Modesty: An Unconventional Take

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Appearance can be accurate in its description, or it can be a lie. One of the most obvious and immediate aspects of our appearance is our clothing. What we wear or do not wear says a lot about us to those we meet. Clothing, makeup, and hygiene can accentuate one’s character, or they can grossly distort it.

In 1Timothy 2:9-10 Paul says,

“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.”

There are innumerable blogs out there telling women what they can and cannot wear “biblically” . Nearly all of these blogs are concerned primarily with the sexual signals a woman’s clothing conveys. If she uncovers too much, or shows too much shape, or uncovers the wrong part, it is assumed she is giving notice to men about her sexual availability.

The dress-code writers often use the word “modest” to describe a woman “properly” covered up. However, “modesty” in these verses has little if anything to do with sexuality.

“Modesty” in these verses is concerned with the outward expression of the inward condition of the heart. That is a mouthful but it essentially means one can be modest wearing anything or nothing or anything in between. Despite what the Christian sub-culture in the West has decided to call “modest”, there is not a spelled out dress code in scripture. The closest we can find are explicit dress requirements given to OT priests, but those are commonly understood to be ceremonial in nature and applied to the priests, not necessarily to the lay people and most certainly not to those in the New Testament.

Christians should be willing to dress according to who we are reaching. Christians should be “all things to all people” meaning that we should dress down for the poor, dress up for the rich, and overall dress according to the culture one is preaching to. If we adopt the clothing (and manners for that matter) of the culture we are evangelizing, it projects a loving attitude towards those we are hoping to reach with the Gospel. If we choose to ignore their culture it can display to them a lack of charity and love. We should not change our character or violate our personal consciences or Scriptural commands, but we are allowed to conform to the acceptable outward appearance and customs of other cultures to reach them (Timothy and circumcision).

Modesty and decency differs according to culture, where nudity or near-nudity is the norm both are “modest”. In a culture where it would be considered improper to expose a head or a thigh, it would be immodest and indecent to do so.

Does that mean we go naked to reach the naked? Isaiah went naked to make his point. Other prophets did so as well. It would not necessarily be wrong to do so. Is it required or recommended? No. We should only expose what our conscience allows.

In a less dressed culture, one should be willing to dress down as far as they feel comfortable in their own conscience, and in a more dressed culture one should be willing to dress up as much as they need to in order to prevent offense. If the culture you are reaching insists on head coverings and long sleeves, we should have no reservations about adopting both, no matter what our personal liberty allows.

What about make-up, jewelry, and shaving for women? In the 1 Timothy passage above, Paul specifically mentions hair and jewelry and seems to imply that women should have none of it.

Right or wrong, our culture values the appearance of “put togetherness”. Many women shave and wear makeup to feel “put together”. Many women will not leave the house without doing either. Culture has convinced them that to neglect either one is at worst a sign of rebellion against the good order of society,  or at best an overt expression of slovenliness.

In our culture, when one neglects certain hygiene practices, such as shaving, it conveys a message of looseness and slobbishness. There is no doubt a double standard in this for males and females. Culture requires women to put a lot more thought into their appearance than men. I believe this has much to do with our over-sexualization of the (primarily female) body. Much of the “modesty” subculture actually increases the objectification of women by hyper-focusing on the sexual and nearly ignoring any other application of the word.

The male body is not nearly as critiqued as the female body. Men can get away with athletic wear or pajama pants where women are critiqued for it. Men can gain a beer belly and it is barely noticed. Men can also uncover more of their bodies and be socially acceptable.

Is it a lie for a woman to wear make-up or jewelry or to shave her body hair? Does it promote a false witness to others about who we really are? Again, as I said before, our outward appearance is an expression of the inward heart. If a woman feels beautiful inside I see nothing wrong with her expressing that beauty on the outside with the use of nice clothes, jewelry, or make up. The outward expression of her inward self can take many forms.

What does this say about the woman who does not do such things? It can tell us any number of things. Either she feels ugly and unkempt on the inside, or she feels that the normal cultural expressions of outward “beauty” are contrived and she can better demonstrate her inward condition through her smile or through her words or acts of kindness.

Sadly, because of feminism, many Christians would try to label her as a rebel against God. They assume she’s trying to push back against gender norms and trying to be male.

Maybe she is just a rebel against a godless culture which objectifies and over-emphasizes youth and sexuality in the female appearance.

Am I saying that all women who do such things are objectifying and over-emphasizing youth and sexuality in the female appearance? Not at all. They just value and prefer the culture’s preference for “put-togetherness” and do not want to give a false impression to others who may think by their appearance that they are internally wretched. They are presenting themselves externally to the world according to what they believe they are internally.

