As summer starts to wind down, Eric Carpenter raises the heat with a discussion of swimwear. His initial post, Two Related Questions About Bikinis for Christian Women Who Wear Bikinis, was directed at Christian women who wear bikinis and asks for their input. Alas he got none. His second post, Bikinis Part Deux, opens the floor to the general public. I am hoping he gets more interaction on the second post because this is an important topic.
I see this question going far beyond bikinis. Sure they are the low hanging fruit in the debate but the issue doesn’t stop there. Certainly you can see “more skin” when a woman is in a bikini but even a modest one piece suit leaves very little to the imagination. What about shorts, how short is too short? Tank tops, low cut or sleeveless shirts, skirts that are too short, pants that are too tight? To state it more broadly, is modesty a discussion about swimwear and hemline or does it go much deeper? It is easy to get mired in a morass of specifics and miss the proverbial forest for the trees.
The question of modesty is one that gets a lot of people pretty riled up. It runs smack dab against our culture self-reliance and independence. Perhaps even more so it makes us standout from the culture. Women in denim jumpers are just weird in our super casual culture where people go out in public looking like they literally just rolled out of bed. Wearing pajama pants to the grocery store? Really? We live in a world where women in lingerie prance around in commercials during prime time and the Olympics feature women playing beach volleyball in the most ridiculously tiny outfits imaginable to try to attract male viewers.
You may be thinking: “Bah. Don’t we have more pressing issues to worry about like preaching the Gospel and feeding the poor? When we get the ‘big stuff’ figured out we can worry about the ‘little stuff’!”
To be blunt, which is really out of character for me, that is nothing less than a cheap dodge. This isn’t really an “either-or” issue but a “both-and” one. I am of the opinion that when the Bible speaks on a topic it deserves our attention and reflection and Paul addresses the issue of modesty (albeit without much detail) quite directly.
…likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)
If Paul thought it was worth the time to bring up in a letter to Timothy, isn’t it worth our time to ask the hard questions as well? In other words, there are no "little issues"!
I have heard it argued that a woman can be modest depending on the culture wearing virtually anything. That is perhaps true but for my purposes I am talking about the Western, and more specifically American, culture. In our culture, at best, the bikini serves the purpose of enabling vanity by facilitating a more even tan. At worst it feeds into the “if ya got it, flaunt it” mentality that has been embraced even by many religious folks. The “safest” way to ensure modesty is the method adopted by certain conservative Christian groups including many of the more traditional Anabaptist circles with rigid rules of dress. A woman in an ankle length dress that is cut intentionally to not be form fitting, wearing no jewelry and with her head covered is about as safely modest as you can get. I don’t know that it has to be quite to that extreme. Is a jumper with a short sleeve blouse underneath it sufficiently modest? What about pants? You can see where this goes.
Here is where we get into trouble. Paul is speaking pretty generally here and his silence doesn’t tend to lead us to humble reflection but instead a contest between a camp on one side of legalistic rules and an opposing camp of libertinism. Either way this has to be one of the worst cultures around in which to have this discussion. You can find church-going women who wouldn’t think of wearing a bikini out in public but show up to church with their hair done up in an expensive dress wearing lots of jewelry, thinking they are pleasing God by dressing up for church. It is tragically ironic that we embrace our cultural notion of pridefully dressing up for church when that seems to fly right in the face of what Paul is saying (of course so is bowing our heads and closing our eyes to pray when he says right before these verses: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim 2:8) , but I digress).
What Paul is describing here goes well beyond simply avoiding bikini swimsuits, although that is a good place to start. Some things are so egregious and obvious that they don’t really require discussion and bikinis, essentially quick drying underwear, fall into that category. The real issue is a heart issue, as so many of these issues are. A woman in a plain dress with her hair severely pulled back into a bun and under a bonnet who harbors an angry and prideful hart toward women who are less pious than she is not modest in any sense of the word. A sister wearing pants and a blouse yet is humble in heart and reflecting the love of Christ in her words and deeds certainly is modest in a more meaningful way. At the most basic level a modest heart is one that sees others as more valuable than one’s self. Clothing that distracts or causes stumbling, whether because that clothing is revealing and intentionally provocative or because that clothing is designed to demonstrate one’s class and wealth, is immodest because it places my need for approval above my brother or sister’s needs.
Modesty is much more than avoiding revealing clothes although real modesty will certainly arrive at that conclusion. We should be spending our efforts not in making rules for others to follow but instead by demonstrating through the manner of our lives what modest living looks like. I once dreamed of having a fancy sports car but now that idea and what it would say about me is abhorrent, not just because it would be an enormous waste of money that could go to the cause of the Kingdom but because it would be something designed to attract envy from others. I am hardly a model of modesty but I am trying and I often look to my wife in this respect as someone who reflects a simple modesty in far more than her clothing.
Wearing modest clothes and avoiding bikinis does not make you modest but a Christian with a modest heart will dress, speak and live modestly.