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Q&A: Mary Mohler on “modeling modesty”

January 24, 2005
Share: recently interviewed Mary K. Mohler—wife of CBMW council member R. Albert Mohler Jr.—on modesty and biblical womanhood.

The following is a Q&A with Mrs. Mary K. Mohler, wife of Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mrs. Mohler serves as Director of the Seminary Wives Institute (SWI) at Southern Seminary, which educates and equips ministers’ wives for service in local churches by providing biblically based and practically applied teaching. How often and in how many different places have you been able to present your “Modeling Modesty” message? Would you consider that a central part of your own ministry?

MKM: Since I made the initial presentation to the Pendergraph Women’s Ministry (a ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) back in the fall of 2002, I have probably presented it about 6 times, including my SWI Embracing Femininity class that has met twice since then. I am scheduled to do it in Lexington next month and in South Carloina in March. I have turned down several requests since I limit my travel.

I would not say it is a central part of my ministry. It was one major point in a previous presentation to Pendergraph on the big picture about biblical femininity. So many comments were made about that section that I developed it into a 45-minute speech the following year. From there, quite a bit of interest was generated from a Baptist Press story covering the issue. It has been interesting to see how many people see this as a hot button issue that few people seem to be tackling. There are some people who are very passionate about restoring modesty. They have encouraged me greatly. Then, the seminary published the presentation in booklet form after the magazine ran it. I had another wave of responses since then.

It’s funny-I did not take this on to be my “signature issue” but it seems that it has become that somehow, in part because others are not writing about it much. I am still very troubled by the lack of modesty seen all around us but I have great interest in other issues as well. How is mode of dress related to the gender confusion that is pervasive in contemporary culture? How critical is teaching our girls modesty in helping them form a comprehensively biblical view of womanhood?

MKM: One of the goals of feminism is to blur the lines of gender distinction such that we all look the same-and sameness equals freedom, they say. That is clearly contrary to the biblical model we have for manhood and womanhood. Scripture teaches that a man should look like a man and a woman should look like a woman-proudly (Deut. 22:5). We are to celebrate the differences between us not only in dress but in every other way. When teen-aged girls dress like boys, they are sending a clear signal that femininity is not an option for them. This often signals that they want to be treated as boys, so don’t even think about opening the door for them or offering to help. They have somehow bought into the lie that femininity equals weakness and inferiority.

It is critical for our daughters to understand that their dress gives a huge impression-for good or for bad regarding their view of womanhood. A woman who dresses in such a way to avoid looking feminine is communicating strongly without even opening her mouth. This is a big picture issue and one that should not be discarded as unimportant because it’s “just clothes.” Does this mean we must teach our daughters that they may only wear dresses and skirts and that their wardrobe is limited to pink and purple? Certainly not. It does mean that they need to carefully consider whether what they choose to wear reflects the desire of their hearts to be women seeking after God in every area of their lives. So should we as women eliminate gender-neutral clothing that is not at least accessorized in such a way that no male would be caught dead wearing it? Yes. What are the biblical directives regarding modesty? What is the best way for a parent to get his or her children “on board” with this kind of teaching when modern media exudes the Britney Spears/Madonna ethos in such a pervasive manner?

MKM: There are clear biblical directives written to women specifically by both Paul and Peter regarding how women should dress for worship. I discussed these specifically in my booklet, “Modeling Modesty”. This tells us that the issue is indeed a timeless one. We must also be keenly aware that we are talking about an issue of the heart here. Godly women who understand how men stumble when visually stimulated have absolutely no excuse to wear immodest clothing. It’s really that simple. What continues to puzzle me is how devout Christian parents and even grown women that I know either choose to ignore what their dress signals or simply have decided that they don’t care. Ignorance is a rare excuse but is valid for some who must have been living under a rock for some period of time and don’t know that they cause men to lust and women to justify similar dress as they carelessly wear tight or revealing clothing.

Parents must get their kids on board early since society is vying to do the same. Just look at the Sunday ads sometime and see what is being consistently marketed to young girls. They make no pretense about selling the idea that you too can look like Britney at the age of six. Our girls need to know from their earliest memory how precious they are to God and to their parents. They need to hear that their bodies are to be clothed properly. They need to be taught that little girls should dress differently than little boys. All of that is in vain if they look to their mothers and see them dressed provocatively! If these lessons are started early, then the teenage years will not be World War III. If you try to start imposing rules then, get ready for major problems. In addition, I advise parents to bypass the juniors’ department altogether. There are lots of other options elsewhere. I realize your ministry deals with women, but is this something fathers should be discussing with their sons as well? How should we be talking to our sons about modesty as it relates to finding the “ideal” Christian wife? Isn’t this a topic that Dr. Mohler often addresses in the context of biblical sexuality?

MKM: Yes, he certainly does. He talks to dads about the struggles that their sons have dealing with the barrage of sexual images that are coming from all sides. Dads need to be talking to boys about how to deal with it. He also says that the biggest problem girls face as teens is the early sexualization imposed on them by modern society. Moms need to be talking to girls about how to be responsible young women who are not contributing to the problem. Some parents get off track and start thinking that it is affirming for their beautiful daughters to be the center of attention and peak of popularity. They sometimes get vicarious enjoyment and parental pride from watching heads turn when their immodestly dressed daughters walk in the room. When challenged, they wrongfully assume that others are simply jealous of their daughter’s physical beauty.

