Am I ever guilty of influencing other people’s thoughts with my clothing? Some Christian groups focus on female clothing to the point of making male lust into female guilt. That seems wrong. But others say that sin only exists in the heart of the man who lusts and quote Matthew 5:27–28, and never talk about what modesty means or how it fits into the larger issue. What does God think about all this?
I believe God’s Word rebukes both extreme positions. One side wants harsh standards for women and none for men, ignoring the Lord’s warning about lust. The other side wants strict accountability for men but loses sight of God’s standard for modesty, which speaks plainly to women’s fashion.
What is missing here? For one thing, Christian conduct is based on a relationship. In a healthy relationship, the object is to honor the other person more than myself. Christian relationship begins with the Lord Jesus. Hopefully, we all want to honor Him! After that, we have relationships with each other as fellow members of Christ’s body on earth (1 Cor.12:21–26). Our common goal is to build up each other and show Christ to everyone. Our practical conduct should display Christ to a spiritually dead world.
No excuse for abuse
Clothing choices are sometimes claimed as an abuse defense, so let’s speak plainly: Nobody ever deserves to be abused, and abuse does occur in Christian circles. Perversely, an abuse victim may suffer guilt, shame, and fear: “What did I do wrong? Was it my appearance? Am I a dirty person who attracts bad people?”
If this describes your experience, today’s discussion is not what you need. You need godly and professional counsel about the things done to you. Please take the difficult step of talking to a safe person, even if your feelings say “Don’t: nobody will believe you. It’s your fault. Bury it.”
Or, if you suspect someone else is abused, do listen graciously and show kindness. If you can, bring in qualified help such as professional counseling and law enforcement. But also use wisdom as you process the stories. Leave room for more facts to emerge. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13, see also v.17).
Getting the definitions right
First, make sure your definitions are based on real truth, and not someone’s ideas. In our culture today, feelings are reality and facts don’t matter. A good story refutes everything else. As such, discussions on cultural issues such as clothing and lifestyle are already immunized against objective truth. But objective truth is what God provides, and all stories must be tested against Scripture.
First, let’s review the passage on lust in Matthew:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Mat. 5:27–30).
There is no defense for lust. The Lord wants us to understand that sexual immorality begins with a heart-intention to sin, and guilt falls upon the sinner. (Also compare James 1:12–15.) We may even need to remove some things from our lives that present opportunities to commit sins.
And separately, Scripture does speak about clothing. Quoting from Paul’s writings to Timothy:
“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).
In the world, men often use public displays of conflict and dominance to gain status. Women frequently gain status by promoting their appearance and undermining each other. In contrast, God gives Christian men and women occupations that go against those natural tendencies, allowing Christ’s character to shine through us.
In Peter’s writings to the persecuted church, a similar instruction is given to married couples:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:1–4).
Let’s pause there for now…
Definitions will not do much if they are not applied in practical life. So, to begin answering your question, you are not guilty of passively influencing someone else’s thoughts. If they lust when they look, they must answer to God. But each of us also has a responsibility to present Christ in our lives, and that needs some careful thought. Since this answer is running long, let’s hold the rest for next week. Until then, I hope those Scriptures provide a starting point for answering your question.
One final point: the identity you think you have in this life, is not the measure of your worth. Hang on tightly to that knowledge! As a Christian, you are valued by God as His child, in Christ. Your true identity is in Christ. Your past is forgiven! Your present is to live for Him here. Your future is to be forever in His presence in heaven. Once you get your thoughts correctly ordered around those facts, nothing here can shake your commitment or your service. See you next week, Lord willing. Until then, has my answer raised new questions or concerns? The Patterns of Truth team would like to hear your feedback in the comments section, below!