Some Thoughts on Modesty

I was raised to dress modestly (in a way that would not tend to arouse male attention).

Mum taught us to bend over in the change rooms so we could see how much cleavage would be exposed, we weren’t allowed to wear bikinis and Mum told me I couldn’t wear a certain outfit out as I looked like a hooker (Okay, that only happened once and she did apologise for saying it later. And, in hindsight, I did look like a hooker. Thanks Mum!).

Despite there being moments of teenage attitude (“This is SO not fair!” *stomp*) and rebellion (there were a couple of tops I wore as a 14 year old that I can’t believe I got away with), I am so thankful to my parents for laying the foundation of modest dressing for me. And for teaching me that my body is a beautiful thing, but it is meant for only my husband (future, at that point).

I’ve been noticing a lot of articles about modesty crop up in the Christian blogosphere recently, approaching the issue from both sides.

The arguments seem to be either:

“Christian women should dress modestly because men are visual and if we don’t, we will cause them to stumble in lust.”

OR

“Men are responsible for their own thoughts and actions – Christian women can dress how they like.”

Neither of these arguments sit right with me.

It isn’t right to make women squarely responsible for men’s lust, simply because of what they wear. See Matthew 5:27-30

However, to say “men are responsible for their own lust, therefore I can dress how I like” seems almost… callous to me.

Here’s what it comes down to for me.

1. Love for My Brothers in Christ

Treating other Christian men like brothers (or fathers) means that I don’t want to do anything that will place unnecessary temptation before them, even if I have the freedom to do so.

Being married and having some frank discussions with my husband have illuminated for me just how difficult it is for men in our culture who wish to keep their thoughts pure. They are constantly bombarded with advertisements and real, live women baring flesh and curves designed to make them think sexual thoughts. My husband has never blamed these women or advertisers for the times he does have lustful thoughts – he fully owns that – but he finds it that much harder to keep his thoughts pure when faced with this constant temptation.

Hearing his heart perspective on this has made me much more aware of the effects my clothing choices have on others. I don’t want to add to the problem. How can I proclaim to know Christ and to share in fellowship with other Christians on the one hand, while declaring my personal freedom to wear clothing I know will tempt them, on the other? Love requires sacrifice. It’s as simple as that.

2. Our Bodies Are Not Our Own

Putting aside the issue of loving our Christian brothers with our clothing choices, no Christian has complete freedom and ownership over their body. This means that how we cloth our bodies is not merely a matter of personal preference.

In her widely read article on the topic of modesty, Rachel Held Evans concludes that when shopping for swimmers, instead of focussing on “modesty”, women should “find something that makes you comfortable…  …and revel in this body and this world God gave you to enjoy.”

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

So, yes, I agree with Ms Held Evans that God gave us this world and these bodies to enjoy, but even this enjoyment must come under the lordship of Jesus. I wonder how we would all dress if we asked ourselves the question “does this honor God?” of each outfit we tried on in the morning (or better yet, at the shop before we bought it!). This leads me to my next point…

3. There can be no ‘Standard’ of Modesty, but…

Public nudity is out. Ha!

Okay, seriously (no, wait… I was being serious!) following the creation and fall of man, the Bible repeatedly links nakedness to shame, judgement and desolation. (If you search “naked” on Biblegateway, you will get a sense of this.)

Interestingly, even post-redemptive references to nakedness talk about being clothed, rather than a return to the pre-fall state of “naked and not ashamed”. (See 2 Corinthians 5:1-3 and Revelation 3:17-18)

So we know that, at a basic level, God requires us to be clothed.

The difficulty comes in when we try to define modesty beyond that. Cultural standards of modesty vary widely across time and nations. Even within one culture, what might tempt one man to lust, will not even make another man turn his head.

We can’t therefore try to cater to every single man’s definition of modesty.

But I think some good ground rules are that sexual areas should be appropriately covered. And I think that our standards should be evolving as we grow in the Lord. I think we should be open to rebuke from fellow Christians if they find our clothing inappropriate.

 

What do you think?

