A footnote on modesty: Why no one gets to drop the mic

micI received more responses than usual to the modesty post, both here and on Facebook.  Thank you!  Some of you had follow up questions challenging me to propose an alternative to what I was critiquing, especially in regard to parenting.  What do I tell my daughters and son?  I don’t claim any special authority to tell you how to handle this subject, but I’m still going to try to further flesh out (no pun intended) some of my thoughts on a better way to address modesty.

But first….can we talk about how we use scripture?  Over and over I hear that the Bible is clear on modesty.  Here’s author Stacey McDonald summarizing her views on modesty:

From what we have found in Scripture, long dresses, long skirts, long robes, long and loose culottes or even pants if they can be described as long, loose and flowing (and not sheer) would be modest and feminine….Therefore we are certain that God commands Christian women to dress modestly, to dress like women in a feminine manner and to not dress as to cause our brother to stumble. We have also learned that Scripture is not up for individual interpretation. God´s Word is the final authority in all we believe, do and think. Don´t allow the world to set your standards of dress! – Stacey McDonald, “Let’s Talk Modesty”

One the comments on this blog echoed the same confidence:  “My thoughts on modesty come directly from scripture, not from me.”  This confidence is almost always rooted, as I mentioned in my last post, in the interpretation of two passages:  Romans 14
and I Timothy 2:9-10.

I mentioned in my post that these passages are perhaps less directly connected to each other than we make them.  I want to clarify what I mean and why, because it matters to this conversation.

The issue at hand in Romans 14 was eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Some Christians – recognizing that the idols had no power over them – felt no constraint in purchasing and eating such meat.  Other Christians were bothered by the practice and avoided it.  Paul’s advice in this passage flows in both directions:

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. – Romans 14:3-4

Don’t judge each other.  It would be easy enough if Paul had stopped there, but he didn’t.  After applying the same principle to the keeping (or not) of sacred days, Paul throws this monkey wrench into the mix.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. – Romans 14:13-21

It’s a divinely inspired monkey wrench, but monkey wrench nonetheless.  The principle is not, simply, to avoid judging Christians who come to different conclusions on disputable matters.  No, we are called to love each other more than our own liberty.  We should be willing to sacrifice some options if exercising them may cause another Christian to “stumble” – to do something which violates their own conscience.

Paul addresses this exact same topic in 1 Corinthians 8, by the way.  Apparently it was a big  issue in the early church.

Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

 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. – 1 Corinthians 8:7b-13

It would seem, based on these passages, that the one who may be offended always trumps the one who would exercise their freedom in Christ.  But that’s not so clear cut, either, since on another specific issue – circumcision – Paul fought loud and long to keep Gentile converts from being obligated by Jewish ceremonial law.  Not the same thing?  For Jewish converts who had a lifetime of training in seeing uncircumcised Gentiles as both unclean and contaminators of others, I don’t think the comparison is so far off.

So we find two ethics in tension in the New Testament:  the freedom from that Law that we have received in Christ must be preserved; but our freedom should never be an excuse to harm another believer or drive them to sin.

Unfortunately we can’t even keep straight who is who in this scenario.  In Romans 14 Paul seems to be suggesting that recent converts (“some people are still so accustomed to idols”) may require special care and consideration.  However, these passages have succeeded in creating a class of Professional Weaker Brothers (and Sisters) in the church – people who never seem to outgrow being offended by the liberty that other Christians demonstrate.  When a woman who has been in the church for 50 years is offended because you play cards, or because your teenager goes to prom, it’s well worth asking if she qualifies for “weaker sister” status, or if she’s just a crank.

Are there areas of our lives that we are willing to completely alter for the sake of not causing others to stumble?  Should we expect all Christians to reach the same conclusions?

Let me give you another example.  My denomination has a public position against the consumption of alcohol – anywhere, anytime.  The same goes for tobacco.  In fact, our Covenant of Christian Conduct even includes this line:  “Furthermore, our Christian social responsibility calls us to use any legitimate and legals means to minimize the availability of both beverage alcohol and tobacco to others.”  Care to guess what one of the scripture references for this line is?

