This post is the second epsiode of my new podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. Again, there’s not much for me to introduce, and if the title has you prepared for outrage, I give you my kind-hearted laughter. This episode is the result of some recent reflections on the nature and purpose of marriage, along with its problems today.
A lot of progressive Christians argue that the historical context of the New Testament restricts the scope of the so-called “clobber texts” about homosexuality. Jesus and the Apostles, they say, had no concept of the modern development of a loving, consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship. Therefore in places like Romans 1 where they seemed to condemn gay or lesbian practices, the condemnations were really only limited to the exploitative and/or idolatrous practices of the day, not all homosexuality. We can all agree that prostitution, pedophilia, and cultic sex are wrong, and those are basically the only kinds of homosexual practices the New Testament actually forbids.
My experiment here is to grant their argument and run with it. Let’s say that the progressives are right, that Paul and Jesus knew nothing of the kind of homosexual relationships which occur today. Let’s grant that their condemnation of homosexual practices was contingent on their historical context. In that case, our question for today can be framed as follows: in our present historical context, are the kinds of homosexuality practiced associated with something idolatrous or destructive? I think the answer to this question is still, “Yes,” so that even if the biblical condemnations of homosexuality were context-specific, applying biblical reasoning to our own historical context indicts today’s forms of homosexuality as well.
How do I arrive at this point? I place homosexuality then (Bible times) and now in narrative perspective. Where does homosexuality fit into the wider theological narrative of God, man, Israel, Christ, the Church, and the world? For all my disagreements with him, I think Andrew Perriman gets the logic of Romans 1 more or less right, so I will build from a foundation roughly corresponding to his his narrative account.
Why did Paul speak so strongly against homosexuality in Romans 1? In context, the kinds of homosexuality practiced in Greek and Roman civilization was part of the deterioration of Gentile civilization produced by idolatry. Since as early as Babel, the Gentiles had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for other gods, images of wood and stone. They served the creation rather than the Creator. By taking the Creator out of the picture in exchange for created gods, they paved the way for disorienting the use of all created things, human bodies included. They used their bodies in shameful ways to satisfy their shameful gods in open rebellion against the true Creator God. All of this became particularly acute in the Romans world as the height of pre-Christian, Gentile civilization. The Roman committment to false gods led to decadence and gross abuse of human bodies, which had been made to serve the true God. Thus they received in themselves the due penalty for their error, and God’s wrath was a-comin’.
The situation since then has changed. The pre-Christian Gentile world, the world of the pagan Roman Empire, has been destroyed. It was replaced by Christendom, a world order in which the nations confessed Christ as Lord (however imperfect and problematic this order turned out to be). The Church did its best to construct fitting new culture, new worldview, and new intellectual concepts for this order from reflection on Scripture and Christian tradition, and these came to dominate Christendom. So for a thousand years Christendom remained and the nations remained mostly submissive (at least nominally) to Christian thought and ethics.
But all this began to change around the time of the Enlightenment. The causes of the change are mostly unimportant here. What matters is that there was a new wave of rebellion. The old world rebellion began with worshipping false gods and idols, but the new rebellion was based on worship of man. It produced humanism, materialism, atheism, naturalism, and rationalism. Man no longer felt the need to serve a god, whether a true or false one. Rather, man decided he was able to accomplish all things by himself and be all things to himself. This has had to take a decidedly neo-Gnostic slant. The old pagans saw creation and nature as run by gods, Christendom saw them as the work of the one God, and modern humanism sees them either as shackles of givnenness to be broken or as raw material to be reshaped in man’s preferred image.
