The debates about decency and propriety in dressing for women among Christians is not a question of whether the Bible says so, but what the Bible means by what it says.
Several Sundays ago, my family was rushing to church, trooping along with a crowd of worshippers when a church guard, who noticed that my 13 year old daughter was in trousers, stopped us. He said she would not be allowed into the church on that account.
I became numb with incredulity. What major Christian doctrine was at stake to warrant such a stance by a church that is supposedly “international” in its reach?
In another church service recently, my attention was caught by a style of sewn blouses worn by several women. The clinging blouses were cut low and broad at the back. It was like an unspoken display of a variety of female backs: light, dark, fat, thin, and in-between. I caught myself wondering how I would look in one such blouse. Oops!
Not given to such observations in the past, I knew this must be glaring to catch my attention. Or perhaps I was looking at it with fresh eyes, having been away for a while. I became uncomfortable for the sake of the men. But why didn’t anyone care, I asked myself?
In Nigerian evangelical circles, it seems decency or the lack thereof boils down to trousers or the covering of head. This is treated as a core Christian belief such that those who break it are termed heretical in some places and banned from the church.
While that action is a problem in itself, the question I am exploring is: who decides what is decent and appropriate? Is it context, or Scripture, or both?
If culture decides, then the dynamic of culture demands constant adjustments of our convictions. For the Nigerian context, trousers may have been foreign, like hair extensions and make-up, but they have come to stay.
On the other hand, if there are scriptural principles that determine what is acceptable for Christians, then these principles are binding for all Christian women in every culture at every time, irrespective of fashion and styles of the day. Why the fuss about trousers in particular?
In an increasingly global culture, the challenge for the church to go beyond cultural preferences to biblical principles on every matter is urgent. Although culture is important, Christian doctrine must be based on Scripture rather than on culture.
How Important is this Debate?
While most young people have settled this matter for themselves and have moved on to more serious questions about postmodernism and its attending vices; questions that border around core Christian convictions, spiritual leaders are still playing hide and seek (without convincing biblical explanations) on what women should or should not wear.
My concern is, if young people cannot trust that we are being truthful, knowledgable, and open on mundane issues like dressing, how can they trust us on issues that have far reaching consequences for their faith?
Homosexuality, gay marriage, transgender issues, nudism, cloning and genetic engineering, are among many disturbing issues that need urgent attention and answers from Christian leaders—in Africa as in other places.
If young people think that we do not know what we are doing, they may simply act cautiously around us while keeping to their doubts or contrary views—which, I think, is what is happening with the dressing debate.
I decided that a biblical reflection on the matter will be helpful for Christian women who, in the midst of all the noise, are sincerely seeking to know the mind of God concerning their appearance.
Whether in worship together with other believers, or generally in the way they carry themselves in society as holy women, called and sanctified for a meaningful kingdom existence in the world, women must do so from genuine faith, without fear or hypocrisy as men-pleasers rather than God.
What the Bible Says and How it Applies to Us
Nobody doubts that the most important thing about this debate is what the Scripture says on the matter. But a mere reading of Scripture itself does not always translate into understanding the will of God.
Jesus confronted the Jews once with a troubling reality:
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”John 5:39-41
So one can be a diligent student of the Bible and yet miss what the Bible is saying. One can be always learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 3:7).
This is possible because, as surprising—or even alarming—as it may sound, the way we see the world and construct meaning or reality is not directly but indirectly, through so many filters.
When people talk of objective truth as though it is something that is readily accessible, they sound naïve at best. God alone knows truth objectively; we, unfortunately, access it only subjectively, even if we all arrive at the same truth.
Paul says we comprehend the thoughts of God through the Spirit we received from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God (1 Cor. 2:12).
But apart from God’s direct intervention through the Holy Spirit, there are other factors (filters) that could interfere with our understanding of the revealed will of God. One of such filters is human culture (or social orientation).
God does not bypass human culture to reveal himself, why? Because he created us in such a way that our senses (perceptions) and meaning-making function only within given cultures. In this case, culture is critical to understanding God’s revealed truth.
However, how we understand the relationship between faith and culture can constitute a hinderance to understanding what the Bible actually says about a matter.
God first revealed himself through the Jewish culture, yet it was these same cultural traditions, emanating from beliefs and worldview originally based on God’s previous revelation, that became a stumbling block for the Jews, hindering them from accepting God’s further revelation in Jesus Christ.
When the gospel enters a culture, it does not stand on its own as a separate entity. It diffuses into the core of the culture thus impacting its worldview. When Scripture informs a cultural practice, that practice becomes dogmatic and not merely cultural. This is when it becomes binding on Christians.
On the other hand, mundane cultural practices, which may have grown from practical wisdom of living in a particular environment over time, may change with new discoveries, developments, or cross-cultural experiences. Though we are not of this world, we are still living in it and part of the changing cultures of the world.
Now, problems arise when we make culture the ideal which we try to use Scripture to support. When such happens, we become resistant to cultural change on faulty grounds. We then find ourselves lifting verses out of their wider context to support our views. When those verses are confronted with other facts of Scripture, contradictions or inconsistencies ensue.
- Old Testament Laws
Now, to the matter at hand. There is no place in the Bible where trousers, as a style of clothing or fashion, is mentioned.
In Deuteronomy 22:5, Scripture forbade cross-dressing between males and females, a popular passage among those who advocate that women should not put on trousers. Yet, there are questions we must answer about this passage, if it is to remain as a valid argument.
One, there are several laws stipulated in this passage, which Christians do not adhere to today. For example, why do we pick out cross-dressing and ignore cross-breeding? If some laws apply to us today as laws, then all the others should apply as well. James says whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles at just one, is guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10).
