Tag Archives: modesty

Men, Women, Dinners, and Access

I grew up in Fundamentalism with the phenomenon of men and women living under radically different holiness codes. One of the most notable, even to my young eyes, centered on the way men – especially married men – could not be in the room with a woman alone. For example, if the male church janitor was in the sanctuary cleaning up, it would not be considered appropriate for the church secretary (a woman, of course) to be the only other person left in the building.

When I was a teenager, my Christian school almost canceled a planned field trip because some parent of one gender canceled and that left only the opposite gender parent and I’m not really sure because even then it seemed weird to me that people were so worried about parents-without-their-spouses hitting the sack on the backside of a 711 or something.  I think somebody’s wife agreed to take a day off work to go on the field trip and protect the testimonies of all the parents involved.

(Man, if I’d been any more worldly-wise growing up, I would have raised several eyebrows at how often “testimonies” needed to be “protected.”)

When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and started a long march through chemotherapy. As a senior in college, I awoke one weekend to the nightmare that she’d had a stroke once the cancer hit her brain (or maybe it was the chemo; those particular drugs had a habit of triggering strokes) and had been rushed to the hospital. It was bad there for awhile, and I was 500 miles from home, and my parents didn’t really have the money to put me on a plane. So the youth pastor from my home church, a man whom I barely knew because he’d started working there after I went to college, graciously offered to drive down to Greenville from Western PA and pick me up for a quick weekend home to see my mom after she had brain surgery.  Problem was, he couldn’t be in the car with me for the ride home.  In Fundamentalism, that was a deal-breaker.  My agnostic, rock-band, techie brother agreed to do the ride-along job of chaperon, creating what must have been the Universe’s weirdest “buddy comedy road trip adventure” story of the year.

I’d pretty much called ‘bullshit’ on this whole paradigm when the head pastor of the church I attended in Greenville made a point in a sermon and then in a published article of expounding why, if he saw a single woman walking down the road in the pouring rain with groceries, he could not be expected to give her a ride. I don’t have a copy of the article and this was pre-internet, but someone on that side of the fence commented on the general gist of it in a post at TGC.

So this might explain how I went for years without any man touching me ever, even on the arm, even as a hug, even as a goodbye or hello, when I lived and worked and studied in Fundamentalist circles. It explains why, when I joined a PCA church in the early 2000s, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a guy would tap my arm as part of normal conversation. Took me years to retrain my body that human contact is actually healthy and good.

Vice President Mike Pence made a splash in January when it hit the news that he refuses to be in a room with another woman if his wife isn’t present. A lot of people outside conservative religious circles guffawed, but many of us – especially women – rolled our eyes and said, “Here we go again.”

Many people wrote good articles about how this is a form of gender discrimination. I liked The Atlantic’s piece: “How Mike Pence’s Dudely Dinners Hurt Women.”  In a world where men still serve as gatekeepers to power, barring women from the room unless there’s a chaperon around isn’t protecting either of them from wrongful accusation. It’s just keeping women out of the chambers of power.

A friend of mine is studying science at a nearby, large, Research One institution that shall remain nameless. She is a senior PhD student in a STEM field, highly capable and respected by her colleagues.  If she needs to use a particular piece of equipment in another lab, the professor (a man) refuses to let women into his lab unless there are other people present.  Since this student cannot control others’ schedules, she has sometimes lost her slot to work with this critical lab equipment because there were no other people around to “chaperon” their time in the lab.  But it’s ok – some guy got to jump in and take her spot, since apparently religious conservatives are so opposed to LGBTQ+ people that they refuse to consider them when building these holiness codes.

What makes this so galling is the way her science department and university administration cannot see that this professor’s holiness code has become a weapon against women in STEM at that university.  Instead, she’s noted that people are stunned when she suggests anything but admiration for this man “who cares so much about his marriage that he refuses to be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife! Isn’t that chivalrous?! Isn’t it grand?!”

