Rachel Held Evans, author of the New York Times Bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, offered a collection of blog posts today on virginity and asks whether Christians idolize virginity. The ensuing comments (nearly 300 as of the writing of this blog) expose the complexity of this issue as well as the shame, pain, and other unintended consequences of messages that equate purity with virginity.
Our tendency to equate purity to virginity as simply a physical reality is reminiscent of the Pharisees and their focus on the external purity rituals while neglecting the heart. Jesus corrects this attitude in many ways including his teaching on lust (Matthew 5:28) – that a lustful attitude is a form of adultery, which was mostly considered a physical act, as well as a violation of property rights. But, the opposite error of imagining purity as only a state of mind is also a problem as it imagines that what we do in our body is of little consequence to our spirit and soul. Certainly, we see many who are victims of rape or sexual abuse needing to make a disconnection between their body and their mind/soul/spirit for survival, but this is not healthy, true to our human nature nor what God intends for humans who are created to image their creator.
Both of these positions assume that purity is something we can possess within ourselves, or out of our own resources. Recently I’ve been reading Christ the Key by Theologian Kathryn Tanner who notes, “Like angels, humans can acquire the virtues that perfect them only by participating in what is other than themselves, the Word that in its simplicity is itself those things without acquiring them.” (Tanner, Christ the Key, Kindle Location 498) We are misguided to think of any human (even a newborn?) as pure in any sense apart from the pure light of Christ illuminating the whole person. Even in the Garden, God was the source of all purity and goodness, as Tanner quotes Gregory of Nyssa from “On Virginity,” that in the Garden we were “to enjoy the good in its purity . . . and to enjoy that, is in my judgment nothing else than ever to be with God, and to feel ceaselessly and continually this delight, unalloyed by anything that could tear us away from it.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 604 – I would like to read Gregory of Nyssa source on this topic!)
When we equate purity with virginity, we create a system in which we imagine we can somehow be pure apart from God. When we reject purity as virginity, and imagine purity as a state of mind, we create a system in which what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter but still seek to be pure apart from God. God is the only source of purity for us and we must be careful to teach our children well to look to God as the source of all of the goodness in their lives. By looking to Christ as our source, and allowing Christ to transform us, can we acquire the virtue of purity? To what degree can we “be pure”? Tanner notes, “when our minds are therefore formed according to the divine image, so are our bodies.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 983) Is this a unidirectional interface – the image of Christ affects our mind which then affects our bodies? If purity is something outside of ourselves, how then do we talk about, think about sexual ethics and what it means to be joined to another human being in such an intimate way?
These discussions about purity and virginity are complicated and raise many questions about what we believe about God, about living in community, and about what it means to be human. Together, we must work toward a sexual ethic that speaks more about integrity and what it means to be appropriately human than creating an in and out proposition where young people who choose to have sex before marriage are shamed and shunned while young people who wait to have sex until marriage are paralyzed by the “sex is evil” messages that they end up in therapists offices not long after their wedding night!
We must also make room for those who are abused, raped, and sexually trafficked to be welcome in our midst without feeling like lepers. And we must recognize the gender imbalance in these conversations and the implications for both men and women when the evangelical response to over-sexualization is an equally distorted over-sexualization asking for men to protect women’s vaginas! As if women are property again!!
As a young Christian, I heard the “Why Wait?” messages and was deeply shamed by them since I had not waited. Years later, after a period of abstaining from sex until marriage, I struggled deeply with wounds – not just from being shamed for not waiting, but from the pain of abuse by men who mistreated me and claimed to be entitled to possess me for their own pleasure, denying my humanity in the process. While most of my premarital sexual experiences were consensual, as a young teenager I don’t think I realized what I was consenting to. I was looking for love in all the wrong places and instead found many men who viewed women as sexual objects to possess for their own pleasure.
Here’s a reflection I wrote a while ago echoing the pain that only God can heal:
The arrow penetrated and lodged within my heart of hearts, deep under my skin. The wound healed over on the surface it seemed and only a crooked and painted scar remained. I tried to ignore the pain inside that the crooked scar was trying to hide. I told myself the wound was healed, there was no more bleeding – the skin was sealed. Yet deep inside the poisonous arrow remained and when I touched the scar, I winced in pain. The voices in my head said I’m scarred for life, there isn’t a man who would want me as a wife. Your sin has marred you beyond repair, there isn’t a man who will truly care. My heart was shattered as I believed the lies, and I found it impossible to trust most any guy. I thought they all only wanted to gain personal pleasure while giving me pain. I thought I had failed God and that God would deny my desire for intimacy and then I would cry.
Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, Sarah Bessey, Carolyn Custis James, and Dianna Anderson, for asking hard questions, telling real stories, and working to mitigate the unintended consequences of the purity=virginity message. As a mother of four daughters, ages 14-20, I am deeply concerned about these messages. Hopefully together we can write a new message that leads to life, health and human flourishing for women and men alike.
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