If I hear the phrase “modest is hottest” one more time, I will be physically ill. I’m sick of seeing post after post debating the infamous yoga pants. I’ve grown weary of reading article after article, hoping that someone will actually talk about what modesty means for both women and men, only to find yet another article acting like women are the only ones that need to be modest and men are the only ones who think about sex. I’ve avoided posting my own opinions on this whole Christian modesty issue until now because I feel that people like Rachel Held Evans do a pretty stellar job at covering the points I feel need mentioning. But since I’m posting now, I’ll sum up the most important points really fast for you:
1. “Modest” clothing is cultural. What’s considered appropriate to wear differs drastically based on location, time period, and the situation at hand. (i.e. That “modest” jeans-and-a-t-shirt ensemble you’re wearing while you judge the girl in cut-off shorts would actually be immodest if you were in, say, Iran. Or Zambia. Or Fiji.) Anyone who has traveled extensively and been introduced to non-American worldviews quickly realizes that.
2. Because modesty is subjective, serious issues arise when you start trying to draw lines where fashion becomes immodest, hence the futility of the yoga pants argument. No matter where you go or what you wear, there will always be a place and/or situation in which your clothing will not be appropriate. Not only that, but there will always be someone who thinks what you’re wearing is not appropriate, even if you do. A conundrum ensues: who gets to be the Deciding Voice on whether your clothing is modest or not? What happens if you thought you were dressed modestly and the random guy walking down the street begs to differ? Who gets to decide? You could spend all of your time every day stressing about this and dressing to please others, and you’d be absolutely no closer to solving the problem. This isn’t about whether or not dressing for yourself is selfish; it’s about having a realistic grasp of the world around you.
3. The 1 Timothy 2:9 verse is clearly talking about showing off expensive tastes, not what parts of your body you’re covering. If you want to use Scripture to back up your modesty argument, fine, but stop taking that verse out of context.
4. Modesty is a conversation that needs to be addressed with women AND men. Lust is a conversation that needs to be addressed with men AND women. Can we please stop being sexist, church? I’m begging you.
5. All of this brings me to my main point: modesty is an issue of the heart, not what you wear. Biblical modesty is akin to fruits of the spirit like self-control and humility. As in: you aren’t prideful and you don’t show off something just because you have it. That kind of spirit, when you truly possess it, will be so strong within you that it will naturally manifest itself in all aspects of your life, how you dress being only one facet of that. If we’re really going to talk about living modestly, let’s talk about not showing off wealth with fancy houses and cars, expensive jewelry, and designer clothing. Let’s talk about not bragging about your awesome high-paying corporate job or the good grades you’re making in school or what an amazing Christian you are. People are going to bristle at me saying that, but all of that comes much closer to the way “modesty” is actually used in 1 Timothy 2:9.
These were the original points I would have made a couple of years ago had I posted on modesty then, and I still hold to them now. If wearing tight-fitting clothing like leggings makes some women feel immodest, they probably shouldn’t wear them—because they feel convicted not to in their hearts. But when you start trying to tell all women that they are being immodest when they wear X article of clothing, what you’re basically saying is that you know the state of someone else’s heart better than they know it themselves. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what the woman’s intention was. She may have been working out, running errands, sick, bloated on her period, late for work, or cold. Doesn’t matter. Because other people see her wearing those evil leggings and automatically know her intentions better than she does. Right? And don’t even get me started on the whole “modest” bathing suit craze. People, if you really want to draw modesty lines that pedantically, you probably shouldn’t be wearing a swimsuit in public at all.
I’m sick of all the nonsense. I firmly believe that if Jesus were here, He’d say we’re missing the bigger picture. While we argue over the evils of Spandex and whether or not an extra strip of skin-tight fabric around your stomach makes your swimsuit acceptable, young people are walking away from the church in alarming numbers (see for example: David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me). Bloggers like Ashley P. Dickens have already done a fabulous job putting all of this in perspective, so I won’t go into that aspect of it all. But I do want to talk about three areas in which I see the church—in general—falling short when it comes to the modesty debate. I firmly believe that if we’re going to have any kind of discussion of biblical modesty, these are some things we have to first acknowledge:
1. Modernist church thinking does not work in a postmodern world.
It’s a fact. We’re experiencing a paradigm shift in culture right now, and in order to keep bringing people to Christ, we’re going to have to shift how we operate church accordingly. That doesn’t mean we change our core love of Christ or the Truth of His message. It does means we adapt how we talk about that message and how we interact with the world according to what people now seek and value. Young people today are a product of that postmodern culture that values transparency, freedom of expression, and critical thinking, often questioning previously accepted norms—and while some conservative Christians may perceive such questioning as a threat, all of these traits are actually quite valuable for an organic, growing faith.
