What is Modesty? This is a difficult and hotly debated topic within many factions of the evangelical church. However, while the minutiae may differ, there is a great deal of commonality underlying any discussion of the topic. In fact, the topic of Modesty is so prominent within popular evangelicalism that it has actually formed its own sub-culture, an ever so originally coined Modesty or Purity Culture.
While the problematic nature of evangelical Modesty culture is becoming increasingly obvious with each sex scandal, the reality is people will still cling to it, defend it, because it is hard to walk away from what one knows when they have not been empowered to conceive a viable alternative. Likewise, I recognize that many are so entrenched in the logic and rhetoric of Modesty/Purity culture that they cannot, honestly, see any issue at all. For these reasons, I want to outline two things:
- the troubling claims lying under the surface of evangelicalism’s Modesty Culture and
- a biblically rooted argument for rethinking/reconceiving Modesty itself.
Within such a culture, there are several assumptions which uphold the system. Each of these, on their own, is problematic. When combined, they create a “christian” sub-culture of abuse, denigration, and exploitation.
Crucial to the proliferation of Modesty Culture in American evangelicalism is the assertion:
Complementarianism is the only clear and correct reading of Scripture.
In fact, it is very difficult for this culture to thrive outside of patriarchy. This is true because Modesty culture requires a system of gender hierarchy by which the definitions of masculine and feminine exist as opposites. The man’s role is depicted as Protecting, Providing, Leading, and Impregnating. In contrast, the woman will be Submissive, Domestic, and Impregnated Mother/Wife.
Because Modesty Culture requires patriarchy, it almost always goes hand in hand with complementarianism. Make no mistake, despite the claims of some its leaders, complementarianism is little more than a rebranding of traditional patriarchy. In fact, the patriarchal gender roles described above are, according to The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), the inviolable definitions of masculine and feminine gender roles.
It is no wonder that so many complementarian leaders have devoted their time writing and speaking on modesty. The cultural assumptions behind their modesty teachings are designed to preserve the privilege and power of men within the church while controlling and denigrating women.
Steve Farrar, and influential member and former board member of The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – the council that wrote the Danver’s Statement defining complementarian belief! – has openly stated that patriarchy is a good thing. He has stated that the only reason the term complementarian exists is that feminists had attached too much negative baggage to the overwhelmingly positive system of patriarchy. In fact, as Farrar sees it, patriarchy is the clear and affirmed teaching of Scripture.
Already, without proceeding forward, it seems evident that the basic assumptions necessary to assert the patriarchal modesty teachings of complementarianism are self-defeating. That is to say, in order to argue that complementarianism (Patriarchy!) is the clear and undeniable teaching of Scripture, one has to assume that the 1st century settings of Scripture are identical to the affirmed culture within the Church. Functionally, this requires the assumption:
The cross does not critique cultural power systems which raise up the privileged and denigrate the weak.
That is to say, there is the required belief that, since patriarchy is undisputed as the ruling cultural presumption of both Jewish and Roman society and the Apostles Paul and Peter use the genre of the Roman Household Code to determine the relationships not only of family members to one another, but between all persons in the Church, clearly patriarchy is God’s plan for humanity. The men must be the leaders and the women must submit in modesty (per 1 Timothy 2!).
Sadly, the patriarchal commitments of complementarian faith leading these men to make such claims about modesty also lead to more and increasingly troublesome claims.
First, they claim that, by their very nature, humans are entirely sexual beings.
As John Piper has so adamantly insisted “sexuality conditions every facet of human existence”. Sexuality is wired into and a crucial part of gender identity; thus the issue of feminine modesty is entirely and undeniably about sex. But in order to fully grasp this, one must first accept that:
Sex, Gender, and Sexuality are the same thing.
The following excerpt from John Piper’s opening chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, will demonstrate my point perfectly. Notice that sex (anatomy), gender (constructed roles), and sexuality (sexual preference) are used interchangeably.
Thus, as John Piper – one of the founding partners of the CBMW and a board member of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) – sees it, in order to argue that every meeting and relationship between men and women have sexual consequences, you must reduce individuals to sex objects – and this is precisely what these teachers do.
Doug Wilson certainly operates under these auspices. He has argued that a woman who does not conform to his teachings on christian feminity is either an “easy lay” or a ‘lumberjack dyke”. That is, they either dress up to attract any guy as long as sex is involved, or they dress so as to scare every guy possible away. Then, in the middle, there is the woman of 1 Timothy 2, a woman who knows how to be modest and the crowning glory of her husband (1 Cor 11:7; cf. Prov 12:4). Thus a “biblically feminine” christian woman is the prettiest type of woman because she knows who she’s dressing up for and who she is supposed to attract. Whether it is the choice to be Modest or to dress immodestly, though, each of these decisions is about a woman’s sexual relationship with men. As such, all of her decisions – how she dresses, her attitude, how she walks, what she says – are all about sex because they are (according to Wilson’s reading of 1 Timothy 2) all about modesty.
