I’m a bit late to this conversation but a couple of weeks ago several of my friends posted links on Facebook regarding the issue of modesty. Being a man, I shy away from these discussions so I didn’t read any of those articles until I saw one written by Rachel Held Evans. I am often frustrated with her position on a broad range of issues but her articles are always interesting so I read it.
RHE describes how she grew up in an environment where the issue of modesty was framed like this: (paraphrasing) “If you wear clothes that are immodest you are responsible for the lust you incite in your brother.” Based on her upbringing it sounds like her experience was filled with quite a bit of false shame and legalism. She has (rightly) rejected that argument and now argues: “It’s not your responsibility to please men with either your sex appeal or your modesty… Find something that makes you comfortable. Find something that is ethically made … and revel in this body and this world God gave you to enjoy. ”
I agree with RHE for rejecting the initial way the issue of modesty was framed. I disagree with her conclusion or, at least, I think it is incomplete.
RHE is right when she rejects the premise that a woman bears responsibility (directly anyway) for a man’s lust. Each man is responsible for his own sin. If I see a woman dressed immodestly, or modestly for that matter, and lust, I bear the guilt for my sin, the woman does not. We as men have to hold firmly to the idea of personal responsibility and reject any attempt to pass off the responsibility of our sin on other people.
However, while a woman who dresses immodestly does not bear the guilt of a man’s lust she might, nevertheless, be guilty of sin.
As Christians we have a responsibility to avoid inciting others to temptation. A woman who intentionally dresses to tantalize is guilty of sin, not the sin of lust but of inciting temptation in those around her. A person, man or woman, who does not even consider how their dress might affect other people, be it through immodesty or just inappropriate attire, might be guilty of neglect and we, as believers, are simply not given that luxury.
Let me illustrate this by showing how the same principle applies to other areas of life.
In Romans Paul tells us that we ought to live at peace with others, as far as we are able. I am not responsible for someone else’s attitude towards me but I am responsible, as far as I am able, to live at peace with. I’m guilty if I don’t consider my brother’s feelings.
Parents are not responsible for the decisions made by their children, the child bears the responsibility for that, but the parents are responsible for the training and teaching of their children. A father is guilty if he neglects that responsibility.
As a Pastor I am not responsible for how people in the congregation respond to God’s Word. I am responsible for presenting that Word to the best of my ability. I am guilty if I fail preach God’s Word faithfully.
Throughout the New Testament believers are encouraged to consider the needs of others above their own desires or ambition (Col 2:4). We might be completely justified in our actions, as stand-alone decisions, but we do not live in a vacuum. We’re not responsible for other people’s sins and we shouldn’t be saddled with false guilt. But, we are responsible, in all things, for considering those around us and how our decisions affect others.
In the comments below it was suggested that I have only applied the issue of modesty to women. In fact, this is not the case. As I said above, “A person, man or woman, who does not even consider how their dress might affect other people, be it through immodesty or just inappropriate attire, might be guilty of neglect and we, as believers, are simply not given that luxury.”
It’s true the post starts with the particular topic of female modesty. This is simply because I was addressing an ongoing conversation (see RHE’s post above) on that particular topic. I then took pains to show how the two general principles (1) we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions and (2) we should consider how our actions impact other people, apply across several areas of life, beyond issues related to gender or modesty.
However, just in case I have been unclear, allow me to state emphatically: The issue of modesty relates to both men and women equally. The same two principles of (1) taking responsibility and (2) considering others applies across genders.