May 12th, 2008 by Sonja

Fellow Scriber Wess wrote a post the other day about dress codes in church for women. He is a new dad with a tiny LightGirl of his own so these issues are largely theoretical for him, but do loom in his future. His post sparked a discussion about how women dress in church and in our culture. This sparked some discussion about whether or not women are responsible for the thought life of men.

Makeesha wrote a great summation of current modesty codes and some of their effects in the comments:

… we promote modesty from the wrong angle. It becomes about the man instead of being about the woman. It becomes about acceptance from God based on what a woman wears. In other words, I should dress modestly because my body creates some sort of temptation. My body isn’t about me, my body is about the man, about society. It’s an object to be controlled and preached about from the pulpit. My body is scary and shameful because it causes others to sin. My breasts aren’t beautiful creations that have 2 purposes of sexual pleasure and providing food and bonding for my progeny – they are temptations. My shape is to be veiled because it’s bad, because it causes my brothers to stumble. I am the object. I am the sin. I am the receiver. These are the messages the church sends when dealing with this issue. Regardless of the intent, this is what many many women hear – for some, it creates shame that causes the woman to hide away, to cover, to follow the rules – for others it creates a shame that causes the woman to seek validation by uncovering.

The rest of the conversation is well worth reading … and towards the end Wess challenged some of us to write further on the issue. So here I go.

It is currently fashionable for many in the church to hold women responsible for how men think, by suggesting that women dress more conservatively in order to “help” men keep their thoughts under control. There are nearly as many women who subscribe to this theory as men. The primary verse that is quoted to substantiate this is 1Timothy 2:9 – “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, …”

So I looked that verse up in many different versions and found that the word “modesty” is in virtually all of them. This is unusual to say the least, so it began to stick out and I began to wonder what that word was in the original text. What was it that Paul was trying to say to Timothy here?

First I wanted to verify for myself what it is that we mean in our current cultural context when we say the word “modest” or “modesty.” So I looked it up on and here is a summary of the definitions:

1. marked by simplicity; having a humble opinion of yourself; “a modest apartment”; “too modest to wear his medals” [ant: immodest]
2. not large but sufficient in size or amount; “a modest salary”; “modest inflation”; “helped in my own small way”
3. free from pomp or affectation; “comfortable but modest cottages”; “a simple rectangular brick building”; “a simple man with simple tastes”
4. not offensive to sexual mores in conduct or appearance [ant: immodest]
5. low or inferior in station or quality; “a humble cottage”; “a lowly parish priest”; “a modest man of the people”; “small beginnings” [syn: humble]
6. humble in spirit or manner; suggesting retiring mildness or even cowed submissiveness; “meek and self-effacing” [syn: meek]
7. limited in size or scope; “a small business”; “a newspaper with a modest circulation”; “small-scale plans”; “a pocket-size country” [syn: minor]

So to our ears, when we hear … “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, …” what that says to us is “I want women to dress modestly [marked by simplicity, free from pomp or affectation, and not offensive to sexual mores in conduct or appearance, humble in spirit or manner suggesting retiring mildness or even cowed submissiveness], with decency and propriety…” Given the context of the remainder of chapter 2, that appears to make sense. Given the current atmosphere in the western church in which we seem to have a morbid fixation on sex and sexual issues, it also seems to make sense. But was that really what Paul was saying?

I looked up the Greek word that is translated here as modest in our Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament ed by F.W. Danker (a large, heavy and imposing book). The word is only used one time in the whole New Testament and if I were smarter, I’d figure out how to type it here so you could see it. But I’m lazy. In any case, I found the word and the definition:

This term expresses the opposite of considering or treating something in a common or ordinary manner; a respect for convention. A term of reverence or respect.

