Despite the weather, it really is well into summer here in the northern hemisphere. Those of us in warmer climes are peeling off layers, laying out in the sun, splashing in pools and lakes and oceans, and in general wearing decidedly less clothing than we did a few months ago.
Of course, no summer would be complete without Christians, mostly conservative evangelical Christians, getting their collective panties in a bind over how much skin is being covered, whether boys’ eyes are going to the wrong places, and just how much sin there is bound up in women’s bodies.
Because, if we’re honest, that’s really what this is all about: women’s bodies cause sin, and boys can’t control their minds.
Self-Control and Respect are the Solution
We are each independent moral beings, created by our Creator with moral agency, the ability to say “no”, and the freedom to do as we desire. We are each responsible to ourselves and before God for what we think and do. We take in from our senses and make choices about what to do with the information received. Seeing something sufficiently attractive to us does not turn us into animals unburdened by either sense or responsibility. While some creatures are purely stimulus-response, we are stimulus-choice-response, and we are responsible for that choice.
(There are certain situations where choice is taken from us, where our bodies are compelled to engage in something contrary to our will and spirit, in this it is what response we do have that is key to our identity. False imprisonment or rape are good examples of this: the victim suffers hurt and does not have choice in the physical situation, and bears no responsibility for the event whatsoever, legal or moral. What such victims are responsible for is how they deal with the aftermath, their own choices following the crime.)
With self-control we must have respect: for ourselves, and for others. Respect is a measure of the value we place on ourselves and others. When we recognize that we are, along with all other humans, female and male, created in God’s indelible image, for His purpose and glory, that we are imbued with His pronouncement of the goodness of our creation, with the touch of His hands and the breath of His life, eternal beings eternally valuable to Him, and that we share all these characteristics with each and every other man and woman, we have respect for them and for ourselves. Just as we ought to act consistently with our own morals, so we should not compel others to act against theirs.
We are created interdependent, but this is a relationship of give and take among equals, not taking from the lesser by the greater.
Self-control, responsibility, and respect are how we ought to teach each and every boy and girl from their youngest years to view each other.
The problem is, this isn’t what we have been teaching people, and we are reaping the consequences.
Isn’t it interesting how so many of the leaders and teachers of the most conservative forms of evangelical Christianity, those who teach more strongly on “modesty”, who keep their women in long shapeless dresses, and preach the subservience of women to men as a “principle” of godliness, are falling so quickly in sexual sin? Does this problem give you pause?
It certainly should.
This is not the place to deal with Gothard or Phillips. They have been upended elsewhere. However, their failures should be taken seriously as illumating their beliefs, and their teachings should be examined intently for evidence of the roots or outcomes of their sins.
These and others in the Patriarchy movement, and really, throughout modern evangelicalism, have misunderstood a few key words in scripture, and around these misapprehensions they have constructed systems of teaching and belief that are entirely false and destructive. Among these misunderstood words are the ideas of lust and modesty.
Lust and Modesty Misunderstood
Lust, in a clinical sense, has little to do with sexual titillation and nothing to do with the responsibility of the person or object being lusted over. To lust and covet are one and the same. Both mean desiring something that is not ours to have. Lust connotes a more physical sort of desiring, and that is the extent of the difference.
Every time lust or covetousness is mentioned in scripture it is either a command not to do it, or a condemnation of the one doing it.
So, you say, we agree there.
But do we really?
If we modern evangelical Christians act upon our, at least verbal, belief that lust is something to be condemned in the one lusting, then why, when there’s a pool party, does the church make it a requirement that females wear 1 piece suits and shirts and possibly even shorts over them, or some derivation of that, to cover their bodies from the uncontrolled eyes and unbridled lust of the little boys (both young and grown) the church has raised?
We’re lying to ourselves. Our mouths are saying one thing, but our actions are shouting something else entirely: that we hold women responsible for the lustful and covetous thoughts of infantile men.
Job didn’t say he wouldn’t look at a young woman, a pretty woman, or any woman. In Job 31:1 he says that the covenant he’d made with his eyes was that he wouldn’t covet (lust after, attend to, fix his regard upon) a woman, even if she was young and attractive. This has a least two implications: he still saw them and recognized they were attractive, and the covenantal barrier was what he refused to do with them in his mind and with his actions.
