What is the highest form of a loving relationship? Many would probably say marriage. Marriage is the recognition of two committing to oneness, involves physical intimacy, and is supposed to last “till death do us part.” What could be more wonderful than romantic love?
But, truth be told, people get into romantic relationships for some very biological reasons. As in pheromones and sexual attraction play a large role. It is why Mennonites marry young, they burn for sexual gratification, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, while this can develop into something deeper, it does not always and marriage can very quality become an unwanted obligation. Divorce rates would be much lower if people married for deeper reasons than merely getting something for themselves.
And that is why marriage and romance is not the ultimate expression of love. Admitted or not, it usually centers on sexual appetites, this special person may become your best friend and yet that does not negate the start. It began with physical attraction and is tied up in our reproductive instincts. So what is more wonderful?
The Love of David and Jonathan
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.
(2 Samuel 1:26 NIV)
This lament of David, in the quote above, the phrase “more wonderful than that of a woman” in particular, is supposed to stand out. It is a comparison for sake of showing how special and significant this relationship was to David.
But what made it so wonderful?
David, the Biblical character known for his fight with a Philistine giant among other things, had been secretly picked and annointed to be the next king of Israel. King Saul, despite his unusually tall stature, was a cowardly man and poor leader who blamed the people for his own incompetence. He was jealous and identified David as a rival for the throne.
But Jonathan, Saul’s son, who potentially had more to lose than his father immediately showed fondness towards the newly arrived giant slayer:
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
(1 Samuel 18:1-4 NIV)
They were “one in spirit” and made a covenant to express their love. Which became more important as David’s popularity, as a heroic military leader, grew:
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?”
And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.The next day an evil a spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.
(1 Samuel 18:6-11 NIV)
King Saul was, quite evidently, a very insecure man and couldn’t stand being shown up. Despite David being loyal, rage would get the better of Saul, as in the account above, and this would become a theme.
But Jonathan warned David and stood up to his father on behalf of his friend:
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?
(1 Samuel 19:1-5 NIV)
Jonathan, unlike his spiritually corrupt father, Saul, recognized that David had done no wrong and had actually secured their power. He put his neck out for David by standing up to his moody and unpredictable father. He had as much reason to be threatened by the rise of David, he could have simply kept his mouth shut to save his own skin, but instead he risked being the next to have a spear chucked at him defended his spiritual brother.
What Made This Love More Wonderful?
Some modern commentators try to pervert and sexualize the love between David and Jonathan. To them any intimate relationship must revolve around gratification of physical desires. But there is nothing in the text that suggests this was the case.
The fundamentalist religious types also dismiss love and intimacy that does not revolve around romance. They may not try to redefine the relationship of these two characters, but it is also an anomaly and mystery to them. Where I came from, there was no true brotherly or sisterly relationship, it was expected that people find their intimate connection in biological family or marriage.
David and Jonathan had a spiritual connection. It was a love that wasn’t self-centered. Jonathan was loyal, he eventually died beside his father in battle. Likewise, David had solid character, he absolutely refused to kill king Saul, the Lord’s annointed, despite being unjustly hunted and having to run for his life. Their love was more wonderful because it defied expectations, it went beyond the typical and was deeper connection.
The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation. We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?
Men should be protectors. This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves. Does this mean that women can’t do what men do? No. But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do. For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves. My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work. Why? Well, it’s simply what worked for them.
The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care. That’s what he is there for. He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable. His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love. This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.
Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection. It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals. It protects some women, but not all. And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men. It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone. Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse. That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative.
1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women
Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it. But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands.
In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women. Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection. This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them. Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?
What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.
I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes. He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood.
And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement. Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?
However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection. They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential.
Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men. Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals. Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.
The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection. It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth. It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul. It objectifies.
2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All
In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected. Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.
In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil. A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise. Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.
Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit? Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero? Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint. Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.
This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women. No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection. A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between. An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased. They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.
The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal. This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women. No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription.
Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being. She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person. Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.
This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women. It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.
3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men
Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined. In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God. That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.
Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism. I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference. And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her. Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.
Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions. It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin. Mennonite women sin. They have their vices, even if less obvious. Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.
Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition. By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature. This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed. The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example.
Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women. And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own. It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all. It is actually about power not protection.
4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse
The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn. Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.
But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves.
No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults.
And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women. From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse.
However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse. This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture. To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities. It is about protecting image not people.
Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs. They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system. So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture.
The Wrong Kind Of Protection
In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people. It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being. It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual. It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience. It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well.
It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time. He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites. They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change. They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.
The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people. It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal. The problem is not male leadership. The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit. Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love. It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source.
And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women. That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example. That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.
It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment. Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind. If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical. More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Some might wonder why I have such a visceral reaction to wokeism. I have written a few no holds barred blogs trying to warn people of what this is and where it invariably leads. But each time I write it feels as if my concern is not well-explained. I mean, I know some probably read and ask, “why is Joel attacking these well-intentioned people?”
However, I’m having a moment of clarity and therefore will try to expound on why it is absolutely necessary to shock people out of their stupor. The reality is that wokeism (or grievance culture) and religious purity culture are two branches off of the same tree. Both patriarchal conservative men and those angry pink-haired feminists are trying to create a world without suffering. Both, tragically, create more problems than they solve.
First, what is purity culture?
As I experienced it, in the conservative Mennonite context, it was a branch of Biblical fundamentalism (Protestantism) that had been grafted in to the Anabaptist tree. It was a legalistic perspective. The pure life was to avoid vice (no drinking, dancing, going to movies, etc) and remain completely a virgin until marriage. It is not that the aim is entirely bad, but there was also a lack of grace accompanying this perspective.
In other words, there was no room for failure. It a hellscape of unchecked perfectionist tendencies. People who should be diagnosed as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), along with other mental illness, viewed as being virtuous. And the rest of us struggling to meet an unreasonable standard without the actual spiritual help we needed.
For example, girls who thought they were ‘defiled’ for simply talking to a guy that they didn’t intend to marry. And heaven forbid you did date and break-up. Then you were damaged goods. Cursed to walk the earth, like Cain, a stigma tattooed to your chest, a scarlet letter.
To those steeped in this religious purity culture it was about saving the next generation. It was a reaction to a world of promiscuity and failed commitments have produced far-reaching consequences. And yet, while it does work for some, those who check all the right boxes, it permanently marginalize others and gives them no real road to redemption. Divorced and remarried? Tough luck, you’ll need to break up that successful loving family to become a Mennonite.
That’s the purity culture I know all too well and, for reasons I’ll get to later, have fully rejected as being unChrist-like and spiritually void.
Wokeism, despite the vast difference in appearance to what I’ve described above, is another subset of purity culture. It is a reaction to the ‘privilege’ of those who better represent the cultural ideal. It is another form of utopian idealism.
Whereas the latter religious variety of purity culture believes that if their children only kiss one person, never experience the pain or disappointment of a break-up, then heaven will come to earth—the ‘woke, by contrast, believe that if everyone was forced to tolerate their ugliness and embrace their toxic grievance; if they could live free of further offense, then they would be fulfilled.
Both forms of purity culture are offshoots of Western values. They both see suffering as a flaw in the system and try to eradicate it through their own means. And they do have their valid points. No, the girl, the victim of sexual abuse, who (because of her loss of self-worth) goes from one guy to the next, should not be called a slut. But, that said, nor should her unhealthy coping behavior be normalized. Instead, we should stop seeing people as damaged goods because they failed to reach some sort of phony cultural ideal.
The truth is, the woke, as much as they attack whiteness. Or the feminist who acts aggressively and looks to a career as being freedom. The patriarchal father, as much as he claims to be protecting. Are all the thing that they despise most. Religious purity culture, sadly, is hypersexual in focus and produces conflicted men like Bill Gothard, Doug Philips and Josh Duggar. Feminism amounts to a form of female self-loathing that unwittingly idealizes the male role. And so-called social justice is simply a means to manipulate and enslave another group of people.
