Modesty, Charity, and Chastity: Keeping the Bikini Question in Perspective

In their excellent book Modest, Tim Challies and R. W. Glenn note that when Christians argue over whether or not women should wear bikinis (an argument being waged on the electronic pages of the Aquila Report this week) they often confuse the real issues – and virtues – that are at stake. Challies and Glenn draw our attention to a statement by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, distinguishing between chastity, modesty, and charity.

The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. (Mere Christianity, 83-84)

Those seeking clear and precise standards for modesty from Scripture are sure either to abuse and manipulate the text, or, if they are more careful, bound to be disappointed. Because modesty, even in Scripture, is a relative virtue. As Challies and Glenn define it, “Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”

The argument that those who oppose bikinis need to be making is not that bikinis offend against modesty or chastity but that they offend against charity. In fact, the better arguments, such as that of Rachel Clark last week, do emphasize that the fundamental issue is one of charity. But even Clark confuses a woman’s self-sacrificial decision not to wear a bikini, out of love for the men who might be tempted when they see her, with the virtue of modesty itself.

Once, however, we grasp that the issue at hand is that of charity, rather than modesty, then it becomes important to ensure that we are acting charitably to the woman who decides to wear a bikini as well as to the man who wishes she didn’t. This means at least two things. First, a man seeking to be virtuous in his attitude towards women fails entirely if he only manages to avoid lust when such women are dressed according to his own demands. If that man is truly to conform to the image of Jesus, he must learn to love, and to act virtuously towards, a woman in a bikini. Second, those women who believe they demonstrate love for others by not wearing bikinis must make sure that they demonstrate equal love for others by respecting those who do choose to wear one. This is not exactly a matter on which Scripture has ruled decisively.

Yet in her essay Clark manages to make the case against women wearing bikinis only by first reducing women (by analogy) to the status of the objects of consumer desires. She writes,

Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.

This is how I imagine it is for guys.

If women are mere sex objects, this logic makes sense. But if women are human beings, made in the image of God, then the argument fails entirely. Because a man has no right to process a woman made in the image of God as he would an object for his appetite, sexual or otherwise. As Aimee Byrd puts it in her excellent response to Clark,

First of all, I am a woman made in the image of God, not a piece of cake. Isn’t that a huge part of the problem with our thinking about sexuality? I don’t want my daughters to think of themselves as some tantalizing dessert that needs to always be self-conscious that they look too good. Sure, I care very much about what they wear, and they would say that I am pretty strict, but I’m trying to send a healthy message about beauty and modesty.

Byrd drives the question home in a very helpful way:

Of course, this also begs the question, If a woman looks good in her bathing suit, is that being immodest? There’s also the question that I’ve asked before, Can a man admire a beautiful woman without sexually fantasizing about her?

If we come to the conclusion that some men cannot help but sin if they are confronted with a woman in a bikini, we must also come to the conclusion that those men are in deep, deep trouble. Because you cannot possibly function in our culture without being able to handle such images. You can’t drive down the highway. You can’t go to the airport. You can’t purchase bread at the grocery store. You might not even be able to put gas in your car. You certainly can’t have yahoo mail.

Nothing outside of a man can make him unclean, as Jesus said in Mark 7. Rather, sexual immorality stems from the heart. That’s why Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, places the burden of lust on men, as I argue in this sermon. If we allow men to think they should never be confronted with attractive women we are setting them up for massive failure.

It’s interesting. Both the world and fundamentalists agree that we live in a sex-saturated culture, and that it is very difficult for many men not to lust after women in such a culture. The response of the world, quite often (though not always), is to say, Just do it. Far too often the response of fundamentalists is little better: Just don’t do it. The world says look and lust. Fundamentalists say look away. But the gospel calls us to look with the eyes of Jesus, seeing not sex objects to be consumed or avoided at your choice, but seeing human beings made in the image of God. That’s the real issue. If we are serious about being conformed to the image of Christ, we need to be trained not to look away, or even not to look at all, but to look with the love of Christ.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on June 10, 2013, in fundamentalism, men, sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Modesty, Charity, and Chastity: Keeping the Bikini Question in Perspective.

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