She comes in the coffee shop like she does every day. In every shape and size and age. She just worked out, she just had a baby, she just got out of bed, she’s headed out for the night, she is running errands. She is every woman—she’s you and she’s me. And she’s wearing yoga pants.
“There’s just not much left to the imagination,” thinks the guy sipping his coffee. “Not much extra room for the Holy Spirit.” He works hard to exercise discernment and accountability for the issues he had with porn in past years. He has a wife who isn’t getting younger. He has a fiancée with whom he is trying to maintain purity. He is inundated with flashy ads intended to wire male brains to think one thing about the female form. He is every man—he’s you and he’s me. And he’s surrounded by women in yoga pants.
The question of whether yoga pants are appropriate attire to wear in public has swirled online in recent years, following the garment’s rise in popularity as a casualwear staple. For millions of women, yoga pants are “the new jeans,” worn well beyond the yoga studio and gym.
Among Christians, these form-fitting pants get wrapped in the modesty debate, most recently with a viral post from a blogger sharing her conviction to stop wearing yoga pants and leggings. Then came responses with treatises on freedom and morality and lust and modesty culture. And defenses. And cynicism. And hysteria. And spite.
And here we are, fighting about yoga pants.
Rather than taking sides and settling for boundaries or restrictions, we—as women and men—can talk about what it means to approach these conversations with a biblical ethic that respects the people involved, their bodies, and their sexuality, all of which were made by God and declared good. As a girl and guy following the back-and-forth, we see how parts of this debate aren't actually up for debate.
Our Words and Tone
Whether we are referring to the women wearing yoga pants or the guys who wars to keep his eyes on the proper things in the proper times, how we enter this discussion matters. It’s less about pants, no matter how thick or how tight, than it is about people—people who choose what to wear each day, who weigh their personal comfort and social responsibility, who negotiate liberty and care for others.
Debates over what women should and shouldn’t wear tend to frame female “modesty” and male “lust” as dueling principles, often at the expense of these real-life people involved. Modesty refers to what’s “appropriate,” an explicitly contextual word. Any discussion of modesty depends on the setting, so it’s difficult, perhaps even impossible, to declare universal rules.
Similarly, with lust. If a man notices a woman and what she is wearing, it does not mean he is objectifying her. There are appropriate ways for man to be drawn to a woman’s beauty or to acknowledge her body without sin or temptation. The ambiguity in the vocabulary central to this debate highlights for us an important reality—generalized prescriptions or boundaries matter less than operating with wisdom and virtue.
Remarks such as “I don’t respect a woman who wears leggings” or “I would never marry a man who can’t help but lust after every woman with form fitting clothing” come off as extreme and accusatory. There is one accuser (Rev. 12:10), and we have been mirroring his accusations since our fall into sin (Gen. 3:12). Christ gives us a better image (Col. 1:15).
We should avoid issuing blanket statements about others’ character, regardless of what they are wearing. As James reminds us, “Beloved… everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19). What is the motivation for patience with the opposite sex here? “Beloved.” We’re beloved by God. We have nothing to prove—no love to gain by arguing. We can therefore speak in a loving tone with and about our neighbor—nay, even our enemy (Luke 7:47; Matt. 5:44).
Sexuality and Sexual Desire
In the midst of the back-and-forth over yoga pants (or bikinis, mid-drift tops, mini-skirts, or whatever the current style), we easily get the impression that both a woman’s sexuality as well as a man’s sexual desire are evil. Men who lust are Amnonic monsters (2 Sam. 13), and women who wear form-fitting clothing are Jezebel seductresses (Rev. 2:20).
But sexuality and sexual desire on their own are not evil, they are expressions of God’s generosity to his creation, and a natural, biological part of our lives. A woman’s attractiveness and her form will inevitably be visible to some degree. Likewise, men will be surrounded by the female form, and it is not evil that he is attracted to it (1 Cor. 7:9). God created us as beings with sexuality (Gen. 1:26–28), and to shame that is to shame the plan and providence of God.
These realities do not make us sinful. Instead, we sin whenever we desire anything more than we desire God (Rom. 14:3), and what God calls most beautiful, himself. Whether yoga pants are involved or not, if we find ourselves longing to be the object of anyone’s desire apart from our spouse or find ourselves longing to own beauty that does not belong to us, we have sinned.
Men remain exclusively responsible for their lust. As one blogger recently wrote, "Men cause men to stumble, not leggings. When the gorgeous behinds pass by, we always have a choice. Either a) look away and think nothing else of it, b) appreciate the female form while you sip your half-caf, or c) visualize scenarios that run the prurient gamut."
It’s difficult to live in our culture today, and we do not envy the man who lives in constant temptation and wars with his flesh in this area. Some have warred and won, some are warring and winning, some are struggling and sinning, some indulge and sin.
To objectify and sexualize a woman is sin—one for which Christ died, and which prompts a call to repentance—one for which the Christian man will face judgment and salvation (Acts 17:31). Apart from the cross, there is no escape for sinful men. They will not be able to blame Eve on the last day.
To live in the body of Christ is to live as a social citizen—not in isolation (1 Tim. 5:2). Modesty, lust, sexuality, and objectification involve both beholder and subject. No sex can pass the buck to the other sex. It’s ethics that tells us we can’t wear anything we want, or that we can’t gaze and think anything we want.
Women are always called to consider their brothers in Christ. We bear the burden of living in a world broken by sin, waiting for a Savior. We get to shoulder the burden with our brothers, and they with us. We're compelled to take the perspective of the other into account, because we're not rogue Christians… we’re in this together.
The Holy Spirit
My friend commented there wasn’t much room for the Holy Spirit in those yoga pants, but we disagree, we think there is. We think the forgotten element in this whole conversation is the Holy Spirit.
We all want to protect our rights or protect our eyes, protect our brother’s rights or protect our sister’s, and we’ve demanded lines to be drawn, but we think there’s a better way and that’s the way of leaving room for the Holy Spirit to convict and to confirm, to comfort and to control (John 16:13).
The issue of the morality of dress is not one of prescription only, but of virtue and wisdom also—and the Spirit works in all three. Each sex should defend the right of the other sex to make decisions for themselves, while maintaining a social responsibility as members of the body of Christ to help the other.
For the woman who wears yoga pants and the woman who refuses to—leave room for the Holy Spirit.
For the man who wars well and for the man who has won the war—leave room for the Holy Spirit.
Paul Maxwell (@paulcmaxwell) is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute. He writes more at his blog, paulcmaxwell.com, and pretends to like coffee.