“The final obstacle to Christian fellowship is the inability to be sinners together.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
“The Purity Narrative is Broken”
These were the words of Dr. Juli Slattery, our opening speaker at the Sexual Integrity Leadership Summit in San Antonio last month. I knew instantly what she meant. For a long time, many of us in the church have misunderstood the profound and pervasive nature of sin. We have wrongly thought that some people were pure and others were not. This has created unneeded shame, secrecy and isolation. We have also failed to appreciate how much the same we actually are, despite our different behavior patterns.. A Roman Catholic priest once said, “I cannot repeat any confession I have heard. But I can tell you this: We are all the same.” This includes our sexuality.
Dr. Juli Slattery
Unfortunately, too many times we have given the impression that two categories of people exist, those that can claim some aspect of “purity” in regard to sexual things and those who cannot. Many recovery ministries use the name “purity” in their titles. This can lead to misunderstanding. Some have made unsubstantiated claims or misrepresented the hope of the gospel as producing some kind of relative achievement over others, as in “join us and you too can become pure.” Juli Slattery mentioned earlier pro-virginity groups whose separating message to the sexually indulgent was, “I can be like you any day but you can never be like me.”
When I John 3:3 states, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure,” John is not referring to a state of purity achieved but rather the call to a continuous activity of purifying oneself from the inevitable stains of the world. It is a call to wash ourselves in the cleansing presence of God and his word and confessing our sins to one another, rather than attempting to achieve an unrealistic state of continuous purity.
Much of the purity narrative has been rooted in fear and pride. We have let our fear of being known or our desire to appear more transformed than we are prevent us from identifying with the weaknesses of others. This is why at Living Without Lust, we have a heart for Christian leaders caught in the bind of expectations, both their own and other people’s. It is a tight and lonely place.
As the church of Jesus Christ, too often, instead of accepting the truth of our common brokenness in matters of sexuality, we have put masturbation, pornography, fornication, adultery, same-sex attraction, homosexual behavior and other sexual behaviors on a sliding scale of offense. When I crashed years ago, a well meaning friend said, “at least you’re not gay.” This hierarchy of behavior has created separation, shame and a lack of understanding about the human condition before God. This is why Living Without Lust chooses to emphasize our common experience of lust, as Jesus did, rather than the human behaviors it leads to. Focusing on behaviors leads to fear and pride because we inevitably “grade ourselves” against others or what we “used to do.”
Though all sins are not the same in terms of their impact on others, and Jesus never equated heart adultery with physical adultery, he lumps varieties of human failings together as outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual brokenness. “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” (Mt. 15:19) Why would Jesus include adultery and slander in the same list? Because they all emanate from the same root. Resentment is just as “impure” as sexual sin. The early AA’s understood this. That is why as soon as the alcoholic stopped drinking and surrendered to God, he or she started dealing with fear, resentment, anger, pride and a host of other character defects.
Yes, the purity narrative is dead. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10 NIV) We should not be surprised. The early followers of Jesus had by and large blown it beyond repair. It was when they realized that they were “all together in one place,” (Acts 2:1) that the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them. The sooner we accept that we are all the same, whether our sins are sexual, relational, emotional or spiritual, the sooner we can stand together in love and mercy to find redemption and hope. “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” The day we realize we are “all together in one place” will be a very good one indeed.