There is a word that has gained notoriety among Christians, and a word that has simultaneously been demonized by the secular world: modesty. It is a word that crops up in almost every gathering of Christian women and one that has been discussed earnestly about the campus of Cedarville University. While I have often wondered as to the effectiveness of adding yet another voice to the discussion, I feel it is my responsibility as a student, Christian, and (let’s face it) a woman with some stock in the outcome of such a conversation and therefore I find myself touching on the subject of modesty.
Modesty is a beautiful thing, the outward expression of one’s humility, attempting to draw focus away from one’s self and turning it to God. While modesty is a matter related to all aspects of a believer’s life it is most commonly restricted to the aspect of appearance. By taking such a vast theological principle and reducing it to a matter of physical appearance we are diving head-first into new dangers that pose an equal, if not greater, threat to our Christian community as well as the campus of Cedarville University.
One danger from the reduction of modesty to a physical principle is the pressure this places on Christian women. Women in churches, retreats, and Bible studies around the country are constantly reminded to pull down their skirt, pull up their shirt, lengthen their dress, shorten their heels, lighten their make-up, tone down their jewelry, etc. At first glance these statements seem innocuous, an attempt by another to help the woman maintain a modest appearance so that she will not distract another’s attention from God, but what is the real result of such comments? Obsession. It is easy for women to become so concerned that their appearance is causing their brother to fall into temptation that the woman falls instead, becoming consumed with how she looks at all time; if the woman’s focus is consistently on her appearance it is clearly not focused on God.
Furthermore, many women begin to feel condemned by the idea of modesty, with men—and indeed other women!—frequently reminding them of the standard “Christian” dress codes. Take for an example Cedarville University’s own modesty panel. This panel, I believe (and sincerely hope that my belief is correct) was created in an honest effort to help the women on Cedarville’s campus and educate them about the male perception. While this may be a noble goal, it is not often realized. Instead women are sitting before a panel of men who appeal to their sense of guilt with the underlying question “don’t you want to help protect your Christian brothers and help them from falling into lust?” Of course women respond that they would be willing to change if it would help the men around them maintain their mental purity, but this response is problematic for three main reasons: the women would be changing for the men and not because God convicted them, the women willing to attend such a modesty panel are rarely the ones who dress immodestly, and the change places the brunt of the responsibility on the women.
While many see it as the Christian woman’s responsibility to discourage men’s lust by dressing conservatively, placing such heavy responsibility on the women is not only unfair to the women but emasculating to the men. Such frequent reminders to the women to “cover up” subconsciously tells the men that it is the woman’s primary responsibility to look modest, thus if she doesn’t look modest he cannot help but to objectify her. This is shameful. Men were created by God, just as women were, with conscience and self-control; if a woman walks past a Christian man and she is dressed provocatively it is his responsibility to look away and turn his thoughts to pure and Godly things. Men place themselves in positions of authority as our pastors, preachers, deacons, etc. if they cannot control their own thoughts how can we be expected to follow them as strong leaders? When a woman sees a shirtless man out jogging he is not told to cover up, instead it is expected that she will look away. Do we believe women to have a firmer control over their thoughts? Are men incapable of such control? I do not believe so. Men and women are equally tempted by the flesh, equally called to modesty, and equally gifted with God’s strength to bear temptation without succumbing to it.
Therefore I would like to propose a new approach to modesty within the Christian community. Men, if you see a woman who tempts your lust look away. It may also help to quote scripture that you have memorized, or to simply pray to God, asking Him to remove temptation from you and strengthen you in the Spirit. Women, there are more important issues to focus on than your appearance. Wear clothes that fit, clothes that draw attention away from you and direct it towards God.
As members of a fallen race we are obsessed with the physical world, but I would encourage you to try and look past this and keep your eyes trained on Christ. Modesty is not just an issue of how we dress, but of how we eat, sleep, pray, worship, work, etc. We do not do anything unto ourselves, but in all things we give glory to God: this is Christian modesty.