Keep modesty in its place
We’re once again at that time of year when evangelicals begin pontificating and/or handwringing about modesty. And in typical fashion the message is typically a warning or caution to teen girls and women to be careful to not wear too revealing clothes and cause their brothers in Christ to stumble. The implication of this mindset is that men are incapable of any sort of self-control; therefore it is women’s responsibility to protect men from themselves.
Which is, of course, a bunch of something that, were I to actually type it here, would have gotten me fired from my past job with a denominational publisher.
Truly, it is worthwhile to have discussions about modesty. But those conversations need to be kept in their appropriate place. And here’s what I mean by that.
Of code words and obfuscation
“Modesty” itself in evangelical circles is primarily a code word. It isn’t typically used as what it primarily means: humility. In the same way “moral failure” is a code word for saying a church leader or prominent Christian is guilty of committing some kind of sexual sin (whether consensual adultery or more frequently sexual abuse), to refer to “modesty” is to call for women—and almost exclusively women—to avoid dressing in a seemingly provocative way.
But using modesty as a code word in this way does a disservice to us all—especially to the women upon whom the bulk of the burden of responsibility is unfairly laid. And I say unfairly because it is exactly that. Here’s why.
Modesty reveals how we view and value others
In the majority of modesty conversations I’ve seen, people are not actually people. They are caricatures. Men are essentially made out to be passive victims of their sex drives/capacity to lust. Women, likewise, are painted as either being devious predators seeking to incite the desires of men, or as the caretakers/protectors of men who can’t control themselves (which is, to my surprise, apparently all of us).
These caricatures reveal a shockingly low view of men and women. Both make us fear one another instead of respect one another. Both perpetuate and inflame a negative cycle that dishonors everyone. So if we’re going to talk about modesty, we need to do so from the perspective that the Bible talks about men and women:
- First and foremost, we are equally made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all worthy of dignity, honor, and respect by virtue of that.
- Second, men and women in the church, regardless of martial status, are brothers and sisters in Christ, and should be treated with the love, honor, and respect that comes with being beloved children of God.
- Third, that when we are married, we treat our spouses and every other person in a way that reflects the first two points on this list.
The caricatures of the modern modesty conversation fail this ethic in every way. They do not reflect the reality of our being made in the image of God; they fail to uphold our inherent dignity and value as people. This is a low bar. We can do better. And we must.
Men need to be embrace their moral agency and responsibility
The other problem with the caricature of men in the modesty conversation—of painting all of us as victims—is that it removes our agency. It says that we cannot help ourselves.1
When it comes to our moral agency, our responsibility in the modesty conversation, we are not victims. We are not helpless. The Lord both commands and empowers us to be self-controlled. He gives us his Spirit to enable us to be self-controlled. So if a man finds he has a wandering eye, especially during the summer season, his first action should not be to blame women for not being modest enough. Instead, he should examine himself—what is going on in his own heart, and go from there.
Modesty itself is a character issue
Modesty is not really about what we do or do not wear. It is a character matter. And our character can be expressed in what we wear, this is true. But focusing on outward appearances is to put too much emphasis on the wrong syllable, because it is not simply a matter of what is perceived as provocative dress on the part of women.
Think about Proverbs 11:22, which says that a beautiful woman who rejects, or turns away from, discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout. The word “discretion” carries the meaning of a lack of wisdom or propriety. Basically, the proverb is saying that physical beauty doesn’t make up for a lack or rejection of wisdom.
Although the proverb refers to a woman, this is not solely a woman’s problem, as though men were paragons of virtue and wisdom. We must all pay attention to its negatively stated commendation of prudence; of wisdom and good sense.
Other passages like 1 Timothy 2:9–10 directly address clothing, but it is not purely a matter of provocative dress that Paul has in mind, since the passage also describes ostentatious displays of wealth. And, again, Paul contrasts this with an encouragement to be adorned in good works—to pursue godliness and a character rooted in the gospel. To be modest and self-controlled; to be prudent and humble. (This same theme runs through the other primary passage we turn to for this conversation, 1 Peter 3:3–5).
And this should be our goal. When we talk about modesty, let’s do so the way Scripture does—as a reflection of our character. Let’s champion humility and self-control in all areas of life, because when we do, we might be less concerned about how low it too low, how high is too high, and how tight is too tight.
Context plays a huge part in defining modest and immodest dress
So what about dressing immodestly though? Is that possible? Absolutely. But it’s not as simple as making arbitrary rules about skirt lengths, shirt cuts, or what have you. How we define modest attire depends significantly on the society and times in which we exist.
There is no one universal form of “modest.” Modest in the American South looks different than modest in British Columbia than in Jordan than in Brazil and so on.
This, again, is where wisdom comes in. We should dress with a sensitivity to the times and places in which we live without compromising our convictions. To, insomuch as we are able, be all things to all people in the truest and wisest sense, as Paul commended (1 Cor. 9:19–23), while also honoring our own consciences. This is more challenging than making rules, but it is much healthier.
Don’t be distracted from more important matters by the modesty conversation
In all honesty, I find the annual modesty conversation disingenuous. It is a safe way to appear morally upright and concerned about the appearance of sexual purity among believers. I care about sexual fidelity. I believe that when Scripture says that there should not even be a hint of immorality among us, that it really means it. And that’s why I find the discussion disingenuous so much of the time. It is a distraction from larger matters—significantly larger ones.
The evangelical church is being confronted by a very real sexual abuse crisis. Sexual immorality is not simply hinted at. It has been given cover for decades in many denominations, like the SBC, and several church networks. And there are many within the SBC in particular who are actively attempting to obstruct any efforts to meaningfully change. The modesty conversation is a means of doing that. And not because modesty doesn’t matter, but because it is a much smaller issue in comparison.
So don’t be distracted. Care about character. Care about character in every way, at every time, in every instance. In the small moments that no one sees—and in the large issues that are staring us directly in the face.
Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash
- In my most cynical moments I think might be an example of people telling on themselves.[↩]