The Prude and Prurience: An Essay About Christian Modesty

There has been a fascinating dialogue on the Q-Ideas forum between Jessica Rey and Rachel Held Evans about female modesty in clothing.

Objectification of Women
Jessica Rey is an entrepreneur who started a popular line of Audrey Hepburn-inspired swimsuits that tries to steer past the Scylla and Charybdis of skimpy bikinis and frumpy one-pieces. In her viral video, she cites studies by scholars from Princeton and Stanford, which used fMRI scans to determine:

  1. that heterosexual men associated scantily-clad, or “sexualized,” women with first-person action verbs (e.g. “I handle”), while associating fully-clad women with third-person action verbs (e.g. “She handles”),” and
  2. that visual stimuli of sexualized women sometimes deactivated regions of the male brain associated with perceiving human agency (e.g. thoughts and feelings) and only activated regions of the male brain associated with tools (e.g. screwdrivers and hammers).

The lead researcher Susan Fiske commented that this “lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens,” and concluded that men are prone to see sexualized women as objects to use rather than as agents to relate to. For this reason, Rey promotes her fashionably modest swimwear by arguing that skimpy bikinis lead not to the empowerment of women but to their objectification.

Prudery = Prurience?
Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and Christian feminist, responded to Rey by arguing that prudery and prurience are different sides of the same coin. In her post, Evans claims that both the sexualized popular culture and the Christian modesty culture disempower women by telling them to dress a certain way (i.e. provocatively or modestly) in order to please men.

Modesty and Materialism
As intriguing as that sounds, the arguments she adduces to support her claim are flimsy at best. First, Evans argues that Biblical injunctions about modest clothing refers not to immodest adornments but to materialism.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” -1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)

Evans correctly notes that this passage, like its parallel in 1 Peter 3:3, is emphasizing that a woman’s “beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” “Outward adornment” is clearly contrasted with “inward beauty,” “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). These passages are clearly a polemic against the materialistic focus on physical beauty.

However, to argue that these passages refer only to materialism and not to modesty is an unwarranted restriction of its range of meaning. While Evans is right that the word “modestly” does not mean “bashful” or “unassuming” as we might imagine, but rather “orderly,” “appropriate,” or “respectable” in this context, the descriptor that immediately follows the word “modestly” is “decency,” which refers to a “sense of shame” and a “sense of honor” in contrast to shamelessness (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In Greco-Roman culture, outward adornments were often perceived as instruments of seduction (see Philo, On the Virtues 7.39; Plutarch, Advice 30), and women’s hairstyles were becoming increasingly elaborate, with curls, braids, wigs, and ornaments. In fact, historians can date the representations of women by the relative complexity of their hairstyle. Archaeologists have discovered coins minted throughout the Roman Empire that depict empresses as well as numerous prominent statutes of empresses, and their fancy fashions were quickly emulated by the well-to-do. To illustrate, Messalina, the empress and wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, as well as Poppaea, the Empress and wife of Emperor Nero, were notorious for their promiscuity, and for using their sexual allure to gain power. In this context, where elaborate adornments were associated with licentiousness, one can understand the apostle’s warning against external adornments.
Thus, the Bible condemns both materialism and immodesty. After all, what is the point of immodest adornments? Isn’t it to enhance or highlight physical beauty? Isn’t it to bring attention to one’s outward, physical features as opposed to one’s inward, spiritual qualities? Immodesty is rooted in materialism, and to say that Apostle Paul is addressing materialism and not immodesty is a false dichotomy.
A Biblical Theology of Clothing

The “sense of shame” that comes with physical exposure attests to the innocence that we have lost due to sin. In the beginning, Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, were naked yet without shame (Gen. 2:25). Then, after sinning against God, they suddenly realized that they were naked and attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). After seeing their woeful attempt at a covering, God himself clothed them with garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).

The loss of humanity’s spiritual innocence was reflected in their shame in physical nakedness. This is why wearing clothes is an exclusively human phenomenon. This is why the language of “covering” is used to describe forgiveness of sin (Rom. 4:7; Ps. 32:1). This is why God tells the Church in Laodicea to buy “white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen” (Rev. 3:18).

Therefore, when God took animal skins to make leather garments for Adam and Eve, his act foreshadowed Christ who would be sacrificed to become the garment of righteousness for God’s people (Gal. 3:27). Christians are those who have clothed themselves with Christ (Rom. 13:14).

Physical clothing, then, serves to remind us of the glory we have lost, and immodest exposure, as well as other increasingly popular forms of public nudity, are defiant acts of rebellion against this moral reality. To encourage men and women to dress modestly, then, is not to make them ashamed of their bodies, but to help them put their hope in the future glorious bodies that they will have through Christ (Phil. 3:21).

Modesty and the Gospel
Evans is absolutely right that Jesus places the blame squarely on the men for lusting over women, and not on the women for dressing immodestly (Mt. 5:27-30), but does it follow that is it wise or loving for Christian women to dress provocatively since it’s not their problem or responsibility after all?

Our culture of individual entitlement says, “dress however wish, since it’s for yourself and nobody else,” but Christianity is all about surrendering our “rights” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9). Didn’t Apostle Paul say that he would even forego such basic rights as eating meat or drinking wine if doing so would cause a fellow Christian brother or sister to stumble (Rom. 14:13-23)? Should we not, then, exercise Christian charity in the way we dress?

As Martin Luther once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are to “look not only to [our] own interest, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), because this is precisely what Jesus did for us. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

So to put it bluntly: we don’t dress just for ourselves. In fact, we don’t do anything just for ourselves. We do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the way we dress. Christian women who dress modestly don’t do it to please men, they do it ultimately to honor God!

What About Men?
“Well, then, shouldn’t men dress modestly too?” Yes, of course! Women shouldn’t show too much cleavage, and men should use belts so that they can wear their pants on their waists, where they belong, and not on their knees.

There is empirical evidence that men, in general, respond more to visual sexual stimuli than women do. (Just consider the fact that out of the 40 million adults who view pornography annually, only 28% are female, while the rest are male.) This is why the focus is usually on women when it comes to modesty, but men are certainly not exempt. I would totally wear a t-shirt at beaches if my abs made women stumble, but I have not found this to be the case in the U.S.

Isn’t Modesty Culturally Relative?
It is true that modesty is culturally-defined, but every culture covers something. In some cultures, showing one’s shoulders or bare arms is considered immodest. In others, showing one’s buttocks or the upper thigh is considered immodest. The questions that should guide us are: (1) Does the article of clothing in question cause shame? (2) Does it bring attention to outward, rather than inward, beauty? And finally, (3) Is it loving? Will it tempt others? Because, in all things, we ought to be constrained, not by our rights, but by our love for God and one another.

Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.
Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.

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