By now, I'm sure a few of you have read Rachel Held Evans' piece on modesty that was published on Q Ideas last month (and the countless articles about the topic on this site and across the Christian blogosphere).
Obviously, I'm not a woman and can't comment from that perspective; neither have I been subjected to the conservative social restrictions around modest dress, nor to sexual harassment or exploitation – thank God. So my opinions on this matter must be read with a mountainous chunk of salt. But I am the husband of a woman and the father of three sooner-than-I-would-like-it-to-be women. And, I'm a fellow human being, and I think that counts for something.
From my perspective, I'm going to encourage my daughters to dress appropriately because modesty is the loving prerogative of the mature.
Now, I actually agree that modesty is not solely an issue of sexuality, and approaching modesty in that light inadvertently forces sexuality to be a bigger part of our consciousness than it needs to be. For me, though, the real foundation behind modest dress comes from Paul's words in Romans 14 about weaker believers. He says it far better than I ever could:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person's faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.
Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
Although Paul is talking about food in this passage rather than dress, he is illustrating a broader principle: We do some things not because we are required, but purely for the sake of others. He says that all food is clean, but that it is better not to eat meat or drink or wine or to do anything that will cause your brother or sister to fall. This is a difficult principle for Westerners to accept, especially Americans, who value personal liberty seemingly above all else. Paul reminds us that, as all of Scripture does, that in all that we do, we have an obligation not only to ourselves but to others as well.
This message has obvious intersection with modesty. Our bodies are not sinful or problematic—they are created by God and are beautiful things. Still, for many people, the bodies of others are tempting and cause them to think about that person in an objectified, sexualized light. This is surely more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else, and to say anything else—anything along the lines of "she was asking for it"—is utterly repulsive. It is a fact of human existence from its very inception: People lust after one another sexually.
We're presented with a quandary—bodies are beautiful, and yet they often cause us to think and act in sinful ways, so what do we do? In our polarized culture, we tend to choose one extreme or the other, either to curse the body as sinful or to view those who lust as morally deficient and exclusively at fault.
According to Paul, there is another path: We do whatever we can to prevent other beloved brothers or sisters from being stumbled. Modesty then is not a rejection of the beauty of body, nor is it a judgment on the moral weakness of others—it is the loving prerogative of the strong.
Do we "have" to dress in a certain way? No, not at all, and the tone of Paul's writing makes this clear. The problem is that we too often have made modesty a compulsory action. Instead, though, modest dress is something we consciously do for others, not because we are forced to, but because we want to; not because we are weaker than others, but because we are stronger; not out of our hatred for ourselves, but our love for another.
I believe that women should dress modestly. Why, because they have to? Because they're asking for it if they don't? Because their bodies are not godly things? No, not at all. They should dress modestly because they love and value men.
You see, in the sinful weakness of the male spirit, men often see the beauty of the female form and transform it into something base and soulless. It happens even to the best of us, who were raised well, who love Christ with all of our hearts. It is sin, and it is weakness, and separates us from God and women. I make no excuse for it in my own life, and I certainly do not blame women for something that I myself am responsible for.
No woman is obligated to dress modestly, but I am deeply thankful when they do because I see it has a gesture of Christian love, like someone turning down a cold beer for a Pepsi, all because they know that their friend is struggling with alcoholism. Modesty is best understood not as a compulsory act motivated by hate or blame, but a conscious decision based on strength and love.
There are many nuances that need to be mentioned. Mature believers should look out for the younger, and even curtail some of their freedom for their sake, but young believers have their own responsibilities, to resist temptation, to be renewed by the transforming of their mind.
It is their responsibility TO LOOK AWAY OR TURN OFF THE COMPUTER IF SOMETHING IS MAKING THEM THINK BAD STUFF. Even if a woman dresses in a particularly salacious manner, a man who lusting after her is sinning because he has responsibilities and obligations of his own to fulfill, regardless of what others do or do not do.
We should also realize that men almost always find themselves in a position of strength. Of course individual men can be weaker or stronger, but on the whole, as a gender, and historically, men hold more positions of authority, have more wealth, are physically stronger, and have not been subjected to sexual exploitation to nearly the same degree. Even the weakest man is in something of a privileged position, and this position means that there is an extra burden upon men to live up to their calling to holiness and honoring women appropriately.
Perhaps it is unfair that an extra burden should be placed upon men to guard their own hearts and resist temptation, but that is the responsibility of the strong and privileged, whether that strength is individual or corporate in nature. Plus, if you don't like challenging yourself to be the strongest person you can be, you're not much of a man. (Haha, just kidding… sort of.)
Lastly, every culture has different standards of what constitutes modesty. What is considered modest in the Middle East is not shared in the West. Even in the West, the understanding of modesty for those in the Bible Belt is different than other parts of the country. Tightening our focus even further, the conception of modesty would vary from church to church, and individual to individual.
It would be helpful to change the discussion from being about modesty to "appropriateness." Modesty not only has immense cultural baggage for most of us, but is painfully one-dimensional term, forever associated with frumpy dresses that cover the ankles and immediately banish every thought of sex. "Appropriateness," though, suggests some level of contextualization, that context and situation are things that we can and should consider.
"Appropriateness" allows for dressing in a way that is still stylish and beautiful and flattering, while "modesty" somehow does not. It helps us move away from discussing modesty in terms of lengths and measures, and instead from the unique context we find ourselves culturally and interpersonally.
Lastly, we should also realize that this applies to men as much as to women. There are men who have bodies that cause women to stumble, and men have an equal responsibility to cover themselves in that situation – again, not because they have to, but because they love their sisters enough to curtail the freedoms that they have. This is the responsibility and the privilege of all mature believers, no matter their gender.