Thursday, July 10, 2014

I'm Too Sexy (For This Shirt): A Case For Real Biblical Modesty (1 Peter 3 - Sermon)

Click the image above to hear the audio-recording of this sermon.

For those who may not be aware, the title of this sermon is a clever nod to a song by UK band Right Said Fred. “I’m Too Sexy” was their first single, and rose to the top of the charts in the US and Canada in the Summer of 1991, though failing to reach number one in their own country, instead remaining at number two for a record of six weeks for any song to do this without ever reaching number one. The top spot was held back from them by Bryan Adam’s song, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”. This means that “I’m Too Sexy” was the “Get Lucky” of 1991.

Right Said Fred: Too sexy for this blog.
"I'm Too Sexy", a song which also happens to be a favourite of Syrian President and tyrant Bashar al-Assad, for whom Right Said Fred rewrote the song with lyrics that mock the president, and then performed it on Jon Oliver’s show last month, is sung from the point of view of a histrionic-narcissistic fashion model. The song's lyrics express (over-) confidence that his personal level of sexiness makes him too sexy for numerous things, most notably his shirt ("so sexy it hurts"). The list of things for which the character is too sexy also includes "my love", "Milan, New York, and Japan", "your party (no way I'm disco dancing)", "my car (too sexy by far)", and the song itself: "...and I'm too sexy for this song", at which point the song abruptly ends.

The last two paragraphs are brought to you almost entirely from the Wikipedia entry for the song as it appeared on June 28, 2014. You’re welcome.


1 Peter 3:3-4 (ESVUK)
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.

We’ve been preaching our way through 1&2 Peter as a church, so for the last few weeks I have had 1 Peter 3 on my mind as it comes closer to the day I need to be prepared to share from it. The chapter is a difficult one, treading on the territory of gender roles and submission and modesty, so I’ve been trying to be cautious as I approach it. What has not been easy as I’ve considered 1 Peter 3 has been a recent surge of messages in the evangelical mainstream about female modesty and clothing choices.
(Click here to hear the audio of this sermon from June 29, 2014. It opens in another window.) 

It seems like every Summer, as the weather gets warmer and the warm-weather clothes come out, pulpits begin to declare a well-worn reminder that good Christian women need to conform to our conservative cultural expectation that they cover up a certain percentage of their bodies lest they cause someone to stumble into sin at the sight of their exposed flesh.

I'm just going to leave this here.

In the last week, I’ve had a lot of conversations about this subject with many men and women, Christian and not. I’m very grateful for their insight. The perspective I’ve found the most helpful over the last week was from those women who shared with me their convictions to not regularly dress a certain way, a way that would intentionally and especially amplify their sexual appeal, and their reasons for doing so that are very much grounded in their faith, reasons that are to them an expression of their freedom in Christ, not an outwardly imposed law. Had I not heard from these strong, bold, female voices, I think my sermon may have sounded much different today than it will. I am grateful. Before I get to my core disagreement with and argument against the Christian modesty message and culture, I want to acknowledge these women, and affirm that I believe their practice and their convictions are right and good. By the end of the message, I will get around to how I believe their convictions can be held in a healthy, gospel-empowered way. However, it is not primarily for them that this message is prepared.

In this message I will be examining what I see as some fundamental problems with the Christian modesty message, problems that are not only highly destructive to young Christian women, but I believe actually compromise and undermine the gospel, the Cross, and Jesus. My primary concern is not for the strong women who, in freedom, dress according to their conviction as an expression of love for God and others. I am concerned by the simplistic and assumed way the modesty message is shared among us in the church, the message that women have a responsibility to God to dress a certain way because of the sinful thoughts of men, as though it is the sole responsibility of women to dress in parkas to prevent men from "lusting" after them.
Is this woman wearing this "swimsuit" for her comfort, or for the men around her?
I am concerned for how this message threatens the freedom of the women who become burdened with the impossible task of carrying the guilt for men’s actions.

I am concerned for the men who may on one hand become bound by a message that assumes they are slaves to their urges, or on the other hand, excuse themselves for their behaviour for that same reason.

