Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part Two: Modesty and Girl Power

(If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Part One of this post before proceeding.)

Women—our bodies and minds—are powerful. This power should not be hidden away out of fear, guilt, or shame, but celebrated and exercised appropriately, with good stewardship. Examples of “strong female characters” exist in myth and legend, plays and books and movies, in the Bible and human history

The Lord chose to bring Jesus Christ into the world by way of Mary’s body. The intelligent and beautiful Abigail became David’s wife after using cunning, charm, and hospitality to convince him not to slaughter her husband Nabal and his men (leaving that to God). The Book of Esther centers on a young woman whose beauty wins her the favor of the king, which she then uses to save the people of Israel. Female missionaries such as Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael, and Ann Hasseltine Judson demonstrated great strength of body and soul to serve God’s people and carry His Word across the world. Queen Elizabeth I of England never married, but used her many offers as leverage in foreign policy, and used her singleness to maintain political security at home. In 1936, the King of England abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis Simpson.

The Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata tells a story of women who use their sexual leverage to get men to agree to a peace treaty to end the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Helen’s beauty sparked a kidnapping that started the Trojan war. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Coriolanus’ wife and mother successfully convince him to change his mind when men previously failed. Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark is an example of the power and strength of traditional femininity. (Link contains two-year-old spoilers.) Part of the plot of Disney’s Frozen involves Queen Elsa coming to terms with her body’s particular, magical powers. The movie Thor: The Dark World has several excellent examples of powerful women: Jane Foster drives the plot because of her scientific curiosity and intellect as well as Thor’s affection for her; Lady Sif uses armor and sword as well as any other warrior; Queen Frigga consoles, counsels, and protects as a wife and mother, using both brains and physical strength in a combination of gentleness and violence.

Unfortunately, discussion of female sexuality in the Church only seems to take place within the context of “modesty.” This is a heavily debated issue that often becomes nothing more than an argument over how short is too short of a skirt, or how much cleavage is too much cleavage. Women in Christian culture are told to be modest, and that modesty means to cover up, that their bodies are shameful and tempt men to sin, or that their bodies are powerful enough to control men’s thoughts, and this power must be concealed at all times.

You might expand standards of modesty to include excessive flirting or inappropriate touching, but that still fails to get at the heart of the matter. When you talk about outward things like clothing or flirting, it’s so easy to get legalistic, burdensome, and pharisaical. It’s hard to draw a line, especially when not everyone finds the same things distracting or tempting.

A lot of the burden of modesty has been placed on women because of the widespread belief that men struggle more with sexual lust, and thus women need to “help” them. But my Part One of this post pretty much dismisses that.

Perhaps, then, it’s not those actions that are most important, but the need to address the “inner man” (or woman) and focus on the heart and soul, where these issues are first planted. Rather than a discussion of modesty that focuses on one’s appearance, maybe it should instead turn to the more fundamental (ooh, dangerous word there!) concerns of chastity, charity, patience, thankfulness, and self-denial.

These basic virtues often go ignored in modern churches, whether out of fear of being puritanical, fear of seeming unrealistic, or maybe thinking that they go without saying. Concerns about correct thoughts and behavior have been suppressed. Too many Christians and churches nowadays avoid talking about sin, or calling things out as sinful, because no one wants to offend, or appear sanctimonious, or tell others how to live their lives. Yet these issues of the inner man, of the heart, are where our outward problems come from.

Maybe churches should have an attitude of, “We are all, male and female, God’s creation with bodies made for good things, like food and sex and exercise and sleep. Let’s discuss the proper use and context of those things, without forgetting that our actions originate in the heart, and put its condition first.”

There is a certain link between the conditions of our hearts and our actions. Luke 6:45 says, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.”

But modesty, chastity, and Christian sexuality should not involve guilt and shame. I can tell you from personal experience that these are the enemy’s tools, used to bring us down and keep us from living the abundant life that Christ offers. A little guilt and shame may prompt us to acknowledge and confess and turn from our sin and back toward God, but we’re not supposed to keep it. In Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape notes,

Even of his sins the Enemy goes not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.

What does modesty mean with the right sort of mindset, then?

Think less about what you’re doing and wearing and more about why. This doesn’t mean you must pray about every article of clothing or each time you put on lipstick. Just take some time to consider your motives. Are you leaving God out of the equation at all? Are you anxious or insecure about your appearance or trying to overcompensate, trying to get your self-worth from a source other than Christ? Are you dressing, styling, making-up, or behaving in a way that feeds your own Pride and self-reliance? Are you deliberately trying to stir up the sin of Lust in men, or Envy in women? Are you dressing or acting out of shame, in spite of the freedom that you have in Christ? If any of those are the case, maybe bring it before God before you bring it out in public.

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Are you dressing or acting with a clear conscience? Are you dressing with confidence and gratitude for the body and appearance that God has given you? Are you styling or acting a certain way out of a genuine desire to please your husband? Are you comfortable? Are you pleased with how you look, no matter who else notices? Flaunt that shit.