Romans 14, of course.

The argument against alcohol is very similar to what I’ve heard in the last few days:  “Why don’t you care enough about your brothers to cover up?  Do you not have enough regard for their weaknesses to make a sacrifice on their behalf?”  I would be really interested too know how many making that argument on modesty have a bottle of wine in their kitchen, or will attend a Bible study at a tap room this week, or have a very Spurgeon-like enthusiasm for cigars.  “But I wouldn’t drink wine in front of my friend who is an alcoholic,” some counter, “That’s how I fulfill Romans’ scriptural command.”  But is that enough, really?  What if your alcoholic friend sees those glowing Instagram photos of pale ale that you keep posting to Facebook?  What if they inspires him to drink?  What if the fact that your men’s group meets at a bar causes him to fall off the wagon?  What if your friend has been fighting a battle to quit smoking for the sake of his health, and he sees your profile picture in which you’re proudly clenching a Sancho Panza in your teeth.

Surely you recognize the millions and millions of  people whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by the very thing you cherish as “permissible”.  Shouldn’t church be a safe place for those who struggle with addiction and substance abuse?  Don’t you care enough about your brothers (and sisters) to sacrifice your freedom to consume?

Okay, enough of that.

I don’t really begrudge you your Boneshaker IPA or your stogie.  I think my denomination’s stance is one valid way to apply Romans 14 but I also don’t expect all Christians everywhere to agree with it or accept the obligations of our Covenant.  But why is that application any less – or more – binding than what Stacey McDonald has written above?  If you’re not a teetotaler (what a weird word that is!), how would you respond if I accused you of being in rebellion against Romans 14; or of being a shallow, selfish Christian who cares more about having your own way than protecting others from stumbling?

“But wait!” you say.  “The scriptures never prohibit the consumption of alcohol, so even if it might help the weaker brother, abstention is not actually commanded.  Women dressing modestly, on the other hand, is commanded.  So we have both a command to dress modestly (1 Timothy 2) and the reason (Romans 14).”

Okay.  But please demonstrate that the central issue in 1 Timothy 2 is “sensuality” in dress.  Because I have to say that to me, the most obvious reading is that it’s discouraging wealthy women in gathered worship from flaunting their status through their apparel.  Read it in context with the rest of the chapter. And by the way, that’s not only my opinion, but the conclusion of many scholars.  This is but one of several  passages addressing problems that arose in the early church as people who were culturally separated in status and power (rich and poor, slave and free, male and female) learned to worship and work together as a spiritual family.

Why stress this?  Because before this conversation goes any further we need to stop acting as if one side can quote Romans 14 and 1 Timothy 2 and shout “Case closed!”  Or better still, drop the mic and walk off stage to the roar of the crowd.  It’s more complicated than that.

I’ll let you tell me exactly what to wear if you’ll let me tell you exactly what to drink.  I’ll let you tell my daughter exactly how to dress if you’ll let my daughter tell you what size house you can own before it becomes conspicuous consumption.

No?  Bad plan?  Not workable?

Agreed.

Does this mean that there’s nothing in Romans 14 or 1 Timothy 2 that bears on the subject of “modesty” as defined in my first post?  No, please don’t hear me as saying that.  And in my next post – and for your sakes, hopefully last – post on the subject, I’m going to tell you what I want my daughters and sons to hear from my husband and I about modesty, and lust, and judgment.  Our job is not to train our children in the Law, but in wisdom and grace and love for one another, because “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10)

That’s the goal, at least.

Most posts in this series:
Talking back to patriarchy, part 1
Talking back to patriarchy, part 2:  Watch your language!
Talking back to patriarchy, part 3:  It all comes down to authority
Talking back to patriarchy, part 4:  Joining the great modesty debate
A footnote on modesty:  For my children

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About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in Bible, blogging, Christianity, church, feminism, gender, patriarchy, religion, sex, spirituality and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A footnote on modesty: Why no one gets to drop the mic

  1. Raven says:

    Which begs the question of how we know whether we are actually helping our weaker brother by covering up. I understand that it’s a jungle of women in immodest dress out there, but when guys who struggle with lust find a modest enclave, do they report a sense of relief?

