“Modesty” has become a dirty word to a postmodern audience, conjuring up images of sexually-repressed, prudish religious folk who don’t know how to have fun.
We youth workers start talking about modesty, and immediately youth group girls everywhere cringe thinking about their limited dress code options … and youth group boys everywhere cringe thinking about girls’ limited dress code options. The old-school youth leaders in our ministries begin a diatribe about “how girls are dressing these days,” and our students tune out.
Is this really the heart of modesty? What we put on and how our bodies are seen by the opposite sex?
Contrary to our over-simplified interpretation, modesty between our male and female students is about power. When my innocent high school girl learns that she can attract a few stares with a crop top or short-shorts, the choice before her is whether or not to make use of her womanly wiles to captivate a male audience. In the same way, when one of my high school guys is confronted with the easy accessibility of internet porn, his choice is about whether he will use the power available to him to objectify the women made in the image of God.
I confess that when one of my high school girls arrives scantily clad, my impulse is to quickly make her change. This is where things get a little tricky. When I ask a student to change into something more modest, I am trying to teach her something valuable about the body, stewardship and the human heart. But in doing so, I’m also exerting authority and setting a limit on what she will wear at an event or on a mission trip. Yikes! That’s the kind of power that can easily be misused.
Take, for example, one sweet high school girl I knew at a conservative church in the Midwest. Her youth leaders were more concerned with the letter of the law than with the spirit of it. When she arrived at church camp with a tankini that covered her midriff and a heart to honor the rules, they chastised her for not bringing the requisite one-piece suit. In their fear, they completely missed her heart, taking the modesty rules to such an extreme that this Jesus-loving girl decided to leave the group and search for community elsewhere.
How we execute our authority, particularly on this issue, really matters.
The apostle Peter offers some wise words to the church elders throughout the diaspora. Echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 20, he urges shepherds of the flock to use care in the way they exercise authority.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:1-4, ESV)
This care is itself a form of modest power that says something significant about the way we conduct ourselves, including our dress.
Peter’s words also present an important question: How would Jesus, our Good Shepherd, have dealt with this issue?
I imagine he would have taken the time to engage in a conversation, unhurried by the concerns of the day. He would have asked good questions. He would have explained the heart of God with compelling clarity. He would have leveraged his position in order to bring about lasting change in the hearts and minds of the little ones in his care.
The irony in the tankini scenario is that by imposing such a rigid standard of modest dress, the leaders at my friend’s church didn’t exercise modesty in their authority. They (probably unintentionally) abused their position to make her feel small.
Even as I write this, I’m convicted about the number of times, while traveling with students just last week, that I hastily instructed girls to change into something more appropriate. My responsibility as their leader is to usher them toward formation in the Lord, humbly and with great care. How often I choose the easy road of exerting my authority, when what’s needed is patient modeling and communication!
Similarly, we often neglect to talk with boys candidly about their part in the equation, that they need to guard their thoughts toward their sister, regardless of what she is wearing. That modesty and manliness require that they never exert pressure on a sister to meet their physical “needs.”
More than the impulse just to cover up my students or to shield their eyes from the images available as they surf the web late at night, I want them to know that modesty is an attitude of the heart. I want them to choose to submit the power they could have over one another at the foot of the cross, emptying themselves like Jesus.
Our students are people in process. They are looking to us, whether we realize it or not, to show them what godliness, humility and healthy relationships look like. If we want them to excel in the art of modesty, we will consider how our own conduct reinforces the words we speak and the directives we give.