Modesty & the Real Weaker “Brother” [The Women’s Issues Series]

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes, Sexuality

Don’t cause a brother to stumble.

We’ve heard this phrase applied to modesty, but do we really know the context of Romans 14? Who is the weaker brother – the man, or the woman? The answer varies based on who we’re talking about, but that’s not something you learned if you grew up in purity culture. In PC, the weaker brother is always the man.

But is this what Scripture teaches? In this episode of Verity, we delve into modesty: the passages often cited to support purity culture’s modesty narratives, and how the Spirit of God frees us to a much better way.

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Welcome to Verity. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher. This podcast will help you embrace the history and depth of the Christian faith. Ask questions, seek answers, and devote yourself to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to settle for watered-down Christian teaching. And if you’re ready to go deeper, God is just as ready to take you there. This is Verity, where every woman is a theologian.

Welcome back, friends. Today, in our Women’s Issue series, we’re going to be talking about pretty hot topic that I get asked about pretty regularly and that is modesty. Yes, the M word, the one that we tend to want to avoid talking about, because it gets so controversial, so fast. I am no stranger to the modesty conversation and how crazy it can get. In fact, at the beginning of what I would call my serious writing career, I’ve been blogging for 12 years, but only in the last five or six years what I say I had a significant following and was actively growing in my readership. I wrote a blog post that went viral. It had 90,000 hits in one day, and became a source of such great controversy, and such virality that it’s actually been mentioned on secular and Christian podcasts, and secular and Christian blog posts including on Refinery29, and many other sources.

At first, I’ll be honest with you, I wrote this blog post from a pure heart. I really, truly believe in the message. It was something I was personally convicted about regarding modesty. When I wrote the post, I was just writing from my current understanding of what modesty was, that it had to do with me, and my sexuality, and the men around me. And it was talking about a decision I had made not to wear yoga pants in public without a tunic or something over them. It was called the day I wear yoga pants five myths about modesty. In the blog post, I never told anybody what to do, I never judged anyone, but because of the vitriolic nature of the modesty conversation, many people took it that way. I was sent hate mail, [laughs] it was just a catastrophe. Absolutely terrible. I love the blog post on my blog for quite a while, even though, it continued to cause a ruckus online and honestly, really hurt my heart, because it wasn’t what I intended the post to do. But eventually, I did take it down. 

In this podcast episode, I really want to explore some of the reasons why I ended up taking that blog post down. Because even though, my heart was in the right place, my understanding of these concepts was not as well rounded and biblical as it is today. As I look back with the wisdom I have now, I can see where I could have done better. I no longer have that post on my site for the sake of the weaker brother, for the sake of those struggling with legalism and for the unbeliever, who may be wondering what Christianity is about, and thinking is modesty the gospel. We’re going to get into that today. When you hear the word modesty, what do you think? Almost immediately, most people think of sexuality and how we dress. We don’t think of modesty right out of the gate as humility, even though, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. Back in the day, if you were to read a book talking about modesty, it would be referring most likely to humility. And then, that humility would be walked out in certain ways, whether it’s how you talk about yourself, how you dress yourself, how you engage with other people, modesty is and was humility.

Not drawing undue attention to yourself for prideful purposes, not exalting yourself, not making much of yourself. Modesty is humility. Now, somewhere in the middle of purity culture, so, when the purity movement really was gaining steam, this was probably from the end of the 1980s through the 1990s. This is when a lot of the materials surrounding modesty began to gain some traction and I grew up reading these books. I read Secret Keeper, I read all about what it means to be modest and to dress yourself with decorum. The idea that was subtly given to us when these books came out was that, our modesty protects men. Our modesty helps protect the sexuality of men. And by being modest, we make sure they’re not led into temptation. This was the idea that was perpetuated. To be honest, in my own experience, modesty was never framed as humility. It was called a heart issue, but it was framed as a sexuality issue. As soon as we began discussing it, it was always revolving around the male response to me in my body, to my girlfriends in their bodies, never wants talking about pride or the attitude of the heart. It was centered on the outward action. 

Now, I hope you had a different teaching on modesty. I hope that you had a more well-rounded biblical basis for this. But likely, story is, you experienced much of what I did. This has been the primary teaching on modesty over the course of the last two and three decades. Now, there are a few passages that are often referred to in the modesty conversation and we’re going to look at a few of those. The first one I want to mention is in Matthew 5:28. And this is when Jesus is talking to a man about adultery and He says that, “Anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery in his heart.” I heard this verse used to say, “If I cause a man to look at me with lustful intent, then I have been complicit in adultery without a whole lot of conversation about the man’s choice in that matter.” Another verse that we see is 1 Peter 3:3-4, which doesn’t explicitly use the word modesty, but says, “Do not let–” and this is Peter talking to the women of the church. “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.” 

