Abigail Murrish lives in Norwood, Ohio where she works for her church and curates the newsletter “Given Appetites.” You can subscribe to her newsletter and find her online at abigailmurrish.com.
For evangelicals, the conversation about sexual purity in a libertine age is a perennial one. The purity culture of the ’90s, in particular, casts a long shadow and cycles through the public square on a regular basis. One of the architects of the movement, Joshua Harris, recently announced his departure from faith. As part of an ongoing “deconstruction process,” as he calls it, his rejection of Christian purity culture (a few years ago) was one of many steps that led—not causally but sequentially—to his rejection of faith itself.
The news left me feeling hollow. As I’ve watched Harris’ story unfold through the years, I’ve seen aspects of my own life mirrored in his. Yet while my story starts in a similar place, it travels in the opposite direction toward a reconstruction of faith. I, too, rejected purity culture but in its stead, I discovered a deeper commitment to the beautiful orthodoxy of Christian faith, a deeper appreciation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and a deeper love of the church.
The story starts in my teen years. Along with a lot of other young men and women in evangelicalism, I was carried along by the tide of the purity movement and saw it as an expression of personal piety and devotion to faith. My actions, however, were almost entirely driven by future outcomes. In other words, I expected a marital relationship down the road, and I was afraid of ruining my chance at a perfect one. I took a vow to abstain from sex until marriage and wore a ring on the fourth finger of my left hand. When I started hanging out with a guy in high school, I refrained from holding hands with him, because I believed it was a short road from intertwining fingers to winding up in bed together.
At 19, I began my freshman year at Purdue University and came face to face with a diametrically opposed model: hook-up culture. I was a practicing evangelical Christian holding to a traditional sexual ethic while living on a campus committed to free sex. “Hooking up” and “friends with benefits” were common practices. On Sunday morning, while I walked to the dormitory lobby on my way to church, my dormmates would walk their boyfriends to the front door.
When friends arrived at class on Monday morning tired from a weekend of partying, I was distinctly aware that my heartfelt convictions about sex separated me from their group. I counted many of my classmates and dormmates as friends, and although they never mocked or ostracized me for my beliefs, nonetheless I felt a sense of otherness.
I had anticipated this loneliness in going to Purdue. But I hadn’t fully anticipated that my freshman year would be the loneliest of my life. Although I experienced the Lord’s comforting presence, and Sunday church services provided a sweet reprieve from the grind of college, I still longed for more community.
I hoped God would lessen my loneliness by giving me a boyfriend who would eventually become my husband, and I prayed toward that end. I’d meet a kind Christian man and wonder if he was “the one,” we’d get to know one another as friends and maybe even go out for a meal, but then before long, he’d stop communicating with me or express interest in another woman.
Amid these ups and downs of my romantic life, I found myself captivated by someone else: the bride of Christ. This realization came slowly over time. As my dating life floundered, I began to see that I’d traded one set of unbiblical views of sex for another. The purity culture that I’d embraced in high school was just as insufficient and empty as hook-up culture.
In retrospect, it’s hard to say how much of the problem lay with me and my still-ongoing maturation process and how much with the distortions of the larger purity movement. Regardless, both were in play, and I had a lot to sort out. With the support of my parents and through countless conversations with my college pastor and his wife, I started to sift the wheat from the chaff and spent a lot of time untangling the biblical nuggets of purity culture from poor exegesis and personal opinions.
I also began to study what the Bible said about marriage and sex in the context of the whole story of Scripture. What I found there was initially disheartening but ultimately liberating. There was no promise in Scripture that, if I just abided by a Christian sexual ethic, I would find a husband, marry him, and have kids with him. I was compelled to reckon with the fact that singleness was a very real possibility for life (not just a season) and that God called it good. And I discovered that Scripture called me to purity not as a means to a marital end but rather as an intrinsic good—an end in and of itself that was for my flourishing and well-being. I also realized that, even if I did marry, my obedience to God’s commands didn’t guarantee perfect sexual or marital bliss.