Sex, Purity, and Shame in American Evangelicalism

Sex, Purity, and Shame in American Evangelicalism
November 27, 2018

The following post was written by Dr. Branson Parler, a member of our Collaborative Team, and Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids. Read more of his work at


What does it mean for Christians to be “pure” in their sex lives? In particular, how does this message of purity get taught and heard, particularly among young women? In her new book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shame a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Linda Kay Klein interweaves her own story with those of several other women, arguing that evangelicalism’s purity culture has traumatized many women to the point that they are “haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear, and physical experiences that sometimes mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder” (8). Rather than pinpointing one particular traumatic event in the lives of the women interviewed, Klein makes the case that purity culture, through its teachings, illustrations, and symbols, weave sex and shame together in a way that have devastating long-term effects for many. 


So what’s the problem with purity culture? For Klein, purity culture does several things: it makes a young woman’s worth dependent on her virginity, it shames and blames young women for being sexual at all (thereby causing young men to “stumble”), and it purveys unrealistic expectations—that young women should be nonsexual before marriage and hypersexual after marriage. Furthermore, purity culture often blames victims of sexual assault and abuse, encouraging silence in order to hide the fact that victims are now “impure,” even though they are not to blame. Finally, though purity culture talks a lot about sexual purity, it doesn’t actually talk a lot about sex, leaving young people with confusion and unclear expectations. In fact, the simplistic assumption of this mindset seems to be: stay “pure” until marriage, and then you’ll have great sex and a great marriage! Klein shows how dangerous this assumption is, insofar as it leads to a real crisis of faith for those whose lives don’t match the equation.

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As I sat with the stories of shame and trauma, I was struck by what they had to teach the church about how to teach and talk about sexuality, and what it means to walk alongside one another with grace and truth. First, I think it’s safe to say that purity culture lacks a theology of creation. In other words, it fails to articulate how sex and bodies are a good gift of God. Yes, our bodies and sexuality can be distorted by sin. But we have to be able to answer the questions: why did God make us sexual creatures? What are God’s good purposes for sex, bodies, and marriage? The purity culture encountered by Klein never addressed that deeper question. If that’s the case, then these churches are guilty of calling evil what God has called good.


Second, purity culture distorts the gospel and discipleship. A recurring theme in Klein’s interviews was the clear message: commit sexual sin, and you’ll go to hell. My guess is that churches preaching “purity” also thought they were preaching the gospel of free salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. But what these young people heard was what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” For this false gospel, “The Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.”[i] In other words, the Christian life cannot be reduced to following rules in order to avoid sin or the bad effects of sin. Following Jesus is about a life that flows from gratitude because we are constantly resting in God’s grace—grace that forgives our sin and grace that empowers us to bear fruit as followers of Jesus. For me, what was so damning about Pure was the sense that evangelicalism’s failure to articulate a holistic vision of sex, bodies, and marriage stemmed from its’ larger failure to articulate how the gospel leads to a life of discipleship and gratitude. Instead, purity culture flows from a truncated faith that sees salvation as fire insurance and discipleship as pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps.


So what’s the antidote? How do we move beyond the interweaving of sex and shame? Here, Klein’s answer seems less than satisfactory to me, though I certainly understand why she ends up in the place she does. For her, it seems the only way to avoid shame is to replace any content of sexual ethics with a process for determining one’s own sexual ethics. As an example of this, she holds up pastors who see their role as guiding “parishioners to reach their own morally rooted conclusions rather than telling them what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’” (273). The implication seems to be that any sexual ethic not of one’s own making inevitably produces shame. Although I agree with Klein’s goal of abolishing a shame- and fear-based approach to sex, I wonder if there is a way to retrieve a historic Christian sexual ethic and place it within the context of the gospel that purity culture lost. 


So how do we do that? As Klein rightly notes, shame says, “I am bad”—as opposed to guilt, which says, “I did something bad” (14). Purity culture is so toxic—so anti-gospel—because it tells Christians to find their identity first and foremost in something other than Jesus. Though Klein doesn’t say much about those who succeed at the game of purity culture, I’d argue that they are just as spiritually damaged and warped as those she interviews, perhaps more so! Why? Because even if you succeed at the game of purity culture, internalizing the rules and seeing yourself as “pure” based on how morally upright you are, you have still lost the gospel! You are like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, living in the Father’s house, but seeing yourself as a slave (Luke 15:29), constantly working to try to earn a position, a relationship that’s already yours! In the end, both shame and pride are faulty ways of rooting our identity in ourselves rather than resting in our identity in Christ. Klein rightly calls her readers to leave that shame behind; those who tend toward pride need to heed that same call.


If our identity is in Christ, how does that change our approach to sexual ethics? Does the language of “purity” have any place within that? For starters, Christian sexual ethics are not about preserving our own righteousness or standing before God (that comes from Jesus and him alone!). Our sexual ethics are not a modified health-and-wealth gospel, where preserving our sexual “purity” leads automatically to our best sex life now. Rather, our sexual ethics make sense in the context of gratitude and mission. Because Jesus has been hospitable to us and welcomed us, we live a life of gratitude toward him. As a follower of Jesus, we recognize that God wants to use his people to be a city on a hill, a light to the world around us. God’s plan is to draw people to himself through our way of life together, a way of life that calls some Christians to celibacy and others to faithful, monogamous marriage between a husband and wife. Both of these expressions must be oriented by God’s kingdom, a focus and calling bigger than themselves, bigger than finding sexual fulfillment, and bigger than self-expression through sexual identity. We should not repress or ignore our sexuality, but enfold it into the bigger picture of God’s calling on our lives and the bigger mission he has for us. Klein’s book thus serves as an important call to renounce the pitfalls of both pride and shame, to make sure that our sexual ethics flow from the good news of Jesus, and to let our identity come from who Jesus is for us.

So what is purity? Should Christians use this word at all in the context of talking about sex, sexual sin, or sexual holiness?

[i] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (Harper Collins, 1997), 41.