Immodesty Rail: An Introduction

Click for source.

I’d like to start a regular feature here about the concept of gender roles within the church, and how they affect us, why they affect us, and how they ought to affect us. I intend for this to be primarily a discussion, and I ask that you engage these posts by first laying down your assumptions. Please be willing to read these posts on their own terms, and then compare them with what you believe after you read them. I would also love to get topic suggestions and questions from my readers to address in future posts.

I’ve had this idea for over a year. It’s been kicked around with my sister, with my husband, with my friends, all in various shapes. I’ve sat on it so long for fear of losing my passion for it, for fear of processing it for myself and finding my need to write about this wane as I grow firm in my beliefs and move on. And for fear of how it will be received.

But I haven’t been able to move on, to burn off my passion with a few months of talking in private. Instead, the number of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues has grown steadily. I’ve become aware of a deep communal need to sort this out in my generation of Christians – those largely raised in the church and coming into adulthood with a unique mixture of earnestness and cynicism. I’m not alone in needing to talk about this, and I’d like to open it up on my blog to enable other Christians to discuss it as much as they need.

Before I continue, I must lay down a clarification of purpose. This blog happens to be written by a woman, but it is not a women’s blog. I’m writing for Christians, in general. I find that the young men of my generation are often just as perplexed and discouraged by these issues as the women are, and need to discuss these things equally.

I’ll get things going with the first real post for this feature later on in the week; in the meantime, I should clarify my personal biases.


Most of you know I was raised in a fairly patriarchal homeschooling family, and there were a lot of positives as well as negatives from that experience. I was also part of a cult-like church which emphasized strongly that a woman’s highest calling [read: any other life pursuit is looked down on] was to be a wife and mother and make a home for her family. I was the only one of my graduating peers in that church who went out of state for college, and I was one of the few girls of that group to say that I wanted a career and I wasn’t sure if I’d be a great mom one day. (I’m sure the reality was much, much more diverse than this, but it was my perception of things at the time and it reflects, I suppose, the intense loneliness I felt in that group.) I was also one of the few girls interested in questions of theology and doctrine, and often resented that I was a girl and therefore couldn’t go to seminary.

These experiences, among other things, created in me a sensitivity to gender expectations within the church. This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I pushed back against this, asking him why, if he could trust that God was speaking to and leading me to change churches, couldn’t he also trust my discernment in regard to my boyfriend’s character? The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).

I couldn’t believe it. My dad never meant to treat me badly, but the assumptions he was acting under were based on the teachings of the church we were part of for my teen years, and that church had been a place that (for us) fostered serious spiritual abuse. Challenging his assumptions brought our conflict to these terms: I had to prove (using verses from the Bible) that my beliefs regarding my spiritual independence from my dad’s authority was biblical, and then he would be willing to agree to disagree. This is very typical of us – our relationship has always been based in mutual respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, and still is. So, I took him up on his terms. I pulled out the concordance and the Greek lexicon and I drafted 5 sloppy pages on why I thought his interpretation of various verses, especially the NASB translation of 1 Cor. 7:36-38, wasn’t accurate, and responded with my own set of verses and commentaries to justify my spiritual emancipation from him. [As an aside, I have come to the conclusion that these sorts of hunt-and-peck use of verses as proof texts for this and that grey area issue is an abuse of scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.]

This was a highly painful season for us. He felt rejected, I believe (which was never my intent), and I felt manipulated and unloved (but he never meant it this way). It was painful and stressful and I probably misremember t0 my own benefit.

This interaction brought to my attention, once again, the reality: in the church circles I was raised in, women are expected to defer to men, and there are significant social and relational consequences if they don’t.

Finally, two other things occurred to push me over the edge into “accidental feminism” or, really, a state of heightened awareness of the church’s messy relationship to gender issues:

First, I was attending a little Presbyterian church for a while during college, and one Sunday they were short on ushers. I heard about this and offered to help for the service.  The ushers functioned as the greeters, the distributors of the offering plates, and they also passed out the bread and wine during communion, row by row to the congregation. I was told that they’d rather go without than have me help–I was female and they didn’t want a woman distributing the elements. I was shocked. I wouldn’t be preaching; I wouldn’t be sanctifying the sacraments; I would just be handing a basket of wafers down the row, then a tray with little juice cups. But because I have a vagina, I wasn’t allowed to help.