The transition from old Christendom worldview to the new humanistic one has been slow, but it has come, like the old pagan system, to express itself in sexual deviance. The Sexual Revolution neatly and naturally followed the rebellious, humanistic spirit of the age to assert human capacity and freedom over and against divine authority. The idea is that humanity is grown-up now: we don’t need old rules supposedly from God to tell us how to handle sexual ethics. We’re now all set to do whatever we please. This led to acceptance of contraception, divorce, sexual activity before marriage, and at this present stage the entire LGBT movement. The modern world’s neo-Gnosticism can be seen here, as well: the natural reproductive order was created before our wills, but for humanity to be all in all we must assert our wills over and against this basic physical component to human existence. Biological sex is unchosen, gifted from God, and if we are to escape God’s dominion we must be able to reconstruct and redefine gender and sex without reference to the realities of the body, or to reshape the body around our conceptions of gender and sex.
I think this narrative makes sense of what has been happening in modern history. The first rebellion put Gentiles under the dominion of false gods, and it led to the degredation of the body in idolatrous rites and decadent sexual arrangements. This new, post-Christendom rebellion puts mankind in the West under no one but himself, and thus leads to the attempt to self-transcend and redefine the body for our own ends and impulses. The old order acknowledged the givenness of reality but refused to honor God for it, and so honored false gods. The new order, in its own attempt to escape God, denies the givenness of reality and seeks to give humanity unlimited power over all things, our own bodies included. It is easy to see how the LGBT movement fits into this narrative.
If the narrative offered above is at all, the progressive argument that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were only about the context-specific forms of homosexuality which plagued the ancient world does nothing to exonerate homosexuality today. On the contrary, a look at our context reveals how modern homosexuality can also be condemned in a context-specific way, as part of the modern rebellion of humanism, which contrasts with the rebellion condemned in Romans 1 of literal idolatry. Then and now, homosexuality is part of a larger human rebellion against the true God. And this (I think) suggests a deeper link between homosexuality and sin, so that homosexual practices would be likely only to emerge on notable scales in contexts of rebellion. But that would be another post.
With all the transgender issues on the news lately, I think we as conservative Christians need to take a step back. From there we must ask and then articulate what precisely it is that we find objectionable in transsexualism and why. For example, I assume that most of us do not agree that merely the psychological aspect of feeling or believing that your mind is aligned with the opposite sex that your body constitutes a sin. After all, we don’t usually agree that experiencing attraction to the same sex is a sin, either.
Likewise, most of us I believe would not consider a woman being into “masculine interests” (e.g. cars, football, fighting skills, hunting) or a man being into “feminine interests” (e.g. sewing, homemaking, childcare, chick flicks) as sinful. We would still agree even if someone was completely the opposite of the norm for their gender.
Then come the more ambiguous questions about appearance. Most Christians in my experience would not condemn a man with long hair or a woman with short hair, or a woman wearing a pantsuit. Yet a total conversion, say a man with long, braided hair, a short skirt, high heels, and a flowery pink blouse, would garner a less favorable response. Where is the line, if it both exists and can be defined, and why? (Remember: if we were to appeal to Old Testament law we’d need to show that it still applies, and why it does.)
Then what about calling yourself a member of the opposite sex? Is that the line? Is it a form of lying? Then again, maybe it’s not lying if you’re not trying to say that you’re physically that gender. Is it sinful for attempting to redefine yourself in contradiction to the bodily reality gifted to you by God?
On the other hand, I expect most of us would agree that it’s crossing any lines to go through a sex change operation. Yet if we want to hold this line, we will need to articulate why it’s wrong. What makes a surgery to fix this mind-body disorder different from surgeries to fix other non-life and death issues? Is it, as some might argue, no worse than problems your hair or toning your abs? Is it more like a cosmetic surgery, and are cosmetic surgeries appropriate? Why or why not?
Of course, I imagine nearly all of us Christians with conservative views on sexuality would also agree that it crosses the last line for a transgender person to have sex with someone of the same biological sex, even after surgery. The only way out would be to say that the transgender person actually counts before God as their chosen sex, which seems a difficult argument to make.
Yet what about a celibate transgender? Are they in the clear, especially if they forgo a sex change operation? Or are they still in sin for identifying with a gender which is not their biological sex? Yet the latter would seem to place a greater burden on transgender people than we usually affirm for gay people, whom we will not generally condemn if they remain celibate. Or are the issues in fact just that different?
