Written by: Isabel Arcellana, Texas, USA
Last Wednesday, the Portland Church hosted a Zoom panel about something surprisingly controversial in the faith community: purity and dating culture.
What was different about this particular talk was who was talking. The older generation took a backseat, and the youth had the mic.
The conversation struck a chord with many of the young people in my church movement. So much so that we can’t ignore it. (Romans 12:15)
Listening to my peers talk about modesty culture, dating culture, and more, I felt so validated. Maybe I’m not crazy, they’ve seen these things too. They’ve felt these hurts, they’ve fought these battles. They want the same changes I want.
Most of what was discussed wasn’t new to me. They reflected conversations I have with my friends all the time. Topics like, why do so many women feel like the responsibility for men’s purity are placed on them and what they wear? (Matthew 5:27-30) Why are we sometimes so afraid of people “messing up” in their dating relationships that the rules we give them can result in marriages that skip intimacy, romance or friendship? Or why can we tend to be so afraid of impurity that we get weird about close friendships between genders? And why do we often treat differing boundaries and differing convictions on purity as sin? (Romans 14)
The recorded Zoom panel has had thousands of views, and when the Portland church turned it into a podcast, it was spreading quickly worldwide. I sent the podcast to my leaders and many friends, and by the time I had, some had already listened to it.
But am I saying that everything that was said on the panel was perfect? Not at all. The people on the podcast aren’t Jesus. Are these issues a problem in every city and ministry? No. But I am extremely grateful that this perspective is being heard because I believe these issues are prevalent in enough church communities to address it.
The podcast isn’t an end-all-be-all, it’s a conversation starter. And the conversation is crucial.
Since I shared the podcast on my social media platforms, I have had hours of conversations about it daily since its release. Many talks have been with young people sharing their own experiences with forced boundaries and toxic legalism, some have been with excited youth leaders discussing ways we can affect change in a unifying and humble way, and some have been with church leaders who are approaching this topic with overwhelming caution. And honestly, that makes sense to me.
Though I have never been a paid church staff member, my parents and many of my closest long time friends are or have been ministers. I hear and understand that some of them are wary about this conversation. If you don’t listen closely, you could hear the podcast and think, what does this mean? Are they saying we should throw away boundaries and have a free for all? Are they saying the youth shouldn’t listen to advice or their elders anymore?
Of course not. I’ve listened to the podcast at least 3 times now, and the panel says that they are still disciples of Christ who believe in purity, that they believe that boundaries are beneficial, and that wisdom from the old is good and vital. I think we all agree that we still need to ask for advice and that we still need structure. (Proverbs 11:14)
But what happens if someone hears this podcast and takes it and runs with it, throwing boundaries and caution to the wind?
I had a couple friends listen to the podcast and tell me how much they agree with the fact that in a lot of cases we should stop being so legalistic, stop forcing rules and shame on people, and other things said by the panel. But I know that these particular friends have a history of struggling with impurity. One of them even confessed some impurity during our conversation.
So, I called her out. I told her that she can’t ask for leadership to trust us with our own purity if we aren’t trustworthy. I agree that leadership should give advice and not rules, and that our convictions and our sin is on us. But if we are going to ask for a culture where we take responsibility for our own convictions, we have to actually take that responsibility.
So, what do we do? I don’t have the answer to that.
But I do know how we can find the answer. Together. (Too cheesy?)
But seriously. I think it would be unloving to say there isn’t a problem here, or to dismiss the need to discuss these matters. But I also think we shouldn’t see people that may have contributed to these problems as our enemies. Culture change happens when many people do little things over time. We need each other. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
To the leaders reading this: I understand that this can be overwhelming. I respect you for all you do, and I understand that you want to keep the unity and protect God’s people. I love you for it. We need you for it. But I also need you to listen to these hurts. Maybe you aren’t so much a contributor to harmful culture, but maybe one of your fellow staff members are, and maybe they will listen to you.
As you listen to people vocalizing, we ask you to strive for empathy. Please do not dismiss all vocalization as divisiveness or pride. Respect that if someone is a Christian, they are in the end striving to please God. After all, everyone is different and everyone’s walks with God look different, so who are we to judge if someone’s convictions are different than ours? (Romans 14)
To those who support the panel (mainly, the youth who are trying to speak out on these topics, and specifically the kids who grew up in the church): I hear you. I understand. I am so encouraged by young people who are seeing the flaws in a church made of imperfect people, but are still sticking around and fighting to make things better.
I need you all to join me in having tough conversations. This includes flighting for the change you’d like to see. It includes asking questions when advice turns into commands, calling up leaders to share your heart on these matters (and texting them a link to the podcast), and encouraging your friends to speak up when they see something unbiblical instead of just complaining about it to their peers (Ephesians 4:29, Matthew 18).
But it also includes listening. If we are going to work for change, we have to hold ourselves to a very high standard of righteousness. We have to constantly check our levels of pride. We have to ask for advice and guidance from many different perspectives. If we’re going to stir the pot or ruffle feathers (which I believe was what Jesus did with a lot of his time), we have to pray like never before, ask questions like never before, express constant gratitude for the church and its people, get used to being corrected like never before, and be in the Word like our lives depend on it.
I don’t believe the people on the podcast want to be divisive. Quite the opposite, I think they are speaking up because they don’t want these problems to cause division, which is exactly what would happen if we ignored them.
So let’s open the dialogue. We need inter-generational healing. To the International Churches of Christ (my church movement), the generation of kids who saw the Henry Kriete letter are grown-up now. And we don’t want to cause divisions. We want you to listen to us when we say that though we love this church, we still see areas it is vital that we grow in. We want to work with you to create a safer space for your children to grow up in. A place where you can trust us with our own relationships with God, and you can believe us when we say we’ve been hurt and we want change. We don’t want change without you or in spite of you. We want change with you.
1 thes. 2:8
because we love you so much, we are delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well