Acton Institute Powerblog

Modesty for thee but not for me: Brian Sauvé, Beth Moore, and Ephesians 4

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A recent Twitter engagement on the subject of Christian women and modesty is the perfect jumping off point for a larger discussion of what it means to be modest, and obsessed.

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For those of us who have dealt with compulsive behavior or addiction in our families or our own lives, there are clues—perhaps too seemingly unrelated for some to notice—that tip us off that someone might be engaged in an internal battle. Everyone remembers the Jimmy Swaggart saga. Once the world became aware that he was visiting prostitutes, psychologists noticed that the timing of his acting-out behavior coincided with some particularly fiery sermons warning against a wide variety of activities that might lead to sexual temptation, even going into graphic detail about which sexual activities were appropriate within marriage. Recently, a controversial pastor decided to publish a tweet that broke through mere “Christian Twitter” and ended up trending nationwide.

Brian Sauvé’s tweet has garnered some 20 million impressions and lots of engagement from non-Christians. To his credit, he’s at least continuing the conversation. I’ve included a screenshot here with the response from Beth Moore, evangelist and Bible teacher and no stranger to online controversy herself, because the ire it provoked focused my attention on this issue of fixation in an interesting way.

First, my own thoughts on modesty. It’s important to note that Americans in general, and therefore American Christians in their own reactive way, tend to be overly focused on sex. A Turkish friend of mine converted to Christianity. She said to me one day, “You American Christians are obsessed with sex, but your real problem is gluttony.” There are lots of sins that Paul recommends avoiding, like falsehood, revenge, greed, hard-heartedness, stealing, unwholesome talk, rage, bitterness, brawling (!), slander, and malice, and that’s just in Ephesians 4! In this particular chapter he mentions only one thing that could be related to sex—deceitful desire—but that could be applied to a lot of other things as well. Walk into any Christian bookstore and count the number of books written to help people put their greed to death, or their hard-heartedness, or their out-of-control mouths. Then compare that number to the number of books about marriage, sex, and dating. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if we dealt with our self-centeredness and bitterness, for instance, things would be going much better with our sexual temptations and our marriages, even without the help of hundreds and thousands of books on these topics.

To be clear, Paul and many other biblical authors, including Christ himself, discuss sexual ethics and the dangers of lust plenty. In Romans 1, Paul relates sexual sin to willful ignorance and atheism. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discusses lust right along with hatred, judgmentalism, and worry. Sexual sin can be particularly damaging because of the way it undermines familial relationships and even our own bodies (1 Cor. 6). But it’s just one among many possible sins with which to concern ourselves, and, quite frankly, sexual sin is almost always the fruit, rather than the seed, of spiritual misalignment. Dallas Willard said that every pastor he’d ever met who had sinned sexually said they felt they deserved the indulgence because they’d been working so hard for God. It strikes me that lust is not actually the core issue in these cases. Pride comes to mind …

The references to modesty in the Bible are only sometimes about modesty with regard to exciting lust. They are more often about modesty regarding displays of wealthWe see this clearly in 1 Peter 3:3–4, with its distinctions between external and internal adornments, and again in 1 Timothy 2:9–10 and the contrast between “gold or pearls” and “good works.” Immodest people might very well cause others to lust, but more to the point, they distract those around them from focusing on God by making themselves and their surface qualities or worldly attainments the center of attention. Instead, if what people notice about us is our “gentle and quiet spirit,” we draw those in our sphere of influence back to God with our very presence. I’ve been blessed to know a few sanctified people, and I can attest to this wonderful effect of being around them!

Showing too much skin is just another way to draw attention to oneself rather than to God. I imagine that I’m fairly old-fashioned when it comes to that kind of modesty. True, leggings are God’s gift to the 21st-century woman, but I wear long tunics and cardigans with mine. There’s nothing like a beautiful scarf for a woman who really loves the fabric of a low-cut blouse. But I also don’t need to drive a Ferrari, even if I could afford it, and neither does my husband. Ripped guys in muscle shirts can be immodest, and so can academics who trot out their obscure jargon in front of the uninitiated. Name-dropping is another form of immodesty in modern life. It might be worth asking what particular temptations to immodesty modernity has wrought. (Number of Twitter followers, perhaps?)

I certainly don’t disagree with Mr. Sauvé’s idea that women would be better off refraining from posting risqué pictures online. So what’s the problem with his tweet? The first thing that threw me off was his reference to birth and breastfeeding. This struck me as very odd! But before I could entirely think through why, I saw that Beth Moore had responded by saying she didn’t want to hear him say “bra.” Clearly a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet the ire of her responders was striking. Doesn’t she care about modesty? Have all the Christian women responding negatively to the tweet simply bought into the world’s philosophy of total bodily autonomy, even from the authority of God? I doubt this very much, though that may be true in some cases. The feeling of revulsion had more to do with the sense we get when we’re around someone “creepy.” Creepiness can be hard to describe. It’s a sense that someone is subtly violating one’s boundaries; sneakily or “innocently” inserting inappropriate talk into the interactions one has with them, or hovering in a way that feels obsessive. It’s especially passive-aggressive because, if we call it out, the creepy person usually responds, “What?! All I said was…” and claims to be baffled.

I was immediately reminded of those people in my life as a Christian, leaders in the church in fact, who I later found out were sex addicts of some kind. Looking back, one remembers the constant harping on sexual topics but under the guise of “teaching”: the bizarre use of sexual examples or references to body parts to illustrate points; the tendency to refer to people by their level of attractiveness; the minute detail, sometimes graphic, when discussing very exact boundaries with regard to dress, dating, sex, or friendships between men and women; the insistence that we all needed to be talking about these particular topics as much as possible. One particular pastor had a pattern of harping on these topics in an especially assertive way, as if to say, “If you don’t like what I’m saying, it’s because you’re rebelling against God.” It’s a way to guilt us into attending to this subject as obsessively as they do, to force us to participate.

Instead of being drawn into this sick dynamic, let’s use this episode to consider how Christians can be modest on social media. How can we promote goodness, truth, and beauty in such a way that those we interact with are brought back to a contemplation of God? This is the true goal of the virtue of modesty. Less of me, more of Him. Always.

Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of business ethics, assistant dean of the College of Business, and director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. She is also a board member for LOVEtheLOU, a neighborhood stabilization ministry in North St. Louis; the Freedom Center of Missouri; and ReThink315. Her new book, co-written with historian Marcus Witcher, is Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.