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9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Modesty

  1. I like your summating comment about our standards evolving as we grown in Christ but find the prior point of ‘sexual areas appropriately covered’ quite ambiguous.
    Culture predominantly dictates standards – 100 years ago the sighting of a woman’s ankle was considered quite scandalous, yet in India, the expectations were quite different. In some Muslim communities all aspects of a woman could be considered inappropriate for public display.
    It’s a very difficult topic to deal with & I agree that neither extreme mentioned at the beginning of your article sits well. I don’t have an answer either I’m afraid though I do believe educating both men & women that the female is more than just a body would be a good place to start.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Jo 🙂
    I was deliberately ambiguous, as I wanted to steer away from talk about the length of skirts and the cut of necklines.
    Personally, I think that the culture should partially inform standards, but this must come under God’s authority. E.g. If I lived in an African country (or New York 😉 ) where women going topless was acceptable, I still wouldn’t do that because the Bible teaches that breasts are sexual.
    I think you raise a good point about teaching that women are more than just their bodies. I think this is a great strategy for helping men not to be so easily overcome with lust. However, God did make women with attractive bodies for a reason, and lust is merely a sinful corruption of this, so I don’t think we can ever “condition” this out of men.

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  3. Thank you for this post. I really appreciate your describing the polarizing arguments. I (as a man) have been put off by both polar extremes for quite a while, but have never heard anyone else say so. The approach I have to this topic is a little different from yours, however. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. (I’m sorry this got so long. This is something I’ve thought about a lot.)

    I find there to be two concepts that are ignored, or are misunderstood.

    1) Assigning fault
    It is unfortunate that this is the primary concern for so many people. On the other hand, I have heard many people, pastors and others, make a big deal about the “blame game”. In daily practice, the “blame game” approach effectively makes it a sin to even mention that sin, fault, or guilt belong to any particular person. This makes it *very* hard to reconcile with people — unless you decide to pretend that nothing at all happened. That is not God’s approach (Lev. 19:17 shows God’s concern, and it’s echoed in the NT in various places).

    I think God cares a lot about properly placing guilt, or else bearing false witness wouldn’t show up in the ten commandments. God does *not* want us to deride or berate. He wants us to walk in his ways, and to help each other do so in sincere kindness. When a person sins, the guilt for that sin rests fully on the sinner. When a person puts a stumbling block in another’s path, the guilt for *that* sin rests fully on *that* sinner. (Rom. 14:13) (I Cor. 8:9 – The application goes beyond food, IMO).

    So, there’s plenty of fault to be had. Let’s place it accurately, starting with ourselves. And let’s remind our brothers or sisters to be careful in their walk, and let’s do so with a spirit of concern and love. The goal of rebuke is supposed to be restoration and reconciliation rather than just dodging blame for ourselves. Let’s pursue dignity and beauty for ourselves *and* our brothers and sisters.

    2) Modesty vs. Decency
    Modesty, especially in this context of women’s clothing, is almost universally conflated with decency. In any other context I can think of, modesty is considered to be the opposite of extravagance rather than decency. Reread I Tim. 2:9 and I Pet. 3:3 with that context in mind, and see if it doesn’t make much more sense. If the contrast were between modesty and decency, wouldn’t the descriptions of immodesty been descriptions that highlighted indecent, shameful displays or nudity? Instead, the contrast shows immodesty to be about *costly* array, and extravagance in jewelry, hair, and general adornment. I do not think that elegant dress is being labeled as sin by Paul or Peter, but women are told that they shouldn’t try to exalt themselves by their dress and adornment. (Some people even use those passages to justify avoiding dressing attractively, which I think is wrong.)

    So, what is decent dress? Can decent dress be attractive? I certainly think so! The Bible doesn’t give a specific skirt length or tell us that that it’s a sin if someone can tell there are breasts under that blouse. Most of the time though, a woman knows what her *motivation* is for dressing a particular way. I think that is the starting point. If a man tells a lady that she’s pretty, she doesn’t have to be offended — or feel guilty. If he says the way she’s dressed is causing him to stumble, she doesn’t have to change her whole wardrobe. One option is to say, “I don’t think this is indecent, but I don’t want you to stumble, so I’ll cover up a bit more.” Of course, a lot depends on the man’s approach. The men who are willing to mention such things to a woman are often condescending and rude. I don’t think you should give in to his derision or contempt, just introspect later on in case there was any truth to his words. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. 😉 (You youngsters who read this need to think of the clocks that have “hands” instead of “displays” 😉 )

    And by the way, just because a man looks at a beautiful woman, doesn’t mean he is lusting (coveting). There is a lot of pressure on men to pretend that they can’t see obvious beauty. This is just as evil as telling women that their beauty is something evil or valueless.

