The New Purity Ethic

It has been almost two months since I last posted here. I don’t expect to post much over the next couple of months. I wasn’t even intending to post anything today but, after writing the following in the form of a comment yesterday, I first decided not to post it at all, and then thought that it might be worth rewriting it as a blog post, just to reassure you all that I am still alive.

Having a personal interest in the subject, and having ruminated on a Christian ‘purity’ ethic myself in the past, I have read many of the various treatments on the subject that have been written over the last year or two. While I strongly share many of the concerns that have been voiced about the ‘purity culture’, much that has been written against it is profoundly unsatisfying. I have also been troubled by the dearth of close biblical and theological analysis, the fairly uncritical and unreflective appropriation of standard feminist or liberal lines of argument in many quarters, and the absence or weakness of the alternatives to the purity culture that have been advanced.

Over on A Deeper Story, Elizabeth Esther has written a piece on the subject of a purity ethic, which avoids the greatest problems of purity culture. As hers has been one of the prominent voices in this discourse and as she is here attempting to move beyond the work of criticism to the constructive task of framing a Christian ‘purity ethic’, I believe that it is worth engaging with. Her article is only around 800 words long. I recommend that you read it before you read the rest of this post.

Reading this, I don’t disagree with much that is said – I have made similar points in the past. Purity is not just or primarily about avoiding certain things – although it does involve that – but is at heart the pursuit of something. Also, as pointed out, purity isn’t just about adhering to a set of arbitrary and detached rules, but finds its meaning within something akin to what Catholics have termed, in a slightly different, though not unrelated, context, a ‘seamless garment’ – a consistent and integrated moral ethic/ethos.

However, when I finish reading the piece, I am far from certain that much has been said. In fact, I wonder whether its instinctive appeal might reside in its vagueness, which gives the impression that much more has been said than actually has been. So, for instance, it is suggested that ‘purity is similar to integrity in that it means acting in accordance with a set of core values.’ However, what these ‘core values’ actually are is far from clear.

Rather than clearly defining these values, vague concepts relating to ‘wholeness of humanness,’ and ‘living wholly’ are deployed. The problem is that everyone can see what they want in such expressions. Words such as ‘wholeness’, ‘holism’, and ‘integration’, are modern Christian buzzwords, much like ‘story’ or ‘relationship’, but they often sound a lot more profound than they actually are. The positive connotations of such terms also lead to fewer searching questions. What exactly is wholeness and where does it reside? What serves as the principle or locus of integration? Where such questions are not truly addressed, we are left with something that appears deep but is actually quite ambiguous.

What is said about the principle and locus of integration is far from satisfying.

Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me.

Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?

Purity is knowing myself and honoring the whole of my personhood – because once I know myself, I am living honestly.

All of this may sound great to modern Western ears, but is any of this recognizably Christian? For one, Christian ethics starts with placing our subject position under radical question and presenting a startling decentring of our selfhood as the new principle of redeemed existence: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ ‘Integration’ within such an account is about integration into Christ’s body – about living and growing ‘in Christ’. This means living wholly for something greater than ourselves: ‘and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.’ It doesn’t start with me: it starts with Christ.

Christian sexual ethics takes for its principle something much greater than us, and is framed and ordered by realities that transcend us: God, creation, human nature, the body of Christ, the eschatological kingdom. Flesh, in its current state, is presented as compromised throughout by the powers of Sin and Death, misled by evil and deceptive desires, which cannot discern the good of our natures. As this ethic places ourselves in question and presents realities that transcend and overarch us as the ordering principles of true human existence, the true ethic of purity is established extra nos, has an objective force, and comes to us as an external imperative.

This sort of Christian sexual ethic is not privatized and individualized. It doesn’t begin and end with me and my authenticity. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: ‘In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.”’ Or as Paul says, ‘Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.’ In Scripture, our purity is not about some private ‘authenticity’, but about the worship that we owe to God, and the honour that we owe to each other. Christian sexual ethics are about community, about the way that we are stewards of our bodies for the sake of God and each other, rather than predicated upon the notion of bodily autonomy as contemporary liberal and feminist sexual ethics typically are. I am responsible to people beyond myself in my use of my body and consent and authenticity alone aren’t a sufficient foundation for a Christian sexual ethic.

The upshot of the relocation of the principle and locus of integration is the revelation that: a) our being needs to be integrated into something beyond and greater than it; b) we are in a state of radical dis-integration, both on account of sin and on account of immaturity; c) we will never be fully ‘integrated’ prior to the eschaton. As the principle and locus of integration lies outside of us, we do not provide the form of wholeness. Rather, that form is Christ, to whom we must become ‘conformed’. As this form lies outside of us, there is an external measure against which our behaviour can be measured.

