23 April 2008

At What Point Does It Cease to Be a Skirt?

It has warmed up since this past Saturday in Siberia, and now the girls in their stilleto heels are showing off their calves and more. I don't wish to be prudish or unkind, but at what point does a skirt cease to be a skirt and constitute little more than a belt or a waistband? I've trained myself pretty well to avert my eyes, but I'm in danger of running into things if I must cast my gaze so low as to avoid the sights that spring unbidden to my eyes. It's no wonder that I notice shoes!

If wearing heels in the snow is not a matter of immodesty, wearing a skirt that disappears under the hem of a spring jacket surely is. I am embarrassed for these girls, and I want to know where their fathers are (or where they were when their daughters were learning how to dress). Is it the goal to tease and tantalize the boys? If so, I'm sure it must be working, but I don't believe it's wise. Nor do I want my sons to be so enticed by such temptations of the flesh. Nor myself, either, frankly. It is already hard enough to keep one's heart pure and one's thoughts chaste, while surrounded by such a constant barrage of "sexy" images. For all the pictures that we can hardly help but see on the television and in the movies, on the covers of books and magazines, and popping out at us from billboards and other advertisements, it is all the more difficult to avoid the lust of the eyes when confronted with bodies on display in the shops and on the streets.

I've noted several recent blogs, all of them by women, which bemoan a lack of modesty on the part of many young ladies, and which ask the girls to dress more becomingly and appropriately. I appreciate such observations and requests, and I concur. There was the suggestion made, in one case, that Lutherans are reluctant to speak forthrightly on such matters, lest we become legalistic and offend against the freedom of the Gospel. There was another comment that men are shy about saying anything at all, lest we appear to be giving undue attention to such things. So perhaps I am taking a double risk in thinking out loud about this topic of feminine modesty. Nevertheless, it seems to me that something does need to be said, and, as both a pastor and a father, it also seems to me that I ought to be among those who are saying it.

The early church father, Tertullian, did tend to be a bit legalistic in his theology, the more so toward the end of his life (in the early third century). However, he addressed himself to matters of real concern, and his critique of worldly behavior on the part of Christians often hits the mark. His legalism, then, will not be rightly corrected by resorting to licentiousness, but rather by the preaching of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Tertullian's biggest problem was his growing uncertainty about the possibility of repentance and the availability of forgiveness for post-Baptismal sins. We Lutherans understand with evangelical clarity that the entire Christian life is one of daily repentance, the drowning of the old Adam and the resurrection of the New Man in Christ through faith in His Gospel of forgiveness. We shouldn't be afraid to preach the Law, as though it were the Law that is the problem! Sin is the problem, and the Law exposes it for the deadly cancer that it is, opening up the patient for the healing work of the Good Physician.

Tertullian wrote more than once on matters pertaining to feminine modesty, specifically with reference to apparel. In one such treatise, he discusses the wearing of veils in the Church. The custom was for the married women to do so, but there was some question and disagreement as to whether the young virgin women should also be veiled. Evidently, many of the virgins in Tertullian's city of Carthage were not, and he argues vociferously that they should be. I'm not inclined to advocate the wearing of veils per se; although I do think that Tertullian's underlying argument for modesty remains appropriate (especially in view of the fact that we are a long way from veils in our cultural climate). I am more intrigued by his critique of the "veils" that some of the married women were wearing, and I was reminded of those comments by some of the "skirts" that I have regretfully noticed on this warm Siberian afternoon. Here are his words:

