Purity culture: The fruit of our “lawish hearts”- A book review

A Culture Born from our “Of Works-ness”

I’m listening to Dane Ortlund’s audiobook version of Gentle and Lowly- The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers on my commute to and from work. Driving home the other day, the narrator read the title of the 20th chapter, “Our lawish hearts. His lavish heart.” And as I reflected on what I’d read in Rachel Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture- Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, I realized our “lawish” hearts produced purity culture and it’s fallout.

So much of what I was read in Welcher’s book I am currently struggling with in raising my teen sons. Growing up, I didn’t read any of the books popular in the purity culture of the 1990’s. I was married for four years by the time I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. But I did grow up in a church and youth group that taught the lessons those books promoted. And I bought Every Man’s Battle for my nephew when he graduated from high school without ever reading it myself. I was guilty of what Rachel pointed out, “…we need more… conversation. Instead of trying to find the perfect book, let’s keep talking about sexuality and purity out loud.”

So many of us have tended to reach for a book to give to a teen when we should have been reaching for a conversation over their favorite fast food. Years have past since those early adult days when I was fresh out of a church culture strong on women’s modesty, submission and avoiding dating, but the weeds from those days are still popping up. I look at my sons who have not grown up in a church culture like I did, who in fact have grown up in a mostly secular culture, both in our home and in their school, and I wonder how in the world I’ll ever reach them with the hope of the gospel. And I fear they’ll believe the culture and use people, sex and power for their own pleasure and give no thought to the way of Jesus in their sexuality, relationships and manhood.

Welcher’s book examines how Purity Culture is the fruit of our tendency to to make rules or laws a savior that only Christ can be.

Dane Ortlund said, “Our natural of-works-ness is a resistance to Christ’s heart.” The books and methods of a generation of parents and leaders in the church, trying to ward off the culture that we viewed as causing teen pregnancy, STD’s and a disregard for family values, is a result of being what Ortlund refers to as an “of-works” people.

It’s my natural bent to try to guard myself or my kids from what I fear will overtake them with rules, methods, pledges, programs and other works. Rachel’s book looks back on the effects of purity culture and demonstrates that our attempts to live for the heart of Christ through programs that prevent undesired behaviors may be well intended, but this posture of living has damaging effects that actually make it harder to see the gospel in all it’s scandalous beauty. As Ortlund wrote, “You can live for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ.” Which position we take makes all the difference.

The Damaging Fruit of Purity Culture

“It’s a dangerous thing when married sex becomes the ‘finish line’ for sexual purity.”

When I read those words from the first chapter of Welcher’s book I felt challenged and grieved. For me, married sex had been the finish line for purity, but I had disqualified myself from the race two years before I got married.

In my teens I attended youth group and went to a youth camp where the speaker sent a rose to be passed around to the members of the audience. We were instructed to each hold the rose, smell it, look at it and pass it to the next person. While we waited our turn to handle the rose the speaker preached the dangers of pre-marital sex and the permanent damage that would be done to us if we had sex before we were married. Afterwards, I pledged to stay pure until marriage. Then I went on a walk with my friend who shared she had already had sex and felt lost. I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t have the gospel. All I had was a stay-pure program in one hand and a friend who felt rejected in another.

At sixteen I wrote a list of requirements I wanted in a husband and gave them to my dad in the form of a contract, asking him to give me a promise ring. My dad wasn’t a big spender and certainly wasn’t going to buy me a ring, but he was a carpenter, so he made me a hope chest and I put our signed contract to keep me pure in it.

Gosh, just writing this gives me the creeps. But it was well intended. I thought I was doing something that demonstrated my new zeal for the Jesus I had just recently decided to follow. I was trying to live for God’s smile, as Ortlund put it, not from his smile.

Less than a year later I met a long-haired boy with a pink corduroy hat and ripped, bleached Levi’s from the big city. I loved the way he made me feel and by the time I was seventeen we had sex. I was torn. I hadn’t lived up to my contract with God and my dad. I reasoned in my mind that I could make up for what I’d done by getting married. And in the two years before our wedding day I vacillated between guilt, shame and wanting to run away. I was disillusioned and confused.