Further, as we have not attained to the full level of maturity in Christ, the form of Christian ethic has not yet been internalized, which means that it can still come to us as an external command. While the ethical instruction and direction that we provide to children and teenagers have deeper integrating rationales, they are often not yet able to grasp this. This doesn’t make the ethic any less integrated. It just means that the integration of the ethic hasn’t yet been subjectively apprehended. Of course, we labour towards that end, but in the meantime, the moral imperative of ethical commands as yet not fully subjectively integrated is still present.

This is important when it comes to the question of a purity ethic, which will often have to be addressed to people who do not yet truly grasp its integrating principles. We want teenagers to understand why it is wrong for them to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and why it is important to comport and clothe themselves in a non-sexualized manner, but the fact that many do not yet appreciate why does not negate the ethical coordinates of the situation. In our laudable desire to communicate the integrating rationale of Christian sexual ethics, we should not neglect the objective force of those ethics. This may take the form of telling teenagers that certain actions are wrong and forbidding them to engage in them, even when they do not yet understand why.

On this front, Scripture is quite specific that certain sexual actions or behaviours are objectively wrong: adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual practice, lasciviousness, the public celebration of lust, the immodest publication of sexuality, debauchery, coarse jesting, licentiousness, obscenity, etc. That some people struggle to grasp a unifying and integrating principle for these norms and thus reject them is akin to the child who disobeys their parents having not received an answer to the ‘why?’ question which satisfies them.

Scripture is not vague on this front. In contrast to the pagan writers of the period, the New Testament places a particular accent upon the condemnation of sexual vices. Scripture doesn’t treat sexual sin as simply parallel to other sins: it is placed in a category of its own. Paul writes: ‘Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.’ When Paul speaks of paradigmatic sin in Romans 1:18-32, he highlights homosexual practice as a dishonouring of the body. Stealing, by contrast, is serious, but it cannot dishonour the body in the same way. This is also one reason why sexual sins and murder are among the only sins against human beings in Scripture that receive the death penalty in the Old Testament – they alone represent a direct assault upon the image of God.

Elizabeth writes:

Purity is living wholly–in all areas of my life. It starts with me. I must ask myself: am I taking care of myself? Am I taking drugs? Am I drinking too much? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I over-eating? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I expressing my sexuality in a way that honors the wholeness of who I am?

One can’t help but wonder whether this is a slip towards a modern liberal ethics of the body beautiful and self-expression, which focuses on the health and realization of the ethical consumer’s body, on fitness, eating healthily, buying organic food, avoiding smoking, being environmentally friendly, and having plenty of enjoyable and adventurous consensual sex, rather than upon the integrity of the ‘soul’. A sort of vague bourgeois responsibility to live healthily, to enjoy our bodies to their full potential, and feel good about ourselves as a result, is substituted for Christian purity ethics.

Scriptural ethics raise a very different set of questions, a set of questions within which the healthy treatment of our physical bodies is of relatively marginal concern and the integrity of our ‘souls’ is far more important (let’s not forget the punishment that both Christ and the apostles subjected their bodies to, how prepared they were to forgo sexual relations, and how indifferent the Scriptures are to our cultural fixation upon dieting and exercising). The Scriptures really do not devote much concern to the ‘expressing’ of our sexuality in our bodies, but say a great deal about expressing and glorifying Christ through our suffering and dying in the flesh, on the daily renewing of our ‘inward man’ as our ‘outward man’ decays.

While it is important to criticize the unchristian abuses of the purity culture, we must do so precisely because they are un-Christian, not because they don’t square with the convictions and ideologies of modern liberalism and the feminist movement. We must recognize that sexual ethics in Scripture are not primarily about feeling good about and self-realized in our bodies, but that sexual behaviour has profoundly personal implications, relating to us as selves and divine image-bearers, not merely as those with a duty to nourish and care for our own flesh. The reframing of purity ethics in terms of some self-oriented liberal ethic of the depersonalized and autonomous body, where sexual behaviour ceases to impact upon our very selves, is a development we should firmly resist.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The New Purity Ethic

  1. cookiejezz says:

    Good post, Alastair, and I agree very much with your central points. Have only had time to have a quick scan of both, but from a reading of Elizabeth Esther’s comments/replies, it seems that she has emerged from what she describes as a “cult” which was clearly very authoritarian, legalistic and deeply concerned about outward signs of purity such as skirt length, whilst probably placing little emphasis on the state of one’s heart, grace or the life-giving work of the Spirit.

    It strikes me that many of her ideas about purity are largely unformed: having rejected a style of godliness that she identifies as wrong and misguided, she is now picking up the pieces and attempting to identify what is right, albeit seemingly without much commitment to the guidance of Scripture. This is symptomatic of the drift to liberalism: spirituality without (scriptural) authority.

