Modesty, Responsibility, and True and False Guilt

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.

Update (7/24/2013)

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.

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40 thoughts on “Modesty, Responsibility, and True and False Guilt

  1. Arkenaten

    No doubt you will side with Muslim men who insist ”their” women cover themselves head to toe?

    You would do just find in Saudi. A real asset to the community.

    The abuse of women by men has nothing to do with how she dresses. Ask a rape victim; I dare you!

    If this were the case then there would be sexual harassment lawsuits left right and centre after every visit to the beach.

    A person can have lustful thoughts towards another if they are wearing boiler suit.
    Furthermore you have excluded homosexuals in this post. Do you not think a gay might not get excited merely by looking at another bloke/woman no matter how he or she were dressed?
    Such an omission clearly demonstrates your myopic worldview and may I say your naivety.

    Also this view excludes child abuse.
    And also the sexual feelings of women toward men.

    Your post, in fact, smacks of misogyny, so typical of the bible and those men who feel they have the right to interpret it. I am surprised your mum doesn’t give you a clip round the ear for such a distorted and wholly vulgar view of women.
    I challenge you to invite women to offer their point of view of this issue and I’ll take even bets you will get roasted.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Ark,
      You’ve either grossly misunderstood my post or not read it. I emphatically placed the responsibility for lust on men, not on women. Your charge of mysogyny is misplaced.
      Also, comments on this blog are intended to be civil and helpful to the conversation. My apologies but I don’t believe your comment on “Can a rubber band help you overcome lust?” was truly helpful and so was removed.

      1. Arkenaten

        Oh. Well it’s what is known as Humour. I am nor sure if that is allowed in your religion? Apologies if not.
        I have in fact walked around with a rubber band on my wrist that I absentmindedly picked up off of my desk and all it did was cut the circulation and get tangled in my wrist hair. But It sure as heck stopped me from thinking lustful thoughts after awhile so I guess it works. Who knew, right?

      2. Arkenaten

        Well, it says you have 138 followers..well 139 if I click (still undecided) but that’s no guarantee you have the same amount of ‘readers’
        There are one or two comments.
        Religious blogs don’t always attract a lot of attention except from atheists or when you put up posts on lusty thoughts and wimmin and stuff.
        Maybe you should put the comment back and ask all your readers – which now include at least two I have ‘sent’ here, whether they think it was crude?

      3. Arkenaten

        Well the interest was sparked by your ‘My readers’ comment. I merely wanted to see how many of them there were.
        I would caution you not to fall into the trap of hanging your hopes too much on the stats. Many of those who have liked your stuff are ‘blog whores’ merely looking for re hits on their blogs.

      4. stevenkopp Post author

        Ark, I know it. I think a pretty small percentage of those are regular readers. I have no illusions that I’m a popular blogger! To be honest, I was mostly thinking of my mom 😉

      5. Arkenaten

        Your mum is a grown woman. If she takes offense at something as innocuous as an elastic band entendre then I guarantee you have a poor understanding of women.

        As for popularity? Who cares?
        But if you’re are going to write religiously minded material for your god’s sake write something to make people think, and don’t trot out the same old diatribe one can find on a million and one apologist sites all over word press.
        I despise evangelist nonsense. It has no credibility except among those that have forgotten where the ‘On’ switch is for their brain.
        I really hope you don’t end up meandering down the William Lane Craig path. That man is a menace.
        He is mendacious, self serving and disingenuous.
        He, like so many who work at seminary’s and the like, is obliged to sign a contract stating he believes in the literal inerrancy of the bible.
        Another evangelist, Mike Lacona, was dismissed from his place of employment after he stated in his 2010 book that the Zombie Apocalypse did not happen and refused to issue a retraction! For one line!
        Can you believe that! And we all thought the Inquisition was dead, right?
        Write original stuff. Stuff to make you think first and foremost.

      6. stevenkopp Post author

        Ark,

        I appreciate you telling me how to write my blog but, as I tell my three year old daughter, “You’re not in charge.”

        It is clear this conversation is not progressing toward any meaningful outcome. I am all for finding common ground with those who are interested but you clearly have a bone to pick with Christians, particularly evangelicals.

        Any words beyond this point are futile.

        I hope you have a nice day.

      7. Arkenaten

        I wish your daughter all the best…
        I hope she gets to find her own spiritual path and is not obliged to follow one laid out by others.
        Children are precious beyond belief. They have a right to their chance in life. I hope you respect that. I really do.

  2. Arkenaten

    Reblogged this on A Tale Unfolds and commented:
    Here’s a post for all my wimmin readers. PLEASE go and explain things to this young feller. Oh, and make sure you’re not showing any leg or cleavage or anything that might be construed as naughty in case he succumbs to lustful thoughts and has to rush off and take a suspiciously long shower.

