The Modesty Debate

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. And since it keeps coming up, I figured that I wouldn’t procrastinate any longer, but just put up my thoughts and let them fall where they may.

I’m talking about the modesty debate. You have heard it in Christian circles. I’ve heard it. My daughters have heard it. You really can’t send you kids off to a Christian camp during the summer without it.

It’s this. “Girls, listen up! These guys are your Christian brothers! When you dress immodestly, you are putting stumbling blocks in their way to purity! They are always tempted to lust, and you girls have to understand that, and dress accordingly.”

This sounds good on the surface, and many don’t give it a second thought. Except, of course, for the girls.

The problem with it is this. It’s degrading to women. It’s degrading to men. It’s degrading to Christ and his work. It’s thoroughly unbiblical, and therefore of no use whatsoever to salvation, purity or holiness.

Here are my problems:

First, it is degrading to men.

The assumption of the modesty debate is that men are creatures of lust who can’t help it – especially if a woman is dressed immodestly. Really, it’s her fault. The woman that you put in front of me, Lord, she gave it to me and I did look.

Piffle. Men, get this through your head. If you are in Christ, then you are being conformed to his image. Are you really saying that Jesus would have looked and lusted if a scantly dressed woman approached? The Bible teaches that each one is led away of his own lusts and enticed (James 1:14). The problem is your heart, not her skirt. Further, the Bible teaches us that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

In other words, we men do not need modesty laws to have a pure heart. What we need is Christ. We need to stop blaming the girls, the advertisers, the catalogs, the TV shows, and point the finger right where it belongs. At our filthy, corrupted, sinful hearts. We need to fall on our knees and beg God again for the Holy Spirit to create in us clean hearts that look on women as creatures made in God’s image, worthy of honor and dignity.

The strongest modesty laws of all are in sharia law, and those who hold it the most strictly are so consumed with lust that they keep slaves…

Second, it is degrading to women.

When we teach “modesty” laws to our daughters, what do we say, “Dress modestly so that you won’t cause men to lust”? Or do we say, “Dress as a daughter of the king. You have dignity, beauty and worth as a greatly loved daughter of God. You are made, body and soul, in his image and belonging to your faithful savior, who died for you.”

Unfortunately, I fear that we too often do the former. The message that we send our daughters is that their bodies are NOT good, and made in God’s image. But something shameful with no other purpose than to arouse men’s desires. I would ask at this point is this is really the message that we want to teach our daughters, but unfortunately I have met too many of their fathers who don’t seem to see anything wrong with that. But there is something greatly wrong with it.

It teaches women that their only purpose is to be lusted after, to gratify their husbands frequently so that he won’t lust (I have another post to write about THAT one), and to keep their opinions, with their legs, carefully hidden so as not to cause a fuss.

Let me use an example. I just finished watching a very moving video here. It got me thinking. In Christian circles, we have been shouting about too much sex and scantly clad women in advertising for years, to no effect. But what reason is given? Because you are causing men to lust. Our boys are being led astray. Sexual enticement everywhere.

Yeah. I agree. It still works, so they’ll still do it. But why are they finding so many of our daughters willing to do that? Because we have taught them that it is the only thing they are good for!

We see our sons’ eyes glaze over when the model comes on the TV and we blame the way she is dressed, rather than teach our sons how to guard their hearts, and seek Christ and his Spirit. We miss a perfect opportunity to teach them that this singer on the music video is a human with dignity and worth, with value as a human being. Instead of teaching them that sex is a tremendous gift of love that God has given to us for the holy state of matrimony, we teach them that it is a dirty thing, to be ashamed of and never spoken of, except with contempt and disgust.

I have never heard anywhere a Christian pastor, mega-pastor, conference speaker, or Christian author talk about what message these advertisers are sending to our daughters! I may have missed some, and I hope that to be the case. But their voices are being drowned out by warnings of seduction! But seduction wouldn’t even be a problem if Christian men dealt with the heart issue (above), but I digress.