"We warn you as well, women of the other modesty who have rushed into marriage, lest you so fade away from the teaching of the veil, that, because you are not able to cast that veil aside, you destroy it by another means, walking neither covered nor bare-headed. For certain women are covered on top of the head to a limited extent by strips of linen — lest they constrict the head, I believe — not hanging down as far as the ears. I feel sorry if they have such infirm hearing that they are not able to hear through a covering. Let them know that the whole head is the woman. The limits and boundaries of it extend as far as from where clothing begins. The veil needs to be as long as the hair is when it is let down, in order that the neck too may be wrapped. Yet, there are those who during the Psalms, or at any mention of God, continue uncovered, who even when they are about to spend time in prayer, most readily place a fringe or a piece of cloth or whatever thread they like over the top of their head and consider themselves covered. They say falsely that their head is only that size. Others, whose palm of their hand is clearly greater than every fringe and thread, do not abuse their head any less; just like an ostrich, which, when it has to hide itself, conceals only its head and leaves behind the rest of itself out in the open" (Tertullian, The Veiling of Virgins, excerpts from chapter 17, as translated by Geoffrey D. Dunn, 2004).

If Tertullian is prone to legalism in his theology, it is no less legalistic to make a pretense of modesty while abusing the outermost limits of propriety. Modesty, in our day, does not require or imply the wearing of a veil, as I think most Lutherans would readily agree. However, St. Paul's admonitions pertaining to the order of creation (1 Corinthians 11) and the Christological implications of the Man's headship and the Woman's modesty, both within the family and in the household of the Church, certainly do still apply. Women ought to cover themselves, with more than a cloth or a fringe or a thread, not only to avoid causing the men to stumble and fall, but with due reverence unto Christ their Head, as members of His Body and Bride, the Church.

Tertullian is at his best and most compelling, I believe, when he declares a Christian ethic from the significance of Holy Baptism. He famously quips in one place that we Christians are like little fishes who are born in the water and live our whole lives in the water. In the rites and ceremonies of that Sacrament, we have renounced the devil with all his pomp and circumstance, all his works and all his ways, and we have sworn that our life is now and ever to be found in the Church of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus are we betrothed and given to our heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us from futility and purchased us to be His own at the cost of His blood, by His bodily suffering and death upon the Cross. Our bodies and our lives, therefore, do not belong to us, but to Him who loves us, who has given Himself for us, and who shall raise us with Himself to live forever in a bodily resurrection from the dead.

In Holy Baptism, we have been stripped naked of all impurity and clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ our Lord. He covers us with Himself, with His forgiveness, with His love. He is a Husband jealous for His Bride, and He will not suffer her to be shamed or ravaged by the world. Shall we then shame ourselves by putting on display the bodies that He has washed and cleansed from sin and every evil, as though they were now back on the market for consumption?

A Lutheran evangelical ethic will resist every urge to dictate fashion choices and decisions, but that is not to say that "anything goes." We live in the joyous freedom of the Gospel, surely, but we exercise that freedom in faith and love. Not to gratify ourselves; neither in vanity nor in lust; but to reverence the Lord Jesus Christ with heart and mind and mouth and body, and to serve one another in His holy Name, with which we are adorned by His grace. Proper modesty is not a matter of shame or prudishness, but of humility before God, the Creator and Redeemer of our bodies. It proceeds in charity from the heart in the confidence of the resurrection, knowing that He will raise our mortal bodies from the dust and glorify them to be like unto His own glorious body. With fear, love and trust in Him, we recognize that our bodies matter, and that what we do with our bodies matters. So do we confess — with the words of our mouths and the conduct of our bodies — that we belong to the Lord who bought us, and that we are not for sale at any price.

Dads, teach and train your daughters to dress in a way that demonstrates their real beauty, which is first of all the Gospel of their Savior, Jesus Christ; so also, clothe them with your own paternal love and affection, your forgiveness and protection. In care and concern for their well-being, for their hearts as well as their bodies, warn them against ways of dressing that will attract all the wrong kinds of attention. Do not berate them, but do not neglect to help them, to guard and guide and serve them in this way.

Moms, exemplify the modesty becoming of a Christian woman. Honor your own husbands, and no less so your heavenly Bridegroom, by the way in which you dress and speak and act. Do not be flirtatious, and neither invite nor welcome the flirtatious advances of others. Do not instruct your daughters according to one standard while living by another standard in your own conduct: whether in the books and magazines that you read, the movies that you choose to watch, or the clothes that you wear. If your clothes are not immodest in what they reveal, let them not be immodest in what they cost, either.