Here, you will see in some churches that they take this passage to literally mean you cannot braid your hair, you cannot wear gold jewelry, and you should not be wearing clothes that are colorful or beautiful to you. They take this passage to literally mean that those things are a sin. Now, in context, if we’re looking at this, I want to give a little history here. At that time, in Roman culture, Romans had adopted the Greek hairstyles and some of the way of dressing that the Greeks were practicing, which included a lot of gold, and pearls, and jewelry woven into their hair, these elaborate hairstyles that cost a lot of money coming to church to show off their economic wealth. We see this again in 1 Timothy 2:9 which says, “Likewise also, women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women, who profess godliness with good works.” 

Again, it’s not that these things are inherently evil. They are getting in the way of the gospel. This was an economic immodesty, a flaunting of one’s wealth in a church that would have had both the poor and the rich. This was a new cultural concept of this unity of those who had nothing and those who had everything of Jew and Gentile, male and female coming together and to have some of those people flaunting their wealth in front of those who did not have it was getting in the way of unity in the church. Here he’s saying, “Don’t let this be the way you’re presenting yourself. Adorn yourself with your good works. You don’t have to show off what you have with your braided hair and all of these gold and pearls woven into your hair and these expensive clothes.” 

Does this mean that they can’t have nice clothes? No. We go back to Proverbs 31. We see that she was wearing purple. She says that she covers her whole family in these beautiful linens and in purple, the color of royalty. We also see that one of the women who actually led the church in the New Testament was a maker of purple cloth. The idea that, “Oh, these things are inherently bad, we can’t wear them, we can’t use them. I can’t look nice, I can’t wear cute clothes, I can’t buy something from Nordstrom.” That’s not the point here. The point is, what’s the purpose of you dressing this way? Is it simply because you like it? And once in a while, you want to look really nice, you want to wear your earrings and wear bright colors? That’s perfectly fine. But what’s the motive of your heart, when you are coming into the church? Is it to have a fashion show or a social club to make sure everybody can see you? That’s what Paul and Peter are arguing against here. And how it relates to the modesty conversation is, once again, the undercurrent in their commands about how women should look has to do with humility. A view of oneself that is humble in focused on the gospel, not about preventing sin in other people. 

Now, we’re going to go to the passage that is most often cited in the modesty conversation. This is a passage in Romans 14 about the weaker brother and causing a brother to stumble. I’ll read it to you. “Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” 

The way this was explained in purity culture was that, the man is always the weaker brother. As the woman, it is your responsibility to not cause the weaker brother to stumble with how you dress. Clothes are not inherently bad or good, but how you wear them is bad or good, if it causes the other person to stumble into lust. Again, this goes back to Matthew 5:28, where Jesus said, “If you look at a woman with lust, it’s the same as adultery.” These passages were often connected together saying, “The man is the weaker brother, because he could fall into lust by looking at you and how you’re dressing. So therefore, you need to dress in a way that’s modest to protect him and his sexuality.” But as always, we need to look at the context of this passage. If we go back up to the top of Chapter 14, we see who this is about. It says, ” As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” 

What’s going on here is we have a church with varying levels of spiritual maturity. The newer, younger, weaker brother is saying, “I’m not okay with eating these things. I’m not okay with practicing these things.” For instance, meat sacrifice to idols is just coming out of that world, he’s very sensitive to it and he says, “I am not okay with that.” Paul is saying, “You need to bear with this person, not quarrel with him over this, but bear with this person and honor him as he’s growing, essentially.” And therefore, don’t put a stumbling block in his way. If he’s not okay with eating meat sacrifice to idols, don’t eat meat sacrifice to idols with him, because he’s sensitive to this.” Basically, we’re sacrificing our freedom in order to bear with this person. And if you go forward to Chapter 15, he says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” 

How does this relate to modesty? Well, the assumption and this was never explicitly stated, but the assumption is that the man in the equation, the man who’s looking at the woman and how she dresses is always the weaker brother. That’s the assumption. But what happens when the man in the situation is the spiritually mature one. If he is the one who’s spiritually mature and the woman is a brand-new believer, who is walking in in her crop top and her low-rise jeans, who in that situation is the weaker brother? It would be the woman. The woman, who is still growing in her faith has not yet been convicted by the Holy Spirit or is in the process of navigating what that looks like. If we’re going to apply Romans 14 correctly, what we would need to do is bear with the weakness of this young woman, who is growing in her faith. By being the spiritually mature person, the one further along in faith, we who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak. 

