Originally posted in Rabyd Theologian 2.0 on December 5th, 2009
I debated long and hard about whether or not to use this picture, but it illustrates the current modern debate about public nudity so well … I couldn’t resist using to make a point.
The issues questions on this one are very current. Particularly the issue of women going topless or topfree (depending on who you talk to) in public. When I did my study I paid considerable attention to the issue of women’s breasts and how the Bible views them and if in any way are they connected to nudity. Part 7 of this series I focused on it in particular along with scattered references in each of parts 1 to 12. The issue of physical nakedness I looked at also. Observation over. Interpretation I gave in Part 13 — The Biblical Definition of Nakedness. Now to the second area of application — public nudity.
The Questions for the Christian concerning public nudity:
1. If a woman were to show her breasts in public would it be considered a sin by the Bible?
2. At what point does the Bible consider a person naked physically and thus publicly unacceptable?
Before I begin answering these questions back to conservative ideals vs. conservative tradition:
The traditional ‘conservative’ position I grew up with and which many still hold today in many Christian circles is that a person who displays their body’s skin of inappropriate places was inciting sin and sinning themselves. The problem is the definition of ‘inappropriate places’ has changed over the years. During the Victorian Era any man or woman who showed in public more than their face or hands was considered ‘loose’. I remember during my childhood it is why I always wore pants (no jeans) to church with dress shirts (short-sleeved was OK for boys but not for girls). My teen years saw a few changes — jeans were OK but they better not be tight ones. Girls broke the mold of always having to wear dresses and jeans and slacks appeared in church among the girls. Now to be considered loose in my generation meant you wore tight jeans or a girl showed *gasp* a little cleavage. As time has gone on, I can faithfully observe that women have shown more and more in the church setting as the years have gone by. Just this last summer a woman visiting my church wore a sundress that was well above her knees and showed more than a little cleavage and was sleeveless as an example.
Despite all these changes a couple of things have remained constant. 1) Showing of anything involving the bathing suit (trunks for guys and a bikini for girls) area of the body has been forbidden and 2) For a girl or woman to show too much of her breasts, in particular, to show her nipples in any context would be considered inappropriate. I did hear of a story of one pastor that allowed women to breastfeed without blankets in his church, but let’s be honest this is not an activity that would be accepted in most Christian churches.
Question #1: If a woman were to show her breasts in public would be considered a sin by the Bible?
Short answer — No. The problem Biblically with this notion is that there is absolutely no verse of Scripture that says this. But you say: ‘what about the modesty passages?’ My position on them is posted here. Read it and come back so I don’t have to repeat myself. Simply put these passages do not deal with this question at all but an entirely different problem. In addition there is no verse that connects women’s breasts with nakedness or nudity. In fact the majority of verses that talk about women’s breasts are either neutral about them to illustrate a point or praise them for their appearance or function a symbols of nurturing and motherhood. The few that do place women’s breasts in sexual connotations do not connect them with nudity, nor are do they indicate that a women bearing her breasts would be a sinner. There is simply no way to BIBLICALLY support the idea. In fact it might be said the Bible supports the goodness of female breasts and says nothing of how they are bad. If someone were to ask me to build a case from the Bible to prove that woman should always wear tops in public, I would be at a loss as to how to do it.
Question #2: At what point is a person considered physically naked according to the Bible and thus publicly unacceptable?
Honestly there is only a few verses that deal with this and the definition would be probably anything covered by a swimsuit bottom. Buttocks included. The issue here is that this definition arrived at by observing a few passages not because the Bible explicitly says so. The way Adam and Eve cover themselves and a few verses from the Old testament Prophets lead us to this definition. The problem is there are also verses where prophets are ordered by God to be naked and in public and where David dances naked before God. We may know what physically the Bible constitutes as nakedness but the Bible makes interpretation difficult when determining, if it is always a sin. In the case of Adam and Eve it is a result not the sin itself and in the case of the prophet and David it is actually symbolic of obedience and worship of God. Once again is what real nakedness in light of the whole Bible’s teaching spiritual rather than physical? Very likely.
In short, the Biblical definition of nakedness being spiritual evil as a result of sin, but good is in the context of being sinless makes the issue of public nudity cloudy. It is once again dependent on the consciences of the persons involved. It is more likely to be an issue of culture than a Biblical one and that is something the current ‘conservative’ tradition cannot accept.
Just a note here even though my positions on this fall very much outside the positions of ‘conservative’ traditions, the reality is that I am more conservative than they are because I have followed the conservative idea of the Bible as authority and in looking at it found a position that stands firmly on those ideals. The truth is the ‘conservative’ tradition on this issue has not a single bit of God’s Word to stand on for its authority, but remains purely traditional understandings to uphold a certain religious culture. I am not going to say at this time that its position is wrong or not beneficial, but I am going to say for a group of people who claims to hold no position without Biblical support, they have very little here.
Next: The Biblical Definition of Nakedness and the Issue of Spiritual Life and Ministry in an Increasingly Naked World.