The Bible can easily become a constrictor, like a Boa or a Python, when it is read with the intention of proving something that you already believe. This book, that is arguably anti-snake, can begin to wrap and coil around our minds and souls – and this is not because of the words or pages or content but because of the gnarled and grimy state of its readers. We too often are hoping to open the book and find out that we were right all along with our own understanding instead of letting the inspired text show us either how wrong, or how painfully shrunken, our views actually are.
I’ve heard arguments from Paul’s letter to Timothy regarding modesty many times before. I’m well acquainted with churches that attempted, in part, to emphasize “holiness” by focusing on what kinds of substances shouldn’t go into men’s mouths and what kinds of clothing shouldn’t go onto women’s bodies. And I am in no way looking to argue with them here; some things I agree with, some I don’t, and others have been given either too much or too little emphasis. But I refer this because one of the classic texts that has been brought up in the war on plunging necklines and eye-catching jewelry is in 1 Timothy 2:9-10
2 Timothy 2:9-10
9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
This is all wonderful advice and solid wisdom. It speaks much less to the issue of what is actually being worn and more the the point of why it is being worn and this is a crucial distinction in any build out of Christian ethics and life as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. And the text certainly does offer some broadly stated and generalized instruction as to the way clothing ought to fit as the idea of “modesty” suggests more than one layer of understanding. However, this is not all Paul says here – though it has been the majority of what is quoted.
In the same line of thought (which many translations begin a new paragraph at verse 8 and not at verse 9) there is an instruction for men as well. Paul says,
1 Timothy 2:8
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.
To be sure, the church has never said that men ought not pray. Prayer has never been discouraged in the church. But is it said in the same tone and spirit as the instructions about modesty? Is the call to prayer, demonstrative worship (lifting of the hands), and communal peace in the fellowship of believers ever resentfully or prejudicially spat at the men of a church? In the past women have been asked to leave a worship service, or at least told to dress differently the next time they attend, because of their “inappropriate” clothing. When was the last time we cast a condemnatory glance at a man who hadn’t been praying? Have we ever walked a man out of the back doors of a sanctuary for not lifting his hands in worship? Do we tell men that until they can figure out a way to stop being angry with someone else in the church they need to expect shameful glances?
Plunging necklines, in Paul’s understanding, are no more or less harmful to a body of believers than a man who doesn’t pray, openly worship, or live at peace. If we are going to read and quote St Paul, we probably need to do him the credit of quoting him in context. And if we don’t the problem won’t be that he is offended, but that we are reading something other than what he wrote. This partitioned way of reading the Bible does not lead to freedom, holiness, intimacy, or beauty. To the contrary it invites the pythons of accusation, doubt, and pride to strangle the joy of the Gospel. I wonder if there are some other verses or passages that we all need to revisit and make sure that we aren’t foolishly inviting constrictors into our souls and into our churches.
And just so I’m not misunderstood, women the way you put on clothes actually matters, and men, the way that you conduct yourself spiritually matters just as much. In a world where women’s choices of clothing is blamed for the immorality that runs rampant in the world, I would suggest that prayer-less and stone-armed men are just as much to blame for the rife sensuality and wickedness of our day. Added to that there must be a general consensus that modesty is a good idea for men as well as women and the church would be dumb to assume that women ought not pray, worship demonstratively, or live at peace.