Would Paul Allow Bikinis?

Derek Ouellette —  May 16, 2012

I admit, I would never wear a bikini. Nope. Never. But I’m a guy. So right away any discussion about what a women ought to or ought not to wear is posed to be lopsided at best, sexist at worse. But the discussion seems to take a patriarchal turn for the worse the moment we impose clothing restrictions upon women for the sake of men.

I’m actually quite passive about this discussion. It has not really come up since youth group days some 15 years ago. But back then bikinis were the more ghastly of the subjects. Even if the girls wore one piece swimsuits that harkened back to the 1940’s, they were still expected to wear t-shirts over top, as were the men.

My wife doesn’t wear bikinis, per se, but she does wear cute two-piece bathing suites that are unmistakably girlie. Her reasons for not wearing a bikini have everything to do with her own comfort level and convictions (this doesn’t make her any less of a “women being a women” I hope). I’ve actually encouraged her to wear bikinis in the past.

I wanted to open this way by sharing this with you to let you know where I’m coming from. I’m not opposed to bikinis or women in them (especially if that woman is my wife). There’s a certain discomfort I feel when guys gawk at my wife of course, and she has expressed that discomfort more strongly than I. But the truth is, sometimes it takes a swimming outfit, other times all it takes is a nice evening gown with her hair done up. Theres no hiding my wife from from the wandering eyeballs of the male human species. She’s a pretty girl and that’s that. (Fortunately my wife doesn’t have to worry about girls gawking over her husband!)

Now on Facebook I shared an article that a friend, Tara, had shared first. The problem with sharing articles that you don’t write is that your views are not usually wholly expressed. That article was opposed to Christians wearing bikinis. In response someone else posted another article advocating – or at the very least, allowing for – Christians to wear bikinis (thanks Amy!). Thus awakens the debates with the lines sharply drawn in the sand. I felt both articles had very good things to say, and I’m going to highlight their strengths below. But I’d like to first point out one negative feature they both have in common:

Both articles assume an either/or posture toward each others position. Either Christians should never wear bikinis because men have a problem, or girls can wear whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want and men need to solve their own dysfunctional physiological issues.

Now before I come back to the problem of taking an either/or position here, I’m going to highlight the strengths of both articles.

Beauty vs. Sexuality: Relevant Magazine

In the Relevant article several features are brought to light which are often overlooked in this discussion. Here are some of the great points the article makes:

“Our contemporary cultural dialogue about men emphasizes the decisive role that biology plays in driving behavior. Evolutionary psychologists, brain researchers and TV doctors regularly produce studies “proving” men are hardwired to be visually stimulated or to cheat on their wives. The emphasis is on men’s helplessness in the face of their own physiology, an emphasis many women find disillusioning and many men find disheartening.”

The article goes on to remind us that the New Testament treats lust as one sin among many whereas the Church tends to emphasize male lust to the status of “first among definitely-not-equals.”

We have created an environment that allows men (Christian men) to succumb to their lustful desires by lobbying the blame to biological impulses which are out of their control (and then blaming women too for wearing bikinis). What we’ve done, in effect (claims the article), is shame men by refusing to take seriously mens ability (in Christ, I’d add) not to lust and in turn we’ve shamed women by blaming the way they dress for men’s lustful activity.

The article then reminds us that women are sexual creatures too, also very capable of lust. But I’d add here that while this point should be granted, we should not minimize the vast difference in level of intensity this battle is for men as opposed to women. Women often minimize that difference on the grounds that since they too have to deal with lust, that men should be able to deal with it just the same as they as though the entrenchment were no different. It’s a claim they can’t make from experience (they aren’t men) and the data contradicts it.

In the end the article superbly reminds us that

“If grace is real, it is strong enough to give us the capacity to distinguish the delight in gazing at beauty from obsessive lust. If grace is real, it is also strong enough to give us the capacity to distinguish between the longing to be validated as beautiful and the longing to cause another person to be overwhelmed by a desire so strong he or she forgets their commitments.

Too often, the Church talks about beauty and desire in ways that suggest the Church doesn’t believe grace is quite that real.”

Christian men are called to overcome, by the grace of God, their lustful desires. The moment we suggest they can’t because of their biological makeup is the moment we cede that grace is not enough. The scriptures call us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If every Christian women in the world stopped wearing bikinis it wouldn’t make a hill of beans for Christian men because 1) non-Christians wear bikinis too and 2) men have great imaginations, capable to leap buildings in a single thought while simultaneously undressing the fully clothed businesswomen walking across the street.

Should Christians Wear Bikinis: Carla Anne

Carla Anne (and this is my first time reading anything by her) has also made some great points that we should highlight.