    • cookiejezz says:

      Or have I misunderstood her? As you say, it’s just not clear what she’s getting at, and while her expansiveness on the topic is creditable in one sense, it does seem to detract from the main points of purity, which as I have posted before, ought to be viewed as positives. Keeping oneself (sexually) for marriage is a great thing. Of course, it is preserved by means of prohibitions, but I think perhaps E.E. has so concentrated on the “repression” aspect that she has overlooked the joy set before the one who waits for the honeymoon to enjoy sex.

      • It is far from clear to me what exactly she is advocating on such particular questions. My suspicion is that her approach is designed in part to dodge the articulation of such public and objective norms, in favour of an approach focused upon integrity with one’s own ‘wholeness’, a privatized ethical standard that is purely between each person and God. Such an approach would neither advocate nor oppose sex outside of marriage. It all is made to depend upon the individual’s heart before God.

        Now, I may well be misrepresenting or misunderstanding her position here (and would appreciate correction if I am), but that is my impression of where she is coming from.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Yep, in response to your 7:28 pm post: the thing that concerns me is in her commenters’ posts which seem to indicate that “purity beyond sexual purity” is being taken to mean “don’t worry about what you are actually doing with your body; just think “purity” in the holistic sense and you”l be okay”. What starts out as intellectual exploration can be taken by some as licence for sin.

        As you imply, vagueness doesn’t do anybody any good. Whereas punctiliousness doesn’t get one invited to many parties.* Oh well, it’s a hard life being a prophet in this day and age. ;o)

        *Almost a Rob Bell quotation? I swear it was accidental. ;o)

    • Thanks for the comment. I think that the background that Elizabeth Esther and many others are coming from here is a very important part of the picture. Many seem to have had a background in abusive, authoritarian, or legalistic fundamentalist backgrounds. They have experienced firsthand the dangerous character of the ‘purity culture’ that such environments produce.

      While they rightly recognize that something is profoundly off and unchristian about it, they struggle to articulate their instincts. The major critiques of the purity culture are feminist ones, and so those are the critiques that they adopt, not fully appreciating their problematic character from a Christian perspective. As they have come to see a feminist critique as essential for the rejection of a poisonous ‘purity culture’, they in turn become over-dependent upon a feminist or liberal alternative ethic.

      I don’t want to place too much blame on such persons. In most cases it is the shallowness of Christian teaching or the abusive character of many Christian contexts that has produced this situation. My principal concern is that we learn to move beyond an ethic that develops out of a reaction against a certain type of dysfunctional Christianity and towards one that is deeply founded upon carefully articulated Christian principles.

  2. cookiejezz says:

    You’re welcome, and I agree with your remarks. FWIW it occurs to me that some Christians are so hung up about sex that they can’t enjoy it even when they do get to marriage, and still view it as only about procreation and/or an unwelcome but necessary outcome of the Fall. Small wonder that people get disillusioned and head off at tangents – falsehoods masquerading as truth don’t satisfy anybody.

  3. Kamilla says:

    Elizabeth Esther’s post is initially appealing, as you hint. But this sense of integrity she advocates is unmoored and the same argument could be used to justify the lifestyle of the gay man who likes to “get his flame on” as well as the pedophile, the devotee of “Christian kink” and as well as the average married couple who saved themselves for the wedding night and never consider adultery or divorce.

    There is no anchor nor is there a North Star by which to navigate. What is missing is a robust Christian anthropology (another largely Catholic concept). The reality that it is Christ living in us wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, it is the absence of an anthropology that is the most troubling thing. The call to be ‘true to yourself’ is not necessarily anti-Christian, but without a very clear account of how ‘yourself’ is to be defined, it is dangerously ambiguous.

  4. oysterbed7 says:

    Although I have read a few other pieces by E. E., I wouldn’t claim to know her stance thoroughly. I will lean toward giving her the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard to be specific in 800 words, especially when trying to sort through the deeply problematic legalistic issues she has in her past. What I see her saying addresses a bit of what @cookiejezz mentions in the 7:27 p.m. comment, she is working out how to integrate, not compartmentalise, sexuality. I personally believe compartmentalization for Christians hung up on sex has a lot to do with 1cor.6:18. It is freeing for those of us who have had Christian sexuality hang ups to concentrate on the positives, even though the ‘Do Nots’ are written on our hearts in solid block letters and we fully embrace the nature of God and the grace of His son. Thank you for your clarity here, A.A.

    • Thank you for the comment. Yes, we should always believe the best and so it is important to give her the benefit of any doubt. That said, it is the doubt here that is the real problem, as a very vague position is being presented as if it were a substantial answer. While she definitely doesn’t come out in favour of non-marital sex here, for instance, and we should not impute such a position to her, her words leave all sorts of questions like that completely unanswered.