Taking a different tact, Kevin DeYoung – influential and prominent member of and blogger for The Gospel Coalition – argues that the reason God made us male and female was precisely so that we could pursue marital sex towards procreation. In his book What Does the Bible Really Say about Homosexuality, DeYoung argues by claiming that both “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1 and “one flesh” in Genesis 2 are directly and entirely references to sex. Thus, he argues, gender complementarity is most fully realized in marital sex. Which leads him to the common complementarian assertion:
Marriage is the best or ultimate expression of God’s love between human beings.
Since this is the creative design of God from the beginning, it is the intended relationship between men and women. In fact, as Kevin DeYoung sees it, this is true because he doesn’t know any single people who don’t want to get married. In fact, according to DeYoung marriage is such a crucial step in God’s plan that we don’t need to spend so much time trying to figure out who the right person is to marry. Instead, if you want to get married, then find another Christian and get married in faith that God will bless the marriage and love will flourish.
And, because every relationship between men and women is about sex, because humans are inherently sexual beings – because marriage is the ultimate goal we must purse – everything we do is about sex! Thus, a 14 year old girl who dresses “provocatively” is a flirt and intending to incite lust in men.
Because men are wired to be visual and naturally aggressive – something which must not be weeded out of them by overprotective mothering – sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape happens. Boys will be boys and thus we must ask “how much grooming must a criminal do before a 14 year old girl has absolutely no responsibility [for her abuse]?”
Behind these assertions is a further overarching assumption:
Women are ultimately the property of men.
Some Modesty teachers have even argued that a woman’s every action is primarily about whether she is bringing shame to her male head, such as her father, husband, or future husband. This leads them to insist lust is the perversion of something natural and normal to human nature – sexuality wired into our very gender identity. But it is not treating a woman as a sex object that is sinful. Instead, the sin is that the man has attempted to claim a woman, sexually, who is not his to claim. It operates on the assumption that there is a healthy sense in which a woman is a man’s to claim: to penetrate, conquer, colonize, and plant as he sees fit.
Of course, we are to uplift our women. For instance, we are to glorify our wives by honoring them as the “weaker sex” (1 Pet 3:7). This involves “treating her like a queen” by buying her lots of stuff to keep her happy. In fact, Greg Gibson – a family ministries pastor and executive elder at his church as well as a blogger for CBMW – gives men the following advice for honoring their wives:
In other words, men honor your wives because they are in a place of high esteem. They are the fine china, not the plastic cups. Men, think about your most important possession and how you treat and honor it. Now triple your efforts and apply that same carefulness in how you treat and honor your wife.
All of these claims lead the Modesty gurus to make their boldest claim of all:
In order to understand God’s plan for humanity in Christ, we must understand how our identity is defined against other humans first.
As these teachers see it, complementarian gender roles are central to understanding the Gospel message. In fact, built into the very document from which complementarians define all their beliefs on gender roles and modesty is the clause that sacrificing these teachings will necessarily and inevitably lead one to abandon the Gospel message itself.
Thus, the whole things comes full circle. Because patriarchy is the clear and unquestionable teaching of Scripture and because these Modesty teachings are central to a patriarchal understanding of the Gospel itself, you dare not question them. Any who would question such hallowed teachings is questioning God himself. And thus, an environment of fear and denigration is created to keep the powerful in their power and the weak in their weakness.
Having been raised in modesty culture, I know it is not simply enough to expose an abuse. Often times, the status quo is so deeply ingrained in our corporate and individual psyches that walking away is just too hard. It involves setting aside an identity marker, removing what may very well seem a crucial block upholding the tower of our faith. It is enough to chip away at the foundations of a set of a beliefs, it is another thing all together to ask that someone allows the tower to fall. That is an act of faith and no easy one perpetrate – I can tell you from experience, picking up the pieces is no easy task.
For this reason, I am not simply saying “Modesty is bad”. Instead, I want to ask a question that I hope will point us forward and allow us to reconceive a Modesty rooted deeply in Scripture and, more importantly, rooted in the person and works of Jesus, the crucified and risen God we worship. With this in mind, I seek to answer this question:
Is Modesty, as defined above, Christ-like?
Before I answer this question, I want to recognize a very real temptation I am resisting at this time. Having laid out the arguments of Modesty above, and provided the Scriptures so often used to support them, it would be very easy – and extremely long winded – to simply explore each passage in depth. I believe there is a place for such a thing, but I have undertaken it elsewhere. It would be both redundant and profoundly wasteful of your time and mine to merely rehash these arguments ad nauseum. Thus, while I will address all of these passages, many of them will be treated by making a counter claim with reference provided to my previous work on the topic if you find my argument here unconvincing. This will allow me to focus my efforts on what I believe to be the crux of an argument for Christ-centered Modesty without chasing already explored rabbit trails.
With this in mind, I offer my brief thoughts on the following passages. If you wish to see my further thoughts, a link is embedded in each passage title.