The second thing was this: I was fighting with spiritual dryness and decided to sit down to reread the gospel and epistles from the apostle John, in an attempt to see Jesus at his most relational. Reading through these books took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was stunned by my reintroduction to this Jesus. Coming to these passages deeply empty and under significant emotional distress about the situation with my dad allowed me to come to these pages with new eyes. And I realized: Jesus loved women. Jesus didn’t treat them like the rest of society did at that time. He took them seriously, he interacted with them without shame or superiority, and he made them significant members of his entourage, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. I saw that the way Jesus treated the opposite sex was nothing like how the church was dealing with gender issues, and certainly nothing like what I was experiencing from the church as a woman. Furthermore, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t really line up very well with the ideals for “masculine Christianity” as posited by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Stephen Altrogge, Douglas Wilson, or John Piper. And then I knew that, if the church is to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, these things would have to change.

So this English major (who was also in the middle of an honors seminar love affair with Jacques Derrida), began to reconsider all her assumptions about what the church had taught her about sexuality and gender, and revisit all the proof texts for these issues with fresh curiosity for context, audience, linguistic implications, authorial intent, etc.

Now, I’d like to take this personal study of mine public, and explore individual issues relating to the Bible, gender, and the church along with you.


A word of clarification regarding the title (with thanks to David for coining it!): this snarky turn of phrase refers to the modesty panel/modesty rail in the front of the first pew in most old-style churches. This panel derived from times when churches weren’t heated and parishioners needed the paneling to contain heat in the winter, but evolved into what it is today because of shrinking skirt lengths and concerns about peeping toms in the choir. Or something like that. I’m a born-and-raised Christian kid. This is my front-row perspective and I’ve decided to stop holding back on what I see.

I chose “immodesty” because I am deliberately drawing attention to grey area issues in the church, insignificant compared with the gospel and the creeds, but pertinent to most people and frequently ignored by the privileged. Immodesty, as my dad says (quite well, I think), is “drawing undue attention to oneself.” In homage to With apologies to Flannery O’Connor, I hope to draw “large pictures” for the blind that they might see what is before them – both the positive and the negative. I will draw magnified attention to these issues for the sake of those working through them, and for the sake of those who don’t yet realize that these issues are worth consideration. Furthermore, I think it’s funny that one’s awareness about this issue often starts with questioning traditional modesty teachings.

I also chose the word “rail” with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: women with controversial or non-conformist opinions are often accused of being “shrill” or “emotional.” A shrill tirade used to be synonymous with “railing” at someone, and while I intend to be reasonable and calm, I am sure that my discussions will be called rants. So I’ll just take the liberty of truncating that: here I will reasonably “rail” about issues pertaining to gender in the church, and I might get a bit exaggerated with it to make a point. So gird up your loins! We’re going to start with the topic of modesty and lust later this week. Okay, I’m done with the cutesy puns.

Do you have ideas for topics to discuss on Immodesty Rail? Email me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.

19 thoughts on “Immodesty Rail: An Introduction

  1. [Comment is written from a woman’s perspective]

    Hm. Interestingly enough, I read this post just at a time when I was attending (for two weeks) a Free Presbyterian church. I will not deny the fact that I felt positively stifled during my time there.

    However, bringing no opinions or former assumptions to the table whatsoever, I’m forced to say that while I generally agree with a good deal of what you post on here, I think that you are incorrect in thinking that women should have a different role in the church than that which is theirs already.

    I think I understand why (although I don’t know exactly what my opinion is on the subject) they wouldn’t let you pass out communion. It’s a role of leadership (however small), and leadership is supposed to be taken by a man.

    I’ve struggled fiercely against anything and anyone who ever has tried to tell me that I cannot do something, or that I have to do something. I feel as though I was dangled over hell by a rotting stick yesterday (Sunday, at church), and my chosen career threatened.

    Nevertheless, much as my proud, stubborn, fiercely independent spirit fights against such slights or disadvantages to my sex, I’d still say that I think you take “feminism” (your definition of it), a bit too far.

    I don’t think that women should be put down, put in their place, or meek little church mice. But I do think that God clearly defined a woman’s role in the Bible, and that we should hold thereto.

