The Cultural Component of Modesty

Following my last post, I was surprised (and pleased!) by the number of commenters who asked me to write more. I thought for sure that my post had dragged on way too long, so your responses tell me that this is a topic about which you are interested in learning more!

As I looked through the newest comments on Caryn’s Her.meneutics post, two things struck me: First, a lot of Christians have a startling disdain for the human body. Second, some of the most popular assumptions about modesty are not Scriptural but cultural.

Regarding the first point, I am not going to address that now. I need to spend more time thinking about it and studying God’s Word. I don’t think I fully understand the complexity of this problem and why it is so pervasive, so I want to do the topic justice.

What I will address today is the cultural aspect of modesty.

We live in a culture that hyper-sexualizes the female body. Advertisements frequently display the female body as though it is an enticing piece of meat, and countless men are addicted to pornography. It is because of this climate that the responses to Caryn’s post are somewhat understandable. When a woman’s body is on display, our brains are trained to process it in a very particular way.

Where we go astray is when we label that instinct as innate. Although men will always be attracted to women, there is also an element of cultural conditioning at work. This becomes clear when we look at Christians in other cultures.

In the last couple years I have had the privilege of taking some Intercultural Studies classes as a part of my degree, and my professors have all shared stories about the conflict that arises when Western missionaries impose their standards of modesty on other cultures. In the name of purity, these missionaries have sometimes sexualized the female body in a way that it had not been sexualized before. To give you an example, I found an excerpt from a book titled Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions. Written in 1958 by Eugene A Nida, he recounts the following comical yet thought-provoking experience:

“But we are not going to have our wives dress like prostitutes,” protested an elder in the Ngbaka church in northern Congo, as he replied to the suggestion made by the missionary that the women should be required to wear blouses to cover their breasts. The church leaders were unanimous in objecting to such a requirement, for in that part of the Congo the well-dressed and fully-dressed African women were too often prostitutes, since they alone had the money to spend on attractive garments. Different peoples are in wide disagreement as to the amount or type of clothes required by modesty. Not long ago one of the chiefs in the Micronesian island of Yap forbade any woman from coming into the town with a blouse. However he insisted that all women would have to wear grass skirts reaching almost to the ankles. To the Yapese way of thinking, bare legs are a sign of immodesty, while the uncovered breasts are perfectly proper.

Stories likes these remind us that we read Scripture through a cultural lens. Some of the standards we assume to be Biblical are actually societal, which is one of the reasons we need the church. Christians from other cultures help us to identify our own context with a little more clarity.

Does that mean that cultural standards of modesty are irrelevant? Definitely not. In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul instructs women to adorn themselves with modesty, not with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” The IVP New Testament Commentary tells us that this was a caricature of wealthy women of the day. In other words, the problem is not the wearing of pearls and gold itself. Women do not sin by braiding their hair. Instead, Paul is applying a universal principle to a cultural practice. These descriptors signify the flaunting of wealth, to which Paul replies with an appeal for modesty.

(It is also worth pointing out that Paul’s understanding of modesty is here applied to wealth, not the sexual body. Again, I think that speaks to our culture’s fixation on the body.)

All of that to say, the cultural aspect of modesty does not thrust us into moral relativism. Scripture calls us to respect our surrounding culture and give weight to existing norms if we hope to have a credible witness. In a culture that objectifies women and interprets bodily exposure as self-exploitation, we cannot be naive about the message we send with our dress.

HOWEVER, this cultural standard is not to be confused with a universal standard of bodily modesty, nor does it communicate how God feels about your body. I tend to think that the universal principle of modesty is much larger than any discussion about dress–it is instead about the orientation of our hearts toward God and the proper use of our bodies and possessions.

What’s more, there is an important tension between respecting cultural standards and redeeming them. Our culture has some extremely destructive views of the female body, so while it is important to guard our Christian witness by acknowledging societal norms, we must also work to undermine those beliefs and practices that are antithetical to the character of God.

I think that Caryn’s post was a method of Christian resistance in this area. While many Christians respond to the perversions of our culture by further hiding the female body, I think this accomplishes little in the way of redemption. Although modest dress may guard our witness, we must also put forth a theology of the female body that is true to Scripture and proclaims the goodness of our creation. As the comments section on Caryn’s post reveals, this latter category is an area in which we have much more work to do.