It is an abuse of this passage to argue that the purpose of the creation poem is to establish a gender hierarchy which represents God’s vision for mankind through procreational sex in marriage. I will suffice it here to point out that the seven day work period of God is mirrored in the seven speeches of God to Moses with instruction on how the tabernacle was to be built (Ex 25-31), the seven days God spent preparing the law tablets on Sinai before delivering it to Moses (Ex 24:9-18), and the seven day ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons into the Levite priesthood (Lev 8-9). In all of these occasions, what is being represented by the seven day period is the preparation of something holy to serve its purpose and is marked by the profound outworking of the presence of God upon its completion. In the same way, the creation poem shows evidence that what God is doing is establishing the earth as his temple and humanity as his royal priesthood using language of commissioning to envision their purpose of spreading God’s kingdom across the earth. This concept is mirrored in God’s commissioning of the Israelite people as a chosen nation and a royal priesthood in Exodus 19 – a concept reimagined in 1 Peter 2 to argue that all believers are God’s chosen nation and a royal priesthood. In order to argue that “be fruitful and multiply” is a primarily or entirely sexual command, one has to do two things.
- One must deny that God is the central focus of the text and the seventh day is the purpose for which creation was building, as Sabbath is central to God’s redemptive work in both the OT and NT (cf. Lev 23, 25; Luke 4:14-30).
- One must thus change the entire focus of and basis for arguing for the priesthood of all believers. If we deny the foreshadowing of the commissioning of Israel in the passage, which is carried forward in to the Church in Christ, we functionally decentralize the cross as the locus of identity for the believer and instead place it in sexual ethics defined through a hard set gender binary built on antagonism.
It is equally irresponsible to treat the “one flesh” Genesis 2:24 as a presentation of sex built on gender hierarchy. In fact, in order to argue gender complementarity at all in this passage, one must first resort to an age old patriarchal tradition: primogeniture. By arguing the firstborn takes preference, one can thus argue that Adam had authority over Eve which carries into the incident in Genesis 3. This also allows one to make Genesis 2 about arguing that sex and procreation are central to God’s ordained concept of marriage. This is problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, one must note that in order for sexuality in procreation to be central to our understanding of gender roles, one must first assume that physical anatomy is all you need to decide where one first in the prescribed binary. If you have a penis, you are the masculine man who impregnates and provides. If you have breasts, a vagina, and a womb you are the feminine female who is impregnated and nurtured. But here in lies the rub.
There has to be something beyond the merely physical which defines what it means to be a man or a woman. For instance, is a man who loses his testicles or a woman who loses her breasts or uterus less of an engendered person? If procreative sex is central to gender, as presented above, then these persons automatically become less masculine or feminine. They do not fit God’s standard for these categories – however much these thinkers may try to beat around the bush on this – and thus they are considered the result of sin. The obvious argument from John 9 against seeing God’s judgment on sin as the reason for a person’s affliction or suffering aside, I want to consider how a real world case reflects on the theology of Modesty above.
Consider the case of former track star Caster Semenya. In 2009 Semenya was a an up and coming female track star. Then she failed a so-called “gender test”. As more details emerged, it was revealed that, despite the fact that she had identifies as female her entire life and had exterior female anatomy, she also possessed internal testicles instead of ovaries. This is significant because Semenya identifies as a woman, yet has non-conformative male anatomy as well. It is also important because she dates women.
The question, then, for a Modesty Culture becomes whether or not she is even a she at all. She must fit neatly into a gender binary, because Modesty Culture can only thrive is such a binary exists. So, the question must be asked, by the standards of Modesty teachers, who insist we are either male or female, which one is Semenya? Does having internal testicles somehow make her less of a woman? How would her anatomy be used to bind her within the sexual ethic of evangelical modesty?
If these questions seem absurd to you, good! To be honest, I find it offensive that I even have to type them. In reality, the treatment of the Genesis passages alone shows that Modesty Culture, based in the theology of gender complementarity, is a system of power and control. It is designed to denigrate, to create fear, and to preserve the privilege of one group of persons by forcing another to live in submission on the bottom of hierarchical, patriarchal gender roles.
This is one a passage which functions quite strongly as a litmus test for hermeneutical bias. To be clear, we all possess bias in interpreting and applying Scripture. This, by the very subjective nature of humanity and the enterprise of learning, is not something to be feared or fled. Thus, I propose the test for whether our bias in interpretation is biblically appropriate is not based in whether it presents a “plain text” or “straightforward” reading of the text.
In fact, a straightforward reading of Scripture as a whole will leave one walking away with a clear cut case for why slavery is permissible in the Christian Church. Yet, when you learn to examine the societal structures behind the Scriptures, when you begin to notice the subtle ways in which the biblical authors deviate from the norm and offer critique of social constructs, you can begin to realize that there is, in fact, a biblical case against it. But, this is not arrived at by a “plain text” reading, but by a nuanced and careful reading based in careful study and willingness to look into and behind the text to seek the actual truth of Scripture, Christ himself. Thus, the test for any reading of Scripture is not whether it makes sense on the surface as an independent unit of thought. Instead, the question is first and foremost,
Does it represent accurately the character of God as revealed to us in the cross of Christ?