What is the message that they are sending to our daughters? It goes right along with the message Christian summer camp is sending to our daughters. You aren’t worth honor and dignity. All you are is a pair of legs designed to entrap and entice men. At Summer camp we tell them to cover up. And the advertisers tell them to use it to sell. Either way, the heart of the issue is the same.

I know that I’m going to get some flack from certain circles for linking that video, but I did it anyway. If your hearts aren’t crying out for these girls locked in a cycle of abuse; if all you are thinking when you see it is sex and seduction, then your heart is desperately in need of cleansing, and only Christ can do that.

I’m very sad to live in a world where we talk about thigh gaps.

Why is it, to sum up this rambling post, that whenever we see sex used to sell a product, that we immediately start to think about the effect it has on “innocent” men, rather than the horrible effect it has on our daughters, who are absorbing the doctrine that their bodies are only for the purpose of arousing lust; that they aren’t good and created in God’s image, but they are something to be ashamed of, hidden away, lest a good man stumble?

Sorry for the ramble. It’s late. But the worst part of it all is this:

It is degrading to Christ

Whenever we shift the blame for our sins upon a woman’s dress or mannerisms, or even on her sinful behavior, we have unwittingly confessed that salvation lies in getting these women under control. But this is really idolatry, isn’t it?

Isn’t salvation reserved for Christ, and Christ alone?

I also was once a teenage boy, and needed no help from anyone to lust in the heart. I went to a school where dress codes were strictly monitored. We didn’t have any of those “hippy clothes” when I was growing up. No mini-skirts, no bikinis, none of those kinds of thing.

And I still blush in shame at the thoughts of my heart, and the conversation of my friends about girls that were created in God’s image. I didn’t need a monastery. I needed Christ. And I still need Christ, every day.

These girls that the Christian church looks down on as tramps or harpies are made in God’s image. They probably have sins of their own. They may indeed be dressing to attract undue attention from men for reasons of their own.

But they are broken sinners in need of redemption; not tramps to be despised and avoided, to be shamed and ridiculed, and certainly not to be used to sell clothes or beer.

Jesus looked at the multitudes with compassion, because they were as sheep without a shepherd. They had no protection, no one leading them to quiet water and green pastures.

Instead of looking at the world with disgust and self-righteous contempt, maybe we should pray for a heart to view the world with that kind of compassion.

We must be careful not to bless God with our tongues, while at the same time calling down curses upon men and women made in God’s image, no matter how they may be dressed. We must seek to know, to understand and to speak to all people as human beings of dignity and worth – whether the world understands it or not. The danger is in our filthy hearts, not in the length of the skirt.

For more on this topic, please see my follow-up post here


Filed under Sex

49 responses to “The Modesty Debate

  1. Thank you for posting this and the video link. I cried and am still wiping away tears as I pray for many loved ones entrapped in ‘the lies”. I used to believe some of the lies and sadly am scarred by the expectations of the man that I married.
    Man or woman; it is only through redemption in Christ that our lives can be made whole and pure. It was through Christ that I found freedom, however, I have been affected by the unrepentant sexual sins within the church.
    Grieved with the “boys will be boys” attitude and the number of ‘c’hristian mothers who blame ‘the women’ for their sons’ sexual sins. This is not to lessen the responsibility of women honoring Christ with their bodies.
    It’s all about our love for the Lord and Savior and our sincere desire to please Him in all we do.

  2. Thank you for this post. Objectification has been missing from the modesty debate, and dress codes will never address the root problem. Only the gospel can change our hearts and cause us to respect people made in God’s image. Christians, of all people, should model this.

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  4. I am so grateful for my friend having shared this blog with me today, I actually wrote about it and linked it on my own.Thank you SO much for this.