The point of this is not to say, “Oh, it’s totally okay. Our worship team ladies are up there on stage in crop tops and low-rise pants.” That’s not the point, because hopefully, the people who are in ministry and in leadership on your staff at the church are spiritually mature enough to know what is appropriate for certain contexts. Because ultimately, and this is where a lot of more fundamentalist Christians really struggle is that, modesty is contextual. It is contextual. And they don’t like to hear that. I remember being that person, who was trying to get away from the fact that modesty was contextual, but eventually, you have to come to that point. Because what you wear in the bedroom with your husband is okay, [laughs] but it’s not okay in the grocery store. What you wear at the beach is different and what you wear to your meeting at work. There are certain things that are appropriate for certain contexts. Our culture, our world is trying to get rid of those contexts. They’re not trustworthy when it comes to appropriate attire. 

But this is fundamental that there are certain parts of our bodies that are for honorable use. This is what Paul talks about elsewhere in the New Testament and that we cover some parts of our bodies with modesty, because they are for intimate things. They are to be used in context of Covenant. There are certain areas of our bodies that we just don’t show publicly. There are also certain items of clothing that are appropriate in one context and not appropriate in another context. We could also look at culture. Some cultures have modesty standards that are totally different than Western American culture. And you go over there, you need to be aware of that before you interact in that world. Modesty ultimately becomes contextual. What we have to ask ourselves is, “Have we made the gospel as it pertains to modesty, a Western American construct?” Because if the gospel is good for everyone around the world, is the gospel good for the Indian woman whose midriff is showing, that’s a part of her culture? Those are the questions we have to ask. 

Now, to go back to Romans 14, I really want you to think through this. Yes, in some contexts, the man is the weaker brother, where he is at risk for lust. In some contexts, the woman is the stronger, more spiritually mature person, who needs to set aside her freedom for the sake of that weaker brother. What this means is, in certain contexts, I won’t wear what I wear around my girlfriends or with my husband. I’m not going to wear my yoga pants in a Bible study with mixed genders and ages, because I don’t know where those people are at and I want to be kind for the potential of a weaker brother in that context. But do I wear my yoga pants with my girlfriends? Yes. Do I wear them around my husband? Yes. There’re different contexts where we have to just consider. What Lord do you want me to do? How can I honor myself, first of all, which we’ll get to in a second? But also, how can I honor the varying degrees of spiritual maturity around me? How can I walk in humility that puts other people before myself? Do you see how this completely removes this sexual aspect of this? We are not responsible for someone else’s lust. We are not responsible for that. But we are responsible for our own pride or our own inability to lay down our freedoms in order to honor the potential of different spiritual maturities. 

What about the motive of saving men? Making modesty sexual. Well, a lot of this comes from the phrase men are visual. I think science in many ways does back this up that men tend to be more visually aroused than women. Women can also be visually aroused, but there are less of them than there are men. What we have taken this to mean though is men have no self-control. Men are visual, the flipside of that, that we’re believing the unspoken assumption is men have no self-control and that’s not true. All people can walk in self-control. Men are not animals. If that has been your experience, I’m so sorry. But there are so many men in the world, who are good and godly men. Even men who are not good and godly, have the capability of not lusting after women and objectifying women. It’s a choice they make to objectify women. When we are talking about modesty, we have to keep in mind that, yes, we have a responsibility to obey the Lord’s convictions and how we are to dress. But we also are not to take on the sin of a man, who has willingly chosen to lust after a woman. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5:28, that that’s on him. That is his problem for doing that and he sees it as a serious, serious offence. 

Another thing that we assume as when we talk about the brother to stumble passage, we assume that my sexuality as a woman is inherently a temptation. It is an inherent temptation to men. And this is not scriptural. Our sexuality is good. Go back and listen to The Body and Sex episode. It is good, and it has a purpose, and it can be celebrated. Your single sexuality can be celebrated as a good and Holy thing. How people respond to that is their responsibility. How we respond to it is our responsibility. Our sexuality is not inherently a temptation to men. Men have a responsibility to steward their eyes and their hearts just as we have that same responsibility. One of the things that happened when my yoga pants post went viral is somebody wrote a response post. That was a satire and y’all know how I feel about satire, I really don’t like it. 

