A post over at Generation Cedar entitled Feminine Modesty Can Be Fashionable got me thinking about the modesty issue in dressing. I love clothes. And shoes. And hats. And belts. And scarves. I love dressing up. I love wearing jeans and skirts and dresses. I love wearing makeup and jewelry and all kinds of miscellaneous things. I love experimenting with all kinds of different things stuck together. Sometimes I like sophisticated and elegant. Sometimes I like casual and laid back. Sometimes I like a little flamboyancy. I would happily wear every single outfit Miss Kelly took the time to add as examples of what she believes is both modest and pretty (pictured on the blog post linked to).
What I love more than all this, though, is God.
And honestly, I hesitate to even write that because I’m not very good at love and I suspect that I don’t even know just what it means to really love God fully with my whole being. But I’m trying and so I hesitate but I still say, I love God more because I desire to do His will more than I desire to do my own will. Even if it means re-evaluating the wardrobe.
But now I arrive on this oft-asked question: What on earth is modesty? And that is where the post I linked to at the beginning comes in. I think Miss Kelly did a fabulous job with that issue.
And to that I would just like to add some specific thoughts of my own and what better way than to tell you a little bit about where I come from?
Some of the people who read here come from the same kind of cultural background as I did and so the rest of this post will be old news to them, but some have no clue about the kind of people I come from. So I offer my own perspective on the question of modesty with a little background thrown in first just for you. Or a lot. Probably a lot because I ramble…..
First, no rules – that’s my rule. I dislike rules when it comes to anything religious. In particular, I despise laws when it comes to dressing. I dislike strongly when mankind makes up rule after rule after rule, supposedly directly from the word of God. The reason why I feel that way is because I have seen how very easy it is for those rules to be based on very select few scripture verses that ignore the most important three rules of scripture quoting: context, context and context.
So then, it is time to give you a little context!
I come from a sect of Mennonites known as the Old Colony Mennonites. They can be found in many different countries, and the degree of strictness with which they adhere to their ‘laws’ vary somewhat from one settlement to the next. In Canada and America they live among the general population and subscribe in extremely varying degrees to the Old Colony dogma based on the particular personalities and preferences of the individual persons and families in question.
In other countries, though, particularly in Central and South America, they are completely segregated, having obtained large tracts of land where they have established settlements of exclusively Old Colony practicing persons. While they are subject to the laws of the land, they nevertheless have their own ‘laws’. In one such settlement was my home as a child. My parents, though raised in that same tradition and groomed with the same ‘laws’ and practices, nevertheless had questioning hearts and weren’t entirely sold out to the whole thing.
When we moved two countries away and not among a settlement of strict Old Colony adherents, they did not bother continuing on in the tradition whole-heartedly, though many things remained, and remain to this day, part of our family. After all, we’re talking many generations here. Mennonite is now a gene fused into my genetic make-up, I think. *Smile* No, but we do not, cannot, throw all that we are and all that has made us who we are away. Our histories are the reason we are the people we are today.
You are dying of curiousity, are you not? The manner of dress? The men wore overalls made of black, or very near black, materials with button shirts of various colours underneath. They were permitted short sleeves. In some settlements it was also permitted for men to wear slacks of the same colour range as the aforementioned overalls.
The women wore these curious looking dresses that I to this day do not understand. In countries with tropical/sub-tropical climates, they must wear black or dark coloured dresses (flowery designs were permitted and in some settlements it was okay to go a little lighter in shade) that had to be constructed in a very specific style. Long sleeves. A cape-like design over the bosom – from the neck to the waist. The most insane part, I always thought, was that (while not mandatory, as far as I know) it was customary for this to be all double-lined. Talk about hot! I hated it and would secretly put on my brothers clothing whenever I thought I could get away with it for a little tree climbing, forest exploring romp.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is a photo of the typical garb worn by these women:
Oh, I forgot to mention that they are also required to wear head covering after marriage. Black, naturally. And an apron type garment to cover the front of the dress. Although that is optional. But it would be black if you wore it.
If it sounds like I despise those clothes, I do. But not for the reason that I think they are ugly and unfashionable. Although I can tell you that they don’t really appeal to my particular sense of style either. But that is not what I have against wearing them. It is because when I questioned the reasons for wearing them the answer was that that was always, and will always be, the manner of dress for us because that is what God wants us to wear. We sin by wearing anything else. That is the thing I despise. Saying God said something that He never said.