    One more thought that may not occur to the ladies, is that men who want to do what is right get a lot of pressure from “both sides”. These men have the desire to be careful and not lust, but there are a lot of women out there who specifically dress (or undress) in order to provoke male attention and lust. On the other side, there are a lot of women who devalue their husbands at home, sexually and otherwise. They may dress without regard for their husbands. They may actually do things to obstruct or discourage sexual attraction. They may restrict sex acts, or simply refuse to engage enthusiastically with their husbands. Of course that’s a complex issue, and I realize that there are lousy husbands out there. Still, that spirit of rejection causes some pretty deep pain. A man in that situation is shouldering an enormous burden of temptation. It’s not good for the man to be alone, and being alone in a marriage is as awful for a man as it is for a woman. That man will very likely end up looking, and even lusting at some point. At that point, especially if he looks (even a little bit) at porn, he will receive the full burden of blame and shame without any compassion from men or women.

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  4. Object of Contempt,
    Welcome to the blog, and thank you for the comment! I wrote this post so long ago, I had to go back and have a reread. (Still agree with myself – phew!)

    ”When a person puts a stumbling block in another’s path, the guilt for *that* sin rests fully on *that* sinner.”
    Do you mean, the guilt for the sin of the person who stumbled rests on the person who placed the stumbling block? Or do you mean, that placing a stumbling block is its own sin, and that is where their guilt lies?

    ”In any other context I can think of, modesty is considered to be the opposite of extravagance rather than decency. Reread I Tim. 2:9 and I Pet. 3:3 with that context in mind, and see if it doesn’t make much more sense. If the contrast were between modesty and decency, wouldn’t the descriptions of immodesty been descriptions that highlighted indecent, shameful displays or nudity?”
    Yes, I do agree with you about the context and the meaning of “modesty”. Paul and Peter are specifically concerned with extravagance, and that this is not where women get their beauty.
    But I have often seen this argument used to dismiss the need for decency (not that you are trying to do that).
    Decency is a separate and still important issue. I think it’s just easier to use the word “modesty” because that’s how so many people understand it.
    And in a way, if a woman is dressing in a way to call attention to the “riches” of her own beauty, this is a kind of extravagance.

    ”Most of the time though, a woman knows what her *motivation* is for dressing a particular way.”
    That is the key.
    There’s a difference between getting halfway through your day and realising, to your horror, that your top is kind of see-through (Although, in my opinion, we should do our due diligence at the shop before we buy clothes) and picking out a top that you know is somewhat sheer because you like the attention you get, but it’s not sheer enough that men will think you did it on purpose.
    Perhaps I am cynical now, but I don’t believe there are truly many women who don’t understand the effect of their clothes on men.

    ”If he says the way she’s dressed is causing him to stumble, she doesn’t have to change her whole wardrobe. One option is to say, “I don’t think this is indecent, but I don’t want you to stumble, so I’ll cover up a bit more.” Of course, a lot depends on the man’s approach. The men who are willing to mention such things to a woman are often condescending and rude.”
    I think it’s best, if possible, for a man not to approach a woman personally to say something like this. There are too many women who get a thrill out of the interaction anyway, as it is still a form of sexual attention. I think the best approach is (as a man), to tell your wife or sister, and she can then go and talk to the woman quietly.

    And I agree with you that noticing beauty is not the same as lust, and being beautiful is not the same as indecency.

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  5. ”When a person puts a stumbling block in another’s path, the guilt for *that* sin rests fully on *that* sinner.”
    Do you mean, the guilt for the sin of the person who stumbled rests on the person who placed the stumbling block? Or do you mean, that placing a stumbling block is its own sin, and that is where their guilt lies?

    I meant that putting a stumblingblock in someone’s path is its own sin. When a man blames a woman for his own lust, he is generally just trying to dodge being blamed himself. Similarly, I’ve heard women trying to dodge blame and responsibility by pointing out that lust is the *man’s* sin. They are right, but they bear guilt if they have put a stumblingblock in front of him. It isn’t cut and dried because a man can lust when the woman hasn’t done anything to incite his lust. How do we really discern who did what in their own heart?

    Unfortunately, the “blame game” (dodging and shifting blame) is quite popular. The broader christian culture abhors it, though, and go to the other extreme. They often advocate automatic forgiveness, neglect of repentance and confession (not talking about to a priest), and disdain for anyone who is “mean” enough to point out sin. If we could get this kind of stuff sorted out in churches, then properly dealing with things like lust, decency, modesty, etc. might very well get a lot easier.

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  6. Pingback: Breastfeeding and Modesty | seriously serving the saviour

  7. Pingback: Sexiness, Modesty and Daughters | seriously serving the saviour

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