The second idea we misunderstand is modesty. How is it that modest means “humble”, “unassuming”, or “moderate” when applied to men or other subjects, and yet when applied to women, means “dressed like northern Europeans from 200 years ago”? These cannot both be correct.
In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul uses “modest” to teach women who were parading their wealth and status and class, or dressing like whores, depending on your interpretation. Either one works.
If you take the “don’t dress like a whore” interpretation, then you must ask, what is it about a bikini or a skater dress or a tank top or short shorts that is whorish? Our entire culture, and in fact, most cultures around the world dress like this, and the vast majority of their girls and women aren’t whoring. Whorish dress is partially a type of clothing, but is more an attitude. It is the person who looks at an average woman grateful for the body God gave her sunning on the beach and considers her a whore who is sinning, not the one sunning. Being judgmental, legalistic, ungracious, making additions to scripture, an unloving character: all these are sins. Sunning isn’t a sin.
If you take the “don’t flaunt your wealth in a show of superior class and status” interpretation, it’s even easier: Most of our neighbors have neither the time nor the resources to find clothing you might call modest, let along make clothing you might call modest. Yea, there are one-piece swim suits for women at Walmart. They’re made for old ladies, and they don’t fit the young or the thin. Do you condemn a girl who doesn’t have the money to buy one of the cute retro “modest” suits? Where is Christ in that condemnation? You, by buying or making and wearing the expensive swim suit and claiming that is more appropriate and modest, are the one Paul is chiding. There’s nothing wrong with buying a suit you enjoy that suits your style and flatters your body: as with the whorish interpretation, it’s mostly a matter of attitude.
Beauty Isn’t Wrong
Beauty isn’t wrong, observing beauty isn’t wrong, thinking about beauty isn’t wrong. When observing and thinking become lusting and coveting it becomes wrong, and it is always wrong for the person who is doing the lusting and the coveting.
So what is wrong?
Coveting what is not ours is wrong.
A Heart Problem, Not a Style Problem
Another blogger wrote recently a 4-point essay titled “Poolside Purity & Bikini Battles“. Three of his points were spot on, the other was wrong, and in the end he ended up taking one of the very positions he argued against. But the three good ones bear repeating:
First, stop giving boys a pass. Boys are responsible for their own thoughts: they ought to be taught what this responsibility entails and how they can use self-control, responsibility, and respect to treat others, including women, as they deserve.
Second, stop putting the pressure on girls to cover what some uncontrolled men may lust over. Women are not responsible for the infantile lusting of men. Protecting boys’ struggles and temptations are not girls’ responsibility.
Fourth, the church should be the absolute safest place for any woman, wearing anything, at any time, in any situation. The church should be the one place where women don’t need to fear being objectified and made into sexual objects. If every single woman showed up a church on Sunday in a bikini, it would be distracting because that isn’t where bikinis are normally worn, not because men would be ogling them.
Sadly, in his third point, the author then goes right back and overturns his first and second points by repeating the old lie that modesty means dressing like a northern European from 200 years ago because boys of all ages can’t keep their dicks in their pants when a pretty girl comes around wearing anything less.
Did you hear about the lusting dads who, because they lacked self-control, had a young girl who had met all the requirements for appropriate dress kicked out of her prom? The dads were Christian, we can presume, and because they can’t keep their tongues from hanging out or their own pants zipped, they had to ruin the evening of a young girl enjoying her prom.
I grew up in a conservative homeschool organization that emphasized this mistaken view of modesty. At events, I was surrounded by young women wearing long skirts and high collars covering every bit you might think (and I thought at the time) was too sexual, but was I free from lustful thoughts about these peers of mine? No way. I just developed a bit of a sexual preference for women in long shapeless skirts.
In the Middle East, in those repressive, backwards, and deadly cultures, where every woman wears a burqa, or a hijab if they’re really liberal, sexual crimes are rampant, occurring at rates far higher than most other places around the globe. In fact, some of the safest places for women around the world, where sexual crimes are lowest, are in southern Europe, where nudity is accepted on most beaches, and the average state of dress is even less than in the US.
These facts don’t prove the point, but they do illustrate it is something besides a legalistic and counter-cultural and frankly inaccurate definition of modesty that will guide us towards God’s best plan.
Modest is the opposite of ostentatious, not skimpy.
A sexually healthy and God-glorifying person is self-controlled and has respect for all around them. The modest person is the one who does not go out of their way to flaunt their class, status, or wealth.