Kingdom Living

Richard Beck on Shame and Sexual Purity

September 24th, 2013 · 9 Comments · Books, Christianity, Church, Church of Christ, morality, Sexuality

That last post reminded me of something Richard Beck wrote in his book “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality” about shame and sexual purity and how we tend to isolate sexual sin into its own, most severe, level of sin. Here is what he wrote,

“Beyond issues of severity, some sins are unique loci of shame as they are almost universally regulated by purity metaphors…they are almost always the sexual sins. As many are aware, sexual sins are often experienced in faith communities as being a class unto themselves, as a particular location of stigma and shame. Why might this be? One answer is that sexuality is distinct among sin categories in being almost uniquely regulated by a purity metaphor. Talk of ‘sexual purity’ is common in most churches. In contrast, few other moral categories are regulated by purity metaphors. We don’t speak of materialism or truth-telling as forms of ‘purity.’ When we spend impulsively or tell a lie we think of these are performance errors-mistakes-rather than a loss of virginal moral purity. No doubt there are good reasons for using purity categories to regulate sexual behaviors. By the time we are adolescents any ‘purity;’ we might have had in regard to honesty has long since been lost. But virginity is very often carried into adolescence and thus, is able to be understood as a state of ‘purity’ that can be ‘lost.’ But this still does not explain why sexual sins are considered to be more shameful…Regardless, it seems clear that both church and society appear to apply to sexuality the most powerful, in regards to stigma, of its regulating metaphors.” – Beck, Unclean, 48-49

What do we communicate when one of the only times we use the word “purity” in Christian circles is “sexual purity?” What do our kids get from that? What does society get from that? Is it because we are more invested in maintaining the sexual purity of our kids than maintaining purity in other, just as significant areas of their lives? Maybe it is because it is a lot easier to talk about anger or covetousness than it is to talk about sex and sexual sin so we isolate, insulate and give the sexual arena its own verbiage. Our approach has inadvertently sent the message that all these other sins aren’t as big of a deal (you can still be pure and do them), just don’t do the really bad, sexual sins (and lose your purity), and you are fine.

Unclean-BeckIf you aren’t familiar with Richard Beck you should have a look at his blog. He is a professor of psychology at ACU and is a proficient and insightful writer. His blog has consistently made the top 200 Ministry blogs. His blog is called Experimental Theology.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Philip III

    Am I then wrong in reading into 1st Corinthians 6:12-20 that sexual sin is a sin that is somewhat unique in comparison to other sins?

    I’m sympathetic with the perspective of removing the social stigma. But Paul seems to indicate there that something happens in sexual sin that is especially egregious.

    • Matt Dabbs

      But is it unique in regard to shame and worthy of elevated status in terms of purity/impurity standards in comparison to other sins?

      • Philip III

        Probably not. I tend to agree.

        But does it merit added attention in preaching/teach? 1st Corinthians 6 suggests it does. At least the way I read it. I could be reading it wrong.

        • Matt Dabbs

          Beck addresses this again later in the book. I will have a look at what he says there. If he doesn’t address your point, maybe he would be gracious enough to chime in with some thoughts in your point.

  • mark

    It is always easier to elevate the sins that one does not commit himself. Smokers will be anti drinking but won’t tolerate a sermon against smoking. Gluttons will be opposed to smoking but not see themselves as gluttons.

    • Matt Dabbs

      Sometimes the opposite is true. I have heard of preachers who struggled with homosexuality who were especially critical of it and then it was found out that it was their own private struggle.

  • John

    Mark, while you are correct about many people, I do see, expecially in the legalistic and fundamentalist crowd, a hypocritical fear and rant against sexual sin by those who can justify their own with, “Well, with me it is a weakness; I still believe it is wrong”. In other words, they set themselves higher than those they accuse of blantantly and conspicuously living in sexual sin.

  • mark

    Matt, it can go both ways. You are correct.

  • John

    An example of my comment of above is that I have two relatives who have been preachers for years. Both have had a sexual affair, sometimes affairs, in every church they have served. Both were very vocal in their condemnation of the world, and especially liberalism, which they said broke down the moral fabric of society in their open attitudes toward sex.

    However, whenever their own sexual misconduct was found out, their “confession” included in one form or another, “I know that it’s wrong. Like David, I have a weakness”.

    Maybe it’s time for Christians to stop likening ourselves to David, to Peter, or to Abraham when we sin. Maybe, others will take us more at our word when we can look them in the eye and say, in the most humble way possible, “I am like you”.

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