Saturday, December 14, 2013

The (Other) Final Word in the Modesty Debate

In part 1 of this article, I postulated some postulates (what else would a person postulate?) about the so-called "Modesty Debate."  Summarily speaking, I tried to argue that the Biblical expectation for women/girls in their clothing choices deals primarily with their attitude and motive although I Timothy 2:9 does create a basic standard for the clothes themselves.  The good ol' ESV renders this standard as "respectable clothing."  At that point in the article, both my brain and my fingers were reaching the point of exhaustion so I stopped typing.

After a week, both my brain and my fingers feel sufficiently rested to continue.  Actually, I am really excited about this part of the post because it will allow me to speak about an area in which I am a genuine, qualified, first-rate expert--my own opinion.  I am also excited because submitting my own opinion prohibits anyone from disagreeing with me or trying to dissuade me because I can just say, "Well, you have your opinion and I have mine."  (Note - Although the previous sentence was included primarily for humorous purposes, I do have a less lighthearted reason for including it.  I think individuals engaged in the so-called "Modesty Debate" do need to realize that much of the conversation on both sides is opinion because the Bible does not give a great deal of specific prescription for New Testament believers in this area.  At least, in my opinion, it does not.)  So, with no further ado, I will now continue...(Wait, I just thought of one more piece of ado.  I want to include a warning.  Warning - I am planning on speaking fairly frankly (though not explicitly or inappropriately) about certain aspects of this issue in the paragraphs below.  Please don't be mad at me when you get to those parts.  I told you they were coming!)  Okay, now there is no further ado...

Section Two - My Personal Opinions about Various Aspects of the So-Called "Modesty Debate"

For what it's worth, here's what I think about...

1.  The definition of "respectable clothing" - As I said earlier, the only specific Biblical guideline I have thus far been able to identify for the actual clothes a New Testament era woman/girl wears is that they be "respectable."  (By the way, I see no reason why this same word shouldn't apply to men's/boy's clothing as well.)  This, of course, begs the question, "What makes for respectable clothing?"  Ah!  Therein (as they say) lies the rub!  For being a specific guideline, this mandate isn't really all that specific.  I find it noteworthy that God did not further define/explain what He meant by "respectable."  He certainly could have done so, but...He didn't.  I believe His reason for doing so is two-fold.  First, God expects each Christian to think through, pray, and consider for themselves what "respectable clothing" looks like.  Second, God knows that the specific look of "respectable clothing" will vary and change according to the culture.  I know that this second idea will make some of my readers uncomfortable, but I just don't see how one can ignore the fact that clothing (like several areas of the Christian experience) is very much dependent on cultural contexts.  The ambiguity of God's dress code is actually a testimony to the brilliance with which God designed Christianity because it makes it timeless and borderless.  God giving very specific guidelines for clothing choices would be a lot like buying a new computer or cell phone--in a matter of time it will be outdated and obsolete.  By limiting His expectation to our clothes being "respectable," God has allowed both 1st century believers and 21st century believers to adhere to the guideline despite the fact that clothing styles are vastly different between the two.

All of that leads me to to say this--we should choose clothing that is, within the larger scope of culture, generally considered to be "respectable."  That is--will most people using common sense who see us consider our clothes to be appropriate and respectable?  Undoubtedly, there are some styles that even the general culture understands to be provocative or inappropriate.  Believers shouldn't wear these.  Outside of those, however, I believe that the circle which includes "respectable clothing" is a pretty big circle encompassing a variety of different looks--including looks that might be considered more conservative or more liberal.  To put it bluntly, I think that, as long as our private parts are covered, we have a great deal of freedom when it comes to how long, how high, how loose, and how whatever our clothes are.  "Respectable" is a big concept, and anyone who tries to define it more narrowly than God is overstepping their bounds, in my opinion.

There is another idea that often creeps its way into the discussion, and so I would like to expend my last bit of mental dexterity for the day on that topic...

