Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Pursuing A Higher Purity: Why Modesty Is a Thing Of My Past

Dear Modesty Movement,

In a recent discussion, a sweet friend was telling me about her family’s journey out of spiritual bondage. She explained, “I believe now, that we were driven by fear. The fear that we would injure or harm our children, that they wouldn't turn out alright. That’s how we ended up on the wrong path.”

Fear drives us. It grips us, blinds us, confuses us. But it feels rational. What part of protecting your child is irrational, after all? Fear bonds with good intentions in a muddy mix, becoming so convoluting that sometimes it takes us years to swim out. Then we look back and ask ourselves, “What happened?”

How could I think that? When did I become so arrogant? How come I never saw the truth?

Maybe I was never looking for it.

A few years ago, I found myself placed in a position of leadership that one day required me to comfort a teary-eyed girl who had been hurt by standards of modesty in dress. Standards I openly endorsed. That was when I started to wonder if my version of the truth wasn't the same as my God’s. If maybe, I’d been letting fear guide me down the wrong path, too.

Because shaming someone that much---how can that be part of Christ?

I used to think modesty was really important. On some level, maybe I still do. But there’s been a shift in my perspective. An area of growth and grace, where I have seen my once-upon-a-time vision of truth begin to change in a deep way. A way that, I hope, conforms to the Spirit of God.

In following the Jesus I see in the Bible, modesty is becoming a thing of my past, with the hope of grace in my future. Here, I’ll tell you why…

On Me and My Object…

As a woman in this world, Hollywood and conspirators have created me to be an object. If I’m lucky enough to have a face that can be corrected with makeup, surgery, or photoshop, and have curves in all the right places, they might upgrade me to eye candy.

Guys, I am a human, and objectifying me is a bad thing.

Because this is a bad thing, a great portion of the modesty movement has been dedicated to the “de-objectifying” of women. Great motive.

Unfortunately, great motives do not always equal great results. As Jefferson Bethke put it: “The trouble, however, is that while modesty standards are set up to not make women’s bodies an object, it is in fact doing that very thing.”

We find that in the measuring of skirt lengths, the setting of rules, and shaming of girls who wear low cut t-shirts, the only thing we’re accomplishing is objectifying them from the completely opposite angle. 

Instead of counteracting the culture, we've merely succeeded in doubling the pressure. Teaching the same idea as the rest of the world, but sliding it under the guise of Christ’s love, creating an environment of manipulation that's twice as toxic and damaging. A girl is an object, and her body is the subject of those around her.

On Virtue, Respect, and All That Jazz

Somewhere tangled up in our good intentions, we began on this thinking pattern that virtuous girls dress modestly. In fact, the appearance of a girl wearing full, modest clothing (even if we don’t know the girl personally) indicates her goodness, kindness, and godliness. Right? Or, so we choose to think.

In the article linked above, we see that numerous men seem more than willing to let us know they consider us far more virtuous and respectable when we have a clean and modest appearance. They admit to viewing us with more respect, the more we cover ourselves.

It may be true that you can tell some things from a person’s appearance. But here is the question I’m raising: What really is virtue? Why am I being taught to view my own body as “unclean”? And when did Christians decide to think it was okay for our men and boys to create a “respect-meter” in which to scale us on, based on the clothes we wear?

So Let’s Talk About Virtue…

Virtue is a beautiful thing. A beautiful, pure, valuable collection of qualities—like kindness, gentleness, love, joy, and even righteousness. Something that comes straight from the soaking of scripture in the soul. It’s the inner, invisible overflow of the heart—something impossible to hide, because it reaches out to become physical in a person’s deeds, words, forgiveness, joy, and their smile.

To base a quality so beautiful and valuable and pure as virtue on something so material as clothing is almost like defiling it.

On My Respect Meter…

"My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" - James 2:1-4, ESV

In a recent discussion concerning homosexuality, a man I work for explained, “It’s not that homosexuality is any different from any other sin—pride, arrogance, lying, disobedience—merely, that in our culture, we’re beginning to celebrate it. And though celebrated sin isn't necessarily ‘worse’, it is especially dangerous.”

