As this discussion has possibly been one of the most discussed and most argued ones in recent Anabaptist history, I’ve often wondered whether sharing an additional voice is helpful or merely perpetuating a fixation on this topic among our people. However, several factors lead me to feeling this letter timely: First, sexual abuse happens all too often, sometimes more often in more modest Anabaptist settings. Second, I have increasingly heard from our women the negative effect of the way we have framed the discussion of modesty in the past. Third, we have ignored any meaningful theology of beauty as a balance to modesty. And most importantly, we have (deliberately or not) missed the overarching point of Paul’s (and Peter’s) admonitions on the topic.
I think now is our time to have a better discussion on the topic. Many are quick to talk about the excesses of “liberal” young people as they push clothing boundaries and dress in less plain ways. I’m sure some criticism is warranted, but we should seriously consider the reasons for the backlash against excessive dress standards, and until we preach a better modesty model, we will continue turning those young people off from conservative Anabaptism.
Modesty as Protection
I have often heard the notion that women’s modesty is a protection for our Anabaptist society against immorality. And to a certain degree, I’m sympathetic to that notion, a thought I’ll expand later. But the awareness that has been raised in the past 5 years of the depth of sexual depravity found in far too many fathers and brothers of very conservatively dressed women, gives the lie to this idea. Sexual abuse has actually flourished in many of the most conservative church settings, as counselors, educators, and pastors tell us. How could fathers rape their daughters, brothers sexually abuse their sisters or nieces, all of whom held to the sorts of dress standards that were supposed to protect them from unwanted sexual attention, and dramatically lessen the temptation for men to lust?
Perhaps because the way to effectively guard against immorality and lust is by confronting men for their sin, rather than blaming women for it! I’m convinced that we have simultaneously assumed that lust is unfortunate but normal (thus setting the bar for men’s victory over lust very low) while placing a massive burden on our women of “protecting men from temptation.” In so doing, we disrespect both men and women: men, because we assume that men cannot come to the place where they are completely free from lust, and women, because we project on them the guilt of others’ sin.
Misunderstanding Modesty and Lust Hurts Women
Not only is it largely false that modesty protects our society from sexual immorality (we defend against immorality through having changed hearts that don’t objectify the opposite sex), our fixation on women’s role in preventing sexual temptation (though not irrelevant, as Proverbs 7:10, etc. suggests) has resulted in damaging both men and women’s view of the opposite gender and their sexuality. Rather than promoting the dangerously beautiful view of sexuality within marriage found in Scripture (Song of Songs or Proverbs 5:18,19, for example), we have often given the message to our women that men are sexual beasts who really can barely help but lust in the presence of women (hence, the common aversion toward non-romantic guy-girl interactions and husbands’ over-protectiveness of their wives having any healthy cross-gender conversations or friendly interactions with those of the opposite sex).
I’ve heard from women the fear they have felt of men, the anxiety that perhaps they weren’t quite modest enough and so some church brother was undressing them in their minds. I’ve heard stories of extremely modest young girls in tears because they heard another message about modesty and they didn’t know how they could be more modest without feeling ugly. And I’ve wondered: what have we done, that men’s lust has been twice weaponized to hurt women, once by the sex abuse that often occurs because of lust, and twice because of blaming women for that lust?
Perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps, the standard could be so high for men (and that standard consistently lived out), that lust was not the norm. Perhaps, rather than the modesty messages about creating a safe place for men to not be tempted (which, as a man, I can assure you is impossible), we could have a serious conversation about creating a safer place for women, where they don’t have to assume that all the men are constantly wrestling with lust for them?
A Theology of Beauty
In nearly all the messages on modesty I’ve heard, two things have been misplaced: A theology of beauty has been completely missed to counterbalance modesty, and lust prevention has been used as the primary reason for modesty.
I don’t think most conservative Anabaptists have even thought of what their theology of beauty is, much less heard a message on the topic. Perhaps this is collateral damage from overemphasizing parts of the Bible we are to obey directly, to the exclusion of focusing on the shaping influence of the poetry and the other genres present in Scripture. I believe there’s much to be said for this way of looking at scripture, but the downside is that it tends to ignore large swaths of scripture that are not in command form. Almost as though if it’s not a “thou shalt not” then it’s not important. But as people of the Scripture, we must care about everything contained in the Bible. And one of those frequently ignored topics is beauty.
