In the wake of the recent Overwatch fiasco regarding one of the poses for Tracer, I’ve been contemplating the notion of modesty and how it is addressed in the Bible. As such I’d like to present what I think is a Biblical view on modesty and while it will not directly address the current matter of Tracer’s pose and Blizzard’s response, I hope it will paint a picture for how Christians ought to approach the subject in their own lives. My goal is not to address the issue of modesty directly with some arbitrary list of rules and regulations, but rather to provide a larger framework for placing the wellbeing of others ahead of our own rights on a voluntary, Spirit led basis. Thus the question is not whether others are restricting our freedom, but rather if the exercise of our freedom is creating a barrier between others and Christ.
The Church in Corinth
To begin, let’s look at an example from scripture that illustrates abusing freedom at the expense of other people in a completely different context. In his letter to the church in Corinth the apostle Paul was having to correct the motives of some of the church’s members when they were instructing other believers. Veteran Christians were wielding their knowledge of spiritual matters in a way that was burdensome and even abusive to newer followers of Jesus Christ. Their motive was not love, but rather pride. “This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 8:1b). His admonishment was in reference to the way the church was shaming new converts for still believing that meat sacrificed to idols held weight or meaning because, according to the more “learned” veterans, if there was no other God besides Yahweh, then naturally these sacrifices were meaningless and thus the meat untainted.
Paul’s answer to this situation is to point out that the Corinthians were using their knowledge in a foolish way; as a demonstration of their own “superior” understanding rather than for the edification of others. Instead, Paul prescribes this approach:
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Paul illustrates a voluntary desire to surrender his own rights in Christ (to eat whatever he wishes) for the sake of the spiritual wellbeing of another follower of Christ. While he understands that “an idol has no real existence” he is less concerned about demonstrating that knowledge than he is mentoring a new follower of Jesus by meeting this man or woman at their current level of understanding and walking with them as they grasp more fully the freedom they have in Christ. This is not the establishment of a specific rule to be followed but rather a conscientious decision to forego his own freedom in Christ out of love for another person.
Rather than jumping straight into an example of why I think modest attire is an expression of this principle, I’d like to illustrate what Paul is teaching with two examples from my own life during my college years; one positive and the other negative. The first involves an overt and disproportionate romantic gesture on my part toward a woman I was interested in dating. I say “disproportionate” because while I was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with an acquaintance, my gesture gave her the impression that I was far more committed to our involvement than I actually was prepared to be. As a result, she tried to move things along more quickly and I bailed out of the relationship all together.
Unfortunately my motives with that “immodest” act (emotionally speaking) were selfish; I was more interested in how she and our mutual friends would perceive me over such a grand gesture rather than considering what message I would be sending to her about how serious I was about the relationship. I didn’t recognize this at the time but in hindsight I see that my motives were self-centered. To make matters worse, I didn’t fess up and explain where I was at in the relationship but instead pulled away all together and ruined a perfectly good friendship.
Later in my college career my roommate and I ran into a couple of freshman women at a hangout on campus who we recognized as being new to the art department. What began as a few games of ping pong turned into an evening of introducing them to the art student’s life on campus—hanging out in the art department after hours, going to the local donut dive, etc. What I failed to recognize right away was that one of them was taking a liking to me. However when I mentioned an interest in my then-friend-now-wife while we were all talking as a group, thus revealing my affections for another woman, I saw a visible shift in her countenance.
Around that same time a Christian professor of mine had offered me the novel advice of “being honest” with women and actually used a very similar example as his illustration. He suggested that rather than dancing around one another with this “does she like me, does she not” cloak and dagger nonsense men and women should be upfront with one another. I took his advice and brought up the situation in private, acknowledging that I wasn’t entirely sure if I had read the situation correctly but that if so, I was sorry for any misleading on my part. At first she was cold toward me and denied my claims but about an hour later we ran into one another once more and she confessed that yes, she had taken a liking to me and was disappointed that I was unavailable. She was grateful though that I had cleared the air and it paved the way for our friendship to continue.
Voluntary Expressions of Love
While neither of these illustrations have to do with modesty as we generally think of it, they are examples from my own life of when I made decisions based on either my own satisfaction and pride or on the wellbeing of another person and our relationship as a whole. For the Christ follower, that is to be the spiritual foundation of all our choices—to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Mathew 22: 40).
This doesn’t mean a Christian will never offend another individual; I’m sure the men and women of the church at Corinth were quite offended when Paul called them out on their arrogance. What it means is that a Christ follower will voluntarily remove every unnecessary offense out of love for another person and will only risk offense when doing so is also rooted in love. And this love must be defined by who God is and what he has revealed about love in the Bible, not by any relativistic human standards. After all, God is love.
What does this all have to do with modesty? Well, for starters, both Christian men and women ought to consider their actions, words, and yes, even how they dress, with regard to the affect these things may have on others. In my experience, men and women use provocative attire, body language, and communication for the sake of manipulating the opposite sex or for inflating their own egos (myself included). In Christ there is great freedom—we are not constrained by laws that demand we dress a certain way or wear our hair in certain styles—and yet we ought not to use that freedom callously or even worse, for deceitful gain.
There’s one other question to be answered here though, and that is what determines “modest” and “immodest,” especially with regard to clothing and body language. The problem here is that modesty has more to do with cultural norms than a specific line drawn in the sand however that only serves to enforce the idea that this is not about law, but love. I’m not arguing modesty as a rule, but rather as a gesture of respect and compassion which first requires an understanding of what makes others uncomfortable which will vary from culture to culture.
Take for example a friend of mine who lived in an Islamic nation for several years. He was invited to the Muslim equivalent of a westerner’s bachelor party, where women were brought in to dance with elbows and ankles exposed as well as having their hair worn down. It may not seem like much if you’re from the west, but to those men it was the equivalent of going to a show in Las Vegas. My friend, wanting to express exactly what I’ve been describing in this post, excused himself on the basis that he was a married man who would not watch other women dancing in that way.
Now, growing up in the west, he did not view any of this as provocative or immodest in the slightest. But out of a love for his friends and a desire to share with them his commitment to Christ he based his choice not on the freedom he has in Christ to innocently view a woman’s elbow, but on a culturally relevant expression of faithfulness to his wife and a respect for women in general. Ultimately this one act became pivotal in changing how this Muslim community viewed the west in general and Christians in particular, an opportunity very few in their region ever have.
Personally, I don’t want to see overly sexualized men or women in the videogames I play, and there are some I’ve avoided all together because it gets to the point of being uncomfortable for me. But I don’t expect businesses to do anything other than what is in their best interests financially, and arguing whether Blizzard was right or wrong isn’t my concern. However I do have a desire for Christian men and women to consider their actions and attire and how these things not only affect other people, but how they reflect the nature of Jesus Christ. Following Christ is a path full of freedom, but that freedom must be used or surrendered voluntarily as a gesture of genuine love for God and other people.
One thought on “A Biblical Perspective on Modesty”
Most of the time I read teaching about modesty, it seems to suggest that men are weak. Men are so weak, in fact, that if women weren’t modest any number of sins would result from having given into temptation because he saw her shoulders or knees or her skirt was one inch too short. That is why modesty is usually demanded of women by men, who set the rules about what is modest and what isn’t. There usually isn’t any equivalent as to what men must not wear for the sake of the women. The problem is that “In Christ” men often feel free to take a young woman aside and berate her wardrobe choices (it happened to my cousin) because it’s a problem for him (though it wasn’t a problem for any other man in the room). The problem is when another young woman develops an eating disorder in an attempt to be modest so as not to tempt any man in the room – it never happens the other way around, you know.