For some of these questions I have fairly dogmatic answers, yet for others, I am less certain. I’m quite confident that sex between a transgender person and someone of the same biological sex is as sinful as any homosexuality. I also believe that sex change operations do great violence to the inherent aim and meaning of bodily sexuality. But the celibate transgender? I’m not sure what to make of someone who remains sexually pure while identifying with a gender which is not their own. I’m suspicious, but not dogmatically certain of sin. (I also realize that this situation is highly hypothetical since people who commit to celibacy are rare enough in the 99% of society that isn’t transgender, and even in the Church.) There are other ambiguities as well, such as how someone who had a sex change operation in the past, but since repented, should go on to live.
Despite the issues that arise, we must be clear, confident, and courteous on this matter. It is not enough simply to express outrage, or mere confusion or head-shaking. The changing world will most likely not respect us no matter how we handle this, but at least if we respectfully offer a full, rationally defensible, coherent alternative vision of gender and sexuality then we can stand before God and conscience as level-headed, innocent peacemakers rather than obtuse, contentious reactionaries. And maybe, just maybe, when we adorn the Gospel with such grace and wisdom, some folks out there will be drawn to come to the Light. Not the light of our right side, of course, but the Light who is Christ and makes all things new, even broken gender identities.
P.S. For really good further reading, I recommend this post by Alastair Roberts and the accompanying podcast.
As many of you know, I’m in college right now. I’m also happily married. In fact, I can’t imagine doing my adult life single. Several other young couples seem to feel the same way, and I pray God blesses them. Marriage truly is a wonderful gift, and a powerful sign of the relationship between Christ and His Church. That said, I’m concerned with the relentless promotions and endorsements (even some of the prayers) for marriage I see given to my fellow students. As great as marriage is, it’s not the only lifestyle available to Christians. Our Lord Jesus Himself did not go that route, but another. Celibacy is also an option.
Both Jesus and Paul exemplified the celibate call, devoting their entire lives to a sacred mission for God rather than taking on the earthly entanglements1 of marriage. This is not to say, of course, that marriage is at all a bad thing. Indeed, it is rather a very good and natural part of the original creation.2 It remains the bedrock of healthy society and plays an important role in the life of the Church. There are few more potent images of the union which Christ enters into with His Church than the union of man and woman.3
Nonetheless, marriage is at its heart part of this age, the world that is passing away.4 Practically speaking, it was needed to fill the earth with people who could reflect the image of God in worship and service.5 This purpose is expiring in the new creation, which has already begun breaking into the world through Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of His Spirit upon His Body at Pentecost. The new world is ever present before us as we wait for the return of Jesus, and when He does return marriage will be finished.6
In addition to all of this, marriage is, well, quite a task. I’m not complaining; I love it! Nonetheless, it takes up a great deal of time and effort, time and effort which could be spent by the single person doing a wide variety of other things for the kingdom of God.7 There are serious practical differences in serving God with a family and without one. While of course a married person can serve God passionately and effectively (that is my goal, after all!), the single person can do so with greater flexibility, freedom, simplicity, and even risk. I will never be able to drop everything and risk my life or even just my livelihood for missional and ministry purposes the same way that, say, the Apostle Paul could.
So what I do I aim to say? To all of you unmarried college students and youngsters out there, especially my co-learners at the
Bridal Baptist College of Florida, don’t assume that marriage is, must be, or should be in your future. There is an alternative, indeed a radically countercultural (even for Christian culture) one. You can not marry, and you can not have sex. Everyone in our culture outside the Church expects you to be regularly sexually active, either within marriage or without. Sex is in fact almost given god-like honors. “You must not repress your sexuality,” you are told. That would be a sacrilege against the rite of sexual self-expression and satisfaction. It’s unhealthy (ritually unclean?) and prudish/ignorant (heretical?) to deny yourself such pleasures. Even within many Christian circles, these basic tenants are often (at least subconsciously) accepted, only with the caveat that the right place for all of this sexual expression is marriage. A commitment to lifelong celibacy amounts to a polemic, if not a declaration of war, against corrupted modern sexual ethos.