Decent people don’t judge others by their haircut. Decent people don’t judge others by the clothes they wear. Unfortunately, humanity isn't decent, and every one of us is an offender. When Messiah came, He chose to associate with and love the lowly, most of all. Sick, possessed, dirty, harmed by others. Remember the woman at the well who had five husbands? By treating such people with kindness, Christ came and denied culture. For that He was killed.

Entertaining the “respect of persons” is sin, according to James, and something, when choosing to follow Christ, we should be learning to hate and do away with. The problem is, however, in the modesty movement, we find our boys being taught to harbor, entertain, worship, and in some ways, celebrate this particular sin…in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s a danger to our boys, to our girls, to our parents, to our faith, and to the unbelievers watching us.

The idea that we have a whole generation of young men being raised up to view modestly dressed girls with more initial respect than “immodestly dressed” ones (and shamelessly admitting to it)…is pretty terrifying.

Remember that idea about being objectified? I am a person, and the level of respect a person decides to show me should never be based on what I wear.

On 1 Timothy 2:9…

"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, ESV

First, let’s be real. If there’s only one verse in the Bible that black and white proves your claim on theology, you should probably rethink your interpretation of that scripture.

The word modestly here (according to interlinear research, no, I don’t know Greek) comes from the idea of “downcast eyes.” Depending on how you take it, it could allude to dressing in a covering fashion, yes. But it certainly isn't black and white.

But why is that so hard to figure out, anyway? Isn't the entire point of this verse to teach us not to be wrapped up in the way we dress our bodies (the putting on of clothes), but to worry about the way we dress our hearts?

That poses the question… could it be possible that in this man-made hyper-focus on clothing, we've actually created a society of women that is doing exactly what they’re trying to avoid?

On Protecting Our Guys…

Along with not objectifying girl’s bodies, the other major objective of the modesty movement is the protection of our brother’s eyes.

I know this is a really controversial issue. But listen. It may be important to use discretion in wardrobe, in life, in protecting your brothers. However, the level to which you take that discretion—anywhere—is completely up to you. The Holy Spirit gives you the ability to discern how important it is to dress modestly, or not dress modestly at all.

You. And Jesus. And scripture. That’s all.

Yes, there is a place to recognize the importance of protecting our men. But there’s also a place to recognize when it’s time to give them the responsibility. After all, are these not the same individuals claiming to be strong, brave, valiant, and men, claiming to be our protectors? If so, why is this situation any different? Men, do you not realize a huge part of protecting your girls involves treating them with the same respect and love, whether they’re wearing a bikini or burqa? Do you not realize a huge part of protecting us is taking responsibility for your own sin?

But not only that, if we girls keep coddling, protecting, and encouraging this sin of our brothers, and even placing that sin upon ourselves…don’t you think we could possibly be doing them far more harm than good? When you feed sin, it’s only going to grow. Are we partnering in the growth of their sin?

Lust is the sin. Sin is the disease. Sure, you can tell girls to cover up, but in doing so, you’re not treating the disease, just the symptoms. It’s masterful—it’s brilliant—it’s manipulation.

Instead of teaching young boys how to deal with the actual disease, we’re letting them hand us their symptoms, and treating it ourselves.

Unfortunately, you can only treat symptoms for so long before the disease catches up with you. It's going to catch up with them, it's going to catch up with us, and when that happens, it's going to be toxic. 

In Conclusion…

It’s not wrong to hope other Christians develop the same beliefs, standards, grace, and ideas that we hold important. Doesn't everyone want that?

But it is wrong to allow our desire for modesty to become so strong, so idolized, and so important that we’re willing to use manipulation, and actually turn away from the true Word of God.

The world knows girls want to be loved, cherished, and respected by men—and most especially by God, if we’re Christ followers.

To use those desires to push an agenda is wrong. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. The modesty agenda is twisting scripture and logic by promising to trade the respect and love of men and of God for long shorts, high necklines, and conformity. Essentially, we’re preaching the gospel of outward appearance, and putting ourselves in the place of God, thinking we have the authority to decide what makes a girl pure, wholesome, and virtuous.

We decided to make it clothes.

It’s damaging, it’s destructive, it’s disgusting, and it’s the kind of thing that can bring a dear, pure, virtuous twenty-year-old “immodest” friend down to her knees in a puddle of shame and tears. It’s the kind of thing that can turn our boys to monsters, and our girls to doormats.