Many of us cover and hide our natural appearance with clothing and our scent with deodorant or perfume. Is this a lie? Or is it simply deference to culture? The culture should hate us for the Gospel, not for what we do or do not wear.

In 1 Timothy,  Paul was writing to culture filled with pagan practice. Hairstyles and jewelry worn by the temple priestesses had no place in the Christian church. We ought to be careful to make sure our church clothing honors God and does not cause others to stumble back into their pagan roots. We ought also to project an appearance of humility in church. We do not want to offend the poor by showing off our wealth, nor do we want to draw attention to ourselves at the expense of the Worship of God.

We ought to be modest in more than simply clothing or adornment, we ought to be modest in our attitudes and treatment of others. Our clothing should reflect our inward person and project a love towards others that cannot be rightly opposed. Our appearance can be accurate in its description, or it can be a lie.

Be careful not to distort reality with your appearance.

Appearance and False Witness

143. Which is the ninth commandment?

The ninth commandment is, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

144. What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?

The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own; ….love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

 

I was called out on my appearance a few months before I left my last job. I had worn torn pants (just around the cuffs) to an important political engagement. It was one of my lesser damaged pairs and I thought nothing of it. But my boss noticed.

I was incredulous at first. I thought, “All you care about is appearance? What about my work? What about results?” I had prided myself in not caring about appearance for appearance sake. My work should have been enough.

But then I cried.

I cried a lot. I realized that those torn pants represented the bad year I had been having. I was angry she had not questioned my home life. She had only assumed that I was a slob. She had assumed I was aloof and unkempt. It took me a month and a recitation on a Sunday morning to realize that she was somewhat correct.

According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, the ninth commandment requires the keeping of one’s good name. Further, among the sins forbidden are “all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own… concealing the truth, ….and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves… such things as procure an ill name.”

We spend a lot of time telling our children not to “judge a book by its cover” and out the other side of our mouth telling them they must meet certain appearance standards to be acceptable in public.

Which is it?

The short answer is both. One of the other requirements of the ninth commandment is that we be unwilling to hear false or slanderous reports about others. When judged alone, apart from the whole person, one’s appearance can become a false report on his character or person.

But what about appearance standards? What was it about my torn pants that was giving a false report of my character?

One of the reasons I cried was that I realized that I had pridefully assumed I was not a slob. I had assumed that I was perfect in my work and that my clothing need not reflect that. But I had become a slob. With the distractions of life and my own vanity I had allowed myself to slip into slovenly appearance. I was not always a slob, but I had allowed myself to become one. At that time I was more upset that she didn’t question my descent and only questioned the symptom. As they say though, for every finger you point, there are three pointed back at you. My finger pointing at her faults revealed more of mine.

When I read that catechism question that one Sunday morning, I realized that I had both given a false report about myself (I am really not a slob, really) and had tried to cover up my new slobbishness with pride (just look at my results!).

Then I realized just how much of my appearance was lying about me. When I got home from church I was smacked in the face by a messy front yard, a leaf covered front porch, and a disgustingly dirty front door. This was the image of my family projected into the world. Immediately I set about remedying the front porch and the door (yes, I know, work on a Sunday, but I saw it as correcting a sin).

Appearance is not everything, and we should not be judging others for theirs. We should, however, be concerned about what our appearance says about us and about the God we serve. Our dress, our housekeeping, our demeanor, our speech, our habits, all of these things project our inward condition to the world. We are a reflection of God, having been made in His image. All of these things tell the world our opinions about our Image Maker.

Deeper still, I realized that what I was displaying was painfully accurate. I am a wretch. I am dirty. I am a slob and a wreck. The outward appearance is not completely inaccurate. I sometimes feel worthless and I project that in my image. Sometimes I am lazy, and it is easier to seek forgiveness from others than to put the right foot forward to begin with.

But I know that I am being sanctified. I know that I am being cleansed. And I need to work out my salvation with trembling and reflect that work in my appearance. I need to reflect the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in my life. I need to display a love for God and for His image. I need to better steward my home and my possessions and not make a mess out of them.

I am grateful for the stinging words of a boss and the equally hard words of the Law.

My Chief End

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Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

That is the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This, I believe, is the Bible’s answer to the commonly asked question “What is the meaning of life?” If I was asked about the meaning of life, that would be my answer. How that answer is applied is a bit more nuanced.