In addition to this, a commitment to celibacy functions as a powerful eschatological sign to the world. Marriage, as I noted before, is proper to the old creation, and will pass away. To commit to celibacy in the present stands, then, as an anticipation and symbol of the future state. In cultures with particularly strong family ties, where getting married and having children can affect all sorts of relationships, social status, fortunes, reputation, or property rights, celibacy serves to declare trust in God rather than these temporary systems. Refusing to marry or engage in sexual activity in the present is a way of showing the world that you are part of a different world, the age to come, in which reproduction is by the power of the Spirit rather than by man, satisfaction is found in union with Christ rather than sexual union, and the family that truly matters is the family born of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, rather than the family born naturally.
In today’s culture, though, celibacy is essentially seen as a death sentence, at least for our social/relational selves. The fear goes that a celibate person is missing out on what makes life count, on true love and intimate personal relations. Yet Christ declares an alternative. He promises and creates a new family, a new web of relationships, in His Church.8 I wrote on this in a previous post, and it matters for the question of celibacy. Lifelong celibacy may rule out relationships of sexual-romantic and paternal/maternal love, but those are not the only kind of relationship which be fulfilling and truly loving. When we come together as Christ’s body, allowing Him to reform our hearts, minds, affections, and interests by His Spirit, then we can more than make up for this lack, supporting those who would commit to celibacy. This is a high calling for those of us who are Church family, demanding that we be genuinely interested in and compassionate towards each other, but for those of us who follow Christ, what else do we expect?
So, then, I simply ask you all, actually and personally as my fellow youngsters, to seriously consider this. You BCF people, I know they call it the Bridal College of Florida. But there are very few other lifestyles in our culture which can have the same power as committed celibacy, especially in this post-Obergefell world. It is a sign of Christ and His kingdom, comes highly recommended in Christian history, and I honestly believe can and will change your life, if you are willing to take the plunge.
(P.S. I know it may seem odd that I write so encouragingly of celibacy when I myself am married. Yet I need to be, and I know it. I’ve known for a very long time that God designed me specifically to marry. I couldn’t do life any other way. Not everyone is like that. Many people are not. And it concerns me that this valuable and powerful Christian lifestyle is so neglected and marginalized today.)
(P.P.P.S. Speaking of guest writing, if anyone wants to guest write here you can/should hit me up at email@example.com)
Sophie and Lacy
Meet Sophie. She’s wearing a floor-length dress to school every day. Her bathing suit of choice is a burkini. She never goes out with her friends, but instead stays home to sew, clean, cook, and tend to her father and brothers. She also doesn’t date; she is arranged to marry a hardworking lumberjack (he’s pretty great-looking, they tell her, so she’s excited).
Now meet Lacy. She’s wearing, well, not much of anything, just some shorts half the length of their pockets and a bikini top. Should she go swimming, she’ll drop the shorts and use the floss-like cloth underneath. Most of her nights are spent carousing with drunken perverts, and at home she’s a rebellious brat who hates her parents. For that reason she rarely sleeps at home, preferring instead to sleep with strange men until she gets pregnant and aborts the baby before moving on.
[fquote align=”right”]Sophie is a radical stereotype of girls who follow the dictates of traditional modesty, and Lacy is a similarly radical stereotype of those who do not. And like all stereotypes, they should be annihilated if we want to have a rational discussion.[/fquote]
Finally, take the images you have of Sophie and Lacy, and then kill them both like they’re on Game of Thrones (see, I can make relevant cultural references even without actually watching that porn, er, I mean nice TV show). Both are what we call stereotypes, and in this case these are really, really extreme stereotypes from the modesty debate. Sophie is a radical stereotype of girls who follow the dictates of traditional modesty, and Lacy is a similarly radical (though perhaps more likely to exist in this culture) stereotype of those who do not. And like all stereotypes, they should be annihilated if we want to have a rational discussion. So my request: read this post as though this debate is completely new to you. Hopefully that will give my voice a little more credibility.
