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NINETIES PURITY CULTURE: WHAT WERE WE MISSING? Thoughts from Someone Who was There

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It seems like every few weeks I see another article about “nineties purity culture.” While there are exceptions, most of the articles come from disgruntled people nearing middle age who feel like this cultural phenomenon ruined their lives. Why don’t we hear more from people who have good things to say about nineties purity culture? I think there are several answers. For example, most of the people who were part of it probably don’t know what it is because we did not call it that in those days, and not every person within five years of forty, give or take, spends a lot of time making sure they are well versed on internet rhetoric. Related to this is the fact that most people who had a good experience in nineties purity culture are probably too busy raising kids, paying bills and trying to make time to put into their ongoing monogamous marriage to take the time to write an article saying “Hey internet, nineties purity culture didn’t ruin my life. It actually served me pretty well.”

Like almost any socio-religious cultural phenomenon, I think nineties purity culture had its good points and bad points. Whether there were more good than bad probably depends a little bit on where you were standing. However, I would further argue that the good points, and one in particular, outweighed the bad. So why this blog? To defend? Not really. To analyze! As Mr. Spock so famously said when asked why he was going to earth to testify: “I do it because I was there.”[1] At different times in and around the turn of the century, I interacted with many elements of nineties purity culture, and I was (and still am) committed to its most fundamental principle: People should wait till they get married to have sex, and then limit sexual relations to their marriage. And I have something to say that most of the other contemporary articles on this topic won’t: This premise neither ruined my life nor made me reject the Christian faith. My point in saying so is not to lampoon those whose lives nineties purity culture did ruin (or at least believe it did). The complaints we hear are what sparked the question in our title “What were we missing?” And I believe I can provide the answer. But I do want to stress that the idea of saving sex for marriage was not the problem. Of this I am sure.

So what was “nineties purity culture?” as far as I can tell, this term is used as a catchall for several different movements that had one main principle in common, namely, that sex only belongs in the context of a monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. But, to be fair, we must recognize that there was great diversity among those who were saying this. When I was a teenager, my youth group was involved with the “True Love Waits” movement. I believe this was one of the saner versions of the movement, which is probably part of the reason I’m not upset. True Love Waits encouraged young people to save sex for marriage without providing a thick volume of Mishnaic commandments to supplement the Bible.[2] No, True Love Waits just told us that the Bible said we should not have sex before marriage, then focused on some of the practical reasons. We were given horrifying (and perfectly true) statistics about sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and the inadequacy of condoms to keep us safe from these dangers. One might disagree with this approach, but at least they didn’t tell us anything that was not true.[3]

On the other side of the spectrum was what was commonly called the “courtship movement.” Even here, there was great diversity of the specifics, but the fundamental premise of the movement was the idea that the cultural custom of dating was unbiblical. Not extra biblical, but unbiblical. “Extra biblical” means that something is a subject the Bible does not address. “Unbiblical” means that we can make a clear biblical case that something is wrong and sinful, and that was the courtship movement’s assessment of dating. Because most Twentieth Century American Christians up that point had thought some version of dating was acceptable, this was essentially an untested premise. The movement was popularized by dapper teenage Christian celebrity figures who chose to “do things God’s way.” It was also enthusiastically supported by many Christian parents who saw great logic in the premise that “if they don’t date, they probably won’t have pre-marital sex.” Unfortunately, this did not always work, and when it did it often had the unintended corollary that they would never end up having marital sex either.

I do not intend to be overly critical. The Bible certainly was written in a culture that knew nothing of dating. But it was also primarily a culture of arranged marriage. Arranged marriage is never attacked or defended in the Bible, it is usually assumed. But the courtship movement did not exactly reintroduce arranged marriage. Its method was somewhere in between and sometimes a little ambiguous. Generally, a boy would ask a girl’s father for permission to court her, and then be allowed to visit her at her house under close parental supervision with the eventual goal of marriage. In this context, there would be a carefully crafted list of behavioral guidelines that would keep the two as far from being alone – much less in bed together – as possible. Whatever arguments can be made for or against such guidelines, we must say that they were often said to be “biblical guidelines” when one could search the Bible for a lifetime and never find them.