  5. Michael

    I believe this article, while certainly right in some important area-s really misses it in other important areas. I am not so nieve to say there is no blaming happening, however, I would be the first person to say I have never met a man who is blaming women for their lust. As with many issues in Christianity, this must be a both/and issue and not simply as an either/or issue it is portrayed in this piece. The article is filled with statements that simply will not bear the weight of the point being attempted. For example, “The assumption of the modesty debate is that men are creatures of lust who can’t help it – especially if a woman is dressed immodestly. Really, it’s her fault. The woman that you put in front of me, Lord, she gave it to me and I did look.” This simply is not a true representation of either the problem of lust or of the modesty debate. To show that this is just another either/or dichotomy consider the use of the so-called modesty laws of the Sharia as though that is modesty. This is an apples and oranges comparison, since simply covering the body, as the article and the pro-modesty folk rightly assert, is not the answer. It is a caricature of the debate. Just as burkas are not the answer so too modest clothing alone is not the answer! Finally, you make the following statement: “It’s thoroughly unbiblical, and therefore of no use whatsoever to salvation, purity or holiness.” I find it hard to believe that this statement can be made by someone who has read 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-4. Modesty is a thoroughly biblical issue and is addressed in the above texts.

    • Thank you. I disagree, as you probably know. Please read my follow-up.

    • Jolene

      He’s not saying that modesty is an unbiblical concept. He’s saying that teaching modesty to girls “so that they don’t cause men to lust” is unbiblical.

      The verses you reference from 1 Timothy and 1 Peter do address modesty, but they say nothing about “being modest so that the men around them aren’t tempted to lust.” They are instead focused on the internal qualities and spiritual growth/maturity of the women in question.

      Both passages reinforce the idea that women are more than their bodies, their appearances, and external “decorations” that enhance physical “beauty.” Biblical modesty has to do with valuing oneself (and those around you) as precious beings made in the image of God-and dressing and acting accordingly.

      It is not biblical to assume responsibility for other people’s sins, nor is it biblical to blame someone else for our own sins – but that is the message most people get from the modesty debate.

      I suspect that if you read the comments, you will find that women who respond overwhelmingly agree with this post, and those who disagree are men. And that should tell you something. I don’t know how it happens that you’ve never met a man who blames women for his problem with lust, but it happens all the time.

      The argument is not that modesty isn’t biblical, the argument is that girls should be taught about modesty in the context of their own character, value, and dignity and not because the female body they inhabit “causes their brothers in Christ to lust.” As he points out, that way of thinking and teaching creates embarrassment and shame and devalues us as people.

    • Michael

      I agree with Michael because this lopsided approach does nothing to advance the conversation in a constructive manner, and continues the myth that this is merely a mans problem and that in some sense immodesty in women is actually being sustained. It’s our problem and that final is not only half ture it’s misleading.

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  7. I agree with Michael. I haven’t heard men/boys say, “That girl is causing me to lust.” It’s more of an issue of respect, and being considerate of others. Let’s not blame females for causing me to lust, of course, but let’s also recognize that lust is a major issue for men, and that girls need to at least consider that when they ask themselves, “Why SHOULD I wear this?”

  8. Geoff

    “If you are in Christ, then you are being conformed to his image. Are you really saying that Jesus would have looked and lusted if a scantly dressed woman approached? The Bible teaches that each one is led away of his own lusts and enticed (James 1:14). The problem is your heart, not her skirt. Further, the Bible teaches us that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).”

    You make several good points. Maybe it’s because you are reacting to people who have gone too far in the other direction, but there seems to be something off about your analysis in this section. We aren’t Jesus.

    So if an alcoholic is coming over for dinner, should you just have alcohol all around and not bear any responsibility for the fact that you are knowingly putting temptation in his or her way? I mean, Christ never had a problem with alcohol.

    • Michael J. Butterfield

      Geoff, really? First, Jesus could not sin, so no chance He would ever lust. There is nothing in Him by which he could be drawn away. So put that suggestion aside. Your example of alcohol actually makes my point. As you do not tempt alcoholics with alcohol, so to you don’t tempt men with lust in their hearts with immodestly dressed women. 😉

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  11. Kristie

    Could you give me an example of a good modesty conversation to have with my daughter?

    • Teach her who she is before God. Go through Ephesians 1 2 and 3. Talk to her about the sin of dressing to attract the attention of men. The temptation to succumb to peer pressure. Teach her of her beauty, her dignity, and her worth as a daughter of the king. Teach her how being in the image of God means that she can experiment with color and form and style, but watch for the temptation of being a man pleaser.