    Perhaps I’ll post a more substantial comment when I’ve gotten my thoughts collected more.

    Thank you for giving me some food for the mind. I find your posts intriguing and thought-provoking.

    1. Hi dear. I’m glad you’re reading, and thanks for commenting. I’m afraid, however, that you’re reading into this post things I haven’t said (very deliberately, in fact!). I haven’t defined what I think feminism is or how it relates to the Bible, and I haven’t said how I interpret what the Bible says about gender roles…yet. I’ll get there and I’d love to have you read along with me. Just don’t jump to conclusions I haven’t put forth! 🙂

      1. 🙂 Okay. I was mostly basing my comment on knowing you and…I may be wrong, but I was pretty sure I’d read something similar to this/on a similar subject on your blog before. Probably I misremembered, however. It’s great to read your blog – you are very insightful.

  2. *gasp,* you said “loins!” That’s not very modest!

    All joking aside, I will follow this closely. I have become rather interested in feminism of late, and to what extent its insights can be embraced by one such as myself, given that I have not yet been able to shake my more conservative interpretation of a couple of the relevant passages.

    Question though: you say, “The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.” Does this mean that Scripture is not relevant at all for answering ethical questions, or just that we should not apply it in a proof-texting fashion?

    1. Hi Jamie! Good to have you join us.

      I figured I’d get called out on that – it’s not a complete statement of what I think scripture is/is for. As you supposed, I’m arguing against using it as a mere proof text for our pet moral causes.

      Aside: I’m just now reading N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Have you read it?

      1. Well, Wright is a New Testament scholar and I am an Old Testament guy, so I wouldn’t be interested… Seriously, though, I want to read several things by Wright at some point, but my reading schedule is pretty heavily dominated by assigned seminary reading at this point. Some day…

        1. I wasn’t sure. This book is really wonderful so far – hitting on ideas I’ve half-thought but not finished, and helping to reconcile for me my heritage as the daughter of super charismatic fundamentalism and my own personal inclination toward lit crit and the academic approach. This is a huge deal for me personally.

          That said, I’ll probably be employing a good deal of his approach to the Bible in this series, which is why I mention it. If you want a good overview, Rachel Held Evans did a book club style series on it a while back.

      2. I agree with the central point of Evans summary: it is good to remember that a personal God stands back of Scripture breathing it out, and that Scripture testifies to the person of Christ. That said, I know that some theologians (e.g. Karl Barth) try to take that principle to some places I am not comfortable going, so I am curious how Wright unpacks it. Maybe I will have to stray from my assigned reading sooner rather than later.

  3. I love it! Considering events in my adult life, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this perspective and its relationship to victimizing women. I was raised ignorant of many sexual behaviors and identities, and I think that has impacted me negatively as I try to socialize in adult society. Much of what I was taught (or taught to ignore) as a child ties directly into this topic.

  4. I will read everything you post. And, I anticipate learning quite a bit. Having hashed out gender issues within the church at least 25 years ago, I wonder how much your journey will match up with mine. I will also enjoy seeing the differences in our process.

  5. Hey everyone! I’m loving the topic suggestions I’m getting in my inbox. I’d love to get some more male-specific topics if you can think of them. Thanks!

  6. “This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband.”

    I found this a little confusing, especially with how use used the word “pressured.” Did you not want to marry your boyfriend, but your dad “pressured” you to submit to his discernment and you married your boyfriend? I don’t think that’s what you meant.

    “The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).”

    I once was friends with a single woman from a different church who explained to me that single women has the covering of her father, but since she was away from home her covering was the pastor. The pastor was like a substitute father. I had to meet the pastor and get his approval to be friends. This woman held a very responsible position as a nurse in a major teaching hospital. I wondered why this woman who is trusted in making decisions in caring for others needs to defer to her pastor to make decisions for her?

    1. I was vague for a reason, but I suppose I can clarify. Dad didn’t like that there were certain “grey area” issues that we took on terms of Christian liberty, and he took on terms of “fleeing the appearance of evil” and my decision to disagree with him on these points was seen as rejecting his authority. I would argue that my decisions were my own, as an adult Christian, and he disagreed on certain elements of that. The pressure was to break up/change our position on these issues, as a couple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *