Okay, this post really isn’t about the Duggars, but they are a good hook I think!
It, is, however, about the search for female modesty, a topic the Duggars are familiar with. What is modesty?
One definition is behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.
To begin our journey, please consider this extended quotation from Leslie’s Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage:
Married couples need freedom to thrive. I do not mean the freedom to do whatever you want regardless how the other person feels. When you commit to someone in marriage, you freely choose to limit some (not all) of your choices. But all healthy relationships need to include freedom for the individuals to disagree, to respectfully challenge the other’s decisions, and to be the persons God made them to be. Having your freedom of movement, choices, friends, and emotional expression restricted by your husband sends the message that you are not allowed to be a whole person in your own marriage. Instead you are to become what your husband tells you to be.
At a retreat where I was recently speaking, a young woman approached me during a break. Aime said, ‘My husband doesn’t like the way I dress, but I don’t know how to respond to that. I like the clothes I wear. What should I do?”
“What doesn’t he like about the way you dress?, I asked.
“He says men look at me. He wants me to wear baggier jeans, long dresses, and no makeup.”
“What do you think about that?” I asked, concerned that she was feeling pressured to become someone else in order to pacify her husband’s insecurity.
“I think I dress modestly. I don’t seek out attention, but I don’t want to be frumpy either. But he said that if I loved him, I would dress to please him, not myself.”
Immediately I felt great concern for this woman’s dilemma. Her husband twisted the Scripture and put himself in God’s place in her life. The Bible says we are to please God, not ourselves. Nor are we to orient our lives around pleasing others; that gets us in trouble (see Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). That does not mean we are to have no thoughts of pleasing our husbands, but pleasing our husbands is not to be our first concern. And it’s important to understand that pleasing God by pleasing our husbands does not always work. Sometimes we please God and we displease our husbands, like when we stand up for what is right, true and good and our husbands get mad or threatened.
Here is what I told Aimee: “You need to be very wise right now as you’re at a critical crossroads in your marriage. If you give in to him in this, you will lose a part of who you are to satisfy a part of him that is sinful and immature – his insecurity. That is not healthy for either of you of for the long-term stability of your marriage. It’s up to you, but I think God calls you to be courageous in this manner and lovingly tell your husband you think he needs to face his own issues of jealousy and insecurity, rather than you changing your wardrobe so that he won’t feel those feelings. He will not like it at first, but in the long run, this approach will preserve your freedom to be your own person and to speak truthfully into his life, which is essential for a healthy marriage.”
Some of you are trembling right now because you are becoming more aware of the high cost you have paid to cater to your husband’s demands…” (34-35)
Good advice? Or does something seem “off”?
First, you might be wondering: “Who is Leslie Vernick?” She is an increasingly popular author in the evangelical world writing about issues of marriage in general and issues of domestic abuse in particular. One of her highly respected books, cited by the LC-MS Task Force on Domestic Violence as a good resource to check out, is the Emotionally Destructive Marriage, from 2013. I can understand why the task force recommended it. Vernick, a licensed clinical social worker and “relationship coach,” is a good writer and brings a wealth of experience as well as biblical knowledge to difficult marriage issues. I found the book helpful, clarifying, and challenging on a number of fronts, and I think that most any pastor especially would do well to consider reading the book.
So why do I bring her, her book, and this quotation up in this post? Not because what you read above is meant to be about modesty—which you may well have gathered from her words—but because she is clearly writing about things that touch on the topic of modesty.
Whether she realizes that or not!
In the rest of this post, I want to critique this passage by pointing out that Vernick’s assumptions seem to avoid the main issues.
When the young lady says that her “husband doesn’t like the way I dress” and states that “he says men look at me,” Vernick’s first reaction is to think that the husband is insecure and threatened, evidently concerned that others might find his wife attractive and that he might risk losing her. As is clear from the rest of what Vernick writes, this insecurity should not be pacified at any cost.
For the life of me, I cannot understand Vernick’s reasoning.
Let’s leave aside the important point that wives don’t want their husbands being tempted to eye up other women. Let’s leave aside the fact that God Himself is jealous for His people without, presumably, being insecure. It seems to me that the focus of Vernick’s work, and hence her book, blinds her to what could indeed be the real issue in this case, or, at least, in many cases that somewhat resemble this one: modesty.
There is both the temptation to look and the temptation to be looked at. Of course, women have some sense of what gets men’s attention when it comes to the feminine form – and therefore one might think that they can gauge their own attractiveness and act accordingly. Curiously though, this often does not seem to be the case, whether they are attempting to dress comfortably (while simply looking nice), or to attract and allure, or even intending to practice modesty.
