Shaming Women in the Name of Modesty

My heart is very heavy tonight, and has been for some time, when I ponder how women are often seen in evangelical Christianity today. Not just by men, but by other women as well. And I wonder what Jesus would say if he walked into one of our churches on a Sunday morning, or a women’s group meeting, or an elders’ meeting, or our own homes. My intent has never been to bash the Church and I’ve spoken out before about commentators who always try to find fault with the Bride of Christ. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I’d like to share what’s on my heart and ask that you pray and consider opening your heart to this perspective.

Shaming Women in the Evangelical Church

A few years ago at a gathering of female Christian bloggers, I presented on a panel discussion about balancing work life and family. I sat dumbfounded and tears streamed down my face when the women in that room were burdened by a popular Christian voice for that which is never their fault. The gist of the message was that if a women neglects her husband sexually, she may be responsible for him falling into the sin of pornography. Therefore, all care must be made that we give him what he “needs” as a man.” I could barely speak when the mic came to me, but my message was a bit different to say the least. I wanted to run into the audience and embrace every woman there with God’s grace and love.

There are countless instances online of Christian mothers of sons publicly shaming female friends’ dress and photographs for causing their precious boys to sin.

I’ve sat in congregations many times when the pastor lovingly addresses the women in the church, imploring them to dress modestly for the sake of the men in the church. Women then proceed to look around the church for someone on which to hone in their self-righteousness. (You know I’m right, women) And being in the front helping to lead worship has definitely made me more cognizent than most about what people consider offensive.

Dear women, hear this message: Yes, we should listen to and obey the Lord in every area of life, including dress, appearance, intimate relationships, etc. However, I believe God wants us to do that in response to His GREAT LOVE for us, not some guilt trip that we humans put on each other.

Let’s address some basic premises.

Are there some women who dress solely with the purpose of getting undue attention from men who aren’t their husbands?

Yes. Is it sinful? Yes. Should those women be spoken to in love? Yes. But I believe the vast majority of women are not in this category. Our culture is difficult to navigate with regard to fashion and modesty. There are so many different visual stumbling blocks for men and women. One man may be tempted by seeing a woman’s knee. One man may be tempted by the collarbone. And another may be tempted just by seeing the basic outline of a woman’s body in pants that actually fit. Which one of these temptations are the fault of the women and need to be addressed by calling her out? Is it just the hint of cleavage? Or leggings under a sweater? Where do we stop placing the blame on a woman?  Is it just for the attractive women? And who sets the standard? Should it be set by the pastor? By the catty women who “pray” for the Jezebels and express concern for their husbands who are just trying to stay pure? Should we wear burkas just in case?

Does the Bible speak about women dressing modestly?

Absolutely. Although most of the references deal with showing off great wealth, trying to look like one is better than others, or trying to take attention off of the Lord. There are passages, specifically regarding the worship gathering that talk about women’s dress.

I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (NIV, 1 Timothy 2:9-10)

Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. (NASB, 1 Peter 3:2-5)

Where in these passages does the Scripture say this because women may entice a man to sin? No, it is because He has made us beautiful within- through the working of the Holy Spirit, and that beauty is displayed through a peaceful spirit and compassionate deeds. The Lord does not want us to settle with contentment in outward beauty, which will wither and fade, and cheat us out of the true fulfillment in Him!

Didn’t Jesus confront immoral women and tell them to turn from their ways?

Well, let’s look at those passages.

Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at the well and has this exchange with her:

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”  (John 4: 16-18, NASB)

Jesus then explained to her that He was the Messiah and had come to usher in the hour when true worshippers will worship in Spirit and Truth. (They will worship the true Messiah, enabled by the Holy Spirit and not in their own strength.) Where is the part that He tells her to stop making the men in her life sin?

Surely the adulterous woman in John 8 was told to cover herself for the sake of the pious men in the midst! No, actually what Jesus said to her was “Go and sin no more.” He acknowledged that her adultery was sin – as we should, however, he did not blame her for the sin of the man she was involved with.

The Bible is clear about where the responsibility for sin lies.

But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (James 1:14-15, NASB)

Does this mean that we as women should not do everything we can to keep our Christian brothers from having to deal with temptation?

I’m not at all suggesting that women begin wearing plunging necklines and miniskirts to church. And for the love of all humanity, do not wear leggings as pants. However, can we address this issue from the perspective of God’s LOVE for men and women, and His desire for us to live in the fullness of the Spirit every day? Can we stop the nitpicking about the length of someone’s dress or the fit of her jeans (especially if she happened to gain some weight and struggles to fit into said jeans, yes they might be tight – ahem… not talking about anyone in particular here). I have often wished that I could force my body to be extremely thin so I wouldn’t have to worry about dressing for curves and facing shame for my natural body.

