Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Modesty and the Christian Woman

I got a few great commentaries for Christmas. One of them that I'm reading now is Raymond Collins's commentary on the Pastorals in the New Testament Library series put out by Westminster/John Knox Press (not put out by Westminster Theological Seminary--this is more of a theologically liberal to moderate publisher). Of course, the commentary says a lot that I think is wrong, but it makes some great observations about the Hellenistic background to what the author of the Pastorals is saying. In fact, viewing the Scripture sociologically is what I like least about the commentary, since it confuses a sociological means of understanding the circumstances for writing, and as a means to understand language used, with the theology that is intended to be conveyed through that language. But there are some good observations here, as long as one realizes Collins roots everything in culture, nevertheless.

One of these interesting observations corrects a popular myth about the instructions for women to not adorn themselves with gold and braided hair in 1 Timothy 2:9:

Likewise, [I want] women to adorn themselves with proper clothing,  modestly  and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.

I've heard people say things like, "that's because prostitutes used to do this." That's actually not true. Prostitutes were notoriously poor. They wouldn't have put on gold jewelry and those who had their hair braided were often those who could afford slaves to do it. In other words, this is talking about how an upper class individual ought to dress.

Collins (I and II Timothy, 68) comments on this by saying:

Braided hair was probably included on the list of things to be avoided by the virtuous woman because elaborately braided hairstyles were, along with gold and pearls, an expression of wealth. Only a woman who had slaves had the time and the possibility to have an elaborate coiffure. The Pastor had strong views on the use of wealth (6:6-10). These views may well have motivated his critique of women who wear their finery when they appear in an assembly of people at prayer. In the Hellenistic world, philosophers such as Musonius Rufus (frag. 1) and Epictetus (e.g., Discourses 2.21.15-16) wrote about the way that men and women were to wear their hair in public. Ancient cults often had specific regulations on the grooming, hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing of those who participated in worship. Paul, who wrote about men and women's hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, shared the concerns of these philosophers and liturgists. The Pastor continues this tradition as he writes about women showing devotion to God (epangellomenais theosebeian) by their good works rather than by showing off their physical beauty and their wealth.

Now, of course, the emphasis of the virtuous woman isn't gained from Hellenistic culture. It appears throughout various biblical and extrabiblical literatures, such as Proverbs 31:10-31. In fact, v. 30 sums up a reflection of Paul's concern well: "charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." The word for "charm" here is Nxh, which is the word for "favor" with a definite article attached to it. It refers here in all likelihood to the favor one secures from other people by how one looks or acts. What is deceitful is judging oneself by what other people think of you, since they merely judge by appearances and are, in fact, awful judges of what is appropriate. The word that describes beauty here as "vain" is also interesting, as it literally means "breath," or "vapor," displaying the temporally futile pursuit of physical beauty which quickly passes away. The woman who purposes to gain popularity, prestige, or envy through her looks and behavior will have favor from other people for a short time, but, in contrast to her, the woman who fears the Lord, i.e., recognizes His authority and lives by it, shall gain a beauty and favor from God that is everlasting. As such, it is her praise that will stand the test of time when all others who secured their status with their looks and ungodly behavior will be thought of with contempt in the end.

This accords with what Collins (Ibid., 67) says about the nature of modesty, reflected in the Bible and even in the ideal virtues of the ancient world:
Among Hellenists, modesty or self-control (sōphrosynē) was considered the most important of a woman's virtues. Men were expected to possess the virtue as well, but among men the quality was configured differently from the way that it was to appear among women. In women the virtue of modesty implied that she was well ordered in the conduct of her life, chaste in her marriage, and above reproach . . . a woman's self-respect and modesty were reflected in her outward demeanor [as opposed to her physical appearance], the way that she appeared in public.

In other words, a woman who tries to get attention with the inappropriate way she dresses or behaves, inappropriate by the standards of a virtuous woman, not that of a culture that exalts temporal beauty and misbehavior, is immodest. Modesty is not merely the idea that a woman should not wear sexually inappropriate clothing. That would be obvious. Such clothing was in fact the wear of prostitutes, and that is obviously unbecoming of the virtuous woman. Yet, our culture has lost even this base understanding of modesty. Hence, it has lost the greater understanding as well, and that is that modesty requires one to not emphasize appearance over demeanor. So this is about where one concentrates her efforts. Modesty does not require queens to put away their crowns or even the rich to not wear jewelry (or women to care for their physical appearance), but that a woman's physical appearance should not be so much louder than her virtue that the community primarily knows her through it (I mean, how many people really know the Kardashians for their modest dress and conduct?). Certainly, a Christian woman's conduct should be that of a woman of God whose life is ultimately viewed eternally and not of a woman who has only a brief vapor of time that the temporal world has to give her in order to gain a fleeting favor from others. 

It is fascinating that modesty is spoken of so little in the church today. Indeed, our younger women dress like prostitutes and our older women adorn themselves with pounds of makeup, an arsenal of jewelry and a new wardrobe every month. The young seek to gain attention through their physical appearance and the old do the same. It's just that the young do it both in dressing sexually and expensively, whereas the old can no longer pull that off, so they just dress expensively. But what should be thought of you is how well you conduct yourself in public (1 Tim 3:11). What should be thought of you is the concentration of your life on doing good, as it is defined (and contrasted) in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:9-15. (As an aside, it is interesting that the biblical discussions of modesty all include how she treats her husband with respect, as if to say that a modest woman is a woman who honors her husband with her conduct rather than her flaunting her physical appearance. This accords with the idea that a modest woman is a chaste woman, who guards herself in her behavior with other men and women, as her concern is to be faithful to him and his image in every place. She is, in a way, his ambassador, and she honors or dishonors him by the way she dresses and conducts herself among others. Hence, there is some discussion of her being in submission to her husband that follows each time it is mentioned--Prov 31:10-31; 1 Tim 2:9-15; 1 Pet 3:1-6.)

Ironically, in our culture, modesty is so difficult to find that such a woman does stick out like a sore thumb, and such women are highly respected, even by our pagan culture. But the mind set on the vapor of the self cannot see this, as it cannot lift itself out of the addiction to be desired by the world that is passing away. But the woman of virtue looks to be favored by God. Her sight is set on the gates (i.e., the place of judgment), where her works are praised above her looks (Prov 31:31). Modesty is a virtue that is truly unique in the world, but it should not be among Christians making the claim that he or she values what is eternal over what is temporal. 

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any [of them] are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be [merely] external--braiding the hair, and wearing  gold  jewelry, or putting on dresses; but [let it be] the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without giving control to a lesser concern. (1 Pet 3:1-6)

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