Theology Thursday: Modesty, Chivalry, and How We’re Getting Both Wrong

Like many people raised in the evangelical Christian church, I attended a Christian summer camp throughout my middle school years. Like most Christian summer camps, this one had a dress code for girls: no two-piece swimsuits, no super-short shorts (Nike shorts were fine), and no revealing tops.

The counselors explained to us girls that “no revealing tops” meant no crop tops, no low-cut necklines, no tank tops with thin straps, and no shirts that showed even the tiniest bit of sports bra. These things would distract boys from focusing on getting to know Jesus, which was, after all, why we were at camp.

This was fine by me. I’d been going to a school with a dress code all my life. I had heard all about modesty before. I didn’t want to wear a crop top or a bikini. I wore my normal clothes and never got told off.

A couple of days into camp, however, I noticed something disturbing. While none of the girls were clad in revealing tops, the guidelines for the boys appeared to be different. Many boys were wearing tank tops with huge arm holes that exposed the full length of their scrawny thirteen-year-old chests.

Wait a minute, I thought. Why don’t they have to follow the same rules as us girls? Why is it not OK if my cabinmate’s shirt exposes a tiny bit of sports bra at the shoulders, but these boys can walk around with half a shirt on?

That was distracting for me–not in a sexual way, but in an irritating way, like how you can’t focus on the sermon if the preacher’s tie is crooked. I wondered why there were all sorts of rules in place to prevent girls from distracting boys, yet there were none to prevent the reverse.

And then it occurred to me that these were teenage boys. No matter what kinds of rules the camp imposed on the girls, nothing would stop the boys from being distracted. How could they say that the amount of leg exposed by Nike shorts was less distracting than the corner of a sports bra?

Yet as much as this camp stressed “modesty” with girls, they stressed “chivalry” with boys. Boys–nay, young men–should always let girls go first and hold the door. That’s what chivalry was.

Let me clarify that I do not think that modesty and chivalry are bad things. In fact, modesty and chivalry are both good things. Nor do I think that Christian summer camps are bad things. I understood key points of doctrine for the first time at this same Christian summer camp. But I do think that Christian culture lacks a full understanding of what modesty and chivalry are, and how they relate.

We haven’t defined our terms. It’s that simple.

The code of chivalry stems from the Middle Ages, and it was originally “a moral, religious, and social code of knightly conduct, generally upholding the virtues of courage, honor, and service.” It was created to prevent knights from abusing their power. Since we don’t have knights of that sort today, an updated definition is needed. Chivalry is courage in one’s daily battles and gentleness in one’s interactions with others. I base my definition on C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Necessity of Chivalry,” in which he says that

“The knight is a man of blood and iron, […but also] a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.”

That’s right: he used the word “modest.”

For my definition of “modesty,” I’m not going to impose some kind of Official Standard for hemlines and inseams. In fact, modesty doesn’t have as much to do with clothing as you might think. Modesty is displaying your glory in the right context without excluding others. (Here are two blog posts dedicated to defining modesty, from which I derived this definition.) For example, it would be immodest for a basketball player to dunk on a team of fourth graders. But it would be perfectly fine if the basketball player was participating in a dunking competition among peers.

The thing is, modesty is a part of chivalry, and neither modesty nor chivalry should be confined to a single gender. To be chivalrous, one must be gentle and submissive in one’s interactions with others. That might mean holding the door for someone. That might mean giving someone your seat on the bus. That might even mean leaving your tank top with gaping arm holes at home when you go to church camp.  You don’t have to wear a regular t-shirt–if people are “distracted,” that’s their problem, not yours. But you should look at the context, decide if it’s appropriate to display your body in this way, and make a decision.

So allow me to make this humble suggestion: Instead of teaching pubescent girls to cover up and pubescent boys to hold the door, the Christian community should instill true chivalry in both genders, teaching girls and boys about modesty as a subsection of chivalry. In this way, we will grow a strong generation who can

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

-Ephesians 5:21

What are your experiences with modesty and chivalry? How do you feel about my take on both of them? Let me know in comments!

Want more Theology Thursday? Read all of my Theology Thursday posts here.

Many thanks to Bailey Steger at Ezer. This article of hers, featured on WordPress Discover, was the catalyst for me to write this post. She is an intelligent, insightful blogger who is always ready to continue the discussion in the comments section–check our her blog if you haven’t already!

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P.S. I am out of town this week, so there will be no post tomorrow. After that, I start school, so I will only be posting on Fridays for the remainder of August. Thanks for reading, and see you next Friday!

12 thoughts on “Theology Thursday: Modesty, Chivalry, and How We’re Getting Both Wrong

  1. Oooh, I like your take on this! That being said, I understand the basic logic behind regulating modesty to girls and chivalry to boys. Men are much more inclined to mentally link an attractive girl with the desire to have sex with her. Women, on the other hand, usually desire an emotional connection to be established with a man before sex (and, you know, marriage!). That’s just science. As for chivalry–well, a focus on chivalry in men is a harkening back to traditional gender roles, something very at odds with our society’s focus on erasing any sort of sexual boundaries. And it’s SO MUCH BETTER to teach boys to be chivalrous than to be feminists.