    I await an interesting post.
    Yours in…breathless anticipation…Le Ark

  3. Gemini Gemma

    So you are saying men have the personal responsibility ‘not to rape,’ in a way. And then you go back and say that a woman dressed immodest is inciting sin because she is making other men lust (or temptation) for her. My question, what in the heck happened to the personal responsibility you were just talking about?

    Oh and please quote more scripture because that will make me take you more seriously.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Gemini,
      That is a fair question.
      #1: Men have much more than a responsibility ‘not to rape.’ They also have the responsibility to treat women with respect, to not objectify, to protect from those who would harm, etc.
      #2: We live in a world of interlocking responsibilities and causes. By saying that a woman can “incite a man to lust” is a rather obvious claim and is called seduction. However, that in no way diminishes a man’s responsibility. He can’t claim “she made me do it.” He made himself do it and shouldn’t make excuses.
      #3: I am really only suggesting (and particularly within a Christian context, I really have very little interest in how this plays out in the broader culture) that we should consider one another and not live as isolated individuals.
      I hope that clarifies things for you.

  4. makagutu

    Lets just cut the chase sooner. Please indulge me, what is decent dressing? Is it wearing tents like muslim women do or dresses/ robes whatever is your fancy as muslim men and some priests do or is it walking with their breasts uncovered as some tribes in the Congo forest do or is it kilts like the good men of Scotland?
    It appears to me all you[ that is all pastors, theologians and believers] do is to challenge the plans of this god of yours. He created man naked and if they hadn’t eaten the fruit of knowledge they would still be walking around with their goods for all the world to see!

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Makagutu,
      This is an important point and I think one that distinguishes my view from that of radical Islam.
      I do not that there is a clear line or a particular kind of dress that is universal in nature. I am not an advocate of dress codes. What is “decent dress” is an extremely culturally bound thing and will be based on that culture.
      I am simply advocating that we consider one another (mutually between men and women), nothing more.
      I hope that clarifies things.

      1. makagutu

        In this case are you indicting men on not being able to keep their fantasies to themselves or are you blaming the women for dressing as they please? Which is it because that is what I want you to clarify

      2. stevenkopp Post author

        Men are responsible for what happens in their minds or with their bodies, not women. I am not blaming women. I hope that clarifies my position.

      3. makagutu

        Are you sure, really sure, that you control the thoughts or whatever it is happens in your mind? And tell me how you do this, I would want to try it

      4. stevenkopp Post author

        In the case of physical attraction/lust: There is a biological principle of attraction which, in many cases might be purely involuntary. I would then have the choice (responsibility) to engage in lust (fantasy). The initial attraction is outside of my control. The secondary action is within my control and so I have responsibility. Make sense?

  5. Arkenaten

    ”Men are responsible for what happens in their minds or with their bodies, not women. I am not blaming women. I hope that clarifies my position.”
    This still sounds like a misogynist comment. Why don’t you have a go at women who act “inappropriately” instead of blaming men all the time.

    And if this is your point, then it matters not what a woman wears, or doesn’t wear.
    Nudists for instance, wear nothing (obvious , but I thought I’d remind you anyway) and there would be little chance of concealment if all the men had lustful thoughts about their fellow female nudists, now would there?
    And for that matter, there are signs (less obvious but still signs) that a woman is having lustful thoughts about a man.

    Based on your hypothesis, blind men must be in the clear as far as lustful thoughts and how a woman dresses?

    1. Lisa Eldred (@firstcrusader)

      I think Steve is simply trying to point out that personal responsibility goes two ways. Guys are responsible for figuring out how to handle their response when they see a provocatively-dressed woman. Women, meanwhile, should not dress specifically to incite lust. It’s simply about being mindful lest you cause others to stumble. And it’s not clothing-specific: a skin-tight catsuit, while technically covering everything, is almost always highly immodest, while a pair of shorts and cleavage/bra strap-covering tank top can be perfectly modest.

      1. Arkenaten

        If Steve has to blog about not having naughty thoughts about immodestly dressed women then I GUARANTEE you he is having such thoughts, otherwise he wouldn’t know the difference, now would he?
        Do you not realise how many men think a nun’s outfit is the sexiest thing going? And how much flesh does that display?

        And what about nudists? How much more ”immodest” can you get, and they think nothing of it and certainly aren’t jumping all over each at the first opportunity, now are they?

        Furthermore, why not tell men not to dress to incite lust?
        Don’t you as a woman ever feel this way? And most blokes dress pretty ordinary, am I right?
        His post is riddled with misogynist undertones and if you can’t see it, you are either living in a time warp or you beliefs need to be looked at.
        Maybe you are still too young to understand?
        But Steve is way off the mark with this post. Way off.