    I am not being flip. I really want to know. Say a gentleman is converted from a libertine lifestyle and starts attending a very conservative church where the ladies are all in long loose clothes. Is it refreshing, and do they find that they have an easier time concentrating on the sermon than in a hip postmodern church full of miniskirts? Or are girls still pretty interesting, albeit more mysterious? Because it seems to me that if you are going to imagine someone naked, you can do it no matter the length of their skirt.

    I ask because while I’ve run across hundreds of narratives stating that it’s difficult to go to Walmart because of the immodest culture, and dozens of narratives stating that hyper-focus on modesty made men (and women) hypersensitive to bodies to the point where they noticed things *more* (like all those sensual collarbones at the bank), I don’t recall a narrative where a guy said that he really enjoyed being around all those modest girls because he could just focus on their lovely souls. Instead I find that usually they will say something along the lines of “even thought I know my sisters are genuinely trying to be modest, most of them just don’t think about sleeveless shirts…”

    Again, I’m really not trying to be a jerk. It just seems to me that we are all *assuming* that a phalanx of modest women around a guy will help him not to lust. But is that demonstrably the case, or are we confusing the means with the end?

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    • I think this is an excellent question, Raven. I wish that there were better avenues for men and women to really communicate about this – and I suppose that’s part of what I hope comes from blogs like mine. I don’t want to “preach to the choir”. I want us to get a better sense of what people experience, and how can best love our neighbors as ourselves – recognizing that our neighbors are not clones, and their answers will vary!

      Last night I got a comment on Facebook from a young man in his 20s about this subject:
      The whole modesty conversation has become pretty amusing to me. If nothing else, these ladies have a thoroughly narrow-minded view of taste, preference, and the incredibly broad range of response young men may or may not have to their “Biblically” clothed daughters.

      He makes a good about the “incredibly broad range of response” which this conversation often denies.

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  2. Pingback: A footnote on modesty: for my children | Strange Figures

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  4. Garrett says:

    Raven, I can’t speak for all men but I am able to confirm that in my experience, and that of at least a few others who I know who are fighting the same sin, that walking into a restaurant or even Church and discovering that everyone is modestly dressed is extremely relieving. And I laughed because everyone always goes straight to the Walmart example…I understand why though, that place for whatever reason has the aura that its OK to walk around in a two-piece or the tiniest tank top and shorts. Walking into a room and discovering everyone is dressed modestly is kind of like being in the men’s wear section instead of the women’s sleep wear section. I remember when I first understood that I was a typical guy and women were just something to look at for sexual gratification. When I decided to fight this addiction, sure enough I became so hypersensitive to every female around me, that was rough for a while. I would say roughly after the first year though that had almost entirely gone away and now it is mostly just instinct when I see a woman as to rather I need to look away to avoid impure thoughts. As I understand it from those who have done it before me, when I raise my son with a healthy knowledge of the danger of this sin he wont have to go through that. One thing I do find funny that I bet says a lot about this situation is how cultural it is. For instance, if I see a woman in a poodle skirt I think about how modest it is to have a skirt that hangs so low, when those skirts were new they were “of the devil” for how provocative they were.

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  5. Raven says:

    Thanks, Garrett. Believe it or not, despite the tracks I’ve followed in this discussion, I do dress conservatively because it’s how I’m most comfortable (culture again). It’s a trick to buy clothes for a woman my height anyway, and sometimes I do wonder “Is all of this even worth it, or is this pointless effort?”

    And I appreciate your point about culture. Here “conservatively” means jeans that aren’t tight, t-shirts, and sweatshirts; on the occasions that I wear a skirt (to church) and then am out in the community afterward, I notice I get MORE attention….and not in a “she’s probably a Godly woman” kind of way. Skirts mean something different here, I guess!

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