Modesty Culture & Revisionist Theology: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

In a piece on QIdeas, Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means, blogger and columnist Rachel Held Evans confronts the so-called “modesty culture” of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism. To her credit, Evans makes a very important point. In a hyper-sexualized culture which suggests that a young woman’s value is found in her sexual appeal (a deplorable suggestion of course) the “shaming” of young women for having female bodies as the counter to the secular culture is equally destructive. Evans, who grew up in a conservative, Southern, bible-belt environment, points out that shaming women into covering up so as to not lead males into lust places the responsibility for male lust avoidance on the females. Evans is right to call out men to take the responsibility for themselves. I commend her for that.

But here’s the thing; she turns to the idea of modesty in the bible. She suggests that:

But all of this takes the notion of modesty far beyond its biblical context.

In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the apostle Paul writes “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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” The Greek word translated “modesty” here is kosmios. Derived from kosmos (the universe), it signifies orderliness, self-control and appropriateness. It appears only twice in the New Testament, and interestingly, its second usage refers specifically to men (1 Timothy 3:2). In fact, nearly all of the Bible’s instructions regarding modest clothing refer not to sexuality, but rather materialism (Isaiah 3:16-23, 1 Timothy 2:9-12, 1 Peter 3:3). Writers in both the Old Testament and New Testament express grave concern when the people of God flaunt their wealth by buying expensive clothes and jewelry while many of their neighbors suffered in poverty. (Ironically, I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices—which would be much more in keeping with biblical teachings on modesty.)

A nice suggestion. Or at least it would be if it were accurate. It’s not that it’s totally false interpretation, just not the whole story. Let’s look at the text on 1 Timothy 2 more closely:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that 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. (1 Tim. 2:8-10, ESV).

Now, here’s the problem, kosmios does refer to orderly or “virtuous”. But she’s looking at the wrong word here (unfortunately the NIV and NRSV translate kosmios as the adverb modestly and avoids repetition by using the noun “decency” in the next clause, which is a viable option). The first part of verse 9 in Greek is Ὡσαύτως γυναῖκας ἐν καταστολῇ κοσμίῳ μετὰ αἰδοῦς καὶ σωφροσύνης κοσμεῖν ἑαυτάς. Which more literally would comes out as “And in this manner, women in orderly (kosmioi from the root kosmios) apparel, with modesty (aidous) and self-control (sophrosynes) are to adorn themselves”. That word modesty, aidous, comes from the Greek root verb “to be ashamed” and means simply modesty (or decency as the NIV translators chose). So yes, modesty (or decency) is there. So does this “modesty and self-control/moderation” refer to materialism? William Mounce, (who literally wrote the book on biblical Greek) in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) suggests otherwise: “αἰδοῦς, ‘modesty,’ and σωφροσύνης ‘moderation,’ both carry sexual connotations” (p. 109, emphasis added). So, according to Mounce, this verse doesn’t refer to materialism alone, but sexuality is present. The over-the-top jewelry, fancy hairstyles, and expensive clothing was not simply flaunting of wealth, but also had “sexual connotations”.

Similarly, Craig Keener has shown that expensive adornments, especially those in the hair, were used by first century women to draw the eye of men to themselves. He suggests that what Paul is addressing in 1 Tim. 2:9 is actually a cultural symbol of seduction or seeking male attention by using physical appearance, and if possible adornments to elevate physical attractiveness. Keener suggests that Paul is saying women ought not use their bodies and “adornments” in that way, but should be of attractive character. Paul is arguing against “artificial augmentations of beauty” (Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992. p. 103-106).

J.R. Daniel Kirk interprets another modesty passage, 1 Cor. 11, which deals with why women ought to cover their hair, and comments that women with heads uncovered “[b]y putting themselves on display, perhaps with connotations that they are sexually available, they are distracting from the worship that the community as a whole is to be rendering to God” (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. p. 128). Paul’s specific mention of hairstyles in 1 Tim 2 and his suggestion in 1 Cor. 11 that women should go to worship with heads covered suggests that in a first century cultural context, these references likely speak to something more than simply materialism (Keener gives a lot of cultural background data on hair and sexuality if you’re interested in that sort of thing).

With regards to 1 Peter 3:3, she may have a better case. But even there, the vocabulary isn’t simply materialism, but also of vanity (see I. Howard Marshall, 1 Peter IVPNTC. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1991. p. 101-2). Peter is encouraging women to be known as something other than only beautiful objects. In both these cases (1 Tim. 2:9 and 1 Pet. 3:3) the purpose isn’t just dealing with wealth, but wealth used for a specific purpose- “artificial augmentation” to enhance physical attractiveness. Here in 1 Peter, aidous and sophrosynes are not used. Kosmos (“adornment”) is used. So it is less clear if 1 Peter points to simply ostentatious display of wealth, or if he is referring to the use of adornment to attract attention (which may have sexual connotations). J. Ramsey Michaels suggests it is likely that “there is every indication that he shared the viewpoint of his contemporaries that such things [braided hair, gold, and luxurious clothing] were sexually provocative” (1 Peter Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988. p. 158). So the possibility is certainly there, and RHE is mistaken in dismissing these as simply criticisms of wealthy women showing off their wealth.