      2. stevenkopp Post author

        Ark,
        I claim make no claim of innocence here. You’re right, I do know the difference between lust and attraction.
        Also, I’ve got no problem asking men to dress modestly.

      3. Arkenaten

        The why not write a post to show you have a balanced perspective? Then I’ll link the new post and you can fight off the hordes of men who complain.
        Now THAT I would like to see.
        I was going to say have you got the balls to write such a post but your mum might read it…so you best edit that last line with guts or something. 😉

  6. violetwisp

    “As Christians we have a responsibility to avoid inciting others to temptation.” Honestly, you have no idea how sad this makes me about the minds of Christians. Thought suppression must really take its toll, but discussions about the cut of clothes influencing behaviour really makes you sound like a bunch of out of control, hormone-raging, naive children. I don’t want to be rude but ‘grow up!’ is shouting around in my mind. 🙂

  7. Kelly Tucker

    Hey Steve,

    Had to comment on this one, just had to! For those who don’t know my history, I’ve worked in other countries as a governess for missionary kids and as an English teacher/Bible study leader. While in one of those countries (NOT Muslim) our team noticed something interesting: all of the people in their advertising were fully clothed. We didn’t really take notice of it until we got back to the States and literally started flipping over magazines in the airport and averting our eyes from people who, to us who had been re-sensitized, looked like they were walking around half-naked. It was a bit horrifying.

    You have to remember, if you took one of our current advertisements to many other countries, or back 50 years in Amerca, it would be seen as pornography. When I worked abroad I had to be especially careful about when I left our apartment complex alone because American women were seen as prostitutes. I can’t even begin to tell the ugliness of someone who doesn’t realize you can understand them as they talk about doing sexual things to you behind your back simply because they can see you are an American.

    Currently, my job requires me to be able to be physically active–I have to bend to the floor to tie shoes, crawl under little tables to retrieve lost trinkets, and dance around while still looking professional. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to find clothing that I feel covered enough to do my job in. It’s hard, but I still manage to do it.

    I think our biggest issue is this: America’s media has exploded in terms of its sexual nature in my lifetime and somehow we think that what we’re seeing is normal. What was once pushing the edge of R is now PG-13. It is now acceptable on nighttime television. Because the media has gone that way, many designers have as well and finding clothes that fit and look professional and cute is hard. America is really lust saturated and I think that makes it hard on everyone to avoid lust.

    Is it sexually oppressive to say maybe our media (and country) needs to keep in its pants a little more often? I think it’s just a bit decent. Would it help people with managing lust if we weren’t bombarded with messages that essentially say “Just have it!?” Absolutely. Does slightly more modest dress also help with that? Yes on both sides, but I think the women in our country a bit more guilty in pushing that envelope to its limit than the men.

    In short, to quote a favorite band of mine: clothes that fit are fine!

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Kelly,
      Thanks for the comment, it’s great to hear from you again. I appreciate the broad perspective you bring to the discussion.
      It sounds like you’re describing two problems (1) America is really saturated with sexual imagery and (2) even in other countries where “modesty” is much more the norm men can still be pigs. It’s really the two sides of the same coin in my mind – the objectification by culture and individuals of women (and men, too, although to a lesser degree).
      Again, thanks for stopping by.

      1. Arkenaten

        ‘…even in other countries where “modesty” is much more the norm men can still be pigs…”

        See, Steve? Nothing to do with clothes. Are we getting it now?

  8. Bob Vila

    Ark: Thank you for bringing your pack of like minded individuals to pile on Steve. It has been very helpful to the discussion. I feel that you did not read the article with an open mind. This is evidenced by the litany of insults. To you Steve is just some “misogynist Christian” spewing some nonsense of the internet. But I know Steve (no I am not his mother) and those words are simply not true. He is a reasonable man and has answered all of your questions with respect, you would do well to offer him the same convention. All he is suggesting is that both men and women are responsible for their personal actions in regards to modesty. I fail to see the problem with this concept. This subject is complicated by many cultural/social norms but the concept remains. Nobody is under any obligation to agree, but some mutual civility would be a good start. Perhaps instead of arguing and picking apart the ideas set forth by Steve one of you would be willing to bring forth your own idea on the subject. Who do you think is responsible for personal modesty? Do you disagree with the concept altogether?

    1. Arkenaten

      Well, gee thanks Bob.

      But as I said, maybe if he did a post on the immodest nature of men’s clothes and worrying how women who view such inappropriately dressed men, bulging biceps and provocative outlines on their cycling shorts an Speedos, cautioning them not to incite poor women who might begion to swoon all over the pace or begin man handling poor men in the street,then I might, be more sympathetic to his position.
      But read the comment from Violetwisp, that should give you a clear indication of how the average woman feels about such issues.