But they did a satire on how men should stop wearing suits, because they can cause women to stumble. I didn’t like it at the time. Personally, I still don’t. But the point is true. If a woman sees a man in a suit and she thinks, “Oh, my gosh, that guy is so hot.” What goes through her mind and what she indulges is her responsibility. She doesn’t get to blame him for being in a suit and say, “Oh, my gosh, guys in suits are so gorgeous, and it just made me stumble, and he shouldn’t have been doing that.” We don’t get to do that either. We just tend to not be as visual and therefore, this conversation is weighted towards the men. But the facts are, we are each responsible for our own sin and we are each responsible for how we steward our eyes in our minds. 

The last point I want to make is that, when women talk about modesty with other women, other moms, other wives, what can often happen is that, because we see women as a source of temptation and their bodies as a source of temptation, we begin to see other women as the enemies of our sons and our husbands. We see them as the stumbling block to our sons and our husbands, instead of teaching and cultivating honor and mercy from the men in our lives. This is a conversation Josh and I have all the time. Maybe it’s because he had six sisters, and he has two daughters, and he has three sisters in law [laughs] that he’s just been surrounded about this. But when we talk about modesty, we take to heart that the women, who are dressing in certain ways in certain contexts may be weaker, weaker in their faith or completely unbelievers at all. They don’t have any standard, they don’t have any idea that modesty is even a thing. And that for them, what they don’t need is more regulation. What they need is mercy. What they need is to grow in their faith, so that they know to listen to the Holy Spirit at certain times and follow His leading into how to dress themselves with honor, showing honor to the weaker one, showing mercy to them as they are growing and watching for that growth, celebrating that growth. 

Now, that goes the other way, too. I see people react against legalism when it comes to modesty, and then, completely run the other direction, and judge people who are in their long denim skirts and long sleeve shirts, and say, “Those people are so legalistic, because they dress this way.” No, we don’t get to do that either. We don’t get to say, they’re legalistic because they choose to dress that way. We have to once again show honor to this fellow image bearer of God based on, where they are in their walk and how they are growing. I’ve talked about this before, but you have to picture Christians on this spectrum. I’m drawing a line in the air with my hands right now. On one end of the spectrum, you have the girl, who is really conservative and in her long skirt, and in her long sleeve shirt, and then, on the other end, you’ve got the girl from Footloose, [laughs] is in a crop top or whatever, shorts or whatever you picture when you picture wild. 

As people are growing in maturity, they’re moving along this spectrum, and they’re following the conviction of the Lord, and they’re going to be at different places on that line as they grow. That might mean that the woman who was wearing the long skirt, she might land more towards the middle, where she’s wearing jeans, and a V-neck top, and you might wonder like, “Why she isn’t more trendy?” But you don’t realize how far she’s come in her understanding of her freedom or maybe, you see this girl who is dressed exactly the same way. Maybe she wears jeans, and a V-neck top, and you’re like, “Gosh, why is she so conservative?” Maybe she’s come a long way from who she used to be and that’s where the Lord has her right now. This is the kind of compassion we have to have for people’s journeys and stories. When we get legalistic about things like modesty, we can’t do that. We can’t show compassion, because all we’re concerned about is that outward appearance. We think it tells us the whole story, but it doesn’t. There’s so much more beneath the surface. 

My point here is, I now have a son, I have a husband, and the conversation in our home is not, “Oh, look at that girl. She needs to cover up, because she’s going to be a problem for you,” which tells him deep down that he can’t control himself. No. Instead, what we teach in our home and what we are going to teach our girls is, “You are made in the image of God. Your body is made in the image of God, your soul is made in the image of God, and every other person around you is, too.” That means that you honor those people with your eyes and you honor your body with how you dress. It’s not about sexuality in causing people to stumble, it’s about you recognizing that you are the image of God, the idol of God on earth. As such, you dress yourself in a way that honors that. You have a lot of freedom there. You can have any style that you want to have, but you do need to remember that you are an image of God and is how you’re dressing consistent with that image, is how you’re addressing an example of your growth and your maturity in Christ. Are you willing to listen to His conviction when you’re getting dressed to go to a certain event and you get that check in your spirit that says, “Maybe this isn’t the best choice for this event?” Are you willing to obey that? Those are the questions that we need to ask. 

The hard part of this, the hard part you guys is that, it’s going to look different for a lot of you based on where you’re at in your walk, how mature you are, how you’re growing, where you’re coming from, and that’s why we want modesty to be nailed down to the list of rules. Shoulder to shoulder, neck to knee, but reality is that, this is a secondary issue. It is a freedom issue and it looks different in different cultures and the gospel transcends culture. The Gospel transcends culture. As we pursue the gospel in our lives, as we pursue walking by the Spirit, God will convict us. He will lead us into dressing in a way that honors us and honors the people around us. But we don’t need a ton of rules to get there. 

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