Suits, Leggings, and Modesty

One of my favorite metaphors is the scissors. CS Lewis used it to illuminate the relationship between faith and works. In Mere Christianity, he wrote, “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” (One could use that to rephrase James 2: “Faith without works can’t cut.”) I have used it personally to talk about balance in football, the need for both visual and emotional impact in art, and even for something as simple as talking and listening in communication. The image is as versatile as the tool itself.

Yesterday, several of my friends shared a satirical blog post about modesty called “When Suits Become a Stumbling Block.” (As of this writing, the account has been suspended.) By swapping out women in leggings for men in suits, the author highlighted the absurdity of the notion that women are categorically responsible for male lust. “I am issuing a plea to my brothers in Christ for an understanding of where I’m coming from. When you choose to exist in public looking well-groomed and sharp, you are basically extending an invitation for me to lust after you.” After all, Jesus said to tear out your eye if it causes you to lust; He didn’t say, “Go tell the women to change their outfits.”

At first, I nodded in agreement. But the more I thought about the post, the more it bothered me. I realized that both the “traditional” side of the modesty argument and its counterpoint are approaching it the wrong way. Both sides want to put the responsibility onto the other party. Both sides have reasonable arguments to make. Neither side submits to the other in humility and love.

If you look at another person in lust and say to yourself, “They are causing me to sin, they need to change,” you are wrong. The burden is on you to stop sinning. Have you resisted lust to the point of shedding blood? Are you doing everything in your power to keep lustful thoughts out of your mind and heart? Of course you aren’t. On the flip side, are you so cavalier to sin – or attached to a particular mode of dress – that you will stubbornly cling to it even after it becomes contentious? Do you prefer your leggings or low-cut blouse (or, yes, killer suit) to the chastity of your brother or sister in Christ?

The “stumbling block” from the title refers to a passage in Romans 14. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of a brother.” If you read this verse and think it applies to the other side and not to you, you are reading it wrong. Put it on yourself. This applies equally to all of us. The modesty-inclined camp needs to stop passing judgment and decide to never put the stumbling block of “responsibility” onto another. The same goes for the liberty-inclined. Stop judging someone for their weakness; determine yourself to love them if you can. In our constant push back and forth on this issue, we are letting stubbornness and pride take hold where love should reign. Shame on us.

Don’t think I am advocating any mode of dress or that I am saying any of this is easy or straightforward. Your standard shouldn’t be a length or type of fabric. What I am saying, rather, is we need to own the responsibility for both blades of these scissors. Do we ask ourselves both, What do I need to do in order to kill sin in my life? Am I making every effort I can to do that? Am I accepting responsibility for the state of my heart? and What am I doing that might be causing my brother or sister to stumble? How can I change? Am I willing to give up something I enjoy for their sake?

Paul continues, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died…. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

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5 thoughts on “Suits, Leggings, and Modesty

  1. Thanks for this, Steve! A question I have is in regards to coming to terms with social norms. That is, over time, modesty standards change. In the last 100 years dresses gave way to pants, for example, and only the most traditional of Christians/religious groups still push back against that. Do you think that regular pants to leggings will eventually become a similar example? When is it time for Christians to concede the point? When it’s no longer a shocking statement piece?

    • That’s an excellent question, and a difficult one to answer. I don’t know if I can now, nor will I ever be able to, answer that question. I don’t understand, for instance, why pants for women would ever have been considered improper. I can say that as leggings have gotten more popular the male reaction to them hasn’t much changed. I think it’d be fair to liken them to bikinis: when those were introduced (was it the 60s?) there must have been considerable push back on them. In Christian circles, they still get discussed. So I don’t know! I could see it going either way.

  2. The problem w/deciding what is modest is not just being sensitive to the prevalent culture and religions, but should we also concern ourselves with fetiches? So not just no bikinis, but no more flip flops either?

      • I remember reading a blog by a young man who was raised in Pakistan talking about how BLOWN AWAY he was when he got to the US and saw women walking down the street with their long hair showing…

        Also lets realize that what is provocative clothing on one woman might not be on another woman… depending on her age or body shape or maybe even the way she walks. So… when it comes right down and back to it, I am of the opinion its our jobs to educate boys that they can NOT and absolutely should NOT act on every thought that may pop into their heads. PERIOD.

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