No. It’s legalism, if we want to parse this through the lens of Christian theology.  God never said “don’t be alone with another woman.” What He said was, precisely, “Don’t be an adulterer,” which Jesus intensified as “Don’t lust after another woman in your heart.”  You can’t cut your heart out of your body, guys, so you’re going to have to rely on the Grace of the Cross for your sanctification, not your own rules about who’s sitting in the office after hours. [Please don’t bring up “Let not your good be spoken about as evil.” Not the point of that passage. If we want to play the proof-text game, then let me remind you, “To the pure, all things are pure.” So get your damn mind out of the gutter next time you see a man and woman together in a professional setting.]

And from a professional, “business” viewpoint, it’s sexism. The primary victim of all holiness codes are the women. In the name of protecting something good (marital fidelity), the brunt of the work falls on the women – not to be present if there’s a man doing his job; not to dress in a way that a man finds provocative; not to be available lest he want to rape her. Oh, sorry, I forgot we aren’t talking about the Stanford swimmer-rapist. 

Things were simpler, I realize, when the only power brokers in the boardroom, the lab, the classroom, or the pulpit were white men. That 1950s demographic profile does remain in many conservative circles, but in general American experience, things have opened up for us ladies.   ….Kind of.  OK, barely….. 😉

But I wish more men were out there expressing the outrage they ought to feel when their religious structures reinforce the idea that sexuality and attraction are uncontrollable forces in the universe; that women are temptresses and men are faithless ever; that a man wants only sex from the women he’s around; that people’s ability to claim any ridiculous thing about your reputation trumps the Great Commandments should you happen to see a woman walking in the rain and you’re the only guy in your warm, dry automobile as you pass her.

As a woman who’s married (19 years and counting) to a man who’s nothing like that, I’m offended on my husband’s behalf that people not only think like this, they celebrate people who do.  I don’t feel any need to track my husband’s movements via his iPhone or think twice about what he’s doing with his genitalia where other humans are concerned. Why? Because he’s a decent human, and I trust him. It’s part of what Love means when I think about my marriage vows.


You don’t get to close your lab “in the name of Jesus.”  You shouldn’t applaud people like Mike Pence who use a non-biblical standard of sexual “purity” in a way that locks women out of the halls of power. It doesn’t matter whether Pence “intended” for that to be the effect. It IS the effect his holiness code has on the women around him.

You shouldn’t cancel your kid’s field trip for the sake of your testimony. (Good grief, who ARE your friends, and why do you keep hanging out with them if they are going to scream nasty things about your reputation the minute you set foot in an automobile with someone of the opposite sex?)

You shouldn’t avoid doing the right thing – the kind and loving thing – because you’ve built yourself a big ol’ holiness fence to protect your personal reputation. Sometimes doing the right thing is going to look rather messy.  At that point, you can either love your holiness code or you can love the person you’re trying to help.  You can’t do both.

Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means – Q Ideas

An outstanding post on Modesty – I couldn’t have said it better myself. Brava, Rachel Held Evans.

What I’ve only just begun to realize is that these two extremes represent different sides of the same coin. While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. In both cases, it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men, and thus it is seen as her fault if a man ignores her on the one hand or objectifies her on the other. Often, these two cultures combine to send out a pulse of confusing messages: “Look cute … but not too cute! Be modest … but not frumpy! Make yourself attractive … but not too attractive!” Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals. It’s exhausting, really, dressing for other people.

But all of this takes the notion of modesty far beyond its biblical context.

via Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means – Q Ideas.

A link and a conversation

Around these parts, you’ll hear me say a lot about defining sin correctly, and living our lives much more graciously when it comes to the way we relate to others who see the world differently.

Awhile back, I took a shot at writing about modesty in the context of a school dress code (link coming, but for now look here and here for the unfinished series).

“Modesty” for the Christian woman is an area where our desire to give (usually other women or girls) lots of answers and rules with more certainty than the Scripture would support leads to plenty of misunderstandings, judgmental attitudes, hurt feelings, and hypocritical stances.