  12. The thoughts expressed in this blog post are really quite lopsided and ignorant, but I’ll just leave it at that.

  13. Michael

    Mr. Powell, in all sincerity, who is arguing? I have simply been discussing the points without any angst toward the participants. I’m in wonder as to how you know my demeanor. Is discussion of the points not allowed simply because I disagree with you? After all, the blog was called “The Modesty Debate.” I think you need to rethink you rethink how you view the issue of modesty and think about in the light of sanctification a bit more. 😉

    • Michael, some of the comments might be out of order, and I have had several comments under the name Michael which I deleted. I believed that those comments went beyond debate to personal attacks against some of the commenters. I don’t know which Michael sent them.
      If everyone keeps the personal digs out, there’s no problem here.

  14. Michael

    Seeing you saw fit to delete one of my comments even though I did not resort to an ad hominem argument, I clear definition of why you mean might be helpful. 🙂

  15. Jennifer

    I think Sir you are right on. Have you ever heard of Jason Evert? He hosts many talks -to teens especially, Facebook page, writes books, …. The Chastity Project is his business name. Speaks on the inherent dignity of us all especially giving women the correct message that they are created in Gods image and worth so much more than the culture tells them they are worth- for lust of men and selling hot cars, etc…. Same viewpoint as you. Tells young men and women that sex is holy, created by God, in fact was Gods first commandment to Adam and Eve- be fruitful and multiply. Very much on point with everything you talked about. I would encourage you and your readers to seek out his website. Thank you for your post!

  16. pdibenedetto

    I tend to think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water here in the post. While I understand entirely your point that no one makes us sin, it fails to recognize the contributions we make in helping others to “stumble.” If we have absolutely nothing in the way of personal responsibility for what someone else does, then what do we do with the Apostle Paul’s admonitions in Romans 14:12, I Corinthians 8:9, and I Timothy 4:12? Paul is talking about something as innocent as eating and drinking, and vowing to stop if it is part of a weaker brother’s stumbling. Yes, teach the dignity and worth, but also grace towards those that are weaker.

    And who might that “weaker* brother be? It might be someone famous enough for their spirituality to be called “a man after God’s own heart.” King David loved the Lord with all his heart. He meditated on God’s law day and night. And … he fell to lust. Was he responsible? Yes. Would it have helped not to see a naked woman on an adjacent rooftop? More than likely. Is that saying she should have been ashamed of her beauty or body. No. It is saying it would have been proper to bath indoors where prying eyes are not around. That is teaching modesty. The truth lies between the extremes.

    • Michael

      Excellent point, pdibenedetto. It is a both/and issue not an either/or issue. It is about mutual work in sanctification.

    • Hope

      pdi, You have added to the text. Look at II Samuel 11. David was on the roof and, from the room, he saw the woman. It does not say she was on a rooftop, adjacent or otherwise. Also, the text does not say she was naked; it says she was bathing.

      Bathing might have been done with a basin and a pouring cup; it is unlikely that she was in a bathtub. This was a soldier’s house, after all. This text does not describe the bathing, but we do have knowledge about customs and architecture of the day. It was a time without indoor plumbing when bathing likely occurred behind the walls of a courtyard.

      The text also stated that it was the spring, the time when kings go out to battle. Her husband had gone to battle with the king’s troops. “But David stayed at Jerusalem.”

      While Nathan the prophet likened Bathsheba to a beloved little ewe lamb, you have implied impropriety on her part that the text simply does not.

      • Exactly right, Hope. I, for one, am very tired of that argument…

      • Bobkat

        While I would agree that the example of David and Bathsheba is not the best, I don’t believe that it diminishes in any way the principle that we should each be mindful of trying to not do things that might cause another person to stumble. In my opinion this applies to both genders.

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  18. Tyla Gray

    Where is the video link?

