On Purity Culture and Female Empowerment
Women and the church are having a moment. After years of attempting to maintain a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to female leadership, last month the Southern Baptist Convention voted to affirm that submission to biblical orthodoxy—that women should not pastor churches—is still a condition for membership in the association. That the amendment to do so was highly controversial to begin with, that it was shoehorned for months by the SBC, which denomination is considered to be under “ultraconservative” influence, and that nearly 2,000 women in the SBC were serving in pastoral roles regardless of the association’s history of opposition to this, says much about our generational battles. Indeed, the SBC is one of the last denominations holding out on this issue; the mainline churches caved decades ago.
But the SBC controversy is just one lens through which to view the broader egalitarian creep in Protestant circles. Another is that of popular culture, or the books that Christians write, read, and affirm, which in turn shape the way they think—in this case, about men and women. That the modern American church has not escaped the effects of a thickly feminized secular culture is obvious; what may be surprising, however, is how willingly and unquestioningly Christian women have taken up these feminist presuppositions whole cloth. Not only have they bought the argument, but they are selling it to others of their sex, at the expense of settled doctrine, tradition, and their own better interests.
One voice in this cohort is evangelical author and blogger Sheila Wray Gregoire. A frequent speaker at Christian women’s conferences, Gregoire’s books have been read by thousands of Christian women and range from the topic of sexual education to female empowerment against what Gregoire describes as “toxic” church cultures. Her latest release, She Deserves Better, seeks to teach mothers how to raise girls “to resist toxic teachings on sex, self & speaking up,” with glowing endorsements from Aimee Byrd, author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Amanda Benckhuysen, author of The Gospel According to Eve.
She Deserves Better is something of an offshoot from Gregoire’s 2021 book, The Great Sex Rescue. For both, Gregoire collaborated with her daughter, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and friend Joanna Sawatsky. Both books also draw heavily on the three authors’ independent survey of 22,000 Christian women on the subject of marital satisfaction in the context of church teachings about sex and gender roles. While none of the authors is a theologian (Sawatsky has a master’s degree in public health, while Lindenbach’s credentials are an undergraduate degree in psychology and Gregoire herself has gained rapport as a blogger), their fierce dismantling of “toxic” or “tricky” teachings about sex and womanhood extends beyond purity culture to touch on sexual assault, male headship, and LGBTQ issues. Taking Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 about judging a tree by its fruit, the women argue that where their conclusions about their survey data indicate potential for a bad outcome from Christian teaching about womanhood, that teaching must go the way of every other established authority in the 21st century.
What is this bad fruit? According to their survey results, it is mostly low self-esteem in high school and the experience, at some point and for any reason, of pain or discomfort in the marriage bed. In some cases, it also means abuse, though as they reveal later, their concept of abuse is fairly broad, and includes “date rape,” a sexual encounter in which one partner is verbally or emotionally persuaded to consent. To a hammer, everything is a nail.
Summing up the worst of these problems in the opening chapter, Gregoire proclaims “The church has primed so many women for body image issues, sexual dysfunction, or even abusive marriages.” It has done so, she argues, by repeating the teachings of a few key sources from the peak of the purity movement, especially Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye; Elisabeth Elliot; Dannah Gresh, author of the modesty bestseller Secret Keeper Girl; and Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine for young girls.
In many ways, the moment could not have been better for Gregoire, or any savvy woman, to enter the conversation. Amazon’s recent documentary series on the Duggar family, “Shiny, Happy People,” has picked at a number of old scars from the purity movement days. They didn’t have to go far to reach the biggest one, the conviction of Josh Duggar, oldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, for possession of child pornography in May 2022. Duggar’s 12-year sentence in federal prison began nearly a decade after the news broke in 2015 that he had molested two of his sisters several years prior, and had cheated on his wife.
For those in favor of overturning orthodoxy in favor of contemporary political mores, the Duggars have been handy scapegoats. Amazon’s documentary works hard to connect Josh Duggar’s abuse with the teachings of another popular Christian speaker, Bill Gothard, and Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles, or IBLP. Because Gothard stepped down from IBLP in 2014 after being accused of sexual harassment by a number of women, though no criminal activity was ever uncovered, the suggestion is that his teachings, which emphasized male leadership and hierarchies of authority in Christianity, were responsible for a “culture of abuse.” In Duggar’s case, at least, the more obvious culprits seem to be his own father and mother, who were more concerned with protecting their image on national television during the airing of TLC’s “Nineteen Kids and Counting” show about their life, than with disciplining their wayward son.
For his own part, Gothard has an approach to the Christian life which can only honestly be described as legalistic. The very notion of having an institute that provides Christian families with answers on every question of how to live is, to say the least, a ditch of the Pharisaic variety. Gregoire’s opportunism on the subject, meanwhile, has allowed her to fashion herself as the voice of reason on Christian sex teaching, dismantling denim skirt demands and telling girls they need sexual education, not a healthy fear of premarital sex. But her critical approach to legitimate forms of hierarchy, modesty, and calls for sexual purity, and her determination to link it all back to abuse or consent violations, takes on a distinctly feminist flavor which is not, in the end, a legalism very different from Gothard’s.