As seen on my definitions page I define truth as “that which corresponds to reality” and economy as “household management”. If I had to apply the first catechism question to my life I would say my chief way of glorifying God is to learn true truth and apply it the best I can to my personal economy.

“True” truth is objective. In our post-postmodern world, most would say there is no truth. To most in our world truth is as subjective as one’s feelings about a subject. As feelings change, so also does truth. This has led to a myriad of confusion on a number of topics, gender and sexuality being two of the more recent hot buttons. Confusion about reality used to be called “psychosis” where now it is often labeled as just another version of reality. Raised in a world where truth is subjective, we are quickly becoming a generation of psychotics.

My biggest earthly goal is to gain the proper perspective of the truth and not rely on my subjective viewpoint of it. This can be tricky of course, as my mind is finite, flawed, and my perceptions are skewed my own sinful nature. As a created being, I will never know the full extent of all truth in the universe, only God can know that. But it doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

Where does one find truth? This is a hotly debated question among Christians. Some insist that truth can only be found in the Bible while others feel truth can be observed in other places. I tend to be of the latter camp.

The Bible contains the only necessary truth for saving the human soul from damnation, but it does not contain every truth or the only truth that man can know. There are some in the Reformed camp who believe that man can know nothing outside of scripture, but I think a basic reading of Romans 18-22 makes this argument mute.

“18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

Man observes nature and self and understands the existence of God, as well as His attributes and nature. He knows God and understands Gods attributes just by virtue of being created in the image of God and in being able to observe creation itself. Man knows before he suppresses, he is perfectly able to discern, he just chooses out of his depravity to suppress the knowledge (this is normally where I point out to Presuppositional apologists that man is “without excuse”, but that’s another topic for another day).

It’s not just the nature and attributes of God that man can observe and understand in nature, it’s anything which God chooses in His sovereignty to allow man to know. For instance: we can know truths about nature, about economics, about physics, about math, and about our physical bodies, all without consulting the Bible. Sinful man may never get a full view of every subject, and our imperfect views may lead us to false beliefs about a topic, but with enough observation it is possible for us to get a workable grasp on reality.

Some would say that our finite minds and flawed thinking prevent us from having real knowledge, but I think it’s close enough that we shouldn’t squabble with semantics. We can know well enough to put our knowledge to good use.  We can understand our physical reality enough to manipulate it for our needs, otherwise we would have never survived life outside the Garden.

Should we rely solely on our observations to comprehend reality? No! Scripture contains enough truth about other matters (besides Salvation) that we can make comparative analysis. When we make an observation about the physical universe Christians can and should consult scripture to see if our observation matches with scripture. If it does not match scripture, either our interpretation of scripture is wrong or our interpretation of what we observe is wrong. In many matters it is impossible to discern which is which (thankfully those matters have little to nothing to do with our salvation, it is quite clear in scripture what man must do to be saved).

For example: the question of creation. Folks will argue endlessly about young earth vs old earth creationism, one side finding irrefutable evidence in the Bible, the other finding irrefutable evidence in nature. While the Bible states that God created everything, it is not specific on the actual process by which creation took its shape. This is a topic for another day, but let’s just leave it with this: either the young earth interpretation of Genesis is incorrect or the old earth observations of nature are incorrect.

My chief desire in life is to find the truth about as many things as I can and live my life as consistently with the truth as I can. This means all matters of my personal economy must be consistent with reality, even if that reality is not observed by the world at large. This has created some conflict in my life. This should create conflict in all Christian’s lives. All Christians are going to live a life that is in conflict with the fallen world.

But what if the conflict comes within the church? What if what I think is the “truth” about a topic is disliked or even condemned in the church? Obviously as a Reformed Christian I have only the Bible to turn to. On many topics it seems the church at large is hasty to adopt the larger cultural perspective. Whatever the prevailing attitude of the world is, so too is the prevailing attitude of the church. In other topics, the church often seeks to distance itself so far from the world that it misses whatever truth the world may actually be promoting.

The truth about any subject will only be found when the church bases its moral attitudes in scripture. I often stop Christians who are railing about a certain topic to cite me chapter and verse. It is truly depressing the number of believers who simply can’t come up with anything more than quotes from church patriarchs. No disrespect to the patriarchs, but they may have been wrong. And until one has at least a tentative grasp of what scripture actually says, he should probably avoid quoting flawed men. If there is a question about a matter, one should first consult scripture, then consult a multitude of sources to explain what he does not understand.

What is my point in all of this?

Seek truth, seek it in the Bible, seek it in nature, and seek it in the wisdom of church patriarchs. Then seek to live your life in accordance with your findings.