Policing temptation with what we wear

Social media is a dangerous place to go if you are worried about causing offense. Twitter in particular is a place where the compression of communication can lead to a lack of nuance and much misunderstanding. Of course it works well if your desire is to be provocative. But plenty of pastors have come unstuck by putting out their hot takes.  The latest in a long list of examples is this one.

This, kind of understandably provoked quite a reaction particularly from female Christians objecting to the use of language like “whore” which they saw as having the intent (which he denied) and certainly the effect of labelling and being derogatory towards women and girls.

And yet, if the pastor’s way of going about things was unhelpful, the topic isn’t one we can duck. How we dress, how we conduct ourselves and how we perceive people in relation to sex and sexuality matters. AS believers, our desire should be to seek to be holy, to guard our own minds and also not to put a stumbling block in front of others. But is the responsibility all down to women and girls to police how they dress?

The two Bible verses quoted in relation to this are 1 Peter 3:3 and 1 Timothy 2:9 where there is a focus on modest dress. You’ll notice that neither passage talks about bikini tops and mini skirts. I want to suggest that their focus is elsewhere. It’s not so much about the dangers of immodest clothing as we tend to think of that concept today. Paul and Peter are not warning women against dressing seductively.  The focus is on apparel that is showy with a focus on fancy hair dos and flashy jewellery. The point was that such ways of dressing were about showing off your status and independence -that you had wealth. This independence would also indicate availability too. Dressing modestly therefore isn’t just about how much flesh you show off (indeed in the context of those verses it isn’t about that). Rather, dressing modestly is about the statements you are seeking to make and do make about who you are, your status and value. Paul and Peter want women to emphasise by their character that their status is in Christ.

Now, does that mean that the apostles weren’t bothered about sexualised seductive behaviour? Does it mean that it doesn’t really matter how we dress providing we are not too flashy? As Paul would say, “by no means”. It’s just that those two verses are not designed to take the full weight of this discussion. The Bible cares about our thought life. It cares about lust. 

However, the first responsibility lies with us men. We are the ones who are told not to lust in Scripture. We have responsibility for guarding our minds and our hearts, with putting to death sinful desire (see 2 Corinthians 10:5 and Romans 8:1-17). Women should not be made to feel that they are objectives of lust. Furthermore, no amount of outer, legalistic policing of clothing can stop lustful thoughts and furthermore, history has taught us that those assumptions about what is immodest, and alluring differs from culture to culture. The shocking thing about the twitter pastor’s use of words like “whore” was that under the cover of piety he was doing the very thing that we should not do. He was conveying an attitude that objectivised and demeaned women/

Now, I don’t think things stop there. I do believe that there are responsibilities on both sides. The responsibility for women is to show concern for others. How you act and behave conveys messages about where identity and value is. So, I don’t think it is just about responsibility to care for men and not to be a cause of temptation, rather it is to think about the messages you send out about how women and girls generally are to be viewed.

The important thing here is that it is contextual. The silliness of the attitude we saw in the social media incident was that it seemed to focus on specific items of clothing and give them globalised significance.  The suggestion was made that wearing bikinis was to dress like a whore. Well having lived in an area where prostitutes worked and pastored a church in a part of town where sex workers would turn up looking for food and help, I can assure you that I’m yet to meet a prostitute who goes out seeking business in a swimming costume. But the point is this. It is highly unlikely that someone dons a two piece in order to attract sexual attention from random passers by. They are more likely to be doing so to stay cool in hot weather and perhaps to get a bit of a suntan (questions about he health risks and benefits of sunbathing are not for this post). 

We can also spot I think where clothing is specifically designed to sexualise and be wise to that. However, back to the problem of the fallen mind, what we often see is that what happens is perfectly normal clothing such as a uniform is taken, caricatured and stereotyped to create a distorted version.

So, think about context, intent and consequences.  There is a significant difference between me removing my shirt in order to work in the heat of the day on the front of my house without soaking my top in sweat or getting muck on it and me standing outside the house with my top off hoping passers by will stop to gaze at my torso (you will be relieved to hear that I actually have no intention of doing either).   The context and intent are quite different. It is of course helpful to realise that whilst my own motives and intent may be one thing that the impact on others may be different. However, within the boundaries of common sense I don’t think people should have to second guess every possible reaction.

So we all are responsible for one another and to put the needs of others first. A culture where both men and women take responsibility for their behaviours and thoughts is far better than one where legalistic rules are imposed on one group whilst the inner thought life of others goes unchallenged.

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