  19. Tyla Gray

    Never mind. I found it. This is a lovely article.Thank you brother

  20. Anonymous

    This is a great post! There is one point I would like to raise which often gets missed, and that is that men are not the only ones to struggle with lust, with pornography, masturbation or anything along those lines. It almost seems acceptable and expected for men to struggle and indulge in these areas, yet for the young women, who believe it or not are also surrounded by the same temptations, it is almost unthinkable for them to have such thoughts or desires. I’ve heard a few guys publicly address their problems but I was never as shocked as when I heard a young lady publicly admit the same thing. As a teenager I struggled in these areas and honestly thought I was the only one in the entire world, that my sin was so much worse because I was female and it’s not a normality for us. Don’t forget the daughters of your church when you address lust!

    Most people don’t need to see the opposite gender dressed non-conservatively to have lustful thoughts of that person. I do believe we should dress in a way that doesn’t cause our brothers (or sisters!) to stumble, but we should be teaching the church to fight the war in our own hearts, to run to the shelter of our most high God when temptation comes thundering at us. Because He is the only thing that can truly redeem us. Christ, and Christ alone.

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  22. KP

    I appreciate many of your points, but I also think it’s clear that we are to help our brothers & sisters in Christ by doing our best to not cause them to stumble. When I teach the younger women, I teach them as you say to dress to glorify Christ, which is very different than dressing to get attention (especially sexual). But I also teach them to consider that some of their brothers might be weak & vulnerable to temptation.

    As an interesting aside, this can be an issue for us women too, & I am not even talking about lusting after men. As a former lesbian, now born again, happily married, & living as an overcomer, I still can find myself sexually stimulated by women. Sure it’s my job to overcome, but sometimes I find I must simply avoid certain women, as I find the revealing nature of their clothing just too distracting. I’d rather not avoid my sisters in Christ, but I don’t feel it is right to ask them to dress differently for my sake (nor do I want to get into this issue), so I do what I need to do. It would be awesome if someone would lovingly teach them that it is a kindness to consider the potential temptation of others & act accordingly. Likewise, I try to do this in all areas of my life (when I share a meal with someone tempted to indulge in alcohol I don’t drink, etc).

    For myself, I try to dress in such a way that what I wear will not distract from the gospel message, as sharing that is my main purpose in life.

    God bless you!

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  24. Really? So much wrong thinking in this! Modesty – from anyone man or woman – is ultimately a heart issue & about deferring our “rights” out of respect for others. When approached rightly, it’s really about serving one another and pointing to God in all things – including our dress. One can be covered head to toe and still be immodest in heart. The arguments invoked here are the issue – not modesty, which is something God values, so we should too.

    • I’m not sure what the problem is. The point is not that we should give no thought to what we wear. The point is only this: You are responsible for your own lusts and cannot shift the blame to the sins of another.
      In reading your comment, it sounds like you are saying the same thing that I am saying. So I’m not following…

  25. Tina Caldwell

    I am writing under an alias because I want to make a confession.

    I worked with a man I liked. We got to know each other but he never asked me out and seemed to only be interested in friendship.

    I decided to do something about this.

    I wore an open shelf bra to work and when I had to put something on the man’s desk I would quickly unbutton the top two buttons of my blouse so he could see my full bosom when I bent over making him (yes, that’s right) lust after me. After a day and a half of this behavior he was staring at me all the time with mouth open (really). After that I asked him if he wanted to get a coffee.

    Well, we’re married now and we have talked about this. He told me he was having sexual fantasies about me all the time because of what I did. He told me he having difficulty focusing on his job or hobbies because of his frustration. I will not discuss any NSFW parts of what he went through but use your imagination. I apologized to him for my behavior.

    What should a woman’s responsibility be to dress modestly in the context of the male need for sex? I’m not sure. However, women need to realize it’s not a level playing field. Our interest in sex is like a desire for junk food. We like it sometimes but can bear to be without it. Their sexual desire is like thirst. It’s something they can’t stop thinking about. It’s not even about them being more visually stimulated, just more stimulated without any qualifiers.

    This is something nobody want to admit. Women don’t want to talk about this because that means they actually have power and hence the potential to misuse it. Men don’t want to talk about because it shows they are needy and vulnerable and can be manipulated. And no–this is not the same thing as saying men are simply mindless beasts ruled by lust. To the extent they are not ruled by lust shows they have strength of will.

