When I began in ministry, a common part of the application process for any volunteer was a full page sheet on the dress code of that particular church or para-church. From camps to outings and on a rather rigid guide would be enforced on what was acceptable sartorially. Fortunately I came on the scene in my particular organization after the standard Mormon look for young men had been ditched. Jeans and t-shirts were no longer considered rebellious. And it was in process of being relaxed for the girls too. Floor length skirts were no longer required, though still encouraged… Over time we chipped away more and more of the draconian bits and basically settled on something resembling a relaxed but clean look. The rule of thumb being public speakers should dress better than their audience. But while we were whipping the dress code into shape an interesting thing happened consistently no one had even read the dress code or was even aware it existed. And upon having it brought to their attention confusion ensued. Modesty it seems was a new concept to them.
Understand these were Christians, some very conservative in their views, all wanting to teach Scripture and evangelize. And yet here was a scriptural principal that was strange and foreign to them. Reactions were all over the board, everything from accusations of legalism, to incredulity that something like that was even in the Bible, to charges of a double standard because the boys didn’t get called out on their outfits as often. But buried beneath all of this was a genuine ignorance of the concept of modesty. Having now been in this particular arena for some time now I would like to engage the issue and address the sin compounding the sin.
“You do realize that intellectual laziness is a sin?” That question opened a whole new world for me. A friend had said it in a devotional and thought he had read it somewhere in Tozer. But the implications were enormous. Up to that point I had been thinking of laziness strictly in terms of the physical sluggard whose only strong muscles where his thumbs. But here was finally the term for what Screwtape had been fighting for when he constantly encouraged Wormwood to keep his patient, “ignorant,” and “in the dark.” Kevin Vanhoozer had spoken of how sloth seems the least deadly of the seven sins and yet now in a moment of clarity I had it. Part of being made in the image of God is to be thinkers. John 1 tells us that Jesus is the “logos” Christ himself claims to be the truth, Bereans were praised for being noble minded and examining scripture. Christians are not to sit on their brains, counting zoning in and out through a sermon once a week as engaging their faith. We are to be thinkers, we are called to meditate on Scripture to teach it as we go about our day, and you can not teach that which you do not know.
Intellectual laziness, like all sins, is deceptive. It lies saying that you know enough. It keeps your boat from being rocked, and should a troubler of Israel arrive it swats him aside with straw man arguments. It causes you to be drowsy and ignore rebuke, correction, exhortation, and training in righteousness. It is indeed a comfortable theology. “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”*
Intellectual Laziness and Immodesty
Historically the objections to the Biblical instruction on modesty have been out of pure and simple rebellion. “I want to dress how I want to and I don’t care one way or the other what God says.” In a sense you can almost appreciate the honesty. It is also very clear that the root of the sin is pride. And that kind of thinking is still with us. But for the professing Christian so blatant a rejection of the commands of God causes some sticky problems. Therefore a way around those commands must be found. Hypocrisy is a perennial favorite. I have noticed when talking or teaching on this particular issue certain parties become more conservative in their dress around me for a week or so or until we bump into each other at a Target and I find the old man is alive and well in them. But increasingly I see it has been discovered that that the sin of intellectual laziness covers a multitude of other sins. Unfortunately we must go deeper down so as not to broad brush too much. I see that there are two distinct camps that fall under this heading. The willfully ignorant, and the simply lazy.
In the first instance the sin has been brought to the attention of the person, and they brush it aside and forget the instruction as quickly as possible. Ultimately they know what is right, they are smart enough to put the pieces together, and yet when standing before the wardrobe the application never takes root. It is ultimately a habitual unrepentant sin.
The simply lazy is a variation on this theme. They actually will engage in the moment of correction, but no change is made, they just can’t be bothered. The instruction never went any deeper than if you had been commenting on the weather. They don’t want to think about it then and they don’t want to think about it later. Ultimately there is overlap, obviously these are rebellion or hypocrisy just with a fun new twist.
Up to this point I have been writing as if Modesty were a settled issue. But in case there are doubters Let us look to the Scriptures.
“Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” 1 Timothy 2:9-10
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1 Peter 3:3-4
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5
“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” Proverbs 11:22
“The 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, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; … Isaiah 3:16-23
Wether you like it or not God has opinions about how his people dress. He has many good reasons for this instruction, not least among them that He actually wants his people to look different from the lost and dying world. As Wilson has suggested, we should be strangers and sojourners in a foreign land to such a degree that the average christian should wonder why we are not required to have a green card. At some point it really should be considered that as far as picking up a cross and following Jesus is concerned, a little more fabric is not that big of a burden to bear.