I am concerned for the potentially severe negative consequences to women that these male assumptions cause.

In the last two months, I have been hearing this same message at some point from every Christian blog or podcast I follow. Then, on Monday morning (June 23, 2014), I came upon a brilliant piece of satire by a writer named “L.P”, on a blog called The Salt Collective. The piece is called “When Suits Become A Stumbling Block: A Plea To My brothers In Christ”. In it, L.P. explains that since she is so sexually attracted to men in suits, and unable to control her desires when seeing a man in a well-tailored outfit, it is therefore the responsibility of the men in her life to stop wearing suits lest she stumble, meaning she will be caused to fall inescapably into lust.
John Piper, a preacher I actually admire deeply,despite the suit (sorry, L.P., or, you're welcome?)
(Here’s another excellent article by Rachel Held Evans that someone from our congregation posted on the afternoon that this sermon was first delivered.)

With both of these on my mind, and my general thoughts already on the subject as I’ve been considering 1 Peter 3, I suddenly had a eureka moment while sitting on the train, right after noticing a very pleasant-looking woman who happened to be dressed very nicely sitting across the aisle. I felt uncomfortable by how nice she looked and the thought that she might notice that I noticed. She was sitting in such a way to be directly in my field of vision, so I turned and looked out the window. As soon as we went into a tunnel, I was suddenly staring right at her reflection, and then saw her turn to see me doing exactly that. 

And then she took my picture, apparently.
I was quite flustered. Then I realized that this hang-up I was experiencing in that moment had everything to do with me and nothing to do with her. I decided to pull out my device right then and there and give 1 Peter 3 another good read.

1 Peter 3:3-4 (ESVUK)
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.

You know what I found in that passage about women and dressing sexy?


So I went to the another passage about so-called "modesty", 1 Timothy 2.

1 Timothy 2:8-10 (ESVUK)
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (emphasis mine)

You know what I found about dressing in a way that shows skin?


I've been looking since then, and cannot find a single instance in the Bible when "lust" is blamed on the object of desire. Matthew 18:9 says that if a man's eye causes him to sin, he should gouge it out, not that if a woman's dress causes him to sin, he should throw a poncho over the woman.

"Modesty" as the Bible talks about it has absolutely nothing to do with bikinis, strapless dresses, or tank tops.

Both of these examples pair modesty with flaunting one's wealth. In the case of 1 Peter, it is in the context of a book talking about living contrary to the spirit of empire in which the early Christians found themselves. So, Peter is talking about a separation of the early Christians from the culture of the Roman Empire, in which they were organizing in alternative community, and not coveting the external trappings of the privileged of that empire that hid the necessarily violent and oppressive culture that purchased that privilege. This is the definition of biblical modesty.

So, my showing off a full-colour, full-sleeve tattoo probably has more to do with what these passages are talking about than a woman in a tank top on a Summer day.

 Click above to listen to this sermon in full.
1 Peter is not prescribing a list of rules that men or women should follow so that they may become free or free others from sin. On the contrary, both of Peter’s books are about the gospel, the power of God through Jesus Christ to set us free from such external controls that can never truly change us anyway. The actions of a Christian that Peter describes are consequences of the freedom of the gospel, not laws by which we may free of sin or oppression. The modesty message in its simplest form is the exact opposite of this. In it, a woman is made responsible for a man’s sin by an external control over her body.

I believe this perversion of the gospel has more to do with men like myself who find themselves feeling awkward in the presence of beautiful women, like I did on the train, and become afraid of their own potential thoughts and actions. The gospel response to such fear is to give it to Jesus, who sets us free and gives us the power to live like him.