After Duggar’s sentencing broke, Gregoire wrote a scathing blog post in which she blamed the church for complicity, “choosing to side with the abuser over the abuse [sic],” because of the widespread evangelical belief that lust is “every man’s battle.” This line about lust, which in the context of the purity movement was used to encourage women to dress modestly for the sake of protecting their Christian brothers from lustful thoughts, has been put through the wringer in recent years for having made women bear the responsibility for a man’s sexual sin. It’s a theme Gregoire picks up again in She Deserves Better: “This rhetoric, that men cannot help but be sexually ravenous at the sight of a girl showing some skin, is particularly nefarious when you consider its effects on girls who have been sexually assaulted.” The authors continue on the following page: “How did we get to the point, as a church, where girls are internalizing that if they are raped, they may have forced the boys to do so simply by having a female body in their presence?”
Abuse, especially abuse at the hands of church leaders who were supposed to be shepherds, not wolves, is an insufferable offense to the church and her purity. Fortunately, true victims of sexual assault do not represent the majority of Christian women. For the rest, however, Gregoire, Lindenbach, and Sawatsky are still concerned modesty is a “damaging message,” even that “modesty messages themselves cause trauma.” The authors conclude that such teachings lead to bad fruit and even amount to the church grooming girls for sexual assault.
There’s a glaring problem here, however, and it lies in the logical leaps taken to connect modesty messages with sexual abuse. If we are to agree with Gregoire’s conclusions, we must first accept the premises of her survey of Christian women, and the incontrovertible nature of each woman’s self-reported experience. Beyond that, doing most of the work in connecting modesty messages to abuse or trauma is the concept of self-esteem.
Low self-esteem was correlated, in their survey, with increased incidence of self-reported marital dissatisfaction, discomfort in the marriage bed, and in some cases, verbal or physical abuse. The causality between these two pieces is less obvious, however, since self-reported low self-esteem among high school girls is a near-universal phenomenon, and may be caused by numerous factors. One major contributing factor, not discussed in She Deserves Better, is social media use, which has also been linked to a number of social disorders far worse than low self-esteem, including depression, anxiety, and self-harm, especially for women. So while it’s clear that women with low self-esteem often are more likely to be abused, it’s not at all a given that this abuse is caused by purity teachings exclusively.
Social media abuse is not in Gregoire, Lindenbach, and Sawatsky’s list of tricky teachings or dangerous influences. Indeed, it is a subject about which they have almost no word of caution.
This leads to a bigger problem with their line of thought, which concerns how much culture has changed since the early 2000s. In 2023, it is hard to see how messages about modesty are in any way the primary threat to Christian young women, or that they outweigh concerns mothers have about their daughters being corrupted by what they see online. After all, this is where the vast majority of teen girls spend their time, not reading Brio magazine or going to conferences where their friends promise to save their first kiss for marriage. In this sense, that Gregoire’s book has been so popular is its own piece of evidence that purity culture and orthodox views of Christian womanhood have been left in the dustbin of cultural history, so far are they from ensnaring young women today.
To the authors’ credit, however, such purity teachings may have a resurgence in response to the latest wave of sexual politics being force-fed young children in public schools. Indeed, a primary concern for many parents of young girls today is that she will become confused about her gender. It was this concern that led investigative journalist Abigail Shrier to uncover the social contagion aspect of the transgender issue for adolescent girls in her 2020 book Irreversible Damage. Shrier found that, far from an organic onset of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls, the rapid rise in transgender-identifying females in recent years is greatly influenced by that age-old oppressor, peer pressure. Girls are demanding double mastectomies to fit in.
Here is a subject that merits serious discussion, and what better place than a Christian book about raising women to resist toxic teachings? Surely, her “right to exist in a female body,” as they title one subheading, extends to protecting her from hormone replacement therapy and irreversible surgeries, which deny the existence of womanhood and manhood as objective categories. Surely Christians, who believe God created them male and female, and especially Christian women so concerned with abuse, would be the first to protect her body.
Here is what Gregoire, Lindenbach and Sawatsky have to say:
Telling someone ‘You don’t feel what you think you feel,’ or training someone to systematically doubt and mistrust their own instincts is a form of psychological abuse called gaslighting. When we consider the fact that LGBTQ+ youth in the church have a seven-times-higher suicide rate than those outside of it, this kind of advice becomes doubly alarming. If you are afraid that your child is not straight, it may be tempting to simply brush off their ‘feelings’ as untrue. But gaslighting your child won’t make them straight—though it may contribute to a higher likelihood that they will want to die.
