modesty as evangelism?

January 30, 2008

I’m curious to know what you all feel about this. I was going to blog about it on my blog but thought I’d get some good conversation here.

Anna is on the daily scribe – an aggregate of Christian writers that I am also a member of. She’s a wonderful young woman with a big heart so this isn’t knocking her at all and she’s not shy about her conservative, male headship ideals and I’m not shy about how much I disagree with her hehe… So I want to focus on this IDEA rather than on HER. She just happened to be the one to blog about it but I know it’s not a unique idea.

29 Responses to “modesty as evangelism?”

  1. Cynthia Says:

    I only have a few minutes this afternoon … hmm, why am I always saying that! So busy, so busy. It’s these people here that keep me so busy!

    I want to go back and re-read Anna’s post regarding using modesty as evangelism BUT with the proper understanding of what modest is … and what I believe it IS has little to do with clothing choices except that true modesty would affect the clothes we choose for ourselves. But true modesty does not ONLY apply to women but to men as well.

    What if we took this definition of modesty and applied to in regards to evangelism:

    That lowly temper which accompanies a moderate estimate of one’s own worth and importance. This temper when natural, springs in some measure from timidity, and in young and inexperienced persons, is allied to bashfulness and diffidence. In persons who have seen the world, and lost their natural timidity, modesty springs no less from principle than from feeling, and is manifested by retiring, unobtrusive manners, assuming less to itself than others are willing to yield, and conceding to others all due honor and respect, or even more than they expect or require.

    And with that conversation starter … I have to go. I will check back in tonight.

  2. I read the post and sprang into defensive mode. I’ve been down this road so many times before and am really sick of the whole “women need to be better Christians because right now they are scum who are destroying the faith in how they dress.” I know there is more to the idea of modesty than that, but that is where I generally find these sorts of discussions heading.

    I think this is an interesting conversation in light of your last post on sexuality. most discussions on modesty ask us to deny and repress that we are sexual beings. We are told to be ashamed of our bodies, to hide them, and to feel guilty if we happen to “cause a guy to stumble.” Why do we have to be ashamed of how God created us? Why can’t that be embraced in a health way? Why has the only response from the church guilt?

  3. Heidi Renee Says:

    I am a de-lurking for this topic. It pushes all of my buttons. I long to keep this from a personal attack on the blogger. She seems sweet, so young and so ready to be chewed up and spit out by the very things she holds dear. God help her. It could have been me 20 years ago.

    I think a far better witness to the muslim world, heck the whole world, would be for the kingdom of God to be filled with vibrant, beautiful, sexual, whole beings – both male and female – equal, original, unique and fulfilling their image of God for the world to see. How much more striking would our communities be if those cultures that treat women as dirt and objects were to see women living to their full potential, partnering with those in her community and being, and causing others to be all they were created to be?

    I’m with Julie – I am so sick of this chicken and egg scenario – women aren’t plastic enough so men have cause to blame the whole mess on them, bad marriages, lust, porn, etc.

    I leave with this, one of my favorite quotes:

    “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”

    -Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

  4. Mak Says:

    Cynthia, I think that’s beautifully put. wow.

    Thanks Julie and Heidi Renee – I couldn’t agree more. I’m so sick of this whole modesty thing but more than that, to take it to the next level and suggest that our “immodesty” is not only causing men around us to stumble but ALSO causing people in the middle east to hate Americans and therefore hate Christians and therefore reject Christ? ugh. worrisome

  5. Mak Says:

    I’m also really annoyed that when I comment on stuff like this I always feel like I need to qualify it by saying that I don’t dress like a hooker… when my feeling of needing to justify myself is really case in point.

  6. Heidi Renee Says:

    ha! That made me laugh out loud!

    No one would want to see me dressed immodestly! :) but that doesn’t mean that the decades of self loathing and shame I had for being female in the kingdom of God were okay either.