These parents are missing the vital point that should be driven home to daughters over and over again. True beauty starts on the inside and works its way out through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us. Do we honestly want males to like our daughters based on the anatomy that is being flaunted before them? Too many young girls have been taken in by the attention of males only to be devastated when they learn that they are only of interest because of skin-deep beauty. Parents must not bend on the issues of modesty even when it causes fireworks with their daughters. These girls truly do not know any better and that’s why God gave them parents to set out the truth plainly for them. Many times, when the issue of causing men to sin is explained clearly, even young girls have a wake up call and make changes that are life-long. What kind of response have you experienced to the “Modeling Modesty” message? Did “Modeling Modesty” arise out of your ministry at the Seminary Wives Institute at the seminary?

MKM: I heard from some angry people who thought I was way off base. Most of them had ridiculous arguments such as the fact that avoiding Abercrombie and Fitch was not mentioned in the Bible. Others chocked my arguments up as another attempt by conservatives to shut down freedom and impose rigid rules. They clearly missed the point entirely.

I also heard from many people from all over the country who were in total agreement with the issues raised and wanted to hear more. They ordered copies of my booklet with hopes of spreading the word. Mothers of sons in particular, voiced concerns for getting the message of modesty out there since their sons are the ones being tempted, even in church, and moms of sons have little input to make changes.

As I stated earlier, “Modeling Modesty” arose from my “Celebrating Femininity” speech to Pendergraph. However, our SWI elective called “Embracing Femininity” was born due to interest generated from the femininity presentation that included a section on modesty. Mrs. Jodi Ware and I worked together to plan the curriculum for our six-week class. We have offered it three times already and have had a great response from our students. One session of the six-week course is basically “Modeling Modesty.” Do you see modesty as being underemphasized in the contemporary evangelical church? Do we often substitute “Christian hip” for biblical modesty? What is the antidote to this?

MKM: Yes, I see it as one of those issues that people see as too personal to deal with at church and too risky in terms of hurting people’s feelings or offending them beyond repair. Let’s face it, no one likes to be told that they are dressing inappropriately. So, it is considered an off limits subject for many. After all, we are trying to encourage people to come and be committed members of our churches so why risk sending them away by an awkward conversation about dress? The result is that in many churches you now find teenage girls (and sometimes their mothers) who are quite honestly dressing in such a way that simply looks like the world. Raising this issue at all conjures up images of women in Victorian dress who only dare show their ankles. This does not come close to defining Christian modesty in practice.

The range of variety and diversity in dress is vast! What we are talking about is eliminating options that may well be the hot fashion in Hollywood but are not modest by any stretch of the imagination. Stylishness is not prohibited but wearing clothing that accents the female anatomy in an inappropriate way is. Sometimes women get caught in the trap of thinking that unless clothing has a certain label and is seen on the pages of vogue magazines that it is passé and boring. They cannot consider the option of drawing a line and setting standards nor are they willing to keep looking until they find what is acceptable. Don’t tell me that options don’t exist. I have a teen-aged daughter and enjoy wearing lots of different styles myself. They are out there! Practically speaking, what has “Modeling Modesty” looked like in your own home in raising a daughter? Any anecdotes that might help us paint a picture of this for readers?

MKM: It is one of those issues that was established early and has truly not been a big problem for us. Sometimes it means that we do have to look beyond the first store to find an appropriate prom dress, for example. What’s gratifying is that my daughter herself eliminates many inappropriate options and would feel very uncomfortable even trying on many others. Even when she was a pre-teen, she would hold up garments off of the rack and say, “Mom, look at this, can you believe how bad this is?” I would always agree with her in utter disbelief but inwardly I would be smiling as I thought, “Thank you, Lord that years of preparation for this stage are paying off and that You have deeply instilled in her a sense of modesty!”

It is unthinkable to some parents when they hear me suggest bypassing the juniors’ department altogether. Ditto for never even entering an Abercrombie and Fitch store or similar stores whose windows are full of clothes that are far from being options for my daughter. Why go there? I am not suggesting that a young teenager should shop around the same rack as their grandmothers do, but there are many fine options in the misses’ department. Classic designers market high quality tailored clothing that flatters yet appropriately covers women of all ages. Often, the smaller sizes of 2-4-6 are available as they are not purchased as quickly as more median sizes. Purses, shoes, and other accessories that are clearly popular for teens are excellent ways to allow your daughter to enjoy her some of her own generation’s trends without compromising her standards of decency.

Clearly, some misses’ fashions are geared to older women but the majority are not. When teenaged girls are especially petite, they may need to look at petite specialty stores for women. Catalogs and consignment stores are good options as well. When finances permit, it is a great idea to purchase modest clothing when you see it on sale even if it is to be stored for a couple of years until the daughter grows into it. You can be a wonderful resource for moms of younger girls who may be on a tight budget by passing on gently used clothing to them when your daughter grows out of it.

Lastly, realize that many young girls who are dressing inappropriately actually crave the concern of their parents. If honest, they would admit that they need guidance and boundaries and are unable to set those on their own. Just like they need curfews and house rules, they need guidelines for dress. They are unlikely to ask for them but are often simply relieved that you care enough to invest the time and money it takes to protect them.

This problem is not going to go away and is likely to escalate. Christian parents need to wake up and take this matter very seriously. It is lazy and irresponsible to minimize the damage that is being done by immodesty and to justify “choosing our battles” in terms of drugs, alcohol, and other important issues. On the other hand, parents don’t have the luxury of letting modesty slide under the rationalization that “she’s a good girl who doesn’t do drugs and alcohol so if she wants to dress like her friends, what’s the harm?” Our huge task is to raise immature and innocent little girls to grow into mature and responsible Christian wives and mothers who will be a salt and light in a dark world. No one ever said that would be easy. Pray hard! Be ready to fight some battles. The reward will be tremendous.

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