The Vantage Point
I am trying to tackle the question of modesty from a particular perspective, namely a conservative one. However, it’s not exactly the clichéd conservatism of youth groups on this. I want to give serious respect to tradition and the wisdom of the humanity past, while also giving a fair hearing to whatever legitimate points may be found in new arguments. In addressing both, I’d like to follow a philosophy of moderation and reasonableness, following the golden mean.
Of course, that idea may well just sound like pretentious drivel, but I do think it is an attainable goal. Such prudence isn’t extremely difficult to work through, mainly because much of the work has been done for you by ghosts. So I will be addressing each side first by examining their strengths, and then their flaws. Finally, I intend to carve out a middle way that combines the good and rejects the bad. Sound too idealistic? Good, that’s my favorite. Too pretentious? Then please suffer me a chance.
“Modest is Hottest”: The Traditional View
In what I deem the “traditional” view of modesty (though it really wasn’t developed in its current form until relatively recent conflicts), people (especially women) are morally obligated to keep their bodies covered for the sake of common decency and protecting their peers from lust. While there is not necessarily anything inherently wrong with being attracted to someone, too much of a glimpse will inspire lust, and for the sake of goodness this should be avoided strongly. Shorts, skirts, and dresses shouldn’t be all that short, midriff is a definite no-no, bikinis are usually pretty iffy, and make sure your clothes aren’t too tight! Otherwise someone may lust after you, and if you respect them you should do your part to help prevent that. As well, your body is a valuable treasure meant to be saved for your spouse, so exposing much of it before that point to other people is a waste and lacks self-respect.
Right off the bat, the traditional view has the benefit of, well, tradition. We are basically just coming out of a transition phase on what is socially acceptable to wear, and the traditional view recognizes that not all changes are improvements. It recognizes some of the forces that went into play in changing these norms aren’t entirely benign. The sexual revolution was a disgusting and cancerous change, and there is no doubt that it played a part in the way acceptable dress has changed.
[fquote align=”left”]The traditional view recognizes that some of the forces which went into play in changing dress norms aren’t entirely benign.[/fquote]
The traditional view also has the benefit of repudiating individualism. We are not, in this case, concerned all about individual rights but also with how the individual relates to society and other people. He or she is challenged to show respect for the good of others and not blindly exercise their autonomy just because they like it. This is something almost entirely lost on people with a more modern take on this issue. Too many people buy into the lie that individual rights and autonomy are the only considerations which matter.
The final advantage to the traditional view is that, at least in my experience, it seems to put more effort into aligning itself with Scripture. Who can forget how often they use 1 Timothy 2:9-10? “Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.” While their interpretation and application of Scripture can be debated, I do find as a trend that they are more willing to let it be their guide.
There are problems, though, with the traditional view. For one, it often makes someone else’s weakness the responsibility of an otherwise innocent party. Because Johnny has a porn addiction, Sophie must wear a hot, uncomfortable burkini to the pool. Yet even Paul protested, “For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:29) It’s not entirely fair for someone to have to always regulate their apparel based on what someone else might do because of it, much like it is not fair to say someone should not buy an iPad lest their friend become envious. Moreover, this tends to lead to downplaying the lusting party’s personal responsibility for his sin, even sometimes shifting a great portion of the blame onto the other.
Another problem with this view is that it often leads to complicated rules and regulations. “Wear shorts this short, but not that short,” or “Yes, that bikini might be okay at your friend’s house, but not at the beach.” It threatens to become its own legalistic structure. This is obviously not acceptable. If you find yourself having to a modesty checklist on your outfit, it probably means you’ve found the far end of the traditional view. Jesus came to set us free from the such a code, and we need to trust His working in our hearts through the Spirit on its own without these extra barriers to keep us in check.