From the first chapter of Genesis, where God stresses that his creation is “good,” the Biblical story shows God’s character as beautiful and his creative hand as the reason for the beauty in the natural world. Psalm 19 declares that is through viewing the heavens and the rest of creation that we understand his “craftsmanship.” God commands the Israelite nation to create a home for him that was not a bare-bones utilitarian structure to serve as a practical residence, but a stunningly attractive testament to God’s beauty and a reminder of the beauty of the garden of Eden. God tells Moses (Exodus 28:40) that the priestly garments were to be worn for reasons of dignity (also translated beauty). And God puts his Spirit on Bezalel (Exodus 31:3-4) for the express purpose of making “artistic designs” for the tent of meeting. We think of the Spirit of God being given to individuals in the Old Testament to write Scripture or perhaps win battles, but have we seriously considered the implications of God’s Spirit being given for the purpose of creating art?
Song of Songs is a deliberately erotic poem celebrating the extraordinary beauty of the King of Israel and his bride. Although Proverbs clearly indicates that outward beauty can be shallow and that beauty can be used to allur God’s people to sexual sin, beauty is not rejected. Proverbs 4:9 discusses how loving wisdom will result in a “crown of beauty” for that person. Ezra praises the foreign king who “beautifies the LORD’s house.” God proclaims in Isaiah 49:3 that he will be seen as beautiful through Israel’s beauty. God promises multiple times in the prophets that he will restore Israel’s fortunes and that they will once again enjoy the beauty of the land instead of the post-exile devastation (e.g. Isaiah 65:17-25, Joel 3:18, and Jeremiah 31:7-14).
Coming into the New Testament, one might be forgiven for thinking that the attitude toward beauty has shifted, since our minds go quickly to 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3. But those verses both actually assume that we already care about beauty, and that it’s a good thing! The focus of those verses is on not wasting money on outward appearance while the inner person suffers. We need those commands very much, but let’s also be clear that these verses are not to be taken as anti-beauty. An anti-beauty verse might run something like this: “But do not wear things that others will think is beautiful, because God wants you to focus on things above.” But both these verses tell women a) to reject self-centered motivations for beauty, b) to focus on the inner person, and c) to not flaunt their money in expensive or extravagant ways on their persons.
Other places seem to suggest even more strongly the goodness of beauty. Jesus brags that the beautiful flowers God created are much more pleasing even than Solomon’s greatest work of art–the temple–and then proclaims that he can clothe his people every bit as pleasantly. The book of Revelation details an expansively beautiful new creation that God will make to dwell in with his people. Beautiful gardens, majestic cities, and extravagant infrastructure (Revelation 21:21) are the norm, as God once again is connected in close relationship to man. The Bible should never be construed to be anti-beauty in any sense.
But converging on our previous discussion, how does this theology of the importance of beauty relate to modesty? Every conservative person I’ve met has had some intuition of the importance of beauty. They all say something like, “Well, of course, God doesn’t want women to wear burlap sacks.” But there is almost always no theology behind this–no reason why God might not want women to do that. I suggest that the other side of the modesty tension is the importance of beauty.
What this might mean is that in our modesty standards, we will unapologetically leave room for creativity and beauty, realizing that God cares about both beauty and modesty. We will realize that trying to dress in ways that do not unnecessarily bring temptation to men must at least be curbed and defined by the importance of giving women room to dress in ways that are attractive. And equally, we will maintain a positive conception of modesty as a balance to beauty. Both displaying and covering beauty are scriptural, and they must be held in tension or one side will cannibalize the other and we’ll find ourselves living unscripturally.
But rather than preaching the importance of beauty along with a concept of modesty, we usually hear messages that beat on the tired drum of why women should dress in ways that make facing sexual temptation easier for men. What if we would talk about why men and women desire things around them (and their own selves) to be attractive, and then talk about why we need to protect that good instinct from getting adulterated into self-serving or extravagance? What about giving a full-orbed theology of beauty and using that to talk about why we need to guard against pride and selfishness, or beauty will become empty and dangerous? Why instead do we incessantly return to men’s lust as a motivator?
That brings us to my final point, which is that scripture actually never teaches that men’s lust is the reason why women should dress modestly.
Modesty is Not about Men
First of all, there’s no doubt that dressing provocatively will help raise the sorts of sexual attention from other people that Christians will want to avoid. But then the sorts of clothing styles that are proposed as sexually provocative are usually rather modest (e.g. t-shirts and skirts). Being sexually provocative is something to avoid, but we need to actually be avoiding really problematic clothes. Although it’s possible for skirts and blouses, say, to trigger men more to struggle with lust in some settings because they aren’t used to it, that should not be used to militate against women being able to dress in pleasing and culturally understandable ways.