To name one example, this emphasis on the reexamination of preconceived notions has given birth to much-needed conversations on the importance of human equality. This, in my opinion, is fantastic. I can’t think of a lesson Jesus demonstrated more often than the breaking down of socioeconomic/racial/gender boundaries. In particular, the gender equality conversation happening right now is shedding light on the ways in which women are still, to this day, treated as lesser beings than men. Huge progress has been made in this arena, as evidenced by the efforts of the United Nations Women equality movement HeForShe. I’m very encouraged by the direction in which we’re moving.
Ironically, in the midst of this, the church is now considered one of the most sexist institutions in the world. That’s right. Whenever I’ve talked with non-Christians about why they reject the Christian faith, it’s one of the most-cited answers I receive. It’s the reason why young people (millennials) are leaving the church in droves. And in some ways, I can’t blame them. While I understand that such a statement will open up whole other cans of worms with refutes like “But the Bible says women shouldn’t ____”, I will address most of this in another post. The point I want to emphasize for the time being is this:
No longer can Christians use the Bible to justify sexism and gain followers for Christ.
Friends, the way we’ve been approaching modesty as if it’s solely a female issue is incredibly sexist. We will lose more Jesus followers if we keep promoting the skewed notion that modesty is only about the superficial and only about women. Just like all sexists, we’re implying that a woman’s appearance is the most important thing about her. As if the “inappropriateness” of her appearance somehow diminishes her worth as a person. Even the catchphrase “modest is hottest” implies that a woman’s worth is directly correlated to what she is wearing. The messages the church and the world are sending women are eerily similar:
The church: Men will only be attracted to you if you wear certain things (i.e. more clothing).
The world: Men will only be attracted to you if you wear certain things (i.e. less clothing).
Either way, a woman’s worth is still centered around what she wears, and her “hotness” is still determined by men. By encouraging this kind of thinking, the church becomes just as sexist as the commercial using bikini-clad women to sell Bud Light. We can keep trying to get away with treating women today like they’re still 50s housewives, and we can site all kinds of Scriptural interpretations to justify this. But nonbelievers will look at our sexist religion and want nothing to do with it.
Should Christian women have a modest spirit? Absolutely. So should men. One consequence of women walking in the Spirit will inevitably be that they’ll think about what they put on and how it affects those around them. But is it possible that they may dress to feel comfortable, confident, efficient, or even—dare I say it—pretty—in clothes that don’t line up with your personal views on modesty? Of course it’s possible. Does you having a problem with what someone is wearing automatically mean that that person is immodest? No. It does not. While we in the church keep preaching this sexist message and ignoring all the more important issues happening in the world, those who are seeking something greater will pass us by.
2. Stop acting like the body is bad.
The human body is not evil. The female body is not evil. It was made to be curvy and beautiful, to be celebrated. Can bodies be celebrated without being immodest? Of course they can! The naked form is laid out in science textbooks and celebrated in art, and we are better human beings for it. For crying out loud, when King David danced naked in the streets and his wife tried to accuse him of immodesty, he replied, “I will celebrate before the Lord” and shunned her for it (2 Samuel 6). We were created naked. Our bodies—without clothes—are who we are. In European countries I’ve visited, nakedness isn’t the taboo, evil thing our American culture has made it out to be. Women sunbathe topless on the beaches, and believe it or not, there actually aren’t hordes of horny men gathering around them like flies to honey.
Here’s a bold statement for you: a man should be able to look at a woman’s body without lusting…even a naked woman. Even if he saw such a woman in broad daylight walking down the street, he should be able to look at her, admire her beauty, and still respect her as a fellow human being—without wanting to own her or have sex with her.
A large part of the issue with all of this modesty/lust talk is the fact that culture has trained men to view women as objects. There’s no denying that. And many women exacerbate the problem by hypersexualizing themselves.
But an equally large part of the issue, I believe, is the fact that Christian men have turned lust into something it’s not. Hear me when I say this: Lust is not admiration of beauty. Lust is coveting. It’s viewing someone or something that’s not yours as an object that you want to own for yourself. But we’ve turned admiration into a synonym for lust and placed an unnecessary heap of guilt upon Christian guys, to the point that they feel guilty for so much as noticing a pretty woman or a beautiful, curvy figure. It’s not a man’s job to hide his eyes from the female body. It is a man’s job to keep his admiration from festering into an unhealthy desire to own that body. This is where self-control comes into play. You could say it’s the man’s job to use his self-control to keep his thoughts modest. And the principle can easily be reversed and applied to women.
