Part 1: Stumbling Blocks
Picture This: You arrive on campus at Cedarville University as a wide-eyed freshman ready to experience your first taste of freedom. Your first day, yippee! As you walk into your new dorm, your RA informs you of a mandatory meeting that night so you can get to know the girls in the hall a bit better. After gathering all the gals together, your RA starts to go over some basic rules. No problem, we’ve all had a meeting like this before. You notice your RA wearing leggings and a t-shirt while discussing the dress code and think, “Maybe the dress code isn’t as strict as I thought!” But your RA informs you that the reason she is wearing leggings is for a demonstration. You start to wonder what’s going on when marshmallows are being passed out. Then something crazy happens: your RA instructs you to ‘stone’ her with the marshmallows because she deserves it for going against the rules and wearing leggings. This was the actual experience of one CU student and the rest of her hall. While this might have just been a bad idea that was cooked up at 1am, it unearths an even larger, more systemic issue at CU:
Purity culture lies at the root of many of the issues surrounding the way that women are treated at Cedarville. Seldomly talked about, yet sometimes so pervasive it can be felt in the air, purity culture can be boiled down to a blame game: Blaming victims for rape, blaming the clothes women wear, blaming the way that a woman talks, walks, or carries herself as the root cause of how others act. If you are a man reading this, this so-called purity culture has impacts you as well. I certainly don’t believe in demonizing men, as there are plenty of great guys out there. However, I think that this issue needs to be discussed, not only for the sake of women, but also the men who are treated by the culture as if they are so sexually motivated that not a single one of them can keep their hands to themselves if they see a woman in, say, leggings.
The “Stumbling Block” Policy
My freshman year, my bro-sis went on a camping trip at the start of the semester. I received a message from my RA that if I wanted to go swimming then I would need to bring a one piece with me in order to cover up and remain modest. However, when we went, all the guys were allowed to take their shirts off when they wanted to. This is a massive double-standard. First of all, Cedarville’s policies seem to assume that women do not have a sexual drive, especially not one that can be appealed to visually. Guys are the ones that struggle with pornography, lust, and impure thoughts. This idea hurts men because it casts them as walking perverted sex-machines whose minds are so impure that if they see a woman wearing shorts above her mid-thigh or a tank top with thin straps or (God forbid) see a bra strap, they will commit unspeakable sins in their minds. Men—especially men of God—are fully capable of having pure minds. Trying to hide women’s bodies as some sort of barrier to sexual thoughts simply makes the issue worse. As discussed in the article on Cedarville’s alcohol rules, when you make something illegal, it doesn’t stop people who want to do it.
Secondly, it promulgates the idea that women’s bodies are shameful and ought to be covered up. Men are allowed to wear insanely (and, frankly, disturbingly) short shorts in the gym and tank tops that are barely there, but women get in trouble for wearing normal work-out clothes like leggings or tank tops. A former staff member of the athletic center told us that guys that wore tight fitting or short length shorts were never punished, while women were given a PC or even asked to leave.
Regarding modesty, Cedarville often references the second half of Romans 14:13:
“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
That second half is extremely useful for Cedarville’s argument because it seems to be saying we should not do anything to cause someone else to sin, which in and of itself is true, but is not the point of the text. We must ask ourselves what is the ‘therefore’ there for? In the preceding verses, Paul is writing to the church to instruct them in how to welcome others into their community. Using the metaphor of food, Paul tells them to welcome those of weaker faith who may abstain from certain foods, but in doing so not to argue about petty disagreements. He continues by saying that Christian liberty permits believers to engage in activities previously not permitted by the law.
What Cedarville notably misses in this passage is verse 3: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” In other words, Cedarville’s argument that women must change the way they dress because someone MIGHT be weak in faith is not Biblically grounded. Of course, women should dress in a manner pleasing to God as determined by their relationship with him. As verse 5 says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” and do everything in honor of the Lord. Cedarville would be wise to follow Paul’s instructions to welcome others into their community by allowing differing viewpoints and by relaxing overly strict standards to allow Christians to act in accordance with their Biblical conscience.
Unfortunately, whether it was at youth group, summer camp, dance, or even at school, girls have been required to cover themselves in certain ways for the sake of men. We are told that it is so that we are not a ‘stumbling block’ (a misquote of Romans 14:13) because if a guy sees our stomach or shoulder it could hinder his faith in Christ. What’s worse, sometimes the most stringent perpetrators of this culture are other women. Another CU student once explained to me the proper way I am supposed to pick something up, just so that a guy might not accidentally see my cleavage. Another student was wearing an oversized pullover with a pair of leggings. The pullover more than covered her butt, but her backpack snagged her sweater and briefly “exposed” her leggings (*gasp*). After she sat down to eat, an RA approached her and informed her she would either have to leave or get a PC for breaking dress code. She says, “She drew more attention to the matter rather than if she would’ve just let me eat my meal.”
All the hurt that is perpetuated by this topic is for the cause of modesty. However, there is no such thing as a universal definition of modesty. In fact, modesty is not a defined biblical concept. Of course, the Bible calls for modesty, but never lays out the specifics (in fact when it refers to modesty it is speaking of humility rather than sexual lust prevention). Modesty is primarily a subcultural concept within certain religions, including Christianity. This is evidenced by the way that the church’s definition of modesty has changed with the culture. For example, what women wear today would be appalling to Baptists in the 1960s. Are we all dressing sinfully? Or does modestly simply depend on what our culture deems correct? As Christians, our standards are not decided by society, but by our faith and relationship with God as described in Romans 14.
So next time, whether your reasoning is to protect a ‘brother in Christ’ or because God likes modest girls, think before you judge someone walking by in clothing you may not choose to wear. We are called in scripture not to judge others whose beliefs differ from ours. This is especially true when those choices and beliefs still fall within the bounds of godliness. Is it really sinful to wear leggings, tank tops, or shorts? Is it sinful for women to be proud of and confident in their bodies? Where in scripture did God say swimsuits are a sin? Always remember, our communication with others, both verbal and nonverbal, will leave a huge impact on them. Communication is irreversible. Consider the words of grace, love, and acceptance found in Scripture and be mindful of judgmental stares or unkind words. You never know what a girl may be struggling with.