Reader's Corner: "Talking Back to Purity Culture" by Rachel Joy Welcher

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Purity culture has been a topic of conversation for several years as Christian women who were teenagers in the 1990’s (at the height of the purity movement) are now in their thirties and forties. Many who grew up in the evangelical purity movement are experiencing pain in singleness and marriage—pain they assumed they would avoid with their purity pledges and commitments to abstinence. In response, several have written blogs and books decrying the harm done by well-meaning pastors, parents, and teachers who urged these teens to “save sex until marriage.” 

Rachel Joy Welcher's book, "Talking Back to Purity Culture," is a recent example. Rachel grew up in a loving Christian home and saved sex for marriage. She became disillusioned when her husband left the Christian faith and her marriage five years later. This—along with watching her Christian friends walk through the trials of singleness, sexual assault, and sexual pain in marriage—led her to complete her master’s thesis on the topic of purity culture. 

What I Liked

I found myself underlining, highlighting, and cheering Rachel on as I read her book. With clarity, she points out ways that the evangelical purity culture has perpetuated victim blaming, a double standard for Christian women and men, unhealthy expectations about sex in marriage, neglect for those who have suffered sexual trauma, and devalued singleness. I whole-heartedly agree with this assessment and have devoted much of the past several years to helping Christians have a more complete biblical framework for sexuality. 

As I have said and written many times, every sexual issue is also a spiritual issue. Disillusionment with the Church’s teaching on sex will prompt us to reconsider God’s character and the trustworthiness of Scripture. For this reason, I particularly appreciate that Rachel has “deconstructed” from the simplistic message of the purity narrative, but reconstructed on the bedrock of trusting God and leaning into biblical truth. This is a necessary contrast to others like Linda Kay Klein (Pure), Nadia Bolz-Weber (Shameless), Josh Harris and Glennon Doyle who have examined the harm of the purity message and found resolution by stepping away from foundational Christian beliefs. 

Rachel spends more ink dedicated toward diagnosing the problem of past approaches than presenting a practical and biblical way of moving forward. While she offers some suggestions for a healthier biblical ethic, she doesn’t dive into the biblical narrative of sex, exploring God’s heart for the “why” sex matters. 

What Concerns Me

Rachel wrote this book much like an academic literature review, including scores of quotes from books by Christian authors to prove her point. She praises some (Debra Hirsch, Jackie Hill Perry, Scott Sauls, Daniel Darling) as “getting it right.” Others she criticizes (Rebecca St. James, James Dobson, Josh Harris, John Eldredge, Dannah Gresh, Stephen Arterburn and Shannon Ethridge) as promoting great harm. I personally know several of the authors on both her “good” and  “bad” lists. Many of these are courageous men and women who have worked to honor God with faithfulness to His Word. Indeed the Bible does say much about striving for moral and sexual purity. The primary difference distinguishing these two camps of authors is when their books were written. I have a sneaking suspicion that Rachel’s book—and even my own books—would sound a lot more like the purity culture had we written them thirty years ago. I just finished a complete overhaul of my first book, written in 2000, and cringed at some of the nuance of my understanding of sex and marriage back then. 

Our conversation about God and sexuality has evolved as our culture pursues “sex positivity” and as we learn more about the physiology of sex, addiction, gender, and trauma. Much has transpired over the past few decades to prompt Christians to examine the traditions passed down to us by our Church fathers. We can no longer be silent or simply recite verses that condemn sexual immorality. Instead, we must press into the character and Word of God, and be willing to wrestle with questions posed about abuse, sexual shame, hypocrisy, legalism, human depravity, and Christian liberty. God’s Word gives us guidance to grasp in our minds and hearts a deep theology and praxis around all sexual issues. Yet, we seek and wrestle with real-life tension. We approach our Christian history of sex (including the simplicity of purity culture and unloving posture toward LGBT individuals) with repentance, humility, and dependence upon God to equip us through His Spirit and the Body of the church. 

My primary concern about "Talking Back to Purity Culture" is the neglect for this nuance and respect for our fellow brothers and sisters who have boldly addressed sexual issues in decades past. I have a deep appreciation for the forerunners of this conversation, even if we now have eyes to see how things should have been communicated differently. It is entirely possible to critically dissect the teaching and traditions of the Church without aiming that criticism directly, and perhaps unfairly, at our sincere brothers and sisters. 

