What does it mean to be modest? The dictionary defines it as “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.” Churches have defined it based on 1 Timothy 2:9-10, “in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.” We’ve argued the topic at length. I remember being told as a young girl that I should beware not to cause a man to lust. I couldn’t, as a young girl, understand this statement. My parents were even asked to leave a church they pastored as a result of my mom being caught red-‘legged’ in a pair of shorts in her own home when an elder stopped by un-announced. So believe me, I understand the abuse of women who were pounded with shame and legalism using the mallet of modesty.
That being said, I think we do a disservice to women and men alike by refusing to have the conversation about modest apparel or by stating that modest dress, being a subjective concept to begin with, is irrelevant to our present culture and should be abandoned in light of freedom of expression. I stumbled across this article this morning. For those of you who won’t take the time to read it, it is a response by Rachel Held Evans to a recent presentation by Jessica Rey regarding the evolution of the swimsuit and her new line of modest swimwear. I highly recommend watching Ms. Rey’s presentation here. Ms. Evans seemingly contends that since the church has used the issue of modesty to shame women into the notion that they are responsible for a man’s lust toward them and since most biblical passages relating to modesty are aimed more specifically at materialism, woman should be free to wear whatever they want without regard to how their clothing and appearance will affect the men (and women) around them.
It’s not the only area in scripture where we’ve used similar premises either, I might add. I’ve heard many women say they’d prefer to remove the scriptural concept of submission in marriage as well. The problem isn’t so much that submission or modesty are restrictive, it’s that they have been misused and abused. It’s no secret that the church has used concepts pertaining to godly living to condemn and even abuse people. Oftentimes, this is done to justify one’s own sinful tendencies. Christian men may use modesty as an excuse, “If she didn’t dress that way, I wouldn’t lust.” The truth is that lust is a heart condition as Jesus stated in Matthew 5:29, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It is never acceptable to shift the blame for one’s sinfulness onto another. Jesus clearly puts the onus on the individual when he continues saying that if your eye offends you, pluck it out.
I remember this concept confusing me when I was a teenager and being told not to cause a man to lust. I didn’t understand it. I thought, “why doesn’t he just not look?” And there is some truth there. Men and women are responsible for their own actions and their own sins. If something is causing you to stumble, look away, or like Joseph when Potiphar’s wife got naked and tried to seduce him, RUN!!! FLEE!!! Get the heck out of there. You are responsible! Period!
Still, Paul also speaks about not eating meat sacrificed to idols if it offends your neighbor. As in just about everything, there is a balance. While women are certainly entitled to looking fashionable and pretty. They need to examine their motivations when it comes to issues of modesty.
It’s true that the conflicting voices are growing louder in our culture. The over-sexualization and objectification of women is everywhere you turn. Somehow, this is being sold to us as not only acceptable but as empowering to woman. The notion that to show off our bodies gives us freedom and power is inaccurate, however. My very astute daughter noticed recently that certain entertainers who call themselves feminists are most known for their ability to dance provocatively (while singing) wearing very little clothing. They brandish their sexuality calling it empowerment while, in actuality, they further the exploitative notion that women are objects to be used for sexual pleasure and entertainment. A true feminist should be touting the truth that women are so much more than showpieces, they are people with enormous capability, complex beauty and sensitivity. Women are masters at relationships, interpersonal connectivity and managing the demands of life with grace and dignity. Women are purposed for greatness that far exceeds their bodies and sexuality.
That being said, a woman’s sexuality and beauty is also a wonderful thing. When a woman is confident in herself, clothing herself in dignity and strength and faithfully following The Lord, she radiates beauty. She doesn’t need to hide from it. She doesn’t need to flaunt it. She carries it with her, inherent to who she is. There is no need for a woman to stop being interested in fashion or wear frumpy outfits to hide her from the world. We are a light and we should shine brightly.
So how do we strike a balance between the two voices? I think perhaps it begins right where the conversation began, with the heart. As women, we need to understand how our clothing (or lack thereof) may have an effect on the opposite gender. If we know the way we dress is causing an issue for another person, is it loving and Godly to continue dressing that way?
We need to begin having an honest inner dialog with ourselves. Why do we feel compelled to show a little more skin? Is it really a question of our being comfortable that way? I think for many women it’s more a matter of competition if we’re being honest. We feel like if we don’t look a certain way, we won’t be noticed anymore or we won’t be considered beautiful. We may even feel like it’s the only way to keep our husbands looking our way and not toward the gal in the grocery store who isn’t afraid to flaunt it. (side-note: my ex-husband was a sex addict and I can assure you, this tactic doesn’t work. Lust is a heart issue and he will always look elsewhere if it’s in his heart to do so. It has nothing to do with you no matter what the enemy of your soul screams in your ear…but that’s another blog post.)
Is it loving to wear clothing that makes it necessary for every Christian man to “run” and look away to maintain his integrity? Is it loving to wear clothing that makes other women feel uncomfortable being around you because they either feel it necessary to compete with you or protect their husbands and sons from you? It may seem like a good and honorable notion to dress for oneself but it’s not biblical. We are instructed biblically to put the needs of others before our own. (Matthew 22:36-40). 1 Cor. 8:13 “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Col. 3:17, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” It seems to me that if we are going to take a position here, wouldn’t the best one be to err on the side of love and respect for the needs of others rather than a desire to do whatever we want and not be restricted?
We have a responsibility to teach our daughters a little more than the do’s and don’ts. We should be comfortable broaching the subjects of lust, sexuality and attraction with our children. They will hear many messages from the world. Shouldn’t we be sure that they know the beauty of God’s design for sex? Instead of talking merely about the negatives of an issue, we should discuss the positives. There is something wonderful about knowing that certain things are for my husband’s eyes only. There is something wonderful in trusting in one another’s commitment to honor a marriage as well. We need to start talking about integrity, self-respect and dignity instead of shame and condemnation. I find that people tend to follow vision. Give your kids a clear vision of why it’s good to maintain modest dress and purity and they are more apt to go for it. Give them a no-no list and they won’t be quite as enthusiastic.
I know it isn’t always easy making a stand for something that isn’t necessarily in keeping with the tides of culture. Still, I firmly believe that one can look fashionable and beautiful without compromising modest standards and dignity. I firmly believe that removing biblical standards on the basis of culture is a dangerous proposition. I firmly believe that women are worth more than the what they look like in micro-mini skirts and halter tops. I firmly believe that a hedonistic culture focused on self and individual happiness would be impacted most by a remnant of believers determined to serve and love others more than themselves. I firmly believe that true freedom comes from the knowledge that we are loved immensely by God and His standards are there to protect and guide us rather than to inhibit us. Modesty is important and relevant even now in this generation and we need to continue to have conversations about it.