Modesty Part II – Why we can’t do away with modesty doctrine

Last week, we looked at a few of the many problems that result from modesty doctrine (the idea that women are responsible for helping to keep men from lust, specifically by dressing conservatively). Although the difficulties with the doctrine are numerous, this week we’re going to look at the reasons why responsible Christians can’t just do away with it.

Why not do away with modesty doctrine?

People never educated about what their clothing communicates aren’t advantaged. I know a young woman who laments the fact that she always receives unwanted male attention when minding her own business; the fact that she never leaves the house without either butt-cheeks, cleavage, or the majority of her stomach revealed doesn’t seem to her relevant to the subject.

If men give her inappropriate attention, are their actions ultimately her fault? No; she cannot force them to do anything (see point 1 from last week or point 5 from the week before). But would it be helpful for her to hear an explanation about the different connotations her clothing might have for others? I believe so. The fact is, one’s clothing does communicate to the people around one, and it would be beneficial for all of us to comprehend what is generally understood by others based on our clothing choices.

This is not to say, “People are going to act inappropriately towards/judge you if you’re not modest, and that’s just the way the world works, so you might as well accept it.” On the contrary, I would like to see men and women taught to respect one another regardless of appearance. However, I don’t think there’s any point in ignoring the reality of the (often unfair) judgements people make about each other, either; and equipping people to recognize what may inspire those judgements may have its place.

Modesty doctrine necessary in ancient times?
One of the “bikini girls” from a 4th-century mosaic in Sicily, Italy.

Motive isn’t everything. I noted last week that modesty is about more than clothing, and the way a girl carries herself has a large impact on whether or not her clothing will be perceived as immodest. However, the truth is that though modesty is about more than clothing, a comprehensive view of modesty can’t ignore clothing, either. A person could have the purest of intentions when choosing their clothing in the morning, and their choice could still be a stumbling block to others. And when Jesus says things like “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck” (Luke 17:1-2), this is no small matter.

Christians aren’t supposed to operate as free agents. In the course of my research for this post, I came across Christians deriding the fact that girls are told “they must, at all times, be thinking about [men] when they are making decisions about their own lives.” I found myself thinking, Aren’t we, though? Not because they’re men, but because they’re human?

I react strongly against any system that encourages inequality between the genders, but I’m more inclined to think that the solution lies in re-distributing responsibility appropriately, rather than acting like it doesn’t exist at all. If we’re supposed to be willing to literally die for one another (1 John 3:16), is it really that surprising that our wardrobe might come under the umbrella of self-sacrifice, too?

Modesty is encouraged in the Bible. This is the most important reason for not completely doing away with modesty doctrine. When considering all the issues on which the Bible is silent and we wish it would just make clear God’s position, it seems like a waste of free wisdom to simply look the other way when a topic is so specifically addressed. So what exactly does the Bible say? Besides the two references above (Luke 17:1-2 and 1 John 3:16), let’s look at some other relevant passages.

What does the Bible say about modesty?

1 Corinthians 12:23-24 “…and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty…” 

On the one hand, it’s important to realize that this discussion actually comes in the context of an analogy Paul is making about the Church, rather than any specific instructions about how anyone ought to dress. On the other hand, if Paul didn’t consider some parts of the physical body “unpresentable,” the analogy wouldn’t work. This implies that there are parts that ought to be covered up, in his estimation.

ghana woman
Woman in Ghana, 2012. By USAID Africa Bureau.

However, it’s worth noting that Paul gives no guidelines about what exactly those “unpresentable” parts are. If you think the answer ought to be obvious, keep in mind last week’s point about modesty’s cultural nature. As one of my friends who grew up Uganda and Rwanda notes, in parts of Africa, “legs are to be covered, but boobs are just baby feeders.” Needless to say, this is different than the American evaluation of those same body parts.

1 Timothy 2:9-10 “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

If this isn’t a direct admonishment towards modesty in women’s dress, I don’t know what is. However, it’s crucial to note what the word “modesty” is paired with here: a call to avoid attention-seeking adornment. The Bible Background Commentary (TBBC) notes that “both Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists ridiculed women who decked themselves out to turn other men’s eyes [besides their husbands’],” and claims that “like most other writers who condemned such gaudiness, Paul should be understood as attacking excess.”

Roman Hairstyle
Elaborate 1st century hairstyle on Roman woman. By Giovanni Dall’Orto, via Wikimedia Commons

This sentiment in echoed in Peter’s claim that “beauty should not come from outward adornment… Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4). TBBC comments that “well-to-do women strove to keep up with the latest expensive fashions. The gaudy adornments of women of wealth, meant to draw attention to themselves, were repeatedly condemned in ancient literature… and Peter’s readers would assume that his point was meant in the same way.”

In short, it seems that these verses have a lot more to do with avoiding attention-seeking and a fixation on physical beauty than they do with sexualized, lust-inducing clothing. Considering that this is the most explicit mention of women’s modesty in the Bible, it makes one wonder how the word “modesty” has become so associated with sex and lust when it seems here to function merely as the opposite of vanity and attention-seeking.

Philippians 2:3-4 “…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

This goes back to the point about Christians being unable to operate as free agents. One commenter asserted on another blog that “I can be my own person, dress however I want to, and still live in community with Christians.” Of course we can act this way, but does that line up with what we see described in Philippians 2? Does this embody the call to take up our cross?

1 Corinthians 8:9,13 “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak… Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

If Paul said he’d rather forego steak than cause a brother or sister to fall, shouldn’t we be just as willing to forego bikinis for the same reason?

7 Deadly Sins Hieronymus Bosch
Both Lust and Envy are included in “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” by Hieronymus Bosch.

This is where it gets tricky. On the surface, the answer seems obvious—we should always be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others. But in truth, the “not causing others to stumble” mandate is a lot more complex than it seems. If my friend’s washboard abs cause me to stumble by the envy they arouse, shouldn’t she stop working out so much? After all, she doesn’t need to have abs like that. She just likes to maintain them because she enjoys the process of attaining strong abs, and she likes how they make her look and feel.

This is where the problem comes in: How do we balance our desire to keep others from stumbling with the recognition that we, too, are allowed some freedoms and blessings? Ideally, these two are not mutually exclusive—but what do we do when they are, at least in part?

Tune in next week to hear the conclusion to this modesty series, in which I’ll look at one more biblical passage that I believe can help us navigate both the problems and benefits of modesty doctrine without ignoring either.

*Note: Thanks to my awesome Dad for the commentary quotes.

Update: Check out the final installment, Part III – A way out of the modesty morass.

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