    Most importantly, getting a man to like you is not the same thing as getting him to lust after you. My husband liked me from the start and I interpreted his shyness as lack of interest. Our discussions about sci-fi and philosophy and not my boobs were what formed the foundation of our relationship.

  26. Reblogged this on My Only Comfort and commented:

    From three years ago. Still relevant.

  27. Thank you for saying this! I grew up being taught that I make a guy stumble with how I dress or not. That’s sooo wrong! A woman could be wearing a bed sheet and a man can choose to lust after her regardless. A man is totally 100% responsible for his choices, right or wrong, just as a woman is too. I don’t cause a man to lust. He makes that choice. It’s kinda like blaming a woman for a man raping her because she was naked or she was wearing a low cut shirt. NO! That man made the conscious decision to rape. The same goes with lust.

  28. NuttShell

    Modesty is a subjective subject and who determines what is modest? One cannot declare cultural norms because there are wide differences in just the USA let alone across the world not to mention various styles throughout the ages. The Bible never actually defines what dressing modestly is. Could it be that the modesty referred to is a heart issue rather than how much fabric one wears.

  29. I love this pastor Powell! Thank you. The eyes of my heart were opened when I read through the Old Testament and saw that God intends for his own people to be holy and set apart unto Him. Hearts fully devoted to him is what he wants; seeking God and immersing ourselves in his word and striving to be set apart from all that God detests and understanding how God dealt with those who did what he detests in the OT was eye opening too.
    Maybe men need to wear blindfolds instead of forcing women to cover up, will they lose control at seeing an ankle or a wrist or a neck?

  30. cross3ttt

    This article Glorifies God. I am praying for this issue to become once again “Front & Center” amongst the “so-called” Reformed. I am praying that this summer our Christian daughters won’t be told once again that they can NOT go to the beach to swim (or to a swimming pool to swim) unless they are clad “Head to Toe’ (like Muslim Burkas) so as not to cause men & boys to sin.

    • Mike

      Yes, bring back modesty in the Reformed and greater Christian world! It is not a very good argument when you have to use the extremes that don’t exist. No one is telling women to wear Burkhas. Again, it is an easy problem to fix. If women would not go to the beach in their underwear and stop dressing like harlots we could minimize this problem significantly.

      • I deleted the comment the first time because I’m tired, and I have other things to do.
        If your solution fixed the problem, then Christ would not have died.
        I’ll say it again in case you missed it.
        If your solution fixed the problem, then Christ would not have died.
        Adultery is a matter of the heart, not a matter of dress.

        On another note, one argument I despise is “no one is saying that”, when, in fact, they are. The problem with saying “No one says that” is that you would have to have exhaustive information on every single blogger, pastor, teacher, youth group leader, church leader, parent, in the whole world.
        It is the height of arrogance to presume that because YOU have never heard that, then NO ONE has ever heard that.
        The argument exhausts me.

        Before the 60s, women were not allowed in public wearing “their underwear”, as you put it. They wore the acceptable attire. In fact, there were men with measuring tapes to measure the skirt length from the knee. (Our lunch lady at the college I attended had the same tape measure).
        There was still lust, rape, incest, adultery. Generally no one reported it because they would get blamed anyway and got tired of it.
        So here is why I deleted your comment the first time: Suppose your daughter got raped. Suppose she tells you and the first thing you say is “what were you wearing?”
        And now you are probably thinking, “No one ever says that”. Yes they do. All the time. It’s generally the first thing someone hears.

        So I’ll say this again, “If clothing fixed the problem, Christ would not have died. We could have just implemented the solution of the Pharisees and taken care of it to begin with.”
        Righteousness does not come by the law
        Righteousness does not come by the law
        Righteousness does not come by the law.

        I am burying my wife’s uncle today, so any further comments will simply be deleted. I don’t have the stomach for it.

  31. Mike

    Oh, I am so very sorry for your loss, brother. I know that is a difficult thing. The God of all comfort, comfort you and your dear wife. God the Holy Spirit uphold you and all those you love.

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