The Image of God and Modesty, part 1

A number of years ago, I took a group of undergrads on a Holy Land Tour; I had a great time, and I think that most of them did as well, but there’s a slight problem of going on a tour like that with a theology professor: everything gets turned into some kind of a lesson. One such lesson happened entirely by chance on the day that we visited the Dead Sea. Many of the students were looking forward to swimming in the Dead Sea; it’s legendary for swimming because the water is so heavy you can’t sink; the students said they felt almost weightless. When the bus pulled up, many of them rushed over to the changing rooms to put on their swimming suits, but I didn’t join them, for the idea of swimming in a huge lake of poison water has never appealed to me. Instead, I walked over to the shore and stuck my finger into; it felt kind of oily, and then I touched it to my tongue. The water tasted like throw up! Confident that I had made the right choice, I remained on the shore, enjoying the amazing scenery of the mountains and the sky.

While my group was enjoying the poison water, another bus pulled up, and people emerged from it. A great many of them walked directly to the shore, took their clothes off, and waded into the Sea. I was a little surprised, thinking that it might not be strictly legal, but no one stopped them. A man from the other bus walked up to me, and said, “You must be Americans,” in a strong German accent. With a chuckle, I admitted that we were, and over the next 20 minutes or so, we had an amusing conversation about both ”silly” Americans, and the “silliness” of swimming in poison water, half in English, half in German. Yes, both are a little silly. In due course it was time to go, and the students changed back into their regular clothes and struggled to figure out what to do with their wet suits…

Back on the bus, the students were all talking about those “crazy” Germans just taking their clothes off and jumping into the water where everyone could see them, when I mentioned that they were a church group, my students were shocked; “they can’t be a church group!”

I had been chatting with their pastor.

“Professor, they were sinning!”

Enjoying myself, I asked for a show of hands: “how many think what they did was a sin?”  About two thirds said they were sinning, the rest weren’t sure, so I asked another question, “What was their sin?”

“They were naked” was the response of the two thirds.

I took a twenty dollar bill out of my pocket and held it for all to see, “The first person who shows me a passage containing an imperative voice command, in context, that tell us that being naked is a sin, owns this 20.” There’s nothing that gets seminary students into their Bibles faster than an extra twenty bucks on a road trip!

While my students were busying themselves in a little research, I went up to the front of the bus and sat on the step by the driver; we had a nice chat… I knew I wouldn’t be giving the money away that day.

When we arrived at out next destination, nobody had come up with the command, since there isn’t one to be found anywhere in Scripture. The best anyone could come up with was that they sinned because they hadn’t been modest. I had to admit that modesty hadn’t been on display as most Americans think of it, for what we had really learned that day was that what constitutes modesty differs from culture to culture; for the people on the other bus, jumping into the Dead Sea naked wasn’t particularly an issue, and for most of my students, it was an issue.

Late that afternoon, the issue came up again after we had returned to the hotel: Modesty; hadn’t those people been immodest? Several of my students were really quite concerned about this question, so we all got together in the hotel courtyard for a discussion centered around 1 Timothy 2:9-10:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

This passage falls within a larger context (1 Tim. 2:1-15); a context of general instruction regarding worship. He speaks of how women should dress obviously, with decency and propriety.

Since my word count is mounting, and I always try to respect you time, I’ll tell you how the rest of the conversation went next time. Until then, here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Shouldn’t the context have a bearing on our understanding of this passage?
  2. Did Paul tell us what he meant by “decency and propriety”?
  3. How did he say men should dress?
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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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11 Responses to The Image of God and Modesty, part 1

  1. daylerogers says:

    You’re so right. We judge other by our own culture, our own story, our own experience. I was in Thailand, at the street market, and two German women undressed on the street to try on clothes. The conversation ensued with them saying we were silly for thinking anything wrong with showing the human body. It was, after all, God’s creation. I’m really enjoying where you’re taking this. But it reminds me, too, how quick I am to judge others by my perceptions of what’s right biblically.

  2. pipermac5 says:

    The context MUST have a bearing on our understanding of this passage. 1 Timothy is within the greater context of all of Paul’s Epistles, which is in the context of all of the Apostolic writings. They all have a bearing on our understanding because of the Unity of the Scriptures.

  3. Mike B. says:

    This was a very interesting scenario. I think I am looking at it from “left field” with Matthew 18: 6-7, “Whoever causes one of these little ones* who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”

    I am not saying per say they were immodest but if their actions caused any of your students to think impurely or act impurely, then maybe an issue might arise. Just a thought, no judgment. I think it would bother me if I was one who jumped in with no clothes and offended one of your students even though it was not my intent.

    • Don Merritt says:

      I get what you’re saying Mike, and there is certainly a point to made in that direction. In this case, I didn’t have the impression that anyone was having an issue of stumbling or that sort of thing. If you haven’t seen something like this it may be hard to understand, and it’s not easy to describe, but 30 maked people has quite a different impact that one attractive naked person would have…

  4. Out of curiosity, was there any conversation with regards to the women in your group about Paul’s disallowing gold and pearls in church? I know of few women who don’t wear all kinds of jewelry, and don’t make the connection. Now, obviously, I’m not saying that it isn’t allowed, but in the context of your conversation, and the reading, I was curious if it was brought up, or of they consider that as no longer relevant, while feeling the “modesty” issue as irrelevant.

    Personally, I think the Puritans (and others of that ilk) have done America a great disservice that lingers well into today’s culture. I remember one time, coming home from a hiking trip, I passed through Bethlehem, Pa, just at about noon. The bells of a church on the highway pealed out the hour and, since I hadn’t been to church, I stopped. There I was, just off a hike, in t-shirt and hiking pants, walking into a strange church for services. As soon as I walked in everyone stared at me, and the mumbling began. Well out of dress compared with everyone else (in their “Sunday best”), I thought how at my church that dress had been given up decades ago. I grew up in a mill town and we were used to the men stopping on their way home, just out of the mill, with layers of mill dust all over them and their clothing.

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