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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Petting a Hissing Cobra

Brad Littlejohn and Doug Wilson are currently in the middle of an interesting back-and-forth on the difficulties that come with trying to deal with visible displays of feminine worldliness in the church: things such as pink hair, ear-stretching plugs, yoga pants, tattoos, body piercings and so on.

Everyone involved already seems to agree on a number of things: first, that it is unhelpful to pretend that the Law of Moses is directly relevant; second, that the New Testament does not address most of these issues in so many words — we have to get there by application from passages about “braided hair” and “costly attire” and such things; third, that despite the fact that we are dealing with principles rather than direct commands like “Don’t get a tattoo” or “Don’t dye your hair”, these principles cannot be handwaved away without us losing something very important; and fourth, not all such displays should be handled in precisely the same way — things like salvation, spiritual maturity, age, level of commitment, baptism, history and present circumstances absolutely come into it.

Everyone also agrees talking about the subject is like petting a hissing cobra.

(Okay, they didn’t say that, but the fear in the air is palpable.)

I hadn’t originally intended to go down the same road here myself, and the whole thing makes me deeply grateful that I’m not an elder dealing with such issues week after week. People in responsible positions in local churches do not have an easy job at any time: throw in egos and unhappy teenagers and family dynamics and hurt feelings and things can get ugly quickly. But it occurs to me there may be some points worth exploring.

A Tendency to Polarize

There is a tendency to wind up polarized over such issues. There are churches you could walk into with a rainbow mohawk, a miniskirt, fishnet stockings and six-inch pumps and nobody would bat an eyelash. These are not common, and the women who attend them probably read Rachel Held Evans religiously.

In more local churches you would certainly be noticed, gossiped about and maybe giggled about. Some would find your attire downright offensive. But nobody would say a word. Not initially, maybe not ever. The rationalizations would vary: some would imagine it’s somebody else’s job to deal with, others would worry about being perceived as judgmental, and yet another group would simply write you off and not bother with you at all. Some married men would glance down at their wife’s three-inch pumps and decide to let somebody without sin cast the first stone. But assuming you were thick enough not to notice these subtleties, you might come away thinking you were in a very liberal congregation. Not necessarily, they were probably just a bit whipped.

Finding the Sweet Spot

At the other polar extreme, you might walk into a hyperconservative group and find yourself taken aside and utterly humiliated by older men, or more likely women, and you’d probably never come back. These churches too are rare.

In other churches a sense of “duty” and “faithfulness” would demand something eventually be said, but it might well be awkward, poorly thought-out, not particularly biblically coherent or authoritative, and perhaps off-putting without ever being intended that way.

I think most of our readers would agree we want to be somewhere in the middle. Saying something unhelpful and saying nothing at all are both to be avoided if possible. It’s not easy to find the sweet spot between being archaic and judgmental on the one hand, and passively encouraging worldliness on the other. The scripture, after all, says SOMETHING about this, and we are unwise to ignore it. In fact, the principle of modest Christian female attire that Paul wrote about to Timothy is not the least bit complicated to understand; however, applying it graciously, firmly, prudently and appropriately requires a degree of discernment — and, probably more importantly, a personal investment in the person being corrected — that is no longer common.

