At the wise old age of 16, my best friend, Brian, and I created a list of modesty rules for the girls in our youth group.
You can imagine how this went over.
While on a mission trip to Mexico, we formed a broad list of mandates about what made a girl “modest” or not. We were unafraid to share these newly-created laws with our female teammates, telling them what they should or should not wear based on the all-important Modesty Rules. This resulted in Brian literally being cornered by a crowd of angry young women who were quite frustrated with Brian’s judgments on the length of their shorts or the width of their tank top straps. Brian didn’t back down.
This story is indicative how foolish and destructive the conversation about modesty can quickly become. The thing is, I think the only group having any sort of conversation about modesty is the Christian church in North America, particularly those of an evangelical bent. Modesty is something that Christians talk about all the time regarding sexuality, but non-Christians don’t really seem to care. I have never heard non-Christian teens or adults bring up the concept of modesty, unless it’s in the form of a question, such as, “Why do Christians seem to talk about modesty so much?”
The common topics within this modesty conversation—one-piece bathing suits, the length of shorts, spaghetti-strap tank tops, yoga pants—are nearly always directed towards women’s clothing, and nearly always framed in terms of guilt and shame. Women need to cover up so that men won’t stumble. What kind of message do you want to send to others if you wear that? Modest is hottest, and a Godly Christian man only wants to marry a modest woman.
Sure, there are token rules to be given to guys as well, such as not having sagging pants (which, in our skinny jeans fashion climate, simply doesn’t happen any more) or not wearing offensive logos (having a giant pot leaf on your shirt is a no-no). But let’s be honest—in the Christian subculture, when we talk about modesty, we’re talking about teenage girls and covering up bare skin in order to keep horny teenagers pure.
Is our holiness and distinction from the greater world supposed to be marked by how we make teenage girls dress?
I recently went on a mission trip to Dearborn, MI to both learn about and serve the vast and diverse Muslim population in the area. The Muslim women we met all wore hijabs, including many of the teen girls. The hijab is a veil which covers the hair of the woman, meant to keep women modest in public. We also saw some women wearing burkas, the full-body garment that only allows the eyes to be visible through a narrow slit.
When I asked our hosts why some women wore hijabs and some wore burkas, they replied that it all depends on where the women are from—different countries have different norms and rules regarding modesty. This made a lot of sense to me, as my own definition of modesty had to change dramatically when I moved from the cold-and-wet Pacific Northwest to be a youth pastor in the suburbs of hot-and-dry Phoenix, AZ. Wearing shorts and tank tops in Arizona is practically essential for survival in the summer when temperatures are consistently over 100 degrees. When we talk about modesty, context matters.
In a tour of the Islamic Center of America—the largest mosque in North America—our team had the rare opportunity to have a three-hour conversation with an imam, one of the key religious leaders in the mosque. Much of our conversation centered on marriage and the relationship between men and women. At one point, both the imam and our tour guide brought up the reason for the hijabs and burkas—women need to be covered up in order to protect themselves from lustful men, as well as protect the men from themselves.
The basic message was simple: men can’t help themselves sexually, so women need to cover up. It was a very low view of human beings, focusing on humanity’s brokenness and legalistic attempts to fix it. Yet it struck me how similar this reasoning applied to our Christian conversations about modesty. Perhaps our motives for modesty are not so dissimilar from the Muslim faith.
Jesus never talked about modesty.
When he met the Samaritan woman at the well, or told the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more,” or spent time eating and drinking with Mary and Martha, or had his feet wet with tears and perfume, or dined with sinners and prostitutes, Scripture doesn’t record any of his words on modesty. It seems like the person before him was more important than their attire. When he does bring up clothing, he simply tells us not to worry about it and seek the kingdom instead (see Matthew 6).
Of course, modesty is more than clothing. The Greek word for modesty in 1 Timothy 2 is kosmios, related to kosmos, or the universe. It has to do with orderliness and self-control. It’s a posture of humility and nuance, of being aware of appearances and propriety, and responding accordingly with grace and compassion.
When the conversation of modesty becomes a way to objectify both men and women, turning guys into uncontrollable lust monsters and girls into dangerous objects of desire, we’re not practicing the modesty of the kingdom of heaven. When we create teaching series based entirely around modesty and sexuality, especially when they’re used to attract teens and gain attendance numbers, we turn sexuality into a commodity for consumption and only further the objectification. The “modest is hottest” conversation needs to change. Jesus doesn’t care about the number of pieces in our swimsuit; he cares about love and grace and justice and compassion and unity. Let’s model that sort of grace in our teaching and dialogue about sexuality with teenagers.