2.  The responsibility of women/girls to protect men from lusting after their bodies - As the so-called "Modesty Debate" rages on, those who take the more conservative approach (Please note above where I said there is plenty of room in the "Respectable Circle" for those who want to dress more conservatively) often support their specific dress preferences and (sometimes) seek to force them upon others by appealing to a woman's responsibility to protect the men around her from lusting after her body.  This, in their way of thinking, is accomplished by dressing conservatively.  Although there is no verse that specifically states this responsibility, it is true that there is a fairly well-developed Biblical concept that believers should not create situations that they know will most-likely cause other believers to sin.  I have no problem with the statement that women/girls should never dress in a way that they know will cause the males around them to lust and commit adultery in their hearts.  My problem with this line of thinking centers around the assumptions that often accompany it.  There is an assumption that all men are leering, lust-driven maniacs who cannot control their gaze or their thoughts.  While it may be true in general that men are primarily stimulated by sight, this does not necessarily mean that every guy around is a slave to his lust.  Many men have learned how to see a woman and appreciate the beauty of her respectfully-dressed body without lusting or committing heart-adultery.  Some will say, "What about those who haven't learned to do this?  What about the leering, lust-driven maniacs out there?  Shouldn't we try to help them out?"  This reasoning reveals another assumption, namely, that women have it in their power to prevent a man from lusting after their bodies by dressing more conservatively.  This simply is not true.  Writing transparently and seriously as a man for whom lust has been and is an ongoing battle, I have to speak frankly to the women who are reading this.  It doesn't matter if you are covered from head to toe.  If I am in the grip of lust at any given moment (please notice the if at the beginning of this sentence), I have the capability to inappropriately gaze at you and objectify parts of your body.  Unless you are dressed in a rectangular cardboard box, I can look at your clothes (as long and loose as they might be) and focus lustfully on your chest, your legs, your backside, your lips, your hair, or any other part I want to.  This is not your fault, it's mine.  If I am in the grip of flesh rather than Spirit, my lust might have nothing to do with your clothes at all but rather the simple fact that God created a woman's body with the shape and look that He did.  For me to expect you to stem the tide of my depravity by your clothing choices is an unrealistic expectation and a grievous burden to place on your shoulders.  For you to believe that you can stem the tide of my depravity by your clothing choices is a well-meaning, but utterly misguided thought.

"Should not women do their due diligence to make it easier for men to resist their lust?" some might ask.  Of course they should.  This is accomplished by choosing clothing that is "respectable."  (See point number 1 above.)  Beyond that, however, I just don't think that women/girls have the responsibility or the power in relation to men's eyes and thoughts that some would have us believe.  As with most things in the Christian experience, it comes down to an internal heart issue for the man rather than external influences.

And with that, I will complete my contribution to the so-called "Modesty Debate" and thereby wrap up the discussion for believers worldwide so that we can all move on to other points of debate/disagreement like politics, music, or Santa Claus.

Thank you for reading all the way to the end.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Final Word in the Modesty Debate

During this past summer (2013), I began to notice an emerging trend on my Facebook feed.  In addition to the usual fare of rants against Obamacare, coupon posts, sports team trash talking, and pictures of people's dogs and/or foot injuries, I saw an increasing number of links to blog articles with the word "modesty" in the title.  These articles usually discussed an issue that is (in certain smaller segments of American Evangelicalism) a hot topic--girls' and women's clothing choices.  Having read many of these articles and the accompanying arguments being waged in the comments sections of said articles, I decided to sit down and articulate the final word in the so-called "Modesty Debate."  I figure that, if no one else is willing to settle this issue once and for all, I might as well go ahead and get it done.

The last two sentences were written with my tongue in my cheek.  Obviously, I do not have the market cornered on the modesty debate, and I am certainly not one who is qualified to settle the arguments.  I will freely admit that I chose the title of this article for the sole purpose of catching your attention and surreptitiously inducing you to read what I have to say.  So far, my ploy appears to have worked in light of the fact that you have read all the way to this point.  In reality, my intent in this article is far less ambitious than my title would have you believe.  I would simply like to offer my own two cents about this issue.  I will accomplish this by dividing my comments into two sections.  Read them and do with them what you will.

Section One - My Personal Interpretation of the Biblical Guidelines for Women's Clothing

Ignoring for the time being the fact that discussions about modesty and dress choices almost always omit any mention of boys'/men's clothing, I would like to tell you what I believe the Bible teaches about girls'/women's clothing.  This is also what I plan on teaching my children (my daughter in particular) about this area.  I will be forthright with you, Reader, and admit that I have not spent a great deal of time studying the issue in all of its intricate nuances.  I have, however, done a fair amount of marinating on the passage in I Timothy 2:9-10, as this seems to me to be the primary passage in which God has given clear instructions about female clothing choices.  Many will argue with me and assert that the Bible contains a great deal more instruction about clothing, but I am always a bit wary when someone has to resort to an obscure, context-stripped verse in Hezekiah 45:11 for support.  (Yes, I know that there is no such verse as Hezekiah 45:11.  Everyone knows there's only 44 chapters in that book.)  Based on my marination on the passage in I Timothy, I have formulated the following 4 principles about female clothing choices:

