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Modesty Wars: Hyper-Grace v. Legalism

Modesty Wars Hyper-Grace v. Legalism

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Too often, discussions about modesty digress into contentious sparring matches between Christians with differing perspectives on secondary issues. Usually, it’s the legalist and the liberal thinking believer, a sad commentary about our Christian maturity in light of the horrendous things that are happening all around us. We can be like kids arguing over the bigger piece of candy when these privileged sugar fixes are less common in many parts of the world where having anything to eat is a daily struggle. In a culture like ours, where we’ve been spoiled for so long, the tendency to devolve into less weighty matters speaks to how easily our hearts curve into themselves.

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For God’s Fame

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Wearing clothes is an everyday experience, and how we think about the apparel we wear is a biblically and culturally relevant issue, especially in light of our call to spread the fame of God to a fallen world. To glorify God means to spread His fame throughout the world by making His name fabulously great in our sphere of influence. Paul might say, “Whether we eat, drink, or wear clothes, God calls us to do all of those things for God’s glory.” We should have a magnification of the Lord focus, which is an all-encompassing command that even brings our clothing choices under the rubric of spreading God’s fame. David talked about it this way: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3)!

We are like a modern-day John the Baptist, the guy who stood in the wilderness pointing people to Christ (John 3:28, 30). His job description is ours, too. The life we live is an ongoing process of learning how to decrease while intentionally increasing the person and work of Christ so others can hear and respond to the message of the gospel. When thinking about the clothes we wear, the most appropriate place to begin is in our hearts, specifically with our motivations. Perhaps a few questions may assist us in aligning our thoughts about clothing and motive. How would you answer these?

  • Are you aware of how your motives influence what you wear?
  • You could ask the question in reverse: How do your clothing choices reflect your motives?
  • What do your clothes say about you as a person?
  • What do your clothes say about your relationship with God?
  • Do you crave affection, love, or acceptance and use your clothes as a means to gain those things?

Christians are missionaries. If you are a Christian, you are an alien living on foreign soil for the purpose of convincing earthlings to worship your King. The practical way you live your life matters as much as the message you communicate. Listen to Peter.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:11-12).

The Modesty Wars

Christians are influencing their culture for Christ, or their culture is affecting them for Satan. Our clothing choices are one practical way we can discern if we are influencing them or if they are influencing us. Our clothes are messages that either work in tandem with the message of the gospel or work in conjunction with the ways of the world. Clothes are not neutral garments hanging on the Christian missionary. Regrettably, this tension about our clothes creates modesty wars within the Christian community. There are several factions in this war. For this chapter, I have separated the camps into two general groups—the conservatives (legalists) and the non-conservatives (liberals). My conservative friends clearly see the dangers of dressing sensually. They are not blind, and I do not disagree with them. Calling them legalistic while entirely dismissing their perspectives is myopic and immature.

My legalistic friends are like the rest of us in that they have problems, too, but when it comes to clothing choices, they are typically more clear-headed than the non-conservative Christian community. The conservative Christian community knows that sex sells, and they are soberly aware of how so many of their brothers and sisters are promoting the sensual agenda of our culture. As a counselor, I’ve had the opportunity to see their complaint in a clearer way than most people. Sensual thinking and attire are nearly always associated with adultery, porn, and many other marital problems, including divorce. What our conservative friends are observing in our culture is a serious matter that is unarguable. Adultery, porn, and divorce are not isolated behavioral events that have no relation to a person’s heart motivations or lifestyle choices.

Nobody falls into adultery. No one makes an out-of-the-blue decision to live a lifestyle of porn. There is always a long trail that leads to these patterns, and the trailhead is always in the sensual person’s heart. With every sensual family problem I have dealt with, there were sensual patterns of the heart that were in place long before anyone knew about the person’s sinful lifestyle. My conservative friends are correct in their observations. If they do err, it is an overreactive response to their observations—a sheltering in place behind thick-walled barricades—that dissociates themselves from the culture they should penetrate. You may not agree with how our conservative friends dress themselves, but it would be short-sighted to say what they are observing in the culture and among other Christians is wrong.

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Go Get Jesus

Because some of our conservative, legalistic friends over-correct their clothing choices, they end up drawing attention away from sensuality while drawing attention to their counter-cultural attire. Though their intentions may be good, their clothing ends up distracting the culture from the gospel message. It is possible to draw attention to yourself by dressing in such a way that you become a hindrance to the gospel. Jesus did not dress weirdly out of step with His culture. He was a relevant guy who knew how to relate to His culture. Jesus did not dress counter-culturally, and He did not dress immodestly. Jesus was not flashy or showy, and He did not dress in such a conservative fashion that His clothes were more of a talking point than His gospel.

When someone spent time with Jesus, they said, “No one ever spoke like this man,” rather than, “No one ever dressed like this man.” (See John 7:46.) There was nothing about Christ’s appearance that distracted His audience from His message. He fit into His culture. He was not in the conservative or the liberal camp. He was outside both camps (Hebrews 13:13), walking in a way that drew attention to His message. There were times when people could not find Christ in a crowd because He looked like the crowd (Matthew 26:48). I want to be more like Christ, where people are more aware of my character and message than my clothing choices.

