, emotional, and physical way, but when sex is done sinfully, it cannot be in the first way (at least, not in a healthy manner), so its extraordinarily damaging. Paul drives this point home when he states that when someone sleeps with a prostitute, he becomes “one flesh” with her, even if just for a moment (v. 16). And when that moment is done, that “one flesh” is ripped asunder… leaving unavoidable wounds in the spirit.
3. It gets even worse when we think about how we are supposed to be members of Christ’s body and that we are his temple that he bought for a price. How can we join what is Christ’s body with another in a sexual immoral relationship (v. 15), a body that he bought with his death on the cross (v. 20)? This again illustrates how uniquely destructive sexual sins are.
There is a reason why sexual sin is so often talked about in Scripture, from adultery, promiscuity, homosexuality, etc. Sex can be a great blessing but it can also destroy. I think even guys who are virgins but have been addicted to porn know how destructive sexual sin can be and how much of a hold it can have over somebody. Thus, the author of this article is simply incorrect when he argues that we should not classify sexual sin differently or think of it as impure because Scripture clearly does think of it differently and does consider it impure.
As Christians, we cannot diminish this point in any way, and we also have to be honest about the possible consequences. If you have sex before marriage, there can be issues beyond just the scary stories some abstinence speakers try to give you about unplanned pregnancies and STD’s. Your walk with God will suffer tremendously, your spirit will be damaged, and you WILL hurt your future spouse when you have tell him or her, especially if they kept their virginity, and you can also hurt your family, friends, and church who so dearly love you. There is also a chance that some Christians, who always dreamed of marrying another virgin, will lose interest in you when they find out. I am not saying that should happen, but that’s just reality.
If you commit adultery, you will greatly damage your own marriage or someone else’s, maybe even beyond the point of repair if someone cannot find it in themselves to forgive, and you can wreck entire families. And if you engage in homosexual relations, it will be destructive to you spiritually and to your understanding of what God’s designs for sex are, no matter how good it feels.
Make no mistake; all sins are bad, and some sins are worse (like, you know, murdering someone), but sexual sins are unique in how they damage somebody’s own body and spirit and how they can hurt others. I am sorry if that sounds heavy-handed, but that’s just following Scripture’s teaching and making sober observations of reality. We would do well to warn our people about it because the Bible does so.
The Great Purifier
That’s the bad news, and there is no mistaking that it is bad. But the Christian Gospel never ends with the bad news of sin, destruction, and judgment because it ultimately points to the good news of forgiveness, restoration, and mercy. In that same chapter, Paul lists a bunch of sins from verses 9-10 and talks about how such people won’t inherit the kingdom of God, but then he states in verse 11:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
And such were some of you. There were Corinthians who were clearly sexually immoral, among other things. But they were “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified” by the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. They were forgiven. Cleaned. Renewed. And such will be anyone who repents of his or her sin and lays it down before Christ, either a nonbeliever coming to faith or a believer who is turning from these mistakes.
The problem, therefore, is not the “purity metaphor,” as the article alleges. It is the correct diagnosis that sexual sin makes one impure. The problem is that many Christians have a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the purifier. Just as the cockroach-in-the-juice example, people are not completely convinced that the cleaning agent worked. And such a lack of confidence should not be there because our cleaning agent is nothing other than the blood of the perfect Lamb, Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of everyone and rose again. Thus, when we preach that someone has the proverbial scarlet letter permanently and/or we act like it, we are quietly admitting that we do not think the blood of Christ was enough, either for someone else or for ourselves. And that is unacceptable because there is nothing in this universe more precious, pure, and powerful than his blood.
This is not to say that God shields people from all consequences of sin; he doesn’t, and there will undoubtedly be some. I state some of those possible consequences plainly in the previous section, and there can be others. What this does mean, however is that there is hope for renewal and hope for a close, intimate relationship with God.
Thus, if you are a believer and you have fallen into sexual sin before (maybe many times before), do not lose hope or be crushed by guilt, because God can and will restore you if you come to him. Also, leave the possibility of finding a spouse up to him; I believe that if someone who loves God also comes to love you, he or she will forgive you of your past mistakes, however painful it will be to hear of it. Even if that spouse never comes, let God be enough for you. Maybe people at church will judge you, maybe your friends will judge you, but if you truly repent of your sins, God will never leave you or forsake you.
If you’re a believer and one of your brothers or sisters has fallen into it, don’t pummel them to the ground. Don’t brush it away either, because it is serious and it might even be cause for church discipline, but if they repent, it is fantastically harmful and even hypocritical to treat them as the “untouchables” at church. Confront sin, but also restore after repentance. And if you’re not a believer and you feel like you’re too dirty for God to ever forgive you, know that Jesus died for the sins of all men, and whosoever believes will be forgiven, restored, and granted eternal life.
Therefore, “impure” is absolutely the right word to use when it comes to sexual sin. We should not mince words here. But we should also not underestimate the power of our Purifier, the Savior Jesus Christ. The answer, then, is not to diminish the problem, but to magnify the solution.