What is modesty??? Who gets to make the call? What centrally recognized authority do women have so that all can go to that authority to answer the question “Is this outfit modest?”
There isn’t one! There is no centrally recognized Christian modesty panel that we can refer to. Men, we really have little idea how tough it is for women. One author, Rachel Held Evans, describes the struggle this way:
“What I’ve only just begun to realize is that these two extremes represent different sides of the same coin. While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. In both cases, it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men, and thus it is seen as her fault if a man ignores her on the one hand or objectifies her on the other. Often, these two cultures combine to send out a pulse of confusing messages: “Look cute … but not too cute! Be modest … but not frumpy! Make yourself attractive … but not too attractive!” Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals. It’s exhausting, really, dressing for other people.”
That’s the culture we live in. Other people live in other cultures which approach modesty quite differently. Tribal women dress in ways that our culture would find quite immodest. So let’s start off investigating modesty by trying to become culturally aware.
That they are Amish, right? When you first saw this picture, did the thought jump into your mind that these ladies might be headed to a Halloween costume party?
Or did you immediately think, “Amish”? Did you assume something about these ladies because of their dress?”
What kind of music does this guy probably like? Country! But how do you know he doesn’t like opera or gansta rap? Are you assuming something about this person because of his outer appearance?
Let’s do a couple more:
What style are these people dressed like? Goth. What are some general tendencies of someone who dresses like this? They like heavy metal music with rebellious themes. But how do you know they aren’t having a Bible study?
One more. Which clothing style is more likely to get this guy hired at a job interview?
The suit, right? Why? We believe that when a person puts on a suit, it says something about them. But what if the interview is for a tattoo parlor?
So what do all these questions and pictures help us learn?
It is a societal norm to make assumptions about people based on their appearance. We know that God does not look at the outward appearance. He looks at the heart. And we also should strive to look at people God’s way.
But we should be extremely conscious of the fact that many people do not look at things the way God does. Instead many people in our society judge you based on how you look, and even more, they treat you differently based on how you look.
Perhaps you rightly feel a sense of injustice about that. People shouldn’t treat you differently based on how you look! God’s way of looking at the heart is the right way. But it would be extremely short-sighted for any of us to fail to take into account how some people still look at and judge others based on outward appearance.
I am not excusing bad behavior. Not in the least. If a person lusts against another, that is wrong in Jesus’ teaching. If they rape another, or if they do anything in between, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Sin is sin.
Hear me on this: I am not saying that sin is OK, or that it is OK to view people differently based on their appearance. I am saying we live in a world where people commit sin against other people based on their outward appearance! Therefore, when you live in a world where people do not have self-control, you should prepare for it. You would be wise, very wise, not to invite sin in your life. There is a great wisdom, therefore, to modesty.
So once again I ask, What is modesty? As the pictures above remind us, our view of what is modest, decent and proper is socially conditioned. You might not like the way someone dresses. But that doesn’t mean that your opinion is the only valid one. We simply must have humility about that.
And that brings me to passages like 1 Cor 8-10 or Romans 14-15 where Paul talks about what to do when Christians disagree with one another. We are not going to come up with a universally agreed upon Christian standard of modest dress. Even if we took a vote and agreed on a Christian dress code, we might have a majority opinion, but there would still be many who disagree with it. So what do we do when we disagree? First and foremost, we love one another. We can and must exist together, especially in a local congregational setting, where there are differences of opinion about modesty. We must fight the urge to judge one another. Here what Paul says:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
So with that spirit of love and unity in mind, I refer to my mini-sermons that I mentioned last week. I believe they speak valid points from both gender! Let’s start with what some women have said:
Dear brothers in Christ, we women are ogled at in our hypersexualized culture. It is hard. We get weary. The last thing we want is to have you checking us out. So help a girl out. Please look up.
Men, you are responsible for your own thoughts and actions. It is not the women’s fault if you cannot control yourself. It is your fault. You need to take ownership of your own lust. You should not be objectifying women, checking them out, etc. Do not blame the women for lust. So do the hard work of opening yourself up to an honest appraisal of yourself. Men, none of us wants to admit that we have a problem with lust, or a porn addiction, or a self-control issue. But if we do, we need to know it and admit it, because it is only from the place of honest confession that we can begin to see transformation. I encourage you to have an accountability partner or group. Men, you should almost certainly have content filtering and accountability software on your devices.
