My back was aching after only a few minutes of sitting on a narrow log just a couple of inches off the dirt. It had already been a long day and I was less than enthusiastic about sitting there for hours in the rainy, mosquito filled night. I was still learning language, so my overtired brain was in even more pain than my back as I listened to one of ladies lead a Bible study for the rest of the women (young and old) in our village.
|Just hanging out with ladies after church. Notice everyone in skirts NOT shorts.
I perked up, however, when she started discussing the topic of modesty. She was telling the young ladies how inappropriate it was for the men to see their shorts. Hewa ladies all wore skirts and most wore long basketball style shorts underneath those skirts, but every now then a skirt would accidentally snag on something and make a tear, and then someone could see the shorts underneath. This was apparently very VERY inappropriate and needed to be reprimanded strongly. Because modesty (or lack there of) looks so completely different in my culture, my assumption was that this was the purpose of the shorts. You know so if there is a tear in the skirt you don't see skin. And well, you know what they say when you assume... (wink, wink). I listened to this lecture intently trying to take note of new words or phrases that I needed to ask about later, but I kept getting distracted by the idea that showing a sliver of long loose-fitting basketball shorts was inappropriate. It was especially difficult when at least three ladies in the meeting were sitting completely topless. But their shorts weren't showing, so they were good!
It made me realize then and there that modest dress was heavily influenced by cultural norms and values. That becomes very tricky when you want to teach the principle Biblicaly, rather than on your personal values or cultural influences. I can't very well tell these ladies that they are being ridiculous and that seeing the gigantic shorts underneath a skirt isn't a sin. And I certainly couldn't tell them that they needed to put shirts on for Heaven's sake! The next step is to turn to the Bible and find out what exactly the scripture says about modesty and apply the principles to the jungle lady's context.
The problem, however, is that the verses that we often reference in the Bible when teaching on modesty (1 Tim. 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:2) are actually entreating the women of the church not to flaunt their material wealth which is a lesson largely ignored in the Western church, and one I had certainly never heard preached, but was actually perfect for the context I was in at the time. Thankfully many veteran missionaries made sure to let us know that we needed to wear about 3 outfits total around our friends, only get new things when the others were REALLY shabby or at least give away the old to someone in the village if you break out something new.
Fast forward to 2020 where I'm spending a lot of time indoors and isolated from real people, but am following a much larger discussion on modesty and purity in the church on social media. I was bombarded by people (mostly women) attacking the "purity culture" of the 1990s and hearing anger in what was taught- especially in regards to modest dress. The biggest issue I saw was that the idea that girls were asked to dress appropriately so as not to make their Christian brothers "stumble" is offensive and sexist and that boys should be taught to take responsibility for their own choices and sin rather than "blaming" girls for what they were wearing. Okay. Sure. If this is EXACTLY what was taught at your church then that's messed up and I am truly sorry. And I know abuse and manipulation happens in many Christian contexts, so I am not discounting that at all. But it seems like this has lead people to believe that women should and can dress anyway they want and how the men respond to that is entirely up to them. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. And I just want to be clear that I'm not here to be the clothes police. As mentioned above, that conversation is definitely going to be subjective to culture. My issue is with the attitude that we are teaching to girls with this huge swing. The "I am not my brother's keeper attitude" is probably NOT the one we should be modeling since...you know...that came from the world's first murderer.
I also feel like I need to point out that was a youth group kid. I was at church every time the doors were opened and went to every large youth event offered in the Southeast (which was a lot) and this was not the message I heard. Sure, I did hear that my clothing choices could make a brother stumble and I should be mindful of that, but I also heard the boys addressed and taught how to take responsibility for their lust with the "bouncing eyes" techniques, etc. I never once felt like I was the target of oppression or that the responsibility of lusty boys rested solely on my shoulders (covered shoulders, of course).
I do believe that girls should be taught first and foremost that their relationship with the Lord is what should influence their clothing choices and they should consider what brings glory to Him in all they do including building their wardrobe. But denying ourselves and considering others are CENTRAL aspects of walking with Jesus and among the chief principles that he taught His followers. And I can tell you right now, that if you disagree with asking a girl to "consider her brothers" then you are disagreeing with the Bible. The RED LETTERS in the Bible, in fact, because with Jesus' own mouth and voice, He told His followers over and over again to PUT OTHERS ABOVE YOURSELF. This has nothing to do with patriarchy or oppression or feminism. It has nothing to do with the fact that a girl has to consider a boy's feelings when she dresses because she is somehow inferior. It has everything to do with siblings, co-heirs of the kingdom who look out for one another, putting the other first, looking out for the interest of the other.
In fact, girls, if we want to be the spiritual equal of men then let's look to what Jesus taught the twelve men closest to him:
"But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28
"When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." John 13:12-17
And I could make this post super long if I wanted to reference all the times Paul brought up this subject of preferring others, but let's focus simply on Romans 14 which is where the idea of the "stumbling block" comes from. Paul is mostly talking about the freedoms we have in Christ and how we should use those freedoms with discretion, always taking into account our fellow believers. He is specifically referencing forbidden foods like foods sacrificed to idols, but the principle is the same. Don't allow your freedoms to bring harm to someone else. That is not what they were intended for. I love how Paul puts the emphasis on the importance of PEOPLE and not actions or things, so it's easy for us to apply this to many different situations today. In verses 15 and 16 he says,
"If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
Sister, do not let how you dress destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let your body which is holy, precious, honorable, and built for serice to God and not the pleasure of man be spoken of as evil. The Kingdom of God is not about all these rules, this list of do's and don'ts... it is about loving each other. Dying to ourselves and and living in love for God and for others.
Let's take the post above for example. Yes, Jesus is telling men to take responsibility for their own lusts. But ladies, let's take into account that in Jesus' day women were wearing long flowing robes and covered heads. They weren't wearing crop tops and booty shorts. Let's think for just a moment though, about this command from Jesus and just imagine that He is being literal for a second. Imagine you are walking down the street with your assets on display and every man you pass starts stabbing himself in the eyeballs. I bet the desire to dress immodestly will be squashed pretty quickly.
Jesus is showing us through an extreme visual image (common in Rabbinic style teaching) how serious sin is, specifically the sin of lust. But the call is not just for the men. Ladies these are your brothers, sons, boyfriends, future husbands, current husbands. If what we are doing is causing pain equivalent to gouging out eyeballs and being permanently disabled, then our hearts desire should be to do whatever we can to help them avoid that pain, much less be the cause of it.
Our world, our culture, pushes nothing but self. Self-love. Self-care. Selfie. The Gospel pushes another agenda. The agenda of Self-denial. Of DYING to self. Of living for another. Even if that other person isn't "worthy." Remember sisters, we were not and are not worthy of the sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf. So even if the men are not worthy, even if they are not taking responsibility for themselves, your call is the same. Honor Christ with your body and love your neighbor as yourself. Be the opposite of Cain, the murderer. Be the life-giver. Be your brother's keeper.