I am speaking in the extreme, of course, but that version of courtship did exist. Many in the courtship movement simply thought dating implied something casual, whereas the term courtship meant that romantic relationships would not be approached without the possibility of marriage in mind. A good argument can be made for this premise, but many who believe in “Christian dating” agree with this premise, so at times the difference was little more than semantics. For some, “dating” is synonymous with making out, where for others, it simply means “going on dates.”

Looking at the extreme side of the courtship movement, we see that things the Bible never said were sometime put forth as biblical commandments, or “God’s way.” We can understand why some either felt lied to, or worse, never came to realize that their leaders were adding to God’s Word. And so they blame God for saying things He never said. Bad advice can be dismissed as bad advice, but when bad advice is confused with biblical truth, God’s wisdom is brought into question. And in fact, some have then questioned the fundamental premise of nineties purity culture: “Does the Bible really say we should wait until marriage to have sex?”

Now is a good time for a little biblical exegesis, in case any of our readers have any doubt. There is a vast amount of biblical data to demonstrate that marriage is the only proper venue for sex, but perhaps the clearest statement is in 1 Corinthians 7:1-4:

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

Several observations show us how this passage demonstrates a traditional Christian understanding of Biblical sexuality. Verse 1 tells us that abstinence (and singleness) is a perfectly good option.[4] Throughout the chapter, Paul will argue that for some this is a better option (those to whom it is given, 1 Cor 7:7). Verse 2 in the NIV, like most English translations, is interpretive. This is because a word for word translation would read “because of sexual immoralities.” The sense is that Paul is addressing this issue because, as even the most cursory reading of 1 Corinthians shows, sexual immorality was a big problem for the church in Corinth. The KJV renders this phrase “To avoid fornication.” Either translation captures the essential point, Paul is teaching about sexual relations in marriage to show the Corinthian church the only legitimate context for sexual expression, namely, marriage. The singular use of “husband” and “wife” shows us that this means a monogamous marriage. In the Old Testament, at an earlier time in redemption history, God allowed polygamy (though He never advocated it), but one of the things that has shifted in New Testament revelation is that polygamy is no longer permitted for the people of God.

The terms “husband” and “wife” also show us, from a biblical standpoint, that the only legitimate kind of marriage is between a man and woman. In biblical marriage, the husband and wife “belong” to one another sexually. Verse 4 shows us that this is no less true for the husband than for the wife.[5] From these few verses we see very clearly that the only proper biblical context for sex is in a monogamous marriage between a man and woman. Anything else is sexual immorality. For the sake of thoroughness, we should note that nothing is said about hand holding, going to the high school dance or going to the movies. The relative merits of these activities must be determined by the believer (or their parents) through the leading of the Holy Spirit. But let us not say “Thus saith the Lord” if He actually does not.

So, if one believes that the Bible is the Word of God, we see that the point that united the various strands of nineties purity culture was a true point. So what were we missing? We have already touched on the fact that certain streams added quite a bit to the Word of God, substituting the commandments of men for the commandments of God. That things often did not work out well in these situations is hardly surprising. We can expect disastrous results when we ignore warnings like “Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Proverbs 30:6). But what about the saner versions that focused primarily on a commitment to save sex for marriage. What were they missing?

After much thought, I believe that nineties purity culture rooted itself in a false promise, often stated, but always implied. The promise was that if you do things God’s way, there will be earthly rewards. What rewards? Just wait on the Lord and He will bring you your prince or princess. You will have a happy marriage with deep emotional fulfillment and lots of hot sex. This false promise was rooted in soft prosperity theology. Not the kind that promises riches, but the kind that believes the reason to follow the Lord is primarily rooted in the good things He gives us in this life.