    It is horribly worrisome to me that they believe that buttoning up their shirts or wearing a one piece bathing suit will help the cause of Christ…

  7. Heidi Renee Says:

    oh, and since I’ve de-lurked there is a blogger that I think you’d appreciate, she’s a linguist and come from the similar background (plymouth brethren) as I did, she’s brilliant and writes very well. You may already be familiar with her work, but just in case, her name is Suzanne McCarthy:

  8. Mak Says:

    Heidi – thank you for that blog recommendation – it looks fantastic!

  9. molleth Says:

    Mak just let me know about your site and WOW! I’m adding you to my blogrole. This is GREAT stuff…

    Btw, I will also add a HUGE HUGE HUGE recommendation for Suzanne mcCarthey. Girlfriend is *amazing!* :)

  10. Jessica Says:

    I haven’t fully thought this out, but this idea kept niggling at me. We pay so little attention to how culture affects our spirituality and then even when we do, we focus only on how it affects the Western world. What came to mind is that culture has also affected these Christian Arabic women and they are still very much in a Muslim world, which denies the value of women apart from their ability to give birth. Out of that comes the call for modesty, because men’s spirituality is the most important. So, really it would be totally unethical/immoral in us to conform to their cultural heritage in order to be a better witness. We would merely be perpetuating the problem of women’s subservience and imho that is definitely not serving the church.

    And Mak, I agree, I feel like I now need to say that I don’t wear skirts three inches long and fishnet stockings. In fact, I’m a big proponent of modesty, but for very different reasons, some of which have been mentioned above–self-respect, self-esteem and receiving the kind of attention from guys that will be empowering of mind/body and soul rather than just body.

  11. Mak Says:

    good points Jessica. I think it’s so important to recognize the value of context in the Scriptures. I would speak very similarly as the apostles to women in oppressed situations. Progress as far as you can toward the perfect justice of God, in the meantime, live well in your situation. But we don’t live in a patriarchy (technically) in America and I refuse to act like I do in order to make middle eastern men feel better about Christians. that’s just foolishness

  12. myste Says:

    interesting topic, the initial post doesn’t bother me as much as some of the commenters.

    molleth, i loved what you had to say, our whole requirement is to love God and love others and as long as this remains primary no lists of “acceptable clothing” are required. those who prioritize their dress to be “good” are falling just as short as those who prioritize their dress to be “bad”. the true answer to the question of modesty is not to ask the question in the first place, its just not a priority.

    and how disturbing are some of the comments about “keeping men pure” and “protecting yourself from objectification”? obviously clothing has no power to produce either of these things but perpetuating the idea that they do furthers the perception that in both cases women are responsible for how they are treated by men.

    first of all this is theologically incorrect because each person will be held responsible for their decision (a man is accountable to keep himself pure and to not objectify women, and no one else). secondly it begets the same line of thinking that enables rape justification. if you tell women that they can protect themselves from men by the way they dress, that indicates that those who dress less strictly are asking for any problems that men give them, whether it be a catcall or rape.

    we are still living in a culture that perceives women to be the guardians of purity who have to fight to protect it from the weak and lustful men. this perception does a disservice to both genders.

  13. Alaina Says:

    What I cannot get over is this: why do I have to hide how God made me? As a woman, there are physical characteristics that are biological for us and I am tired of feeling like I have to wear oversized shirts to be a ‘good Christian woman’.

    I am a student in seminary who is currently a pastor, and this year I began to dress differently. Instead of dressing like a man with collar shirts and khakis I am dressing like a woman with sweaters and so forth. Most people in the congregation I serve were so happy – because they were glad that I am being who I am – a woman. They were frustrated because they hate when women dress exactly like men so as to hide who we are.

    I thought this was interesting – people were glad I was acting like a female instead of an androgynous human being. It is important that as women, we be women. Why should I hide who God created me to be?

