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.


  1. Saying that women have to dress overly conservatively because some men have lust issues, is like saying we can't have cake at a church dinner because some people have gluttony issues.

    1. Hey Brent,

      That analogy seems pretty good to me. I am curious if you find the "Modesty Debate" to be as hotly contested on the mission field as it is here in the states?

    2. Yes, but a little different. Here, the questions are: can Christians where jewelry? Wedding rings? Make-up? Dye their hair? Do they need to wear head coverings in Church? These are big debates between the older generations and the younger. Or between "big city folk" and villagers.