But although it’s something to think about at times, this connection between men’s lust and the need for modesty is actually not made in Scripture. Paul the Apostle talks about modesty once, as does Peter. Neither of those references talks about covering sexuality or about trying to help stop men’s lust. The arguments are centered on what it means to be an honorable woman in God’s kingdom, and how wearing expensive clothing and fashions distracts from the inner person. Both passages stress the monetary factor, and one of them points out that the alternate option is to do good works (1 Tim. 2:10) which almost certainly would have been understood at least partly in terms of giving financially to others.
Similarly, all the times in Scripture where lust is mentioned, it is singularly one-sided: the problem is faced as it were the offender’s problem alone, and no mention is made of the object of his or her lust. Joseph was not at fault because Potiphar’s wife was lusting for him; neither was Tamar because of Amnon’s lust and rape of her. The clearest example in the Bible addressing sexual lust is, of course, Matthew 5:28. The person who is lusting is the one confronted and faced with the infernal consequences. No mention of how conservatively-dressed the object of his lust happened to be. No caveat for immodesty. It is starkly and deliberately focused on the one who has sinned through lusting.
That ought to really make us reconsider our way of discussing this subject. I propose that we divide the two issues entirely, as Scripture does. We have a massive, inexcusable lust problem in our churches that needs to be systematically confronted and defeated through God’s Spirit and persistent prayer. Let’s fight that battle without blaming immodesty. And on the other hand, let’s have Biblical modesty discussions, focused primarily on avoiding extravagance and selfish pride, without fixating on men’s lust.
Now, I do think there’s a way to get from the modesty verses to realizing that women should dress in ways that are sexually modest, as opposed to the primary example of the passage–financial modesty. The argument goes like this: women are admonished to dress in ways that are honorable and do not “show off” their financial assets. From that it seems we could conclude that it would not be Christian or honorable to display one’s sexuality in extravagant ways either. The focus here is the honor of God’s name as displayed through the women of his kingdom. (“…[only what is] appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”) Surely this way of looking at modesty does more justice to Scripture, and gives more honor to women, than our way of conflating modesty discussions with lust discussions.
One more note: if a desire for sexual immodesty comes from a broken self identity and insecurities, perhaps we should be doing much more to build unbreakable identities in our people, both as children of God and also as people with individual gifts and callings that the church needs. When identity becomes based primarily on acceptance by others rather than our salvation and calling, it seems inevitable that dressing in sexually provocative ways will be normalized.
Although some may think I’m disparaging modesty or suggesting people have the liberty to not care anymore about standards of dress, I hope it’s clear that my intention is neither. True Biblical modesty that gives dignity and honor to our women will actually stand the test of time far better than our perversion of it will. Truly confronting lust and not hiding behind excuses of women’s immodesty will do far more good than its opposite.
Perhaps this will serve as a springboard for better conversations on this topic. I hope so.
25 thoughts on “How Modesty Is Weaponized”
This is an interesting topic. And I think your did well at striking at the very heartbeat of the issue and that is ‘lust’. Maybe an added thought would be also that some of the very conserv. Anabaptist/Amish churches the people aren’t taught very well in the areas of morality.
An excellent call for positive change!
Hey that was awesome!!! I think if someone asks my opinion on the modesty/lust issue I’ll just send them your article. Extremely well-balanced and concise.
An excellent overview of the subject. There are some good points here that I had not considered before, particularly the importance of understanding the theology of beauty. Thanks.
Very well said! my brother, thank you for daring to stand up for the truth! We as Modern Anabaptists many times put the emphasis on the wrong thing, And then neglecting the more important principles, I would love to dialogue with you on this, Feel free to come on over anytime.
May God raise up many more challengers to the established system, Where it is flawed. Let’s be careful to follow the word of God and not be guilty of adding to or subtracting as the Pharisees were.
I would love to see an article that explored the theology of beauty further.
Amen. Thank you for writing this. It is very much needed by our people.
I agree that modesty has been improperly weaponized against women. And yes, I think Anabaptist culture has sometimes presented ugliness in dress as a virtue, and we need a theology of beauty to combat that. However, I think that’s a separate discussion from our approach to sexual modesty. We can achieve beauty in dress without being sexually immodest! Also, a culture can be guilty of blaming women for men’s lust problem while having reasonable modesty ideals in practice—we don’t want to conflate the two. I think an abundance of nuance is needed, since we’ve seen modesty abused, as Elijah rightfully points out, but with this comes a strong pull towards reaction.
