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Let’s Hear it for (gulp!) Modesty! (Part Two)

It is my opinion that the subject of modesty must be approached asexually.

When approaching a sensitive issue, I like to line up my arguments by starting with the argument that is universally accepted and practically irrefutable. Remember: my point in these posts is to insist that we as Christians – particularly spiritual leaders – need to discuss modesty.

It is my opinion that the subject of modesty must be approached asexually. As has been proven by the preceding post and comments this is almost impossible. Almost immediately the discussion included sexual lust. I can’t help but wondering if this is not why so many discussions on modesty in clothing conclude with the participating parties at loggerheads. The subjective nature of lust (or, more precisely, what provokes lust) complicates the discussion. Therefore, I think it is a good discipline to think in a theological and spiritual vein to the exclusion of sexual implications when we begin our investigation on this subject. As a pastor I have found that approaching sensitive subjects from the objective and unemotional standpoint first usually paves the way for the more delicate and subjective applicational aspect of the controversy. My point with these posts is to defend the notion that pastors must speak to the issue of modesty in clothing. If I can stay focused, I think that many others questions will resolve themselves in the process.

Modesty in clothing must be addressed by pastors because of our ambassadorial obligation. As I stated in Part One:

1. The ambassadorial obligation. It should be natural to talk about clothing because we are called to reflect the glory of God in the ambassadorial work of reconciling men with their Maker. Thus, the nature of our calling and the nature of men call for careful consideration of the subject of clothing.

Clothing and the Ambassadorial Obligation.

I think that we ought to address the issue of clothing because of our representative role here on earth. We live to God (Galatians 2:19). Our bodies are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). No need to belabor the obvious, yet I am persuaded that by patiently and steadfastly ministering the message of the Scriptures not only in “word, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance” that the Christian is a “sent one” (John 20:21) on an ambassadorial mission (2 Corinthians 5:20) the responsive hearer will develop spiritual instincts that will prevail upon his or her selection of clothing. I simply cannot accept the notion that a Spirit-filled woman cannot, with the provided spiritual instincts of the new creation, know what is or what is not modest without the help of a male sinner. Ladies, if you walk in the Spirit, you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Galatians 5:16) even if there is no male input on your wardrobe.

The problem, however, is that a number of Christians (male or female) do dress immodestly. I am inclined to think that this problem is more indicative of spiritual immaturity than ignorance on how much skin should be shown before it causes a brother or sister to stumble. That “skin” concern in and of itself is incomplete and, as already stated, literally relegates the decision on modesty to a battle of words on what does or does not incite sexual passions, a quagmire of variables and subjectivity. This leaves the immature believer secure in his or her choice of clothing as an expression of “Christian liberty” and confident that the objections of other Christians are the fruit of overly scrupulous consciences or legalistic morality. It is not only likely to be unproductive, but is also wrong, for a pastor to impose a standard of clothing on the basis of how it is perceived by people (or how it might cause men to think).

The great truths that grip the souls of men and women and enjoy the empowering blessing of the Spirit of God are the truths of redemption, reconciliation, and representation. I am not persuaded that I will have the Spirit authenticating my personal opinions on clothing nearly as much as I am confident that the redeemed person will find true cause to celebrate the fact that we (God’s people) are “the mirror that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character” (C. Bridges).

These fundamentals, if preached, when approaching the subject of modesty will be blessed with Holy Spirit authentication in the hearts of all true believers. We are members of the Body of Christ which is the Church (Colossians 1:18). Therefore, we should reflect the glory of God in everything we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). The fundamental Christian principle that should govern all of our conduct is that we are not our own (1 Corinthian 6:19-20). Even as the Father sent Jesus, so He has sent us. We are image-bearers in this world and any action or clothing that desecrates or dishonors His blood-purchased temple should be repudiated. And because it is a fact of life that man looks on the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7) and that what he sees directly impacts whether or not he glorifies God (Matthew 5:16), it should not disturb us when one asks us to consider how we dress!