Then as I was looking through all the different versions of the verses (I looked at it in the context of the whole chapter), I began to notice some footnotes that linked to it. One was for a similar verse in 1 Peter … so, okay. But there were two others that were particularly interesting. One for Revelation and the other for Isaiah. The thing I love about BibleGateway is that instead of bumbling my way through paper pages, I can just click and be there. So I did. Here are the scriptures:

The Letter to Laodicea
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

“The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Originator of God’s creation says: 15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy, and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, and white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see. 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. 20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. 21 The victor: I will give him the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I also won the victory and sat down with My Father on His throne.

Isaiah 3

13The LORD has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
14The LORD will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured[f] the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
15What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”

declares the Lord GOD of hosts.

16The LORD said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet,
17therefore the Lord will strike with a scab
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts.

18In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; 19the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; 20the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; 21the signet rings and nose rings; 22the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; 23the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.
24Instead of perfume there will be rottenness;
and instead of a belt, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth;
and branding instead of beauty.
25Your men shall fall by the sword
and your mighty men in battle.
26And her gates shall lament and mourn;
empty, she shall sit on the ground.

When I read those in context with Timothy and the idea that modesty is about reverence or respect … I get a whole new picture of how women should dress and more importantly … why. Once again, it’s a heart issue. It has to do with the women and, interestingly, nothing to do with men.

As I said on Wess’ post, men … get past yourselves. If you find the way a woman dresses too distracting, find something else to look at. That is your responsibility. You are in control of where you put your eyes. You. And only you. It is the man who lusts in his heart who is the adulterer, not the woman.

A woman needs to dress according to her heart. Where does her heart stand with God. Look in the letter to Laodicea. And in the prophecy to Jerusalem. God is not so concerned about sex. He seems to be very concerned about how we treat the poor. How do the rich treat the poor. Are we proud of our riches and flaunt them? Do we grind the face of the poor into the ground?

It’s very easy to create a set of rules and standards. How far is that skirt from the ground? No pants. Dresses must be made from this pattern. Etc. Etc. It’s easy to tell who’s in and who’s out by those standards. If a woman comes in wearing pants … she’s out. The problem is … what if she’s wearing pants, but her heart is right? How would you know? Is it our right to judge? Why do we think those arbitrary rules are so important?

15 Responses  
  • Ben writes:
    May 12th, 200811:41 amat

    Of course I agree with you. Let’s also never forget that we are to do all we can to keep our brothers/sisters from stumbling. To a certain extent we are responsible if we knowingly aid another in sinning.

  • Ben writes:
    May 12th, 200811:44 amat

    I do hear what you’re saying though. I think as long as a woman is treating her body with respect and presenting that respect in the way she dresses, she has no responsibility for what a man thinks. It’s up to him to control his own thought life.

  • K.W. Leslie writes:
    May 12th, 20082:10 pmat

    Back when I was teaching junior high, my principal told me, “Please be careful what you say around these kids. They’ll take anything you say and twist it.”

    “Since that’s the case,” I pointed out, “how can I possibly know in advance what they’ll twist and how they’ll twist it? I could say something completely innocent and because of their warped little minds, I’m in trouble? I can’t win.”

    Same thing with women’s clothing. I had just read a New York Times article where these two guys in Saudi Arabia were eating dinner and a woman, completely covered in a burka, walked into the room. Their minds immediately gravitated towards her, regardless of her outfit, because they thought of nothing but women all the time. Just goes to show you how ridiculous the whole debate about rules and standards for “modest dress” can be. So long that you’re not unduly drawing attention to yourself, your conscience is clear. Theirs… needs work.

  • Sonja writes:
    May 12th, 20082:56 pmat

    I’m going to challenge you guys … the whole thing is not about what we think, it’s about at all anyway. It never was. It’s about how we treat others, how our innerselves are thinking of the poor and that is reflected in how we dress! Read that portion of Isaiah again … come on guys … step up and think outside the box.

  • Erin writes:
    May 12th, 20085:52 pmat

    Hmm…I’m listening. As a woman who has diverged from the “traditionally modest” to the “generally outlandish and sometimes a little racy”, it’s an interesting point. I happen to find freedom there, and have gotten a good deal of grief over it.

