There was a movement that swept across the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has continued to impact Christains. You may know this movement as “Purity Culture”, particularly common in Fundementalist churches. This movement has had ripple effects that have, for better or worse, impacted Christian churches all over the U.S. and beyond to this day. Purity culture and all it’s trappings were a response to the sexual revolution happening at the time. Purity culture, while it may have many important Biblical messages, focused more on legalism than guarding one’s heart against sin. In this article I wish to address one small part of Purity culture that I believe needs to be revisited; that is the issue of Christian modesty.
I am a part of online communities of people (mostly women) who have been affected negatively by teachings like this, and that’s why I’m passionate about it. Downstream of modesty culture are women who’ve been harassed or assaulted, who’ve been accused of “seducing” their abuser by what they wore. Women who’ve carried shame about their body or appearance into their marriage. Women who’ve been victim shamed. And men who’ve been taught that the woman’s attire is the problem instead of the depravity of his own heart. These are not biblical messages, and the fact that modesty culture has done this kind of damage should lead us to ask what went wrong, and seek to change the way modesty is taught in the future. What is modest is different in different cultures, times, and places. We are called (both men and women) to glorify God in the way we dress, to guard our hearts against immoral thoughts, and repent when we fall short (which we inevitably will do). My argument is this, modesty culture teaches a dangerous message to men and shifts most of the blame on women instead of themselves.
Supporting Modesty are two primary scriptures, I 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,” The other important verse is Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The issue is in the interpretation of these verses.
When I say “Modesty Culture”, I’m referring to the legalistic culture prevalent in fundamentalist circles, that determines what a woman should or should not wear, so that men do not lust after her. I’m writing this for anyone who was impacted by the movement, man or woman. Modesty culture uses phrases like “Men are wired differently”, or “Men are visual” to teach that women need to be extra careful what men see them wearing, and conversely it teaches a subtle message that women are to blame.
I grew up in a fundementalist cult, in which I saw this push for purity on the part of a woman lead to the detriment of the spiritual development of both men and women. Any push for sanctification should edify, and lead people closer to Christ, but the legalistic nature of these rules lead to a lot of pride in women and justified men’s actions. Perhaps the true issue is with legalism itself, but it is small things like this, and the way that they are taught that leads to a false narrative.
Whenever we interpret scripture, we need to do so in it’s appropriate context. Modesty Culture is too externally focused. 1 Samuel 16 says, “…For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” An overemphasis on what a woman should or should not wear dismisses the issue of the heart. Two women could be wearing the exact same thing, one thinking it was modest, and one purposefully wearing something seductive. A man can look at a woman who is scantily clad and fight the temptation to lust, while another could look at someone dressed more modestly and still give in to lust. We need to teach men to guard their hearts and treat women with respect, while teaching women to guard their intentions and seek to honor God in word and deed. I would argue that 1 Timothy 2:9, while addressing external attire, is telling women to worry more about their hearts than what they are wearing. “…Adorn themselves with respectable apparel, with modesty and self control.” I would also argue that Matthew 5:28 is a warning for men to guard their hearts regardless of what a woman is wearing.
Modesty culture teaches men and women that the clothes are the problem. Many churches try to solve this by controlling what women wear, naming some pieces of clothing as always inappropriate. For me, that meant never wearing pants, earrings, anything above the knee, swimsuits, or sleeveless tops. Even these radical efforts to stop men from lusting did not stop men from lusting. Mark 7:21-23 says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”” We are sinful people who will fall into temptation. Even with the strictest of dress code a man can still lust. Yes, the attire is part of the issue, and both men and women should seek to dress in a way that honors God. We should strive to dress in a way that is appropriate for our cultural context and setting, but that is not the heart of the matter. We must remember that we are sinful from our mother’s womb, and when we are adopted into the family of God that sinful nature is still there. Sanctification is a slow process, we humbly grow in love and submission to God more and more until we meet him face to face.
I’ve seen men analyze what a woman was wearing and say why it was wrong, why it made him lust. The skirt was a little too short, the sleeves were a little too small, the neckline was a little too low, the shirt was a little too tight. By finding the issue with what women are wearing, men can displace the appropriate guilt they feel and place the blame on the woman as the reason for his sin. It’s a proverbial blaming of Eve. Even if a woman is intentionally tempting a man to sin, it does not negate the responsibility of the man involved to guard his heart, and act appropriately. In other words, even if she hands you the fruit, you shouldn’t eat it. So does the woman have no moral responsibility? Of course not! I’m saying we shouldn’t shift blame when it comes to sin, we need to own our own sin and repent of it. Lusting after a woman is a sin regardless of what she is wearing.
Modesty culture objectifies women. By hyper fixating on what is okay to wear and what is not, woman become more like sexual objects that need to be hidden and controlled rather than fellow image bearers worthy of respect. When I left Branhamism and started wearing things a little less “Modest” by the definition of the group I was in, such as jeans and a T-shirt, I was mostly treated with respect by the men and women around me who were predominately unbelievers. When I was around people from Branhamism, I was treated differently. There was a lot of staring when I wasn’t looking, breaking eye contact when I was looking, and a tone change. Both men and women in Branhamism were constantly telling me how what I was wearing was provocative.
So what then am I saying, that we are to abandon the biblical command for women to dress modestly, or that women who dress immodestly have done nothing wrong? If I haven’t made it extremely clear, I’m not saying that how we dress doesn’t matter. I’m saying that’s a narrow minded view that enables us to ignore bigger issues. I hope that we can shift away from modesty culture, and stick with a more holistic Biblical view of modesty that teaches woman and men to dress modestly, and men and women to guard their hearts and actions, regardless of what the opposite sex is doing.