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Modesty, Part 1: Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Problem

Modesty, Part 1: Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Problem

Modesty. What in the world area we to do with modesty?

I’ve been in the world of youth ministry for the last 20 years or so and there may be no word that has caused me more heartburn, heartache, and frustration. I’ve been the teenager who secretly (and guiltily) enjoyed the hanging around girls for whom dress code and modesty were not parts of their consciousness. I’ve been the young youth minister who wanted to make all the kids happy, so I tried not to say anything about the topic at all. I’ve been the modesty zealot who outlawed yoga pants, shorts that didn’t touch knee caps, and tank tops (since I wanted to include the guys in at least one modesty rule). Now I’m the parent of a teenage son and rapidly developing and objectively beautiful pre-teen daughter. Thus, I frequently find myself wanting to pack up the whole tribe and move to a cave in South Dakota where we can all grow out our body hair and live amongst the yaks or mountain goats or whatever they have in SD.

But, my wife doesn’t go in for cave dwelling and I have never been able to make a fire with sticks. I’m also still a youth minister and a guy who finds himself talking about sexuality a lot. So, I guess there’s no running from the issue.

Here’s what I want to do…I want to explore a couple of extreme sides of the modesty question that I have lived, heard, and seen in churches all over the place. I also want to offer up what I now consider to be a “third way” to deal with the issue, particularly among parents and those who work in close contact with young people.

Without further ado…

Modesty, Part 1: Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Problem

Before I get into it, let me also say that I still recommend the Battle books to people in my sexuality seminars and have read through appropriate versions with my own children. They are good resources, especially for the behavioral side of battling lust and pornography. Neither my previous zealotry, nor that of others is the fault of the Battle books. The purity movement, latent reactions to the sexual revolution, not realizing the unintended consequences of the stances we take, underdeveloped theology, etc. all contributed to the modesty regime that I was sucked up into.

That said, here’s what it looks like in a way-over-simplified nutshell:

  • Modesty is described as a biblical concept calling for women to clothe themselves in certain ways in order to help men keep their minds pure.
  • Men are wired to take in sexual stimulation through their eyes, thus women should not give them anything interesting to look at.
  • Women’s bodies are a “stumbling block” to men who would otherwise just be minding their own business.

This argument does make a certain amount of sense (or people like an earlier version of me would not feel so strongly about it). And, it makes biblical claims, though not in the way it is usually defended – more on that later.

But, here are some of the big the holes that I have found in this overly intense stance on modesty.

1. It starts with an inaccurate definition of modesty. The big proof text gun in the world of modesty is 1 Timothy 2:9-10. Paul writes “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” When I started paying attention to context and language, I couldn’t help but discover that this passage is really about materialism. In that sense, it could be more accurately applied to discussions of how fancy our church attire should be than the length of skirts. To tip my hand a bit, I do not believe there is nothing to be said when it comes to our choices of attire, but any time you start with a proof text, then move to a misapplied definition that happens to be a wee bit weaponized, things can get away from you. Which, they did.

Note: Rachel Held Evans’ post on the topic of modesty from a couple of years ago really put this particular concern into public Christian dialogue. Have a look.

2. It Turns Women Into Villains. I didn’t mean to do it. Really. I love my wife. I love all the young women I’ve known in youth groups and at camps over the years. I love women in general. At no point did I ever set out to vilify women. But, it turns out that you can only say, “You need to wear longer, bigger, baggier, uglier clothes so that the hapless young men around you won’t be tempted by your womanhood and led astray!” so many times without some young ladies getting the “wrong” message. Without ever saying it out loud, I communicated that the very state of being a woman is not sinful per se, but..well…it kind of is. At least, it is if anyone sees you being that way in public. I hope that’s overstating the case, but I’m not sure I can make that claim. That’s no good.

If you’re a young woman who got that impression from me at some point, I apologize. Sincerely. Call me if you want and I’ll apologize in person and do my best to convince you of your value and beauty as a woman. In fact, if any Christian man or institution made you feel that way, I’m happy to apologize in their behalves as well. I hate the idea that this is true for any of you.

3. It Positions Men As Victims. This is definitively NOT the fault of the Battle books. They go to great lengths to help men take responsibility for their own sin. And, I have always tried to do the same thing myself. But, it’s always the implicit messaging that catches up with you and becomes the stronger reality than the explicit. Every couple of years, when we do our intensive series on relationships and sexuality, I was telling young men to own their lust and work to change their hearts and behavior. But, in the time between those series, the messaging was still pretty entirely focused on getting young women to wear clothes that did not overly tax the imagination of the young men. Thus, in practice, I was continuing to attribute the struggles of our young men to presence of young women. This inadvertently let them offload the responsibility for their lust onto the legitimately lovely girls around them. That’s no good either.

4. It Doesn’t Work Very Well. Looking through the annals of history, across time, culture, and space, there are few things more obviously true than this: Attire is not an effective antidote to lust. Why? Because lust, while it seems like an external problem, is really an internal one. Lust is only marginally mitigated by covering up. If it’s going to be stopped, it must be diffused in the heart. Unfortunately for youth ministers and parents around the world, diffusing things in the heart is MUCH harder to deal with! Behavior, I can teach. I can (and did) make a flow chart that includes all the major behavioral elements of fighting lust. I can spend a couple of intense weeks on it every other year and feel good about having done something helpful. These things are measurable and not entirely unhelpful. Sadly, they don’t solve the problem.

But hey, it’s not time to solve the problem yet anyway…

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 – Every Young Man’s Battle and They Just Need to SUCK IT UP!

Modesty, Part 2: Every Young Man’s Battle, and They Just Need to SUCK IT UP!

Modesty, Part 2: Every Young Man’s Battle, and They Just Need to SUCK IT UP!

Sex RAQ’s

Sex RAQ’s