A friend of mine pointed out this fantastic article on the blog Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings:  “In Which I Weigh In On The Modesty Debate”

It’s a kind and compelling call to women to lay down our arms against one another in the war over what modesty is supposed to be.  There’s a fundamental misunderstanding lurking in the shadows of the modesty debate, a tendency to locate blame for wrong actions and attitudes on the wrong shoulders. And that makes the entire debate emotionally charged and dangerous.

And I also loved this comment, which nails the connection between rightly defining what’s “sin” and what’s personal preference, and how a life lived in the Gospel calls us to a much tougher standard than following “rules”:

Real modesty is not drawing attention to yourself by how you are dressed. Whether that is by either letting it all hang out or being completely covered from head to toe.

There is more to being modest than wearing dresses/skirts. Being modest is an attitude that reflects Christ. It is an inward beauty that has little to do with looks. Man looks on the outward appearance, Christ looks at the heart. It does not draw attention to oneself by being outwardly different, but is noticed because of the reflection of Christ that shines through behavior and actions. It is a woman who is made in the image of God reflecting that image in how she carries herself and conducts her daily life. [Meg, June 16, 2013 at 4:50 PM]

Dress Like You Mean It, Part 1

Taken me a while to get back to this… but here’s a bit of thinking to keep everyone busy till I get back from England 

I was stunned by the volume, clarity, and quality of comments my “preamble” post generated on the Facebook version of this conversation. I recommend checking them out before you keep reading…. because there’s some amazing stuff there!

Before the conversation gets too far derailed by specific dress code issues, I’d like to park on the theological corner of “modesty” for a few posts.

BACKGROUND: “On These Hang All the Law & the Prophets”
At NCS, we joke that we have three basic rules: 1) Love God. 2) Love your neighbor. 3) Don’t hurt the building (which is merely a restatement of rule #2 for the benefit of our building manager).

Amazingly, those 3 “commandments” really *do* cover the heart and soul of interactions within a school community.

Name me a problem that arises during the school day, and unless it’s a procedural issue regulated by the state of South Carolina, our “rule” most likely grows organically from an application of the Great Commandments.  I used to type up a giant list of classroom rules/policies and hand it out at the beginning of every year. Now I hold a running conversation with each of my classes as needed, usually commencing the first week, to discuss the specifics of loving God and neighbor during the 45 minutes I call “English class.”  Every problem, every conflict will emerge out of one or more people (including me) ignoring God’s basic framework for Life In The Kingdom.

I will fight for this view of a school rulebook. I hope ours remains thin.  We should cap it at 50 rules, and as soon as someone insists on a new one, we can’t implement it until we throw out one of the old ones.

I’m not saying that schools can’t (or shouldn’t) have more specific guidelines suggesting particular consequences for certain behaviors. Sometimes we are bound by law to react in certain ways to a student’s threat against his classmates, or someone’s cry for help. Sometimes it’s wise to at least set up a framework for how the school expects to handle typical classroom problems.

I am saying that, as sinners, our sinful hearts LOVE RULES.  We loooooooooooooooooooove them.

We clutch at the chance to define righteousness by marking a line in the sand: “Here, and no further” or “As long as you don’t ————–” or “I’m righteous as long as I’m doing ______.”  We will straight out gnats with tedious precision just to avoid mentioning the giant camel (or elephant, in the modern proverb) standing over in the corner.

We misunderstand the very heart of goodness. I hope each NCS graduate will always be able to recite Coart’s maxim, “A ‘good kid’ is not the kid who stays out of trouble. A ‘good kid’ is one who does good [deeds].”  In  Scripture, goodness is active. Righteousness results in right actions.  Salvation produces a heart that loves andkeeps God’s commandments.  Yes, we might “stay out of trouble” a little more, but that’s not the definition of our goodness.

I’m not righteous because I avoid certain people, places, music, books, words, movies, or actions.

My righteousness comes from my Savior and Redeemer, Christ, who obeyed perfectly and died willingly. He gives me everything I need for this life of godliness. I can’t add anything to the pile.  Paul says in Colossians 2 that no human law has any power to restrain the sin that’s within my heart.  Only Grace.

*Only* Grace. 

So why bring this up in a discussion of modesty?
 Next time….


~~~~Addendum, 6/23/13

So…. I never got around to writing the rest of this series. Sorry.

Here’s a teaser, though, for good thoughts to keep you going….  A link and a conversation

Dress Like You Mean It: Part 0.5

Topic: Dress codes at Christian schools
Standard disclaimers apply.

The dress code question seems to be a Lose-Lose situation for nearly everyone involved:

Students, nearly by definition, balk at restrictions of any kind on their free exercise of choice. Mix in a little adolescence and you’ve got a battle royale all ready to burst forth into an otherwise contented student community.  Well-trained students — the ones who have learned to ask questions and critique ideas instead of just swallowing them — usually pose the greatest trouble for dress code enforcement. It’s hard to give a convincing answer to questions like “Why must I wear my shirt tucked in?”

Parents paying thousands of dollars in tuition want to see their students looking like students hard at work, notrock concert attendees or couch potatoes or fashion victims. They’re also usually weary from fighting the battle over clothing with their teen daughters on an almost-daily basis.

Teachers don’t want to have to damage their own personal relationships with students (which are so productive in the educational process) over something as difficult as the question of appropriate clothing. Male teachers are especially endangered — if a girl is dressed provocatively, my male colleagues might end up spending half the class period fighting against the temptation to lust at what a clueless teen is letting all hang out …. yet that male teacher will probably elicit a sexual harassment lawsuit if he speaks honestly about his predicament.  Female teachers end up becoming the Clothing Police, an unwelcome duty. A firm dress code or uniform is practical and comforting.

As usual, the variety of viewpoints also mask their corresponding weaknesses:
Students, by definition, are young … and the young do NOT have an accurate view of life.
Their lack of experience in the world of daily employment, for example, robs them of any sense of perspective when it comes to living under restrictions.  Truth is — every workplace has a dress code, and many are more strict than a school’s dress code.  I fight most dress code battles at NCS with the boys. They will do anything to keep their shirts untucked. I don’t really give a care what they do with their clothing … but if my administration is going to impose a total of four rules on the boys (*gasp*), I’m going to try to enforce them.  And when those boys get their first job working at ChikFilA or OutBack or BiLo, their managers will demand a certain level of professionalism.

Parents and teachers can hide behind a dress code instead of grappling with real issues of dress, decorum, appropriateness, maturity, and modesty.  It IS easier to say “You can’t wear that!” than to take the incredible investment of time necessary to teach a kid why certain clothes aren’t welcome in certain situations. This is especially true of fathers teaching daughters what real modesty means and how men think. Teaching and parenting are Cross-bearing duties. They demand that we sacrifice ourselves (and our time and energy and comfort level) to invest in the next generation in meaningful ways.

Further, adults are just as quick as teens to judge harshly anyone who doesn’t dress a particular way. The difference is that teens judge on the basis of “coolness” or currency, while adults form their character assessments on firmly established moral codes and social norms calibrated for an adult’s world.  The stereotype of the father who forbids his daughter to date the boy wearing the tight skater jeans and lip ring holds true. Here in the South, the saying is “Don’t drink or chew or run with boys who do.” It’s a horrible theology of sin, but since it rhymes and nicely matches the South’s moralistic emphasis on external righteousness as a replacement for true righteousness, it’s a credo many adults live by.

Truth is, linking external codes for clothing to theological principles of modesty leads many Christian schools into the dangerous waters of Law-fencing and attempting to label internal heart attitudes on the basis of what a kid is wearing (or not).

And here I need to break in to discuss the whole issue of “modesty” as a concept.   Biblical Christianity is often described as misogynistic (woman-hating).  I disagree with that assessment because I don’t think biblical modesty lays the burden on females to be “modest” so the men can “stop lusting” …. but it’s easy to see why we bear that accusation …. More soon…..