All of them assume that if a person could simply avoid pain and bad experience they would find their completeness. All seek a kind of perfection outside of Christ and very quickly, despite their wonderful intentions, turn into a dystopian hell.
What is wrong is this idea that pain us is less for our good than pleasure. The religious, ignoring the lesson of Job, neglecting what Jesus said about the tower tower of Siloam or the man blind from birth, see suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure and a punishment. Likewise, the woke want to be embraced without repentance, if they would simply be called clean then they could finally escape their terrible anguish, right?
The truth is, bad experience is part of life and as beneficial as the good. Growing up in a single parent home can be an excuse or a motivation to do better.
This is what makes the story of Jesus so compelling. Unlike us, he was completely innocent, his intentions were pure and should have been loved by all. But, instead of embrace him, his own people saw him as a threat, he would undermine their system and perspective, show them for what they were, thus had to be eliminated. That he was executed with criminals would seem like a humiliating defeat. He suffered and died for what?
However, it was in this suffering that salvation came. Sure, the burden of the cross comes with anguish. We would rather seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, in Jesus, the cross is transformed from being a brutal instrument of death into a well of eternal life. How? It is in the same way that a seed falls to the ground, is buried and leads to new life.
Why would we cling to the seed or refuse to let it be buried and prevent the tree?
The overprotectiveness of religious purity culture, the refusal to acknowledge our brokenness and need of transformation of wokeism, both try to find salvation by human means. One seeks to impress God, like the rich young ruler or proud Pharisee, whereas the other (like Cain) demands that God accept their unworthy sacrifice and then murders their righteous brothers. Both need Jesus.
In conclusion. We’re all damaged goods and can be made more beautiful than ever through repentance. Jesus can make our pain as much a joy as our pleasure.
A few years ago, while at an annual conservative Mennonite revivalist effort, specifically the youth tent meetings at Terry Hill, I was involved in a conversation with a parent who spoke of their great admiration of the missionary zeal of the younger generation. To this person, the desire to travel to exotic places, purportedly to “share the Gospel,” was proof of sincere faith and fulfillment of the great commission. But, having decided that questioning this paradigm would likely be misunderstood, I did not express my reservations then.
Since then I have written two blogs, most recently one (“Missionaries From Hell?“) as part of a series on Matthew 23 and another before that (“Missionary or Imposter?“) exploring the true meaning of a quote of a famed fundamentalist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, about Christian missionary work. In both I point out the many different motives, besides a sincere desire to reach vulnerable people, why someone would leave the comforts (and boredom) of rural American life to be with a group of ambitious (and unmarried) young people. My basic point being that missionary zeal does not necessarily mean prayer cards and world travel.
However, in those prior efforts, while listing the many possibilities of corrupt motivations and relating my own experiences, not once did it occur to me to add sexual predation to the list. At the time it would have seemed a bit over the top. My simply challenging the assumption that all things done in the name of Jesus are legit service “for the kingdom” may have been enough for some to tune me out. I mean, isn’t it great that some are trying to do something, even if that effort is misguided, largely ineffective and born of suspect motives?
Yes, maybe the execution was flawed, but isn’t the road to heaven paved with good intentions?
(Or maybe I’m remembering that expression wrong…?)
Anyhow, to suggest that some are there some there in these impoverished countries as a means to prey on the vulnerable would have been unconscionable until it became otherwise. When the bombshell report of Jeriah Mast’s confessions to sexually predatory behavior, both while a missionary in Haiti and also swept under the rug at home, rocked the conservative Mennonite world it immediately reminded me of the two blogs I wrote about the potential for ulterior motives.
It makes perfect sense now and should’ve years before in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky, the founder of an organization supposedly to help disadvantaged boys, the “Second Mile,” could use his access to the university and reputation as a former coach as a means to hide in plain sight, why not a Mennonite missionary?
Except, for some reason, it was unimaginable.
My concerns expressed missed and not because they were too critical either. No, if anything, I was too gentle and generous. All cultures have their sacred cows, it is risky business trying to confront them head-on, and maybe that is what caused me to unconsciously tread lightly as not to offend. But charities and church ministries are opportunity zones for wolves in sheep’s clothing. The reality is this: The same things that draw those with pure motives to the mission also attracts those looking to exploit vulnerable people.
