I met her at a homebirth support group. She was a homeschool mom of five kids and we had similar interests, even though we didn't share the same faith. I was a Christian and she was a Zen Buddhist.
We had some engaging discussions about spirituality while our children climbed on the climbing gym in our backyard. And then she asked me an interesting question.
She said, "Are your girls into modesty?"
I'd never heard of anyone talk about modesty as a hobby or interest. I didn't know what she meant. My girls were right there in front of her, and it didn't seem like she was questioning their morals.
It turns out she meant that her girls liked dressing up like girls from Little House on the Prairie. "Modesty" was another word for period costumes. Outdated fashion.
It was an unusual way to talk about modesty. But not as unusual (and sometimes disturbing) as the discussions I've heard in Christian circles.
Content Warning: Brief, non-graphic discussion of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Is Modesty Only a Virtue for Girls?
Some teach that modesty is a female virtue. But in Scripture, there are no virtues exhorted for one sex and not the other.
The virtue of “modesty” is one commanded of both men and women. And it doesn’t really have to do with fabric and body parts. Here’s the classic “modesty passage” in Scripture:
Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to worship God. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)
First, notice that this doesn’t have anything to do with sexual temptation but with ostentatious opulence.
And second, the same word here translated “modest” is used in the next chapter of 1 Timothy in the qualifications for the office of elder, translated “respectable” or “well-behaved” or “of good behavior”.
An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. (1 Timothy 3:2)
So we see that this is a virtue for both men and women. Both men and women are commanded to be self-controlled, chaste, modest, and gentle.
Sin Leveling in the Modesty Conversation
Next, we need to consider a problem called “sin leveling”. Sin leveling occurs when someone seeks to shirk responsibility for their actions by directing the blame on someone else.
Specifically, it occurs when someone manipulates a story to wrongly convey that a conflict was caused by equal measures of sin on the part of both people involved.
For example, if a husband beats his wife and is confronted about his evil behavior, but says, “Well, she doesn’t always have clean laundry ready for me when I need it,” he is sin leveling.
In another context, it might make sense to have a civil marital conversation about laundry systems and clothing needs. But in light of his heinous abuse, the laundry shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion.
This isn’t a situation of shared blame. This is an abuser perpetrating vile sin on another person. Abuse is a sin. Laundry habits are a matter of wisdom.
Sadly, it isn’t uncommon to see “sin leveling” take place in cases of rape or sexual assault. Discussion of a woman’s clothing choice have no place in a conversation about rape.
Rape is a wicked violation perpetrated by someone who has an abusive desire for control and violence. It isn’t a situation of shared blame.
Wearing a short skirt and raping a woman are not each 50% responsible for the outcome. Rape is a sin. Modesty is a wisdom issue.
Is She to Blame for His Sins?
We need to push back against the idea that women are responsible for men's sexual sins (lust and actions following from that) and must choose their dress based on what will or will not be a "stumbling block" for their brothers in Christ.
Not only does that approach heap a lot of guilt and shame on women and girls for things that are totally beyond their control (a man's thoughts and actions) but it's a moving goal post.
Everything from the setting to age and the fluctuation of hormone levels can change how a person's (yes "person" - men and women) body responds to visual or other sensory-based stimuli.
Rather than measuring a person's behavior based on someone else's response to it, we ought to consider our own thoughts, motives, and actions (the only thing that we are ultimately responsible for before God).
The healthiest way to do that is to think of it in the same way we think about other areas of life, not treat it as a special issue (and definitely not an issue where women are expected to uphold certain moral standards that do not apply to men).
Explaining Modesty to Our Kids
I talk about it with my kids like this. Imagine that you're invited to a birthday party that someone else is not invited to. If they find out about that, they might be jealous, angry, or bitter. But that isn't on you. It's up to them to rightly manage their own feelings.
You don't need to lie about the fact that yes, you got an invitation. You don't need to feel guilty or ashamed if they find out. And you definitely don't need to feel guilty for being invited!
But you also don't need to gloat. If you rub it in your friend’s face that you've got something he doesn't have so that you can feel good at his expense, you are not being kind. You are providing an unnecessary temptation.
But here's the kicker. If you gloat, you are responsible for your unkindness (100%). But your gloating, while it may provide a source of temptation for the other person, does not remove his agency and free choice. He is STILL responsible (100%) for what HE does with your unkind and unthoughtful gloating.
I hope you're seeing that a huge part of this conversation is teaching our children about healthy boundaries. It's a major facet of emotional maturity - taking responsibility for what is our job, and not for the things that aren't.
But Isn't Modesty about Skirts and Shirts?
So what about skirt lengths and necklines and all that? Again, modesty isn’t strictly a conversations about fabric or body parts. It has to do with a right view of yourself and communicating that in how you behave and interact.
We teach our children that what they wear and how they act needs to speak the truth about themselves as a person made in the image of God.
Here are some things that would be false statements to make with their clothing or behavior:
- I am here to be the center of attention.
- I am better/more important/better looking than you.
- What makes me important and valuable is my affluence.
- What makes me important and valuable is my membership in a group that you are not a part of.
- What makes me important and valuable is the shape of my body.
- There is something shameful about the way God made my body and I need to hide/disguise or be embarrassed about the shape God gave me.
- The way I dress makes me holier than you or more acceptable to God than you.
Our clothing and behavior, like our words, is to speak the truth in love. If we are doing that with a clean conscience and out of love for God and neighbor, we are being modest.
Guiding Younger Children in Modesty
One further note. When children are young and still growing in wisdom, it is perfectly reasonable for parents to make decisions for their children as they guide them in the principles that they will later use to make their own decisions.
However, it's one thing to say "No, we're not going to wear that out of the house" and it's quite a different thing to say "It is unbiblical to wear that".
We need to separate principle (eternal and lasting) from application (what we are making for them now that they will later be responsible for making themselves based on many variable factors).