1.  God's expectations in this area appear to focus far more on the heart attitude of the wearer than they do the specific clothing styles that the wearer chooses.  Even the passage in I Peter 3:3-4 (which is the other location in which we find mention of female clothing choices) puts the focus squarely on the inward rather than the external.  God's primary concern seems to be the attitude behind and the motive with which a woman wears her clothes.  One of the aspects of the I Timothy passage that I was quite surprised to discover is the fact that the idea of modesty is more accurately applied to the attitude of the wearer than it is to the clothes themselves.  In other words, it's not necessarily the clothes that should be modest but the person wearing them.  Certain Bible versions seem to be the culprits in propagating the semantical misconception that clothes themselves can be modest in the sense of humble and meek.  The ESV translates the clothing guideline as "respectable apparel" with the accompanying attitude of modesty and self-control.  To be sure, God did make a statement about the clothes themselves, and I will say more about that farther down the page.  At this point, however, I would simply like to point out that the majority of what God says about the issue deals with an inward state of the soul rather than a particular guideline about style.  It seems to me that our teaching on this topic should reflect that emphasis as well.

2.  There is nothing inherently wrong about a girl/woman dressing in a way that flatters and beautifies the body God has given her.  One of the bothersome (to me at least) aspects of the numerous modesty articles I have read recently is the implicit declaration to girls/women that their body is something to be hidden, camouflaged, or even ashamed of because of its alleged power over the male mind.  The female body is a powerful image and presence, to be sure.  (More on that later.)  I do not, however, subscribe to the notion that this power requires a woman to stifle the inherent physical beauty God has given to her or to limit the flattering/beautification process to only those parts of her body above her neck or below her knee (or ankle in some circles).  I find it revealing (almost no pun intended) that I Timothy 2:8 actually instructs women to adorn themselves.  This word does not simply mean to clothe.  It carries the idea of "decorating" or "beautifying."  In my mind, this seems to imply that there is nothing wrong with wearing clothing that flatters a girl's body and enhances her natural beauty.  I Peter 3 makes it clear that this adornment should not be exclusively external (refer to point 1 above for more details), but I do not believe God has prohibited girls/women from wearing styles that accentuate and decorate their bodies.  I do believe there is an appropriate and inappropriate way to do that, but I am going to save those thoughts for my big finish down in point number 4.  Before we get to that, however, let me present number 3...

3.  If, as I have posited above, modesty is an internal heart issue, then a woman who does not have this attitude is not fulfilling the requirements of the verse, regardless of what she is or isn't wearing.  This, in my moderately humble opinion, is where many a well-meaning follower of Jesus has missed the proverbial boat.  In some circles of American Evangelicalism an assumption is firmly entrenched in the minds of moms, dads, youth pastors, youth pastor's wives, and Christian school principals that their girls are just plain better off with "safer" or "higher" dress standards.  A girl's heart may be as far from modest as you can get, but at least her necklines and hemlines are appropriate.  If I am understanding Paul's inspired instructions in I Timothy correctly, then it is accurate for me to say that it doesn't really matter what clothes a woman is wearing or not wearing.  If her spirit is not one of "modesty" and "self-control", then she is not in adherence to the Biblical standard.  Dress codes certainly have their place in various contexts, but it is time to stop assuming that adherence to a dress code somehow puts a girl in a better place spiritually even though her soul is far from being spiritually healthy.  Even as some of you are reading those sentences the word "But..." is forming on your lips so I will hasten on to my finale...

4.  There is a standard of respectability and appropriateness for female clothing choices. If a girl does not meet this requirement, she is out of harmony with God's expectations, regardless of what her attitude and motive might be.  This, in my moderately humble opinion, is where many a well-meaning follower of Jesus has missed the proverbial boat. (Yes, I intentionally chose to repeat the same sentence I used in number 3, and I did it for dramatic effect.)  One of the problems that I have sensed in the comments and writings of those who argue against the "modest clothing" approach is the implicit idea that it doesn't really matter what a girl is wearing as long as her heart is modest and her intention is pure.  I do not agree.  Let us not forget that God did issue an instruction in the I Timothy passage about the clothes themselves.  The standard is listed in the ESV as "respectable apparel."  This implies that there exists in this universe styles we can call "un-respectable or unacceptable apparel."   If I am understanding Paul's inspired instructions in I Timothy correctly (Yup, I did it again.), then it is accurate for me to say that it doesn't really matter what a girl/woman's attitude or motive is.  If her clothes can be deemed to be inappropriate or lacking in respectability, then she is not in adherence to the Biblical standard.  Now, the crux of the issue comes when we ask the question, "What should be considered respectable clothing?"  You may not be surprised to discover that I have some ideas about that.  However, it has taken me a lot longer to type this much than I thought it would, so I think I will save those ideas and the rest of Section 2 for a follow-up post in a few days...

Please be honest but kind in any comments you may choose to submit...

(Read part 2 of this article by clicking here.)