We can fairly easily detect a fraud when it is not one of our own. Like the Manhattan ‘pastor’ who wrote in USA Today about her late-term abortion, had a salary of $250,000 (“plus more than $150,000 in fringe benefits”) and recently lost her job over a harassment complaint involving sex toys. Most people know to be wary of men like televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who live like celebrities and fleece their flocks for Gulfstream jets. But the truth is that these aren’t the wolves relevant to conservative Mennonite (or Orthodox Christian) sheep and we do definitely have wolves amongst us.
We were warned…
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:28-29 NIV)
Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that we all have this potential to be the imposter or to be one who looks and acts the part of a Christian, yet is only really in it for themselves. Living the part of a religious or cultural ideal often gives you access to funding, better jobs, travel, and other opportunities. Sure, not everyone who goes abroad is a sexual predator. It is likely that this kind of abuse is the rare exception of those who travel. However, sexual predation is not the only form of exploitation.
It could be argued that populating an Instagram page with cute pictures of foreign children is more for the benefit of the one posting them. In well-funded funded Western-style missions there is also plenty of power and cultural imperialism that comes along for the ride in our missionary efforts. In other words, there are many ways that a person can be a missionary from hell.
It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.
Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.
This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.
Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.
This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.
Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:
Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin
Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.
It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:
Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.
We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.
Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations
There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.
Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.
I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!
Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.
Both Have Diminishing Returns
Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.
Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.
We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.
We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.
Both Render Us Impotent
The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:
“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”
That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.
Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.
In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.
It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)
One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.
Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.
Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23-27 NIV)
I had an idea of a supernatural love. It was a love that would overcome differences in ambition, personality, experience, etc. I had imagined a spiritual bonding of two people united only in their faith, going against their natural preferences and depending fully on God.
My pursuit of this greater love came as a result of what I had considered a spiritual experience and my desire to do God’s will. I had a comfortable life and no real desire to disrupt my secure existence, but I sought to be uncomfortable and decided to step out in faith to pursue what was impossibility to me.
After a journey of a few years (and going against the flow of advice of people who claim to have faith yet live as if agnostic) I’ve realized something about love. First, love is not supernatural, there is nothing inexplicable about love, and my chasing after more was a waste of time. Second, we only love when we gain from it.
Not even Jesus loved selflessly…
Altruism, or selfless love, is an idea that doesn’t work in the real world and is not even a Christian ideal.
Jesus didn’t love altrustically. Jesus loved as an investment, in a hope that he could gain followers, and with the intent to build a kingdom where he would be Lord. He encouraged others to love as he did as a means of gaining his favor and inheriting eternal life. Eternal life is a really big incentive.
All sustainable love is either a repayment for something already done or delayed gratification in hopes of future gain. We love because we owe a debt or in anticipation of receiving a return on investment. Yes, in some love relationships there is no balance sheet kept (because it would be cumbersome and ruin the mood) and yet all love is, at some level, about self-gratification.
We cannot live separate from our own desires. Not even Jesus had an endless supply of unconditional love for those who went against his teachings, we see that expressed in his words of condemnation in Matthew 23, and his abiding love was only shown to those who continually submitted to his will.
Now, it can be argued that this demand of submissive love is only for our own good, as in a parent’s chastisement of their child in order to get the best from them, and yet ultimately the proposition was to love me or else you die. That isn’t altruism nor is it extraordinary or inexplicable.
What love is and is not…
Love is a feeling of pleasure we get. This feeling is a product of brain chemistry—the result of natural chemical substances, such as oxycotin, that underlie our emotional experiences and all human behavior. Love is something involuntary, a natural attachment we get towards something or someone attractive to us. Love requires no special spiritual explanation.
When a Mennonite woman told me she couldn’t love me as I wished to be loved it was true. What I was hoping for was a supernatural love, the kind that is impossible by human standards, and only possible with faith in God. I figured that two faithful people, equally in pursuit of God’s will, would be able to overcome their own differences and ambitions.