So, when did we start thinking this was okay? And when are we going to stand up and begin pursuing holiness, not appearances? Jesus Christ, not the ideas of men? When will we allow Christian girls to start worrying about some form of purity and virtue that’s higher than their clothing?

I guess we have to start standing up for it.


The Idolatry of Modesty, Jefferson Bethke


  1. Hm, this is an interesting argument. I sort of shudder at it all, because it's all about a woman's relationship to a man. You don't see a bunch of people shaking their fingers at guys with their shirts off when they're swimming at the pool. And at least from what I've seen of the argument there doesn't appear to be much call to protect men from being objectified from women. It seems rather like a double-standard to me, and the idea that "we are protecting our guys by protecting our girls" is a really antiquated notion. At least for me, I see it as a reactionary movement in response to a culture obsessed with sex, and handling it by being even MORE obsessed with sex—that is, basically trying to remove physical attraction from every situation except between people who are/will be married.

    Neither of those things really solve the problem, as I see it.

    Pretty much, this is what I know: If you are wearing a snowsuit and ski mask, you are still a person. If you are naked, you are still a person (whether it be in the bathtub or a strip club, it doesn't matter). God made people, God loves people, God told me to love people as he does, people are people regardless of what they wear or how they behave, therefore, I should show love in whatever way I can. It's not really about how you look at all.

    (Plus, this also strikes me as counterproductive. If you're trying to keep guys from thinking about boobs, and then you tell them not to think about boobs, what are they going to think about? Boobs. That's how the human brain works.)

    In a book I just finished, one of the characters had a line, to the effect of: "the problem with most people in church is that they try to be holier than Jesus." I honestly think this is another of those problems that makes me dislike being a Christian—we spend more time focusing on something that doesn't matter when there are more important things that do matter, like, I dunno, sharing the word. Maybe that's just me.

    Anyway, I was interested by the thoughts and articles, Stephanie. Thanks for your insights, and giving me something to think about myself! (Also, sorry if the comment was super weird. Or offensive. Or just random. It happens. Sorry.)

    1. Not offensive, Heather. I liked it! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Amen! This is something that has been on my mind a lot recently, and I've been starting to see many anti-purity movement sorts of propaganda pop up more and more lately. Its really encouraging to see people finally standing up to this totally screwed up mindset. And what Heather said, I agree with, too. This double-standard has gone way too far. Men are not only not taught to protect women, they are told that they can pass off their responsibilities onto women. What we need are more brave women like you, Stephanie, and more discussions on this subject.
    - Phyllis Wheatley

  3. This is amazing. You've blown my mind once again, Stephanie

  4. This is very thoughtful and definitely agree with you. Loving people as Christ loved people should be our ultimate goal, not regulating the dress code.

    Great post! I saw your post linked in Heather's sidebar, so I wanted to come visit.

    1. Aw, thanks Sunny! So glad you came for a visit!

  5. My sister got it right! I'm proud of you Stephanie!

  6. "As a woman in this world, Hollywood and conspirators have created me to be an object. If I’m lucky enough to have a face that can be corrected with makeup, surgery, or photoshop, and have curves in all the right places, they might upgrade me to eye candy. "

    Welcome to modern culture. There is more beauty in the simple truth of a person's character and ethics that any makeup-manufacturer ever dreamed of putting in a bottle. You don't learn decency doing stair stepping in the gym, and being a good person doesn't depend on popularity or sex appeal. You so bright and talented. Its also worth remembering that its not the women doing the objectifying. Like it or not, we're still a male-dominated society, and not always in ways that value women as human beings.

  7. Woah! This was so deeply encouraging, Stephanie!!! It always seemed like there was something twisted in the thinking of idolizing modesty, and I loved how you broke it down into tiny pieces. I loved the interpretations of the verses, as well. You are so encouraging!!


    my views on modesty have changed SO much over the last several years in the same ways yours have. I dont think the same way about modesty and purity culture (dont even get me started on that one.) because I have seen how damaging it is to young people. (and even to myself, if Im completely honest.)

    thank you for sharing your thoughts on this controversial topic.