The data on LGBTQ+ youth suicide rates in the church is taken from a survey put out by The Trevor Project, an activist group dedicated to ending suicide among LGBTQ youth by, among other things, lobbying “to protect LGBTQ youth from the harmful practice of conversion therapy.” The Trevor Project also advocates for “ensuring that transgender youth can receive the medically necessary care they need”—that is, hormone replacement therapy and gender reassignment surgery, which many activists claim reduce the risk of suicide for gender-questioning youth, but which the only serious, long-term study on the matter showed to do precisely the opposite. Needless to say, data from The Trevor Project should be considered with great caution.
This is all that Gregoire and Co. offer parents on the subject: Questioning your daughter’s gender or sexual “identity” is gaslighting. It’s rather ironic, considering Gregoire spends a good portion of the book talking about DARVO tactics of abusers (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), that Christian parents are denied their valid concerns about gender ideology, attacked as an oppressor for doubting a teen girl’s emotions, and told that the offending ideology is the church’s teaching on sexuality, not the predator telling her daughter to cut off her breasts.
More stunning is the omission, however, of any serious discussion of how to counsel a young Christian woman who is confused about gender and sexuality, because “this is not a theological book.” The authors use this evidence versus theology dichotomy to obfuscate here and in the discussion of female empowerment, because “this isn’t just about an interpretation of the Bible; this is about the kind of man she may marry.”
It makes sense, unfortunately, that She Deserves Better cannot provide a serious response to perverted gender teaching. The authors’ baseline premise is an egalitarian belief in the interchangeability of men and women, as though their equal value before God means they are substantially the same. This interchangeability belief is the same premise which undergirds the transgender movement, and it is also, poignantly, the cause of so much of the abuse Gregoire, Lindenbach, and Sawatsky are rightly incensed to prevent.
In stripping both Christian churches and Christian families of every hierarchy, feminist egalitarianism has also stripped women of the protections that once guarded them against abuse, both in the church and elsewhere. In their stead, it has placed empty ones, making figureheads of men while undercutting their genuine leadership by affirming that women can do every job they can, and maybe better.
For this sort of male headship, Gregoire would be right to have criticism. But instead, she swings for the fences: that every patriarchy is fundamentally toxic is, to her and her coauthors, a given. Even the modern concept of complementarianism is dangerously hierarchical: “In God’s family, there’s no first or second place…In following Christ, we do not seek power over others; rather, we aim to tear down hierarchy as a way to revere the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.”
Like everything else, hierarchy is tied to abuse: “Parents who believe in a power hierarchy, even if they do not practice it and actually have a healthy marriage, can unwittingly groom their daughters to fall prey to abusers because they’ve given the abusers an out: just claim Christian male headship” (emphasis mine). It doesn’t matter, either, if yours is a healthy patriarchy: “If you have a healthy marriage but you are using the same words and terms and theology to describe it as abusers use to justify their abuse, your daughter may follow your words, not your example.”
Of course, it is easy to renounce male headship when it looks like the trope Gregoire and her coauthors present: men who treat women “like second-class citizens.” There is plenty of this kind of bad behavior in the history of the purity movement, and the authors are at their strongest in critiquing it: lust is not exclusively a male problem, strict dress codes can lead to vanity and self-righteousness in the women who adhere to and enforce them, and an overemphasis on the very bright line of virginity rather than parsing greyer areas with prudence, are unhelpful teachings for both girls and boys. But this is not where they spend the bulk of their efforts.
Understandably, the greatest praise for She Deserves Better has come from those women who may claim hurt from the evangelical purity movement of the early 2000s, whether from its legalisms or, more seriously, from its adherents who engaged in abuse. Moms and daughters who felt betrayed by Joshua Harris leaving Christianity, or who were themselves victims of unchecked predators in the church, are running to the solutions Gregoire presents, desperate for a source on raising women that will not leave their daughters broken or apostatized.
It’s a noble goal, one which engages every serious Christian parent. But the solution to the failures of purity culture is not to be found in accepting the world’s understanding of female beauty as trivial enough to flaunt without consequence, and of female empowerment as becoming like men. This shallow response (see Gregoire’s list of girlboss women in the Bible, each notable not for her godly deeds but because she “asserted her rights,” “asserted her superior knowledge…rather than deferring to the men around her,” and “spoke up vehemently”), a kind of Feminism Lite, is at least as degrading to women as any examples of bad Christian patriarchy Gregoire might point to in the early aughts.
What women need, then, is not more of the same egalitarianism, which got us into our current mess. It does us no good to simply swap legalism for libertinism, Pharisaic teachings of the “puritan” variety for those of the feminist variety, or bad patriarchy for bad matriarchy. What young Christian girls need is a return to biblical theology of womanhood, which ennobles her in her telos as the glory of man, the crown of her husband, and a daughter of the King.