However, what I didn’t realize, despite my sincere feelings and delusion of faith, is that my love for her was nothing special or supernatural. Sure, I believed it was something of God and was deeply offended when people would suggest I was driven by sexual desire. Yet, at some subconscious level, it was all completely natural and my confirmations from God all hallucination.
What made it seem bigger was what it represented as far as acceptance in my birth culture. There are first and second tier Mennonites. The father and family that this young woman belonged to was squarely in the first tier. They are popular, connected and sought after because of the pleasant feelings they produce in other Mennonites.
In reality, other than my being a second tier Mennonite and therefore not as pleasurable to her senses, I’m no different from the young man who did finally meet her criteria. The only real difference is that he will be able to continue on in his delusion. He can go on seeing her love as something supernatural and proof of God’s perfect plan.
Perhaps some day he will be oblivious (like her dad) and share, to a crowd of those craving love, that his dear wife made him who he is?
Love and conservative Mennonite idealism…
All that sounds pretty negative and depressing considering the high ideals that I had for love.
I believe we prefer to frame our love as a divine mystery because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Who really wants to think of themselves as governed by their biological impulses and base desires?
And still, when we divorce ourselves from the reality of who and what we are, we do more harm than good. The religious culture I was born into created many unrealistic expectations in me and this idealism has played a large part in my recent disappointments.
It was actually the father (of the girl that rejected my love) who had advised me against a relationship with a faithful woman outside the Mennonite denomination citing our cultural differences. And, truth be told, it was advice that resonated only because I shared his ideals and was seeking after a perfect little Mennonite world like his.
Unfortunately that is the bad advice many Mennonite young people have taken and, in their uncompromising impractical pursuit of some kind of supernatural experience, they miss out on the best opportunities for love they may ever have.
One example is the attractive single woman who asked me to blog about how to fend off unwanted suitors. This same girl later publically expressed her deep longing for children, as if she had no opportunity to make that happen, and yet she will go on rejecting the possibilities that exist because she is unwilling to compromise her own ideals for love.
It is sad that unrealistic ideals prevent so many Mennonite young people from taking those first steps that allow love to grow and why so many are choosing singleness over sacrifice—which is a trend will continue so long as we reject what is suitable to chase after our own grandiose delusions.
We can’t develop feelings because we are too carefully “guarding our hearts” to truly love people who don’t meet our own personal standards. That is probably why we will never be very effective as missionaries.
The love I have found…
Over the past couple years, while in pursuit of a Mennonite ideal, I had opportunity to lower my barriers and be friends with people who didn’t meet Mennonite standards.
I have found true love in the crowd of misfits on the edge and outside of the Mennonite denomination. I loved those who, like me, were lonely and in need of a friend. As a result I feel I’ve gained more than I have in all my years amongst my spoiled and self-congratualtory religious peers.
The family of misfits I’ve gained might not know the right things to say and do to appear righteous, but they have a heart similar to my own. My new friends, unlike my pretty-on-the-outside religious peers, are like me in the ways that really matter and that is why I love them.
Most Mennonites, like other religious fundamentalists, will not make a lifetime commitment to those whom they consider less than themselves and are not at all like the Jesus they claim to follow after. They can’t love me because I am not like them and I’ve given up wasting my time with them because there are many others who do appreciate what I have to offer.
The irony is that I probably have more and deeper connections formed through social media than many who have had their face on a prayer card and spend thousands to fly around the world. In fact, I pick up the pieces for the fly-by missionaries who seem motivated by passion for adventure more than compassion for people. We could do more staying home using social media and MoneyGram.
We really only love ourselves. We love only the people who we can identify with and can only patronize those who we do not. This is why Mennonites are bad missionaries, their love (beyond their own clique) is often disingenuous or out of religious duty rather than true humility and real identity with the downtrodden, their love for the outsider is a fly-in-fly-out superficial kind.
I have found my twin, a special person who doesn’t meet a Mennonite standard and yet mirrors me in her simple devotion to love. It is not supernatural or mysterious, nor is it adorned with the typical triumphalism of those who always get everything they want, but it is genuine.