There are few subjects guaranteed to raise a ruckus like that of modesty. This subject tends to bring out the worst in us. We often act immodestly when discussing modesty.
There have apparently been many books written on this subject. Many of them very bad. Or so I hear since I’ve only read one other book on the subject, Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. As a result, I am no expert on such books. I decided to read Tim Challies and R.W. Glenn’s book Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel precisely because it seemed to take a gospel-centered approach (which it does).
What they have done is write short, but important, book on the subject at hand. They begin with the obvious, and the most common objection to such a book.
“Discussing modesty among Christians is challenging because the subject typically has not been handled well. … And when a man is the speaker or the author or the discussion leader, women brace themselves, fearing an assault on their fashion sense and wondering if they are about to be blamed for all male struggles with sexual lust. Does he think I have to be ugly to be godly?“
This is not like many of the books I’ve heard about: there are no lists, calls for the ruler, blaming of women etc. They recognize that many calls for modesty are not motivated by the gospel, but legalism. This has led to, in many circles, a neglect of the subject. Or a very narrow view of the subject, making it all about women’s clothing when it encompasses far more than that.
“When we build theology without clear reference to the gospel, we begin to take refuge in rules. … Indeed, in this particular area, the regulations become our gospel- a gospel of bondage rather than freedom. … Modesty without the gospel is prudishness.”
They then begin the hard task of defining modesty. They note the dictionary definitions. But they then do something that may surprise some people, they talk about one’s situational context. Modesty is partially a function of your circumstances. They give the illustration of a bathing suit. Appropriate by the pool or beach, but not appropriate for a worship service or funeral (and maybe even Wal-Mart). It would be modest in one context, but immodest in another. Your situation matters.
There is also a cultural context, which many people don’t want to admit. Standards of modesty differ by culture, and Scripture does not give us an absolute standard. As a young Christian in NH, it was common for me to see women in 1 piece suits, and wearing a t-shirt over that. Imagine my surprise upon moving to FL and seeing Christian women in bikinis. That is just within the same country. Try shifting between other countries and their standards. So a Christian has to be sensitive to the cultural context and the situational context when trying to sort out modesty. As noted above, it isn’t just about clothes, but also speech and behavior. There are some subjects that are appropriate conversation in one culture or situation and not in another.
They talk about confusing modesty and chastity. We should not assume the modest person is chaste, and the immodest one is not. They bring in some comments by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity to help make their point. Modesty is a virtue, or attitude of the heart which shows respect fro appropriate cultural standards resulting in particular dress, speech and behavior. This is reflected in their working definition:
“Modesty is the virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”
They are willing to live with tension and uncertainty. They acknowledge that at times there may not be any discernible thing as “appropriate”. Their counsel is to look closely to see if you missed anything, as well as to remember chastity. What passes for modesty in some places may be unchaste, like a guy wearing a thong. The primary reason for such a bathing suit is to expose one’s bottom perhaps thinking others will be attracted.
The next chapter is about keeping the gospel in the discussion. The tension between antinomianism (license) and legalism are always present. The answer to both, as Sinclair Ferguson notes from the Marrow Controversy, is the gospel. We have to remember that the gospel transcends style and culture, and may both affirm and critique style and culture. There is no such thing as a “Christian” dress. But the grace of God changes us, and how we dress. Our dress (speech & behavior) change because we’ve been accepted in Christ’s righteousness not to gain God’s acceptance. Antinomianism exalts justification above sanctification by saying that since I’ve been accepted it doesn’t matter how I live. Legalism essentially ignores justification and seeks to gain or maintain God’s acceptance by my performance. Modesty matters, for them, for the wrong reasons and is often used to judge and accuse others.
“Antinomianism avoids Jesus by resisting his Lordship. Legalism avoids Jesus by rejecting his saviorship.”
