Saturday, June 14, 2014

When Did Modesty Become An Ironically Dirty Word?

We live in interesting times. Even as the religious culture collapses around us, the church is responding in wildly different ways. In some corners we have the church stubbornly insisting on doing the same things we have done for centuries and expecting somehow that the world will suddenly find it appealing. Other corners are hunkering down and withdrawing, content to be glad that we are not subject to the harsh reality of the world around us. An even larger segment, and one that seems to be growing, is the Quisling wing that has surrendered to the world and eagerly joined it, embracing every fad and whim of the world in a vain attempt to gain the approval of the world.

This mindset tells us that whatever is traditional is bad and must be not only be rejected but the opposite is to be embraced. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from questioning tradition and rejecting what is not Scriptural but it seems many of us are missing that critical step of looking to Scripture.

One idea that is getting increasing attention is what I would call the "anti-modesty" movement. The thought process seems to be: dressing in skimpy clothing is considered "cute" and "normal" by the culture. Being counter-culturally modest is "traditional". Therefore no one dares imply that it is neither wise nor helpful for young women to dress in ways designed to be sexually provocative. I can sort of get some of it, there is a bit of an understandable backlash against the "modest is hottest" stuff, but what it has predictably turned into is a rejection of any suggestion of modesty as being a praiseworthy in spite of what seems to be pretty powerful and clear Biblical advocacy for modesty. We of course have 1 Timothy 2:9-10 which calls on sisters to be modest and respectable in their attire, which would seem to include both eschewing fancy clothing and jewelry but also  immodest attire. Then there is 1 Corinthians 11 commends not just women covering their heads but also condemns women wearing their hair short and men wearing their hair long. These are just a few examples but neither gets much play in the church. Can you imagine the average pastor suggesting that the women in the pews wearing expensive outfits, adorned with jewelry and make-up and with fashionably short hair cuts might want to rethink their ensemble? No better way to get a handful of change rather than a nice check in the offering plate doing that sort of stuff, not to mention the irate emails or awkward after sermon conversations!

My issue with this is that it is not just some fairly obscure theological position. I read the paper thin critiques of penal substitutionary atonement and while I think they are way off the mark and perilously so, the vast majority of Christians don't have an opinion one way or the other and those we are trying to reach with the Gospel don't have a clue what we are talking about. The anti-modesty movement? That has a very real and negative impact on young women in the church, women who are getting a message from the culture that is increasingly reinforced by vocal portions of the church that dressing in a sexually suggestive manner is not only OK but it is actually laudable.

We need to set aside the contemporary debate for a second and look to the Bible and what it has to say about modesty. As I am prone to do, crazy fundie that I am, I like to go to Genesis because there is nowhere in Scripture that we can get a better look at the foundations of virtually any issue. Of course if you are one of those that dismisses Genesis as an allegory that has no historical value and no relevance to the church, please feel free to skip the rest of this post. The very first thing that Adam and Eve did after eating the fruit was not to ponder their role in white privilege or how to advance social justice or advocate for increasing the minimum wage. No it was this....

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself."  (Gen 3:7-10)

Their nakedness was the first thing they noticed. I think that might be important. Notice that in response God doesn't say "Hey drop those leaves and let it all hang out! If ya got it, flaunt it!' He instead does something that seems unexpected in our modern culture:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen 3:21)

He replaced their fig leave coverings with better garments made of skin. Presumably the animal had to die first and that has some interesting implications to be explored at a different time. More to the point here. God provided the means to cover their nakedness which would seem to imply that post-fall this was an important issue.

Yeah but we aren't talking about nudity, just tank tops and short shorts!

True but honestly the line between being nude and some outfits young women wear is getting pretty hard to distinguish. There was a time when it was called "underwear" because you would wear it under your clothing.

Now I am not a woman but I can't help but think that wearing the tiniest of shorts and shirts that expose a lot of flesh as well as most of your undergarments can't be that comfortable to wear. I am also pretty sure that the difference in comfort when the temperature rises between say a modest length lightweight skirt and tiny shorts is not that dramatic. So what is really on display (pun intended) is clothing that is designed to be sexually provocative being trumpeted as healthy for young women and that any man who notices the sexually provocative nature of clothing intended to be sexually provocative is a pervert or a Puritan or some combination thereof. Yes men need to be cognizant of the effect women in skimpy clothing has on them and it is a good idea to avoid settings where you are exposed to it but the idea that women should expose themselves at will and men just have to stare at the ground is ludicrous and one that in saner times wouldn't be given a reasonable hearing in the church. Alas we don't live in sane times.