[fquote align=”right”]It’s not entirely fair for someone to have to always regulate their apparel based on what someone else might do because of it, much like it is not fair to say someone should not buy an iPad lest their friend become envious.[/fquote]
Another problem the traditional view faces is the tendency to make a woman’s body into a dangerous think which men need to be protected from. It’s just too powerful for our weak, sex-wired brains! Urm, that’s not a good way to go. Women can develop shame and feel that there bodies are somehow bad, especially naked, which can be a problem when they get married and try to head into the awesome sex they’re usually promised by the same people who promote the traditional view.
I decided to also mention the worst of each view, because all things can go really, really badly if taken too far. For the traditional view, you can have some seriously damaging effects. Sometimes women develop serious insecurities because of how much they are commanded to cover up their bodies. Males can go on and on without ever developing self-control to subdue their minds if they do see anything they usually wouldn’t.
Of course, the real ugly side here is the crazy side, where women are blamed for their own rapes because they were dressing promiscuously. Blech. Now, I suspect that doesn’t happen as often as feminists would like us to believe, but for the sake of God’s mercy we should never, ever go in that direction even in the slightest. Just don’t go there. Unfortunately, there are a few people who hold to the traditional view that at least lean that way, and there are a handful who blast all-out that kind of message.
“The God-Honoring Bikini”: The Modern View
A trend rather recently has been for what I call the “modern” view. To these people, the traditional view is just clinging to cultural standards of yesteryear and making them into law. Instead, the modern view emphasizes the goodness of the body, the freedom of the Christian, and the necessity of self-control. While you probably shouldn’t dress like a stripper, and you shouldn’t dress specifically to attract sexual attention to yourself, you should embrace your body as God’s good gift and not be afraid to wear what you like. You are not expected to hide yourself just because some people have sin problems. Bikini, shorter shorts, or low cut dress, wear what feels comfortable because you have that liberty. As well, the traditional view is criticized for focusing almost exclusively on women covering up and not men.
[fquote align=”left”]Your body is not something to be ashamed of, nor something dangerous, nor something that necessarily needs to be hidden away.[/fquote]
The modern view does have some credibility. Like I said before, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to say, “Because someone will sin if they see me like this, I should never be seen like this.” There is a legitimate question as to why this applies to lust and dress but not other things, like envy and technology. It is generally understandable why it would not seem completely just to limit one person’s liberty on the basis of another’s vice.
Another benefit to the modern view is that it is holds an explicitly positive and non-Gnostic view of the body and sexuality in general. These things are good and to be received with thanksgiving. Your body is not something to be ashamed of, nor something dangerous, nor something that necessarily needs to be hidden away. This isn’t to say that the traditional view would disagree, but these truths are often neglected by adherents of the traditional view while made very clear here.
Finally, the modern view is good about trying to balance the field between men and women. The traditional view, while not more directed against by nature, is often discussed almost exclusively on women. Yet there is a lot of room to address guys on modesty, especially in a post-Jacob culture. Somehow I feel that muscle-selfies aren’t substantially different from bikini ones. Perhaps even more tied to attractive intent.
The modern view has its shortcomings, though. For one, it does seem strongly tied to our culture’s radical conception of individualism. Even though it uses sanctified terminology, it often sounds as though it is saying the exact same thing as the world: “Let me do what I want; it’s not your right to tell me what to do!” Moreover, this is done specifically excluding the concerns of others. We are told in the modern view quite clearly that the sin struggles of fellow believers are just not our problem.
There is also the issue of association. Now, we all know that just because an idea has some connections to really wrong people doesn’t mean it is itself wrong. However, it does warrant caution. Looking at the history of the change in modesty ideas, the modern view seems connected to the sexual revolution and modern pop-feminism, both are which are scary, morally damaging things. The ever-controversial bikini arose as a prime example of this, as it was praised by feminist activists as helping sexually liberate women. Needless to say, this is not good company.