I try to dress modestly in the way that I believe God is calling me to, while at the same time, not being ashamed to look nice. I remember when I was afraid to wear makeup or curl my hair because a young Christian brother might stumble. All the while, I was being preyed upon by a “young Christian brother” and thinking it was my fault. This prison of thinking is not the will of God. Women – stop making it into sin for another women to be beautiful.

I teach my daughters to dress modestly. But NOT because of what they might do to a boy. Because they are “far more precious than jewels” to the Lord. Because he knitted them together in my womb and He loves them. He doesn’t want them to trade their holiness for attention from the world.

I want to ask something from the women in the Church.

The next time you see a woman who offends you with her clothing, ask yourself a few questions – and these are difficult.

Why does her appearance bother me?

Is it jealousy? Self-righteousness? Legalism? Insecurity? Lack of trust in my husband? Or is it the conviction of the Holy Spirit because of God’s great love for her?

How should I address this?

In my experience, the best model for addressing any kind of conflict or sin is by following Matthew 18. Don’t email the pastor and vaguely condemn the dress of the women as a whole. Don’t “gossip pray” for the women you just KNOW are trying to seduce men. If you feel you must, go to the person and let them know how you feel with a gentle and contrite Spirit, seeking only for their building up in the faith.

But how about just praying for her alone with God. How about having a little grace? How about inviting the girl to lunch and getting to know her. There may be a reason she seeks worldly attention that God is calling you to help her with. Then maybe… just maybe… you’ll be an instrument of healing rather than shame.

Please add your thoughts in the comments. This post is written through the lens of my past experiences which include abuse, shaming, and eating disorders, so I realize you may have a different view. 


Photo by Montecruz Foto, Flickr. Creative Commons License

4 comments

  1. Jennifer Whiteford says:

    <3 <3 <3
    Beautifully said/studied.
    Something I've noticed quite a bit is that people who are just beginning to come to church or new believers who have just always been in very secular/worldly surroundings tend to dress in a revealing or sexually attractive wat because they simply are used to attractiveness being judged that way. That's their genuine best effort to look nice. And they wanted to look nice to come to church, to have made an effort. I get uncomfortable when MY eyes are drawn to a distraction like that, wondering what my husband must be going through trying not to be distracted, but there is just no right way to handle it other than compassion. It's hard for me to imagine a time when something should be said, but God provides moments sometimes, I'm sure. If we are praying for somebody, we will know when/if we are to say something. And He convicts people all on His own, too, just might take a little time.

  2. Richard T says:

    Sarah, I found this entry interesting and intriqueing. We are different but from my perspective, the fault is not with the church, Christian teachings or too easily tempted men or women. Our clothes are possibly nothing more than a costume, one that projects the kind of person we want people to think we are. In high school I dressed like I was an outdoorsman, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. I dressed to impress. Teaching middle school, I see this everyday. It boils down, as I often say about many things, to self worth. If a person is really strong in their identity, and was happy with who they were, and wanted friends to like them because of who they are, then dressing to impress just isn’t a factor. Too many folks, men and women, dress in such a way, in hopes that we will be perceived as maybe something different than we really are, or at least different than how we really feel about ourselves. Brene Brown does a wonderful job of explaining the areas of vulnerabiltiy and the differences of how men and women generally are insecure. No surprise here. With the assault of TV, photoshoped models, advertising that says we must look a certain way, and to do so otherwise would only mean we are less than beautiful. We need to raise our children to be resilient enough to see through the lies of advertsing, to see our value in who we are, not what we look like, or what clothes I wear, and to value our view of ourselves, and learn to disregard what others think of us. It is, as they say in Alanon, none of our business. As for any discussion about men being tempted beyond their ability to control themselves; men choose to control their urges, but in our society, men are discouraged from exercising the self control they actually have…and others then make excuses for them. I suspect this is a little incoherent but it is the best I can do off the cuff. Men need to be held accountable for their actions regardless of how a person dresses or acts. Women, how about dressing like a smart attractive woman of substance, and not a sex bomb. In fact, many men I know find the over the top, “look at me, and my curves” look silly, shallow and repulsive. Your looks may catch our eye at first but it is your mind that makes you beautiful.

    • Sarah Pinnix says:

      Richard, thanks for weighing in! I could not agree more with your perspective! I do think the church as a whole has failed to make it about the person’s worth and more about restriction and shame. So that’s where we need to get stronger in our message to women and girls.

      Also this: “men are discouraged from exercising the self control they actually have…and others then make excuses for them” Very true.

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