I also think it’s only fair to point out that many people hold to conservative modesty standards without being guilty of the weaponizing Elijah is talking about. Is reform needed? Yes! But it needs to be thoughtful reform, otherwise we’ll be having this conversation from the opposite direction in a few decades. Remember that purity culture was responding to legitimate problems—and swung too far.
So, the first question you raise is whether or not the theology of beauty will help us figure out what is modest. Are they two entirely separate questions or does a strong theology of beauty give definition to how Christians should practice sexual modesty? I argue that it does give some definition to modesty, but also I accept your point that we should be careful to not completely conflate the two points. As you said, it’s very possible to dress beautifully without dressing in sexually provocative ways. My argument goes like this: beauty in humans is ultimately very connected to our sexuality. Although some parts of our bodies are less sexual and some are much more so, there is something very beautiful about faces, hair, and feet. We cannot simply relegate certain body parts to the “sexual” category, and other ones to the “nonsexual” category. A book like the Song of Songs brings this out in detail, as the woman in the poem graphically longs for her fiancè, referring to a lot more than the traditional sexual areas! So, we are left with two options: either to cover everything completely (and thus lose any sense of beauty), or admit that some amount of sexuality is okay to be shown. Therefore, a theology of beauty holds an important piece of the puzzle for me in determining what sort of clothing is appropriate. Of course, there are other important factors, too. The fact that some areas of the body are more sexual means that I’m going to cover those areas more carefully. I’m going to try to find a balance of dressing in a way that is not majorly sexually distracting to others, while allowing a certain amount of beauty to be visible. But neither will I obsess over whether I’m causing others to stumble in minor modesty details, since I have a beauty mandate to honor as well.
With your second point, I think you’re nudging at the fact that I need to clarify whether I’m hoping specific modesty standards that many conservative churches have will be changed, or whether I’m just pointing out broader-level flaws in our underlying assumptions about modesty and lust. You’re right that the question of what a reasonable modesty standard is, is different than the question of whether we have blamed women for men’s lust. And my reason for writing this post was much more about the way we go about talking about modesty than it was about specific standards. If someone wants to stick to an exclusively cape-dress outfit, I’m not going to try to get them to change that. But if they justify it because they believe that cape dresses are the only way to stave off men’s lust, I’ll object. I think we should establish a broad category of what’s not going to be a huge sexual distraction, then leave a good amount of room for the exercise of beauty and creativity.
Third, I fully agree that we need balance and thoughtfulness as we try to reform poor takes on modesty.
As I see it, there are two main weaknesses to your tension argument. One is that I don’t think there’s as much tension between beauty and modesty as you suggest. The other is that the tension model is completely unhelpful in making our modesty choices.
As you rightly point out, the Song of Songs gives an erotic context to parts of the body that we don’t see a need to cover. In fact, virtually every part of who we are—not just our physical bodies—becomes a part of the sexual experience. So does this mean that we need to be okay with some of our sexuality being on display? This is ultimately a definitional question. You’re taking a much broader definition than I would use. We both acknowledge, of course, that there are some parts of the body that are an active part of intimacy that we don’t think twice about showing in public—like our lips—while there are other parts that we’d never dream of exposing to anyone other than our spouse! And there’s no confusing spectrum or tension here! It is completely normal and non-sexual for men and women to see each others’ face and hands. But there is no context in which it could be normal and non-sexual for men and women to hang out together naked. I don’t see a tension here but a qualitative difference between parts of the body that are reserved for the context of marriage and parts that contribute to marriage but are normalized and have public utility outside of marriage. We can debate about whether thighs, calves, and upper arms should be normalized in public. And of course there isn’t an obvious fine line between what parts of the body are exclusively private and what parts are acceptable for public display. But regardless of one’s position on these questions, we all put the vast majority of the body in one category or the other. So I feel that this broadening of the definition of sexuality is more of a semantic game and doesn’t meaningfully change the discussion. I’m sure you still agree that there are parts of the body that are exclusively private—and parts that are definitely okay to normalize publicly.
But outside of this weakness of the tension model, presenting this idea doesn’t give us any meaningful direction. In fact, people on opposite sides of the spectrum use this model, merely drawing their lines at different places. The ultra-conservative folks who think women need to be ugly to be modest are essentially using your model, just drawing very different lines. How will you respond to them? You’ll tell them they need to weigh beauty more heavily into their choices, but they’ll counter that you aren’t weighing modesty heavily enough. And you can’t argue that they don’t have a theology of beauty at all, because by your own definition they allow parts of the body with an erotic context—like lips and hands—to be shown publicly. On the flipside, a woman in a very flimsy outfit could argue that she also acknowledges this tension; she is attempting to be beautiful, but she is still wearing some clothing, even if minimal, in respect of the modesty principle. How are you going to respond to the inevitable backlash on both sides of the spectrum?
