The Idol Of Purity

i used to think that what i was fighting for was purity.

It seemed fairly obvious.  In those early days and months right after my addiction to pornography came to light, and when my marriage was on the brink, not engaging in my addiction was crucial.

In my legitimate fear, i was very focused on staying clean. i had to stay pure.

The imperative that i stay clean had its positive elements. Of course staying away from pornography and other compulsive sexual behavior was the right thing for me to do. My diligence resulted in serious personal growth and contributed to the restoration of my marriage.

Both of those are great things. Based on those sorts of results, it again seemed obvious that purity was not only what i should be fighting for, but it’s what all of us should be fighting for.

Stories like mine wind up being a boost to what many refer to as “Purity Culture,” that movement within Evangelicalism that began in the mid- to late-90s.

i recently read a blog post by Samuel D. James titled A Few Thoughts On Purity Culture, which was well timed in light of other conversations i have been having about purity recently.

The author of that piece talks about his experience reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris, the book that — if it wasn’t the official start of Purity Culture — was definitely a catalyst for the movement.

i never read the book, but i remember how popular it was among the college students in the ministry group i led at my church. i was already married when the book came out, so i was not its target audience.

Against the backdrop of Harris’ book, but more broadly in light of the reality of Purity Culture,  James addresses a tension he feels. He says: “Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit.” And yet, he affirms a Biblical view of sexuality, gender, and marriage.

James writes at length about the tension between the damage caused by legalistic Purity Culture and the wave of vocal opposition to Purity Culture which is coming from adults who were raised in that culture as pre-teens and teens.

i recommend giving his post a full read, as he explores the oversimplifications that are common to Purity Culture while at the same time he expresses concern about the overreaction by many who now want to discard Biblical teaching on sexuality.

i appreciate James’ post because even though i was already married when Harris’ book was published, i still lived in the Evangelical subculture which subscribed to the ethos underlying Purity Culture. It was some of that same thinking that undergirded men’s purity and accountability groups, of which i was a part.

And, as i mentioned earlier, in the initial days and months of my journey out of addiction, purity seemed to be the goal.

What i have come to appreciate and understand is that when we fight for free hearts, purity follows. When we fight only for purity, it becomes an idol and a new legalism is created.

By focusing on purity as the goal, our religious culture — including the Evangelical subculture — frames the whole discussion in terms of not screwing up.  We have to stay untainted sexually, and that becomes a performance standard nobody can attain.

It also creates a great deal of anxiety. If i notice that a woman is beautiful, have i breached my purity? Or do i remain pure as long as i don’t take a second look? Can i take a second look as long as it is not a LOOK?  What do i do with sexual impulses and feelings? Do those make me impure?

A variety of concerns and questions rush in when the sole issue is that whatever i do, i must not act out. When we add Jesus’ admonition that whoever has looked lustfully on another person has committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:28), we’re toast.

In this scenario, we build our lives around not acting out and, frankly, we exhaust ourselves with shame over every potentially errant thought.

This is where idolatry and legalism enter. To quote Andy Crouch (listen to the full two-part interview at the Restoring the Soul Podcast), an idol is anything we build our lives around that gives us the control we want, without any vulnerability.

By making purity the goal, we end up worshipping it. i know that happened at times during the days when i thought that purity was the sole focus.

It was also true of those college students who devoured Harris’ book and declared dating a dirty word. There were, ironically, excesses of oversimplification that were part and parcel of the culture that sprung up among the college men with whom i worked.

By “excesses of oversimplification” i mean that Christian living and faith were reduced to the most basic of behaviors that could be labeled “good” or “bad.” There was no room for the mystery, beauty, and nuance of actual life with God.

This is not to say that purity is bad. It is a good thing. But as Crouch says, the most powerful idols are all good things.

Let me be clear: we are charged with taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ. But doing so comes from a place of freedom with Him, knowing that He delights in us. Consider Psalm 119:32 which says, “I run in the path of Your commands, for you have set my heart free”(NIV).

Idolatry and legalism, on the other hand, are fueled by fear. Legalism ensues because we need more and more rules —such as dress codes and the like — to achieve control and avoid the vulnerability that may occur as we experience the desires and appetites that we have disowned as we insist on purity.

However, when we fight for free hearts, purity follows.


8 Responses to “The Idol Of Purity”

  1. Rebecca

    I grew up in purity culture, but unlike my peers, I remained Christian and did my best to begin sorting fact from fiction. You are absolutely correct that purity became an idol. Even worth than that, in making it an idol, the focus turned to sinful human beings and their abilities rather than Christ. He is the One who makes us pure and many people have lost sight of that.

    • james tarring cordrey

      thanks so much for reading, Rebecca. i am glad for you that you have been able to distinguish fact from fiction. all the best to you as you in live in ever increasing freedom.

      • Rebecca

        You are welcome. I am happy to see people speaking out about this. I have spent the last year writing a book about my experiences in hopes that other people can find the healing and freedom I have. Thank you so much 💗

  2. edgingdeadness

    Hey James, thanks for this post! I agree so much. With me also, this all appeared AFTER I was married for years. So, the dating perspective was lost on me. But, I’ve found that so much of the men’s purity effort I encountered was mostly mechanical and superficial, should I say, “like a white-washing?” When the real problem, as you made clear, is a heart issue. Like Jesus’s admonishment of the dirty cup, clean the inside first, not the outside. Thanks again, Michael.

    • james tarring cordrey

      thanks for reading, Michael. i am glad the post spoke to you. all the best.

  3. Ron

    James…this is an excellent article. Thanks for writing. I have learned that a successful recovery program is not found by managing behaviors only, just as you write. It is about relying on God’s grace to change our heart. When that happens, one doesn’t focus on the negative behaviors and they become much less prominent in our lives. I like your last sentence….”When we fight for free hearts, purity follows.”

    • james tarring cordrey

      thanks, Chris. it’s easy to fall into that kind of idolatry. i have plenty of times. there is such liberation in moving beyond it to the free heart and the larger story. thanks for reading.


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