Modesty and Temperance (Part I)

I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition, influence, the influence of tradition, and the tradition of influence.  I know, that sounds confusing.  But in the conservative segments of Christianity, which describes the churches of Christ quite well, one of the key arguments against any number of things is “influence.”  If you do this, you will not have the same influence as if you firmly stand against it.

And I can understand that argument.  If we are striving to uphold a certain standard, then it is important to hold a line.  But the exact location of that line is what is often in question. 

There are two classic cases where this kind of reasoning is applied: one deals with “modest apparel” and the other with the consumption of alcohol.  The first of these is based on a passage from I Timothy 2:  “9  likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10  but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” 

In almost every sermon ever preached on “modest apparel,” the emphasis has been on women wearing too little.  Contextually, that is not the emphasis at all.  Here modesty means more of not over-doing it.  Notice Paul’s negative instruction: not with braided hair (perhaps intertwined with gold and jewels), gold and pearls, or costly attire—each of the last three obvious signs of affluence.  Paul emphasizes the necessity of good works as being that which catches the eye.  The external is of little value, no matter how expensively that may be decorated.  Inner attractiveness will be expressed in good works.

The consequence of this misapplication is that many conservative groups have placed strict prohibitions on certain forms of dress:  for example, when I was growing up, only the very young could wear shorts.  Women were rarely seen in pants, let alone shorts.  I never remember seeing anyone related to the church ever showing any indications of flesh on the leg, except of course, women in dresses or skirts. 

I was shocked when I heard a preacher from South Africa say that people in that country regularly wore shorts to worship.  I thought it was one of the worst revelations of sacrilege I had ever encountered.  I mean, how dare they show their legs, extreme heat notwithstanding!  It was shocking, but that notion really stuck with me. 

Later, I started wondering about that passage from I Timothy.  The discussion was specific to women.  Were men excused?  Obviously, the doctrine allows application to men as well, even though there men are not specifically mentioned.  And then, I started wondering about any skin exposure at all:  Why is it OK to wear short sleeves, but not short pants?  Aren’t these appendages more or less equivalent?  Perhaps the distinction is the proximity to the “private” region….  But that is not discussed in scripture, at least in this sense.

The issue is more with not causing another to stumble, and not inciting lust.  I would suggest that this has more to do with the concept of our term, “decency.”  However, that line is difficult to establish, at best, since different people respond to different stimuli differently.   Yes, it is necessary to cover the body in a decent manner.  But to dictate that all shorts are sinful and short sleeves are not seems thoroughly inconsistent.  It also fails to understand what the Bible rightly acknowledges, that the heart or mind is where bad things originate.  Jesus repeatedly talks about how it’s not what goes into the person that is bad, but what comes out of the heart (which can be construed as the mind, as well.)  For some people, lust does not require visual stimulation: the predisposition is already present, an object may have already been identified, and a visual queue is not even necessary.

From this discussion, someone will likely suggest that I condone the salacious displays to which many people resort.  I firmly deny that assertion.  If the intent is to incite lust, it is wrong, whether the display is made by man or woman.  I would hope that there might be a return to fidelity to the text in 1Timothy 2.9-10.  If that is done, then we may actually see a change in how people dress, including how they dress for worship.  In fact, people might place less emphasis on the old concept of “putting on their Sunday best” clothes and focus more on getting the heart right while wearing decent–but less showy–clothing.

Modesty (not wearing too much, in the context of I Timothy 2) and decency (more related to not wearing too little) are both important.  I believe we need to make sure we don’t confuse the two, and practice each for their intended goals.


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