    However, when you turn the argument this way…wow…eentresting…I’m following this one.

  • Julie Clawson writes:
    May 12th, 20088:14 pmat

    okay this may be a tad off topic – I think discussions like this are needed. But I have to ask why are we so damn afraid of sex? I’m sick of the typical christian fear of sex and it’s message that I have to deny that I am a sexual being. I wonder how differently these conversations would go if the a priori assumption wasn’t that sex is evil.

  • Peggy writes:
    May 12th, 20089:16 pmat

    Well…the Abbess who doesn’t dress like one is going to poke her toe into this croc-infested stream….

    I agree, of course, with both sides of this issue. It is a heart issue. We are responsible for each other. What we wear can make more of a difference than we know. It is very sticky.

    But this is why cHesed is such a valuable context for living. If I am bound by my love for my covenant partners — God and others in the New Covenant — that I will always be looking toward their best interest. It’s a lot of work. It works itself out in very interesting ways.

    For instance: I hear that the way I dress is a problem (read: stumbling block) for someone else. First, I have to submit my “freedom” to choose what to wear to my “love” for that person. But there’s an important this being missed by many: people, in my experience, just do not understand the whole “stumbling block” idea.

    It is not about temptation to do something everyone knows is “sin” … it is about tempting someone whose conscience is not free to go against their conscience by following my freer conscience. Out of love, the more mature/free must submit their conduct to the needs of the weaker/less free individual. And at the same time, have the honest conversation about freedom … and don’t twist someone’s arm to do or say or eat or drink things that are outside their “freedom zone” … or you harm them by tempting them to do what they still believe is wrong. That is not free or loving. It is selfish and immodest.

    In this particular case, wouldn’t the only people I could cause to stumble be women whose ideas of modest apparel are different from mine?

    This makes it so totally not about the men….

    And so it becomes another avenue where women can be controlled by out of context scripture application. The problem with men and their eyes and minds is theirs. My husband averts his eyes when he sees women immodestly dressed — out of respect for me and our marriage — whether it is in person, on TV, in the movies…he knows he is responsible to protect his own mind.

    I guess the question comes down to this: what I say to those who are not-yet Christ followers in our larger society when I wear clothes that are immodest (see definition above). Sex is a gift from God — but it has its proper place, doesn’t it? In a committed marriage.

    But, this is from me … the one not at all interested in fashion … especially because the place I see this impacting our culture is with the young men and women — children whose hormones are burning in confusing ways which make them particularly vulnerable to dangerous dalliances with sex that may actually harm their ability to appreciate it for the gift God made it.

    Whew…sorry to go to long…don’t anyone bite my leg off!

  • Patrick writes:
    May 12th, 20089:31 pmat

    I’m sick of the typical christian fear of sex and it’s message that I have to deny that I am a sexual being. I wonder how differently these conversations would go if the a priori assumption wasn’t that sex is evil.

    Augustine threw a wrench into all kinds of things.

    What’s amazing to me about the early church writings was that they were so aware of sex and talked about it bluntly. Sure most of those writing were monks, but I don’t get the sense it was ‘evil’ as much as outside their own calling.

    The church got so afraid of the physical, and everything to do with it, landing in these so entirely un-Jewish dualism.

    The problem with thinking that it’s evil is that this so then distorts even confronting the excess. It entirely ruins the discussion and ruins the perspectives on both chastity and marriage, making for a Christian view that really has nothing Christian about it.