In asking this question, we can see that the reading of 1 Corinthians 11 required to justify Modesty culture is, in fact, not Christ-like. The reasoning is simple. In order to accept the complementarian reading of the passage you must first assume Paul is affirming a culture preexisting in Corinth which argues that a woman is designed for her husband’s glory and that women were made for the pleasure and glory of men (1 Cor 11:7-9). Yet, such an assumption assumes that not only was patriarchy the norm in Corinthian society, as a system it is affirmed by Scripture through Paul’s teaching.
Arguments against this abound. I have presented an argument against a patriarchal reading (linked above) based on the reading presented at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, derived from Lucy Peppiat’s Women and Worship at Corinth. The gist of that argument is that there is a clear cut rhetorical diatribe in which Paul is engaging against the cultural presumptions of Corinthian patriarchy while thoroughly undermining it through an appeal to Christ as head of his body the Church. While this is a very compelling argument, I want to add one more argument to this, drawn from the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul states that the only thing he has ever endeavored to teach is “Jesus the Christ, and him crucified”. In Corinth, Paul has learned that there are a number of factions that have formed. Each of these factions has proclaimed themselves to have the right teaching about the Gospel as disciples of a particular human. Some claim Apollos, others Cephas (Peter), and still others Paul himself (1 Cor 1:10-17)
For this reason, Paul reminds them that he was not crucified for them. He points them to the cross, which he states undermines the power claims of human authorities. He tells them to remember that it is in the seeming weakness and futility of the cross that the true power of God is known. God chooses the foolish things of the world, the weak and powerless to critique systems of competing power (1 Cor 1:18-31).
Thus, he admonishes the Corinthians that clinging to human wisdom is a counter-claim to the Gospel. The cross of Christ is a wisdom that seems foolish, a wisdom which undermines the rulers and authorities of society. He reminds them they must pursue the Spirit of God and not the spirits of this world if they wish to know Christ, to have his mind (2:6-16).
With this considered, it seems odd to me to insist that Paul affirms patriarchy. If the political and societal systems of power in both the Roman and Jewish world’s were based on patriarchy, and if the cross undercuts both, why would we assume that Paul is simply designing a system of social ordering for the Body of Christ which leaves the powerful in power and keeps the weak in weakness. Such a reading is simply counterintuitive and rendered utterly foolish by any appeal to the crucified Christ of God.
1 Corinthians 7
If marriage is God’s plan for all persons, it seems odd that Paul – like Jesus in Matthew 19 – devotes time to teaching about singleness. Further, why would Paul insist, given the commitments required to maintain a godly marriage, it may actually be better to remain unmarried to promote a singular focus on Christ and pursuing his kingdom purposes. As with the above reading of 1 Corinthians 11, the complementarian reading which chooses to hold verse 4 as the crux of the chapter seems counterintuitive.
Further damning to the assumptions of Modesty culture is Paul’s seeming undermining of patriarchy in this passage. Consider: Roman and Jewish cultures claimed that men had absolute rights over everyone in their house. The Romans insisted men were the heads, the emperors, of their homes. They could demand sex, even from slaves, and held the power over life and death for anyone who defied them.
Yet Paul takes a decidedly different approach. In 1 Corinthians 7:4 Paul makes a radically non-patriarchal claim. In fact, this claim completely undermines the ownership claim of the Roman household head.
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Here, Paul is undermining traditional male headship by insisting on mutual submission in all circumstances, even in the bedroom. The husband does not have the authority to do with his body whatever he pleases, but must relinquish that authority to his wife. It is impossible for a husband to have the authority of life or death, or to insist he owns his wife at all if she has equal authority over him. What Paul is getting at here is a covenant relationship – mirrored by Jesus in Matthew 19 and in the OT in Malachi 2- by which a married couple is bound before God in a binding covenant which cannot be annulled unless one party explicitly violates this pact.
This is further demonstrated by considering how Paul depicts the “one flesh” relationship as marked by a willingness to love one’s spouse as one’s own body in Ephesians 5-6. This relationship, Paul argues, mirrors Christ’s relationship to his church – a love which sacrifices self – and the way in which his body becomes an organic part of him in covenant. Everyone in Christ’s body is “one flesh” with him and thus, they are “one flesh” with one another as well.
This is what leads Paul to speak of adoption in Christ in Ephesians 1 and Galatians 3. It is precisely because Christ came in kenosis (Phil 2:1-11) and became the curse of the law (Gal 3:13) that we are now counted as children of God (Gal 3:29). And in this relationship, becoming of the same body (flesh), the same family unit, as Christ we learn something. Whatever are particularities may be, they do not put us against others in antagonism. Instead, Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male and Female are all made one in Christ (Gal 3:28).
