Talking Back to Purity Culture: A Review

“I want you to raise those hands, to wear your virginity on your sleeve! I want you to wear it proudly for Jesus! Clap with me!” The pastor’s booming voice washed over my high school students as I sat with them on the floor of the gymnasium. We were on a mission trip, and a local church leader had stopped by to “share a word.”

Infuriated doesn’t really begin to capture the sentiment I experienced as I sat listening. I am a little embarrassed to say that in the moments after he hurled those words, I actually had a vision of myself slamming one of the metal folding chairs against the wall and throwing it out the side of the building. It’s likely the grace of God that prevented me from such an action.

In a room full of 100+ high schoolers, a significant number of them were probably not virgins. I’d had enough conversations with my students one-on-one to know they carried a hefty amount of shame surrounding their sexual struggles.

I hoped my students would hear about their beautiful, forgiving, shame-covering God – the One whose grace is inexhaustible, and whose work on the cross secures their identity. Instead, they received a behavioral pep talk that equated their sexual status to their ability to represent Jesus. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I now recognize this as one of the hallmarks of purity culture.

I did not grow up in purity culture. I was raised in a church that neglected to teach on sexuality at all, and a more cultural idea of “love and acceptance” was the main thing I remember hearing from the pulpit. Therefore it has been incredibly important for me to be a student of purity culture, as it has had a significant impact on the lives of so many friends, students, and clients (in counseling).

I am passionate about seeing the church grow in her teaching on sexuality. We need to be equipping our parents, pastors, volunteer leaders, and ourselves to walk alongside our students as they navigate the cultural messages they receive about sex and sexuality. Rachel Joy Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture goes a long way to help us in this effort. Whether you’ve experienced purity culture yourself or not, Welcher’s book is a must read, bringing clarity to and revealing the beauty of an orthodox Biblical understanding of sex and sexuality.

Clarity on the Falsehoods of Purity Culture

There are many faulty teachings underpinning purity culture. Welcher reveals these false (and often implicit) teachings, while generously offering the impact these teachings have had on her own life and marriage. In a humble and masterful way that is more productive than reactive, she explores the following theological falsehoods:

– Sex is a prize to be won/earned by good behavior (especially virginity)

– Marriage is the goal of life and Christianity (because then you’re rewarded with sex)

– Sex before marriage is a type of “ultimate sin” that ruins your worth

– Women are responsible for men’s sexuality – especially their lust

– Men cannot control their urges and are doomed to be addicted to pornography

– Women carry the responsibility of the sexual relationship in the marriage because their main role is to give sex to their husbands whenever they want it

Setting Sex and Sexuality Back in Their Proper Context

Welcher begins Talking Back to Purity Culture by inviting the reader to engage her book in community. She acknowledges how seldom teaching on sex happens in the church and suggests we don’t use her writing as a focal point for a “sex talk.” “Our choice to detach the topic of sexual purity from regular conversation has isolated it from the whole of Scripture and life, turning questions that are meant to press us further into prayer, the church, and God’s words, into books, conferences, and websites”(12). This is the “You had me at hello” equivalent for me. What if we created safe spaces in our churches where confession, struggle, questions, and conversation on sexuality can happen on a regular basis? What if we dared acting on our beliefs that our identity, worth, belovedness, and belonging aren’t based on our behavior, but on the finished work of Christ, the Lover of our souls?

One of the things I most love about Welcher’s book is her heart to place sexuality back in the context of the whole of God’s kingdom and who he is. “Virginity is an idol in purity culture that must be dethroned. … Virgins or not, Christians are real people who wrestle with sexual temptation. Instead of fixating on virginity, our goal as Christians must be God’s glory in our sexual brokenness” (29).

Purity culture diminished sexuality (and humans, in the process), making it mainly behavioral. Welcher explores the many ways intimacy, gender, desire, longing, and sex itself fit into the broader picture of God’s redemptive story for his beloved humans. She also honors the realities so many of us struggle with in the forms of loneliness, past abuse, same-sex attraction, infertility, sexual dysfunction, and shame. She highlights the importance of having a robust theology of suffering and reveals the specific hope we have in Jesus in relation to each of these areas of suffering.

Redeeming the Rhetoric of Purity

I hesitate to even use the word “purity” when I speak or write about sex and sexuality because of how loaded it has become. I hear the echoes of many conversations I’ve had with friends who’ve been deeply wounded by purity culture. However, Welcher boldly tackles the word, sharing the damage of her former understanding of purity and placing the Christian understanding of purity back where it belongs. “Marriage is not the goal of purity. Family is not the goal. Sex is not the goal. God and his glory are the goal. Practicing purity is a form of worship, another way we get to praise God through obedience with our bodies, hearts, and thoughts” (80).

I appreciate Welcher’s insight into how purity culture shaped her to care more about being perceived as pure than actually seeking Jesus for purity. “Instead of being encouraged to develop individual discernment and face our own personal struggles with lust head on, many of us followed the rules laid out for us and learned how to look pure without actually practicing purity” (164). Welcher honors the Matt. 6:-1-6 reality of our hearts so well: we desire to look holy, good, or loving more often than we actually seek Jesus Himself.

Honesty with the Reality of Abstinence

One of the perplexing things about purity culture is that it tried to make abstinence cool. By promising fabulous, trouble-free sex in marriage as the reward for remaining a virgin, it distracted from the difficulty of resisting sexual temptation in singleness (and ignored sexual temptation in marriage altogether). It also failed to provide any kind of theology of singleness, which is necessary for offering students the beautiful, full, hope-filled vision Scripture provides for all people in Christ– married and unmarried. “Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative but that it is too worldly. Sex is not about self, and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging” (179).

As a divorced and remarried woman, Welcher does a wonderful job giving weight to the struggles and gifts of various stages of life in relation to sex and sexuality.

A Must Read

“Christine Gardner put it best when she said that the solution for evangelicals is not ‘to value virginity less but to value God more’” (29).

It is far easier to criticize than to take the time to thoughtfully deconstruct a faulty theological framework. It is also far easier to stay academic and detached. Rachel Joy Welcher, however, engages with heart, story, fairness, and theological acuity. Her work is worshipful and full of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She allows the pain she experienced from purity culture to become a place of redemption for the rest of us. She is honoring of those she disagrees with theologically; she addresses their differences fairly and speaks to common ground. She isn’t reactive; instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, she places purity back in the gospel context where it belongs, redeeming it from the reduced behavioral construct purity culture placed it in.

Welcher’s work is a fantastic exploration of faithful Christian sexuality. Everyone can benefit from reading this book, and the discussion questions are absolutely wonderful. I am deeply grateful for this gift of an offering!


Please see also our Sex Education Curriculum for Families and Parent Conversation Guide, which equips parents to offer a beautiful, biblical sexual ethic to their growing children.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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