When Christians read 1 Cor 8 or Rom 14, I really wonder what goes through a lot of Christians minds. Many might think Paul is speaking about the narrow topics of Sabbath observance and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Without a large proportion of Christians being either Jewish or ex-pagans, such a narrow teaching does not seem all that relevant anymore. And, if it is not relevant anymore, we can simply just breeze through the passage and forget what we just read, right?
There are two problems with this line of thinking:
First, if God preserved a Scripture, its teaching must have universal application on some level. The Apostle John writes, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20;30-31). As we can see, the Apostles could have written about tons of other stuff, but they chose not to because they wrote with a specific purpose in mind.
Second, Paul’s letters were intended to have broader audiences than their immediate recipients. The First Letter to the Corinthians, while probably written just to Corinth and its local daughter churches, was soon copied and circulated (probably with Paul’s approval.) A mere 20 years later, the letter is already being cited as an authority in Rome by a Bishop named Clement. So, clearly the letter to the Corinthians was understood to have universal applicability then. The same must be true today.
So, what do we make of passages such as Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8? The teaching they appear to have in mind is as follows: there are freedoms that we Christians have but ought not use because exercising such freedoms hurts other Christians. It is more important to love one another than to take advantage of one’s freedom.
Proof of this can be seen in the following passages:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat (Rom 14:1-3).
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:5).
[L]et us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died (Rom 14:13-15).
It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God (Rom 14:21-22; Vulgate and Peshitta follow NASB rendering of the Greek).
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge [of Christian freedom]. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him (1 Cor 8:1-3).
For through your knowledge [of Christian freedom] he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble (1 Cor 8;11-13).
The glosses in 1 Cor 8, that Paul is speaking of the knowledge of one’s own Christian freedom is entirely appropriate. The proof of this may be seen in Paul speaking of not only food sacrificed to idols in the same vein, but also drink, the Sabbath, and “anything” that causes a brother to stumble. Surely, each should be convinced in their own mind of their convictions, but one’s convictions does not give one liberty to act in a fashion that impedes upon the conscience of another Christian.
While eating meat sacrificed to idols was the application of Paul’s day, the more relevant application for today in my discernment is how we dress.
Women need to realize that they should dress with the sensitivity of men in mind. As a commenter on this site wrote (against a previous article on the same subject), “If a woman can cover up all her important parts and dress in a way that, to the best of her understanding and that of her own authority figures, is modest, and you still lust, that is not her problem. It’s YOURS.”
So, the measure of sin for the man is whenever he lusts, but for the woman is when she does not “cover up all her important parts.” Now, the question is what are “important parts.” The answer is so obvious, it is only because of the hardness of hearts that we must belabor the point. Instead of giving an obvious answer (chest, stomach, shoulders, etcetera) let’s paraphrase John Piper: Dress in such a fashion in which you direct direction towards where you want it.
This is a surprisingly simple and appropriate principle that allows Christian women to figure out how they ought to dress in any cultural and sociohistorical context. In short, if you do not want a stranger you do not like looking at this or that body part, then do not wear clothing that accentuates that part. (I.E. If you would not want some guy checking out your shoulder or your thigh, do not expose it. If you have no problem with a man looking at your toe nail colors or your face, then by all means expose them.)
Most women do not mind when a man looks at her shoes, hands, hair, or face as long as he does not stare for an awkwardly long period of time. Yet, at the same time, even a passing glance at one’s chest or rear-end would be highly inappropriate. In different cultures this threshold may be more or less permissive. In some cultures it is especially shameful for a woman to show one’s legs or neck. A woman, in such a culture, would feel uncomfortable when a man who is not her husband would look at these body parts for any period of time. Yet, in other cultures (i.e. certain warm islands), much less clothing would be appropriate and modest given the context. So culture, when it does not contradict the Scripture (i.e. 1 Tim 2:9 and 1 Pet 3:3), defines what is modest. However, it is eminently obvious that most women’s clothing does not follow the societal standard, but rather a double standard (it exposes a lot so that it draws attention perhaps from some men the woman wants to draw, and attention from others she would rather not draw.)
Men likewise also have to worry about immodesty. Following the principal we already laid out (“culture, when it does not contradict the Scripture, defines what is modest”), only the most stubborn of people would say that the standard is completely equal for men and women. For example, a man being bare chested at a beach is not going to elicit a lot of stares. A woman being chested will. Now, this identical standard may not be true in certain tribal societies, but the principle remains the same and we ignore it at our own peril.
It is much more difficult for men to dress in a fashion that is overtly immodest, though I would consider the following three things something men should watch out for.
- Dress meant to increase sex appeal.
- Dress meant to impress.
- Dress or adornment meant to draw attention towards oneself.
Men often do not think that the way they dress is overtly sexual, but this is patent nonsense. Whether a man is married or not, if he intentionally wears clothing to make himself look more sexually appealing then obviously this cannot be modest. Your spouse should not be choosing you based upon how nice your muscles look bulging behind a tight shirt. Now, given the cultural context, it might still be entirely appropriate not to wear a shirt at all in a public setting like a beach. But, then the question becomes whether there is “manscaping” or excessive exercise for the explicit purpose of looking sexier. Let’s be honest dudes, you’re not getting ripped hammering away in the salt mines, and even if you were, the body hair does not shave itself. If women are to be condemned for causing men to lust by emphasizing their allure, then the same is true of men.
Most men, other than metrosexuals and guidos, do not really obsess over how their dress increases their sex appeal. However, most men do dress to impress, with expensive watches, ties, and shirts. In some settings this is entirely appropriate, if not completely necessary. For example, in certain churches, at a job interview, or on Wall Street if you do not dress with an expensive suit and tie it is viewed as disrespectful. In contexts where such dress is unnecessary, it is inconsistent to dress in such a fashion while also masquerading as humble. Looking impressive in the eyes of the world does not portray humility to the world. Further, it is a reflection of what is in the heart: pride.
One Scripture that addresses the issue indirectly is as follows:
[I]f a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives (James 2:2-4)?
Now, certainly those who show partiality for the rich man, because of how he looks commit wrong. However, are we suppose to think that the rich man, dressing in a fashion in which to attain partiality on his behalf, does not commit wrong? No! He deservedly stands condemned!
A similar admonishment can be made for Christian men not to dress or adorn oneself in an ostentatious way. This may not only include clothing, but also facial hair and tattoos. If we are dressing in such a way to draw the attention and approval of men, then when it is outside the context of adorning oneself in such a way appropriate to a specific context, the only possible reason to do so is self-love. If it does not edify anyone else for you to have that sweet dragon tattoo or beard stretching to your chest, then you must question why you desire to stand out. Because you’re special? Pride, as we know, is wickedness. If you legitimately can start up tons of witnessing opportunities with your tats (“each pne tells a story”) then, perhaps this does not apply as you would have an explicit purpose other than “my tat makes ME look cool.”
Believe it or not, I hate writing articles like this simply because of the self-righteousness of my detractors. On a personal level, I honestly do not care how you dress. But, when our dress conveys pride on one hand and a lack of care for the struggles that weaker brothers and sisters might have with lust, covetousness, or conscience; someone has to speak up and call out the warning.
Let me end this article with one final admonishment: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Don’t hurt your brother for whose sake Christ died by how you dress. Sure, your knowledge of Christian freedom entitles you to enjoy adornment, but not at the cost that it in any way harms someone else. Ironically, when we ignore this, the one we harm the most is ourselves.