Should Christian women think about what they wear?

A funny thread went up on Twitter over the weekend parodying the oft trotted out view that women need to be careful what they wear for the sake of their Christian brothers. This is the thread:

For the avoidance of any doubt, I agree with (what I assume to be) the assumptions behind the parody. I do not think Christian women are called to determine what they wear based on what might potentially be triggered in the heads of their Christian brothers. I have written up a post addressing this line of thought here, when some silliness concerning leggings was tweeted.

The irony of this kind of reasoning, as I noted before, is that it actually leads our sisters to do specifically what the Bible asks them NOT to do. If they are continually second-guessing whether their clothes might possibly trigger inappropriate thoughts in a man’s mind – aside from the total impossibility of knowing what might lead a person into such thoughts – it means women must spend their time thinking a great deal about themselves. It encourages an introspection that borders on the narcissistic. And this is not our sister’s fault, but that of a culture that tells them this is what God wants of them.

The call to modesty (or, more really, humility) in scripture is not typically about clothes, but making much of oneself. The only example we have related to clothing is to do with showing off wealth. But the principle isn’t even about wearing nice things per se, but showing off. A call that is, interestingly, made to elders and men more broadly as well. But if we turn this into a matter of not wearing particular clothing in case we trigger lustful and inappropriate thoughts in the minds of others, we end up causing people to think about themselves and what they are wearing an awful lot. The call to think and focus less on themselves gets turned on its head to thinking about oneself endlessly in order to avoid potentially triggering something over which you have no control. It actively undermines the biblical principle.

Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible does have things to say about what we wear. 1 Timothy 2:9 exists in scripture for a reason and clothing is an application of what is said there. So, we shouldn’t allow silly, legalistic and unworkable lists of “acceptable clothing” from certain quarters to detract from the fact that the Bible clearly does have something to say even about what we wear. The question is, what exactly does it say?

The truth is, Christian women are called to think about what they wear. The other fact of the matter is, so are men. What we are called to think about is not what might be in other people’s heads, but what is in our own. The question is not, what might that person think if I wear this? You can’t possibly know. The question is, why am I choosing to wear this? That, it seems to me, is basic motivation question we ought to be asking ourselves about all sorts of things, whether we are men or women, and over more than just our choice of what to wear in the morning. Why am I choosing to do this?

When it comes to our clothes, why am I choosing to wear this? That question does not rely on what we cannot possibly know, but on what we manifestly should know. That seems to be the point at issue in what Paul says to Timothy. If my motivation in wearing these clothes is to show off and make poorer people feel small, that is not a godly motivation. If my motivation for wearing these clothes is just that I like them, or they’re comfortable, or they were what I had to hand, or any number of other possible perfectly reasonable thoughts, then have at it. These sorts of questions mean we are not asking about other people’s potential sinful triggers or motivations, and asking ourselves about our own motivations that may or may not be godly. This must also cover issues of sexuality. There is a question about whether what we wear might cause others to view us sexually. But, the question isn’t about what they might think, the question is about what we think. Are we wearing these clothes in order to draw inappropriate sexual attention to ourselves? That is solely a question of our own motivations.

That doesn’t mean we have to think about every item of clothing we might wear that somebody might be inappropriately sexually triggered by. That is a matter for them and, if they are thinking sexually inappropriate things because somebody walked passed them in leggings (or whatever it may be), the issue is entirely theirs and must be addressed by them. But if we are wearing these particular clothes specifically because we are seeking attention of that sort, then there is necessarily an issue with our own motivation. But this pertains equally to men and women. Both can seek inappropriate attention. We are, ultimately, called to the same thing. Namely, to ask ourselves whether our own motivations are godly. None of us are called to police the potential sins of somebody else’s thought life that we can do nothing about. We are called to test our own thoughts and motives.

What this similarly means is specific lists of appropriate and inappropriate clothing is ridiculous. Two people can wear literally the same item of clothing, one for perfectly legitimate reasons and one for entirely ungodly reasons. What makes the matter one of sin or otherwise (on a personal level) is the motivation of the individual. Am I intending something by what I am wearing that I know the Lord does not want me to seek or do? That is an issue entirely within my own purview, within my own control, within my Spirit-empowered will to address.

What is NOT within my ability to address is the thought life of somebody else. Something doesn’t become sinful for me because somebody else had a lustful thought. That is their sin, not mine. Something doesn’t become sinful for me because somebody else coveted my hat (or whatever). That is their sin, not mine. Something doesn’t become sinful for me because somebody else felt I was being ostentatious in what I was wearing. That is their inference, not my sin.

But if I am wearing stuff because I intend it to cause people to lust after me, that is my sin. If I am wearing stuff believing that people will be jealous, that is my sin. If I am wearing stuff in order to show off my wealth, status or something else, that is my sin. None of it is related specifically to particular clothes I might be wearing. All of it – whether godly or sinful – is related to my own specific motivations for wearing whatever I wear.

So, should Christian women think about what they wear? Yes, they should. But then, so should Christian men. The reason we should all think about these things is not because innocuous choices to wear jeans, caps or socks might cause somebody to stumble. If somebody knows they are likely to be stumbled by those things (or anything else), they have a duty before God to work on sorting out their own sin. They need to find means of addressing that sin. Many who are quick to insist that reality should not be altered for, nor should they be forced to affirm, those who in their own minds believe themselves to be a different gender, seem to think the answer to lustful thoughts in their minds is for everybody else to conform to what is in their heads. Consistency should push them away from that. If we don’t help trans people by altering reality to suit what is in their minds, women ought equally not to have to alter reality to suit what is in men’s minds. Nevertheless, the reason we should all be thinking about our choices – even down to what we wear – is to do with the motivations in our own heads, not anybody else’s.

These things obviously push beyond questions of clothing. Clothing, really, is just one application of this broader principle. The principle to ask, why are we doing/saying/thinking this? We ask that question because we want our own hearts to be right before the Lord. We are not asking anything about what might be in somebody else’s mind, we are asking what is in my own mind and heart? We are asking, just like David did in the Psalms, ‘Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way’ (Psalm 139:23f). The issue is not whether others may sin – that is between them and the Lord – but whether I am doing what I think is sinful and whether the intentions of my own heart is godly or not. And that, I think, must include asking questions about what we are choosing to wear. But it ought not to lead us to lists of acceptable and unacceptable clothing because two people can wear the same thing and yet have very different motivations. The question – as with anything we want to do with a right heart – is, why am I doing this? Am I seeking to honour the Lord (or, at least, not purposefully dishonour him)? If our conscience is clean on that, then let us wear what we may.