Consider Romans 14. Paul was originally writing about which foods were proper or clean, and which feast days could be observed. But I think the passage could cover the issue of modesty, as well.

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.…For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

If a Christian woman is wearing a skirt shorter than you’d be comfortable in, a two-piece swimsuit, bright red lipstick, or her shirt shows two centimeters of cleavage, and she wears those things innocently, don’t look down on her for it, don’t judge her, don’t assume she’s sinning or deliberately causing others to sin. (If it is somehow known that she is, then she should be admonished with love and gentleness.) Likewise, if you see a Christian woman dressed in a long skirt, a Tshirt layered under a low-cut dress, no makeup, or a one-piece swimsuit you’d consider matronly, and she does it without shame, believing that she’s fulfilling God’s will, then don’t tease her about it, don’t look down on her, don’t call her a prude.

Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory: “Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself: ‘it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.'”

But if love means putting the needs and desires of others before our own, that also means you might occasionally have to alter your usual style. For example, if you’re going to a dinner party and you’re the only single woman in a room full of couples, maybe exercise a little more coverage than you would if you were on a date, on a girls-only night, even at church. (Hey, I won’t presume to know what you normally wear.) Of course you don’t have to go to extremes, and you should remain comfortable and confident with your appearance. But out of awareness of the sanctity of marriage and respect for the specific men and women you’ll be spending time with, make extra-sure of your motives, and that your conscience is clear.

Keep in mind, though, that the only thing you can control is what you do. You cannot control the actions, thoughts, or feelings of others. Yes, Christians should look out for each other and act appropriately—that is the point of the passage in Romans. But each person is responsible only for his or her own behavior and thoughts.

A Christian woman should not dress with the intention of stirring up Envy in another woman, but that isn’t necessarily a guarantee against Envy—it may happen no matter what she does. Speaking as one who struggles daily, constantly with Envy, I can say that one woman can be envious of another without any assistance. Likewise, there are times when people will commit the sin of Lust without any help from the object. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care with your style—it means you should do what you can do.

You might be dressed with a clear conscience, appropriate to the occasion, and a man still might not keep his eyes focused in the right place or take captive his thoughts. Maybe your chest is well-endowed, and however much clothing you wear, it’s going to be noticed. Maybe you have a naturally winning, come-hither smile, or maybe your jeans are really flattering, or the smokey-eye look really works for you. Maybe it’s none of those things. But that’s his problem, not yours. You can’t predict and prepare for every possible thought that every man you might meet, might have.

Notice that I did not say that the man “might not be able to keep his eyes focused.” The “boys will be boys” attitude has removed a lot of responsibility, but men have more control over their gaze and thoughts than society would have us believe.

Jesus said in Matthew 5 that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He didn’t just say “everyone who looks at a woman.” Noticing an attractive woman is not Lust. Deliberately lingering, intentionally dwelling on inappropriate thoughts and desires, or purposely storing and summoning up images for later entertainment is where the danger lies. And notice that Christ did not place blame on the woman being lusted after—it was the man and the condition of his heart that He was interested in. If the hypothetical woman was not deliberately enticing him, then she was innocent.

I’m not a big fan—OK, I’m not any kind of fan—of Boundless.org. I confess that I went on that site specifically to find articles about modesty to get angry at. Instead, I found one written by a man, to men, that addresses this issue very, very well. He tells men what they need to be responsible for, and suggests that aspects of the modesty debate are damaging to women.

One lady blogger, whose heart is doubtless in the right place, in a post titled “Don’t Be The Bathsheba,” gives women a list of four ways to be modest: 1. Don’t be a temptation to other men, 2. Don’t instigate feelings of jealousy and competitiveness in other women, 3. Don’t inspire lustful thoughts in young men or boys (so middle-aged and old men are fair game?), and 4. Be a good example for young women and little girls.

There is only so much that one woman can do about this. Some women are going to be jealous no matter what you do; some men are going to be lustful no matter what you do. And you shouldn’t be making your decisions because of what a man (especially a random, anonymous stranger) might think of it. All Christian women, married or single, should put Christ first and foremost in their decisions.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” We should put the needs of others before our own desires, but God is our primary concern.

The other problem I have with that post, and others like it, is that the story of David and Bathsheba’s sin is not all because of Bathsheba. She was one-half of a couple who sinned. She suffered the loss of the child conceived in sin, and she was responsible for her actions. Should she have been bathing on the rooftop? Maybe not. Should she have said no to David’s “invitation” and fled temptation? Absolutely. But David should have done a lot of things too: should have looked away, should have turned his desire over to God, should not have summoned her, should have come clean to Uriah, should not have been in town. But the account in II Samuel 12 describes how the prophet Nathan came to David to call him out on his sin. He pointed out the seriousness of David’s sin, and informed him of God’s punishment, and held David responsible for his actions.