Jesus was (and is) a human being. Jesus is a man. Hebrews says that he was tempted in every way that we are tempted, yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus had a man’s body, and experienced all the same real, not-sinful things that every man’s body experiences. Jesus was a teenager. As an adult, he was called a friend of prostitutes. Nowhere do we see Jesus being concerned about how these prostitutes were dressed while he hung out with them. On the contrary, in the presence of proper religious folks, Jesus received the worship of a prostitute (Mark 14:3, Matthew 26:7) who came to him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, broke it over his feet, and then wiped them with her hair. Friends, that was a sensual act (note – not sexual, but certainly sensual). Jesus did this, yet Jesus did not sin. How would you respond if you saw Jesus, a human, a man, receive worship in this way while he was over at your house for supper?

I think we all know that President Obama would disapprove.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of tripping and falling into sin. His life was one not of avoiding the impure, but of seeking and revealing the hidden beauty of God, wherever God may be. Jesus had sexual thoughts, friends. He was a human. This means he was a sexual being, just like you. Those thoughts did not bind him. Our sin is not in what comes into our body or mind through our eyes, but in what we do with those things we see and feel.

            Mark 7:15 (ESV)
(Jesus is speaking.) There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.

Of course sin is real and sexual images are everywhere. Many of us in this church have software loaded on our computers to block or discourage us from coming upon sexual images that are all over the Internet. But if that’s you, and you think that those programs are going to stop you from lusting after women in images on the Internet or otherwise, that’s why you are failing. Sin isn’t “out there”, hiding in your computer, or the magazine rack, or in the body of a person you find attractive. Sin is in you, in how you respond to what you see, whether you see it intentionally or unintentionally. If you are counting on a program like X3watch on your computer to be the power to stop you from sinning, you will fail, because there is no X3watch for real life.

Like Jesus, we are called to share real, meaningful life and love with people in the world who do not believe as we do, people on the margins, even (and especially) people who the world has cast off. If we are afraid of encountering even the image of something that we fear may cause us to sin, how will we ever do this? We don’t get to excuse ourselves from finding ourselves in awkward, even tempting circumstances among sinners, if we are honest enough to recognize that we follow a man who received a foot-washing with a prostitute’s hair.

The power to live among the people of the world even when they do not share our values or know our God is found not in external imposed boundaries, but in the freedom of the sinless life of Jesus Christ.

Galatians 2:20 (ESVUK)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Start at the end of that verse. Jesus, the Son of God, loves you. Paul says “Jesus loved me”. That’s first person singular. Better than that, he loved you. That’s the past tense. When did he love you? He loved you before he gave himself for you. So he loved you while you were a sinner. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). So, right now, Christian or not, Jesus-follower or not. Jesus loves you. Alcoholic, selfish, greedy, porn addicted, cheater, apathetic to the oppression in the world, complicit in the oppression of the world, or actively oppressing others, Jesus loves you. Stop. Rest in that.

When Jesus saw that prostitute, he did not see an object of sexual gratification. Jesus saw a person. Jesus saw a person made in the image of God. And he loved her.

When Jesus sees you, he doesn’t identify you by your sin. You are not a personification of those things that most fall short of God’s glory. Jesus sees in you who he created you to be. By his love for you, you cease to be first that which makes you ashamed. You are first a person, made in God’s image, loved by Jesus. This is who you are.

Then, in that place of already being loved, Jesus gave himself for you. Jesus, the perfect human, was crucified. Our sin, our lust, which we willingly chose, separated us from God and by its perversion we became subject to death. When the man who is also God, our Creator, went to the cross and died, the only human who would otherwise never need be subject to this end, the entire order was reversed. Sinless, he died, so that now we, though sinful, may live. This is grace. By this grace, through our faith in Jesus Christ to do so, we are given the perfect, holy, loving, just, sinless life of Jesus. That old part of you that desires sin, that would load a monitoring program onto your computer, and then seek to find a way around it, has died with Jesus on the cross. It isn’t alive anymore. Now, we are free to live a life of radical love in the world, anywhere in the world, without fear of sin, by putting our faith in Jesus, the one who loves us, to love through us wherever we go.

I will give an example. When (my partner) Kate and I were hanging out with the street punks in Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada), we used to go to house parties at one house that had an entire wall literally wallpapered with pornography. The couch was right in front of it. So when I was talking to someone who was on the couch, I was also looking at porn. By many Christian's standards, that act was automatically just sinful. We did not act according to fear or law in this circumstance, but according to the grace God gave us to live among and authentically love these people he’d put into our lives.

