I wish I still had my copies of the popular sexuality and dating books from my youth so I could see which quotes I highlighted as a 15-year-old. I’m sure there is a list somewhere in my handwriting titled “What I Want in a Future Husband” (though, to be honest, it was probably pretty short: Jonathan Taylor Thomas).
While writing Talking Back to Purity Culture, I reread fresh copies of those books. As I revisited the words that had so shaped me and my peers, I felt the glass cracking under the weight of my internalized beliefs. I felt embarrassed realizing that so much of what I had accepted as true had nothing to do with biblical sexuality or the grace of God.
Before You Meet Prince Charming by Sarah Mally depicts a woman’s heart as a chocolate cake. If someone eats a piece before the party (i.e., marriage), the cake, and consequently her relational worth, is no longer whole. In the introduction to Every Young Woman’s Battle, Stephen Arterburn warns female readers that every time a man has sex with a woman, he takes “a piece of her soul.”
Alongside these unbiblical messages about human worth that fly squarely in the face of the theology of the imago Dei were the false promises of marriage, great sex, and children for anyone who practiced premarital celibacy. But it was, perhaps, the overarching message that women were responsible for the sexual purity of both genders that burdened me the most as a teenager growing up in the church.
In their book, For Young Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice report that “teenage guys are conflicted by their powerful physical urges” and “many guys don’t feel the ability or responsibility to stop the sexual progression.” Their conclusion for women? “Guys need your help to protect both of you.”
Despite Jesus’ words to the contrary, I remember believing that men truly couldn’t control their lust if women didn’t take on the responsibility of dressing and acting in ways that squelched it. These books made it clear to me that the responsibility for sexual sin and temptation—even assault—fell squarely on the shoulders of women. I couldn’t believe some of the lies I saw sandwiched in between Bible verses or the tactics that were used and the carrots that were dangled. I cringed. I cried. And one time, I threw a book across the room.
There is a growing movement of conversative Christians who feel a holy discontent with the way the evangelical movement has approached the topics of sex, marriage, and gender. We have seen harmful and unbiblical teachings perpetuated for far too long, and a needful reckoning is taking place.
Sheila Wray Gregoire, blogger and author of The Great Sex Rescue, has seen her own perspective change as she learned more about women’s experiences in Christian marriages, including through a massive survey on marital satisfaction, faith, and beliefs about sex.
“I have spent the last year taking down old blog posts and asking for my oldest books to be taken out of print,” she told me. “I’m reviewing and refining. I want to be sure the information I’m giving is actually healthy.”
Her hope is that popular Christians authors who have promoted what she deems false, harmful messages about sex and marriage, including Emerson Eggerichs (Love & Respect) and Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker (Every Man’s Battle), will do the same.
Even as our eyes open to the shortcomings and mistakes of past teachings, it hasn’t been easy to articulate what we should be teaching instead. If not the tenets of ’90s purity culture, what should we teach our children about sexuality?
The most common question I get is “What book can I give my teenager?” Books are tangible. We can touch them, recommend them, and dog-ear their pages. If you sign a purity pledge card, you can put it on your bulletin board at home or inside a journal. If you buy a purity ring, you can wear it on your finger every day. We love to hold obedience in our hands.
But my fear is that, in our attempts to reform past teachings, we could easily fall into trading the old rules for another set and treating them as the new definition of wisdom, obedience, and Christianity for all believers.
Our new rules might look different, but they can quickly become just as dogmatic and extrabiblical. Plus, black-and-white regulations on these topics—things like whether to kiss outside marriage or when teens can start dating—can diminish our need to study God’s Word, practice discernment, and develop our own convictions.
Certainly, children and teenagers need guidance, and creating family rules and structure is wise. But we underestimate adolescents if we assume they are unable to wrestle with these issues. Give them a chance. (You can always use your veto power!) Having conversations may feel more intimidating than simply laying down the law, but in the end, this gives your children the tools to navigate these issues with wisdom and discernment, long after they leave your care.
Purity culture started with biblical concepts. Holiness is biblical, as are warnings against fornication. But I wonder how things would have been different for so many of us if, instead of church youth group turning into yet another dating versus courtship debate, we had deep-studied the attributes of God together. Or if, instead of putting on a modesty fashion show, we had pored over the Gospels and the life of Christ. To isolate and overemphasize certain ideas from the Bible risks misinterpretation, but it also risks creating our own version of Christianity, righteousness, and even salvation.
When I taught high school English, students often asked, “What will be on the test?” They asked it so often that I stopped giving them tests and began only assigning essays and projects. This forced deeper thought and nuance and, of course, more work. But it wasn’t just the students who preferred clearer, more direct answers. As a teacher, I would have found it easier to open up a novel and tell them what to think, to explain the worldview instead of asking them to figure it out themselves as we read the text together. It took more time, more discussion, and more frustration to teach literature with nuance and thought. But it was worth it.
Discernment is the long-game. If we replace purity culture with a new series of how-to or how-not-to books and conferences, we are falling right back into the same practices. When our children are small, we might stick a list of rules on the refrigerator. Children need clear guidance. They are still growing and are not able to think through things with the discernment of an adult. There is a place for lists of rules that go beyond Scripture, with items like “Pick up your toys before getting out a new set” or “No sugary snacks before dinner.” But as mature Christians, we must move beyond living on milk alone.
“Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:13–14).
The church does not need a new and better set of rules on sexuality. We need spiritual formation. When we break down the tough, gray areas of Scripture into extrabiblical rules, whether conservative or progressive, we remove the opportunity for Christians to discuss, think deeply, wrestle with God’s Word, and be conformed into the image of Christ.
There is a line in Gregoire’s new book that says, “It’s important as a culture that we confront the damage we have done—even if by accident—so we can walk forward toward the abundant life Jesus wants for us.” My husband, Evan, suggested that a term for this process could be taken from the Protestant Reformation: semper reformanda, or “always reforming.”
We must be willing to look back with humility on what we have believed and taught. Our goal in “always reforming” is to conform ever more closely to God’s Word and the person of Jesus Christ. It is not God who needs reforming but our own hearts and understanding.
There will be a time in the near future when we look back on this period of church history, when Christians decided to reevaluate purity culture, and discover critiques that missed the gospel and pendulum swings that need to be corrected. My book will be on the list. So will many others. That’s how this works.
We are imperfect disciples, continually grappling to understand God and his Word better. We will make mistakes along the way, and this will demand regular reflection. Reassessment. Reforming. Humility is required not only for conversion but also for the entire Christian life.
In everything we do, say, and promote, we must take time to step back and ask ourselves, “Is this really of Christ?” It is exhausting but holy work.
Rachel Joy Welcher is the author of Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality as well as a columnist and editor at Fathom magazine.