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious (1 Peter 3:3-4).

My Legalistic Friends

Sadly, my conservative and liberal Christian friends have their respective ditches where they hunker down while tossing grenades at the other side. My conservative friends, who have an unbiblical view of worldliness, dress as opposite as possible from their culture. My anti-conservative friends, who have an unbiblical view of modesty, dress as opposite as possible from their conservative friends. For example, when you wear culottes to the beach or dresses on a ski slope, you are not making God’s name great. That is analogous to the Corinthians speaking in tongues in a church meeting without an interpreter. It wasn’t very clear to the non-Christian community of Paul’s day what those weird people were doing other than impeding the message of Christ.

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds (1 Corinthians 14:23)?

Out-of-date or counter-culture clothing choices do not, by and large, point unregenerate people to Christ. The cross of Christ is foolish enough (1 Corinthians 1:18). We don’t need to place hurdles in front of the cross that confuse, distract, or hinder our unregenerate friends from getting to the cross. Non-relevant attire becomes a cultural anomaly that may garner a few looks, but the quizzical onlooker typically dismisses the conservative person or marginalizes them through mocking or devaluation. Either way, it’s the clothes that gain the attention more than the magnification of Christ.

Mocking conservative clothing choices is what happened to me before I became a Christian. I thought being a Christian meant I had to ride a bicycle and wear black slacks and shoes, with a white shirt and black tie. I assumed I had to have a badge on my white shirt that said, “Elder Rick.” I did not know Mormons weren’t Christians, but what I did know was that I did not want to be like them, not for theological reasons, but because of their weird clothing choices. Their anti-culture dress standards made no sense to me. Their message got lost in their apparel. In hindsight, it was not a bad thing that their clothing choices turned me away from their message.

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My Hyper-grace Friends

But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Corinthians 8:9).

Guard your heart so that your freedom in Christ is not a stumbling block to your weaker brothers and sisters in Christ who sincerely believe they are right on this issue of modesty. (See 1 Corinthians 8.) Too many of my non-conservative friends have overreacted to the legalism. Many of them were part of the legalistic culture before seeing the light. Their overreaction is what I call the grace mistake. They have become overly focused on the legalism they came out of, which tempts some of them to react by going too far into a non- (or sub-) Christian liberality. They misunderstand biblical freedom as they react to what they disdain. By distancing themselves from their conservative past, they unwittingly yoke themselves to their culture.

If you’re in the liberal trap, I appeal to you to reconsider how you think about your legalistic friends. Love them, and while you’re doing so, ensure you are not distracting your unregenerate friends from the point and purpose of the gospel. They need to know Christ more than your coolness. Christianity is not supposed to be hip. The message of the cross is as anti-cultural as it can be. Christianity is a death march. It’s a call to die to yourself. You should have a counter-cultural heart condition, which should drive all your choices. Paul and Peter were clear on how our calling to Christ should be counter-intuitive to cultural norms. As you live out coolness for the cause of Christ, make sure you model something far superior to your cultural relevance and hipness. Our world needs to see the hope we have in Christ.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:29).

For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

Final Appeal

Joseph was the sexiest slave in Egypt. He had no church, no Bible, no friends, no church clothes, and no help. But God was with him, and it was obvious to all (Genesis 39:2). In one of the most isolated times of his life, he did not look Christian, but everyone knew God was with him. How about you? How does your life communicate that God is with you? Do your clothes get in the way of the message of Christ? The Savior was a root out of the dry ground, and there was no beauty that we should desire Him (Isaiah 53). Rather than getting a makeover, He stayed the course and went to His death, and even today, He is turning the world upside down.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing (Matthew 6:25)?

Is the main thing—the gospel—the main thing in your life? Spreading God’s fame is more important than what we wrap around our bodies. Do not err by your legalism or your liberality. Guard your heart, love your God, serve your neighbor, and send an unobstructed message to your world. I encourage you to dress in such a way that does not capture the gaze of any person. It matters not if you’re male or female. Our Christian duty is to point people to Christ. We are signposts in the wilderness. If your conservative clothing distracts from the message of Christ, consider changing your clothing style. If your culturally relevant clothing distracts from the message of Christ, consider changing your clothing style.

Call to Action

  1. Have you over-corrected from one style to another? If so, how so, and what would be the right way for you to present the glory of Christ to your culture?
  2. Do you know how to blend into your culture while communicating a counter-cultural message? Please explain.
  3. When people see you, do they know you are different—not by what you wear, but because God is with you? You have a quality that draws people to Jesus.
  4. The best-dressed person looks like the fruit of the Spirit. Will you read Galatians 5:22-23 and speak with a friend about how you emulate each of those nine elements of the Spirit’s fruit in your life?

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