Katie Luther Posts,  Motherhood

Teach Chastity Not Purity

Chastity not PurityBy Amanda Markel

For as long as I can remember, and maybe even longer than that, American evangelicals have focused on purity when talking to their children about sex.

On the surface, this sounds good. Purity goes hand-in-hand with abstinence-based sex education, and that tends to be the goal of most Christians…waiting to have sex until marriage.

The emphasis on “purity” is problematic for several reasons, though.

Let’s start with the most obvious. None of us are pure, period. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking sexually, or in any other way…we all fall short. We are all poor, miserable sinners. To think we can attain purity in a specific area of our lives is ridiculous, because we can’t. Only Christ can, and it is only because of His suffering and death, and victory over death and the devil, that we can dare to present ourselves as anything but blemished to the Father.

We seem to understand this for most sins, but with sexual sins we seem to think we can be good enough on our own, and somehow achieve this status of “pure”.

Speaking from a strictly sexual perspective, then, when we think about purity, we tend to think about being clean or whole or unblemished, as long as we haven’t engaged in pre-marital or extra-marital sex. This is a dangerous way to talk to our children about sex, however, for both Christians who do save sex for marriage, and for those who don’t.

When we focus on remaining pure, and when the goal is being clean and whole for our future spouse, we set up the idea that sex itself is bad, in marriage as well as outside of it. Parents of course don’t mean to do this, but it can still be implied. If not having sex makes us pure or clean or whole before we’re married, what are we once we do marry and enjoy the gifts of marriage that God gives us? In that case it can be a difficult adjustment to suddenly think of sex as the good gift from God that it is once we are married. Instead, if we’ve been programmed to believe that having sex makes us dirty or broken, suddenly having a wedding ring isn’t going to erase years of teaching that makes sex itself seem dirty.

The early days of marriage are hard enough without bringing the baggage associated with the vocabulary preferred by an evangelical Christian movement along with it!

And what of those who don’t wait until marriage? This happens more often than Christians want to admit, even to Christian couples. If the focus of our relationships up to that point has been purity, what does that make us once we’ve made the decision to have sex? Or even worse, after we’ve been sexually assaulted? It is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking of oneself as unclean and ruined because of one event, and once that line of thinking begins, it can also be difficult to see the point in refraining from further sexual activity until marriage. After all, if you’re already broken, what’s the point in trying to be whole and clean again? This is a prime example of the Law dragging a person down, without the saving message of the Gospel to offer hope and comfort.

Tokens of purity are an especially dangerous and fairly popular part of the purity movement. Some parents like to give a ring or other symbol to their children, as a visible reminder of their commitment to purity. But what happens if they do have sex before marriage? Are they supposed to take it off, so that everybody can see that they’re no longer “pure?” Keep wearing it, even though the thing it’s supposed to stand for no longer exists? What about the shy youth who simply doesn’t want to answer questions about what the ring or other item stands for? This is another example of weighing our children down with the Law, even if it’s done with the best intentions.

Instead of using the word purity, and making that the focus of our discussion with our children, let’s use the word chastity.

It may sound like an old-fashioned church word, but it’s far more appropriate for what we want to teach our children. The word itself has much less baggage…to be chaste simply means to refrain from sexual intercourse. If we talk to our children about our hope, and God’s plan, that they remain chaste until their wedding night, we are not implying anything about their state before or after. They are not clean or whole for not having sex, or dirty or broken if they do, and they don’t have to worry about trying to transition from the idea of the purity movement that sex itself makes one unclean, to the actual fact that sex within marriage is a good thing.

And for those who don’t remain chaste? There’s the Gospel. While those in the purity-movement still have the Gospel, the emphasis on pledges and rings makes it nearly impossible to escape the scarlet “A” with one’s peers or with ourselves — with years of teaching that sex outside marriage makes you dirty, blemished and broken. In contrast, if someone fails in their determination to live a chaste life, chastity is regained by simply ceasing to have sex. This isn’t to say the one who returns to chastity frees themselves from their sin, but simply that it’s a state of being one can achieve again — unlike purity. While there is forgiveness for both sinners, of course, the purity-focused may have a harder time acknowledging, accepting or trusting in that absolution.

As with all aspects of our Christians lives, we need both Law and Gospel. Unfortunately, too many people teach sex education with only the Law as their guide, which makes life harder for our youth, and cheapens the gift of sex that God has given to married couples.

Photo credit under cc license


  • K.M.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that the emphasis on purity can be problematic, especially when in some circles youth are told that having (pre-marital) sex is like taking a bite out of an apple — and who would want a half-eaten apple? Such talk obscures forgiveness and redemption.

    I’d add that chastity is not only something for prior to marriage — being chaste is a practice that continues thereafter in the form of marital fidelity (though as a society we do not often use the word in this sense). The term can bridge both the married and unmarried states.

    Another decent article on the topic: //www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/may/34.28.html

  • Mary

    So much of this I agree with.

