The mistakes Christians make in dismissing biblical teaching on modesty

Katelyn Beaty has written an Op-Ed for The New York Times lamenting “The Mistake Christians Made in Defending Bill O’Reilly.” I agree with her main point that Christians should have no part in defending the indefensible. I think that much should be uncontroversial as the scripture is so clear on this point: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

Having said that, I have to take issue with some of the evidence she adduces to establish her point. Beaty links to a 2007 article written by John Piper as evidence of what is wrong in the Christian church. She writes:

In churches, a quick forgiveness for perpetrators often dovetails with strict standards of purity for women. From a young age, many Christian women are taught to dress modestly so as not to cause men to “stumble.” John Piper, a prominent pastor and theologian, has said that “a lot of Christian women are oblivious to the fact that they have some measure of responsibility” in managing men’s lust. The moralizing about dress and behavior can be a setup for victim-blaming wrapped in a spiritual veneer.

What is wrong with Beaty’s citation of Piper’s article? First, Piper’s article does not say that women have to take responsibility for “managing men’s lust.” That is a distortion of what he wrote. His article simply says that women should take responsibility for dressing modestly. I know that idea sounds old-timey and weird to secular ears, but it is pretty basic stuff as far as Christianity is concerned. “Modesty” is a biblical virtue, not an evidence of some sort of toxic “purity culture.” As the apostle Paul writes, “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Tim. 2:9). I wonder if Beaty would view the apostle Paul’s words as problematic?

Second, Beaty says that “moralizing about dress and behavior can be a setup for victim-blaming wrapped in a spiritual veneer.” Let us agree that men are responsible for their own sin no matter how the women around them are dressed. That is one of many reasons why no victim of abuse should ever be blamed for the evil deeds of abusers. But we can agree to that without dismissing the Bible’s moral instruction about “dress and behavior.” Beaty seems to dismiss such teaching per se as a pretext for some darker purpose. And yet the Bible is replete with moral exhortation about our dress and sexual behavior. Would Beaty say that the Bible’s teaching itself is aimed at “victim-blaming”? Are we to avoid what the scripture teaches us about modesty and sexual behavior in the hopes that it might discourage bad behavior at Fox News? This is absurd.

The Bible’s teaching on these things is aimed squarely at the kind of behavior now being reported at Fox News. The Bible’s “moralizing” on these things exposes such evil for what it is. It doesn’t enable it. The Bible has as much to say—if not more—about the behavior of lecherous men as it does about the modesty of women (e.g. Exod. 20:17; Matt. 5:28). Pastoral silence on such matters would enable the darkness not confront it.

And this is the real problem with Beaty’s citation of Piper’s article. She conflates bad behavior at Fox News with faithful biblical teaching. What Piper wrote about modesty in 2007 is something we would all do well to listen to in 2017. And the reason we need to hear it is because it is the wisdom of scripture. Our sexually broken world needs more biblical wisdom, not less of it. If pastors charged with preaching the whole counsel of God cannot speak to this, then who can?

I agree with Beaty that Christians must not excuse or defend bad behavior. Instead, we must expose it (Eph. 5:11). But our duty to expose evil must not be turned into an excuse for turning away from what the Bible says about modesty. We need to know what the Bible teaches about modesty, and we need to live it. But we are not going to be able to do that if we slander biblical teaching as “victim-blaming.”

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