Anthony J. Headley, Wendy Shalit. A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998. 304 pages. ISBN: 9780002557412

Dr. William Sillings

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2012. Volume 30.
Date Posted July 02, 2012

I have an acute concern over an apparent lack of comprehension among Christians (both women and men) about the need for and the practice of genuine Christian modesty. Modesty concerns much more than a rule book can address. It is more an attitude of the heart than merely outward observance of rules. Sadly, too many Christians are too dependent upon the world's views for their sense of appropriateness in both attitude and action. My prayer is that at least Wesleyan-Arminian Christians can recapture a sense of modesty which encompasses biblical-moral-wholeness in spirit, mind and body — that is, genuine holiness.

A Return to Modesty is not primarily a religious work, though the influence of religious values on it should not be ignored. However, it is written primarily from a philosophical and sociological point of view, with a healthy serving of social pragmatism included.

As well, A Return to Modesty is addressed primarily (not exclusively) to women. Why? Shalit convincingly argues that women have the potential to transform culture in a way that men do not. In a three-part treatise, Shalit challenges women to use their personal power to help the culture to recapture a sense of modesty it currently lacks. She says, "there is simply nowhere else to go in the direction of immodesty, only back" (p. 232).

Part 1 defines the problem she wants to address. Society has declared war on embarrassment, and therefore, has become hostile to modesty and to women. Shalit connects immodesty (specifically the immodesty of sexual license) to the evils of anorexia, bulimia, self destructive behaviors, increased levels of adultery, sexual boredom and others. She shows that modesty is both natural and needed for men to relate as men to women, and for women to relate as women to men.

Part 2 defines modesty as a forgotten ideal, listing two kinds of modesty - the humble kind and the sexual kind. Shalit is primarily concerned with the second. Female modesty is "a reflex, arising naturally to help a woman protect her hopes . . . specifically the hope for one man, [since . . .] most women would prefer one man who will stick by them, through thick and thin, to a series of men who abandon them" (pp. 94-95). That is, a modest woman reserves the right to save herself for marriage - an increasingly uncommon trait in today's society.

Modesty, then, is an armor of hope. It is hard for a woman to separate what she really wants to be from what the culture tells her she is supposed to be. But, asks Shalit, "why should a woman allow culture to shatter her hopes?" (for one man who loves her forever). Therefore, modesty is not about snubbing men, but about postponing sexual pleasure until the time is right (p. 84). I wish she had said, "until marriage," the only biblically correct time.

Modesty also has to do with male obligation. Immodesty in women encourages boorish (boyish, immature) behavior in men. Shalit claims that female immodesty is largely responsible for the demise of male courtesy and honor. Men have come to think they should be able to treat all women as prostitutes, she says, only without just compensation - and "the virgins are the ones who are now stigmatized, told that no man will have them . . ." because they refuse to be sexually immodest or licentious (P. 229).

Modesty, on the other hand, invites men to relate to women in an honorable way. The modest woman refuses to be "one of the boys," but insists on being worthy of more than equality with men. Modest women win socially because they receive better treatment from men than immodest women do. And when women are modest, men win personally because the men themselves are no longer cut off from adult masculinity.

Part 3 of the book cites evidences that modesty is making a comeback, at least in some circles. She calls the modesty comeback a "sexual revolution" among her age group. She claims that even the totally secular have begun to incorporate modest dress in their daily lives, concluding, "Modesty is powerful" (p. 223).

Shalit also addresses the subject of modest dress. Interestingly, she chooses the Bible to establish the concept of modesty in the presence of God. Shalit notes that God told Moses how priests were to dress to remain modest in the strenuous work of altar sacrifices. Then she illustrates with the modesty of the Cherubim in Isaiah's vision in Isa 6. She concludes with an observation; "In the presence of the holy, one must cover up" (P. 219).