Three Areas to Look for Purity Culture Weeds

Rachel’s book examines landscapes of life where purity culture’s efforts produced noxious weeds that must be separated from the fruit of the gospel when it comes to virginity, being a man or a woman, marriage, sex, sexual abuse, and what we tell the next generation. Of these, three stood out to me as good places we can start looking for weeds of purity culture in our lives.

Women

According to Welcher, women are delivered a confusing message through purity culture. On one had we’re told we’re responsible for guarding sexual purity because we’re less lust-driven than men and therefore we’re the “morally superior” ones with the skills to keep sex out of the picture until marriage. On the other hand we’re told we’re dangerous. If our bra strap shows, or our clothes are deemed to make us look too sexy, then we’re causing the prey-drive of the men around us to kick in and therefore we’re responsible if they go too far.

Like that slithering serpent of old, purity culture deceives us into blaming, shaming and hiding. Scripture, and the gospel tell men and women they both bear God’s image and they both receive the gift of being heirs with Christ of the kingdom he’s promised us. Rachel calls we who’ve tried using purity culture’s tactics of modest dressing and careful distancing from men in an attempt to be pure in God’s eyes, to see that our purity doesn’t come from our clothes, but from Christ.

Men

For men, purity culture paints a picture of manhood devoid of Christlikeness and pumped full of lust-steroids. Rachel calls those who’ve used the tactics of purity culture to excuse ungodly aggressive behavior from men and employ stereotypes to cast an image of biblical masculinity that’s lacking, to give those up for a gospel-born vision of men.

“Instead of teaching men to avoid women, a proactive strategy for battling sexual lust urges men to see women as neighbors,” who we are command by God to love as we love ourselves.

Rachel draws men to remove their personal-purity blinders and take a broad view of the community God calls his people to live in. She calls those tainted by the lust-focused weeds of purity culture to look up at the character of Christ and the gift he has given them as they put their trust in him.

There is a high view from which men and women should see themselves, and it is not the view purity culture has tried to produce through its rhetoric. God said he made man and woman in his own image. And Christ has given us his own spirit, his promised faithful love and he will never stop making us more like him. Welcher encourages men to look to Christ, their hope of glory right alongside their sisters, mothers, wives, and friends.

What Will I Tell My Kids?

This is the question that has haunted me from before I began reading this book. What will I tell my kids about what to believe about sex, marriage, girls, women, lust, porn, and abuse?

Call it coincidence, but even as I write this my senior in high school son walked in the door. I stopped to ask him for a few minutes of his time. I asked him if he feels like Jesus impacts his everyday life and relationships. His answer was, “Mom, I get told all the time by so and so (he named names) that my relationships should be about marriage. But I don’t think so mom. Yeah, I think Jesus wants me to treat others with respect and dignity, but I don’t think I have to think about marriage just because I like a girl.”

I was gobsmacked. He had no idea I was reading this book or writing this review. Listening to him, I realized, there’s a lot of pressure in our culture, whether from purity culture’s children (in high school with my son), or from the current spirit of the age, to conform to that culture’s idea of what relationships should look like. And as a mom, I don’t need to give my son a book or program, I need to spend time with him, listening to him, asking him questions and helping him remember Jesus.

As Rachel points out in her book, the message we give our kids about sexuality, marriage, singleness and the gospel is important. I know my tendency as an “of works” person with a “lawish” heart naturally wants to hand my sons a manual or a class or commitment that will keep them from the pain of sexual sin and idolatry. But it won’t work. If I want to give my sons a message that will not spring up life-choking weeds and breed disillusionment and confusion, I’ll leave the books and extrabiblical practices to the side and point them to the beauty of what Jesus has done for them.

My son confessed today that he doesn’t think about Jesus very much. I told him, “Well he thinks about you. A lot! And he likes you! He wants you! He’ll never give up on you! And I love you too.”

Rachel’s book exposes that at the bottom of all of purity culture’s “relational leveraging, fear stuffing, nervousness, score-keeping, neurotic-controlling and anxiety-festering silliness” you find a “gospel deficit.” ( a phrase from Ortlund’s book)

We all need people in the church to help us see when we go down the path our fallen nature is bent toward, trying to achieve godliness with our own methods. Rachel does that. And her book loves the Church in doing so. I for one am thankful to have read it at this time in my life. I needed to be redirected back to the gospel as the only hope and power for me and my sons.

  • References and quotes from Ortlund are taken from Gentle and Lowly- The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers by Dane Ortlund

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