Five Messages to Avoid When Teaching Teenagers About Sexual Purity

Despite many inside and outside evangelicalism kissing purity culture goodbye in recent years, the movement carries on—complete with conferences, rings, and pledges.

On one hand, critics have rightly identified fatal flaws. On the other hand, a fair evaluation of purity culture should acknowledge that plenty of its core ideas are biblical. Gods best for human sexuality is chastity (rightly defined), and for an unmarried person, that does include abstinence from sexual activity. Unplanned pregnancies, STIs, and heartache are real consequences of sexual sin. Purity is a biblical term, after all.

 Still, there are several worthless (at best) and harmful (at worst) messages that have persisted in popular Christian thought about sexual purity. When asked to vet purity curricula, to teach on purity, or to attend purity events, we do well to exercise vigilance, steering clear of teachings founded on any of these errors.

Harmful Message 1: Your wedding night is the finish line.

Presumably, talking about the benefits of “making it to the wedding day a virginis meant to give teenagers hope a light at the end of the tunnel to help them hold out.

But everyone is called to be pure, not just unmarried people. A generation of purity culture graduates, immersed in the finish linemindset, have found themselves in crisis shortly after their honeymoons as a result of the shock that chastity doesnt always become easier after being married!

And what about those who will never marry? We need to offer teenagers a biblical sexual ethic strong enough to sustain those who are same-sex attracted or who wish to marry but do not find a suitable spouse. 

The most significant problem with the finish lineerror is that it addresses teenagers who idolize sex by helping them continue to idolize sex. By offering the message, “Dont worry; youll get to have sex one day!we shirk our responsibility to help teenagers replace the hope offered by sex with the greater hope of the gospel.

Harmful Message 2: Some people make it to the finish line sexually pure.

 The language of some purity teaching paints humanity into two camps: those who reach their wedding days pure and those who dont.

If we consider Jesus standard of purity (Matt. 5:28), however, which of us can claim that we reached our wedding day pure? We are all in need of Gods grace, not just generally speaking but specifically in our broken sexuality.

I have observed pastorally that many engaged Christian couples have been harmed by this false dichotomy. One common example involves a marriage between a virgin and someone who is sexually experienced. The husband or wife-to-be who is a virgin feels pride in his or her “purity” and subconscious resentment toward the “impure” future spouse. Meanwhile, the person who is not a virgin might imagine God frowning on the wedding night.

It can take couples years to replace this twisted theology with the gospel of grace, which says that we are all sexual sinners, yet forgiven and made clean in Christ.

Harmful Message 3: If you make it to the finish line pure, you will have an amazing sex life. 

I specifically remember hearing this message taught at youth group when I was in eighth grade. An older gentleman in the church enthusiastically shared, My wife and I were virgins on our wedding night, and let me tell you, if you wait, it is a mind-blowing experience!The first and most obvious problem with this claim is that the Bible never makes such a promise. But it is an error that breeds further damage.

For example, a Christian married couple in their 20s or early 30s finds themselves in a rut, struggling sexually in one way or another. Because the old messages from their teenage years about “mind-blowing” marital sex for those who save themselves are still seared into their minds, they think, Somethings wrong with me. We waited until we were married; this isnt supposed to happen! Im a failure.They dont talk to anybody about their struggles, because in their minds, these are supposed to be struggles experienced only by older people, or by those who had sex before they were married. 

Harmful Message 4: Having sex before the finish line will permanently and irreparably bind you to that person.

Without a doubt, sexual union is a profound union. Paul says that we become one bodywith someone when we sleep with him or her, whether we are married or not (1 Cor. 6:16). However, in our zeal to help a younger generation understand the gravity of sex, the case has sometimes been overstated. To say that the joining of hearts is permanent or irreparable is a fear tactic that is antithetical to the gospel, which insists that any sin can be removed from Gods sight as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).

An example of this harmful messaging is the oft-used illustration of passing a rose around the audience, leading to a mangled flower with most of its petals removed. The speaker then delivers the punch line: “Who would want this?” A decade ago, Matt Chandler lifted a massive burden from many of our shoulders when he famously responded to this illustration by declaring, “Jesus wants the rose!” As we urge teenagers to abstain from sex outside of marriage, we must encourage them that even sexual failings can be redeemed by God in Christ.

Harmful Message 5: If you run off course, you can start over.

Purity culture advocates might say Ive been too harsh in the critique above, that their favorite curricula do extend a message of grace by inviting sexual sinners to start over or to become born-again virgins.But precisely because of its veneer of grace, this may be the most sinister of all the lies listed here.

The message of the gospel is not, “Good news! You can start over and try again!In fact, that would be awful news! Knowing our hearts, which are deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jer. 17:9), and knowing how prone we are to wander (Jer. 3), why would we ever think that we would be able to use a second chance to pull off what we couldnt do the first time around? No matter how many do-overs God were to give us, none of us would ever live a pure life.

The good news for sinners is not try again; you can do this,but rather fear not; Jesus did this.” Its his grace on which we rest, his merits on which we stand, his blood that removes our shame.

Let’s teach the next generation about purity. But as we do, let’s be vigilant against extrabiblical messages founded on any of these errors, looking instead to the perfectly pure life of Jesus in our place.

Tim Higgins (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor at North Suburban Evangelical Free Church in Deerfield, Illinois. Prior to entering ministry, Tim was a high-school teacher and football coach for five years. His wife Sarah is an Area Director for Young Life, and together they have two young boys. You can follow Tim on Twitter.

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