Impurity Culture: On Sexuality & Sin

I’m going to talk about the bible. And sin. And God.

Maybe that’s not your thing. Maybe you don’t believe in a god or in sin or heaven or hell or any other part of that kind of religion. Maybe you aren’t religious, period⁠ . Feel free to skip this article. I’m not here to tell you what to think, believe or do. This is my faith: it doesn’t have to be yours. I’m just here to talk about the notion of sex⁠ and sin for anyone to whom it matters, especially for anyone who’s struggled with it like I have.

I’m a Christian. That label means a lot of things to different people. To me it means I believe in God. It means I consider the bible to be Holy Scripture. I believe in the concept of sin, but maybe not in the way that you have heard before. I think of sin as oppression and disrespect, not as a list of things that are right and wrong.

The background that I come from – an evangelical, fundamental branch of Christianity – has a lot of ideas about sin. Especially about sex and sexual⁠ sin. There’s a long list of things that are considered wrong. And these ideas about sexual sin have done a lot of damage, both to myself and many people I love and care about.

The purity movement views any expression of sexuality outside of a monogamous⁠ marriage between a cisgender⁠ man and a cisgender woman as sinful. As a queer⁠ , sexually active⁠ , non-monogamous woman, that means I’m doing a lot of things that many people from my faith background consider sinful. And that means that I’ve endured a lot of shame and guilt about my identity⁠ , my body, and my sexual desires.

Maybe you did, too. Maybe you grew up in an environment that used the Bible to tell you that your desires and body were sinful and wrong. Maybe you’re wrestling with your faith and also your sexual identity, or your gender identity⁠ , or your sexual desires.

I want to offer one way forward. I’ve done a lot of that wrestling, and I’ve found a way that I can hold true to my faith and also believe that being queer and sexually active isn’t sinful. I’ve found a way to read the bible that allows me to affirm sex and bodies and pleasure as good.

Scripture has been used for years to guilt and shame, to oppress and subjugate. If you grew up in a purity-focused environment, chances are you’ve heard all of the arguments about men and women created for each other, and sex as intended for one man and one woman to become one flesh, and the sins of sexual immorality.

But scripture can also be used in ways that affirm and encourage. In the bible, I meet a God who is beyond all boundaries and binaries, who is focused on justice and dignity. I find affirmation of my queerness and my humanity. I want to let you see what I see in the bible. I want to let you know what I believe about scripture and sex and sin. I want to take on the question “is having sex a sin?” You don’t have to believe what I believe. But if you have also found yourself asking this question, I want to encourage you to keep asking it, and I want to offer you the answers I’ve found.

What does the bible say?

A lot of people start with the question “what does the bible really say?” That can be a tricky question to answer.

First, remember that the bible is in translation. It has been translated many times, and from more than one language. Words and phrases like “sexual immorality,” “homosexuals,” and “sodomites” are modern translations of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts. Those ancient texts also went through years and years of being passed around in oral form, then written, then copied by scribes. What we have as the bible is a cobbled-together bit of stories and letters passed down among generations and then arranged into a book. I’m not trying to say this makes the bible less important or valuable as scripture – but there’s a lot of human influence on this book, which we need to take into account.

On translation – in 1 Corinthians 6:9, for example, the New King James version includes “homosexuals” in the list of wrongdoers. The New International version translates this as “men who have sex with men.” The New Revised Standard version translates this as “male prostitutes,” probably referring to temple or cultic prostitutes. “Homosexual” is a modern term, first used in the late 19th century. There would not have been a cultural understanding of homosexuality, in same the way that we understand it, in Ancient Greece or Rome. Basically, sexual attraction and identity as we think of it was not a concept when the bible was being written. The authors of the bible would not have used the term “homosexuality” or understood queerness as a sexual identity.

What exactly does the bible mean when we find terms like “sexual immorality” or “homosexuality”? We don’t really know. Scripture just doesn’t make it clear.

There’s a lot of focus on the presence of the word “pure” in scripture (the basis of the whole purity movement) but the word in the New Testament that is often translated as pure can mean venerable or sacred, as well as chase and modest. What was the original intent of the author? We don’t know and we can’t know. Was this even the intent of the author, or did a scribe or translator or editor or publisher somewhere along the way influence the way this bible verse reads now?

So when we ask the question “what does the bible really say?” answering can be complicated. Translation, interpretation, cultural norms, and human influence all have to be taken into account before we can even try to figure out⁠ what the bible really says.

If you want to get to the nitty-gritty of biblical interpretation, there’s a lot of great books that address this with more detail than I can offer here. I would suggest Dianna Anderson’s book Damaged Goods on purity culture and scripture, and Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian for a look at scripture and sexuality. Uncovering the convoluted interpretations of certain scripture passages that support patriarchy, homophobia⁠ , and cissexism is important.