The point is that it is not enough to simply say that people are perverted who think that hands or hair has sexual connotations and should be covered so that guys can resist temptation more easily. They are right in saying that many auxiliary parts of the body have sexual overtones, but they are wrong in assuming that just because a part of the body has sexual overtones, it must be covered. It’s a simple reductio ad absurdum. That can’t be true, because if it were, we would have to wear tents around us, and that would violate the beauty principle. Rather, we need to dress in ways respectful of the level of sexuality of each area of the body, and then as men choose to not lust regardless of what women are wearing. The theology of beauty doesn’t answer every question, and it’s not intended to. But it will serve as a helpful tension. Both beauty and modesty are oblique terms and categories, and it will rarely be clear exactly where the lines should be drawn, and that’s okay. But a beauty–modesty tension will keep either factor from completely eliminating the need for the other. You reference ultra-conservative people who think women need to be ugly in order to be modest, and then say that a theology of beauty won’t help, but I think it’s obvious that normalizing a conversation about beauty will make it so that thay will stop taking modesty to the place where it makes beauty impossible.
In response to the second part of your comment: Yes, other factors need to be added in order to determine what is appropriate for our clothing. One of those factors is whether what we are wearing speaks of our values or simply a historical time period. Another is whether our clothing at all signals sexual openness within our culture. But the beauty–modesty tension gets us on track to eliminate certain egregious errors in our conversation about modesty.
I don’t think you’re engaging with my argument. I’ve already explained why I don’t think it works to say that anything with sexual connotations needs to be covered. Almost any part of our bodies can be seen as sexual, certainly in the context of marriage. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t parts of the body that should be reserved for marriage! I’m pretty sure you’d be prepared to say that there are some parts of the body that you can conclusively say should never be seen in public—although I’d like you to answer that directly. So if you’re suggesting that we either need to admit modesty is “oblique” or argue that everything with potential sexual connotations needs to be covered, I think that’s an absurd false choice!
We can debate what is or isn’t a sane standard for what needs to be hidden. But if you’re going to critique Anabaptist standards, you’re going to need to do more than simply say that it’s hard to know where to draw lines!
Of course. I’m not questioning the fact that some aspects of the body only get shared within the marriage relationship, or trying to attack Anabaptist modesty standards in this article. I think you’re missing the utility of the modesty-beauty tension. It doesn’t show us exactly where the lines should be drawn. But it does eliminate extreme ideas on modesty that end up hurting women–namely, the idea that modesty means covering everything that a man might see as sexual, and the idea that one must not try to look beautiful, for fear of enticing men to lust.
The idea that modesty in attire is an effective protection against sexual abuse is patently ridiculous—a brief review of sexual abuse statistics from conservative Muslim countries should tell us all we need to know on that front. However, I’ve only rarely heard this idea expressed in Anabaptist circles. Perhaps I simply orbit in less messed-up corners of Anabaptism, or perhaps there’s some other reason for our divergence in experience. In any case, I heartily agree the idea is unworkable and should be debunked wherever it circulates.
Sexual modesty cannot make temptation to lust impossible. A man who has allowed himself to be perverted is capable of lusting (and molesting) regardless of attire; the responsibility for the sin of lust always rests fully on the man (I am ignoring considerations of female & homosexual lust for simplicity in this discussion, though both are real phenomena). However, as you acknowledge, dressing provocatively does raise sexual attention. Part of Christian men walking in victory over lust involves knowing where—and more importantly, where not—to look. The goal of Christian sexual modesty for women is to dress in such a way that Christian men walking in victory don’t feel the need to avert their eyes. To be clear, none of this reduces the responsibility for Christian men to walk in victory, regardless of other people’s dress standards. I think we mostly agree on this point, though we may have worded it differently.
Whether we should derive this ethic of Christian sexual modesty from the “traditional passages” (which admittedly primarily address financial modesty), or from other passages, is a matter of debate—a debate I’m not prepared to take a definite position on. Likewise, whether we should divide the discussion of financial modesty and sexual modesty is debatable, and partly influenced by what passages you choose to use as the scriptural basis for sexual modesty. In any case, there is a biblical principle of both financial and sexual modesty, and we must teach both. I do think there’s a case to be made that we can’t properly address sexual modesty without _some_ discussion or understanding of lust; though I agree that the connection shouldn’t be made in unhelpful ways that place the responsibility for the man’s sin on the woman.