    However, chaste does not mean “to refrain from sexual intercourse”. Whether single or married, “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.” We are all to be chaste within our vocations. One must teach that some forms of intimacy are reserved for marriage.

    And I’m pretty sure chaste can be a synonym for pure.

  • Linda Bartlett

    I really understand and appreciate what you’re saying, Amanda. You have taken great care in your writing and your discerning thoughts on “chastity” vs. “purity” matter to me.

    Here’s something to consider. God says, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Wow! Now that is impossible for us as sinful human beings, isn’t it? Still, it is God’s Word to us. “Holy” is the opposite of “common.” “Holy” is set apart as something to be used by God and for His purpose. My natural inclination is to say that I am not capable of being either “holy” or “pure” in God’s sight. But, in Christ, I am a new person! Sorrowful and repentant of my sins, I can begin each day assured of God’s faithful promise that my sins are forgiven. I am not held captive to my impure life, but can start each day new! Fresh! Hopeful!

    Just as God calls us to holiness, He also calls us to a life of purity. Purity is in contrast with sensuality and sexual immorality just as holiness is in contrast with what is common and ordinary. So I guess I’m defending use of the word “purity” because it is one of God’s words.

    For more thoughts on this, please visit //www.ouridentitymatters.com Once again, Amanda, I really do appreciate what you’ve written. The dialogue on this subject is so important. In Christian love… Linda

  • Robert C. Baker

    In numerous places in the Scriptures God calls us to remain “pure,” so that word isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a problem.

    Keeping oneself “pure” before (and during, and after, as the case may be) also shouldn’t be a problem. The concepts of purity, holiness, and chastity all run together.

    And simply because the word “pure” is used by evangelicals, who are our brothers and sisters in Christ, by the way, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the word.

    The real problem with the “purity movement,” an aspect not brought up in this piece, is that it substitutes for a clear call for early marriage.

    That’s the lie that both evangelicals and Lutherans (even of the Confessional sort) have bought into.

    Remain “pure” until you graduate and get a job and can afford kids.

    When God says, “be fruitful and multiply.”

    No, there’s no “purity” in unnaturally delaying marriage, or in using contraception.

    And evangelicals and Confessional Lutherans are guilty of both.

  • Pastor Tom Eckstein

    This is a good article. However, I think we can run into the same problems with the word “chastity” as with the word “purity” if our emphasis is primarily on the Law. In contrast, if your emphasis is on the Gospel, I think we CAN use both the words “chastity” and “purity” in good and helpful ways – in the sense that we are all dirty sinners by nature (even if we DO save sex for marriage!) but our Bridegroom has cleansed us from all this and so we are PURE before Him (Eph. 5:26-27). Also, I think we sometimes give our people the message the sex and sexuality are themselves somehow “dirty.” We need to educate our people that sex and sexuality are good gifts from God and it is our sinful and rebellious misuse of those gifts outside of the context where they are “very good” that is sinful and dirty. We tell our youth “It is sinful to have sex outside of marriage!” but we rarely explain why this is the case and so it appears to them as some arbitrary rule from God who hates any kind of pleasure. Not only is sex outside of marriage sin because it can result in children who may be born in a context where their mother and father are not committed to each other in marriage. But we also need to educate our children that IN ADDITION TO procreation sex is also God’s gift for a husband and wife to celebrate and confess and affirm their agape promise of love to each other which is the marriage covenant. In other words, even though sex does result in pleasure, it is SO MUCH MORE than that. Sex is supposed to “mean something” and what it pictures is the sacrificial promise of love between a husband and wife – which is the true foundation of marriage even when the couple, for whatever reason, no longer has sex! So, when we tell our children to save sex for marriage we’re not merely telling them that they can’t have any fun before marriage (which implies that maybe sex shouldn’t be fun IN marriage, either) but that God’s gift of sex is meant to convey that you have made a commitment of “life-long agape love” to your spouse and so to disconnect sex from the marriage covenant to is treat your sexual partner as nothing more than an object of your lust. Sadly, our culture has reduced sex to entertainment and has taught people that they can agree to use one another for their own selfish needs. We need to help our youth (and adults!) see that God created sex for SO MUCH MORE!

  • Pastor Tom Eckstein

    @Robert C. Baker #4

    I especially agree with your point that we should encourage our youth to marry at a far younger age rather than waiting so long for, often, selfish reasons. I’m not saying that our children should be hasty or rush into marriage. But if we teach our children that the purpose of “dating” is to seek out a godly spouse (as we taught our children), then not only do they avoid the “sexual-dating-disconnected-from-finding-a-spouse” so common among teens (or younger!) today, but when they DO start dating (as my son did when he was 20) it quickly evolved into getting engaged and he and his wonderful Bride to be plan to marry next summer. They will both be 22 at this time and both still in college. Some think they’re being foolish – but my wife and I and my son’s fiance’s parents could be more happy!

