Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

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Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise.  Those who are sincere are emotionally invested in their own position.  This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided.  Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness.  Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals.  (And it does wreak havoc there.)  However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice.  It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church.  It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries.  It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division.  The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make.  This can be used as an excuse for sin.  It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity.   They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.  

But Jesus was unimpressed.  

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin.  But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then.  It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today.  Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?!  Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern.  I know them all too well.  We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition.  We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts.  It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts.  Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people.  Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination.  But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.  

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality.  If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective.  It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God.  It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God.  Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

​​This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea.  The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.”  Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”

It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice.  However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God.  Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most.  We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card.  Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group.  They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers.  But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this.  But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change.  It is a false security established on meeting human expectations.  No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace.  Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did.  They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride.  Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]”  (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman.  He did not condescend.  But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect.  Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation.  The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus. 

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused.  They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.  

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves.  Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.  

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy.  They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.  

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort.  It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards.  It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit.  It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance.  They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other.  Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors.  They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love.  For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest.  Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil.  Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.  

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.

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11 thoughts on “Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

  1. Wow. You really hit the nail on the head with this post. It’s great. Coming from a homeschool background (as well as Mennonite), that whole idea of being contaminated from the outside was such a big fear for me and my family. I don’t deny that parents should exercise caution in who they let their children have for friends. But somewhere, we have to strike a balance between protection and trusting God to protect our family. In my case, the greatest damage came not from the outside, but from those (such as Bill Gothard) that we allowed on the inside through their teachings. We hunkered in the bunker with false teachers inside, and if anything, it amplified the results of their teachings.

    You already made so many good points that I won’t try to add any more to them. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well, by the grace of God, I was public schooled and that gave me a unique perspective. I have my parents to thank for that, my mother in particular, but I’m not saying that is for everyone. However, because of going to public school I did not look to culture as my strength and because of that do not see culture as the author of my salvation. I also had opportunity to observe how my Mennonite school and homeschooling religious peers were often as bad (or worse) than those who their parents had taken such care to hide them from. By contrast I knew where my sanctuary was and feel I appreciated my parents more than I would’ve had I been sheltered. I feel God was completely adequate to protect me from evil both in public school and also in the church where many people do not acknowledge it.

      Anyhow, it is probably no coincidence that the best stories of faith are of young people who were ripped out of their own homes and culture. They became Moses, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They had faith established on God rather than human understanding or effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cathy

    Thank you, Joel, for your post. It is so encouraging to see what God has taught you. It is so true that our own man made rules and efforts will never change our heart. God says so. Why do we think we need to do a better one than God by adding to his Word in order keep us looking right and doing right? Isn’t Jesus sufficient to keep us from sin? God has been teaching our family that we are complete in Him. I’m Joel Horst’s mother and he is right that we were deceived. God shoved us out of “the box” and is teaching us His way. Praise Him!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amen! Thank you for your response, I am glad to know there are others waking up. Honestly, I had to be dragged where I am, kicking and screaming, because all I ever wanted was that good Mennonite life. You know, go to Bible School, find a wife, do the requisite missionary stint, and have my quiverful. But I ended up falling flat over and over again until I finally gave up. I started this blog while dealing with one of my bigger disappointments and I still struggle with being open about my struggles. I still want to preserve the image of having it all together. But thankfully I only need to trust God.

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  3. Kevin Brendler

    I find it difficult to process your material (probably because you’re too smart for me). So if my inquiry here is something you covered in the post then please forgive me.

    Purity is something that is obviously important to Biblical faith and practice. And culture would be the ways and means that a people inculcate, preserve and convey the values of most importance to them.

    So, if you accept those two assertions, is not some kind of “purity culture” mandatory in the churches?

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    • Thank you for your comment.

      Your question is based on two assertions. I believe we should explore those assertions and perhaps then we will find the answer to your questions.

      First off, what is “Biblical faith” and is it the same as Christian faith? I know that the Pharisees had Scripture, but they did not have faith in Jesus nor did they know God or hear His voice. Second, what are the means we are given?

      One last thing, I do not believe Jesus was too smart for Nicodemus. Are you familiar with the account? Read John 3 again. What is Jesus trying to explain to this perplexed teacher of Scripture? Why couldn’t Nicodemus understand?

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      • Kevin Brendler

        >>First off, what is “Biblical faith” and is it the
        >>same as Christian faith?

        I use Biblical faith and Christian faith interchangeably. Sometimes I write NT Christianity or the NT faith. No need to worry that I’m operating off some undisclosed, peculiar definition of “Biblical faith.”

        Yes, the Pharisees had Scripture, but they opposed Jesus and resisted the Holy Spirit. So I would exclude
        them from what I mean by Biblical faith or NT Christianity.

        And Yes, the Pharisees definitely had a kind of purity culture, but certainly you will not wish to rule out ALL kinds of purity culture on the basis of Pharisaical distortions, will you? Likewise, the Mennonites are terribly misguided in their practice of purity culture; but does that mean ALL attempts to establish a culture of purity are necessarily wrongheaded?

        >>I do not believe Jesus was too smart for Nicodemus.

        My difficulty in processing your material is not because it’s too deep or spiritually perplexing. No offense 🙂

        When I read your work I experience information overload. That’s the problem. Each paragraph raises
        several questions in my mind. So very shortly into the post I’ve got lots of questions springing forth within and new information expanding without, which will only generate more questions. In short, I need a processor upgrade. My problem, not yours 🙂

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  4. Kevin Brendler

    >>Many in these cultures are convinced
    >>that their salvation is something they
    >>earn through their diligent efforts to
    >>please God and their own righteousness.

    This is probably true, but it is no argument
    against purity culture. There is no necessary
    relationship between purity culture and
    self-righteousness. If such a necessary
    relationship existed, then there could be
    no church at all.

    For the church is a culture, from one angle.
    And the church is called to purity by God.
    Hence, if the church is not a culture of purity,
    then she is not a true church.

    There are many ways to get this wrong, as
    I think you’ve experienced. But to dispense
    with the notion altogether would be neither
    good nor wise. A church which does not
    inculcate, preserve and nurture purity will
    be overtaken by evil. And her members will
    be broken with many sorrows.

    Like

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