Two, let’s assume that it is a binding principle that cross-dressing is wrong. Men weren’t wearing trousers in those times but cloaks and tunics; “gowns.” Fashion has changed since then and men now wear trousers. Today, women’s fashion has also moved on. Not every trouser sold in the market are men’s clothing; there are women’s trousers and men will look ridiculous in them.
So fashion determines what is men’s clothing and women’s clothing. Yes, fashion is cultural and changes with time. Only God knows what men’s outfits will be tomorrow. Besides, there are cultures in which men tie wrappers (e.g., South-Eastern Nigeria, India) and others in which men wear skirts or kilt (e.g., Scotland, East Asia). Insisting that trousers are generally men’s outfit is ignorant at best.
- The New Testament Injunction
The New Testament has presented us with guidelines regarding appropriate dressing, particularly for women. This is where we get our principle(s) for appropriate dressing. Paul said to Timothy,
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”1 Tim 2:9-10
While all these words relate, the standard for measuring appropriateness or decency is modesty. Wikipedia, for example, defines modesty as:
We all agree that there is no fashion called “good deeds,” so Paul wasn’t being literal here. His emphasis, as I see it, is that a woman’s good deeds calls the right attention rather than her physical appearance.
Elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes—a typical church fashion for Africans—are mentioned here, which, to me, exemplify things that call attention to self. No article or style of clothing is picked out as bad in itself.
Decency is not dependent on a particular fashion but on accepted standard of morality. There are decent and indecent trousers, just as there are decent and indecent skirts and gowns and wraps. An excessive exposure or display of sexual appeal by a woman (or a man), for example, is indecent for all Christians, regardless of culture.
If a woman dresses in trousers with the intension of drawing illicit attentions to herself, she becomes guilty of unholy motives just as a woman who wears aso-ebi or skirt or make-up for the same reason.
Peter echo’s Paul’s injunction,
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands.”1 Pet 3:4-5
The overriding principle(s) for dressing we can take from these passages is modesty. A woman must be careful not to be extravagant in her physical appearance with the intent of calling the wrong attention to herself.
Now to the matter of veiling. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul begins his instructions about the covering of head for women by first establishing the issue of authority: the man has authority (the head) over the woman just as Christ has authority (the head) over the Church.
Could it be that his instruction about the covering of head has something to do with marriage? Are all females under the authority of all males or only wives to their own husbands?
There is so much about cultural expectations here. In most cultures of the time, veils were mandatory for married women, not for girls. Veils were symbolic of a woman’s marital status as well as a posture of decorum and respectability.
In that culture, long hair was a disgrace for a man as shaving was a disgrace for women. But women today, especially African women who cannot keep up with hair-dos, shave their hair—in fact, with relief rather than disgrace.
In verse 15, Paul concludes that long hair is given to the woman as her covering. So, is he arguing that long hair is the covering or a veil? I do not presume to know exactly what Paul is saying here, I only want to acknowledge the uncertainties surrounding the passage, which gives room for myriad interpretations.
Churches have their positions on this matter, which is totally okay. Some interpret it to mean that all women (including female children) must cover their heads in corporate worship, some believe that long hair in itself is the covering, some don’t care. Let every church practice what it believes without looking down on another.
My denomination, Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), elects female elders in spite of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which says that a woman should be quiet, should not teach and not assume leadership over a man.
In COCIN, women lead prayers during corporate worship, serve as elders, lead worship, and sometimes preach. But other evangelical churches don’t do that because they understand the passage differently.
Most Euro-American evangelicals who allow women to put on trousers and sit in services with their heads uncovered, do not allow women to play any public role in corporate worship (except perhaps singing). I thank God I am a COCIN member!
Yet there are churches that have gone farther than COCIN to ordain women as ministers. As uncomfortable as that makes me, I cannot pass judgment on the practice because it does not temper with the rudiments of our faith.
The issue of head-covering and the forbidding of trousers did not begin in Africa. These were issues even in the West. It became a “cultural” issue in most parts of Africa because of Islam and the teachings of Western missionaries who brought the gospel.
Is this still a cultural issue today in Nigeria or modern Africa generally? Not so much. Many women, even in evangelical churches that forbid women from wearing trousers, wear trousers to work/offices, to schools and other places, or simply to stay at home. But they will not wear them to church.
If trousers as a fashion is sinful, is it sinful in itself or when it is worn to certain places? If it is sinful in itself then very few women are without guilt. Most wear them for sports, exercises, certain kinds of jobs, or travels.
Whatever it is, let everyone follow their conscience on these matters without demonizing those who think differently. I will not go to church in Nigeria wearing trousers or with my head uncovered. For me, it is a matter of “weak conscience,” because many still have a different orientation on these matters.
Will I speak about the matter when it comes up? You bet I will talk about it and call it what it is: a toothless dogma without Scriptural bite.
Am I advocating that women should start wearing trousers to church with their heads uncovered? I will never do that. Women must strive to be in submission to their own husbands in all matters, to their consciences, and to their church authorities, but they must do so knowingly and willingly, without hypocrisy.
Do I think that Christians should become radical about their positions to the point that they keep women out of churches because of it? No, I don’t believe so. This is evil, and must be challenged.
People come to your church not because of your pastor but because of Jesus. Will he who did not stop a sinful woman from clinging to his feet—to the criticism of Simon the pharisee—stop them from coming in (Luke 7:36-50)?
Wherever people may be coming from or whatever their beliefs, we have no authority to stop them from coming into a church. It is not a cult group, it is a church. Churches can have rules for their members, but should not close a church door at anybody.
I believe that whatever their convictions, churches should back their positions with Scriptures without condemning those who think differently. This way, we will elevate human souls above our personal convictions and respect other Christians who don’t think like us on matters that are not essential to our core beliefs.
Finally, as Paul will say:
Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”2 Timothy 2:19