Bathsheba at the Bath, Sebastiano Ricci

Bathsheba suffered her share of consequences—the death of her husband and child, and witnessing the violence and political turmoil resulting from their sin. But she also was given the privilege of being the mother of Solomon, and being one of only five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Neither David nor Bathsheba made the best decisions, but their story is not only a story of terrible sin, but an example of how God holds individuals responsible for their own actions, and how He can redeem even the worst of those.

This well-meaning (and often correct) blogger also says, “There is a difference between confidence in your beauty vs. confidence in your body.” She says, “Confidence in your beauty comes from knowing who you are in Christ, emanating how God sees you, showing your natural beauty that comes from being who God made you to be.” I was curious to know how she defines confidence in one’s body, but she doesn’t.

I don’t think there’s necessarily a difference anyway, and even if there were, confidence in one’s body is not a bad thing. It becomes a sin when it becomes Pride, when the creation is more highly regarded than the Creator. But I’ve written before about my struggles with body image, and I think a woman’s confidence in her body—whether that comes out of her athletic ability, her sexual appeal, the ability to reproduce, good health, vocal talents, and so on—is perfectly acceptable in God’s kingdom, as long as it is kept to its proper place.

God made our bodies—He likes them, and He wants us to like them, too.

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Flapper sex symbol Clara Bow, showin’ us how it’s done

. . .

Helpful, Sex-Positive Christian Resources:

Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, by Lauren F. Winner
The Fantasy Fallacy: Exposing the Deeper Meaning Behind Sexual Thoughts, by Shannon Ethridge
Intimacy in Marriage
Crosswalk.com: Should I Marry Without Romance and Attraction?
DesiringGod.org: Lust: Not for Men Only
Christianity Today: Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman
Soulation.org: Lust: Alive and Well Among Women (Part One) (Part Two)
Converge: The 24-Year-Old Virgin
Boundless.org: Your Turn: Lust and Leggings

Secular Resources on Female Sexuality:

The Atlantic: How Strong Is The Female Sex Drive After All?
The Atlantic: Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?
Study: Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive?
NYMag “The Cut”: When Women Pursue Sex, Even Men Don’t Get It
University of Michigan: Women Like Casual Sex Just As Much As Men Do
NYT: What Do Women Want?
NYT: Unexcited? There May Be A Pill For That

10 thoughts on “Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part Two: Modesty and Girl Power

  1. Pingback: Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part One: Drive and Desire | Em Speaks

  2. Just tried to comment, I think it was chewed up and spit our lol. Try one more time…

    Just wrote on this recently from a male perspective which is in the (Top 5 Posts Last 30 Days) section. Will not be hard to guess which one.

    Great point in this piece, my favorite is

    “1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” We should put the needs of others before our own desires, but God is our primary concern.”

  3. Reblogged this on Egotist's Club and commented:
    Part two of Em’s post on feminine sexuality. Her remarks on modesty issuing from inward virtue, rather than a legalistic measurement of skin covered vs. skin exposed, makes me say “Amen!”

  4. Oh man! I agree with Terpsichore’s “Amen!”. Looking at this from the perspective of “heart attitude” gives this modesty issue a balance between taking responsibility for ourselves and showing concern for others that many discussions of modesty lack. It is really good, and I am excited to have that way of thinking in my pocket for when these discussions come up in the future.

    Also, the whole “women cause men to stumble when the dress like x” thing, apart from being just awful on a whole lot of levels, gave me a weird complex growing up; namely, it reinforced the idea that to be a woman means being physically alluring to men. So I had the running complaint (I’m pretty sure I wrote this exact phrase in my diary at some point) that, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make a brother stumble. Setting up the expectation that “women = people who easily make men fall into lust” often made me feel much less than feminine, and writing it out here, I realize how damaging that could have been if I had been a way less socially awkward teenager, who could have effectively deployed some kind of charm to feel validated as woman. Ugh.

    Also, that guy that wrote the article on Boundless makes me want to jump for joy and give him a hug.

    • Yes to all of that. (Including hugging Boundless Guy)

      Ugh, your point about being physically alluring is so good and I wish I’d thought to include something about it.

      I went through something similar when I read a book or two by Leslie Ludy that someone recommended to me. I don’t have a problem with the general content that I recall, but I couldn’t relate to it because when she wrote about her “journey to purity” she always included stuff about how guys in high school and college were all over her, and she went too far with a lot of them, and she writes with an “I was just like you!” attitude. Except that was NOT just like me—quite the opposite, in fact. So yeah, one more nail in the coffin of my femininity.

  5. Just one more quick note — I love your closing line. And your closing picture. The idea of liking your body that God gave you, and that He likes too, is so refreshing and good and full of life.

    • Thank you.

      *sigh*

      I stole — erm, I mean, ADAPTED — it from “Mere Christianity.”

      “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

  6. Pingback: Sex and Wholeness and the Single Christian | Em Speaks

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