Another time, Kate and I were hanging out in a bedroom in a different house with the Scallywags, and three teenage girls came in and took their tops off. We didn't leave. I preached at our church the next Sunday.
Have I ever mentioned that Kate is awesome?
If we as Christians are going to live with and love people who are not Christians with true reciprocity and solidarity (like Jesus' love), we're going to find ourselves in somewhat un-church-like situations. If the practice of our faith is more concerned with whether we accidentally see someone's bra strap than ministering freedom and justice in the world, our religion will not allow us to look like Jesus.

Most of us are very familiar with Romans 3:23, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Have you ever considered that this is not actually a complete sentence? It isn’t even the beginning or end of a sentence. It’s the middle of a sentence, and that sentence, only part of a complete thought. To understand the entire thought, we need to read the two verses before and after.

Romans 3:21-25 (ESVUK)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

Friends, we are forgiven, and we are free. The rest of 1 Peter 3 gives us some hints on how we may live as free agents of love in the world.

1 Peter 3:1-2 (ESV)
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.

Before we talk about the issue of submission of wives to husbands in this verse, I want to point out the word, “likewise”, with which the passage begins. This word links us to the verses before it in the previous chapter, which say the following:

1 Peter 2:13-16 (ESVUK)
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.

Our submission to human institutions is not according to our acknowledgment of their authority over us, but God’s. Peter is not suggesting by this that these Christians should do everything the government says, or cease to resist them. Peter, like Paul and most of the early disciples, would later be arrested and die by the hands of this government whom he instructs the early Christians to submit to and respect. His description of the responsibility to which God will hold them is not affirming that this is what they do, but rather describing the standard by which they will be judged. Notice how he does not claim that this government institution is God’s, but that it is human. Our respect toward the agents of the empire is the same as Jesus toward the prostitute. Every one of them, like us, is a bearer of the image of God, by whom they will be held responsible for how they held their human position. They are dearly loved. We may minister grace to them as individuals, even as we resist the injustice their systems create.

In the next passage, Paul instructs servants to act likewise toward their masters, following the same thought.

1 Peter 2:18 (ESVUK)
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.

There is much in the New Testament to condemn the institution of slavery. Peter admits here that slaveowners are unjust. The submission of the servants is not to call the actions of their slaveowners just, nor the institution of slavery. However, by their loving actions toward these image-bearers within the system that keeps them bound, slaves have the opportunity to minister the life of Jesus, who was also oppressed and even put to death by similar people that he also loved.

And then in the beginning of 1 Peter 3, Paul once again links his point about submission with the ones before it by saying “likewise”. Women who follow Jesus are encouraged to remain with and continue to serve their husbands. This instruction is not intended to legitimize the systems of oppression under which the early believers would find themselves, but to expose them. The Way of the Master is to win our enemies by love.

In Christ, the order has radically changed. Peter writes to women as free persons, capable of making their own moral decisions. He speaks to them directly as individual followers of Jesus, not property that is assumed one way or the other by the decision of their husband. By Peter's instruction, he also affirms that the Spirit of God in them is actually able to make them the influencer in their marriage relationship. All of this is radically different from the status they held before the freedom given them by Christ.

The reality for these women and most of the early church was that practical struggle for freedom against their oppressors and the oppressive system they served would have yielded no positive result. Peter acknowledges that things do need to change, but in Christ he offers a different Way.

To struggle against or leave their husbands would only find these oppressed women free of marriage, but without any protection or support from a broader culture that gave them no value outside of their home. If, on the other hand, they are to love their husbands by displaying the light of Christ boldly in their homes, they may win a comrade, and find themselves free within their home, now partnered with a brother-in-arms (the kind of arms that hug) for the kingdom.

Now look at how Peter addresses husbands.

