I was in high school when Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye captured the attention of the evangelical world. It kicked off a movement and inspired countless other books on dating and sexual purity. I read many of these, internalizing messages about my responsibility as a female to keep men from lusting, the value of my virginity, and how sexual sin could destroy my future marriage. I often finished one of these books more ashamed of my sexuality than when I had started it. Marriage and sex were placed on a pedestal, and they quickly became an idol: something I thought would one day complete me.
With my first serious relationship, I tried to follow all I’d been told in the books.
We were friends first. We dated for years before getting engaged, and were engaged for six months before getting married. My father officiated the ceremony. My best friend made the cake. I even saved my first kiss for him. But before our fifth wedding anniversary, he had a crisis of faith and walked away from God and our marriage. The books I had read promised that premarital purity would result in a flourishing marriage. They told me that sexual obedience would secure a specific blessing. When the reward didn’t come, I was left to wonder what I had done wrong and whether others, who had grown up reading the same books and hearing the same messages, were wrestling with similar questions.
I taught English in private Christian high schools for a decade. Studying literature with teenagers creates a depth of conversation that small talk never could. As a class, we would reflect over the joys and struggles different characters faced, and this naturally led my students to open up about their own stories: what they feared, what was going on at home, and their hopes for the future. This dialogue also created space for students to share about sexuality. Over the years, I have talked with students who were sexually abused, addicted to pornography, wrestling with same-sex attraction, worried about sex, excited about sex, sexually abstinent, and sexually active. What I noticed was how many were living in shame, afraid to talk about their God-given sexuality in anything above a whisper.
The classroom isn’t the only place I heard these confessions.
I grew up in a pastor’s home and I watched my parents love the vulnerable. There were often people heavy with the trials of life in our living room or at the kitchen table. My parents would feed them, listen to them, and pray over them. And as I grew into adulthood in the church, I began a similar ministry to the hurting. People sought me out for prayer, counsel, and friendship. Their stories in relation to sexuality were just as complicated as my students’—filled with guilt, abuse, fear, and hope. And when my peers and I were honest with one another, we shared similar stories.
So when it came time to pick a dissertation topic for my master’s thesis in Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, I thought about these questions and struggles. I wondered how teachings I’d internalized, such as the idea that women are responsible for the purity of men, or that you can earn a perfect marriage by practicing chastity, held up next to Scripture, and I decided to wade back into the purity teachings of my youth to find out.
This book isn’t a new I Kissed Dating Goodbye, nor is it meant to be the ultimate source or guide for sexual purity. My hope is that it will push Christians to engage with these topics together, in community. This book is for anyone trying to sort out what sexual purity means and how to talk about it—youth leaders, pastors, parents, teenagers, and those who grew up in church during the high tide of purity culture. It is for those who want to reevaluate what they were taught (or have taught others). It is for the hopeful and the bitter; those who underlined every other line in I Kissed Dating Goodbye and those who burned the book in college. It is for Christians who want to honor God and want to see the church do better.
A righteous anger
As I wrote this book, I found myself filled with a righteous anger at a Christian subculture that, for years, has made false promises and worshiped the idol of chastity rather than the Lord Jesus Christ. We have so much to uproot. We have so much to talk about. But I need you to know something before I go any further: I love the church. If I critique her, it is as a member of the body of Christ and a fellow sinner-saint. I pray for her flourishing. My desire to reevaluate purity culture teachings is out of love for the church, not a vendetta against her.
I will not be proposing a new sexual ethic for Christians or calling into question the validity of Scripture. God is above critique. But we are not. And I believe that humility demands regular reflection of our spiritual practices and biblical interpretation. This is not wishy-washy, but rather a recognition of our proneness to wander, that we all have a human weakness and fallibility, and that everyone is susceptible to getting so caught up in something that we forget to tether ourselves to God’s Word.
Evangelical purity culture was not a wicked movement, but rather an earnest response to the age-old problem of immorality and the modern crises of STDs and teenage pregnancy. As with most earnest, human responses, we didn’t get everything right. Surprised? I’m not. I won’t get everything right in this book either. But it’s time to step back and look at the movement that shaped so many of us—our relationships, our self-image, and our Christian faith.
Rachel Joy Welcher (MLit, University of St. Andrews) is a columnist and editor at Fathom magazine. She is the author of two books of poetry: Blue Tarp and Two Funerals, Then Easter. Her writing has appeared in Fathom Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, Relevant, and The Englewood Review of Books. She lives in Glenwood, Iowa, with her husband, Evan.