The ambassadorial/representative obligation cuts to the heart of individualism. The reason the clothing discussion often gets heated is because our flesh rebels against the suggestion that “we are not our own.” Practically, this speaks not only to the person who may want to show too much skin, but to the myriads of people who choose to express their individuality through clothing with bizarre styles, sloppiness, weird hair-do, extreme make-up, and so forth. That is not modest.

Perhaps the English definition of “modest” would be appropriate here. My dictionaries concur: Modesty (the state of being modest) is having or showing a moderate opinion of one’s own value, abilities, achievements, etc. It is behaving, dressing, and speaking in a way that is proper and consistent with that moderate opinion on one’s self. It is therefore obvious that we can start to discuss modesty without speaking to the issue of lust. The teen with the multi-colored hair, the athlete with the sweaty, naked torso, and the pastor with the extravagant ties may all be immodest. They all say, “Look at me.”

“Look at me” styles are not necessarily sexy. In fact, I know a woman who prides herself on her plainness. She keeps an old-fashioned hairstyle (when she does her hair) and keeps a frumpy wardrobe on purpose. “Won’t have any male stumbling on account of me.” No worry. Her deliberate frumpiness draws attention to her and away from the Lord she claims she wants to serve. Her service is limited. She’s immodest.

The point that I wish to make is that modesty in clothing is not just about skin, shape, and shifting (as one contributor cleverly alliterated), but it is about the whole Christian and his or her representative responsibilities as ambassadors.

I am painfully aware of my representative duties even while I perspire in my backyard. While off duty I might be tempted to relive my African days and present myself to the sun as a flaming white albino, but I am keenly aware of the fact that I have neighbors who could peer over my fence. I choose not to take off my shirt not because it would cause my naughty neighbors to gawk at my buff and chiseled bod. Of course not! I don’t know that my neighbors are naughty and I know that I am neither buff nor chiseled! The point of my “modesty” is not to stave off envy! I leave a shirt on simply because I am acutely sensitive to my day in and day out ambassadorship. While I am naturally concerned about preventing cardiac seizures in the neighborhood, I am more conscious of my never-ending representative responsibilities. I am never off duty. Even before my daughter, I am a representative of the throne of God. The purpose of my modesty is not to conceal an awesome figure (Oh, how I wish!), but to conserve dignity.

Our ambassadorship is not restricted to the testimonial, but includes a mandate to be influential. The sphere of our influence is not limited to the soteriological, but to the cultural as well. Therefore, when the time comes that modesty becomes eye candy (as I suggested in my previous post by saying, “Modesty is now sexy!”), we ought to conscientiously attempt to instill positive influence in society. To be attractive is not to be immodest. Dare I say it??? Even sex appeal is not immodest when it draws attention to the greater and higher standard of beauty and design that the Creator intended.

An ambassador has more concerns than covering body parts. He or she knows that clothing is always symbolic. Hillary Clinton is not usually recommended for her morality, but her wardrobe is consistently professional (and modest). She would avoid the attention that our nation’s number one ambassador, Condoleeza Rice garnered for herself when she wore an outfit that drew too much attention to itself, and not to her office. I remember the article from the Washington Post. It is granted that the columnist is not friendly to the Bush administration, but one has to wonder if the gossip is not true that Rice has toned down her wardrobe since she appeared in the sexy black boots. What American wasn’t at least mildly embarrassed by Dick Cheney’s wardrobe faux pas at the sixtieth anniversary of Auschwitz? He was our ambassador. He looked, instead, like a duck hunter. Cheney (or whoever picks his clothes out) dropped the ball as an ambassador and came across as a belligerent individualist. That’s immodest.

My point?

1. It should be natural to talk about clothing because we are called to reflect the glory of God in the ambassadorial work of reconciling men with their Maker. Thus, the nature of our calling and the nature of men call for careful consideration of the subject of clothing.

Appendix [Tongue firmly implanted in cheek]: I have been reflecting for some time on how I could get blogspotted by Phil Johnson without appearing like a groveling groupie (I am a fan). It occurred to me in the middle of the night that I should have illustrated questionable ambassadorial qualities of clothing by Phil’s Rick Warren-wannabie Hawaiian shirt and suspicious looking shades. Fundamentalist that I am, I even question his facial hair. I grant that I have facial hair. But that is to cover an ugly chin.

