Why purity-as-separation undermines the church’s covenant calling

Wedding shoes of different colours but similar ribbons and styleLast Christmas I realised something that made me so angry I wanted to pick up my laptop and smash it to pieces.

No, this was not an urge that I had felt before.

I was contemplating the second chapter of Hebrews which talks about Jesus being made like the people whom he helped. The book is one of my favourites in the New Testament because it has a wholesale take on Jesus as the Great High Priest. I’m a sucker for the Old Testament books of law (don’t judge me!) so I lap up the words of this letter with delight every time I read them. Assuming I understand them, of course. And there’s no guarantee of that because, good grief, this book is complex!

Anyway: I was contemplating how Jesus was both like and unlike the people that he acted on behalf of as a priest. The thought-process was in aid of a blog post I published in the new year about how “priest” was to be my word for 2017. You see, a priest identifies with someone who is both like and unlike them. That is an integral part of how a priest ministers reconciliation. It was that like-and-unlike idea I had in mind when picked the image for that post – which I’m reusing for this one. (It comes from a winter wedding, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

The thought I had as I was contemplating was this: when a group of people, called by God to be ministers of his covenant to the world, separate themselves from others on the grounds of “purity”, they subvert and frustrate God’s reconciling plan for everyone else.

And this is bad. Very bad. 

Preserving priestly purity through separation is a concept that many modern Christians will have encountered through reading the gospels. It’s what we see in the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus spoke so critically of. Now, partly thanks to Luther’s anti-Semitism, many modern Christians will frame this perverse calling for separation as simply “salvation by works” and contrast it to the reformation movement’s doctrine of “justification by faith”. Framing the law of Moses (Torah) as all about earning salvation instead of receiving salvation as a generous gift, they are thus quite willing to throw out all those pesky rules about eating shellfish and they do so in the name of refuting unloving legalist perfectionism.

And this works up to a point, because Jesus did speak against legalism, Peter did have a vision saying we can all eat shellfish now, and Paul did frame the Torah as a the barrier of separation between Jews and Gentiles [1].

But.

The Torah wasn’t bad.

The priesthood wasn’t bad.

And this was never about “salvation by works”.

When we throw out the priesthood as merely an image for Jesus’ death on the cross, perhaps adding a footnote that it’s also an image for the church, but just leaving it as an image (or, worse, seeing it as something abolished rather than fulfilled) then we make a big mistake.

The priesthood was a model for us to understand the ministry of reconciliation that Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 5 – and it is part of what Tom Wright refers to as “God’s-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world”. [2]

Read that again if you need to because this phrase is going to come up time and time again:

  • God had a plan, a good plan, a saving plan;
  • he wanted that plan to happen through Abraham and his descendants, he purposed the plan to be through Israel; and
  • the beneficiaries of this plan were everyone, the benefit would be for all people, for all peoples, for all creation.

God’s-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.

Wright makes the argument in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (SPCK, 2009) that whenever Paul writes about God’s “righteousness” in the New Testament, this is essentially shorthand for “God’s faithfulness to his covenant” or “God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.”

So let’s spell this out as clearly and explicitly as I possibly can:

  1. God had a plan
  2. To save everyone
  3. And he wanted it to be enacted through Abraham and, by extension, Israel.

This is a historical story, not an abstract concept.

Now, where did things go wrong? They didn’t go wrong because Israel was unable to keep the Torah, i.e. a failure of “salvation by works”; yes, part of what the Torah was established for, was to highlight sin, but Jesus was not “faith plan B” because Israel failed on “works plan A”. [4]

No, Jesus was always the plan.

The problem happened because Israel misunderstood what “God’s righteousness” meant. They thought when God acted in covenant faithfulness, he meant something else. They thought it was all about:

  • God’s plan
  • To save Israel
  • Through separating Israel from the world.

Wright short-hands this to “God’s-plan-for-Israel-apart-from-the-world.” [3]

Do you see how this thinking is totally in line with purity-as-separation theology? Can you see how it’s in line with what the Pharisees did?

But!

If true purity is about becoming the embodiment of God’s covenant faithfulness, if true purity is about being the people through whom God enacts his ministry of reconciliation and saves the world, if true purity is about dual identification with both God and the people we are to minister to –

THEN PURITY-AS-SEPARATION UNDERMINES GOD’S SAVING PURPOSES.

If there is one thing, one thing, that gets God’s back up more than anything else, it’s when one person blocks the way of salvation for another.

Don’t do it.

That evening last Christmas when I was curled up on a sofa, typing out words on Hebrews, it finally hit me that the purity-as-separation culture which you can find in the church (particularly when it comes to sexual ethics), far from being a badge of righteousness, is actually something that prevents the church from fulfilling its covenant calling.

Wow, that made me angry.

Little did I know when I realised this and wrote my piece on being a priest in 2017 that I would have a revelation four months later about the meaning of virginity and how virginity might serve as an image for purity in a non-toxic, non-purity-culture kind of way.

But more and more I am becoming convinced of the same ideas in my thinking:

  • true purity is about covenantal belonging with God;
  • purity is a privileged status;
  • purity has to be entered into, and then has to be remained in;
  • these two components of purity were symbolised through:
    • male circumcision (like with Abraham) and
    • female virginity (and/or the vacant womb, because this applies to Sarah);
  • the two realities of purity get understood in Christian thought as
    • (1) repentance, justification, faith in Jesus – now symbolised in baptism, and
    • (2) sanctification, following Jesus, the working out of our salvation, the active anticipation of God’s future and preparation of the world for that future – now symbolised in communion;
  • the ‘female’ part of purity is a state that should not be characterised by passivity or preservation, but by mucking in with the world, doing the messy business of bringing people into covenantal belonging.

And yes I believe this has implications for our sexual ethics too. Story for another post, but if preservation through separation is a toxic model for theological purity in general, then I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that it’s a toxic model for sexual purity too.

And this would be consistent with the many, many, MANY complaints against purity culture out there.

So there you have it: if “purity” in your book necessitates separation, have a rethink. Because I believe there’s a form of purity out there to be lived that isn’t toxic, isn’t fragile, and isn’t legalistic. Instead, it’s transforming.

And if we’re to call ourselves Christians, then the last thing we want to be doing is practising a ‘gospel’ that hinders this work.


[1] Tom Wright, p102, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London: SPCK, 2009

[2] Wright, pp74-75

[3] Wright, p215

[4] Wright, p108


I posted recently A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world explaining (or rather splurging) that Tom Wright’s book Justification sets out a biblical exegesis for what I would call this two-component model of purity. If you did read that post, I’m hoping this one makes it a little clearer as to why I think this is such a big deal. If it’s still all a bit abstract – please bear with me, I will get round to explaining my model for re-understanding sexual ethics in this framework.

Meanwhile for anyone interested in further reading I was sent a link to a paper (a long paper that I haven’t read in full yet) about the psychology of disgust and how Christian ideas of purity work against the law of loving your neighbour. The paper argues that the notion of “hate the sin, love the sinner” is self-defeating. Anyway here it is: Spiritual pollution: the dilemma of sociomoral disgust and the ethic of love.

For anyone who wants a flavour of why I think purity culture is a problem, there’s a nice succinct article written by a (probably?) moderately conservative Christian blogger. I don’t share quite the same view as her (she says sex-inside-marriage “basic Christian tenet” whereas I don’t think it’s that straightforward), but this post 10 Things That Scare Me About the “Purity” Culture is generally on point. And so far as criticisms of purely culture go, this is one of the milder posts I’ve read.

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