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.
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.
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.