    I hope I’m making sense…very tired…

  14. Mak Says:

    Alaina, total sense :)

    see and this is EXACTLY the point – we should not be creating theological rules and regulations about modesty. As much as Anna is reiterating that this is an issue of the heart – the bottom line is that it’s really not just about that. And when you start down the slippery slope of telling women they need to dress modestly and one reason is for their “international witness”, you’re communicating a subtext that is rife with patriarchal understandings of female sexuality.

    This also goes to other issues like breastfeeding. The minute we succumb to overt sexualization of the female form, we justify attitudes that suggest women shouldn’t breastfeed in public.

    IMO, these sorts of attitudes about modesty are just as damaging as the sexual displays that these people preach against. telling a woman to “think about her Christian witness” when she chooses her outfit for the day, sends the same message as a billboard showing a half naked woman selling perfume. Both are equally to blame for the wrong attitudes about women, femininity and sexuality

    The mere fact that Anna and well meaning young women like her choose to edit the word sex to s*x because of their “younger readers” communicates to me the shame and fear communicated about sexuality and the female body.

  15. Mak Says:

    myste – absolutely. it’s such a frustrating issue too.

  16. grace Says:

    Well, the men applauded the post.

    Mak, your response to Jessica nailed it so that the response is contextual to the specific situation one is in.

  17. […] there’s a discussion going on in various places that I’m aware of in the blogosphere concerning standards for modesty. I had some things to […]

  18. Mak Says:

    grace – I know! isn’t that “interesting”?

  19. Che V. Says:

    Good discussion!
    This is an issue I have struggled with for many years, having been brought up to be modest withing the context of conservative evangelical christianity.
    Thanks for the insights…all of you. I am still in process about learning to be who I am, looking to God for my approval and affirmation.
    It helps, alot, to hear many people who have already taken on these issues….
    I’ll add this site to my blogroll…

  20. Lydia D. Says:

    I have a hard time understanding what is so disagreeable about Anna’s post (I didn’t read many comments however). The bottom line is that just the way our words and actions speak of our witness for Christ – the way we dress speaks for Christ as well. The real reason that modesty is so unclear is because cultural norms are different.

    I had the opportunity to serve on a work mission to Papua New Guinea as a teenager. In PNG the cultural standard is that the thighs are very sexual and we had to dress in a manner that didn’t call attention to our thighs. We wore long skirts when in a tribe or a town. We wore pants or below the knee shorts when at the work site.

    It didn’t matter whether or not I FELT like I was covering my sexuality – the bottom line was that as a western woman to expose my thighs would destroy my witness and send the wrong message to the PNG nationals.

    So if that applied in PNG when I was on a mission trip the shouldn’t that same principle apply to when I am here as a Christian in the US.

    The way women dress is part of our everyday witness – after all, didn’t Timothy address the cultural standards of his day?

    Timothy 2:8-9 – “I also want a women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

    I like how Timothy follows his admonition to dress modestly with “…but good deeds appropriate for women who profess worship to God”. I feel like this is the scriptural version of what Cynthia said in the very first comment. Modesty is not just about dress.

    In light of this passage and others in the Bible I feel called to dress differently than the current standards here in the US. I think the issue is not “… to make middle eastern men feel better about Christians…” but that we need to be set apart from the current cultural standards of the US.

    Maybe I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that instructed me to dress modestly while conveying my sexuality and womanhood as beautiful and not something to be ashamed of but something to be handled wisely and with care. I still dress fashionably but when I am in doubt about how a piece of clothing will be viewed by a male I ask my husband – when I was a teenager my father was the standard.

    I have had discussions with my husband and my brother in-laws about this issue and I think the thing that they find frustrating is that women fail to see or just don’t care how the male body operates. Just like your mouth waters when you are hungry and you see/smell food, a man has a chemical response to seeing a woman’s body that causes sexual arousal. The Christian men that I know strive not to objectify women. However they are still at the mercy of the sexual responses designed by God.