The purity message got some things wrong but also has done great good. No Christian author is “all good” nor “all bad” in what they write. In hindsight, we can pick out sentences and phrases that we now see have the potential of misunderstanding and harm. Even so, we can just as readily point to the many who were helped and shielded from the world’s abuse of sex because of the men and women who courageously wrote and taught in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It humbles me to know that when we pass the baton to the next generation of Christ followers, they will see that Juli Slattery got some things wrong! I pray this in no way detracts from the work God wills to do in me and through me today. 

In summary, Rachel’s work in "Talking Back to Purity Culture" is an important “voice” in the chorus of God’s people who strive to understand and articulate His heart for sexual redemption. I would only encourage Rachel to join arms with those around her who have labored to sing the same song, even when they have gotten a little off key. May we pursue not only a complete theology of sex, but do so while honoring one another in the love and grace of Jesus Christ. 

 

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  • Anna Seid

    Anna Seid

    I appreciate the needed perspective to critique past voices who are on the "bad list" in view of the times in which they published their work and to credit them when they appropriately aligned with the overarching Scriptural narrative for God's design for sex and sexuality which can further sound relational theology and practice with God and others. On the other hand, it is necessary to firmly deal with the implicit entitlement mindset and transactional dynamic that the writings may have contained, BUT not confusing the writings with the authors and inadvertently condemning the person.
  • Stephanie Eddy

    Stephanie Eddy

    Thanks again, Juli, for your honesty and humility in this review. I appreciate the balance - it is such an important example to me as I also daily try to thread the needle of truth and grace on these topics.

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When sex becomes confusing, God becomes confusing. Throughout the book Pure Linda shares the stories of dozens of women who experienced deep rooted shame and trauma related to their sexual choices and experiences and not fitting the evangelical stereotypes of a “pure woman.” The problem, as well as the solution, are summed up in the book's subtitle. The Church has mishandled sexuality and femininity. Freedom is found apart from the evangelical church. Both statements are heart-wrenching.   The Problem My heart literally ached as I read the words of women who have been damaged by insensitivity and harmful teaching. Women who were  blamed for a pastor’s sexual advances and those who felt shame not for having sex but simply for being sexual creatures with beautiful bodies. 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However, by-in-large, Christians have not been beacons of hope offering truth and love within an area that is intrinsically tied to human worth and dignity. By distorting God’s truth on sexuality, we have unwittingly distorted the larger message of God’s love. Linda writes: My friends and I were told in one breath we were loved unconditionally, accepted just as we were, and headed for Heaven, and in the next we were warned of the evils of feminists, homosexuals, women who had sex outside of marriage, and other Hell-bound individuals. It didn’t even occur to me that some people in youth group might already see themselves as fitting into some of these categories that I wouldn’t see myself in for years, and how that must have felt to them then, but what did occur to me was this: The unconditional love that I had fallen for in my early days in the church? It was conditional.     The Solution  The second reason why the book Pure is so sad is the author’s conclusion that freedom from shame comes from walking away from God, or at least from the version of God that limits our sexual expression. Practically every woman interviewed for the book has resolved her conflict by distancing herself from the biblical teaching that sexual intimacy was created for the covenant of marriage between a man and woman. The tension of sexuality and God, according to Linda, disappears as we choose for ourselves a sexual ethic that feels right. If you also choose to hang onto God in the process, He is perfectly fine with your own personal sexual morality. We must make a distinction between God’s design for sexuality and the ways in which we have failed to appropriately teach it. Biblical teaching about sexuality is not a random form of morality but reflects how we were designed to thrive and function. 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(Deuteronomy 6:4–9, NIV) There are three critical elements in Moses’ teaching to parents that still apply thousands of years later: A clear understanding of what is right, what is wrong, and the lordship of God in our lives A daily integrating of that teaching into everyday life A modeling of what it looks like to walk according to God’s commands If we want to know what sexual discipleship™ looks like, we can just take a look at the world. Honestly, they are modeling it masterfully! The world's system has its own great commission. They are doing a fantastic job of converting us into disciples of their worldview and sexual agenda. Much of the media, news outlets, and educational leaders are aggressive about passing on their sexual values to children and adults. You are shunned and ridiculed if you express an opinion that differs from these values. Looking at the outlets representing the world’s system, do you see a clear doctrine or vision of what they believe about sexuality? 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