The Fraught Topic of Modesty

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Dear Darla,

So here is a topic we should get out of the way early on. It has become, I am afraid, an inflammatory topic in our culture more broadly, and this despite being one that ought to be ranked as one of the most common sense issues ever. I bring this subject up, not because I have ever seen you having trouble with it, but because I know that it has to be an ongoing issue. Every time you shop for clothes it comes up as an issue, and it also comes up as a point of discussion with your friends.

I am talking about feminine modesty, and perhaps you have seen one of the periodic continent-wide sheets of flame that go up when some brother on Facebook urges the sisters to be a wee bit more intentional about modesty issues, and a lot more intentional about the wee bits of cloth she was attempting to call a swim suit. The word triggered is way over-used these days, but modesty really is a subject that triggers a lot of people.

The fact that a simple call for modesty can be met with fits of rage, outbursts of vituperation, and explosive denunciations of rising legalism tells you a lot about how deep our cultural crater is.

So I said in my first letter that you should want to become the kind of woman that the kind of man you would want to marry would want to marry. That principle extends to this point.

Not to be mercenary, but women are attractive to men, and different things that women do are attractive to different kinds of men. If you dress like a tramp, or if (being a Christian) you lean just a little bit trampy, you will in fact get male attention. Unfortunately, however wreathed in smiles it might be, you are attracting the kind of man you should not want to attract. The kind of men who work hard to avoid being pigs will begin to work hard at avoiding you.

But this leads to a crucial distinction—a woman should of course want to be attractive, but she should want to accomplish this without attracting. If she goes to the mall and by the time she gets to the far end she has a trail of about fifteen guys following her, then she is doing something seriously wrong. The distinction is this. An attractive woman is a lady, and a lady is a woman who comports herself with self-respect.

You should want “she is certainly attractive.” You should not want “she is certainly an attraction.”

An attracting woman is a public hazard, and is communicating that she is shameless and abandoned. She is lacking in self-respect, which is why she comes across like she is nothing more a female in heat. But when the rage machine starts in on this common sense observation, they want to distort the whole discussion—as though women were a monolithic group and all men were a monolithic group.

I saw one meme that put it this way: “Modesty isn’t about covering up our bodies because they’re bad, modesty is about justifying the poor behavior of men at the expense of women.” Or here is another one: “When you call a woman a slut what you mean is someone who expresses her sexuality in a manner that does not meet your approval.”

This kind of feminist impudence wants to say that a woman should be able to display herself in any fashion she wants to, and if men have a problem with that it is only because they are being pigs. But of course there are many men who are not pigs—they are the ones who steer clear of women like that. They steer clear because their mothers taught them to respect women—and that means staying away from women who refuse to respect themselves.

But then those women come to the conclusion that all men are pigs because that’s the only kind they ever meet. “Where are all the decent men?”—the lament goes up from some dive bar. But they only meet the kind of men they do because of how they are baiting the trap. You can’t set out a roach motel under your sink and then wonder why you aren’t catching more trout.

The men who are not pigs are attracted to women who are characterized by dignity, self-respect, and class. Dress like the kind of person the kind of person you would want to marry would like you to dress like. That kind of person wouldn’t want you dressing that same disorderly way after you were married, right? Why would a decent husband want to go out in public with you in order to give all the lowlifes a treat?

So the kind of man you would want to marry should be the kind of man who would find you attractive, but who would be put off if you appeared to be wanting to attract all the sailors in the fleet.

And this demeanor is what the Bible calls women to cultivate. There are two significant components to feminine modesty. A biblically modest woman needs to avoid ostentatious display, and she needs to be aware of the need to maintain a real sense of sexual decorum. And she should recognize that both of these elements are, at the end of the day, sexual.

Wearing sexually provocative things—décolletage and so on—is obviously sexual, but so is the flamboyant campy stuff. When a woman wears outrageous clothing, even if everything is covered up, the subtext is that she must be some kind of super freak in bed. And Scripture tells Christian women to stay well away from both of these problems.

