A Woman’s Responsibility?
The online debate on the subject of Christian modesty may have died down a little, but the issue is still with us. Most of the blog posts and continuing discussions on modesty have been aimed at women. Christian women have been urged to cover up for the sake of our brothers because, we are told, men can’t help themselves, they invariably lust after women.
This is the message C.J. Mahaney gives in this video from 2011. (Mahaney is the senior pastor of a well-known church in America: Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Kentucky.) Mahaney’s message is terrible (as is the sappy background music.) He doesn’t use scripture to support his statements but speaks of his own experience and observations, as well as the experiences of others. (Click on the fullscreen button in the bottom right corner.)
Culture or Counter-Culture?
My own observations are that our society is being trained to see people as sexual beings in a heightened way. The Bible, however, teaches that we should not see others, particularly fellow believers, in a sexual way (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16–17; Gal 3:26–28). We, the church, need to be counter-cultural and retrain ourselves in how we see and treat each other, rather than make women feel self-conscious, or even ashamed and guilty of their appearance.
What kind of message do we give women when we tell them that their body is a stumbling block that leads men to sin? And what kind of message, or excuse, is this for men?
I admit that I feel uncomfortable when a person is showing too much of his or her skin or shape. Yet the things that determine what is “too much,” or what is inappropriate, depend almost entirely on culture and setting. For example, what I wear when I go to the shops in Australia is different from what people wear when they go to the shops in Pakistan. What I wear on the beach is different from what I wear to a job interview. Cultural norms play a big role in whether we find someone’s attire or appearance inappropriate or arousing … or perfectly fine.
Instead of trying to cover up women as a response to the problem of male lust, we need to acknowledge how our views of sexuality are being influenced by our culture. As Christians, we also need to look at what the Bible says, especially the New Testament, about modesty and lust.
Paul on Purity
So what does the New Testament say about women covering up and dressing modestly? Practically nothing. No woman is ever described by her appearance in the New Testament. However, it is evident that some women in the Ephesian church were wearing expensive clothes. Paul’s instructions about modesty in 1 Timothy 2:9 were written in response to these problematic rich women who were wearing luxurious clothing, had fancy hairstyles, and were flaunting their wealth. This verse has nothing to do with covering up cleavage or thighs. (I have more on the context of 1 Timothy 2:9 here.)
A few chapters later, Paul tells Timothy he should encourage or appeal to “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). Paul places the onus on Timothy on how he should relate to women and maintain moral purity. There is no caveat here that passes some of the responsibility of Timothy’s purity onto the women in the Christian community at Ephesus.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul advises single Christians who were avoiding marriage but unable to control their lust to get married. Paul seems to think that sex in marriage will solve the lust problem, or at least alleviate it: “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:2, 9). There is no mention in First Corinthians that women covering up is the solution. (I have more on the context of 1 Corinthians 7 here.)
Jesus on Lust
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus acknowledged the age-old problem of lust. In his teaching, Jesus puts the responsibility of lust squarely on the lust-er, and not the lust-ee.
“. . . I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28–29 NIV).
Jesus advises lusting men to metaphorically pluck out their eye. For many today this means STOP LOOKING AT PORN. And if you can’t stop, get help.
Brothers, Mothers and Sisters
Men must also stop looking at the real women around them as sexual objects but as mothers and sisters. Men don’t usually have a problem with lusting after their mother or sister even though they are female. If men can see their female family members without feeling lust, then, ideally, they should also be able to see their Christian sisters without having a constant battle with lust.
Changes in thinking and focus involve making a deliberate decision to undo unhealthy thought habits. It means focusing on the worthwhile things women say and do, rather than focusing on what women look like! Christian men should see women as fellow humans worthy of honour and respect—as people with minds, personalities, spirituality, and not just a body.
I don’t want to minimise the difficulties, and I don’t want to minimise the distress that long struggles with lust can cause. I doubt that it is easy for our brothers to always regard Christian women as they would their mother or sister, but this is what we must aim for because the cure for sinful lust is not women wearing more clothes, it is a renewed mind (Rom. 12:2).
Mahaney and I are in agreement on only one point, which is that there is forgiveness in Jesus. There is forgiveness and there is hope for men, and for women, who struggle with lust.