But, she says, it cannot be only that. Shalit challenges the entire culture by saying, "Modesty cannot be simply a personal matter. Perhaps this is where liberalism has failed, because it claimed society can be neutral about individuals' choices, and it never can" (P. 228).

In a short concluding chapter, Shalit makes an appeal for the virtue of innocence. "Modesty is a virtue ... a way of affirming our essential innocence" (p. 244). "Losses of innocence are nothing new" of course. But, "the thing that is new ... is that it is now assumed we have no innocence to lose." God forbid that this should remain so, if it be so today.

Shalit did not answer all my questions about educating Christians about the need for and practice of Christian modesty. Nevertheless, while I could have wished for more biblical grounding for her views, Shalit has produced a remarkable work.

In reality, Shalit uses philosophical, sociological and social evidence to reaffirm what the biblical writers knew and taught – women hold great moral power for transforming immoral culture into moral culture through their own sexual modesty.

But men can help with the transformation as well. Christian men need to affirm female modesty, chastity and status as vessels of honor. Christian men need to make it desirable for Christian women to be modest, and unacceptable to be anything other. Christian men need genuinely to appreciate their women's modesty. On the other hand, Christian men need their women to call them to a higher plane of relating to all women, not just to themselves. Modesty truly knows no gender barriers.

Editorial Note:

Dr. Sillings raised the question concerning how to address the issue of modesty. I am sure that many of us have reacted to the legalistic preaching that we grew up under. However, we must not swing to the opposite extreme. The notion that God does not care how we look contradicts the principle that Jesus is Lord over every area of our lives - including our appearance. While God looks on the heart, man still looks on the outward appearance and our appearance must not become a stumbling block.

According to Oden "a standard is literally a flag, a banner, an ensign distinctive of a community. It is metaphorically that which is set up visibly and established by authority as a rule for the measure of value of something." Based on this definition, the Scriptures must be our standard. Our philosophy, priorities, attitudes, conversation, entertainment, and appearance should be in conformity to God's Word. This may necessitate a separation from the world. However, extrabiblical standards, primarily of dress, came to be mandatory in order to be accepted by the radical holiness subculture. In some cases, they replaced the witness of the Spirit.

Donald W. Dayton's research shows that simplicity of dress was encouraged to free more money for evangelism and for helping the destitute. In time, however, the means became the end. Interest in world evangelism waned, but dress preferences became legislated. Wally Thornton observed that while Wesley's emphasis concerning plain dress was on stewardship, the later holiness movement made it the proof of entire sanctification. In the best sense "standards" were an attempt to uphold and ethical holiness through separation from the world. At their worst, they were reductionistic, legalistic, and subjective.

You may want to consult Wesley's sermon #88 "On Dress." It may be instructive that of 151 sermons only one dealt with dress and it is not generally regarded as a "standard" sermon - meaning that it is recognized as a doctrinal standard within the Methodist church. Wesley had to deal with extravagance and costly array. We have to deal with exposure.

The Puritans were the first movement in the history of Christianity to ever protest the wedding ring and they did so in the 1550s on the basis that it furthered the Roman Catholic teaching that marriage was a sacrament [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 53]. Wesley was influenced by the Puritans at this point, but early Methodism did not make an issue of the wedding ring. Clarke was not opposed to the wedding ring [Christian Theology, 265-266; see also Wesley's Advice to the People Called Methodists with Regard to Dress [Works, 11:466-477]. Telford wrote that Wesley disliked all display of jewelry. However, when a Methodist itinerant preacher took hold of a girl's hand, drawing Wesley's attention to a number of rings that she wore, Wesley simply replied, "The hand is very beautiful" [Life of Wesley, 338].

May God help us to find balance on this issue. Richard Payne developed "Five Laws of Proper Dress"

1. Is it economical? (Christian stewardship)
2. Is it plain? (Christian simplicity)
3. Is it appropriate? (Christian example)
4. Is it sufficient? (Christian modesty)
5. Is it Biblical? (Christian doctrine)