[fquote align=”right”]Even though it uses sanctified terminology, it often sounds as though the modern view is saying the exact same thing as the world.[/fquote]
My final issue with the modern view is that it, overall, seems to leave a lesser voice to Scripture in this discussion than the traditional view does. This isn’t saying there are no Biblical arguments on this side, but that they tend to be treated as secondary to the popular rhetoric on this, which draws noticeably from individualism and feminism.
The ugly side of the modern view is ugly, indeed. At its worst it is associated with the radical feminism of such crazies as Jezebel. Yippie. I don’t think I even have to explain how bad those people are.
The other ugly part of the modern view is that it can facilitate social hostility towards people who dress with traditional standards of modesty, whether out of conviction or personal preference. They can easily fall victim to stereotyping, and people who actually hold to the traditional view can be accused of quite a great many things, including legalism, body-shaming, and even misogyny. But in the more common, less extreme results of these same negatives, you can face social stigma for being dorky, backwards, or unattractive for not dressing as freely as people do more commonly.
Bulldozing a Middle Way
Now that I’ve gone through my thoughts on the two mainstream views of modesty, I want to start explaining (and, to some extent, creating) my own. First, we can all agree on one thing: some kind of modesty is important. Why? To cite something I did before:
Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.
1 Timothy 2:9-10
Here Paul explicitly tells women to dress modestly. This refutes anyone who ignores the entire deal. But what is modesty? Defining modesty will be key to my entire argument. To help me define modesty, I would like to bring in one more passage very similar to this one.
Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes. Instead, it should consist of what is inside the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God’s eyes.
1 Peter 3:3-4
From these two texts, I will try to present a very straightforward definition of modesty:
- Modesty is the quality of humility, especially in dress and demeanor, shunning special attention, especially from superficial sources.
I would like to think that this definition does justice to the verses above and to the entire concept of modesty in general, along with Biblical humility. So how would this definition address the issues of the current modesty debate? At this point I think bullet points are the simplest way to examine the implications.
- Modesty is a heart issue before it is a dress issue. You must have humility to be modest. The modest person is content to be quietly out of eye. They do not try to draw attention to their own talents, appearance, or character, but instead take praise and recognition involuntarily and without thrill.
- Immodesty in dress is defined by attention-seeking, not necessarily skin-showing. When Paul spoke to the women in the church on modesty, he told them not to wear fancy hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. This was immodest because it attracted special attention, making people notice, “Wow, she has style and can afford it!” It is not as though the fancy clothes in fashion in Paul’s day would be all that revealing, either. Ironically, I can guarantee you that many women, especially youth, speaking on modesty in churches today are actually still dressed for attention, just not using skin.
- Seeking attention through revealing clothing is certainly immodest, no matter how little or much it shows. It doesn’t really matter what or how much your clothing shows if you’re trying to get your body noticed. Aiming to attract attention is immodest.
- If you’re not seeking attention, you’re not being immodest. If you’re just dressing as you do for fun, comfort, style preference, or some other innocent reason, then you cannot necessarily be charged with immodesty, even if the stuff is somewhat revealing. Example: I work in an Amazon warehouse. The temperature in the summer averages over 80°F, so it gets uncomfortable to wear a lot of clothing, especially if you’re moving a lot (like people in my department). Because of this, most of the girls who work in my department wear t-shirts or tank tops with either pretty short shorts or yoga pants. Are they being immodest who dress this way to avoid heat stroke or sweating buckets? Of course not, regardless of how males actually respond.
- Just because you’re not being immodest doesn’t always mean your clothing is appropriate. Regardless of why you dress as you do, a speedo is not appropriate attire for a funeral (unless the deceased had a beach party in his will). And even if you’re just doing because you think it’s cozy, I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with walking down the streets dressed like a stripper.