      I absolutely agree with the importance of an integrated and non-legalistic approach to sexuality and I share many of the concerns that people have with purity culture on this account. However, unless we are very clear regarding what our sexuality is being integrated into or what ‘self’ we are being called to be true to, we are left with a position that can be bent in pretty much any direction we want.

      And, yes, a freeing from a highly negative and legalistic account of sexual purity is so important. I believe that we can reject the abuses of many forms of purity culture with a far more substantial biblical and theological account of what purity or sexual holiness means. I also believe that such an account will be far more liberating, which is one of the reasons why we should pursue it.

  5. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I’d highly recommend a couple books here:
    William Ian Miller’s The Anatomy of Disgust
    Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind
    Issues of purity/disgust/shame are very difficult to deal with properly, but trying to get rid of those concepts would not seem to work either.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. I have found Haidt’s work helpful on this subject, but haven’t read Miller’s. As you observe, while difficult to handle carefully, these concepts are not ones that we can just dispense with.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Miller also has a book called Humiliation. I haven’t read any of it.

  6. Caned Crusader says:

    This is an excellent piece. Part of the problem with the feminist critique of purity culture is that it only focuses on what legalistic abuses of the concept of sexual chastity can do to undermine the integration of women into the body of Christ. Equally problematic (and something I have experienced even in a relatively non-legalistic context) is the harm it can inflict on both males and females in the way it treats sexual desire as such. Too often there is little differentiation between sexual desire as a biological reality and lust as a state/act that falls outside the Christian ethos. Especially for the more introspective, this can send the message that sexual attraction or desire in itself is harmful and thus to be avoided. I don’t have a well worked out solution to this particular problem, but I think an Augustinian conception of “ordered loves” is essential to working out the relationship of desire and chastity. A single Christian commited to honoring his/her body for the sake of Christ, the church and the world is not removed automatically from normal biological and psychological contexts. It is unhelpful and damaging to mplicitly shame sexual desire as such, as this can often have precisely the effect that is not wanted. You have addressed this in previous posts, but an understanding of the nature and purpose of “eros” as a spiritual/creational reality even outside the context of marriage is something that needs more theological reflection in the evangelical community. (Let me hasten to add that the above sentence is not advocating extramarital sexual activity, but that sexual desire as a source of conflict can be turned to other puroposes even outside of a marital union.)

    • Thanks for the comment, Caned Crusader. Yes, understanding the difference between sexual desire as such and lust is very important. The confusion between the two can lead to lots of guilt and unhealthy repression for some.

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  12. Rebecca W says:

    Interesting too because EE is conservative politically.

    You may be interested in this post by BAD CATHOLIC at He has been addressing this issue in a series and itnis unlike anything I have read. He is a bit shocking but it is not in an obscene way at all. Maybe more “thoughtfully provocative”.

    Ha – I dont even know. .too hard to describe. You just have to read his column to understand. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting, Rebecca, and for drawing my attention to that piece.

      I have actually been following Marc’s posts on Bad Catholic for the last month or so. I’ve seen that particular one already. 🙂

  13. M says:

    Interesting set of reflections, and probing exactly where needs be.
    Nevertheless, I find myself asking these days, how did Christians come to speak of ‘sexual ethics’ as a distinct category as opposed to speaking of marriage and singleness, the Biblical categories that theologians from all the churches have used down the centuries? Isn’t this very much part of the problem, speaking of ‘sex’ as a generic phenomenon, a set of experiences and behaviours?
    The Biblical authors and traditional theologians have no such terminology, but it’s not as if they don’t handle the issues involved.

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  16. Today I saw a pingback on the post I wrote for Deeper Story and came here to read your criticism. At first, I held my breath waiting for the axe to fall–usually people who disagree with my writing are harsh and unmerciful toward me. I am writing simply to say thank you for the respect, measured tone and equanimity you showed me, here. Your criticisms are very valid and I will consider them. Yes, I am very much “in process”–my abusive background makes it very difficult for me to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. I am committed to working on it and more clearly defining a “Christian” sexual ethic. Thank you for expressing your concerns with such kindness. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. I tried to find an email address so I could email this comment privately, but didn’t see one. So, here it is as a public comment. 🙂 Thanks for your kindness, Alastair.

    • Thank you for this comment, Elizabeth.

      The on-going purity debate is an incredibly important one, especially when existing purity culture has so often taken a twisted or abusive form. As you say, it can be very hard to distinguish the good from the bad. This isn’t just a struggle for those who are survivors of abuse: those who have had a more positive experience in the context of particular purity cultures can be no less dulled to the real if unwitting ways in which it can foster or give licence to abusive ideas or practices. Bringing these various different perspectives and experiences into more receptive yet challenging conversation can prove a learning experience for us all. It certainly has been – and continues to be – for me.


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