A few years ago one of my sons, who was in elementary school at the time, heard from other students on the bus about a website they were encouraging him to check out. We didn’t have filtering software on our home computer, and he snuck on to the site. Once we found out through the sibling grapevine, I was heartbroken. In the safety of our home, my son had been exposed to extremely perverse images. Researches and scientists have done excellent and sobering work on the affects of porn on the brain. It create a powerful addiction, with ruinous consequences. Men, we need to take action to guard our homes, our sons, our minds. I had failed. We now have filtering software on our home computer and devices.
We need to talk about sexual addiction and lust in our churches, in our small groups, and take serious action. When Jesus brought up the topic of lust in Matthew 5, notice his approach:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Who does Jesus say should carry the burden for lust? Not the recipient of the lust, but the purveyor. Men, when we lust, Jesus says our response should be to take drastic action. He was speaking in hyperbole in those verses, of course. I also believe Dallas Willard’s approach to these verses is very instructive. It could be that when people in the crowd heard Jesus teaching this drastic action about lust, they would have been laughing. Not at, but with him. How could this be funny?
Consider, men, how you lust. If you gouge out your eyes, would that remove the capability for lust? Absolutely not. We well know that lust is a matter of the heart and of the mind. So perhaps the drastic action that we need to take is what Willard would call the renovation of our hearts. That might involve some serious rehabilitation, therapy. But if work on our inner life is what we need, then let us do that work.
Does this mean that women should be free to wear whatever they want? Not in the least. Without question, especially in a church family, women should be free from objectification, though not necessarily free to wear whatever they want. Paul was writing to women in 1st Timothy 2:9-15. So the second mini-sermon has some important points as well. Here it is:
Dear sisters in Christ, we men battle lust in our hypersexualized culture. It is hard. We get weary. The last thing we want is to see some of you dressed immodestly. So help a guy out. Please cover up.
Just as the men are responsible for how they think, women, you are also responsible for how you dress. Paul said clearly that the principle you should follow is to be known for your good deeds. Be aware of how warped our society can be, of what reputation you desire to carry and of what your message your dress sends to those who might not have self-control. Be known for your character. May your outerwear be an expression of your inner character.
So, Faith Church, we are installing new modesty detection scanners this week. All women must walk through the scanners before they enter the sanctuary. Men are exempt because Paul didn’t address them. The scanner will sound a buzzer if the woman is not dressed modestly, and our modesty security team will escort her to our new clothing ministry which will outfit her with proper attire. She may then enter the sanctuary.
We will also be email you all catalogs which will enable you to order our new church uniforms. That way no will have to face the shame of the scanners. Except guests. And they will get up to code quickly, we’re sure. Here is a picture of the sample uniform. We will provide kits for cutting out eye-holes.
Just kidding! No church should endeavor to create a dress code. Or install scanners. And neither will we. But we do ask all women to consider what Paul says in this passage. What does it mean to dress with modesty, propriety and decency? Please seek a faithful answer to that question before the Lord. I would recommend that women discuss this together. Our culture has plenty of clothing styles that are considered trendy, fashionable, and attractive. But our culture’s perspective should not be seen as the last word on the matter. The runways in Paris, London and NYC might not be the best place to learn how to answer the question of what is modest. Then again, they might! They might have good options. But they also have a reputation of subtly promoting the objectification of women, based on the styles they design.
In conclusion, I return to what Paul said above in Romans. Let us love one another. Our love for another should be such a priority that we are willing to practice massive amounts of self-control for one another.
PS – I mentioned a bonus 4th sermon in my post last week. I did briefly preach that on Sunday. It was about the role of women in ministry. My perspective was identical to what I said here. I continue to believe that in a near-egalitarian culture, such as the USA, Paul would have preached something very different than what he said in 1st Timothy 2:9-15 about women and their role in ministry. Look no further than how differently he taught in Romans 16, where he mentions Junias, a female apostle. That said, and because their is a robust, faithful hermeneutic around the equality of men and women in the church, I cannot fathom why other approaches continue to exist that do not allow for total equality of men and women in the church.