Hey Ryan, thanks for your thoughtful replies. I take your counterarguments very seriously, as I know you are a disciplined thinker also. I mostly agree with you here, although I want to be careful that in averting our eyes, we aren’t just avoiding the women around us who may be dressing in distracting ways. As men in God’s kingdom, we are called to do our part to edify the body of Christ and treat each person as someone with dignity and worth from God. Although this is not the intended result, women often report feeling deserted or ignored by men influenced by purity culture. Yes, absolutely, there’s a sense in which some of those women are going to want to dress in ways that are less sexually distracting, for their own dignity. But I think we as men need to treat all women (regardless of how they’re dressed) as equal image-bearers and conversation partners, not avoiding them as dangerous sexual objects but engaging with them normally as pure fellow humans. People will notice. I’ve often had friends tell me that they feel safe around me, that they don’t feel like I look at them differently, or am awkwarded out by the fact that they’re girls, or objectify them. Shouldn’t this be what we aim for as guys?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this isn’t your experience personally. But this is a common flaw in purity culture, and if we’re aiming for a healthy, balanced view of sexuality and modesty, I think we need to work on it.
Yeah, I think we mostly agree here. On the point of averting our eyes; that doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring them. I’m reminded of a man who worked among the street gangs of Oregon. The gangs knew what he believed, and the principles of sexual morality he stood for. As a result, they considered it great fun to test him by bringing out a very immodest woman and seeing how he would react; and where his eyes went. Someone asked him what he did in such situations; he replied: “I look them straight in the eyes and minister Christ to them.”
It takes a strong man to be able to do this; I’m not necessarily suggesting this course of action for those presently struggling to walk in victory. But it is possible; and I think perhaps it’s a good ideal to aim for.
I decided to split my thoughts into two separate comments, as they can stand independently.
I agree on the need for a theology of beauty. Anabaptism has a history of viewing ugliness as holy (or at least “plainer”), and we would do well to change that. However, as Drew alluded to in his comment, connecting the discussion of beauty with sexual modesty is unhelpful. In fact, I would argue this is one of the fundamental mistakes of Anabaptist position: they connect their unbiblical “theology of ugliness” to sexual modesty in order to get scriptural support for their insistence on ugliness. We can’t fix this problem by merely attempting to establish a biblical theology of beauty; we also need a radical decoupling of the two topics.
Let me be clear: I acknowledge that there is a specific sexual beauty which God has designed to be enjoyed within the context of godly marriage. Though not entirely divorced from general beauty, it is distinctly different; a man does not enjoy the sexual beauty of his wife in the same way he enjoys the beauty of flowers. Scripture is clear about the proper place for sexual beauty; I want to address general beauty here.
A woman (or any person, for that matter) can be modest, and also be beautiful or ugly. We miss this perspective when we connect the beauty and modesty issues. We wrongly assume that to be more modest means being more ugly; that we cannot be more beautiful without sacrificing modesty. In doing so, we objectify women, implicitly asserting that they are not beautiful apart from their sexuality. This ignores the fact that each individual is created beautiful in the image of God, and also implicitly devalues single women, by tacitly suggesting that their full beauty and worth as God’s image-bearers cannot lawfully be appreciated by any human outside the bounds of marriage.
Introducing tension by attempting to establish a biblical theology of beauty as a check for modesty (and sexual modesty as a check for beauty) doesn’t fix this. On one hand, we hamper the expression of beauty by suggesting that women still can’t be too beautiful, for fear of being sexually immodest. On the other hand, we potentially justify sexual immodesty with the argument that beauty is good. We also potentially justify lust on the part of men with the idea that they’re “just enjoying God-given beauty;” nothing could be further from the truth.
There’s not a tension here. Burlap sacks may be modest, but they’re ugly. But there’s a way to be just as modest as the woman in burlap sacks, AND also be beautiful. On the flip side, I’ve seen plenty of heroin-addicted street prostitutes that are as immodest as the average glamour model, but whose appearance couldn’t be remotely described as beautiful. Beauty and sexual modesty aren’t inversely correlated.
Let’s be modest; let’s be beautiful!
P.S. Financial modesty does perhaps place limits on the pursuit of beauty; though an argument could be made that 1 Peter 3 is instead correcting a warped definition of beauty. Of course, your points related to self-serving, extravagance, pride, and selfishness are spot on; these are the things that bring the needed tension to produce a biblical theology of beauty.
