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.