Now the world has armed the intrepid Christian with many arguments and justifications in an attempt to explain to God that somehow He got this wrong. Women are free agents and it is wrong to control a girls body and dress to keep a man out of lust. It’s victim shaming to point out that if you display something that you shouldn’t be surprised that others look at it. Fundamentalist groups have used modesty to abuse and control women. The problem with all of these arguments boils down to a failure to understand how guilt works. If a woman is wearing an outfit where her neckline and hem line meet and she get ogled at by a man, it is not as though one party is guilty alone, or one has a greater share of the blame. Guilt does not operate on a 60% 40% scale rather it is 100% 100%. He is 100% guilty of lust. She is 100% of immodesty. Excuses of who lead whom into sin will not work now just like they did not work in the garden after the fall. Like Aslan God is only interested in telling people their stories, not someone else’s.
To simplify matters modesty is a command from God that the church at large has been ignoring for some time now. We had better start obeying.
To complicate matters. There is a point where we have to recognize with live in a time and a culture and we have to exegete the principal not the method laid out in Scripture. Just as we understand the principals in 1 Corinthians about long hair and head coverings and most of us would have to try really really hard not to smirk at one of those little congregations with men in Hitler youth haircuts and women wearing doilies on their heads. Which is in itself a cultural moment that is not found in the Scriptures. As Driscoll pointed out, “Every church is on the cutting edge, it just depends what century.” Contextualization is an issue when it comes to modesty. Legalism is always the ditch on the other side of the road. We should not want to be like Luther’s drunk who falls off the donkey on one side, “license” and simply makes sure to fall off the other side next, “legalism”.
Many formulas have been suggested to help untangle this particular knot. I am tempted to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewarts rule, “I know it when I see it.” But this is clearly nebulous and would only work in contexts where I had any authority. I am also drawn to Paul Washer’s “If it brings attention to your face it is modest, if it brings attention to some other part of your body it is immodest.” But I can’t quite get on board. Because the root of the issue is pride and modesty is actually more than just showing some skin.
Root of the Problem
At a ground floor level of any sin you will find that pride is the foundation. The idolatry of self, the ultimate “me first” attitude. It is the declaration that man is on the throne and God, along with His law, is subject to his rule and judgment.
As I suggested before modesty is actually a larger concept than merely inappropriate clothing.
Modesty; Mass Noun: Behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency. – Oxford English Dictionary
Modesty is larger, it is ultimately about the character of a person. Our behavior, manner, and appearance all say things about us. And in case you have not noticed cultures have dress codes. And I am specifically wanting you to pay attention to subcultures. They will present themselves very carefully to display allegiance. Many are far more willing than your average American evangelical to divide from friends and families over their beliefs. Should we Christians not pause and ask why we are so unwilling to do likewise for the case of Christ. I have quoted before and will again quote Francis Schaffer: “What is loyalty to Christ worth to you?” Is loyalty to Christ worth evaluating your clothing and rejecting some?
A Final Turn
Overwhelmingly when Scripture speaks of modesty it is directed toward women. But we live in such a confused day that our confusion on gender now leads to a confusion of sins. Men historically were more prone to lust and pornography, now according to statistics women have nearly as high addiction rates. And now I would suggest that more men are increasingly prone to the sin of immodesty. If the root is pride then I would argue that the shirtless man out on his run is more concerned with being admired for his discipline or physique than he is over wind resistance.
The ultimate answer is to humble ourselves before our God. We may experience discomfort, we may miss out on the latest fashion or vogue. But if our hope is in the kingdom to come, and we are ambassadors of that kingdom we should display it. Wether you like it or not modesty matters simply because God says it matters. How that plays out is an issue of discernment. In the past people have handled it badly. But that does not mean we throw out what God has said. It means that failure in the past requires the pursuit of a higher fidelity today. Of the many crosses Christians are called to bear modesty is not the heaviest one. What is loyalty to Christ worth to you? Do you love your comfort, your clothes, your body, or the attention these things get you more than you love Jesus?
*Screwtape XII I know, I know, I quote Lewis too often.