The thing about soap is that you can add almost anything to it. There's the basic stuff, the ingredients that make it be soap, but after that it's infinitely customizable. As long as what you add doesn't interfere with the process of saponification, that is, as long as your ingredients don't prevent the soap from becoming soap, almost anything will work. Not everything that can go into soap should, or would make a desirable product, but the soap will function.
There's a lot of talk about Christian purity these days, especially if you happen to be single and/or a teenager. It's frequent enough that, when I took a break from writing to pop onto twitter while writing this article (and other things), one of the most recent tweets was another Christian discussing the prevalence of purity culture talk and proposing an article on it from a very different perspective to my own.
I guess we'll see which one gets posted first.
The thing that seems to define much of this discussion is the concept of chemical purity. See, most chemicals and elements are reactive to some degree, so keeping them pure means keeping them isolated. If you let chemicals interact, you will usually end up with a reaction that turns both substances into something that is really neither of the original parts, and neither will ever be pure again.
So much of our discussion of purity sounds like that. Purity culture means keeping oneself hidden away from anything that might possibly have some corrupting influence. Purity culture views any interaction with mess as permanently and negatively changing the person. You can never be pure again, there will always be a little bit of taint in your very being, the things you've encountered will make you something less like you and a little more like them and so we have to stay removed, isolated, untarnished. After all, so many of the most public Christian voices really are highly reactive, exploding at any exposure to that which they don't recognize as the church they've always known, so it's easy to believe that we really are just fragile little vials of goodness surrounded by a world of malicious reagent.
But I would argue that this is not the sort of purity we see in scripture. God commands the priesthood in the Old Testament to be cleansed before entering His presence, not because He is afraid of being corrupted, but because contact with the true purity of His presence would destroy them if they enter while dirty. Jesus sits down and eats with tax collectors and all sorts of sinners, and freely touches lepers. In all cases, Christ remains clean when He does so, and those He contacts go away more clean than before.
The purity of God is more like the purity of soap. Yes, there's still a chemical reaction involved, but it is one that must happen in order to make things clean. Soap is not pure because it is isolated, it is pure in such a way that it can make other things pure. This means that pumice, although just a rock, becomes both clean and a cleansing agent when put into soap. It means that soap, if left in isolation, is not made more pure; rather, it is made useless.
Christ came into the world, among other things, to make us pure. He does this by bringing us into Himself, exposing us to His presence, allowing the purity that He has to cleanse us. Like the pumice, we then become agents in His purifying work. We can trust that He has made us clean, no matter what we bring to Him with us. Some of that cleansing process may completely unravel things that we held together with gunk. Some of it may not be comfortable. But we are not pure by isolation, we are pure by interaction, and this purity is meant to be spread.
Now, there is a wisdom in considering what you add to that mix. My wife would soak lavender or other things in the oil for a while before using the oil to make soap, because it added scent to the final product. It made the end result a more desirable substance. The nature of soap is such that I could have, if I was the sort, added something nasty to some oil, like sewage or something else no one would really want. The soap would still work, it would cleanse both whatever I put in and whatever it came into contact with afterward. But no one would want to use it. It would have been a terrible decision for her business (and probably our marriage), but functionally, it would still be soap. Some of the things we choose to steep ourselves in operate the same way; they don't necessarily change the purification we're going through, but they do impact what the final result will look (and smell) like.
Where this analogy really breaks down is that God is not some blind, one-shot chemical process. He can, and will, purify anything we give over to Him. He is personal and reserves the right to fiddle with the details. He may require us to not engage with something any more, but that's handled on a personal basis. Adding something we shouldn't to the mix doesn't necessarily ensure that we will never be the result He wants, as He can cleanse even that. It is when we insist on keeping what does not match with the process He has for us, when we choose to continue pursuing our own notions rather than His plans, that we begin to stink. Even this can be cleansed if we will just stop and turn it over to Him, because the cleansing comes through interaction and not through isolation.
Christian purity culture fails because it is, fundamentally, not Christian. It does not reflect the person of Christ, it does not operate from the basis of His work in us. Listen: if you are in Christ, you are being made pure. Full stop. Your sanctification is a process, that purity is still being applied to you, and you should consider what you will do to help the final result of that process be one that is pleasing to God. But we can't sit around fretting about ruining ourselves with every little mistake. We can't allow ourselves to live as though dirty things from our past (whether done by us or to us) have irreparably corrupted us. We cannot hide away in isolation from a world that desperately needs the cleansing He can provide through us. We can trust that God will take everything, all of our experiences and issues and desires and skills, and purify them for His purposes. So instead of pushing purity culture as it now exists, let us consider pointing people to the Christ who makes all things new and trust Him to do that in and through our lives everywhere we go. Especially in the big messes we can't possibly handle on our own.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation