Modesty: A Female-Only Virtue?
About this time four years ago, Calvin College students, ready to enjoy the long-absent Michigan sun, spent hours each day on the campus lawn, "studying" for finals and playing Ultimate Frisbee until dusk. Calvin, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church (and—I must say—a contender for the "Christian Harvard" label long held by Wheaton College), has no written policies on student clothing, though staff and students have debated that decision. But as tank tops and skirts began appearing on campus every spring, RAs and staff would somberly remind female students to mind our hem- and necklines, lest we let a brother stumble. "Women don't realize how visually wired men are," the reasoning went. "We shouldn't wear things that lead their minds to impure places."
Sexual immorality, of course, is a serious matter, Scripture attests, and research abounds on real chemical differences between men's and women's brains. Further, a thriving Christian community requires its members to think beyond their own preferences, about how personal decisions impact others. But, as I watched hoards of my male peers bounding across the lawn wearing nothing but flimsy track shorts—think Juno's Paulie Bleeker—I wondered if they had received any wisdom or direction about their dress. Is modesty a virtue only for women?
This question arose in a personal way this Easter, which is a days-long celebration at the church I attend. A single friend asked if he could sleep on my roommate's couch one night to avoid driving 45 minutes home late Saturday and coming back early Sunday. I obliged, seeing the setup through a logistical lens. We talked a bit Saturday night before heading to our respective rooms, my conscience undisturbed. On Sunday morning, I tiptoed past the sleeping friend to the kitchen. He, likely not thinking twice, soon entered the kitchen shirtless, wearing boxer shorts—and he went on to engage me like he might have while wearing khakis and a sport coat. Blushing and baffled by his nonchalance, I had to consciously "bounce my eyes."
The Greek translation of modesty (kosmios) means roughly "orderly" or "proper," and the word appears only once in Scripture, in Paul's first letter to Timothy: "I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes …" (2:9). 1 Peter 3:3-4 includes a similar message, that women should adorn themselves with a gentle spirit instead of fancy jewelry and clothing. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul also addresses head coverings, an important topic given first-century Mideast cultural attitudes about women's hair (the essence of female beauty, and thus primarily meant for husbands' viewing; some Christian women cover their heads today). But these verses suggest that modesty is not just about quelling sexual temptation. Modesty is also about viewing ourselves humbly and dressing accordingly, refraining from using clothing (or the lack thereof) to draw attention to ourselves and boost self-esteem.
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