Is it really antinomian to ground our standards of modesty in the Gospel?

I have to admit, I had no idea when I wrote my recent post warning against legalism in our standards and judgments regarding women’s modesty that it would be read by so many people, nor that it would be interpreted as a scandalous defense of relativism at best, immodesty at worst. Some people thought I was arguing against an article in which a woman explained why she liked wearing skirts most of the time. Another person thought I was saying that women should be free to show their breasts. A few people were worried that I didn’t suggest my own concrete standards for modesty, presumably to be imposed upon others, as if my wife and I do not think carefully through the principles that will guide what my wife will wear.

I have clearly touched a nerve here, and I am grateful for the very many of you who indicated your appreciation for my defense of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is absolutely essential to the gospel. Is it really the case that one cannot raise warnings about legalism, and seek to point people to the importance of focusing on the gospel, on the heart, and on the virtues and practices that flow from a sanctified heart, without being considered an antinomian? Perhaps it is the case. Jesus was widely judged to be an antinomian, a friend of prostitutes and drunkards. As Paul reported in Romans 3:8, he was charged by some with saying, why not do evil that good may come? And Paul called this “slander.”

Certainly the fullest response to my post appeared today by Rebecca VanDoodewaard on The Christian Pundit. And yet, like so many others, VanDoodewaard seems to assume that because I was criticizing legalism that means I was defending antinomianism. The reality is, I agree wholeheartedly with her basic argument, which seems to be summarized in the following paragraph:

There are some biblical standards for Christian women, and each family and couple must have their own dress code in order to help daughters, wives, and yes, sons and husbands, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, open to the local church’s teaching and leading on this issue. That is not legalism. And though Scripture does indeed place the burden of not lusting on men, that does not give us ladies leave to bare what we want.

Yes, I agree with this, and I thought I made that quite clear in my article. But the purpose of my post was not to construct standards and principles and rules for modesty. The point was to warn against legalism. And here it is important to make a clarification about how I am using the term legalism because clearly people are using that term in different ways. VanDoodewaard defines legalism as “the belief that we can merit favor with God by our own actions.” That is certainly one form of legalism, but that is not the only form. Legalism also happens when, out of our concern to protect genuine righteousness, we take our own human rules and laws, which we have necessarily worked out as guides for our own life, and we judge others on the basis of them, turning the commandments of men into the law of God. This was a fundamental part of the error of the Pharisees, and it is a basic denial of the Christian liberty that we are given by nothing less than the gospel itself. Note, I am not saying that devising standards of dress is legalistic. I am not even saying that devising strict standards of dress is legalistic. I am simply saying that assuming that your standards are God’s standards – unless they are actually revealed to us in Scripture – and therefore imposing them upon others self-righteously is legalistic.

VanDoodewaard seems to agree with this (though she does not understand that this is what I am arguing), because in much of her article she seeks to articulate some basic standards from Scripture. So what does she prove? She shows that according to Scripture women should not display parts of the body Scripture associates with sexuality, including their breasts. On the other hand, she points out that we have no right to judge one another in terms of other parts of the body, because beyond these basic biblical principles Christian wisdom is required.

So if you feel that showing your knees is immodest, you are free to cover them, but if your conscience is not bound in this area, then you are free to wear clothes that do not hide your knees. We can’t make rules for each other where Scripture is silent, but are free to follow our own consciences.

But if you are paying close attention, is it not clear at this point that VanDoodewaard has established very little about the contemporary discussions over modesty in her appeal to this basic biblical standard? All she has proven conclusively is that women should never appear in public wearing any less than a modest two-piece swimsuit or bikini. Everything else, she seems to be arguing, is in the realm of Christian wisdom, though we should err on the side of caution. And I strongly doubt that there is any serious Christian who would disagree with her basic position here. I certainly would not. And I would hope that Christian women would generally wear far more than seems to be demanded by this basic biblical standard. But the fact is, the “more” that they should wear, according to the biblical standard of decency and moderation, is not outlined for us in Scripture, it is to a significant extent influenced by our culturally influenced minds (including what does or does not provoke us sexually), and it is therefore an area in which we should be very careful  not to judge one another.

For all of her rhetoric in criticizing my article, VanDoodewaard’s position is not really different from mine. For that reason, I wish she would have written her article with a little bit more charity, paying a little bit more attention to what I was actually saying, rather than portraying it in the worst possible light. She points out that I noted the problem that one can always be stricter than the next person, but she entirely ignores the fact that I said that there is a problem on the other side as well. To quote myself, I wrote, “On the other hand, once one opens the door to Christian wisdom and liberty, where do you stop? In some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church. Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles.”

For some reason VanDoodewaard suggests that I was presenting these examples as “a viable cultural option.” She writes, “referencing the Victorians to prove that showing some breast is a culturally relevant option is an untenable argument.” Of course, as a quick gland at my article will demonstrate, I was not arguing that Victorian modesty is a culturally relevant option. I was citing the Victorians as an example of why people are tempted to turn to legalism as a way to avoid the seeming relativism of Christian wisdom. In my view the Victorian view of modesty is no more of a valid option today than are Muslim burqas.

But the way of escaping the polar options of legalism and antinomianism is not to focus on rules, nor is it legalistically to impose our own rules on others. It is to focus on what both Scripture and the gospel focus on, the heart. It is to recognize that the gospel takes the human heart, lustily focused on its own selfish desires and idolatry, and reorients it by the power of the Holy Spirit to concentrate on demonstrating love for others. It leads men to stop viewing women as objects for their own satisfaction, blaming them for their own problems of lust, and it leads women to dress in a way that highlights the beauty God has given them without provoking the sexual desire of others. It leads both men and women to devote their lives to compassion, encouragement, and the practice of forgiveness, while refraining from judging others in areas in which God has given them liberty.

Van Doodewaard offers up the following excellent conclusion:

We must be careful to dress in a way that does not inflame lust in the men who will see us, both out of love for them and because we are caring for our bodies as temples of the Spirit. But we do not have to dress is a way that prevents the most lecherous man around from lusting – someone determined to lust regardless of clothing is not our responsibility.

This is precisely what I argued in my own conclusion:

Again, the point is not that women should wear whatever they want without thought to modesty, or that they should dress provocatively. The point is that we should be very careful not to make arbitrary external rules our obsession, rather than the heart and the actions that stem from it, and that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden. As a virtue of the gospel, modesty calls us to sanctify our hearts even as we celebrate that what God has made, including women created in his image, is very good.

Do Christian people really disagree with this?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 30, 2012, in Christian liberty, legalism, women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is it really antinomian to ground our standards of modesty in the Gospel?.

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