Not the Fundamentals: Modesty

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Gentle Reader,

Merriam-Webster defines the word modest as “placing a moderate estimate on one’s abilities or worth; neither bold nor self-assertive, tending toward diffidence. . .observing the proprieties of dress and behavior,  decent; limited in size, amount, or scope; unpretentious.”

The last in that string of phrases encapsulates the idea of modesty. To be unpretentious is to eschew attempts to impress others. It is to be natural; neither self-hating nor self-promoting. It is the ability to walk into a room without a sense of anxiety or superiority.

We might equate this idea of modesty with that of humility, a correct estimation of oneself in relation to others, including God.

Unfortunately, today’s squabbling over modesty has less to do with attitude and more to do with hemlines. 1 Timothy 2:9 is an oft-quoted passage on the topic: “women [should] adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.” Add to this 1 Peter 3:3-4 (“do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God”) and you’ve got the perfect set-up for argument.

Legalistic, outward-focused argument.

I do believe that women should dress with dignity, as part of our understanding of identity. Eve came to be in God’s final act of Creation. She was not an afterthought, but rather the necessary, lovely culmination of His brilliant work. She was not merely ornamental or sexual; she had purpose. “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) As a steward of the earth alongside Adam, Eve had equal responsibility in caring for and utilizing everything, from plant to animal to dirt to water, in a God-glorifying way.

And she was naked.

I don’t speak with absolute certainty because I wasn’t there, but I believe that Adam and Eve weren’t conscious of their bodies in the way we are today. They were made to love and fit together in physical union, and so I am sure that they thought each other beautiful, but I don’t think they obsessed about it. That came with the Fall (Genesis 3), when shame and nakedness became inextricably linked. The first thing they did was cover themselves – and therein lies the seed of the argument.

How do we cover ourselves?

That’s what we get stuck on.

Oddly, we think that God places great value on what we wear. It’s as if we miss this theme entirely: ” the type of beauty that God values is the beauty of a godly character, not the passing beauty of an expensive outfit or opulent jewelry.” Or perhaps we twist it; because God values character above outward appearance, a mark of godliness is to deliberately shun fashion. Surely the woman who wears clothes without shape, who doesn’t ever venture onto the beach in a swimsuit and who never styles her hair is more in touch with God. Surely she loves Him more.

How sad that we can look at the beauty of the world, from the Bird of Paradise to fiery sunsets, and think that God condemns beauty!  If He took the time to make something as wonderful and precious as the soft, vibrant petals of a rose, how can it be that we believe He rolls His eyes when we purchase a new pair of shoes or put on mascara?

To read Paul and Peter and find an admonition against fashion is wrong. What the Apostles address in these verses, when considered in context, is the obsession with outward appearance. They lived in a deeply class-conscious society, just as we do. The type and cut of fabric, the type and placement of jewels, the type and nature of hair all revealed to what rank a person belonged. This competition has no place in the church. They were telling their readers, then and now, not to spend all their money on clothes. Not to spend hours in front of the mirror. Not to be fixated on the outward. They were urging the early Christians to be unpretentious, to remember that they were all part of the same family. The message is the same today.

Awhile back I wrote that God is not honored by an ugly, slovenly appearance. I hold to that. I also hold that God is not pleased when men blame women.

Modesty debates often center on a woman becoming a “stumbling block” to a man. No, women are not unaware of what they can do to attract a man. They are not unaware that short skirts and low necklines are enticing to him. But I believe that this has far more to do with a woman’s sense of self than it does with men. If she sees herself as merely sexual, she will operate out of that. She will find validation in his stares, whistles and suggestions. In many cases, this not about pulling a man toward sin, but rather a woman seeking to find her value in men. It is her ache that she seeks to soothe.

But the “stumbling block” argument is disingenuous. If a man is determined to lust after a woman, it doesn’t matter if she’s wearing a burqa. He’ll imagine her naked and go from there. The forcing of women into shapeless tops and drab, ankle-length skirts doesn’t do a thing to “guard” a brother. That’s not a woman’s job! A man is responsible for dealing with his lust issues before God. Blaming a woman for his problems reeks of infantilism and insincerity.

So, just as I would like to see women dress with dignity as a daughter of God, I would like to see men grow up. No man should be surprised that a woman has legs. How else are we to get around? No man should be surprised that a woman has arms. Or a stomach. Or any other part. If you can’t handle the sight of a woman in shorts, then I suggest you stay home until you’ve figured out how. Learn the art of looking a woman in the face, whatever she is wearing. Learn to see her as a person, not a body.

And as to the idea that women should only wear skirts, based on Deuteronomy 22:5 (“a woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God”)? Nice try, but everyone wore tunics and cloaks at the time that was written. Obviously this command pertains to things like style and cut rather than pants or skirts. This is not to say that a grown woman who feels a personal conviction to wear skirts, or simply likes them better than pants, is wrong. It is just impossible to say that God hates pants on women.

Final thought: Let’s all keep in mind that walking with Christ is a journey, and it is a journey that rarely finds each person at the same point at the same time. God speaks into the souls of His children. He will deal with things like clothing in His own time. Ladies, we can certainly encourage each other and we must avoid taking responsibility for men, but our fellow sister’s love for the Lord is not measured by her hemline.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the Not the Fundamentals series, go here.

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