15 Jul 2017

East Versus West

The Mississippi River establishes a natural border between a number of states - two of them are Tennessee and Arkansas. At least that was the case until March 7, 1876 when one small town in Tennessee was relocated from the eastern bank of the Mississippi to the western bank. In roughly twenty-four hours, the river abandoned its course along the western side of Reverie, TN, and established a new channel east of Reverie. One morning the river was on the west, and the very next day it was on the east. Forty-two years later, the Supreme Court had to determine that the town should remain part of Tennessee rather than be annexed by Arkansas. Almost 142 years later, the citizens of Reverie (which is still part of Tennessee) send their children to Arkansas schools and have their mail delivered to Wilson, AR.

How does a river suddenly re-route itself? In this case, the shift happens as a result of a process known as avulsion. Sediment may settle along the riverbed in one area until the river finds an easier path along another route. It's not difficult to see how the Mississippi's current path is much easier than following the historic border between Tennessee and Arkansas.

But this is a blog about Bible study and discipleship, not geography and geology. So what's the point?

With each passing generation, we're confronted with boundaries that shift as rapidly as the river around Reverie. The culture around us is redefining our moral landscape, attempting to sever us from what seems like a distant moral past. Remaining tethered to that past requires a determination that is too often lost as we blend into the new landscape.

In particular, our culture has undergone significant shifts in its understanding and appreciation of modesty. The word modesty can be broadly understood as a desire to be unassuming and reserved; it implies humility. More narrowly, modesty applies to one's apparel.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 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. 1 Timothy 2:8-10 (ESV)

In his letter to Timothy, Paul provides a variety of instructions regarding godly conduct for both men and women within the church family. Men, in particular, are to be devoted to prayer, submissive to God, and demonstrating peaceful interactions with their neighbors. They are not to be independent, haughty, or self-seeking. To borrow Paul's later phrasing, they are to "adorn themselves" with "modesty and self-control." Such behavior is "proper for [men] who profess godliness-with good works."

Paul's use of the term "likewise" in verse 9 indicates that he sees a strong connection between his instruction regarding men and his instruction regarding women. He has a common goal in mind for both: proper conduct that reflects Christlike godliness and devotion. Paul is well-acquainted with how sin tends to manifest itself in the hearts of men, and he wants Timothy to carefully counteract those tendencies. Men are not to rely on their own strength to accomplish their own purposes in the church. Neither are they to forcefully demand their own way. It is not permissible for them to abuse any advantage they may have through physical strength, or manipulate others through physical intimidation or threats.

"Likewise," we also understand that Paul is well-acquainted with temptations commonly faced by women, and he wants Timothy to counteract those as well. Just as Paul encourages modesty and self-control for men that will be shown by peaceful prayer and service, he encourages modesty and self-control for women that will be shown by respectable apparel. Our culture encourages women to use sexuality to manipulate. Advertising constantly confronts men with sexualized imagery intended to capture their attention, and women are sold apparel designed to capture a man's attention in the same way. But these patterns are not new - Paul and Timothy were fighting against them in the first century. In contrast, Paul encourages "respectable apparel" that demonstrates "modesty and self-control."

The Evolution of the Swim Suit
Jessica Rey (2016)

But isn't "modesty" a cultural norm that's more relative than absolute? Wouldn't a lot of our "modest" attire have been considered "immodest" just a century ago? Rather than attempt to detail specifics of what modesty should look like today, let's go back to Paul's phrase, "respectable apparel." If you're a young man, what kind of dress will elevate the respect you have for a young woman? Are you inclined to respect tight-fitting and low-cut? When you ogle the bikini-clad young woman on a magazine cover, is your ogling accompanied by an increased level of respect for her as a woman? If you're a young woman, what are your goals for the way you dress? Are you pursuing godly respect from the young men around you, or is there some desire to garner their attention by what your clothing may reveal?

Scripture raises a number of issues that we are sometimes prone to overlook. In this passage from 1 Timothy, Paul forces us to ask, "What does modesty look like?" Our tendency will be to fall in line with the culture around us, but Jesus has rescued us from that culture (Col. 1:13). We may quickly assume that our own conduct is sufficiently modest - Scripture's admonitions in this regard are obviously for the extreme cases we see on Hollywood award shows, right? However, let's not be too quick to justify ourselves. The town of Reverie still belongs to Tennessee, but for practical purposes (such as mail delivery and public education) it's identified with Arkansas. Much like the residents in the little town of Reverie, it can be easier to identify with our natural surroundings than with our supernatural identity, living in ways that blend in with the world around us instead of intentionally pursuing an increasing godliness that sets us apart. We live in a world that is "cut off" from our true home in the world to come, but our desire should be to live out the realities of that true home. Jesus taught us to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This prayer does not express a mere longing or wish, but a daily pursuit that brings about transformation in us and around us.

Whether you are male or female, take some time to consider what the pursuit of modesty should look like in your own life. How can you encourage that same pursuit in others around you? As a young man, you may need to rethink how you demonstrate humble submission to God and ask yourself what you esteem in the young women around you. As a young woman, you may need to rethink what you perceive as strong character in young men and how you are being intentional about modesty in your dress. The one thing we cannot do is avoid questions of modesty and simply adopt the standards and practices of the culture around us.

Fortunately, God has placed us on a path of renewing the way we think, transforming us so we are no longer conforming to the patterns of the world around us.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)