In the wake of a string of deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, another spotlight is being shined on church culture – specifically purity culture. At the center of this is 21-year-old suspect, Robert Aaron Long, who suggested to authorities that his motive for the shooting spree was to eliminate the sources of his (and others) sexual temptations. Essentially, he felt so guilty about his sexual desires and urges that he felt the best resolution was to kill rather than to repent or seek help.
I’ll start with the disclaimer. The intention of this article is not to justify Long’s heinous acts or place blame on the church. In fact, this is less about this specific incident and more about recognizing an opportunity to talk about some of the behaviors and attitudes we have perpetuated in church culture that have seemingly run their course. It’s time for a culture correction to take place.
This need for a culture correction goes beyond this one incident. One could reference the Ravi Zacharias scandal, the Hillsong drama, pastoral suicide headlines and so much more. All of the aforementioned examples have a common theme in that they are rooted in the negative thorns weaved throughout church culture that for years we’ve tried to hide within the rose bushes. Now the thorns are beginning to grow so uncontrollably that they can no longer be hidden no matter how much we try to redirect attention to the roses.
Over and over, we see the detrimental effects of glorifying men (religious leaders) over God. We get so enamored by the vessel that we don’t recognize the moment idolatry entered our hearts and covered our eyes. For many years, I attended a very popular megachurch. It baffled me to see how many “saints” would get up and leave the church in droves upon hearing that a guest pastor was preaching instead of the lead pastor. The problem is, they were not at church for the message. They were at church for the man.
Likewise, I believe there has been an unintentional thorn of idolatry weaved around purity. It has become something that is desired to please man moreso than God. Enter purity culture. Purity culture was birth out of a reaction to the rise in teen pregnancy and evidence of an increase in premarital sex partners. It was basically one huge PR campaign targeting teens to make maintaining “sexual purity” attractive again among Christian teens. Enter purity rings as a physical symbol of being a “good Christian girl.” Enter purity balls which likely satisfied a teen’s sense of belonging and made them feel as though they were a part of an exclusive group within society. The problem comes in when the young person has built their entire identity around this one principle and then they don’t “live up to” the one thing they’ve been praised for within a culture that has replaced grace with shame.
We are living in times where pastors are becoming celebrities, congregations are becoming fans who come to church for a good show and people are calling “judgement” what is actually “accountability.”
So, how do we remedy this?
I’m not completely sure. However, I think we start with a culture correction that begins with a “heart” check, recognizing that we, as the universal church, are part of the problem. We must each, individually, do a self-assessment and ask ourselves if we’ve allowed appearing Christian to override being actual representatives of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17). We must ensure that we are not solely relying on a pastor or semon to teach us but that we are actively building a relationship with God outside of church. We must use discernment to recognize when idolatry has creeped in, accountability has left the building, selfish ambitions and pride have replaced humility, and when we are no longer in alignment with the Word of God. We must be careful what we overlook because even a little yeast can spread throughout the whole batch of dough (Galatians 5:9).