Three Reasons Progressive Churches Should Be Concerned About Purity Culture

For several years, those of us coming out of conservative Christianity have been reeling from the effects of purity culture.  Writing such as Dianna Anderson’s Damaged Goods and this piece by Amanda Barbee have sought to frame the issue in a sociological context. Websites such as No Shame Movement, Life After IKDG, and the Patheos blog Love, Joy, Feminism have all sprung up to provide clarity and closure for survivors. So, yeah, the pushback against purity culture isn’t new. But it sure feels new…

Just two months ago, long-time critics of purity culture Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch launched the Twitter hashtag #ChurchToo as a platform for people to tell their stories about sexual abuse in the church. Within hours, the floodgates were opened and stories started pouring in on Twitter. A month or so later, inspired by the movement, a coalition of other religious organizations started the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaign to protest churches burying stories of sexual abuse.

Since #ChurchToo started, two high-profile cases of sexual abuse have come to light—Christian music festival icon Harry Thomas being arrested for child molestation and mega church pastor Andy Savage being exposed for coercing a teenage girl into sexual activity while he was serving as a youth pastor earlier in his career (and then receiving a standing ovation for his confession). As the movement continues to pick up steam, there’s no telling what will come to light next.

Making the Church Safer for Women

After leaving fundamentalism a few years ago, I started stumbling upon countless stories of how purity culture has destroyed women just like the ones I went to youth group with in high school. Experiences like Samantha’s and Jamie’s have been a wake-up call to me as a heterosexual man in the church. I grew up in purity culture too, but what I’ve had to deal with pales in comparison to the burden carried by women and queer people growing up in the same environment. I’ve decided that it’s time to do something…

Working with some other folks from my church, I’ve begun making plans to bring Emily Joy into my northeast Ohio community to talk about the harmful effects purity culture and how the church can alter its teachings on faith, sexuality, and gender to create a safer environment for women and other vulnerable to this particular kind of trauma. I’ve set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the event and explain the need for it, but my essential goals are 1) to let victims of purity culture in my area know that they are being seen and heard, and 2) to raise awareness among area churches that this actually a problem  that needs to be addressed.

When I say “area churches,” I am primarily referring to churches (like my own) that would consider themselves more “progressive.” (If you want to know what I mean by “progressive,” read this). When I have conversations with people at my church about how purity culture routinely shames and blames women, I typically get a “deer in the headlights” look—as if they are utterly shocked that these sorts of things can be going on in churches that claim the name of Jesus. In my (admittedly limited) experience interacting with Christians who were born and raised in more progressive spaces, it seems as if they are completely oblivious to the way mainstream Evangelicalism actually is. That has got to change.

A few times, I’ve encountered progressive Christians online who have reacted to purity culture in a sort of dismissive manner—like they’re saying, “Well, it’s a shame that there are churches like that. But at least we’re not like that…” It’s as if these Christians see the corrosive teachings of purity culture as someone else’s problem. They can’t do anything about it, because it’s not their church.

But I disagree. Yes we can do something about it. We can speak out in condemnation of it. Progressive Christians, this is our battle. There is a time to be peaceful and a time to be prophetic. And now is the time to for us to stand up and speak out against this grave injustice that has been destroying so many lives. Here are a few reasons why…

3 Reasons Progressive Churches Need to Address Purity Culture

  1. Our reputation is on the line. Granted, this is the absolute worst reason to care about how purity culture is affecting people. But it’s worth pointing out that people who are not Christians will tend to view all of Christianity in terms of the Christianity of dominant culture. Right now, like it or not, that version of Christianity is conservative, fundamentalist Evangelicalism. So, the fact of the matter is that we will be pigeon-holed as judgmental, homophobic, misogynistic, and hypocritical Bible-thumpers by people who don’t know (or care to know) the difference between one kind of Christian and another. Besides, let’s be honest with ourselves: we are not entirely without blame. While we may not be responsible for such innovations as the “purity ring,” we are part of a religious tradition that is steeped in what I would call the father of purity culture: patriarchy. Patriarchy is the great sin of the church—and by that I mean all churches going all the way back since before Constantine. We’re part of the problem too.

  2. There are purity culture refugees worshipping among us. When people decide they can no longer handle the oppressive effects of purity culture and other destructive teachings, they often leave the Evangelical church in search of green pastures. Some people become atheists or agnostics, finding solace in the “freethinker” community. Others simply become unaffiliated and are content to remain in the category of “nones,” finding community in other contexts outside of religion. There are still others who venture into other faiths. But then there are those who still want to hold on to the parts of the Christian faith they find redemptive. Where do you think these people end up? Yep, they flee to the “progressive” churches. So, yes, we need to care about the harm purity culture has done to people, because some of those people are sitting in our pews. It’s not just someone else’s problem, because it’s not just someone else’s church. There are countless members of progressive churches all over who are silently carrying the burden of spiritual trauma that purity culture has placed them. It’s time we recognize them.

  3. It’s hurting people. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that this is even a religious issue at all. The progressive Christians I know are obsessed with social justice. We advocate for victims of domestic violence. We support refugees. We join in protests against racism and police brutality. We march for healthcare reform. We wave the pride flag. We are committed to serving in the best way we can every single “least of these” we can find. Well, guess what? The damage done by purity culture is a social issue. People are hurting, and we should consider it our sacred duty to respond to that hurt with the same sense of urgency that we respond to any other. The fact that these people are being harmed in churches that we don’t belong to shouldn’t make a difference. People are being harmed. If we can do something about it, we should. Read through the stories one more time if you aren’t convinced. This not just an issue of theological disagreement; it’s an issue of social justice.