At this point I must break to address the last thing I said. How do we know what is appropriate regardless of intentions? Well, to be honest I don’t think there are many easy rules here, mostly common sense. But I do think there is something to be said for cultural standards of decency. We are called as believers to treat other people with love and respect, which means we should not needlessly offend or disturb them. Most of the time, we know how other people will respond to what we wear, and so we should take that into consideration. Of course, this also does not mean we need to dress for the lowest common denominator, wearing clothing that will be acceptable to every single person, mainly because this is not practical and will not help many/any people.
What about Lust?
The question that is burning on some minds is how my view addresses the question of lust. After all, aren’t we still obligated to respect our fellow believers in how we dress? I would like to address this from two points. The first is the value of self-control. Certainly this is a good, conservative value and a fruit of the Spirit. Therefore I think it is important to bring into this discussion. See, people need to learn self-control. This value is one that will help in the modesty question. After all, if you can learn to control your thoughts and responses, you will be able to conquer lust. However, if you are never exposed to any sexually attractive sights, you will never face the temptation of lust. If you never face temptation, you can never conquer temptation and better yourself through self-control. Moreover, if this goes this way for quite some time, and then you find yourself suddenly faced with a sight that may stimulate lust, you will have no built up guard or defenses. So total shielding from potential lust-driving sights is perhaps dangerous.
[fquote align=”left”]The situation is akin to that of antibiotics. If we never use antibiotics but remain exposed to all manners of nastiness, we will get sick and die. If we always use antibiotics and protect ourselves from every possible infection, then we will be altogether unprepared to deal with any ill which makes its way past our defenses.[/fquote]
Naturally, we cannot go to an extreme on this argument. We could not say, then, that we should expose people to as much tempting imagery as possible. Should people be made to watch hours of pornography just so they can learn to control themselves? That would be absurd. The problem is that overwhelming someone not yet ready for defenses will destroy them. However, no chances to fight will lead to weakness. The situation is akin to that of antibiotics. If we never use antibiotics but remain exposed to all manners of nastiness, we will get sick and die. If we always use antibiotics and protect ourselves from every possible infection, then we will be altogether unprepared to deal with any ill which makes its way past our defenses. Likewise, if we try to protect ourselves from all possible images that could inspire lust, we will grow unable to deal with anything, but if we use no caution we will be destroyed by lust. It is more helpful to strike a reasonable balance.
On the other side of this, lust is a seriously difficult sin to crush. This is something most people know personally. So we should show, as fellow members in this fight, some concern for others. While we need not bind ourselves into a particular code because of the weaknesses of others, we should make sure, for one, to never even semi-intentionally try to attract sexual attention to ourselves. This applies whether you’re posting lots of shirtless ab selfies on Facebook or showing off your new bikini figure. While it is not wrong to show these things in any circumstance, if you’re putting yourself on display for attention, you are wrong.
There is a less intentional side of which we ought to be cautious, though. Generally speaking, you have a decent idea of how other people will respond to how you dress. So if it occurs to you that you may really be a stumbling block when you tweet a picture of the freckle in your cleavage, I would at least advice taking a second consideration as to what you will do. This must never be a law of any kind, but just a thought. Just try to do unto others what you have them do unto you.
Honestly, modesty is a complicated topic when both major sides have so many arguments. And while I think (or hope) that I have found a happy medium, I am not certain of this, and even with my ruminations (which are probably not as original as I imagine) there are plenty of practical points of application that could be debated. But I think if we adopt an attitude of proper modesty, respect others, and do not judge our fellow believers, we will be alright. Thanks for reading this endless post!
Sexuality is obvious a huge controversy. Homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexualism, and a host of other words fill blogs, newspapers, and airtime. Naturally, if something is so controversial and such a major part of human life, then consulting God about it is a reasonable decision. I, of course, believe that the Bible is God’s Word, so I search there for answers.
The problem is that this issue is heated and home to many strong opinions, despite the abundance of ignorance and myths involved. In fact, there is quite a bit to say about it, but I would prefer to start with basics and then draw out implications. So, as humbly as I can, I present these truths from the Bible.
Fact 1: Homosexuality (and the like) is sin.
Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10