      Besides if you truly believe lust is triggered by an inappropriate dress -code then you, my friend are living in cloud cuckoo land. Ask ANY criminologist regarding assault and rape cases.
      I live in a country where tradition allows women at certain times to go bare breasted. The climate here is such that less clothing is more the norm than more.
      I don’t wander round my local supermarket drooling over every woman that goes by.
      But maybe you would? I have no idea.

  9. Arkenaten

    ”Who do you think is responsible for personal modesty? Do you disagree with the concept altogether?”

    The notion of Christian modesty is a crock. An anachronism rooted in the barbaric mores of puritan monotheist centered cultures. We can trace its roots quite easily, if you wish?

    Look toward Aquinas, Augustine and their ilk.
    The monks who preached celibacy and blamed women for all that was wrong with the world. Luther for one.
    Please, you really really need to know your history to fully understand where this nonsense derives.
    Once you have done the research, maybe you will think a little differently? Towards yourself as well as toward women..
    Then maybe we can talk again, and you will be able to approach this subject in a more mature and adult fashion?
    I hope so.
    Best of luck to you.

  10. Bob Vila

    Ark: With every post it becomes increasingly clear that all you wish to do is argue in lieu of having an actual conversation on the matter. This will never accomplish anything. As much as I appreciate you suggesting that I am an immature person who drools over women at the supermarket I feel that any more responses to your insulting posts would be a total waste of time. I apologize for believing that you were reasonable enough to have an adult conversation.

  11. stevenkopp Post author

    OK, time to put this baby to rest. On the bright side this “conversation” has led me to make a couple needed changes (I am always open to improvement):
    1) I have instituted a Comment Policy. A link is available above.
    2) I was accused of selectively applying the principles of modesty to women only. This is a false charge but, perhaps, I could have been more clear within the body of the post. I have added an “update” section to the bottom of the post which will hopefully clarify this point and allows me to once again draw attention to the overall thesis of the article.
    3) Ark’s real interest (I think) is to take shots at Christianity. He feigns interest in having a conversation based on intellectual honesty. If you are interested in how that conversation would go please check out the following post and comments section by Debilis here: http://fidedubitandum.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/the-intellectual-poverty-of-modern-atheism/
    I would never want us to shy away from intellectual honesty or listening to the thoughts and ideas of others, however, I believe the comments section of this post is not the best place for this conversation.
    God bless, Steve

    1. Arkenaten

      Well, Steve, for the first time on your blog people came and read and my responses made you think.
      I shall tell you what I tell every religious person I engage and it is this:
      I have absolutely NO OBJECTIONS to what you believe at all.Just keep it to yourself and don’t proselytize.
      And most of all, don’t preach this stuff to children – let them discover it in their own time if they want it
      Let them have a chance at normal life.

      At least you have a bit of fun, right? Even made you think a bit. Not something many Christians do that often.
      And now you can send this comment to the Spam can.

      1. stevenkopp Post author

        Ark,

        It’s that kind of disingenuous and mean-spirited comment that get’s your comments dumped in the Spam can.

        You said: “I have absolutely NO OBJECTIONS to what you believe at all.”

        I wish this were true but it’s a lie. For instance, you called my worldview “myopic”, said I was guilty of “misogyny” which was “so typical” of those read and interpret the bible. You said I had a “vulgar view of women”. You even characterized my position of personal responsibility as misogynistic! You said, “I despise evangelist nonsense” saying “it has no credibility” You called William Lane Craig a menace, self-serving, and disingenuous. You say characterize Christians as believing in the Zombie Apocalypse. On another thread you characterize Christian belief as a fairy tail. You said that “the notion of Christian modesty is a crock”, that it is “barbaric”, that it is “nonsense,” and insinuated that it justifies oppression of women. Even in this post you insinuate Christians don’t think.

        So don’t backpedal on me now Ark. You have all kinds of objections to religious and Christian belief and you stick those objections in your comments every chance you get.

        You said: “At least you have a bit of fun, right?”

        Well, it was the most excitement I’ve had on the blog but “fun?!” I typically prefer conversations where my interlocutor makes some attempt to understand my position, does not recklessly mischaracterize my words, has a conversation with me instead of the person he just assumed I am, does not call me names or insult my friends, and conducts himself with a little respect.

        The fact is, you might have had some substantive arguments in there somewhere but they were completely lost in the midst of midst of your brow-beating, chest-thumping, rhetorical style.

        You said: “Even made you think a bit. Not something many Christians do that often.”

        See, it’s just that kind of insulting and disrespectful tone that gets your posts tossed in the Spam can.

        Steve

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