“Modest is hottest!” Thanks to youth pastors all across America and now Matthew West, this expression is likely familiar to your ears. But as author Alan Noble sarcastically points out, the statement is nonsensical.
If modest were actually hottest then youth pastors and fathers with record deals would be encouraging their students and children to dress immodestly, so as to avoid being a “stumbling block.” I say “students” and “children,” but we all know that the burden of modesty largely, if not entirely, falls on the appropriately covered shoulders of young ladies and women.
There’s a reason why the Norwegian women’s beach handball team is being fined for wearing shorts as opposed to bikini bottoms despite the men’s team being permitted to wear tank tops that cover the midriff and shorts that extend far closer to the knee.
Those in the church and in our broader culture know that modest is not hottest.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t individuals and even large swaths of people who respect and appreciate modesty in wise and healthy ways. As our culture continues to dehumanize and sexualize the human body, and especially the female figure, there is wisdom in modesty.
Take Billie Ellish for example. Rising to fame at the age of 14, alongside her musical talent she became known for wearing loose-fitting clothes.
She has done several interviews explaining that this was a conscious decision to avoid having her body sexualized by the masses. A wise choice. But we see even in her decision that though it is wise, she does not pretend to believe that “modest is hottest.”
In an interview with Elle, Billie said, “What if I want to make a video where I want to look desirable? I know it would be a huge thing. I know people will say, ‘I’ve lost all respect for her.’” Did you catch that? “…where I want to look desirable.”
It is only possible to be desired by throwing modesty to the curb.
This is, unfortunately, the message our young men and women receive. At best, they are taught the wisdom of minimizing the chances that their body is sexualized. But as Ellish points out, if you want to be considered desirable you’ll have to let go of that at some point.
The dehumanization of other people’s bodies isn’t going away anytime soon. From the ubiquity of hardcore pornography to the use of partially and strategically clad bodies to sell anything from spray deodorant to chewing gum, it’s clear that sexualization is here to stay.
And as is far too often the case, whatever is flooding the American culture is seeping into the American Church.
Christians are great at taking something the world is doing and changing it ever so slightly to make it “Christian.” We do this with our clothing, but we also do this with our beliefs and philosophies.
We did this in the purity movement and what author Katelyn Beaty calls “the sexual prosperity gospel.” The world tells us that sex is consensual play between two adults that brings physical gratification and value to our lives. Christians took that definition and added “in marriage” and promised a generation of youth group goers that God would bring sexual prosperity to those who waited until marriage.
This seeping of American sexualization into the American Church has happened in more subtle ways as well.
We probably all have anecdotal stories on how our churches value the physically attractive. We make sure they get the stage time, the leading vocals, and are around when we shoot our promo videos.
Take a look around at the latest batch of young “celebrity” pastors. Because they are almost all men and the male body isn’t sexualized in the same way, we don’t see them preaching in speedos (and all God’s people said, “Amen!”).
But clearly, there is some level of “sexy” or “attractive” that they are supposed to attain. That ranges from physical fitness and bicep size to wearing the latest trends and having manicured facial hair.
In perhaps an ironic twist, it may be these preachers in sneakers, not the young ladies and women they pastor, who are rejecting biblical modesty.
Paul instructs Timothy to tell the women in Ephesus “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” (1 Timothy 2:9-10 ESV).
Somehow we’ve taken this and paired it with Paul’s unrelated word to Rome on creating stumbling blocks and weaponized it to tell women that they can’t wear a two-piece bathing suit, have spaghetti straps, or kneel when they pray because their back may be exposed causing a young man to lust after her.
And we’ve done this completely ignoring that Paul’s address on modesty is not primarily, if at all, about the physical form. Instead, Paul is discouraging displays of wealth.
At best many Christian leaders have ignored addressing important issues of sex, sexuality, and the pervasive sexualization in our culture. At worst our Christian leaders have passed the buck and burdened our women with shouldering all the responsibility of avoiding sexual sin.
Just as ignoring a physical ailment can lead to the problem worsening and new problems arising, the mishandling of sexual modesty has given rise to the abuse of modesty as Paul addressed it in 1 Timothy. Modest is not hottest.
This is clear in how our world objectifies the human body and it’s clear by how our most influential pastors adorn themselves on the stage.
But “hottest” was never supposed to be our goal, faithfulness was.
Instead of pithy, though nonsensical, sayings or slight adaptations to the world’s narratives on sex and sexuality, it’s time for Christian parents and church leaders to lead. It’s time we engage God’s word and what it says about our bodies and how we dress them up.
AND as always – If you have questions about any of the things we cover here, be sure to check out Office Hours and submit your question so we can answer it in an upcoming session.