Boys, avert your eyes and flee temptation as best you can, and do not excuse your own lust on account of the poor choices that some of the girls around you might make. Look them in the eye, instead of elsewhere, irrespective of what they are wearing. Honor them as you would honor and respect your mother or your sister. If a young lady is a Christian, she is your sister in Christ, a daughter of your own Mother, the Church; and if she is not a Christian, still, she is one for whom Christ died, an object of His compassion. Treat her with the courtesy and kindness of that gentle Man who has laid down His life for her. Befriend her honestly, and, if you would win her heart, then woo her in the way that Christ woos His Church: not by selfish lust, but self-sacrificing love.

Girls, dress yourselves beautifully and becomingly. The Lord has made you lovely by His love for you, and He would also have your own husband delight in your beauty someday. For that very reason, do not profane yourself, your body and your life, by the way in which you dress. It is not the love of Christ, nor any sort of true love, that is inspired by showing off your body in public. You may well be innocent in your heart, but it's not your heart that all the boys are looking at. Of course it is true that they must guard their own hearts and minds against lust, and that you cannot be held responsible for their sinful thoughts and actions. Yet, you do not help them, nor do you do yourself any favors, when you dress and act provocatively. Flirting may be fun, but teasing with temptation is both sinful and dangerous. Please don't.

Don't wear your shirts too tight or too low. It's much easier for a young man to look at your face and look you in the eye, to speak to you and relate to you as a person, if he isn't wrestling with the urge to check out your chest. The fact is that God created boys to like girls, to appreciate their form and femininity; unfortunately, sin has perverted that whole business, so the strong attraction that is felt is not so easily governed according to God's good intentions.

The same thing goes for the lower half of your hourglass figure. Don't wear your jeans too tight, and do not wear your skirts too short. I'm not a fashion expert, and I'm not going to get out a tape measure, but your skirt should be longer than your jacket, and you should be able to sit down without flashing the world with your underwear.

No matter what anyone else may think or say or do; whether or not your daddy gives you the attention that you need from him; whether the boys even look at you or think you're pretty; whether you have a boyfriend, or wonder if you'll ever get married; whether you've been hurt or abused; whether you've fallen into sin and already given away more of yourself than you should, there is one Man who loves you with a perfect and eternal love, who shall never leave you nor forsake you. He does not take from you, but gives you Himself and every good thing. He knows your sin, but He removes it with His free and full forgiveness. He knows your doubts and fears and worries and anxiety, and for all of that He grants you the peace and comfort of His strong embrace. He does not measure you by your appearance, but He sees you all-beautiful and gorgeous by His grace. He does not evaluate you by what you wear, but He dresses you in the white wedding gown of His own righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness. He has washed your body, as well as your soul, with tender mercy and compassion. He has given His own body for you, and He gives His own body to you, that you may have abundant life in Him. He is your Life, your Light and your Salvation. He is ever and always your one true Love.

As that perfect gentle Man has dressed you with Himself, and He does not leave you naked and ashamed, dress yourself with Him.


Dawn said...

Well said. Thank you.

I'm glad when men speak out on these things. In our home, everything I have to say on dress and hair and, well, anything under the sun, is only made real once it has Dad's backing. Dads of the world, speak up.

Susan said...

So now I'm feeling guilty, sitting here in a spaghetti-strap tank-top, wondering if I'm being indecent. (Hey, the hot flashes have been bad recently, and sometimes sleeves are unbearable!)

I know what you mean regarding "when it ceases to be a skirt and become a wide belt." The acolytes at church had hip-length surplices or calf-length albs. They usually wore the surplices. After several Sundays of girls looking like they had on nothing BUT the surplice, one altar-guild lady hid the surplices and left only the albs. (If you can't finagle out of a tradition of having girl acolytes, at least they could have their thighs covered!)

Martin Diers said...

This is a wonderful post! At 35, I'm not even a middle-aged pastor, but old enough where I now get annoyed at the young women, as you say, here in Siberia (MN), who are oblivious to these things.