In the midst of all of this, I want to emphasize something very important. Identity, for the Christian comes fully in Christ. It is through Christ that we learn to love (1 John 4:7-21) to put our neighbor before our selves (Phil 2:1-11). It is in Christ that distinction works toward commonality and antagonism is transformed into Peace and Community.
And it is for these reasons we must not embrace Modesty Culture. We cannot claim an identity before Christ. We cannot claim that Scripture points to humanity as having a primarily sexual existence without placing ourselves before God. We cannot make marriage the ultimate expression of human love without ignoring or subjugating the cross. We cannot argue that someone’s relationship with Christ is dependent on their subordination to a select elite without first removing Christ from the equation, negating the Gospel of Yahweh who became slave of all (Matt 20:20-28; John 13:1-17).
Modesty, a Redux
So how can we move forward? Is the concept of Modesty at all redeemable?
What would a Christ-centered concept of Modesty look like?
In my opinion, the way forward is in considering the two most prominent, and most controversial, passages in the Modesty repertoire – 1 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 2.
In 1 Peter 1-3, Peter, like Paul before him, presents a critique of the Greco-Roman household. It is notable how Peter goes about this because this passage is so often cited as a proof-text of the modesty movement.
This section begins by reminding the Petrine audience of the source of their hope. They have been reborn in Christ, through his resurrection. This rebirth guarantees them a family status in God’s kingdom, an inheritance that cannot be corrupted or taken away. In the midst of suffering, they have hope because they have assurance of God’s favor and blessing in Christ (1:3-12).
For this reason, they are called to be holy before God. They were ransomed from the futility of their former ways (a way which included strict patriarchy!) and joined to the family of God. In Christ, all believers have the same Father (1:13-25). It is not in their family identity, in the culture of this world, but in the body of Christ that they find their identity and calling. Thus, as followers of Christ they are called out of the world as Israel was once called out of Egypt. Like Israel at Sinai (Ex 19), they form a new people – a royal priesthood and a holy nation – who comprise the kingdom of God (2:1-10).
Thus, though they live in this world and must seek to live peacefully within it, their allegiance is not to the rulers of this world but to the only true king, Christ. They are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, which will influence how they interact with competing world authorities and kingdoms. Essentially, Christ is their social ethic (2:11-17). All of this provides a context for the Petrine household code.
In 2:18, the audience is addressed according to their social status within Greco-Roman society. Peter first addresses those who within the churches of Asia Minor who are slaves.
While this section has often been misused, it is important to note that the command here is not to strict obedience but to perseverance. In a society where slaves were property, the slave is reminded that their Savior also became a slave (Mark 10:35-45). They are reminded that Christ himself sides with the suffering and, if they do not receive justice in this world, they will receive justice in Christ in the next.
Most importantly, it is notable that the slaves are addressed first. In a typical Greco-Roman household code, the head of the household, the pater familias or patron patriarch, would have been listed first. Because society was built on a system of patronage, the male head of the household was owner not only of the slaves in his household, but also his wife and children as well. He literally held the power of life and death.
Yet Peter subverts this by modeling Christ’s reminder that the last in this world are first in his kingdom (Luke 14:1-14). In doing so, he makes a bold statement to his audience that this is not business as normal. By identifying the plight of Christ with the plight of the slave, Peter is sending a clear to his audience that to mistreat the lowest among them is to mistreat Christ himself (2:18-25; cf Matt 25:31-46).
In the same way, Peter addresses wives who have unbelieving husbands. Having just laid out the suffering of Christ and the identity to be taken in him, wives are told that they are also to be peaceable. The wives are to be so fully holy, to carry themselves as chosen priestesses to the point that their very lives win over their unbelieving husbands. They must not try to win these husbands over by adorning themselves outwardly with braided hair, gold jewelry, or fine clothing.
At this point, it is important to note the Pauline parallel to this vision of modesty in 1 Timothy 2.
In 1 Timothy 2, another passage popular for teaching “biblical modesty” Paul lays out an argument for peaceable worship. He this provides instructions for men and women by beginning the section with instruction that all believers should seek to live peaceable lives honoring to God. This will set them apart as a witness, so that all that encounter them might be won over to Christ. This peaceable, or quiet nature, was also to translate into their worship. It is notable here the word used for peaceable is esuchion, as it will recur later in this passage. This word connotes a demeanor, a manner of carrying one’s self in a way that maintains order.
Next, Paul gives instructions for worship. The men must be sure to spend their time engaging in worship and not getting involved in arguments which only make everyone angry. The women, on the other hand are given different instructions for peaceable behavior.
First, they are told to dress “modestly” in “suitable clothing”. However, the words for both modesty and suitable clothing here are drawn from the same Greek root, kosmos. This is not a word denoting sexuality, but orderliness or appropriateness for a given purpose. Thus, the word kosmos also is used to describe the created order (earth and all in it) and the universe as an ordered creation.
