Christians have never called for women to wear burqas, have they?

When I wrote my posts about women’s modesty a few weeks ago (here and here) I made the point that although immodesty conducive of sexual immorality is a very real danger facing Christians today, legalism is just as grave of a danger. I suggested that Christians who are rigid and dogmatic in their insistence that women cover up certain parts of the body are in danger of falling into just the sort of attitude that Muslims hold who require women to wear burqas.

The reason why I said this was that some of these Christians speak as if the only principle of modesty is that women should cover up and obscure their beauty and sexuality so that men will not lust after them. And while some Christians limit this to the parts of the body covered by a two-piece swimsuit, others extend it further, speaking about the knees, the ankles, any curves, the neck, and even the hair. In short, if this is the only principle guiding our practice of modesty, there is no rational or logical reason why women shouldn’t wear burqas all the time. Consider my argument a sort of “slippery slope” argument.

But, you may say, these other parts of the body clearly are not sexual. We should simply follow the strict principle that what is sexual should be obscured, and what is not sexual may be shown.

The problem with this is that it is based on the false premise that certain parts of the body are sexual, whereas others are not, and it ignores the power of culture in shaping our perceptions of what parts of the body are sexual and what parts are not.

Underlying much of the concern of my critics, however, was the sense that legalism is not a danger we should be worried about. No Christians have ever said women should wear burqas, right?

Wrong. Not only have many Christians throughout the centuries stressed that women ought to cover themselves up in a way analogous to what Muslim cultures stress today, but this was common teaching in Jesus’ day, about the time when in the Sermon on the Mount he emphasized that the burden of guilt for lust falls on the one who is lusting in his heart, not on the woman after whom he is lusting.

As one scholar writes,

It is true that Jesus’ attitude toward women is different from that reported about many rabbis. According to them one must avoid unnecessary contact with women … One is not to speak unnecessarily with a woman, not even with one’s own wife. One is not to walk behind a woman on the street, not to greet her, not to be served by a woman, not to be alone with another woman, because even a woman’s voice and hair are lewd. Naturally one should not look at a woman, not even at an unmarried woman, because by doing so one is in danger. These Jewish statements are part of an increasing tendency in that day to exclude women from public life, including religious life. (Luz, Matthew 1-7, p. 246; emphasis added)

Note that in that day even the hair and voice of a woman was considered to be sexual. The same was the case in much of the broader Greek culture of the day. In contrast to this, Jesus included women among his most devoted followers, associated with prostitutes, and even allowed one such woman to wipe his feet with her hair. The early church boasted of certain female prophets, although this was not the regular order, and it permitted women occasionally to prophecy or pray publicly as long as they wore proper coverings (coverings designed to affirm the headship of a husband over his wife, not the need to obscure a woman’s hair) (1 Corinthians 11).

But did Christians ever fall into the sort of legalism of which the Pharisees were guilty? They certainly did. One excellent example is that of Tertullian. You can find his writings on women’s modesty here, but here I will simply quote from  Kent Brower’s scholarly summary.

In his treatise On the Apparel of Women, he begins by saying that proper Christian women should ‘go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve – the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition.’ Christian women, therefore, should not only abstain from enhancing their beauty through apparel, ‘but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of (the beholder’s) eyes.’

He also puts together a lengthy case for the veiling of virgins. He writes, ‘Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but also the face also, so entirely, that they are content with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face.’ In Tertullian’s mind, this was not a matter of personal opinion. Rather, it is the consequence of a revelation from the Lord. Again he writes, ‘To us the Lord has, even by revelations, measured the space for the veil to extend over. For a certain sister of ours was thus addressed by an angel, beating her neck, as if in applause: “Elegant neck, and deservedly bare! It is well for you to unveil yourself from the head right down to the loins, lest withal this freedom of your neck profit you not!”‘ (Brower, “Jesus and the Lustful Eye: Glancing at Matthew 5:28,” EQ 76:4 (2004), 307-308.

Christians are not immune to legalism, they are not immune to the tendency to shift the burden of the male heart to the woman’s body, and no, they are not even immune to the appeal of the burqa. But this is not the way of the gospel.

As Halee Gray Scott bemoans on the Her.meneutics Christianity Today blog,

In Christian circles, the conversation centers on modesty and accountability rather than on how to become the type of person for whom sexual indiscretions and perversions are but sickening substitutes for the pleasures of real intimacy…. Along with teaching behavioral modifications like modesty in clothing and fidelity in marriage, Christians need to emphasize the spiritual transformations of whole persons, men and women alike, into the likeness of Christ.

That’s what makes the Christian approach to modesty different. We need to make sure that in our attitude toward dress it is the gospel to which we are bearing witness, not simply the depravity of our hearts.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on August 21, 2012, in legalism, modesty, women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Christians have never called for women to wear burqas, have they?.

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