God has things to say about modesty. He has things to say about all of life. We do well to listen. But modesty, first and foremost, is an issue of the heart. It is the wearing of the Spirit of God in our hearts and then it works itself to outward expression. Modesty being one expression. That does not happen by itself, of course. We have to do our part as we do in any other area of life.
I, being the character I am, got disgusted with an answer that had no backing. Because I could read and I did not find clothing style descriptions that will get us into heaven in any part of the Bible I read. I did, however, find accounts of men wearing robes. Why didn’t the Old Colony men wear robes since that is clearly biblical? I asked.
Same went for jewelry. It was absolutely and unequivocally forbidden. Thou shalt not wear jewelry. In the day thou doest put on such a sinful knicknack thou wilt be ex-communicated and wilt surely be tossed into hell with Satan himself.
Or something like that.
And yet, if I read the Bible, there is plenty there to suggest that the wearing of jewelry is not prohibited. There are instances where it is used in a context of good, and other instances in the context of evil. It is a thing, not possessing good or evil of itself but behaves as a human person directs it to behave. The same can be said of any other thing, no? A computer? Money? A pen, even! Think of the damage one could inflict with a pen! A most fearsome and unholy object! Why, I’ve positively vomited vitriol all over a nice and pristine sheet of paper a time or two. Away with the pens! Is it not laughable in it’s proper context?
I know where the practices come from and they come from admirable beginnings. If you don’t know where they come from, search it out yourself sometime. Fascinating. Makes me proud of my Mennonite heritage. Just not the soiled mass of religious grief I was left with after many generations of forgetting the moorings. Forgetting GOD.
My questioning happened mostly after we left the settlement and lived in the western culture. But we kept the practice of dress for sometime because ‘that’s how it’s always been so that’s how we’ll always keep it’. That is the standard response to any question asked of any practice within this sect of Mennonite. Because…. nobody really knows. Well, that isn’t true. But the majority of them have zero idea why they staunchly practice a religion that consists of universal and unbending rules, emptied of the Living God generations ago already.
There’s religion without God; rules without grace; life without hope; and dresses in various shades of almost black with giant flowery prints for the daring. For an example of this mindless conformity to such empty religion I bring to you the description of the wedding ‘ceremony’. It involves black. Lots and lots and lots of black.
It looks like a funeral. It sounds like a funeral. It feels like a funeral. The bride wears black. The groom wears black. The congregation, if they are good Old Colony adherents, wears black. Why? Well, because that is how we have always done things and so that is the right and GODLY way to do things! Oh, and we will always keep doing things just so.
But where does this practice of the gloomy wedding come from, really?
It’s a long story that starts with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500′s but basically it goes a little something like this (in Ellie style*):
In the days of old – long, long ago – when there was persecution of the Mennonites in Russia we were forbidden to continue on in our Mennonite convictions and practices for fear that we would take over the country. So no more weddings of Mennonite to Mennonite. This was a problem, since Mennonite boy met Mennonite girl and fell in love, time and time again. So we did something totally sneaky. Whenever there was a funeral, they would simultaneously marry off these love lorn Mennonites. As it turns out, then, it has zero to do with any kind of Bible mandate whatsoever and is just a continuation of our rebel days. I used to
sit through these lengthy Old Colony wedding ‘ceremonies’ and ponder on how very much it felt like a funeral instead of a marriage celebration. It made me laugh when I learned that that is in fact the origin of these weddings. No wonder they feel so downright gloomy!
That was much longer than I planned for it to be. Basically all that meandering prose to say just a few things, mainly that I believe modesty is an outward reflection of a heart that is in total submission to God and that modesty is a principle not a law. A principle is true for all time and all people equally but is fluid in application within the confines of God’s commands. A law depends on context and culture. Principle, people, principle.
Having spoken less than favourably about the Old Colony Mennonite population as it is in modern history throughout this post, I feel that I need to leave you with a very clear bottom line – generally these things are true, but different settlements have a different overall feel to them based on the actual people and the leadership within those settlements. Not everyone who comes from the Old Colony background will have experienced all of this to be true in the community they lived in, or any of it as the case may be. The origins of the Mennonite history? That is a wonderful and admirable heritage I am happy to call my own. Just to be clear.
*I have had a sporadic relationship with digging up the Mennonite history so not every detail may be in the right order and I apologize if that is the case.