In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton described the surprising, even subversive, nature of truth: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”
He gave the example of celibacy as an illustration: “It is true,” Chesterton wrote, “that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once … been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white. … [The Church] has always had a healthy hatred of pink.”
Chesterton’s words serve to frame the helpful approach of Rachel Joy Welcher in her recent book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality. Welcher registers substantial criticism against the evangelical movement that brought pledge cards, books, and rallies to sex-crazed American teenagers. But she does not deconstruct 2,000 years of orthodox teaching on Christian sexuality. Sexual purity matters, if not exactly in the way that purity culture defined it. “As with most earnest, human responses,” writes Welcher, “we didn’t get everything right.”
Good Intentions and Gross Errors
Welcher, a daughter of a pastor, was a high school student in 1997 when Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye “captured the attention of the evangelical world [and] inspired countless other books on dating and sexual purity,” she writes. She helpfully situates the movement in its context, reminding readers that purity culture grew up during a period of soaring rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs. Given the cultural conditions of the time (and what she calls the “age-old problem of immorality”), Welcher believes the church had ample reason to look for ways to affirm the good of marriage and the good of sex within it. “Practicing purity,” she writes, “is a form of worship.”
Unlike many other purity-culture critics—writers in the vein of Linda Kay Klein and Nadia Bolz-Weber—Welcher does not propose to replace historic understandings of sexual faithfulness. Extramarital sex is not an important act of “freedom” or an authentic expression of “love.” Sex is meant for the glory of God. “Beloved, do not be deceived by … the gospel of self,” Welcher warns in the tradition of the biblical prophets. She refuses to cry “peace” in the face of pending disaster. It is possible to sin sexually—and to suffer for that sin—and Welcher has every intention to teach her own children these truths.
What she refuses to tell them, however, is that “virginity makes them pure.”
However well-intentioned purity culture might have been, it was also guilty of gross errors. It made Christian purity a function of sexual history and behavior, not spiritual rebirth. It saddled women with the responsibility for male lust and failed the victims of sexual abuse. Further, it made unqualified promises of marriage, children, and great sex to everyone who pledged to wait.
Welcher’s story is particularly illuminating here, as she played by all of purity culture’s rules—and got burned. She saved her first kiss for the man who would become her husband, but the couple did not live happily ever after. In a few short years, her husband left the faith and left the marriage, leaving her to hold purity culture’s promissory notes at 30, without virginity to offer to another husband. Welcher realized that purity culture had promoted one temporary (albeit important) expression of sexual faithfulness (waiting to have sex until marriage) to the neglect of the more enduring call to lifelong sexual self-control, a call binding upon all Christians, married and unmarried, opposite- and same-sex attracted, young and old. “We are called,” writes Welcher, “to pursue purity until the day we die or Jesus returns, whichever comes first.”
This is one of Welcher’s most instructive critiques: that purity culture abstracted sexual purity from a larger discipleship conversation. It neglected to offer a “whole-person theology,” one teaching us to offer every square inch of our lives to God. If there is a better way forward, says Welcher, it’s by means of a more robust (and far more regular) conversation: one informed by Scripture and guided less by rules (although those matter). It’s a conversation that makes room for “for the young married couple in their twenties, the divorced father of three, [and] the same-sex attracted teen.”
The goal, she argues, is never “chaste Pharisees” but “imperfect disciples.”
‘Unblushing Promises of Reward’
I think Welcher has put her finger squarely on the problems of purity culture (many of which I haven’t had room to address here) and has rightly suggested that the conversation about sexual faithfulness is a conversation for everyone at every stage.
The faithful witness of the church today is as bold a counterpoint to our culture’s prevailing sexual ethic as it was in the earliest centuries of the church. Our sexual witness (or martyrdom, as the Greek word might also be translated) isn’t simply about waiting to have sex until marriage or even about affirming that marriage remains a covenant between one man and one woman. Our radical sexual “otherness” should be apparent as we honor our promises of marriage; as we invite the unmarried into our homes and families, making celibacy a far less lonely call; as we affirm the good of embodiment and refuse any disembodied form of sexual expression; even as we say, with Welcher, “Sex is not necessary for a full, God-honoring life.” There are numerous ways for the church to ask: How do we radically follow the narrow road of Christ, even if it chafes against our sexual desires and affronts the sexual commitments of our culture?
Importantly, the conversation about sexual purity requires us to speak faithfully about the nature of obedience—its real costs and real rewards. And if there is anywhere I might have pressed Welcher a bit further, it was here. Understandably, she wants to illumine the health-and-wealth nature of purity-culture teaching, which sings the siren song of the prosperity gospel. Many in the movement, including Welcher, understood the commitment to wait for true love as a kind of ironclad promise that true love was waiting for you. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage! But these are not promises to make or keep in a broken, bruised world where husbands leave, where infertility persists, where disease and death hang like Damocles’s sword over every temporary happiness. We can’t hope for everything in this world.
“We have become accustomed to seeking satisfaction for every fleeting desire and long-term want on our terms,” Welcher warns. She’s right. And yet: We can’t moderate any of the good promised to God’s people in Scripture. To return to Chesterton, we’re warned against “the silent swerving from accuracy by an inch.” As C. S. Lewis explains in The Weight of Glory, Jesus often issued “unblushing promises of reward.” Christianity is not a grin-and-bear-it life, as if we’re always choosing the difficult in place of the satisfying; nor is it a mercenary affair, as if we should apologize for wanting the blessings Christianity offers. The losing of our lives for the sake of Christ is not ultimately loss. It’s gain. Somehow we have to grapple with what Christ means when he says to his people that while the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, he has come to give us abundant life (John 10:10).
This isn’t to say that there is no cost to following Christ, no real death to undergo. But it is to say that Christianity is more than masochism—that it could even, paradoxically, be the most self-interested commitment we ever make.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World. She lives with her husband and their five children in Toronto.