So what does this mean? Are the “fundies” right? Should women fear leading men into sinful lust and feel pressured to cover up? Well, no. Women should not be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies. Paul is critiquing the cultural practice of women who intentionally make themselves into a spectacle, by augmenting their appearance so as to be more appealing, and doing so in the context of communal worship. My problem with RHE’s piece is not the message per se, but the underlying exegetical problem used to advance the message. It is revisionist exegesis to claim that 1 Tim. 2:9 refers to materialism, not sexuality. It simply doesn’t hold water. Her claims are not unique (Philip Towner makes a similar claim in his commentary on the Pastoral [IVPNTC]). But the fact is that Paul (although many doubt the authenticity of the Pastorals, but that’s another issue) does in fact advise the reader to encourage the women of the Ephesian congregation(s) to not dress in ways that use external adornment to augment beauty to attract attention. It may be unpopular to say, but that does appear to be what is in the text.

Of course, we do also need to “translate” the cultural symbols not just the words. The culture in which this text is written is different from our own. Is Paul demanding women wear t-shirts over their bathing suits? No. Is Paul suggesting Timothy give a fiery talk to the Youth Group which tells the young women that they are guilty of leading their brothers in Christ into wickedness and sin unless their skirts are past their knees? No. Is Paul suggesting parents should get out measuring tapes before allowing their teen-aged daughters to leave the house? No. I would argue that if we “translate” this text culturally, Paul would be suggesting that worship isn’t the right time to intentionally try to gain the attention of the available men. It’s not suggesting women should be ashamed of having female bodies (Paul certainly disputes that idea in other letters, stating that women and men as physically male and female are without distinction in value and place in the community) or that women must cover up so that the males around them don’t feel lustful. But this text (and 1 Cor. 11, and 1 Pet. 3:3) demonstrates that Paul is opposed to the misuse of Christian freedom. Women are free, but ought not use that freedom in a way which causes offense. These texts have been (ab)used in such a way that many girls have been publicly humiliated and given scarlet letters because a skirt didn’t meet man-made specifications of modesty or because a bra strap poked out from under a tank top. This is a terrible reality in the Church, and needs to be corrected. But the solution is not revisionist theology- rewriting the text to undercut the opponents’ faulty, graceless, legalistic and male-centric interpretation.

Where RHE has come up short, in my opinion is making a biblical/theological claim which is inaccurate and basing a point on faulty exegetical assumptions. RHE may be well read and articulate, but an exegetical authority, she is not (as an aside, I wonder why when commenting on Greek stuff, RHE has not cited her sources). Is materialism part of what’s going on in the text? Sure, it’s there. Jewelry and expensive hair styles and clothing were out of reach for many women (and still are). But in a culture where “marrying up” was important (ie. people wanted to marry someone with wealth and social status) sexuality and wealth/power were intermixed (see Keener). To strip the sexual connotations from this text (pun somewhat intentional) is to do it a disservice.

I know her point wasn’t to provide a biblical exegesis, but to address the shaming of women in “modesty culture”. She writes “The truth is, a man can choose to objectify a woman whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burqa.” That is of course true. Males objectifying women is absolutely wrong. But Paul is not making a statement against materialism only. He is opposing the use of augmenting physical appearances as a means to get attention, which may include that of a sexual nature, and doing so within the context of worship. This isn’t a declaration of shame upon women and a blaming of women for the lustful attitudes of men (I think Jesus covered that one well). The whole context of 1 Tim. 2 is about propriety in communal worship (same goes for 1 Cor. 11). We have more than sufficient reason to conclude that there, at the very least, may be notes of sexuality in 1 Tim. 2:9. Paul’s use of aidous does warrant such a conclusion. So, while the objectification of women is heinous, Paul is still saying women ought to practice modesty in dress, both in terms of wealth and sexuality. How this should play itself out is a complex issue which is obviously worth doing our homework on. I am not proposing we endorse the “modesty culture”. But I am saying that the mutual submission which is pervasive in Paul’s discussion of gender (and beyond gender) means women and men are free in Christ, but are still called to submit to each other and not misuse the freedom they have. We all are called to seek the benefit of all, and to walk in ways which honour Christ, ourselves, and our neighbours; to submit to one another in love. We don’t humiliate girls into following the rules, but encourage a mutually agreed on way of interacting which allows us to live in fruitful abundance of community, grace, peace, and love. This may mean restraining certain freedoms in some situations. Paul introduces several of these; waiting your turn to speak, honouring your culturally-bound obligations as a slave to your master, placing the needs of others ahead of your own, etc. Within the broader context of the Pauline corpus (which is how we should read Paul- not isolated statements, but parts of letters) we see that it isn’t a means to single out, humiliate, and degrade women, but one of a large number of instructions on people of all genders and all ethnicities and social classes to mutually submit.

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3 Responses to Modesty Culture & Revisionist Theology: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

  1. Doug Brown says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated this blog post.
    Take care and God bless.

  2. Jason Wert says:

    RHE’s “theology” often comes up short. Thanks for standing up against her latest “issue”.

  3. In all fairness to RHE, she isn’t trained as an exegete, but as a writer/columnist. She makes a living on opinion, not theological rigour. She is well read, and well spoken, but, yes, her exegesis comes up short. I’m not a Greek expert by any stretch, but I know how to use translation tools, and what resources to consult on these issues, so I am not an authority, and I have put my trust in reputable people (Mounce, Keener, Kirk, Marshall in this case). Unfortunately, RHE has not shown her sources for Greek stuff, so I’m not sure where she got her information (Philip Towner’s commentary does suggest the same view she is taking, but Mounce effectively refutes such a stance).

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