Modesty Part III – A way out of the modesty morass

Recap: In the introduction to this Modesty series, we assessed Jessica Rey’s presentation on the evolution of the swimsuit. In Part I, we looked at the problems with modesty doctrine. In Part II, we looked at the reason faithful Christians can’t do away with modesty doctrine, in spite of all the trouble it causes. Now in Part III, we’re going to try to uncover a way to walk the line between the two.

Last week we examined 7 Scriptures relevant to the modesty debate. But there’s one more passage I believe should guide the discussion: Romans 14.

In this chapter, Paul addresses what was a hot topic for his readers: Whether or not Christians should eat meat that was sacrificed to idols before being sold in the marketplace. Some thought it was sinful to do so, and thus avoided meat altogether. Other Christians thought it was fine to eat meat, as long as they were eating it to the glory of God, instead of the idols to which it had been offered.

modesty bible meat
Banquet at the House of Simon (detail), by Bernardo Strozzi.

The parallels between this situation and the current discussion on modesty are incredibly striking. So what if we read Romans 14 as though it addressed modesty? The passage is long, but I absolutely believe it’s worth including—and reading!—from start to finish.

(In the following verses, I have replaced “eat” and “meat” with “[wear]” and “[immodest clothing]” in order to make the parallels more readily apparent; the brackets serve to indicate what I have changed. If you’d like to hear why I feel comfortable taking this liberty, feel free to ask for a defense in the comments).

Romans 14

1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to [wear] anything, but another, whose faith is weak, [wears] only [“modest” clothing]. The one who [wears] everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not [wear] everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever [wears bikinis/Speedos/etc] does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

modesty bible last judgment
The Last Judgment, by the Master of the Bambino Vispo, c. 1422

13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you [wear], you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your [dressing] destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of [clothing choices], but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of [clothes]. All [clothes are] clean, but it is wrong for a person to [wear] anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to [wear bikinis] or [wear Speedos] or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they [dress in way they believe is “immodest”], because their [dressing] is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

What are my main takeaways from reading Romans 14 this way?

No more judgement (verses 3, 10, 13). I’m suspicious of anything that seems to tell Christians to roll over and ignore their convictions, but there are committed, genuinely-Jesus-following people on both sides of this debate. Perhaps it’s time to stop arguing and start respecting one another’s perspectives.

“The one who [wears] everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not [wear] everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.”

This means that the girl who wears a bikini with a clear conscience shouldn’t be judged for being too loose, and the girl who wears a one-piece because of her convictions shouldn’t be judged for being too narrow-minded. It also means that we need to stop telling each other what to wear—guys telling girls, girls telling girls, whatever. As verse 12 says, “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” There are certainly times when we need to confront one another in love, but in this case, we’ve erred so consistently on the confrontation side that we’ve stopped trusting the Spirit’s ability to convict others.

modesty bible Dress according to your convictions
Sunlight, by William Orpen, circa 1925.

Dress in accordance with your convictions (verses 6, 14, 23)… For whatever reason, God has seen fit to allow some Christians to become deeply convicted about something others are not. For example, some Christians firmly believe that any form of contraceptive goes against the will of God, while others see contraceptives as a gift that helps them uphold the will of God. Does this mean we constantly try to dissuade or shame those who disagree with us about birth control? Of course not. We can have civil discussions about the issue, but sometimes we must agree to disagree, and refuse to act morally superior to those in the opposing camp.

The same goes for clothing. Sally may feel the Lord asking her to stop wearing bikinis because she does so for selfish, attention-seeking reasons that disregard her siblings in Christ. Jane may feel the Lord asking her to start wearing bikinis in order to celebrate, rather than hating and hiding, the body he gave her. What’s important at this point is that they are both obedient to their Spirit-led consciences, without trying to impose what the Spirit is leading them to do onto someone else. As verse 14 says, “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” What’s unclean for Sally may be clean for Jane, and vice versa. Both they and their observers need to live in this truth.

…But don’t assume that means you get to wear whatever you want (15, 19-21). Many have rallied around the battle cry, “Don’t dress for others, wear what makes YOU feel happy/comfortable/beautiful!” If you’re a Christian, though, your life and body aren’t your own. Sorry; you don’t get to dress for yourself. We’re meant to be a people marked by our love for one another (John 13:35), and as Romans 14:15 notes, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you [wear], you are no longer acting in love.” Uncomfortable though it may be, sometimes that means making sacrifices when it comes to our wardrobes.

But guess what? Your body isn’t your fellow Christian’s, either. “You were bought at a price” (1 Corinth. 6:20), and you belong to the one who paid that price. Your life is Christ’s—so dress for him.

What does this look like practically? It’s a lot harder than either dressing for oneself or for others, because there are no hard and fast rules. It’s easy to do what we want. It’s easy to comply with a dress code that makes our decisions for us.

It’s much more difficult to engage the person of Christ and ask for his guidance over and over again, season after season. And yet this is the only way to successfully navigate the “don’t cause others to stumble” mandate without producing a kind of communized Christianity that requires attractive women to wear burqas and muscular men to quit the gym. Above all, I believe this day-by-day dependence is what pleases Jesus most—being invited to do life with us, wrestling through daily decisions with us, being treated as a Person instead of a guidebook.

May you be blessed as you do so with him today.

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