Well, I guess I’ll have to disagree with you here. Very interesting thoughts, and a powerful critique of my position, though. I always appreciate empassioned and thoughtful exchanges.
First, as you concede, general beauty is not entirely disconnected from sexual beauty. See my response to Drew’s comment for more details on that. I would argue that the main difference between general beauty and sexual beauty is within the mind of the person who is viewing it! Of course, some areas of the body are objectively more sexual than others–granted. But one can choose to view almost any part of the human body erotically–read the Song of Solomon! Within the context of marriage, viewing the body in this way is morally good and thrilling. But outside of marriage, although mentally the opportunity is just as strong to turn all parts of the bodies of others into a sexually gratifying image for our selfish enjoyment, we are called to lay down a strict boundary and instead notice the people around us and choose not to lust. So, the way to cut out improper thoughts toward women is not primarily through deciding that some parts of the body are sexual and therefore need to be covered, and other parts are non-sexual and so can be visible. Rather, we need to tell our people explicitly that they can and must always resist the temptation to lust. And simultaneously, we need to choose to not dress in ways that message that we want to be looked at sexually. So, first I disagree that sexual beauty can be divorced from general beauty.
Second, of course I agree with you that it’s very possible for someone to dress in a way that is modest and very beautiful. They are not inversely correlated. However, beauty and modesty both canabalize each other at times: I disagree that one can dress in a way that is just as modest as a burlap sack and still be very beautiful. Not possible. If you’re going to dress in a way that’s beautiful, at least some form will be recognizable, and that’s less modest. Also, there are some ways of dressing that are wildly beautiful but have sacrificed on modesty. I don’t think it’s possible to find a way of dressing maximally beautifully and maximally modestly simultaneously, but I think we should try to find a happy medium where we can get as close as we can to that goal. My theology of beauty makes it possible to actively seek beauty, while also seeking modesty. Fear shouldn’t be in the mix on either side. But I can’t get away from the fact that it is a tension.
Yes, let’s be modest and beautiful. It’s a tension!
It’s always my pleasure to engage in discussion for the pursuit of truth.
To your first point, though there are certain parts of the body that are clearly sexual and must be covered, I do agree that we can’t determine modesty standards by making a two-column list of body parts. We can’t distinguish between general and sexual beauty by saying “these parts are generally beautiful” and “these parts are sexually beautiful.”
I would argue that most men can agree whether a woman, as attired, presents a clear-and-present temptation to lust. If she does present this clear temptation, the woman is immodest; she is inappropriately presenting her sexual beauty for the world to see, and the proper response for Christian men is averting their eyes in some fashion. In the opposite case of a woman that does not present a clear temptation to most men (though she may be generally beautiful), I would argue that she is modest. This is not to negate the fact that a man can choose to lust after a modestly-attired woman, though in such cases, the remedy for such temptation probably has more to do with a man controlling his thoughts and less to do with where he looks. On the flip side, in the context of marriage, even when your spouse is modestly attired, it is perfectly acceptable to view them erotically. However, your ability to do so will either be closely tied to your existing intimate relationship, or is a deliberate choice on your part. To reiterate, it’s not a case of some body parts being sexually beautiful and others generally beautiful. There is a line that most men understand intuitively, where a woman ceases to be merely generally beautiful, and presents a clear-and-present temptation to lust by displaying her sexual beauty. That is the line of modesty.
On your second point, I disagree, largely as a function of the view of modesty I just outlined. When a woman is not presenting a clear-and-present temptation to lust to the average man, for all practical purposes, she is modest in the absolute sense; i.e. maximally modest. Within the realm of absolute modesty, there is the full spectrum of general beauty available. Anything that goes beyond absolute modesty in pursuit of beauty is properly described as sexual beauty, by definition. Below the line of absolute modesty, there is a spectrum of immodesty (where something can only be said to be modest in the relative sense), which is uncorrelated with general beauty. In our example of burlap sacks, any other attire, of any level of general beauty, can be equally substituted, provided that it is also modest in the absolute sense.
I hope this helps clarify my position.
Yes, that does clarify your position. Thanks. There are several problems that I note: first, you define modesty culturally–basically, that being “absolutely modest” is relatively defined, which is a contradiction. Rather, absolute modesty is dressing in a way that no man can be tempted, which brings us right back to needing to wear a burlap sack, since that would eliminate any object of lust. But absolute modesty violates the beauty principle, so it must be moderated.
