Of all the topics of Christian social media outbursts, modesty might be at the top of the list.
Oh, when you read M word you thought I was going to talk about… No, that’s for another blog. Today as we navigate through this blog series, modesty is the next subject I’d like to touch on. Many people in our current church culture are demanding the right to wear what they want and present themselves however they feel inspired to do so. It’s like a renaissance of fashion; we are called to be relevant, stylish, and influential. To be confident and bold. Jesus was a hot hipster stud, after all (not true; read your Bible). The idea is that it’s someone else’s heart problem if my yoga pants are distracting.
First off, let me say as respectfully as I can…most of you can’t pull off yoga pants.
There. I said it.
Seriously though, when I went on my mission trip to Africa, we were told to bring skirts to cover our legs. In that culture, it’s considered immodest to leave your legs uncovered. Even the men were required to wear pants as a sign of respect. We all happily complied because we didn’t want our attire to be a distraction. We wanted the people there to be focused on the gospel and not on us. Legs just aren’t that big of a deal here in the states, but we understood that that simply didn’t matter; it was the specific culture that shaped the desires of its people, and that was what we were sensitive to.
On the other side of the coin, if you breach the subject of modesty in the American church, you’ll likely be met with an all-out assault from a lot of other believers, and their artillery will be accusations of legalism and irrelevancy. I have to wonder why it is that in the context of another country and its culture the concept of modesty is celebrated, whereas in our own country it’s considered to be spiritually and culturally irrelevant.
Modesty begins from the heart, yet the very idea tends to make people defensive. But this is not an attempt to place “rules and regulations” in order to obtain some utopian church. This isn’t about the subjective appreciation of a beautiful woman or handsome man who was created in the image of God. This is about getting past the absolute denial that we live in a sexualized culture and that we are called to love those around us. That’s right, this isn’t just about us, as many seem to think; it’s about others. And loving others sometimes means laying down our rights.
The Apostle Paul talks about this in 1 Cor 8. He refers to meat that’s been sacrificed to idols and then eaten. He’s talking to a group of Christians who know that there is one God, and that the meat that was sacrificed to idols was just that–meat–with no power to defile them. God put it on the planet so we could eat it (vegetarians, I see your hand raised) and eating this meat didn’t mean you were worshipping some other nonexistent god; you were just getting your grub on. But Paul says that knowledge puffs up–love builds up. He tells them that there were people among them who were still building their knowledge of God, and who recently ate that meat, believing that it did indeed have power over them. They might look at the believers eating the meat and stumble, wondering why they would be worshipping another god. It didn’t matter that eating it wasn’t harmful to some people; he called them to humble themselves in order to remove a potential stumbling block for others.
We know that God made the human body to be beautiful. We know that nudity is not a sin, and we were originally created for extreme intimacy and nakedness with each other and to be unashamed before God. Nevertheless, we live in a society that worships sex and the human body. Youthful appearance is equivalent to near-godliness and is praised above all else in our culture. It’s just a fact. And until this Earth Party is wrapped up we will always be in the presence of those who have less knowledge than us–those who are coming away from idolatry and need support. Paul goes on to say that he works very diligently to be “all things to all people”. A church that demands to have its rights above all things–rather than laying those rights down out of love–is one that renders the gospel impotent.
You may be perfectly unaffected by intentional skin exposure because you are free–so free and liberated you could sit in a room of naked models and be totally unaffected by it. Seeing something and dwelling on the image of something are two different things, though we can go deeper into that another time. The purpose of this post is to simply ask the question: “Am I being sensitive to those I’m called to love?” Are we grasping at our rights, or laying them down in order to see others grow in Christ? In this series we’ve talked about how anyone around you at any given time might be struggling with issues of lust and sexuality. While wearing whatever I want might be my right, ensuring that I’m not a stumbling block for those people is my privilege.
In bouncing this subject off of a friend (I like to do this to keep my perspective well-rounded) she said, “You always know when you’ve crossed the line. It’s obvious.”
Am I always perfect when it comes to all this? No. Yet I try to stay sensitive, having faced these issues myself. And to be clear, this is not exclusive to one gender. Guys…those pants are too tight. Once while editing a shoot for a family I was asked to photoshop one of the guys’ nether regions. There was a bit more “visibility” than they were comfortable with due to the fact that he was wearing pants that I would deem more fitting for an adolescent girl. Women are also visual–though I won’t get into that here either. So many thoughts, so little blog time…
To reiterate one last time, modesty is not legalism. Legalism is believing I’m saved because I chose to put a shirt on under a dress that exposes my cleavage, or because I’ve got one of those neck-to-ankles “all coverage” swimsuits. Legalism says I dress like an 1700’s housemaid because it’s the rule that has been pressed upon me. Modesty has nothing to do with me and everything to do with strengthening my community. Like many things, it’s an act of love.
Liz Flaherty lives in South Carolina with her husband Andy. They’ve been married since 2005, and have spent the majority of their marriage ministering to and mentoring people in areas of sexual wholeness and identity. In her book, The God of My Parents, Liz shares her powerful testimony in which she faced immense grief, rejection, drug abuse, pornography, and homosexuality. Her heart is to inspire the Christian community to address these issues with love, respect and honesty.
Liz and Andy have two cats, named Paddie and Ginger.