6 Responses

  1. Interestingly enough for this whole conversation, I am in an environment where I have pretty much put this all on the shelf (adhering to different standards than my own voluntarily).

    However, having said that, once and if I move out of this environment, I have for the most part determined that I pretty much only plan to have this kind of conversation as necessary on an individual basis, i.e. if I/my wife have offended or concerned those we hold to be near and dear.

    Beyond that, we will most likely follow our consciences and simply avoid discussion.

    Is this ducking the issue? Well, yes, in some ways….however I honestly prefer to think of it as a more strategic use of my time. While I do think that the discussion of the issue has merit (given the amount of insanity floating all around :-), I’d prefer to use my (limited) time to do and discuss other topics and let this one come up where it will. Please note that I am not saying that everyone should follow this approach.

    Side-note: I guess that overall this is more of a mile-high perspective than actual valid commentary on the issue at hand however.

  2. It has been said before, but it strikes me as a sad commentary on the state of our churches when a pastor has to justify his right to speak to a Biblical issue. Thank you for addressing a significant–and controversial–issue in the church today. I suspect that the degree of controversy associated with the subject of modesty is, in itself, an indication of the degree to which our homes and churches have failed to face their responsibilities for discipleship. Difficult and controversial subjects prone to misunderstandings should impel us to better, clearer, more Holy Spirit-controlled communication of truth; they do not, however, give us a “pass” on addressing Biblical issues because they cause discomfort.

    You stated that, “The ambassadorial/representative obligation cuts to the heart of individualism. The reason the clothing discussion often gets heated is because our flesh rebels against the suggestion that ‘we are not our own.'” I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis, and submit that the principle is true of many other areas of our Christian walk, as well. I have often reminded our children to be mindful of their speech and behavior because it will directly reflect on their father, whom they love very much. How much more mindful should I be of how my speech, behavior, and dress reflect on my Heavenly Father, who has commissioned me to act as His ambassador!

    Thank you for your insight. I look forward to being challenged by the next installment.

  3. Bob, thanks for these posts. It’s a hard task to balance between legalism and true, biblical convictions. I’m looking forward to reading these posts. It’s a struggle we all face in our churches.

  4. Regarding facial hair, what do you do if your whole face is ugly and you can’t grow a beard? Grow very long bangs?

    Thanks for this installment, Bob.

    — Kevin Subra

  5. Great article. You have articulated what I have often pondered, ie modesty goes beyond ustful thoughts.

    I, too, know women who strive to appear modest but end up drawing undo attention to themselves and limiting themselves in usefulness to the Lord’s work because they are covered from head to toe and look cultish. One woman, not remembering their names, referred to them as the middle eastern Christians.

    Anyway, thanks for your thought-provoking words.

  6. Karen,

    Your brief comments are possibly not complete enough to ascertain what you are saying, but I might share a few comments, which may end up correcting something you didn’t intend to say in the first place…:

    I’m not sure a broad sweeping label (“middle eastern Christians) on people by anyone shows understanding, nor should it persuade anyone how to dress or not to dress. Judging people by how they look is neither biblical or logical, and overstating things (“covered head to toe” – I’ve not seen this anyway) argues no point, but definitely persuades people without true reasons. To discuss modesty in terms of how people are perceived I think misses the point to some degree. People who are modest are likely to always seem prudish, backward, or out of the mainstream of things. That is true of all of our actions – we are not to decide on our behavior simply because others think that we are strange.

    It is interesting to note, though, that upon viewing the advertisements, pictures, movies and calendars of by-gone days in the USA, women are seen doing almost every activity (camping, canoeing, working in the garden) in very modest attire (usually long skirts or dresses). Oftentimes it is not usefulness, but attitude or a belief in something stated frequently but not true (“I can’t do that in a dress”), that has come to determine what one can or cannot wear in a given situation. It is that weak approach that has helped to form our culture’s current view of modesty, the blurring of genders and of gender roles.

    Thanks for your input.

    — Kevin Subra

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