  • Sonja writes:
    May 13th, 20087:10 amat

    Okay … everyone … back to the drawingboard. Go back. Read the post again. Especially, read the scriptures again. And again. 😉 The text of 1 Timothy is not about sex/lust/temptation. It’s about reverence and respect and the poor. Which is something completely different than what we’ve been taught lo, these many years. God does not seem to be concerned about lust and temptation in this instance, but He does seem to be concerned about our attitudes … with men He’s concerned about anger; with women He’s concerned about vanity, pride and a lack of concern for the poor and how that is expressed in our clothing. But it really has nothing to do with sexual lust or sexual temptation as we’ve been taught. That’s my point (which I obviously did not make very clearly 😉 ).

    What do you think about that?

  • Ben writes:
    May 13th, 20089:14 amat

    @K.W. Leslie: You said,

    So long that you’re not unduly drawing attention to yourself, your conscience is clear. Theirs… needs work.

    I think you hit the crux here. I have no problem with women wearing blue jeans but if you wore blue jeans in certain parts of Africa it’s assumed you’re a prostitute. To a large extent the issue of dress is a cultural one. But culture is important.

  • Patrick writes:
    May 13th, 20086:07 pmat

    What do you think about that?

    Plenty!! So I guess I’ll address your post rather than another comment now.

    You’re actually hitting on something that is near and dear to my heart and has had radical impact in my own church experiences over the years.

    When I was a sophomore in college I took a history class on Victorian England. At that Christian college we of course touched on the church/religious aspects. I forget the exact topic but I remember discussing the poor and church involvement of the time, and reading how a big reason many of the poor didn’t go to church was they didn’t have nice enough clothes.

    That hit me hard. What an absolutely terrible reason not to go to church, and yet it made perfect sense. Because churches required, and many still do, a certain standard of attire–“the Sunday best”. Ever since then I’ve been theologically opposed to dressing up for church. It’s obscene to say that God asks us to wear fancy clothes in order to worship him, thus making church about showing off to others and alienating those, the poor, who cannot show off. Modesty is so often about being revealing. But real modesty is about not showing off assets of any kind. In fact some of the most immodest people cover themselves the most. But it’s obscene to say this is something God asks. Church is not and cannot be a fashion show, and the idea that dressing up is a part of church is really, in my mind, anti-Christ.

    Related to this is my perspective on communion. In 1 Corinthians Paul has a whole section on communion saying at one point the people should examine themselves and recognize the body rightly. This has been interpreted as a call for existential examination and personal sin awareness. Only the whole passage is not about personal sin. It’s about making sure that the rich in the church are treating the poor right. It’s about understanding the character of the body of Christ, in which all are equals, and thus to dismiss, shame, or treat as second class anyone is violating the very essence of the communion meal. We are to consider others and acknowledge them for who they are and not do anything which would attempt to show our superiority over them.

    Which goes to what you are saying about modesty. If we show off, whether money or skin or whatever, we’re seeking to dominate by means of nonspiritual gifts. Instead of peace we bring tension and hurt and alienation.

    If we truly are considering the body of Christ, those gathered in his name, we will seek humility and unity and welcoming.

  • Sonja writes:
    May 14th, 20087:36 amat

    Thank you, Patrick … that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Can we have a conversation about how what we wear, especially in the era of branding and commercialism, can send a message of dominance, exclusivism and shame OR can send a message of inclusivism and welcoming …

  • Sonja writes:
    May 14th, 20087:45 amat

    Also, Patrick, your story reminds of a similar story a teacher once told. I took a class at a Christian Ed conference and this was a seasoned Sunday School teacher. She told the story of how one spring a child in impoverished circumstances began joining her class. She gave us a full description of the child that I no longer remember, but s/he made a strong impression on the teacher. The child was really looking forward to Easter and the teacher was anticipating Easter more because of the child’s excitement. However, Easter services and Sunday School came, but the child was nowhere to be found and the teacher was mystified. The child had been so excited, it was strange that she was not there. Then as the teacher was leaving the church (one of the last) she found the child hiding behind a bush or a building, where she’d been all morning … deeply ashamed and afraid to come in because she did not have a new outfit as all the other children did.

    And that was the last year the teacher ever had a new outfit for Easter.

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