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.


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.


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

confessions of a conflict-avoider

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I once lied to my husband and kids about who drank the last cup of coffee. As soon as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Sheila, you just lied to avoid conflict about coffee.” I realized how rediculous it was, lying about coffee.

“Eh-hum, I’m sorry guys.” The boys were getting ready for school, my husband making himself some scrambled eggs. They all looked up at me.

“Sorry for what mom?” my 9 year old asked.

“I lied.”

Six wide eyes were looking right at me.

“You lied?! About what?” My husband asked in a suspicious tone.

“I lied about the coffee. I drank the last cup of coffee.”

“Why would you do that?” my husband was perplexed. He’s the in-your-face type. He thrives on conflict.

“I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t want to deal with you getting upset about the coffee.”

“Upset? Why would I be upset. I’d just make another cup.”

“I know it’s rediculous. I’m sorry.”

I turned my eyes to my sons who were watching this vingette in the kitchen play out like a suspensful sci-fi movie.

My tendency to do whatever it takes to avoid conflict and the work of Christ in my life to change that inclination in me is, for me, one of the greatest evidences that Jesus Christ is real. My conflict-avoiding bent, combined with being a female raised in an ultra-conservative church, has been almost a perfect storm in which I’ve nearly shipwrecked my faith.

When you’re personality lends toward being the peacemaker, being the mediator, doing whatever you can to make sure everyone’s happy and there’s no tension, and you’re taught that God wants you to be submissive and quiet because you’re a woman, you can easily be duped into thinking you’re being godly when you’re really drowning in a sea of sinful brokenness.

There is no linear, superficial, canned, boxed, flat way with Christ. He is the word made flesh.  I can type these words on a screen, and they may be true, but without a tangible embodiment, they can be employed in a way I never intended in writing them. What God’s word says about submission, being quiet, womanhood and peacemaking is true in the way Jesus lived it on, not in the way we misconstrue words on a page. Embodied word is complex and looks different in different situations.

I believe the humility of Christ, that submits himself to others, although he is free, is a characteristic of all Christians, not just women.  And I believe there is wisdom in being quiet- for both men and women.  But there’s a time to be quiet, and there’s a time to speak.  There’s a time to submit and there’s a time to resist.  There’s a time to make peace and there’s a time to turn some tables.

Even Jesus said both that he came to give us peace and that he came not to bring peace but a sword.  So which is it Jesus?  It’s both.  He came to bring peace, not as the world gives, not by trying to make everyone happy, but by his faithful and soveriegn goodness.  And he came to bring a sword, not to kill people but to do surgery on men’s hearts, harvest a field and cut down lies.

When you’re a conflict-avoider like me by nature and Jesus comes in, he turns over all kinds of rugs and shades and dividers and lies we use to bring a fragile sense of “peace.” But it’s no real peace. Since Christ came crashing into my life at 16 he’s been taking me out of my padded passivity into courageous action.  Even in the smallest things like confessing lying about coffee.

I’m amazed as I look at my life and see what he is doing.  I would be a cowardly, lying, self-preserving, brown-noser, surrounding myself with people who made me comfortable or hiding in a convent if it weren’t for Jesus.  He makes me brave.  Where I have thought I was being submissive, he’s shown me I’m just being passive.  Where I thought I was being quiet for the sake of peace, he showed me I was enabling sin by not speaking the truth and shining a light.

I still hate conflict, but I find Christ in me compels me to go towards what I would usually shy away from.  And that is evidence that his life is really at work in me.  Which is a real life miracle!

Sexism, objectification of women and enabling abuse is not just an SBC problem

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The problem of sexism and enabling abuse is not only a Southern Baptist Church problem.  It’s a culture problem. I don’t know Paige Patterson.  I’ve only been acquainted with the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of a Southern Baptist church (that I love) for about a year.  I didn’t grow up in a Baptist church culture.  But the expose of Paige Patterson’s thoughts on the Biblical response to a woman in an abusive marriage, as well as his lewd comments about a teenage girl, is not new to me in the church.

I grew up in an ultra conservative church where an emphasis about women and their roles in life were often taught.  As other denominations season their beliefs with the spice of certain doctrines, the church I grew up in smothered just about everything they taught with the doctrine of a woman’s submission. As a girl, I was taught varying degrees of the following:

  1. Women are to be quiet, as in, no standing in front of the congregation and speaking at all.
  2. Women are to be submissive. Not just to their husbands. To all men.
  3. Women should not work outside their homes.
  4. Women are to be modest, which specifically means no shorts above the knees, no bathing suites, no cleavage showing, no form fitting clothing period.

The point I want to make is, growing up in an ultra-conservative church setting, abuse, sexism and objectification of women happened, and was not dealt with justly. I believe these things happened because the church I grew up in had a culture that was heavy on teaching what women should do but was silent about what men should do and turned a blind eye to men who failed to love their wives like Christ loved the church. It was not a Baptist church, but in the church culture I was raised, women were for men not equal with men.

It’s this kind of culture in a church that allows abuse and an anti-biblical view of women to grow and give birth to ugly sins like the ones we’ve seen in the #ChurchToo stories and Paige Patterson’s line of thinking. The kind of culture that breeds abuse and colors sexism as Biblical is what Jesus called, “the leaven of the Pharisees.” (Matthew 16:6)

Paige Patterson’s jesting-approval of a boy’s characterization of a teenage girl as “built” is the fruit of a self-indulgent, blind double-standard. His advice to a woman in an abusive marriage that guards his interpretation of divorce laws but abandons helping her find safety and legal protection is the fruit of the sinful culture that had spread through religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day. The culture of the Pharisees was one that clung to the letter of God’s law, was blind to their failure to uphold it themselves, laid heavy burdens on others to do what they failed to do and was as powerless as a dead man in a white-washed tomb to live out the first two commandments, which Jesus said were the most important.

Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees who’s culture was a perfect medium for the spread and growth of the sin among them.  Read Matthew 23 and let your jaw drop. Here’s a sample:

‘Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. ‘ Matthew 23:1-4,25-26

I wonder if Jesus were standing before many men in the conservative church today he would have some “Woe’s!” for them. I think he does. I think he is standing before them.  He’s in his daughters standing before them saying something like what many women from the SBC said in a letter to the SBC trustees and like Beth Moore wrote in her letter to her brothers.

The same culture among the Pharisees that said you should tithe from your spices but divorced their wives because they tired of them, neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness, is the culture among some men in the conservative evangelical church that lays heavy burdens of submission to husbands on wives and neglects to do justly, love mercy and show faithfulness to God’s daughters delivering them out of abusive marriages. The culture among men in the church who justify their pornography use, use women’s bodies for their pleasure and then blame them for being too seductive looking, is the culture among the Pharisees that was blind to their own guilt when they threw a woman caught in adultery at Jesus’ feet citing adultery laws.

Jesus embodied what it looks like when we take God’s commands seriously and live mercifully.  It looks like the perfect combination of grace and truth that set Jesus apart so powerfully from every other man. In us it won’t look so perfect.  In us it should look like grace, truth and lots of repentance. Just as Jesus’ finger in the dirt drew lines that caused guilty Pharisees to drop stones, it’s Jesus who exposes men in the church and calls them to see their blindness and repent.  It’s inevitable that this leaven would grow in our law-loving conservative churches. Jesus told us to beware of it.  And he wants us to clean our house from it. He calls us to repentance and shows us the right way.

The culture among the Pharisees that loved the law but failed to see the law fulfilled in Jesus is the same culture that creates a place for men to hide their abuse, sexism and objectification of women behind scriptures like Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Peter 2:13-25 and 3:1-6.  The conservative church needs a Damascus road experience like the infamous Pharisee Saul. We need to be blinded by the light of Christ so we can see clearly the way forward to serving and loving the vulnerable, protecting and empowering God’s daughters and teaching and shepherding men to lead in self-sacrifice love like Jesus.

As ugly as it may get, I have great hope. Jesus’ men are rising.  They’re repenting. They’re leading. They’re empowering their sisters, daughters, wives and mothers to stand with them in Jesus’ great commission.  They’re honoring woman made in God’s image as co-heirs of the grace of life.  They are Jesus’ men. They are my brothers and I love them. I stand beside them and behind them. I support them. I want them to lead like Jesus.


I am woman

pexels-photo-619949.jpegA lot of bad things happen to women because men abuse their power.  And a lot of women use their power to do bad things. And in both cases we have believed a lie about who we are. Lying to women about who they are has been a tactic of evil since the beginning (Genesis 3). This world is harsh and deceiving. And being a woman without Christ is like being a person with amnesia, never knowing who you really are. But in Christ, being a woman is wonder!

Not that the church has always gotten right the value and dignity and worth of women.  And not the the rest of the world or it’s various cultures have gotten it right either.  But the God of the Bible designed womanhood.  And he made it very good.  He also cursed it and made it very hard.  But he redeemed it and so it is a confident joy to be a woman in Christ.

The true church is a bunch of ragamuffin people from all different demographics throughout time.  And among these shabby sheep there have been, and still are wolves, making themselves out to be one of us.  And they have set out to tarnish the name of Christ.  One way they have done that is by treating women wrong and not honoring them as equal bearers of the image of the Living God.  But the God of the Bible has never gotten it wrong.  He has clearly given us his word that we are his image bearers and are called, albeit through much suffering, to share in his grace-filled eternal life.  He has a special eye of love and fervor for women and children when they are abandoned and mistreated by men. Christ has also never gotten it wrong. He has demonstrated what servant-leadership and self-sacrificial love looks like.

Christ has redeemed our broken womanhood.  He has given us a new identity worth more than anything this world offers.  We don’t have to prove our strength by our buff arms, or ability to do jobs our culture has historically said are for men only.  We don’t have to prove our power by manipulating others with sex, or taking positions the world calls enviable.  There is no glass ceiling for Christian women.  We stand strong, thankful, powerful and loved because we are women, made in the image of God, redeemed by Christ who saw us when we sold ourselves for what power, pleasure and possessions we could have now.  As a Christian woman, all my worth and identity is wrapped up in Christ.  I am Christ’s and he is mine and there’s nothing and no one that can take that away from me.

Being Christ’s enables me to stand for the truth even the powers that be try to quiet me. Being Christ’s makes me able to take the position of servant and not feel threatened.  As Jesus laid down his life willingly, I can lay down mine.  I know who I am.  I know whose I am.  I know where I’ve come from.  And I know where I’m going.  I can love those who betray me.  Like seriously… love them!  Want their good.  I don’t need the world’s idea of power.  I don’t need a “man’s” job.  I am a woman.

Within me there’s a cry that Elizabeth Elliot titled one of her books, “Let me be a woman!”  But that’s only because I feel the pressure from all sides to be more like a man.  Even from the people who say their fighting for women’s rights.   Without Christ, I do want to be more like a man.  I want power.  I don’t want to have to suffer so much in my body to give another person life.  But because of Christ I have everything!  My identity is rock-solid.  I know who I am. So I can be a woman.