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Correct or connected? On Purity

By September 10, 2017 3 Comments

1 Thessalonians 4:7: For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.

by Mara Joy Norden

One Sunday morning during the children’s sermon, I asked a group of children about the meaning of purity in the church.

One child, the ten year old who always has deep theological insights, answered confidently, “‘Pure’ means one hundred percent of something, like olive oil. So, the church should be one hundred percent God.”

I love that kid!

A few days later I asked Google a similar question: “What is Christian purity?” The first one hundred results (and probably many more) were about sexual purity. Hmm. To complete my quick and dirty research on Christian purity, I used Bible concordance software to find out where biblical authors discuss purity. There were 108 results – and none of them related directly to sexual purity.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to sexual purity. I think it’s quite important and wonderful. But I don’t want to talk about sexual purity today – exploring American Christians’ obsession with sexual purity is a topic for another blog post.

Today I’d like to talk about what we’re missing when Christian purity (holiness is another way to describe it) gets collapsed into sexual morality in particular or Christian morality in general. Because even morality, or right and wrong behavior, misses the mark that God sets for purity/holiness.

Yes, I just said that good moral behavior doesn’t lead to Christian purity/holiness. Likewise, upright thoughts and correct beliefs do not equal Christian purity. No. Christians only achieve purity/holiness through participation in God’s purity/holiness. While God might be morally flawless and humans could theoretically participate in that flawlessness, this theology comes much more from Enlightenment ideas of individual autonomy than it does from the Bible.

God is so much more than morally flawless, and so is the purity/holiness we’re supposed to live into. God is an impossible combination of Threeness and Oneness, of distinct individuality and harmonious community. So, our participation in God’s purity/holiness comes to its fullness when we engage deeply in relationships with one another. This is Christian purity/holiness: that we intertwine our well-being, identity, and destiny with members of our family, the people in our church and our neighborhood, the people on the other side of the tracks, and ultimately all of our human brothers and sisters.

Christian purity/holiness cannot be achieved through sexual morality, general morality, upright thoughts, or correct beliefs. We achieve Christian purity/holiness when we hold our own convictions with open hands and allow, even invite other people’s stories, experiences, and perspectives to shape us in deep and fundamental ways as God does with humanity and within God’s self. Purity/holiness is about deep connection, not correctness.

I know that this shift from correctness to connection opens up the possibility of heresy and the tolerance of what some might consider sin. But I believe this feels so threatening to us because we are so attached to the Enlightenment idea of the autonomous self. We are not called to autonomy, to correctness, or even to moral uprightness for its own sake. No, we are called to purity/holiness: to deny ourselves, to love one another, and to follow Christ.


**Of course, purity/holiness isn’t the only thing that matters in our life together. In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, when we take vows for church membership, ordination, and installation, we vow to “seek the things that make for unity, purity, and peace.” Each of those virtues when pursued on their own can become an idol that allows us to harm others and turn us away from Christ. It’s the interplay of those three Christian virtues together that keep us on the path of following Christ within our congregations. Stay tuned on Sundays for the rest of this month for explorations on the interplay of unity, purity, and peace in life together.

Mara Joy Norden pastors The Community in Ada, Michigan.


  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Mara, this puts me in mind of a short story I particularly love, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” by Aimee Bender. Here’s the part that comes to mind as I read your piece:

    “The doctor went to see the rabbi. ‘Tell me, rabbi, please,’ he said, ‘about God.’

    The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.

    ‘Not for the usual sins,’ she said. ‘For the sin of living small.'”

    • Mara Joy Norden says:

      Lovely story! I especially liked the Rabbi tugging on her braid. In two weeks I’m writing about risk, so stay tuned!

  • The same problem we have with “purity” we have with “truth.” We perceive them as cognitive concepts rather than a relational qualities we need to live. This insight is thanks to a writer named Dr. Richard J. Edlin.

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