By now you’ve probably noticed that I have been thinking about modesty a lot lately. I wrote a post for Her.meneutics last month and then I wrote another post on this blog, both of which contain some critiques against the current conceptions of modesty.
My reflections on the topic have been motivated by two key ideas: First, God created the female body as good and beautiful, so our language about the female body (and modesty) should be consistent with that theological tenet. Second, modesty is not just a female issue. It is relevant to men and women alike, young and old. And just because you cover your body does not mean you are a modest person.
Although I believe that standards of bodily modesty are somewhat relative to the culture, that does not mean we should ignore those standards altogether. Paul encouraged both men and women to respect the cultural mores of their contexts, to the extent that they did not undermine their credibility in proclaiming the gospel. Given that Scriptural precedent and the sinful temptation to exploit our own bodies for selfish ambition, there are times when Christian women DO dress immodestly and we do need to talk about it. But how we conduct that conversation is a different matter.
Over the weekend I spoke with a friend who was embarrassed after some of her pastors’ wives objected to a dress she wore to church. It was a dress she had worn numerous times before, and with her husband’s (also a pastor) blessing, so she felt a bit blind-sided by the criticism. Not only did she feel the dress was appropriate, but she wasn’t given a reason why she shouldn’t wear it–other than the fact that it was “too short.”
Now when you think about it, “too short” is not really a reason. Although we probably understand the subtext of the objection, we need to move away from such blanket condemnations that risk communicating something unbiblical. We need to get to the reason behind the reason. Why is “too short” a problem? Is it because women’s bodies do not belong in church? Is it because a woman’s body is inherently tempting to men and should always be hidden? Is it because we are making assumptions about the intentions of a woman who wears such a dress? Or is there something more?
As I have written about before, modesty is about more than dress. It is about an orientation of the heart. The word modesty itself means “free from conceit or vanity,” so it is an other-oriented posture. The modest person is oriented first toward the glory of God and second toward the love of neighbor. Personal glory is last.
While it is difficult to know whether a man or woman has God in mind as they select their outfit, I think that love of neighbor is a more helpful category for discussing modesty in dress. By this I am not only referring to the edification of our brothers in Christ who struggle with lust, but the less frequently discussed ministry we have to women. There are times when a short dress might be a stumbling block for women also, and that is a valid consideration for women in leadership.
For a lot of women, their body is a source of power. It is how they command attention or feel noticed. And for that reason, some women are willing to objectify themselves to get that attention. Exposing their bodies is not about celebrating the image of God in themselves, but their own glory. And this misguided motivation is further encouraged when visible female leaders play the same game.
For both leaders and non-leaders alike, the female body can be a false idol for women. We spend countless hours and dollars keeping ourselves trim and pretty and presentable for others, sometimes spending more time serving ourselves than we do God. In this way, women can become enslaved to their own bodies. And while it is difficult to know whether a specific woman is in bondage to this type of idol (and we should be VERY careful before making such an assumption), we can think carefully about our own role in addressing this larger problem.
Modesty in dress, home, or lifestyle is about the primacy of God’s glory, but it is also a loving witness to those around you. Modesty is the discarding of self-styled idols that have captured our culture and our Christian communities. When a kind of idolatrous vanity has entrenched itself in your community, the most loving thing you can do is to live modestly in response.
William Wilberforce once wrote, “When blessed with wealth, let them withdraw from the competition of vanity and be modest, retiring from ostentation, and not be the slaves of fashion.” I encourage you to consider the most troubling “competitions of vanity” in your church community. Is it bodily exposure, is it having a nice home, or the illusion of a perfect family? Is it self-righteousness masquerading as holiness?
Whatever the idol, modesty is one means of envisioning a different way. When your weaker sisters are captured by the idol of materialism or sexual objectification, you have the opportunity to either encourage their behavior or exemplify a godly alternative, and modesty is one avenue for doing so. In this way, I see modesty not as a trump card for holding women accountable to arbitrary standards about dress, but as a self-giving ministry to others. It asks not what your sister should be doing differently, but how you can better love and build up your sister with your own example.