Thus, women who revere God (v. 10) must carry themselves both in demeanor and actions in a way appropriate to a worship setting. Thus, what they are being told is that certain things they are wearing are connected to actions and demeanor that are not suitable for worship. Which raises the question:
Why does Paul emphasize these specific things – and why does a near identical list occur in 1 Peter?
In answering this question, we realize Paul here is instructing the women not to dress in a way that asserts dominance. This command is tied to the city of Ephesus and its cult to the goddess Artemis. In this cult, the women were considered the powerful ones and worshipped their god by dominating men, keeping them as sex slaves, and emasculating them as an offering.
These women would dress up in their finest clothing as a means of controlling men and asserting their dominance. The issue was not simply being passively dressed in a way which would cause men to stumble, but a demeanor that sought to dominate and abuse others. This is confirmed by the following verses, where women are instructed to learn in esuchia (Peace) and upotage (submission)
Submission, here, modifies how they are to go about learning. It is about not assuming the dominant position, but instead being esuchia – peaceful – in the learning environment. Thus, the woman is to be allowed to participate in the same way as men (v. 9) by maintaining a peaceful demeanor.
This is further confirmed by an appeal to verse 12, often translated “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man…” Actually, this translation is a bit dubious. The Greek, when translated word for word is “To teach thus women not allow nor (authentein) men…”
First, the existence of the word “thus” indicates that somehow the way the women maintain a proper demeanor through their dress is connected to not teaching or committing authentein on men. Further, while the Greek indicates that “women” are not permitted to teach, there is no modifier. In fact, “these women” would be an equally valid translation if Paul is intentionally addressing women whose goal was to bring the power structure of the Artemis cult into the Ephesian church.
Already, we have descriptors of dress consistent with the worship attire of many Roman cults in verses 9-10, juxtaposed with those who behave themselves in reverence to God. The word authentein confirms this interpretation. Authentein occurs only here in all of Scripture. However, it is also occurs in other Ancient Greek sources, where it can portray ritual murder and ritual castration.
It just so happens that ritual castration occurred in the Artemis cult as an act by which women worshipped the female god Artemis by dominating and abusing men. So, what Paul is saying is that he does not permit any woman to teach who carries herself in an aggressive and dominant manner. These women dress in a manner that establishes their identity, they are not peaceable in worship, and they attempt to dominate the men of the assembly. If they are truly desiring to worship they must be willing to worship in humility and submission LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, as everyone is to be peaceable in worship per verse 2.
We finish looking at 1 Timothy 2 by considering the curious comment about Adam, Eve, and childbirth. Here, it helps to consider the curse of suffering and death brought on by the sin of Genesis 3. Eve was deceived, but Adam acted in full cognizance of the consequences of his actions. Thus, they were both given punishments, curses that would affect them at every level of their existence.
However, as Paul tells us in Galatians 3, Jesus in his death becomes cursed according to the law. He carries the curse of humanity, as he becomes the embodiment of sin (2 Cor 5:21). Thus, in reversing the curse, all of humanity is justified before God. So,if the goal of the passage is to challenge the audience to live peaceable lives rooted in who Christ is and in gratitude for what he has done (1 Tim 1:12-20) then in doing so, in taking their public and worship identity in Christ and promoting unity – not exploitation or domination – within his body, they participate fully in Christ and the curse of sin is reversed.
As such, in embracing the way of Christ the curse of sin on women – a curse which applied to childbirth – ceases to be a curse. In this curse, the way men and women relate to each other was also affected, establishing domination on the part of the men and subjugation on the part of the woman. Thus, as the curse has been reversed, so also right relations as equals in God’s image also ought to be reestablished.
To summarize 1 Timothy 2, then, Paul is telling Timothy – and in turn Ephesus – that he knows divisions exist in the Church. The answer to women being dominated as a result of sin’s curse is not found in role reversal, where the women instead dominate. Instead, the way forward is the way of Christ which avoids division and infighting based on cultural categories that no longer apply to persons in Christ. Thus, in modeling Christ’s cruciform love and submission to one another – as Paul describes in Philippians 2:1-12 – all are made equals and peaceful relations as one body can be restored.
This brings us full circle to 1 Peter 3:3-4. Peter is instructing wives who are married to unbelievers to not attempt to win their husbands over by behaving as pagan women. If these types of dress are associated with Roman lifestyle and cultic worship, these women are to eschew such things and instead behave in a Christ-like manner in their relationship to their husbands. The difference in behavior and demeanor is both honoring to God and an effective witness to one’s husband.
Now, Peter refers the women to the OT. He is telling the women, as he told the slaves, that equality in the body of Christ does not translate to equality in an unbelieving household. They cannot subvert their husbands patriarchy except through humble submission, rooted in Christ’s cross (cite 1 Peter 2). In such actions, in humble submission they, like Sarah before them, serve God and are included in the inheritance of the Abrahamic covenant – a covenant which included not only the men of Abraham’s household but the women, children, and slaves as well.
