First published October 5, 2013
Humans will make symbols out of anything. Symbols are a potent way to interpret reality; we use them to communicate to each other and to define ourselves. In the Christian sub-culture there is one symbol that is readily understandable to almost anybody who has spent more than a week or two amongst teenagers these days: the purity ring.
The message is sure: abstinence. Now I want to stress: abstinence is good. The appropriate arena for sexual activity is within the marriage covenant, as God intended it. So, as I proceed to criticise our current fad, it is not a criticism of abstinence, it is more a criticism of the other messages that have been smuggled in, perhaps unwittingly, to the symbol of the purity ring.
The purity ring was developed in response to a society that has stripped sex of its connotations of faithfulness and relationship. The results have obviously been catastrophic, with a rise in STI's and unwanted pregnancies; youths suddenly had to deal with issues they were hardly prepared for. In stepped a number of Christian organisations to help deal with this malaise: 'Silver Ring Thing' and 'True Love Waits' being two of the most visible.
The message was clear: abstain from sex until you are in a healthy monogamous and married relationship. There is no doubt that this was an effective and important message; however, the message of the purity ring is curiously un-Christian in this sense. It presents the end of purity as marriage, or at least so the message indicates.
There is a problem with this. It is that this communicates a view of marriage that is not expressed in the Bible at all.
Paul actively argues for the virtues of singleness in his letter to the Corinthians. The whole culture created by the purity ring makes marriage seem like the ideal end of our current existence and leaves no space for people considering life as a single person. The hype and fervour created do not promote a sober and helpful reflection on the Christian’s life as either single or married, but create an unhelpful fixation on marriage that could result in the devaluation and side-lining of those Christians who have chosen to walk the path of singleness.
The other problem is that the purity ring tends towards a legalism that inspires a paralysing guilt, rather than a helpful way of remembering who we are. The image of the purity ring, as discussed earlier, is a potent symbol. However, it is a public and almost awkward outer symbol. Every adolescent knows the temptations that go with being young, but the presence of purity rings asks us to play out this very private and intense part of our development in the open. I don't quite know how I would explain the conspicuous absence of my ring if I were to take it off one day.
This is not to say that we should not be talking about sex at all, but rather that letting it be an overtly public event leads only to overwhelming guilt, feelings of hypocrisy and an intense public feeling of shame. The result of this is that abstinence becomes a public symbol of participation of the Christian community. No doubt our sexual ethics are a key part in our Christian discipleship, yet suddenly the church is putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on youths to conform to an outward symbol that only points to the law rather than to the Gospel, and that cannot be helpful.
Finally, it tends to make an idol out of virginity. Once again I stress that waiting for marriage is a good thing. However, the tendency has begun to be seen that a man or woman's virginity is the most important thing that they have in their possession as a Christian. But this simply cannot be true. (There is an example of this that went viral on Facebook recently. While the author makes many laudable and good statements about marriage in their post, this kind of statement: "He is my Prince Charming because he helped me protect the most precious gift that I owned, my purity," (thepowerofprayer.tumblr.com) I think is ultimately unhelpful, and untrue.)
Our most important gift is that which Christ has given us: His identity. The communication of purity as the most important gift will fall flat on the ears of those Christians who converted later in life, or those who have failed in the past. We are made pure not by our lack of pre-marital sexual activity, but by our faith in Jesus. There is no purity outside of this.
Here I think we see the result of the purity ring. It has stunted our whole conversation about discipleship, especially for youths who are perhaps most vulnerable to this sort of guilt, and are in need of people to talk with them deeply and wisely about this issue.
If you are wearing a purity ring, don't hear me as bashing you; I do not doubt that you did this out of desire to honour Christ. However, I think we need to be asking the question about what we are communicating with this symbol.
I think this phenomenon is harming the mature conversation that needs to be had around our sexual ethics as Christians living in a world that does not respect marriage in the same way that we do. It is stunting the conversation, streamlining youth into idolising both marriage and their own virginity, and replacing the freedom that is found in Christ with guilt and hypocrisy.
Dale Wang (22) is studying his final year of a BA(hons) in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html