A good example to illustrate this is the custom of the purity ring. Many teenage girls were encouraged to put on a purity ring which symbolized their commitment to God. This commitment was a commitment to stay abstinent until marriage. They would not remove the ring until the husband God brought them replaced it with an engagement ring. For a lot of our young ladies, things worked out just that way. For many it did not. Sometime in their mid-thirties or so, some of these ladies realized that they missed something. Prince Charming never came. How did they respond? Some realized they had been fed a false line and learned to follow the Lord while having a little more discretion about validating the promises of talking heads using God’s Word. Some, however, felt that God had lied to them. The same situation has happened with many men, of course, they just didn’t usually wear the rings.

What went wrong? We encouraged people to follow Christ for the wrong reasons, namely, earthly rewards. What is the perspective of the New Testament? We follow Christ because of who He is. We follow Christ because of what He has done. We follow Christ because we realize that we will share in His eternal glory. But what comes first? Suffering with Him!

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18).

In Philippians 3, after warning his readers about false teachers who try to impress with earthly accomplishments. The Apostle Paul says that by this line of reasoning, he might have many reasons to boast. From the perspective of First Century Judaism he had an impressive list of accomplishments. But what does he say about all the earthly things he cared about before knowing Christ?

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith inChrist—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).

What should ultimately matter for the Christian? Knowing Christ through faith. Participating with Him in His resurrection. In comparison with this, everything else is worthless. Not necessarily bad, just not to be compared with the joy of knowing and following Christ, and certainly not a biblical basis for obedience. If knowing Christ is the highest end for the Christian, then why do we obey Him? Because we love Him and because of the identity He has given us. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

After explaining to the Corinthian church that God’s judgment Is coming on those whose identity is rooted in sinful behaviors, including but not limited to sexual immorality, The Apostle Paul explains that that is no longer where the believer’s identity is found: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11, italics mine). It is on this basis that he issues the following command: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that biblical sexual ethics protect people from a lot of pain and suffering. But what if this were not the case? What if, in a highly unusual situation, a young person could find pleasure with multiple sex partners, without consequences, before settling down into a happy marriage. Would we still be able to tell them that giving that up to follow Christ would be far greater? If not, we have missed the essence of New Testament discipleship. We have become salesmen, parading a message that the world’s way will ruin your sex life and God will give you a much better one if you follow him. My friends, we are not pragmatists or utilitarians, we are disciples. We follow Christ because he is worth it! And any other reason is a recipe for spiritual failure.

Let us continue to encourage young people to a life of sexual purity. Let us continue to encourage them to commit to abstinence until marriage, if indeed marriage is what God has for them. But let us encourage them to do this for the right reason: Christ and Christ alone!


[1] Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

[2] The Mishna is a collection of Rabbinic interpretations of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) which added many commandments on top of the original commandments in order to keep the faithful from breaking the originals. Before being written down, these commandments were passed down orally, and were considered by many Jewish teachers, particularly the Pharisees, as a “Fence around the Law” (see J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 546.

[3] The nonreligious website kidshealth.org validates that condoms are ineffective in preventing pregnancy about 18 times out of 100 (http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bc-chart.html?WT.ac=t-ra#), not particularly impressive stats, and definitely not information that is generally shared with young people. It goes without saying that STDS that are transmitted by fluid transfer would be at least as likely to be contracted as the risk of a pregnancy. The same website tells us, on the one hand, that “most STDs can be prevented by using a condom the right way every time a person has sex,” but when we look at the descriptions of how these diseases are spread we see that some of the most common (genital herpes, crabs, etc.) can be spread by close contact with any infected area, whether or not a condom is worn (https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/std.html). Most teens are unaware of these kinds of simple facts, and many see a great deal more value in abstinence when someone tells them.

[4] The root meaning of the Greek word ἅπτω is “touch,” but most commentators recognize that it is being used as a euphemism for sexual relations.

[5] This point may seem obvious to modern readers, but this would have been startling in Corinth, and in Greco-Roman culture in general, where husbands were usually thought to have a great deal more sexual freedom than wives.

Author: Pete Vik

3 Responses to "NINETIES PURITY CULTURE: WHAT WERE WE MISSING? Thoughts from Someone Who was There"

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