So you see, we’ve been trying to turn an inner issue into an outer one. I understand why; it’s more comfortable that way. Heart talks are hard. It’s much easier to blame yoga pants and consider the problem solved. But modesty is not and never has been about what you wear. If that were the case, prohibiting certain articles of clothing would have solved this problem a long time ago. But the problem is not merely skin-deep. Both lust and modesty are matters of the heart, and if a person, male or female, is walking in the Spirit, their actions will reflect it. Simple as that. Time to stop heaping guilt and shame onto women for their appearance. Time to stop heaping guilt and shame on men for appreciating that appearance. Time to stop acting like these issues only affect one sex or the other. Time for a real discussion of what a modest spirit looks like, and what it means to have self-control.
3. Stop acting like immodesty causes lust.
You heard me right. It probably seems strange to hear someone say that, but it’s time for Christians to stop acting like the sins of immodesty and lust are interconnected. The one does not automatically cause the other. Even if a woman is deliberately trying to dress to get men to lust, men are still their own entities. They still have a choice. It’s still their responsibility to view that woman like she’s a person, not an object. Sure, that might be hard to do, when the woman is practically screaming, “Look at me, I’m an object!” But real men don’t want to objectify women. They do everything within their power not to. Key words being their power.
There’s one phrase we use way too much in the church community with which I take particular issue. You know the one I’m talking about: “cause someone to stumble.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that phrase, I’d have paid off my student loans by now. In its original context in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is talking about food sacrificed to idols, yet now we use that phrase almost exclusively to talk about clothing. “Stumble” has become the buzzword for placing our sins on someone else. Now, don’t get me wrong. The idea that we should be considerate of others is a good one, but when taken to the extreme, it harms more than it helps. Following that vein of logic to its natural end, no one would ever be able to do anything for fear of hurting someone else. We would be living in fear. Women might as well never go out in public; even in a potato sack, they’d surely “cause” some guy to start lusting. The phrase “cause someone to stumble” connotes an image of someone sticking out their leg and tripping you as you pass them by. Because they stuck out their leg, you had no choice but to trip. Right?
Wrong. Friends, that image is flawed. Even if I stick out my leg to trip you (i.e. wear a low-cut shirt or a short skirt), you are fully aware of what I’m doing. You have the option of passing me by or tripping over my outstretched leg. Thus, the metaphor does not work. This line of thinking is actually quite fascinating to me, for the reason that in no other aspect of our lives do we as Christians pretend like someone else’s sin makes our sin okay, unavoidable, or otherwise “less wrong.” So why do we act like that’s how it works when it comes to women’s clothing?
If I were to rob a convenience store, get arrested, and then say, “But someone else did it, and they encouraged me to do it, so I didn’t have a choice!” you would laugh in my face. Why do we act like it’s all of a sudden different when we’re talking about lust? Friends, even if the church doesn’t explicitly say it, by using phrases like “so-and-so caused me to stumble” or “I don’t want to cause my brothers in Christ stumble,” we’re implying that when someone sins, it’s someone else’s fault. It also implies that the person who sinned had no free will to reject the temptation, which causes a whole slew of theological problems. No sin causes another sin. It’s sad to me that after all this time, we’re still Adam blaming Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s time to take control and responsibility for ourselves and stop pointing fingers.
God has given us all the freedom and the strength to choose how we handle our own sins and how we react to the sins of others. If someone tries to get you to stumble, that’s on them. Let God worry about that. If they actually succeed, that’s on you.
If you read this and interpret what I’m saying to mean that I don’t think it matters what women wear, or what men think—or that nobody should care about anyone else, or that people should just do whatever makes them feel good—you’ve missed my point. I’m saying we do each have a responsibility to use self-control, to love others and take them into consideration. But it ends there. We do not have the responsibility to live in fear and be worrying constantly about what someone else is thinking of us. It is not our responsibility to judge whether someone is or isn’t modest based on the clothes they’re wearing that day. It’s time to stop heaping undue shame on others and undue stress on ourselves. Let the Spirit guide your actions and daily choices. Let the Spirit do its work in other people, and accept the possibility that how the Spirit manifests in someone else’s life may not actually look like you think it should. The Spirit works differently in all of us based on our unique personalities, interests, talents, and strengths. And that’s actually pretty cool.
If you still don’t feel comfortable in yoga pants, that’s completely fine. If you’re still going to wear all things Spandex because, let’s be honest, they’re comfortable, practical, flattering, and warm (especially when they’re fleece-lined!), that’s fine, too. Let’s start conversations about what’s going on in our hearts instead of what we’re putting on our bodies. I have a feeling that if we fix the one, the other will take care of itself.