So, when it comes to a conversation like the one mentioned above, why not—if it is not impossible to do so!—put the best construction on the woman’s husband?
In other words, assume that the husband is perfectly secure—including being supremely confident of his wife’s love and devotion to him—and yet still, for some reason, has this concern. Why might that be? Yes, it is possible that he might overreact and some of his reasons might not be so good. Nevertheless, in any case, perhaps the core reason for his concern is this: not that he might risk losing his wife to others, but—confident of her God-given appeal (which no, she should not be ashamed of!)—that she may indeed cause an occasion for sin for others given her choice of apparel (see Matthew 5:28)
In other words, don’t first assume jealousy but love for his brothers!: namely, the husband’s concern being geared towards the Christian consciences of his brothers in Christ! (kind of like this good Lutheran lady’s concern. WWDWT?).[i]
Is it really so hard to imagine that this husband—or, at least, another man voicing the same concern—might be a secure man, instead of an insecure one? For those women who wholly sign on to Vernick’s analysis and views, is there perhaps a bit of projection happening here?
Again, is it so difficult to believe that a man, being formed by Christ and confident in a godly way, has the exact opposite impulse of the man who looks to proudly display his “trophy wife”? (thereby advertising his own value!) When a man is attracted to his wife and thinks it likely that others might share his judgement (yes, love blinds us to flaws, but let’s give him a little credit), it is possible that she might think “oh, that is only because I am his wife.” If she thinks this though, she should think again. Respect demands this.
Going along with this, I note yet another reason (!) a husband might be interested in what his wife wears in public. One reason might be that he, when he is “out and about” with her, the children, and others, is not interested in being distracted by her (at that time!).
Clearly then, what this passage from Vernick’s book does not take seriously, or even into consideration then, is the critical truth of modesty.
And why in the world not? Is it because she believes that modesty is an idea that is wholly culturally determined?
And is that true? On the contrary, isn’t there anything that can be said at all about modesty as a universal concept? Something that we all share?
Sometimes, I get the impression many Christian ladies don’t think this is the case at all! Consider, for example, this post from the Christian writer Sheila Wray Gregoire: “Why ‘Don’t Be a Stumbling Block’ is A Really Bad Modesty Message”. To some, it might seem like Gregoire is speaking to the issue of modesty, even ending with a “list of modesty standards.”
I disagree. Instead, she basically ends with rules of thumb that individual women are free to apply to their own selves.
In other words, *not* any real standards that we could understand to be widely shared in any sense. For her, if you think there are, or at the very least should be (that is, things we come to agree on together, on the basis of the natural law), some common modesty standards that should be applied, you are wrong!
And if that is what people like Gregoire are saying, that must be wrong!
Beauty is not wholly culturally determined, and therefore neither is modesty.
And let’s get real—it is not only men who know that.
Brian McCall: Fatima Center screengrab
[i] WWDWT= What would the Duggar women think?
Regarding the content of this paragraph is this where the push-back really starts and we start talking about blame-shifting? Men – or even women – should not make excuses for men when they respond wrongly to women who dress as they think best.
Vernick writes about the topic of blame-shifting in her book, and there is no doubt that in some contexts, such as contexts pertaining to domestic violence, such words need to be said. To be clear, she does not talk about this directly when she is discussing issues pertaining to modesty – it is in the context of domestic violence. Nevertheless, as regards the sentences below in italics, it is interesting to realize that many think along the same lines when it comes to issues pertaining to modesty:
“Ever since Adam blamed Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit, we all shift blame. Can you heal yourself? You’re held captive by your own storyline that says you had no choice but to respond the way you did. You tell yourself the only reason you reacted that way is because of the other person’s wrong. Therefore, your response is their fault. The deceptive part of this thinking is that there is a smidgen of truth in it. Imagine what a wonderful person you could be if your husband, children, mother, friend, or neighbor did exactly what you wanted them to do when you wanted them to do it, all the time. Imagine how kind you would be if people never upset you, never disappointed you, or never hurt your feelings. Imagine how loving you would be if life went exactly the way you wanted it to. The problem with this thinking is that it’s pure fantasy. People do provoke us. They let us down. We get disappointed and frustrated. Others don’t always love us and we’d like them to or do exactly what we want. Our wrong and hurtful reactions to life’s frustrations and disappointments are understandable, but they usually make things worse (40-41).