    My husband is a former youth paster and now an associate pastor and he has been very open with me about the struggles of a man. It makes me trust him more because I know he is being real. He has told me of instances where he does not see a woman in a sexual nature yet he found the way she was dressed distracting because he saw things that in our culture are considered sexual. No different than seeing a sexual billboard and having to look away however in this case it could have been prevented if the woman would have taken more care in covering what our culture considers the sexual parts of the body. It really is the whole not causing our brother to stumble bit. Frankly I think people take it to far my saying that the woman would be a sinner – I think that the intention of that passage was to call us to think about how actions affect others – in this case simply that we care enough about our witness and the men around us to think twice about what we are wearing.

    I guess by now you have me lumped in with Anna and that is fine by me. I’ll leave you with this thought….

    In my house and in my bed I am sexually free and am constantly amazed at how beautiful my husband see me (after two kids). I am not an object to him but a partner in marriage and in Christ and letting the sight of my body bring pleasure to him is a beautiful thing. Why not do everything that I can to protect that beauty so it is only for him? I can dress fashionably, look like a woman, yet still be covered in a way that I do not look like the cultural norm of baring stomachs, clevage, skintight clothes, etc.

    Oh – and I also breastfed – it is always possible to breastfeed in public and still be discreet. I agree that it isn’t fair that our breast are sexualized however it is partially the design of God – women’s breasts have a chemical “feel good” reaction (the oxytocin?) to being sucked on and that does apply to breastfeeding as well as sex! So why shouldn’t breasts be sexualized?! It may not be fair that it is our cultural norm to cover our breasts but it is.

    Maybe if I was brave enough and didn’t have US counterparts in Papua New Guinea then I would have gone topless!! Wouldn’t that have made for controversial pictures to bring home to the US!

  21. Mak Says:

    I think perhaps you’re missing the point of our frustration Lydia, this isn’t about how we would behave in another culture. I’m glad you feel sexually free in your own bed though :)

    just because we aren’t comfortable with the way modesty is traditionally presented in american evangelicalism doesn’t mean we all think we should just mindlessly dress like whores.

  22. Lydia D. Says:

    Hehe =) One thing I certainly think I agree with you on is that christian women are not open enough about sex.

    I actually think you missed my point though that sexuality and modesty are cultural no matter where you are – even here in the US. The culture of the US sees a woman’s body and sex in a certain way and we have to be aware of it.

    I certainly wasn’t saying that I think you all think it is ok to dress like whores.

    Maybe I fail to understand what you perceive to be the modesty of “american evangelicalism”? Maybe you can define it for me and I can have a better understanding of what you disagree with.

    Do you think that a woman should dress and act in such a way as to call attention to her body?

    Do you disagree with Anna’s definition of modesty…

    “Modesty means that we dress in a way that does not draw inappropriate attention to our bodies, that is honorable and not distracting or manipulative. It means that we seek to set godly standards for ourselves in this area, instead of being careless about it.”

    I assume that her post is saying that we are called to be set apart from the culture and THAT is what the East sees as american christians acting like the rest of America. I personally don’t think anything is going to change how the East sees us, but I think the principle of being set apart is biblical and is food for thought.

    I guess I look at it like this – I except other Christian women (I don’t hold non-christians to the same standard) to be respectful enough of my husband and of my marriage to consider how what they wear may be seen by my husband. If a shirt is low I wear a nice tank under for example. Do you consider that to be unreasonable and unscriptural?

  23. Lydia D. Says:

    that was supposed to say “I expect other Christian women…”

    It is late… is any of this making sense?! If not… I apologize.

  24. Mak Says:

    I don’t agree with anything Anna has said about this issue. hehe.

    I think the point is that the questions you are asking are the wrong questions because it all has to do with modesty being about women’s sexuality being dangerous and that it’s our fault. It’s not about us or even God, it’s about the men, that our sexuality belongs to men and society.

    I think we need to dress in a way that reflects our identity in Christ within our current cultural landscape.

