I was recently asked the following question after my post on the feminist fight for the “right” to go topless:
Do you see [modesty] as cultural… or do you see a biblical expression of a specific definition of modesty?
In my original answer, I explained how we searched the bible to determine our definition of “modesty” and wrote:
“I tend to believe that we should first look to His word, before looking to our culture to define our standards.”
I still believe this. However, in thinking about it since then, I realize that my answer didn’t go deep enough. In searching God’s word, I see that some of His laws are subject to the culture and the people to which they were given (Mark 10:5, Matthew 19:8: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law…. From the beginning it was not so.”) Furthermore, the application of some laws were enforced on a case-by-case basis by God, Himself (John 8:1-11: the adulterous woman, 2 Samuel 12: David and Bathsheba.) So what is the “right” stance to have on modesty? Maybe there isn’t one.* Some of us define modesty based on biblical culture and the standards displayed in the Bible (which would reflect that culture), while some of us define modesty based on modern culture and the standards that govern our society. And maybe we’re both right.
Because, as the bible shows us time and time again, the issue is that of our hearts. The person who practices modesty by returning to the biblical ideal and the person who practices modesty by following the cultural ideal are both acting from a desire to be modest. And in that, I believe we are both doing what is “right.”
*Several years ago, I posted the following article: What are we doing to our guys? Since then, and especially after having read the Modesty Culture articles I linked to in a recent post, I have come to re-evaluate how “modesty” is defined in the Christian worldview. Specifically, the fallacy of defining “modesty” by determining what a man feels when he looks at a woman (as exemplified in the image above… Gothard’s advice encouraging women to be on guard against “eye traps.”) Although I still believe that it’s important to take men’s struggles into consideration (in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 8 [“if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall“]), I think that to define modesty by what men could potentially feel when they look at a women not only puts the blame and responsibility of lust squarely on the woman, it also gives her an impossible standard to achieve. After all, some man some where is always going to be able to find some thing to lust after. Furthermore, as I wrote in my last post on the subject, there is something beautiful to be said about saving one’s body as something special and sacred to be seen and enjoyed only in a particular context, within a particular relationship. In that context, our bodies don’t become a source of temptation we have to cover and be ashamed of, but a glory to be discovered only by that special person we give the privilege of discovery to.
(As a side note, I also find the point made in the “Modesty Culture” articles interesting that, for all intents and purposes, modesty in Christian culture usually only applies to girls ([boys going around topless, anyone?])