    That being said, I understand how the focuses at that camp could seem hypocritical. Heck, I propably would have gotten irritated with it all, despite my support of their base philosophy. In the end, I think that though it makes sense to stress modesty ESPECIALLY for girls and chivalry ESPECIALLY for boys, you’re exactly right to say both sexes could benefit from being taught to be modest AND chivalrous.

    Fantastic, thought-provoking post!!!
    ~Hermione

    Liked by 2 people

    • I actually think that chivalry and feminism are not mutually exclusive–if you are chivalrous, you are going to treat people with respect regardless of their sex, which is what true feminism is all about! Also, if you can link me to any scientific studies that prove that men have more of a sex drive than women, rather than men simply being less of a target for purity culture, I’d be really interested to see those! 🙂 Thanks for the comment, I loved hearing your perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s clear we’re coming at this from two very different perspectives, as I am not a feminist at all. What is “true feminism”? 4th Wave feminism is about dissolving the differences between men and women, which goes against the Bible in every regard. If you think “feminism” is about respecting women–well, I absolutely agree that women should be respected (as should men), but as modern feminism’s focus is on rendering women to be no different then men, the question must be asked: What IS a women at all? If she is no different than a man, what is the point of her being respected? 4th Wave Feminism demands respect for women while simultaneously stating that women are so strong and powerful they don’t need respect. It’s rather contradictory.

        I cannot find the orginal study I read, so I give you this one instead: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cultural-animal/201012/the-reality-the-male-sex-drive. However, I think we can both recognize that many articles will state the exact opposite pov as this one…and so it really just comes down to a matter of common sense. When you go out in public, do you look men over and think about having sex with them? (I’m not trying to be crass or disrespectful, just trying to make my point, so no offense!)

        ~Hermione

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      • Oh dear… I believe I haven’t defined my terms properly, so I apologize! I’m defining “feminist” as anyone who thinks that men and women are of equal value, deserve to be treated with equal respect, and should not be shamed for either conforming to or going against traditional gender roles (i.e., a woman can be a stay- at- home mom and also enjoy woodworking). I think that there are serious flaws with third-wave feminism, and I was not even aware of a fourth wave– I personally stop at the 2nd wave!
        That said, if we’re debunking science entirely as an authority on this matter, and appealing only to “common sense,” I fear we’re in dangerous territory approaching the illogical. I’d rather look to a higher authority: Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells us that if anyone looks at a woman with lust for her, he has already sinned in his heart. I take these words to heart, so whenever I notice an attractive man, i can appreciate his appearance without

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      • objectifying him. I expect men to put up the same mental shields, because Christ commands us to.
        Thanks for your comment! I am glad that this post is sparking so much great discussion. If you’re interested in this topic, I’d encourage you to take a look at the posts I linked to in my article! 🙂

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      • Okay, now I understand you better. 🙂 Though I do think that if what you stated is your definition of feminism, then you really aren’t a feminist at all. I guess we need a new word, because the word “feminism” is so tainted with different philosophies that it is practically useless.
        I was not suggesting that we “debunk science,” merely that many scientific studies can (and have been) manipulated to fit a specific agenda, and thus render themselves unreliable. I do agree that no person should be made into a sexual object! My point was simply that men and women approach sex differently, and so it’s illogical to assume that a one-size-fits-all solution is enough to solve any problem.
        And thank you for writing such an interesting post!
        ~Hermione

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      • I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, which is fine because you’ve clearly considered your opinion for yourself. I am aware of the negative connotations surrounding the word “feminist,” and that is one of the reasons I continue to use it to describe myself: I think that we need to return to the original meaning of the word, not the subjective thing it has become! 🙂 Thanks for the great discussion!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. orchidsarefascinating says:

    I love the way you worded everything! My favorite thing you wrote was, “Chivalry is courage in one’s daily battles and gentleness in one’s interactions with others.” Then I went and read Modesty 101 on Ezer Rising (totally AMAZING), and I think that “Modesty is displaying your glory in the right context without excluding others” combined with your definition of chivalry is the best way to describe the kind of modesty I believe in. People sometimes ask me why I embrace modesty the way i do and I never knew how to answer. Now I feel like I have the right words!

    Also I have brothers and I totally agree that “neither modesty nor chivalry should be confined to a single gender.” I know lots of girls and boys who supposedly dress modestly, but “display their glory” in the wrong context, and I also know lots of girls and boys who don’t dress “modestly” by other peoples standards but are so considerate and kind in their actions, I believe they are the ones with true modesty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! And I 100% agree with you about the modesty/glory thing– it’s not always about clothes! 🙂 Thanks for your comment, it’s great to get the perspective of a person with siblings of both genders.

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  3. Preach it girl! I wish every pastor and elder would read this post. Actually, every human in American would benefit from this post, because they would either 1: agree with it and reinforce their mindset, 2: disagree with it and gain another viewpoint, or 3: have no original viewpoint about the subject and then begin thinking about the matter logically. Either way brings attention to this subject under a “light of truth” if you will. Thanks for another great post!
    P.S. I had never even thought about getting distracted from the pastor’s crooked tie! That would definitely be distracting! I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that, because he doesn’t usually wear ties! 🙂
    ~ Megan Joy

    Liked by 1 person

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