It must be noted, with these concerns, it seems improbable that the admonitions on female attire have anything explicitly to do with sexual enticement. Instead, what Peter has in mind is maintaining a Christ-like witness in her marriage to an unbeliever by maintaining her holiness and priesthood even in his midst. Sometimes, an effective witness is not about words but about imitating Christ in one’s actions. The issue is not how one dresses, precisely, nor is it how a woman belongs to her husband. It is how that woman embraces and lives out the cross of Christ in her marriage.
This is confirmed by the command to the husband. Here, the believing husband is told to be considerate of his wife’s position as the weaker sex. In fact, he is to give her honor. Previously, slaves have been told to honor their masters and all Christians to honor the societal authorities as an act of worship before God. Now a husband must honor his wife. Already, it appears, that Peter sees a believing husband as subverting social order and practicing Christ-like humility. This is confirmed by taking a closer look at the words “weaker sex”. What is at play here is not physical weakness, but societal position.
Because she is a woman and a wife, by Roman standards she is her husband’s property and he is her lord. Yet, he is not to see himself as lord. Instead, he is to humbly submit to his wife as she submits to him, uplifting her to a place of honor that is not given her by society. Again, Luke 14 comes to mind. Christ, in Luke, tells his audience that they should not seek the head of the table at a banquet, but should allow someone to take it instead. “Whoever exalts them self will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). In the Petrine community, the household in which all persons are believers will function like this, with all persons submitting to each other and considering each other equal in Christ.
All of this fits with Peter’s command to
[H]ave unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called— that you might inherit a blessing. (3:8-9)
In examining the Pauline and Petrine teachings on Modesty, a trend has emerged – one which points a way forward. True Modesty for these apostles is not about what one wears or some set of strict regulations for maintaining patriarchal sexual ethics. Instead, it is rooted entirely in humility based on the cross of Christ. Thus, if we are to move forward with this Cruciform Modesty we must move forward in Christ-likeness! Christ must be the center of our ethic, his cross the inspiration of our actions.
Cruciform Modesty is embodied by the creator God of the universe hanging beaten, abandoned, tortured, cursed, damned, naked, and humiliated on a Roman cross. It is not easy, it is not pretty, and it does not denigrate or exploit. Cruciform Modesty undoes our antagonisms as we are required to take up our cross, consider the other before self, and love neighbor as self. To do so, we must first abandon our “Modesty”.
 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 1991) pp. 28-43.
 Ibid. 26-28.
 Kevin Deyoung, What Does the Bible Really Say about Homosexuality? (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2015) pp. 25-31.
 See above video from Stever Farrar
 Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cascade: Eugene, OR, 2015) pp. 100-101.
 Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1992) pp. 87-98, 185-188.
** Cover image from http://36.media.tumblr.com/78640e52b3037c017375b0136c66ca5b/tumblr_mnbzmquFCR1srsrv7o1_500.jpg**
31 thoughts on “Modesty: a Redux”
Though I had to restrain my self from not pounding my head on the wall watching the YouTube clip. Honestly can’t stand hearing pastors addressing ladies unless there is an equal message for men. I hate the assumption that only men are visually stimulated and only they are thinking about sex when they see an attractive woman. Though modesty standards end up breaking everyone down by their sex the simple message is that men can’t control themselves and think about sex all the time and women are sexless, never struggling with how a man dresses. It’s utterly absurd. I grew up having to wear a one piece while guys in the youth group wore board shorts … How is that not a double standard? Sorry for my rant. Love how you systematically break this down 🙂
Thanks Elizabeth. I liked your post as well. I grew up fundamentalist, I totally get the rant 🙂
Thanks for sharing. I liked the article and saw nothing I would disagree with. For clarifications sake, did you post as a further commentary or because you thought I had done a disservice to the topic?
My goal is to dislodge modesty as a discussion of the human body all together. When taken in the biblical sense as being about humility, and run through 1 Peter 2-3, it becomes about imitation of Christ in humble relation to one’s neighbor. It decidedly de-sexualizes the topic.
Also, I grew up in much the same environment you describe. I totally get where you are coming from on that one.
Peace to you and a Merry Christmas to you and your family 🙂
(My internet chewed up my comment — hopefully it works this time.)
This was really great. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this out so carefully. It’s so refreshing to hear ‘modesty’ systematically destroyed in the face of true modesty, the submissive and loving stance of believers before Christ. Equality goes so much deeper than we think it does.
I believe that ‘modesty’ has wide-ranging effects even beyond the most typical arguments presented against it — I personally believe that ‘modesty’ destroys many layers of the complexity of human experience, reducing the sheer manifold brilliance of life into an us vs them scenario. When you strip away the ridiculous Pharisaical layers of ‘modesty’, life in Christ becomes so much more joyful, more humble, and more graceful.