But I have to be honest. It’s not what I’m interested in the most, and it’s not what gives me peace about saying that the teachings of the purity movement are wrong. For me, the question is less “what does the bible really say?” and more “how do we read the bible, and what does that teach us?”

How do we read the bible?

For me, it’s more about a way of reading the bible. In fancy terms, a way of approaching scriptures, or the lens you use when you read and interpret the bible, is called a hermeneutic. A lot of more fundamental, evangelical folks will say that they don’t “pick and choose” when it comes to the bible, and they’ll accuse other Christians of picking what they choose to believe. But when it comes down to it, everyone is picking and choosing.

The bible is a wild, complicated, confusing collection of stories and myths and poetry and love notes and letters and laws. The bible contradicts itself in many ways. Even in the first two chapters of the bible, we’re given two different accounts of the creation story. Genesis 1 and 2 contain different versions of the creation of humanity, and which one is emphasized in a given church or theology or denomination will have implications for how gender⁠ and sexuality are viewed. We’re all picking and choosing – so it comes down it, how do you pick and choose?

Personally, I look at the life of Jesus to guide my interpretative choices. I look to God incarnate, the being who crossed the boundary between divine and human and took on both, refusing to pick between the binary⁠ of God and human. I look to Jesus who was a refugee, who lived under occupation, who was himself on the margins of society. I look to Jesus who proclaimed liberation and freedom and dignity for all, Jesus who fought against an oppressive regime, sometimes with gentle words and sometimes with riots. This is my hermeneutic for reading scripture: does it bring liberation? Does it bring freedom? Does it respect the dignity of all?

The image of God

When it comes to deciding what is or is not sin, that last question is the most important for me. Does it respect of the dignity of all? See, in the first creation account, the bible states that “God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them” (Gen 1:27). This verse forms the core of my ethics around sin, especially sexual sin. This is a hermeneutic in itself, a way of approaching scripture and morality – asking, does it respect the image of God?

One thing to note is the phrase that “male and female God created them.” All through Genesis 1, creation is described using opposite pairs of words. Heaven and earth. Light and dark. Sky and sea. Each of these pairs is what’s called a merism, a combination of two contrasting words used to refer to an entirety. In Genesis, merism is intended to represent the full spectrum of creation. God created light and dark, but also sunrise and dusk and cloudy skies. These pairs, far from being binary opposites, are meant to indicate the full, glorious, wondrous expanse of possibilities. God created male and female, and God created the full, glorious, wondrous expanse of possibilities for gender and gender identity.

The emphasis in this verse is that humankind was created in God’s own image. All of humankind – male, female, queer, straight, trans, nonbinary⁠ , agender⁠ , genderqueer⁠ , whatever beautiful configuration of words you use to identify yourself – I believe that you are in God’s image. In the church, this concept is called imago dei, or image-bearers. We are all image bearers of God. We are all made in the image of God, and we all carry and represent the image of God. As imago dei, all are valuable and loved, worthy of respect and dignity.

This is our responsibility: to respect the imago dei in each person. To treat each person with respect and dignity. If this is our responsibility, then what would sin look like? I think sin is harming or violating the image of God in another person.

Based on that idea of sin, having sex outside of marriage isn’t sin. Being queer or trans also aren't sinful.

I think sexual sin looks like disrespecting another person. It looks like violating boundaries. It looks like enacting violence. It’s not waiting for consent⁠ . It’s not accepting “no.” It’s using another person to satisfy yourself. It’s viewing people as objects for consumption.

This is my approach to scripture. This is how I think about sexual sin and sexuality, and this is why I don’t have any moral problems with premarital sex, and why premarital sex isn’t in conflict with my religion.

My answers don’t have to be your answers, but hopefully I offered one way to think about sin, one option on how to be a Christian and own your sexuality. There are other options, of course. Some people are committed to celibacy, and some people believe Christians must be monogamous. There’s a wide range of beliefs about sin and morality, and I want you to make up your own mind. If you’re struggling with questions about Christianity, the bible, and sex, I want to encourage you to keep going. Keep asking questions and reading books and coming to your own conclusions. Whatever decision you make, what matters most is that it’s your own decision.

Similar articles and advice

  • Emily Joy Allison-Hearn

Masturbation is a topic you might need to do a little extra work on defining your values around if you grew up in purity culture being told that it was a sin—and that’s especially true during the pandemic, when pleasurable touch from others is not always safe or accessible to us and self-care has become more important than ever as we try to process all the painful things happening in our world. Self-pleasure can be an extremely important aspect of self-care even during non-pandemic times, and right now that is especially true.