1 Peter 3:7 (ESVUK)
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (emphasis mine)

Slaves do likewise. Wives do likewise. Husbands do likewise. Yes, husbands are also to submit to their wives.

1 Corinthians 7:4 (ESVUK)
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

Paul believed in equality in marriage, including mutual, reciprocal submission. He also believed that a woman could have authority over a man.

1 Corinthians 11:11-12 (ESVUK)
Nevertheless, in The Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.
Paul's principle behind his practice is equality between the genders. Woman may have come from man, but Christ, to whom we are all joined and from whom we all have life, came from a woman.

This entire passage in 1 Peter is about submission. Our lives in Jesus are about submission. When we have become free in Jesus, we are set free to live in the world, however we find ourselves, in whatever circumstance we live, in freedom. We do not act according to the systems of the world for their benefit, but for the glory of God, so that by our example of freedom, even in suffering under oppression, people may see Jesus, and God may be glorified.

1 Peter 3:8-9 (ESV)
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

The Way of the Master in suffering is not without cause. By our perseverance in grace through suffering, we minister love to those who are bound by the empire's oppression and control. Wives introduce eternal love to their husbands. Slaves invite slave-owners to share their true freedom. We bless those who curse us, and by that blessing we may allow God to defeat an enemy as we gain a friend. Though not every relationship may turn to good in this way, in our blessing we participate in the ministry of God on earth, and in this we receive the blessing ourselves, the indwelling Spirit that continues to powerfully enable us to love.

1 Peter 3:18 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit
. . .

It is by this truth that we may remain steadfast in our resistance. Our struggle is not against the oppressor. Our great war is a spiritual one. We fight systems and authorities and powers of darkness. But we follow after the One who willingly went to death by our unjust hands so that we may be brought to God. This is our hope and our path. In Christ, our spirits have been made alive and we have been reconciled with The Almighty. We remain in the world as ministers of this same reconciliation. Ours is a different Way, the way of the cross, that many new daughters and sons may be brought to glory.

Our feet are firmly planted in the soil of a new Kingdom that has already come, sure and true in a battle that has already been won, lifted by the hope and joy in knowing that we will see justice fulfilled.

It is in this freedom, and only this freedom, that we are not required, but enabled to live our lives in such a way that we may best minister freedom and love to those around us.

I am standing here in front of you right now in pressed black pants, and a long-sleeved, collared black shirt that covers my full sleeve tattoo (no suit, for L.P.'s sake). I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for the sake of modesty. I want anyone to be able to come into this church and receive from me if I’m going to be preaching the gospel. I want any of you to feel free to invite anyone to this church, even those who might have a hard time receiving the gospel from a man with a sleeve tattoo, studs, and ripped and patched jeans, even though their inability to receive from me in that circumstance is only because of their own sin. I am not responsible for their sin. Neither is it my fault if they do sin. But I love them. I am not submitted to them, or to their sin, but to Jesus and the gospel. I am free to wear a full sleeve tattoo, and facial piercings. I am free to preach in them. And I am free to cover them up.

Here is the opposite end of the scripture about all of us sinning and falling short of God’s glory:

1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESVUK)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

You are free to wear whatever you’d like. You are free to watch whatever you’d like. If you wear spaghetti straps, do it for the glory of God. If you watch Game of Thrones, do it for the glory of God. Let your life be a life of love, whatever you choose. Always, by faith, place your hope in Jesus alone for your justification. Always, by faith, place your hope in Jesus for the power to live powerfully free lives of love in the world.


This sermon was first delivered in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Look To The Cross For Victory (Church) at The Neighbour Centre on June 29, 2014.

This sermon transcript is part of a longer series of articles from 1 and 2 Peter, which you can read here.

I am also writing a series of articles through the book of Isaiah, which you can read here.

I will be taking a break from both of these series for the rest of the Summer of 2014, to return to them with weekly articles in September (in 1 Peter) and October (in Isaiah). In the meantime, I will be posting weekly sermon transcripts on Wednesdays from a series on the Christian disciplines earlier this year. After a short break, the first in this series will be published on this blog on July 30th.