Somehow much of the church has bought wholesale into the notion that any sort of restraint on baser human behavior is somehow repressive and unhealthy. If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that the natural state of mankind is unhealthy and abhorrent to God. That is why Christ came, not to give us a "sin all you like" card but to redeem humanity, saving us from our own base instincts and the just wrath of God in response. To respond to our freedom in Christ by embracing that which is hateful to God seems like ingratitude to me.

What qualifies as modest is kind of a broad topic but using some common sense and some historical perspective broader than last week should help. Some would say women wearing pants at all is immodest. I don't necessarily agree but certainly skin tight jeans or those ridiculous leggings that serve as "pants" or the even worse jeans cut in such a way that your butt crack is hanging out are clearly not modest. Low cut tops that expose a lot of cleavage are the same. What purpose does a blouse that is low cut serve if not drawing attention to your cleavage? To get all outraged because men are looking where your shirt is designed to draw their attention seems just a tad hypocritical. Again I am not a woman but if you have to spend all day hiking up your jeans and tugging up your top, perhaps a more appropriate outfit might be in order? I am also pretty sure that young women who are wearing comfortable, modest clothes that don't expose the vast majority of their skin might have fewer issues with body image.

My intent here is not to create an exhaustive list of what Christian women can or cannot wear. In fact this is not an exclusively female issue, although it is more obvious with women. Men can certainly dress immodestly as well, although dressing in poor taste is probably a lot more common than dressing immodestly. Modesty is also more than just showing skin, Paul is at least as concerned with women wearing expensive clothes, jewelry and styled hair as he is with fleshly immodesty. There is, or ought to be, something jarring about a gathering of the church where men and women alike are wearing costly garments and jewelry, where women are wearing make-up and styled hair, in order to demonstrate just how serious they are about following a King who rode a donkey in Jerusalem and spoke favorably of the poor and not so much of the rich. Try going to a nice suburban conservative church some time in ratty, dirty clothes and see how you are welcomed. As it applies to clothing that is revealing however I am deeply concerned by possibly well-meaning (and quite possibly less than well-meaning) folks who are exhibiting knee-jerk reactions to any hint that women, especially our daughters, should consider their own dignity and safety when choosing the clothes they wear. As parents get pushed out of the lives of their children in ever more comprehensive ways and at earlier ages, the church should be the exception rather than a willing participant. Parents, mothers and fathers alike, should be comfortable in saying "Uh no, back upstairs and try again" when our children are dressed in ways that dishonor God and themselves. We should be just as comfortable in gently saying no to the latest request for a brand new phone or expensive tennis shoes or any of the other worldly, immodest trappings of the modern world. Being a parent is not a spectator sport. Parents ought to model modesty for their children and expect it from them as they grow old enough to start making decisions on their own. We aren't doing our children, our witness or ourselves any favors when we intentionally dishonor God with our attire and do so in the misguided name of "Christian liberty".


dle said...

You must not have been a teenager or adult in the 1970s, because I can tell you that it was far more immodest then.

Joyce - Quilted Nest said...

Church/world lines are very blurred these days... and I'm thinking it's prob. not gonna get any better as time goes by. Bless you for be willing to address this 'hot' topic (pun also intended) :) I'll prob. post a link to it at some point on my With Propriety blog if I may.

Arthur Sido said...

Dan, I was just a wee lad and didn't notice such stuff in the 70's. I believe what has changed is the general acceptance, not by teens, but parents and especially Christian parents of immodest dress.

Joyce, thanks for the comment and please feel free to link to it if you like!

Aussie John said...


Two Scriptures came to mind as I read your article, which cause me concern,and which has often been the case when I think of "Christian" parents whose children "do their own thing" in terms of your subject: Romans 12:1-2;II Cor.3:18.

Through long experience it has become clear, and clearer that many of us have not understood that GENUINE conversion brings about whole of life transformation.

Sadly that change seldom happens as quickly as I would like. It only happens as the Holy Spirit causes the change.

Indeed, as someone once wisely said, "Information doesn't mean transformation".

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! This is something the church does not discuss. It is certainly worse now, especially since younger and younger girls are being provocative and immodest...and like you said, the Christian parents say nothing. The overall American "culture" as a whole, is far more perverse and ungodly than ever before.