In a very Keller-ish move, the assert (correctly) that Jesus had to die for our immodesty, which reveals how bad it really is. But, Jesus chose to die for our immodesty showing how loved we really are despite our immodesty. Perhaps the same could be said about prudishness.
The 4th chapter talks about the intersection of the gospel and modesty. Only by connecting modesty to the gospel will we be truly modest. Apart from the gospel it ceases to be virtuous, but a manifestation of self-righteousness and pride. Here they talk about the gospel (comfort) and it’s “edge” or call. To do so they bring up the woman caught in adultery as a true story. Ah…. maybe. In one of the few weak moments of the book they ignore the real textual issues regarding this text. Many of the oldest and most reliable text don’t include this. I have no problem with them using the story, since it is in harmony with what we find elsewhere in Scripture. Just with how they introduce it. Does that make sense?
The gospel should soften our approach to others we think are acting or dressing immodestly. While we may talk with them, we should not take an attitude like those men did. We are not to come with stones in hand. We remember that we too sin, and are only free from condemnation due to the work of Christ in our stead. We also see in this story the need to leave our immodesty in whatever form it may manifest itself.
They return to our view of culture, borrowing from Keller. The danger is to idolize culture (liberals) or demonize culture (conservatives). They add a third, divinization of culture by granting cultural norms authority to dictate our norms. As an example they mention Mark Driscoll’s book on marriage and it’s discussion of the marriage bed. I have not read that book, but heard about it. It is not immodest to speak frankly about sex in a marriage book. It would be immodest to speak frankly about your sexual life in a marriage book (the Kellers also come close to this at one point in The Meaning of Marriage). Very few people need to know what sexual acts a particular couple does in the marriage bed, or how orgasmic the woman is. Unlike many, though, they do not denounce Driscoll as though he couldn’t be a Christian. They get back to this near the end of the book. Immaturity and the presence of sin does not mean one is not a Christian or orthodox.
“When someone or something becomes more important to you than Jesus, you begin to become less human. The idol gradually destroys you.”
Then the book moves into the reasons for our immodesty. They do not get into specifics, but take a big picture look out of the Keller and Powlison playbook: idolatry. We all have Christ-substitutes and at times (more often than we may realize) they manifest themselves in immodesty in dress, speech or actions. This is one weakness in the book, it doesn’t really identify the various idols that may produce this. They mention a few in an example, but they could have gone farther. I know they don’t really want to lay out rules, but they could provide more examples. They do mention the approval of men in terms of boasting, and it often functions in other forms of immodest speech or dress. We often want to stand out, to be special, so we may use provocative speech or dress. Out of pride we may display our wealth in how we dress to gain attention from others.
So, the road to modesty is in recognizing not only your immodesty but the idolatrous root from which it springs. This reveals an area in life in which you are not trusting Christ. There should be confession of it, and a putting to death of it. We are to be gentle when others are immodest. As noted previously, we should not use this to determine their orthodoxy or regeneration. All of us have pockets of immaturity and areas needing sanctification. We should also remember that not all immodesty is sinful. At times it just comes from ignorance of cultural or situational contexts.
The appendix focuses on modesty and immodesty in men. Yes, you read that right: men! Men may dress extravagantly to draw attention to themselves or their wealth. They too may flaunt their bodies immodestly with tight or revealing clothing. A man’s speech may be immodest in terms of its content. I can speak to my wife in ways I should never talk to another woman. But the desire to be wanted can corrupt our speech. The manner of speech, talking too loud, can also be a way to sinfully gain attention from others. In terms of behavior, they remind us that acting like gentlemen is a good thing that honors modesty.
Overall this was a very good, and very readable book. It is short, as I mentioned, so it can be read (and re-read) quickly. They handle a difficult, and potentially divisive, issue with clarity where needed and vagueness where needed. They stick to the heat of the matter, applying the gospel instead of rules to the subject. As a result, this is a helpful book even if the lack of specificity regarding your pet peeves may frustrate you. That is a good thing, really. They do walk that line between license and legalism.