My biggest problem with ‘modesty’ is how thoroughly it destroys grace and how quickly it denies men the freedom to be who they are in Christ — not slavering sex-obsessed beings losing their minds at the sight of a woman’s ankle, but thoughtful and compassionate followers of Christ alongside the women they have been given life with.
Next time I’ll just let you write the post 🙂 . Great thoughts, so very true. Thanks Lucy!
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Haha! I have thought many times about writing on these issues on my own blog, but your posts are so much more comprehensive and erudite, I just direct people here.
Thank you 🙂 don’t sell yourself short though. Some people can’t begin to process my writing. Sometimes erudite is overwhelming. Your voice is definitely important as well.
Good stuff. I scanned this all VERY quickly, and there’s so much here that I think it would take me a couple of weeks to thoroughly read and study. Having said that….one comment stood out….the one about: “It is not treating a woman as a sex object that is sinful. Instead, the sin is that the man has attempted to claim a woman, sexually, who is not his to claim.” I sort of get it, but not the idea of “claiming” a woman who is not his to “claim”. What does “claim” mean? If I’d read everything more carefully, maybe I would have understood this idea of a man “claiming” a woman?? Thanks!! 🙂
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No worries Barb, I can (hopefully) unpack that. It is very common for the hardcore modesty crowd to make female modesty about men. Some say an “immodest” single woman is shaming her father (whom they see as her spiritual head). Others say she shames her husband (future spiritual head). Still others say she is sinning against her brothers in Christ (spiritual because they’re men in the Church). They also say a married woman who breaks their “modesty” rules shames her husband.
I combine this with some rather inflammatory statements made by a number of popular pastors/preachers to argue that the belief that women are something to be “owned” or “controlled” is central to their teachings.
Thus, the issue of “lust” in such a scheme cannot be treating a woman as a sexual commodity. Instead, it becomes about coveting and claiming that which isn’t yours through sexual fantasy.
My argument is that this is wrong for a number of reasons which I outline (and would take some time to unpack). To sum it up, I don’t think singleness is the opposite of marriage, I don’t think men are opposites of women, I don’t think people are property, and I don’t think modesty is about physical dress/appearance. For sure I think there is something wrong with “coveting and claiming” a neighbor’s wife in lust, but I don’t think the underlying concept that this is a natural male response that would be okay is she was “yours”.
I then redirect the word modesty through some key passages. Ultimately I arrive at 1 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 2 and use these to argue for modesty as imitation of Christ by emptying self or setting aside privilege a la Matthew 20 or Luke 14.
I hope that is helpful (and that you’ll still take the time to dive back in a reread a few more times). Feel free to send further questions. You can either post them here or email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Thanks for the question Barb.
Grace and Peace to you,
Nate, the way you address the passages in the final portion was extremely helpful. I’ve read similar points but never seen it all laid out together form Genesis to Peter like this. thanks much.
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“It is not treating a woman as a sex object that is sinful. Instead, the sin is that the man has attempted to claim a woman, sexually, who is not his to claim.”
Yep. That’s a big ol’ problem. And it actually makes the problem of lust essentially external. Because you swap in the woman you’re married to and the same thoughts/attitudes/whatever are now TOTALLY fine.
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Precisely Sarah. Thanks for the comment 🙂
I heard that the focus was on getting the free women to wear less expensive clothing (and stop showing off their status and wealth via their wardrobe) for the sake of their sisters whose status as slaves left them little choice what they got to wear. It is in keeping with the idea that believers ought to be humble and put others first.
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That is an important point, and not inconsistent with the point I have made regarding flaunting status and power. Often, people who take that emphasis are those who shy away from using extra-biblical material to interpret the Bible in order to have an easier bridge for discussion with the complementarian crowd. As I see it, it isn’t an either/or but a both/and.
Thank you for providing out a valid and important alternate interpretation of 1 Timothy 2.
Grace and Peace to you 🙂
Good post. Very good exegesis.
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The modesty doctrine (when used as certain body parts must be covered) doesn’t make sense historically, logically, or Biblically. It does, however, make sense financially to those who sell clothes.
From everything I have read, public nakedness was relatively common (but not constant nakedness) from the judges through the New Testament and on into the 14th century. If nakedness was common, then requiring certain body parts to be covered doesn’t make much sense.
References available if needed.
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I’m somewhat familiar, but certainly haven’t spent a ton of time on reading specifically on the intersection of public nudity and the biblical periods. I would be interested to learn more. You are welcome to provide references/links to credible sources if you wish.
Thanks for reading, commenting.
Exactly. Athletic events occurred the nude (that is the “gymno” in gymnastics, gymnasium, etc…it means “naked”). Further, clothing was expensive, and it is not expected that you would wear much when doing heavy labor (unless it was necessary for protection.) I have seen it argued that this is why the women at the tomb mistook Jesus for the gardner…he was nude just after he arose (the burial shroud was folded in the tomb), as the gardner might have been expected to be. The sight of the human body just wasn’t that uncommon…or remarkable.