What's often referred to as "purity culture" is not the same thing as remaining sexually abstinent outside of marriage, though many conflate the two, according to Tim Keller, founder and former pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City.
Keller explained in a Facebook post that in the early church, the Christian sexual ethic — that "sex was only for within a mutual, whole-self-giving, super-consensual life-long covenant" — was "revolutionary," given the prevailing Greco-Roman ethic of the day.
"It was based on a radical egalitarian principle that the husband’s body belonged to the wife, and the wife’s to the husband (1 Corinthians 7:4). That meant that anyone who within marriage exploited or abused was violating the Christian sex ethic just as much or more as those who had sex outside of marriage," he said.
In the Greco-Roman era, men of higher social status were permitted to demand sex of anyone of lower social status even if they were married.
By contrast, purity culture is a phenomenon that arose in recent decades in some churches with the ascendancy of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris, a book Harris has since apologized for and now rejects.
The book overshot Scripture and elevated specific behaviors, including sex outside of marriage, as "unforgivable sins," Keller said, and "went far beyond the Christian sex ethic to argue that you should not ‘date’ or even kiss someone unless you were sure you were going to marry them."
"However, to say sexual abstinence outside of marriage is automatically 'purity culture' is at best historically naïve and uninformed and at worst deliberately dishonest. They are not the same. Those who are angry at the abuses of purity culture are right to be so," Keller added.
"It has done harm and it should be called out and lamented. There is a difference."
His words come two years after Harris apologized for his book and subsequently announced that he no longer identifies as a Christian and his marriage was over. Harris' public deconstruction came amid an ongoing push within some progressive religious voices, such as Bromleigh McCleneghan, author of Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn't the Only Option - And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, who are calling for the abandonment of the historic Christian sexual ethic altogether, in part because of the damage that the purity culture of the 1990s has wrought.
Other voices, such as Juli Slattery, who leads a ministry called Authentic Intimacy and is the author of Rethinking Sexuality: God's Design and Why It Matters, have since responded to the pushback against purity culture, acknowledging the harms that it caused while distinguishing between the overemphasis on sexual morality and abstinence within purity culture and God's redemptive plan for human sexuality showcased in the entirety of Scripture.
"Every sexual issue is at heart a spiritual issue. When sex becomes confusing, it causes us to reexamine what we believe about God. Getting sex wrong usually begins and ends with getting God’s character wrong," Slattery wrote in a March 3 blog post on the overreach of purity teachings.
"The purity movement taught a God who gave us moral rules to follow, but underemphasized His redemptive nature. In our current day, we teach about God’s love and mercy, but tend to skip past His holiness and righteous judgment. This is a grave danger of which every Church generation must be aware," she said.