    Dressing for evangelism while still in America is silly. The premise is silly and it’s a slippery slope. The idea of dressing so as not to cause a brother to stumble is a distorted representation of that scripture.

    I don’t have a problem with women wanting to dress in a way that is “honorable”, what I have a problem with is the subtext. That’s more of what we’re discussing here.

    as for how you dress, I really don’t care, if you want to wear a tank under your shirt that’s certainly your choice. I’m not sure what that has to do with any of this – I’m not saying that dressing “modestly” is unscriptural, I’m saying that many of these value judgments are human value judgments based on a specific reading of scripture drawn largely from a social construct – and that’s not necessarily bad per se, but it is what it is and needs to be kept in that context. To pull it out and say “this is God’s ideal” or “this is modest” or “modesty is good for evangelism” is in error.

  25. Lydia D. Says:

    I would agree with the statement that dressing for evangelism in the East while still in America is silly. However as illustrated by my experience in PNG modesty is necessary for evangelism.

    I feel like you aren’t really reading what I’m saying….

    I never said that woman’s sexuality was dangerous and that it is our fault – in fact I think that my words were that our sexuality is “beautiful and not something to be ashamed of but something to be handled wisely and with care.”

    Somehow I feel like you are putting words in my mouth – you said “our sexuality belongs to men and society.” I don’t think this nor did I say so.

    So when I go to buy clothing I shouldn’t be asking myself if this article of clothing is going to help protect the men I come across ….. because their sexuality has nothing to do with me?

    ou said “I think we need to dress in a way that reflects our identity in Christ within our current cultural landscape.”
    Isn’t this exactly what I have been saying – it is cultural – See, we agree ;)

  26. Lydia D. Says:

    “The idea of dressing so as not to cause a brother to stumble is a distorted representation of that scripture.”

    Please enlighten me….

  27. Mak Says:

    Lydia, I never said you said that, I’m telling you what this conversation was about. You seem to think that we have no beef with what Anna was saying, you said as much in your first comment – – I’m telling you that we do have a beef with what Anna said and it goes to the deeper issues, some of which I articulated above.

    Yes it’s cultural Lydia, that’s the point, but Anna doesn’t believe that. She doesn’t believe that our ideas of modesty in America are cultural, she thinks there are deep issues rooted in God/the Bible.

    As for this question, that’s a huge part of the problem IMO.

    “So when I go to buy clothing I shouldn’t be asking myself if this article of clothing is going to help protect the men I come across ….. because their sexuality has nothing to do with me”

    you choose your clothes based on whether it will protect men? that’s what’s disturbing about all of this to me.

  28. Mak Says:

    This is the first part in Romans in the “law of liberty”, an important part of the context

    1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. 2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. 4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.


    it goes on to say

    10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

    the end of that chapter is this

    It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.

    so it starts out saying that what another does is between him/her and God, do not judge because they have liberty and God is the one who causes them to stand, not you. And then ends with an exhortation to lift up your BROTHER (not stranger on the street) when you can.

    Because of this passage, if I had a friend who told me that red shirts made him think lustfully about me, I would prayerfully consider not wearing red tops because it’s not in the red top that my relationship with God stands. But clearly, based on the context of this chapter, it’s not suggesting that we establish our behaviors on another’s weakness and that that should be our motivation

    the other passage in 1 Cor. 8 is talking about others’ issues of conscience – I wouldn’t drink alcohol with a family I knew had an issue of conscience with it, it has nothing to do with modesty.

  29. Andrew Says:

    I always find its much much easier refraining from doing something around a brother or sister if he or she admits that he or she has a problem, if a brother admits he has a problem with alcohol then it is much easier to apply the passage. Its the people who pretend that their weakness is a standard of holiness, who refuse to admit being weaker brothers, who cannot rely on these passage.
    Of course their are times when claiming to be weak can be manipulative, and the case in point is pastor’s claiming how women dress ’causes’ men to sin, which seems extremely dubious in any theology of sin.

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