Of course, reasonable modesty is the goal, not absolute modesty. Reasonable modesty means that you’ve removed whatever constitutes a temptation to the average man. But whenever I’ve heard men try to discuss a reasonable temptation, abusive or manipulative tactics quickly come into play: “If men were honest with themselves, they’d agree that ____ is immodest.” Or, “Manly men think that ___ is immodest.” When it comes down to it, there really isn’t wide agreement on exactly what is immodest. Sure, we can all agree that certain things are immodest, but it is not at all clear where exactly lines should be drawn.
So instead of proclaiming agreement and clarity where it is not to be found, let’s be okay with broad categories of appropriate dress and plenty of room for disagreement, personal creativity, and individual conviction.
And finally, again I would repeat that I don’t think general beauty and sexual beauty can be neatly split into categories like that. To a small degree, to be more beautiful is to let a certain part of one’s form be visible. Sure, we need to set boundaries to understand when it has become inappropriate, but to let no form be visible is to wear a tent, and to let some form be visible is to be slightly less modest! We must be honest and nuanced about this.
Perhaps “absolute modesty” was not the best choice of terms to describe the idea I was presenting, but I explicitly defined it as “not presenting a clear-and-present temptation to lust to the average man.” I will not reply to your first paragraph, as your argument there is based on a redefinition of my terms. To reiterate, my position is that when a woman does not present a temptation to the average man, she has reached the practical upper limit of modesty. I referred to this as “absolute modesty” in my previous comment, but since you object to the semantics of the term, I will use the term “upper-limit modesty” from here on.
In regards to defining the line of upper-limit modesty (or “reasonable modesty,” as you prefer to call it), you propose two unrelated obstacles:
1. Men are abusive or manipulative. This fact does not preclude the possibility of agreement on the line of upper-limit modesty; it merely means we need to call out men for using abusive or manipulative tactics, which I’d hope you agree is a good thing in any case.
2. There isn’t wide agreement on exactly what is immodest. I’m going to have to disagree here; I think most men have close to the same definition, if they agree on the same definitions of upper-limit modesty and lust.
You acknowledge the need to set boundaries to understand what is inappropriate; how do you propose we decide on these boundaries?
For the record, Elijah clarified his position and slightly changed his terminology in the podcast “Modesty, Sexuality, and Beauty: Is There a Tension?” which largely alleviates my concerns here.
Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/modesty-sexuality-and-beauty-is-there-a-tension/id1542710155?i=1000598748958
I appreciate the perspective! The way you went about addressing the fact that modesty really doesn’t make or brake a lust problem is a really thought provoking! Thanks, and great work!
Lust, as the bible uses the word, is desire, NOT some kind of primordial urge. A man who desires a woman desires her no matter how she is dressed. Obviously a temptation to desire may present itself, but this is not dependent on how a woman is dressed in any objective sense.
Having observed multiple cultures in my 28 years, the only standard I can find for what men consider normal is their everyday experiences. There is no objective reason or physical instinct for a man to be turned on by sight alone. The medical world makes this fact pretty clear, in case you’re not sure what I mean. This is the only way I can reconcile all the things I’ve heard and seen about how different cultures handle this question. There is always an associated or implied context and every culture has an ingrained understanding of what that is, even though it may well be unspoken.
But herein lies the problem. If a culture shifts from an attitude-centric to clothing-centric standard for sexuality, things start to fall apart. Suddenly men are no longer focused on reading a woman’s emotions but rather on reading her body. To make matters worse, women dress for other women much more naturally than they dress for men. It quickly becomes an unrealistic burden they don’t know what to do with (as Elijah said). Sure, women CAN try to dress provocative, but they usually aren’t thinking that at all, especially the ones that would usually get accused of that.
So I don’t see beauty and modesty as even being in tension, but rather as completely compatible, once you actually understand what modesty is and isn’t. Women don’t find it particularly pretty to see a woman dressing sensually, and women who are just dressing pretty do not throw off sensual vibes.
As western culture is sadly discovering, men who do not have the proper emotional bonds and understanding outside of sexuality will completely misinterpret their emotions. Sexuality borrows as much from beauty as it does from emotions, so we cannot conflate beauty with sexuality any more than we can conflate emotion with sexuality. Sexuality depends on both and more, but is not required for either beauty or emotion. Yes, I’m sure all the married people disagree with me, but I have to put my foot down here 🙂 How else do you expect people to stay both single and sane? If sexuality becomes the black hole that swallows up everything else, life will indeed become black.