When I served as an academic administrator, I fielded a complaint from a female student that a male faculty member under my supervision had made her “uncomfortable.” The worst—and most concrete—thing the professor had done was to tell the student that she looked nice one day.

I have no doubt the newly minted junior faculty member’s comment was innocent enough. But, as I explained in a meeting that followed the incident, while I as an older woman might be able to make the same comment, the context was different coming from a man in a position of authority over her. To remark on a female student’s looks was imprudent, inappropriate—and possibly actionable. Repeated comments about physical appearance or gender can be considered sexual harassment under school policies like Title IX. Being wise as a serpent but gentle as a dove takes wisdom, discernment, and maturity. So to work through such a situation with a young professor in my role was neither novel nor unexpected.

What is unexpected, however, is for a mature, seasoned pastor to offer observations about the how nice women look. Yet this is what Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church, author, and blogger, did in his recent post “On Why Christian Women Are Prettier.” Wilson’s remarks weren’t, as in the case of my colleague, about or to a particular woman (thus escaping the risk of being actionable), but about many women he’s seen. Yet, what are generalizations if not an accumulation of particular observations?

I read the post with some curiosity because I’d made a similar observation. Christians do seem more attractive—but in a way that goes far deeper than mere “prettiness” and applies to both sexes.

My observation came upon leaving the state school where I completed my doctorate and arriving at the Christian university where I teach. One of the first things I noticed was a stark difference in the overall appearance of the students, though not only the female students. As a group they bore cheerfulness, exuberance, and polish that couldn’t help being attractive.

A colleague who had also attended the same state school I did noticed this, too. We pondered a number of possible causes. One obvious explanation was simply the dress code. Students required to wear dress clothes to class, as they were at that time, are naturally going to look nicer than those wearing ripped up jeans or sweats. But the attractiveness seemed deeper than clothing.

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Could it have been lifestyle choices and commitments? A population that generally abstains from drinking, smoking, and partying is bound to be healthier and therefore look healthier. And perhaps geography was also at play: people in cold climates under gray skies don’t look as radiant as those who live under the bright sun of the South.

We also noted a culture of affirmation and encouragement that was the polar opposite of the cold, cutthroat environment of our state school. Nothing makes one feel and look better than knowing you are valued and loved. Surely, this was a factor, too.

But likely it was even more than all of this. It really did seem, we finally decided, that an inner experience with Christ can’t help but be manifested in outer appearance. Inner peace and joy radiate outward. This is true, of course, for both women and men. Yet, undoubtedly, the wider range of socially approved enhancements available to women in terms of fashion, hair, and makeup widens also the scale of beauty for women and offers a starker contrast between “attractive” and “unattractive.”

Wilson offers a rather different explanation, one based in the order of creation and his view that the redemptive work of Christ manifests in one realm for men (authority) and another for women (glory). I’m not taking issue here with Wilson’s theology—a separate issue—instead focusing on the way he treats the beauty of women and even the fact that he does.

It’s no less startling to read a post by a church leader judging women’s prettiness than it would be to find him moonlighting as a judge in a beauty pageant. It’s unseemly for a Christian man to turn passing observations into long, public meditations. One can’t help noticing things sometimes, but attentiveness is a habit. Politeness, propriety, and purity can disincline us from noticing, or at least dwelling upon, certain qualities. As the old aphorism, commonly attributed to Martin Luther, says, “You can’t keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

Waxing effusive on the physical appearance of the women observed around town, at the airport, or at Christian conferences is inappropriate behavior for a godly pastor and leader, a husband, father, and grandfather. It serves to cultivate the insecurity and vanity most of us as women struggle with and puts too much attention on outer appearance at the expense of the whole person. Moreover, it sets a dangerous example for other men and other pastors to follow. It’s a danger borne out in graver issues surrounding Wilson, which Rod Dreher addressed and others have brought to light, making this post seem a bit like complaining the coffee is too hot because the restaurant is on fire.

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Wilson is known in his writing for “theology that bites,” and I’m prone to admire a robust, satirical voice. But the bounds overstepped in this post are not those of rhetoric, snark, or bombast. They are pastoral, and I am responding to the post in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:1.

If the purpose of Wilson’s post were pastoral, an attempt to offer instruction to women about the connection between inner and outer beauty, then we should remember that while the Apostles address this topic in Scripture, those same Scriptures assign the task of teaching the younger women these matters to older women—and for good reason. Like the student who complained about the professor, I would be uncomfortable going to a church where I thought the pastor sized up the women by their appearance.

And while Beauty, being rooted in the same absolutes that have their source in Truth and Goodness, is not entirely in the eye of the beholder, “pretty” is. One man may think a woman in a flannel shirt and a pixie haircut is pretty, while another prefers one wearing a denim jumper and a spiral perm—and that’s no one’s business but that man’s (and his wife’s, perhaps).

The larger issue—the theology of the body, of beauty, of creation, of male and female—is one that needs more attention from the church, not less. So let’s dig in to these concerns, instead of shying away from a conversation about appearance that might make us feel vulnerable or even uncomfortable.

Let us—especially as women—think about the compliments we give, receive, and crave. No one appreciates a compliment about a fine shoe or lovely fabric more than I do, but I want to challenge myself, and others, to offer compliments that, as a recent article at the Washington Post suggests, relate beauty to a person’s whole self.

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