Reasoning with My Critics in the Cleavage Wars

smarmyNever read the comments. This is a lesson I know, but always seem to forget.

I had a blog post about modesty culture take off this week and I just couldn’t stop reading the comments.

Here are some of my favorite comments (and the genders from whence they sprung):

  • “‘Stop telling me how to dress!’ was uttered by no woman born of the Spirit and the word.”—Man
  • “Any woman showing cleavage knows what she is doing and will answer to God if she causes a brother to stumble. Don’t be stupid and deny culpability just to line up with sinful standards of society.”—Man
  • “Please, Mr. Bradley, use something that makes you seem reasonable and credible. Your argument in this article has little to no Biblical validity. Relevant is still Christian, right?”—Man
  • “I think it’s hilarious when supposedly happily married women dress for attention from any man that will look.”—Woman
  • “Cleavage is definitely a sin.”—Man
  • “Hey guys let stick socks in our pants to make our bulge even look bigger. And pump our muscles to make them look bigger, then let’s call woman pervs for looking. Since it’s ok for them to wear push up bras and leggings.”—Man
  • “Jesus said to clothe the naked. This includes yourselves, ladies.”—Man
  • “When Christian women are asserting their right to make plain their bodies in public then the culture wars are over—lost forever.”—Man

There were many—men and women—who disagreed with me in more respectful tones but, as a dear girlfriend of mine said, “For some reason, a man telling other men to follow their own convictions and allow women to follow theirs is really bringing out the misogyny.” It really seemed to be the case.

The gist of my post was simple: Maybe men should stop laying the onus of their purity on women and demanding that they dress in a specific fashion. It’s interesting that the immediate response of detractors tended to be a sarcastic: “Yeah, we should get rid of all our standards,” “We should just let women walk around naked,” or “It goes both ways, women have responsibilities too!”

Does God exist or not?

I wonder why we work so hard to convince the world that God exists, and then act like he doesn’t. If there’s a God, don’t you think he has the ability to guide and convict women? Or has God deputized us to enforce his standards upon each other?

I didn’t see one comment that was anti-modesty. The thing that’s silly is that no one seems to disagree about the value of modesty. The whole discussion is about how the conversation is framed, who gets to set the standard, and whether it’s appropriate for men to make women responsible for their godliness.

Is the condescension of men the dam God’s using to stop the tide of female godlessness from breaking out?

As I have said to many people who have told me about their personal convictions regarding their attire, “That’s fantastic! I am genuinely glad that you feel God has led you to make that decision. Do you think that his nudging you towards this standard is about your spiritual formation or a prescription for everyone? Is it possible that you can trust God to deal with his other children, too?”

One critic told me that “We have a biblical mandate to give up our freedoms for the sake of each other,” quoting Gal. 5:17 he went on, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”

But his “gotcha” verse is exactly right; the Gospel begins with freedom—real freedom. God gives us this liberty in the Gospel and asks us to willingly give up some of that independence on behalf of others. What completely sucks is how we all have opinions about what freedoms others should be giving up. Is the freedom of the gospel really freedom if I can tell you how you should live it out?

What’s baffling to me is the response men have given me when I encourage them to quit demanding that women cater to their weaknesses. “Great, I guess we’ll just let them display their bodies in public.” I mean, I seriously don’t get it. What are you even talking about? Are those the two choices? Is the condescension of men the dam God’s using to stop the tide of female godlessness from breaking out?

Limit your freedom so I won’t stumble!!!

One critic had this to tell me, “Obviously you aren’t that familiar with your Bible, because if you were you’d know that it says, ‘But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.’ (1 Cor. 8:9)” Of course this wasn’t the only person to suggest that this verse proved that I had a screw loose.

The context of this passage, as you probably know, is meat sacrificed to idols. Paul is answering the question of whether it’s wrong for believers to eat meat offered to other gods? He assures us it’s not wrong—the other gods aren’t even real. So he begins this discussion by reinforcing our freedom. You’ll be happy to know that we can totally eat meat sacrificed to idols.

Of course this wasn’t the only person to suggest that I had a screw loose.

But there are those who are convicted that to eat such meat is wrong. And Paul warns us to watch that our freedom doesn’t encourage them to act in opposition to their conscience. The key that Paul is getting at here is, as he communicates in Romans, “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:22–23)

It doesn’t make sense to me for guys to invoke this passage in an effort to tell women what not to wear and here’s why:

The nature of the issue Paul’s talking about includes some ambiguity. “Can I eat meat sacrificed to foreign gods or not? I feel like I shouldn’t but I saw other Christians doing it, so I thought maybe it was okay and I did, too. But afterwards I felt really, really guilty.” There’s uncertainty here and this uncertainty, when combined with the liberty of others, puts the believer in a place where they’re not necessarily acting in accordance with their faith.

This is not what we’re talking about with modesty. There is no ambiguity about whether we need to take every thought captive, treat women as sisters, deal severely with our lust, etc. We can never say, “I felt like lust was wrong, but then I saw some woman’s shoulders and then I felt it was alright again and lived outside of the conviction of my conscience.”

There’s a huge difference between stumbling (doing something that doesn’t spring from faith) and just being disobedient (doing something you know is wrong). There’s probably a stronger case for women using this passage with each other when discussing their clothing convictions than there is for a guy telling women what they should, and should not, wear.

Just to reiterate . . . THIS PASSAGE IS NOT ABOUT BEING TEMPTED INTO DOING WHAT YOU KNOW IS WRONG. It’s about doing what you’re not entirely convinced is right.

We shouldn’t use Scripture to manipulate

One of my big struggles with this passage is how easy it is to invoke as a way to control the behavior of others. Remember, Paul calls the person who’s afraid to eat sacrificed meat the weaker brother. They’re the weaker brother because they lack the faith to see that other gods are imaginary. They lack the faith to live in the freedom that is theirs.

What’s dangerous is how the weaker brother can whip this passage out anytime they want to. R-rated movies. Make-up. Alcohol. Bikinis. I don’t think the eighth chapter of 1 Corinthians was intended by Paul to be a tool to undermine the freedom of others. If the weaker brother can just wave 1 Corinthians whenever they want and undermine our liberty, are we really free? The passage isn’t about the weaker brother saying, “I have a conviction about this, therefore you have to as well—or else I will sin and it will be all your fault.”

The key to 1 Corinthians 8 still lies with the each of us being close enough to God to hear his prompting to sacrifice some of our liberty for those in our midst. But like so many issues in Christianity, it comes down to believing that God truly exists and is moving in the lives of those who love him.

The idea that if I don’t dictate what others should or shouldn’t do means that they’ll do wrong is absurd. It’s the most pessimistic view of people, the gospel, and God’s influence that I can possibly imagine.

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