  • Robert C. Baker

    Where, Rev. Eckstein, in the Bible or the Lutheran Confessions can we read “IN ADDITION TO procreation sex is also God’s gift for a husband and wife to celebrate and confess and affirm their agape promise of love to each other which is the marriage covenant”?

    In defending the marriage of priests, Melanchthon’s first point focuses on Gen. 1:28, in which God “teaches that men were created to be fruitful, and that one sex in a proper way should desire the other. For we are speaking not of concupiscence, which is sin, but of that appetite which was to have been in nature in its integrity [which would have existed in nature even if it had remained uncorrupted], which they call physical love. And this love of one sex for the other is truly a divine ordinance.”

    Not well what Melanchthon is teaching here. He has every opportunity to posit the “pleasure principle” in marriage, a principle which seeks to divorce sexual pleasure from the procreative act. But our dear Melanchthon does not do that. According to this Confessional document, to which all “confessional” Lutherans are subscribe, God implanted the natural, physical desire for the opposite sex in his human creatures for the purpose of procreation.

    Even atheist evolutionists will tell you that: The sex drive, in those species, which have it, is for the preservation of the species.

    This is the key point of Melanchthon’s argumentation: Marriage is chiefly the union of one male and one female, primarily for the purpose of procreation (when God wills).

    You are wrong to equivocate on “procreation” and “pleasure,” but I suspect the emphasis on the latter is the “tell” to your argument.

    Also, please point to chapter and verse in the Bible and/or the Lutheran Confessions where can read anything about “God’s gift of sex.” I’m aware that the phrase was first coined in the 20th century.

  • Pastor Tom Eckstein

    My point is that even though sex is certainly for procreation IN MARRIAGE it is also MORE than just for pleasure but that the “one flesh” act is the confession/celebration/affirmation of a “man uniting to his wife.” Genesis 2:24 says nothing about procreation (although important and not to be separated from the sex act!) but instead stresses how the “one flesh” act flows from and affirms the marriage covenant. We see this in the Song of Songs where the Lover’s desire for His Beloved is celebrated without mentioning procreation (although certainly not dismissing its importance). James says that all good gifts come from the Father of heavenly lights, and marriage and sex within marriage are God’s good gifts to us. The Confessions might not use that exact language, but it certainly flows from Scripture. Do you deny that God is the One who has given us marriage and sex?

  • Linda Bartlett

    Amanda… perhaps this will be helpful.

    When an early Christian mother named Laeta wondered how she could prepare her daughter for a life of purity in Christ, the Church father Jerome offered this order of instruction using God’s Word: First, teach the rules of life from Proverbs, the patience and virtue of Job, the Epistles, and the prophets. Only then, and at a more mature age, is there wisdom in directing a young woman to read about marriage and the spiritual bride in Song of Songs. (The Failure of Sex Education in the Church: Mistaken Identity, Compromised Purity, 217; with appreciation to Christopher W. Mitchell in Concordia Commentary The Song of Songs, 278.)

  • Pastor Tom Eckstein

    @Linda Bartlett #10

    Linda, I agree with all of Jerome’s advice. But children/youth are ready to have questions answered about sex at different ages and with different degrees of detail. Obviously, we need to avoid giving TMI (too much information) to children by giving them more details than they are asking for at any given time. However, unlike Jerome’s day, our youth (and adults) are being bombarded with the world’s view of sex from every direction and whether we like it or not (and I do NOT like it), our children are being exposed to the world’s view of sex at a younger and younger age in spite of our best efforts to protect them from the world. So, we parents need to be PROACTIVE in this area and teach our children about God’s design for His gift of sexuality (appropriate information at appropriate ages, of course) so they know the Truth and are prepared to discern what is the lie. I’m sure Jerome would give the same advice if he lived in 2015 and his children has the same exposure to the world’s view of sex as our children do.

  • Pastor Tom Eckstein

    @Linda Bartlett #10

    Also, re: Jerome’s advice to read Proverbs, there’s a lot in that book about sexual immorality and adultery which we should not try to explain before we first teach about the POSITIVE design for God’s gift of sexuality for the single person as well as for a man and woman in marriage.

  • Karen Frohwein

    Sometimes I wonder, why do we think that children and adults are any more bombarded with the world’s view on sex now than in the past. We are bombarded through different means today, but if you look at Rome for the early Christians, or any societies across history, there were plenty of sexual practices and perversions going on in public and in the eyes of children. We even see it when we watch Western movies – children saw and heard what was going on around them. Could it be that when Frued and company decided the world needed sex education, part of the sales pitch became the “need” for children to know more in today’s society?

  • Maddy

    @Robert C. Baker #4

    So you’re telling me that at 20, while working, studying and completing an internship, my husband and I are doing some horrific thing by using birth control. You would imply that we should definitely just throw our lives away to have a baby that we are not ready for, and do not want.

    I do feel that many people doing all the talking about the “shoulds” and “should nots” have gotten very disconnected from what the reality is for many married couples under 25.

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