It is especially bad at the communion rail. Here, of all places, common sense alone should remind women, whatever the age, that low-cut blouses are a major distraction for a pastor who is trying to offer the body and blood of Christ to his flock. Ladies, for the sake of the dignity of Christ and His Sacrament, and for the sake of all your fellow Christians who need the forgiveness of sins, please, cover yourselves better.

Part of the problem, I am convinced, is that most women have no idea how the male flesh responds to such visual temptation, and the rest know, but cannot comprehend it. They blame the individual men, not understanding that they may as well blame the north pole of one magnet for being drawn toward the south pole of another. Men are equally oblivious to the fact that women really have no idea how men are wired to respond. As one talk-show host I once heard remarked on this matter, "The phrase 'Men are from Mars and women are from Venus' is entirely wrong, because it implies they are from the same solar system."

Your pastoral manner in dealing with this issue is excellent, and I would like to recommend this article to every Christian father, mother, and pastor.

Rebekah said...

Thanks for risking it. Few could do it so well. (And without the vitriol of someone who, a few months after the birth of her fourth child, isn't looking so hot!)

AmusedMomma said...

Well said!

Now could you talk about young men whose pants don't always cover what they should in their lower back regions?

Elephantschild said...

Thank you, Pastor Stuckwisch, for saying this so well.

sarahlaughed said...

Amen Pastor! Thank you for tackling this. Not many do or will.

And I might add that not only does immodest apparel tempt young men, but it also makes modestly dressed young women feel exposed just by being in the presence of one who is not so modestly covered.

Monkey Laughs said...

This is a great post, dad. I have definitely noticed that most Lutherans avoid really talking about this issue, and it makes sense that they are trying to avoid being legalists (there are definitely those who tend to be too legalistic about such things). Being a guy, however, I definitely know what you mean about OUR need for women to dress modestly, and I really don't think that a lot of women really understand that.

One thing that REALLY bothers me is that I constantly hear people saying something along the lines of "It's ok to look, just don't touch." This is so ridiculous! Looking is not only a way of giving into temptation already, and sinning in the heart and mind, but it also has the effect of leading to even greater attention! Women do need to practice more modesty for their own sake and for the sake of the men who see them, but I think men really need to take their own responsibilities seriously as well. It's very difficult, especially with fashion the way it is today (I feel sorry for your experience with short skirts in Siberia--just imagine living on a college campus), but at least getting the idea that it's ok to "check out" every girl that walks by out of our heads would go a long way, I think...

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind and thoughtful responses. I am most gratified that my words were evidently received in the spirit I intended them; that is, as being neither pietistic, prudish nor perverted, but pious, prudent and evangelical.

I'm sorry that I haven't been able to reply to each of you, as I would love to do (whenever anyone comments on my blog); but I do appreciate each person's input, and I thank you for that.

Aaron.D.Nemoyer said...

As per usual, my comment comes late, but I also want to express my appreciation for your addressing this, Pr. Stuckwisch. It is always good to see other people voice concerns about modesty. This has been a hot-button issue for me, but sometimes I feel kind of alone in trying to deal with it.


Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your kind words, Darth (Aaron). I'm glad if my comments were of interest and benefit.

I was abruptly reminded of these thoughts again last week, when I looked up from reading at Panera to see a young woman displaying her white little under-thingys to the room as she was bending down (in front of the soda fountain) to retrieve something out of her purse. Her cute little mini skirt was barely big enough to cover her butt to begin with, but it hadn't a chance while she was on her reconnaissance mission. What was she thinking? Or was she? Or was she?

Mind you, this was not some teeny-bopper, but appeared to be a young mother, in her 20s maybe. She had a little boy in tow with her, who acted as though he were her son. As one might expect, I have a lot of sympathy for mothers with children; and, granted, even one little boy can be a handful. But I guess the point would be, don't go out in public without sufficient fabric to cover the necessities. I wonder what her son will grow up thinking about women and their bodies.