Allow me to quote a chain of passages, with a few comments here and there in between, and then I will try to roll them all up in a summary at the end—the kind of summary that might help you frame how you want to relate to the brothers in how you advertise. Yes, I know, I know—I used the word advertise. We’ll get to that.

Just know for the present that women cannot help but advertise—it is yet another inescapable concept. Not whether but which. It is not whether you advertise, but which things you advertise. The biblical word for advertising is adorning.

“Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands.”

1 Pet. 3:3–5 (KJV)

Peter says to focus on the inner woman, not on externals. A woman’s beauty is supposed to be from inside out and not outside in. Notice that Peter is assuming that the women are adorning themselves, and he is instructing them how to adorn themselves. Notice also that a man is teaching them this.

Now some Christian traditions have taken this prohibition of women bespangling themselves as a requirement to be dour and straight-laced and fussy-faced and dowdy. A woman’s make-up and hair ought not to serve the same function as flying buttresses, that function being to hold the cathedral up. Peter explicitly says that women should adorn themselves the same way that the holy women of old did. But the charge is that women should in fact be adorned. If a woman obeyed this passage, she would be a classy lady.

Paul, another man, says something similar.

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”

1 Tim. 2:9–10 (KJV)

Such women are not adorned china dolls. They are workers—given over to good works. They are dignified, and sober. The archaic language of the KJV here may be misleading—shamefacedness means with propriety or decency or moderation. Again, they don’t try to fix a restless spirit within by means of externals. For too many women, there is a correlation between how much attention they give to their external appearance and how spiritually insecure they are.

“Moreover the Lord says: “Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will uncover their secret parts.” In that day the Lord will take away the finery: The jingling anklets, the scarves, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the veils; the headdresses, the leg ornaments, and the headbands; the perfume boxes, the charms, and the rings; the nose jewels, the festal apparel, and the mantles; the outer garments, the purses, and the mirrors; the fine linen, the turbans, and the robes. And so it shall be: Instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-set hair, baldness; instead of a rich robe, a girding of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.”

Isaiah 3:16–24 (NKJV)

There are many articles of clothing described here in Isaiah, but the thing that sets the tone is right near the top of the list—wanton eyes. The wanton eyes create the meaning of everything else. The wanton eyes set the tone. This is the super freak aspect I mentioned earlier. And it should be mentioned that too many Christian women think that they can do everything else that pagan women do, and then just leave out the wanton eyes part. The reason this doesn’t work is that the tone is already set, the meaning of everything is already assigned.

“For at the window of my house I looked through my casement, and beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding, passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night: And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart. (She is loud and stubborn; Her feet abide not in her house: Now is she without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.) So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said unto him, I have peace offerings with me; This day have I payed my vows. Therefore came I forth to meet thee, diligently to seek thy face, and I have found thee. I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: Let us solace ourselves with loves. For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey: He hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed. With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him. He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks; Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.”

Prov. 7:6–23 (KJV)

This particular seduction is overtly a trap, and it is a trap that will cost this young chump his life. We know it is a trap because she “lieth in wait.” She has baited the hook appropriately—the “attire of an harlot.” Her heart has twists and turns in it, and her tongue is one that flatters.

You should want to be a godly Christian woman, and consequently you should want to look like one. This means that modesty has to be treated like the feminine virtue it is, and not as a laugh line. This modesty does not mean dowdy, because Christian women are to strive to be adorned. But this kind of modesty does mean that you should aspire to be a class act.

And this brings me to one last comment. Don’t think of this in terms of whether or not an article of clothing is going to “stumble the brothers.” This particular deflection is misleading. When guys stumble, they stumble into lusting after. When women stumble, they stumble into want to be lusted after. Guys do have a desire to turn and gawk, and the guys who are working on not being pigs actively mortify that desire. Don’t make those guys avoid you. Girls have a desire to turn heads, and so that is the desire you must mortify. If you do that, you do well. This means that if you avoid stumbling yourself, the brothers will probably be fine.

Your uncle,