It was after the first service. I was in the production booth and a man approached me with a serious expression on his face. “I want to make you aware of something inappropriate on the platform.” I immediately turned and looked to see what was going on but I didn’t find anything remotely offensive. I asked him what he was referring to. “Look behind the drums, do you see those shadows?” “Yes.” I said. “Can you see that the lights are casting a shadow of a woman in a bikini on the back wall? You need to fix those lights because it will cause the men in the room to stumble!” I turned around and strained to see if the woman found on trucker’s mud flaps was making an unscheduled appearance but there was absolutely nothing there. After taking a minute for a internal eye-roll, I let him know that I would address it and sent him on his way.
While this is certainly an extreme situation, I believe it touches on the heart of a recent article “‘Modest is Hottest’ is not in the Bible” by Joel Michael Herbert. I recently had someone ask my perspective on this piece which has been circulating social media with many singing its praises of its portrayal of evangelical sexism. While I appreciate Herbert’s desire to address the responsibility that men have to control their thoughts and desires, I find a few challenges with his argument.
The article begins by presenting this as an “evangelical” issue that has been emphasized since the latter half of the 20th century. However, if you look back in history the subject of modesty has previously transcended evangelicalism by hundreds of years. Read Jane Austen and you’ll discover the modesty pieces worn by women in the Regency period. Research the Victorian era and you’ll discover the scandal of a women showing her ankles in public. Yes, the issue of modesty for women has been around long before evangelicals showed up on the scene. But, in today’s socio-political culture, the easiest way to build a winning defense for a point of view is to start out by blaming evangelicalism.
“No one really knows what “Immodest”means.” – This seemingly makes the argument subjective and implies that we can’t really know what modesty means. (It makes “What is modesty?” akin to “What is truth?”) Yet, 1 Timothy 2:9 states that women are to dress modestly (more on that later) with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Based on his statement, how can we know what elaborate means? From a cultural viewpoint, what may be elaborate in one culture may be conservative in another. What is the acceptable price-range for material modesty? Paul gives little criteria as to what constitutes as modesty. So, why would Paul require us to follow a subjective imperative that seemingly can’t be defined? If we can’t define immodesty, then what prevents someone from wearing a G-String instead of pants to work? (Yes, this can apply to both genders.) Even secular society recognizes propriety in dress. This is the quagmire of subjective reasoning.
“It puts the responsibility for a man’s lust and fantasies squarely on the shoulders of women.” – I sincerely appreciate his desire to liberate women from the false narrative that they are responsible for men’s behavior. He rightly addresses the culture that wrongfully blames women for sexual harassment/violation and calls out those that would foolishly say “You asked for it by dressing that way.” This I applaud and fully support.
However, he then proceeds to imply that men’s sexual “struggle” with women is psychologically conditioned rather than inherent sin within man. Stating that we should condition our children to not see woman as forbidden but train them to use self control “through the simple acknowledgment that humans are by nature sexual beings, and that the female form is beautiful, something to be appreciated and not objectified.” While I do agree the intent of this line of thought, it feels a little naive in it’s approach. I wonder if this would have solved David’s problem when he walked onto the roof and saw Bathsheba bathing. In noticing her beautiful form, should he have controlled himself and embraced a silent, reflective appreciation or turned away from looking at another man’s wife?
Is this issue relatable only to men? How many times have I heard women comment on a man’s form and insinuate a lustful desire as a result of what he was wearing? There are many men who diligently work on their physique and then wear clothing so form fitting and revealing that it looks like they shopped at the Baby Gap. Who are the “Sexiest Firemen” calendars marketed to? Isn’t our culture guilty of objectifying both sexes? And if you think that this is a far reach, do a little research on the number of women who are increasingly becoming addicted to porn.
He is right on this point; this is a heart issue and we bear the responsibility for our own actions. But he stops short of addressing the responsibility for all who live in Christian community.
“The Bible does not breathe a word of such nonsense.” – Herbert begins this point by stating that there are no verses that address modesty in dress in scripture. The problem with this is that it is an argument from silence which is a poor hermeneutic. The Bible doesn’t say anything about many issues. But we are to look at the heart of scripture and discover God’s intent. Preempting the use of 1 Timothy 2:9 by stating that Paul was addressing only materialistic modesty, Herbert attempts to shut down any other application. While this does address a level of materialism it is not the totality of its meaning. Paul was encouraging women not to mimic the luxury and licentiousness exemplified in the women of the Roman court. Basically, it would be the equivalent of telling women not to imitate the luxuries and licentiousness of today’s pop stars. His concern was the way they presented themselves would detract from their gospel mission.
Again, I admire the heart behind this article and believe Herbert makes some excellent points. But I feel that it fails to take a comprehensive view of the subject. Yes, men are solely responsible for their actions and in no case should misogynistic behavior ever be tolerated. But to imply that we have no responsibility to others is not accurate as it is a theme represented throughout scripture. While he dismisses Matthew 5:27-32 by stating that this scripture says nothing about female culpability, he forgets that Mark 9:42 does as well as 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (their application applies to both genders, not just women). We are warned not cause another to sin:
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
While this obviously does not specifically address the topic of modesty, it does speak to the heart of demonstrating an awareness of and responsibility to those around us. Our personal liberty should never transcend the health and well-being of community. If we are ambassadors of Christ, then as any ambassador we should demonstrate sensitivity to the community and culture God has placed us in.
I agree with Herbert in encouraging women to “adorn yourself in a way that makes you feel beautiful and confident.” I am not advocating for a puritanical dress code or body shaming. I am suggesting that we evaluate the motivation for our clothing choices and ask ourselves are we desiring to bring about an appreciation for the body God has given us or stimulate another’s base desires. There is a tension between liberty and responsibility when it comes to living in community. Are we not called to a modest approach in our walk with Christ that shows restraint, keeps due measure, and demonstrates self-control? In fact, we do bear responsibility in how we present ourselves and that in all things we are to glorify Christ.
Including the way we dress.