Some Practical Examples

I have suggested, as does Doug Wilson (with many years more experience under his belt than I have), that different personal situations demand very different sorts of responses from believers. I’ll try to break that down a bit, along with my own inclination as to how best to respond, all other things being equal. Your mileage may vary:
  • The Unsaved Peacock. This is a woman whose over-the-top clothes and hair suggest she really wants to be seen, but are not indecent or sexually suggestive. I would not touch this one with a ten-foot pole until she’s seen the inside of a baptismal tank, and maybe not then. There are other much more important priorities.
  • The Unsaved Tramp. Here the choice of attire is borderline indecent. For a week or two I’d be happy to avert my eyes and counsel others to lay low and do the same. But while here again there are more important priorities, like her salvation, this can become a church culture problem if it goes on too long and impressionable and less-spiritual teens in the congregation take a collective failure to respond as tacit approval of her fashion sense and decide to copy it. Heavenly wisdom very much required. Get praying.
  • The New Christian from a Bad Background. Jenny was saved at camp this summer, the daughter of an unsaved single mother. She used to be in a band, and has all the requisite body hardware to prove it. She also loves the Lord and just hasn’t quite figured out yet that her piercings and studs are not the most effective way to show this to the world. Here, suggesting some involvement and mentoring from an older Christian woman with good sense is likely the best approach. I can see no pressing urgency to bring up the issue unless Jenny starts telling you about this great new tattoo she’s saving up for. Even then, I’d be careful about making this a hill to die on too early on.
  • The Teen from a Christian Family. This is a touchy one. Is Mom demure, or is she too pushing the envelope of acceptable attire? That might be the real problem. Is the daughter saved or unsaved? If saved, there is something (and Someone) to which to gently appeal. If not, well, there isn’t. Sometimes parents in this situation allow a standard of dress that is outright horrible, fearing that cracking down will drive their daughter away from church entirely. This may be precisely what she is hoping for; in fact, if she has grown up in a church environment and knows the ropes, you can just about bank on it. I’m of the opinion that it’s best to have an honest talk with the daughter about why she is still coming to church and go from there. My own experience is that past a certain point, there is no spiritual value in dragging children to meetings when they clearly do not want to be there.
One Size Does Not Fit All

There are obviously many other possibilities and variables, and we cannot possibly explore them all, let alone find answers that fit every situation. Announcing a series of one-size fits all “rules”, or giving a platform series on women’s clothes and personal style to deal with existing problems are both sure-fire ways to ignite major disagreements in your church. The time to study 1 Timothy together publicly is before these problems become rampant.

After all, not every deviation from what we might consider acceptable attire is on quite the same level. A little dab of a complementary color in the hair is one thing; a bright blue mop is something else. Yoga pants under a long, baggy sweater can be perfectly demure; the same thing with a form-hugging t-shirt is an entirely different look and probably springs from very different intent. A fading tattoo from one’s misspent youth is not the same as a pair of brand new lobe-stretching plugs.

There is also spiritual trajectory to consider: is the person in question already moving in the right direction? It may be best to hold our tongues and let the Lord continue working then.

Another point that should be obvious is that yes, Christian men may equally display signs of worldliness in the church, and such things need to be addressed too. Washing the issue of creeping worldliness away with bromides like, “Well, we’re all sinners saved by grace” and so on is trite and unhelpful. Rebuking and exhorting one another are part of the Christian package, trendy though they are definitely not.

We also need to be aware that weird personal style choices can sometimes signal something more serious. Recent studies show that girls who have been abused often tend to self-mutilate in the form of tattoos, piercings and other body modifications. Where you see ten body modifications or more, abuse is immensely probable. In such cases, attempting to deal with the symptoms as an obedience or church culture issue without addressing the root cause is probably futile, not to mention quite frustrating for the person you are trying to help.

Calling in the Troops

Let me throw out one further thing. People often assume dealing with fashion choices that wrongly draw eyeballs is the responsibility of the elders or the “pastor”. Doug Wilson’s otherwise-useful posts on the subject seem to take this for granted. I don’t think that’s a necessary conclusion to take away from the New Testament. Honest Bible teachers have an obligation to set out the entire counsel of God without flinching, so your local church may have been where you learned about how Christians should dress and conduct themselves. That doesn’t mean church leaders should function as fashion police, or even that they are best equipped to approach somebody who is dressing inappropriately. If you want to insist on that, you should probably produce some evidence for it.

So let me suggest that where there is a saved father or husband in the picture, that might be the place to start. By the time a personal style issue gets noticed in church, rest assured we are seeing the merest tip of a spiritual iceberg that is already floating blithely through home, school and the workplace. Anyone from church who presumes to get helpfully involved needs to be well aware of any relevant family dynamics before opening his or her mouth. Maybe dad needs encouragement and support in living out his biblical role, or maybe dad is the real problem. Either way, if we believe the husband is the head of the wife in any sense that actually matters, or that believing children ought to obey their parents, having pastors and elders approach a married “style offender” or a child directly seems an unlikely way to support and reinforce these principles.

That, and talking about this subject is like petting a hissing cobra. I’m off to make sure I haven’t been bitten …

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