“I’ve never understood how a girl can shriek in panic if her dad or brother or grandpa comes near her bedroom door when she’s changing, wearing a bra and panties, but then run around in less than that on the beach and think it’s okay.”

I for one find that to be an amazing point, not just for Christians, but for people in general. Question, as a woman, how would you feel if a strange man saw you in your underwear? What if he barged into the changing room while you’re standing in your bra and panties? If you would shrug your shoulders and continue to go about your business like it’s no big deal I’ll give you a pass. But if you would shriek, kick him out, complain to others that a strange man saw you in your underwear, then I have to ask: what’s the difference between someone seeing you in your bra and undies (which usually has more, thicker material than bikinis these days anyways), and when you’re out in a bikini at the beach?

The author goes on to make the point that women should be valued not just for their sexuality, but more so for who they are in toto. She points to studies that have shown that men in general (Christian men aside for a moment) devalue a women who emphasizes her sexual assets. When a man sees a woman in a bikini he sees a tool he can use to get a particular job done. (Unfortunately, as we pointed out above, men are fully capable of see women that way even fully gowned.)

I don’t bring this point up to give men a scapegoat. We just learned the lack of wisdom in that approach. I merely bring this point up only because it’s a general fact. Sure we may shame Christian men by suggesting that they can’t overcome what God has given them grace to do so. But the fact remains, at the very least, that non-Christian men have no desire to overcome their biological makeup (assuming that were possible without the grace of God), and this is one of the most difficult struggles men (yes, Christian men!) face in their lives (yes, they struggle with anger issues yada, yada, too).

The point: At the very least, Christian’s should be mindful of this fact.

Would Paul Allow Bikinis?

The phrase “one another” occurs a little less than 140 times in the New Testament alone by my count (ESV). One of Paul’s primary theological interest was bringing and keeping unity in the Church. This is one of the reasons Romans was written, Galatians was written, 1 Corinthians was written, Philemon was written. That we would sacrifice for the sake of others. That we would esteem others before ourselves. That we would willingly surrender a particular freedom we have in Christ, if it means we would not be a stumbling block for our weaker brother or sister in the Lord. (“Weaker” read: Christian who still struggles with his lustful nature.)

Rather than despise them for their weakness and hail our freedom and independence in Christ, we too should take up our cross for the sake of the body of Christ. We undermine not just a Christ-likeness that we’ve been called to imitate, but a great deal of the heartbeat of the New Testament too, when we fail to “discern the Lord’s body.”

Yet while all of that is true, it is not the whole story. In real life things are more complicated than that. Should we blame women for men’s lustful desires? No! Otherwise, where do we stop? Should they be covered head to toe, perhaps even their eyes (some women have very beautiful and naturally seductive eyes!)? No! I think Paul points the way by offering up a real-life “grey” area issue that I believe parallels this one.

Though the Bible writers usually err on the side of caution, Paul makes a statement in 1 Corinthians 10:25-26 that I think applies to this discussion:

“Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any questions on the ground of conscience. For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

If you know that the meat was sacrificed to idols, as everyone knew, eat up but don’t ask questions because ultimately the meat (which comes from the earth) is the Lord’s. There’s an interesting parallel here. As everyone knew all meat sold in the market in that day was sacrificed to idols, so today everyone knows that a women’s body in a sleek little bikini causes men in general to lust. The conclusion of Paul’s argument seems to apply: The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. Helloooo! The “fullness thereof” means the human body in all of it’s beauty and glory is a part of the Lord’s craftsmanship. Wear the bikini and don’t ask questions.

But the parallel goes further. If you know that there is a weaker brother in the Lord among you (and Paul’s saying, for conscious sake, don’t run around asking!), then you should not do (or wear) anything that will cause him to stumble.

The bottom line is that Christians in particular should be mindful of their context. Be mindful of their actions. And be mindful of the body of Christ.

Earlier I said my wife doesn’t wear bikinis. That’s not entirely true. She wore a bikini once when we were lounging on a beach in Cuba. Of course in that context she was the modest one as about half of the other ladies on the beach didn’t bother wearing their bikini top at all.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Troy Crider

    Thanks for writing this Derek. It does read a bit more balanced than the extremes, and for that, I’m grateful. However, after reading in the end where you say

    “The bottom line is that Christians in particular should be mindful of their context. Be mindful of their actions. And be mindful of the body of Christ.,”

    one wonders about the possible scenarios, context, or settings, in which the voice of the Spirit of Wisdom might lead not to wear bikinis. How would you bring clarity and understanding in regards to that?

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Because this is widely a grey issue I tend to avoid laying down clear laws to the matter. But I’ll suggest two scenarios where I think context would deem bikinis inappropriate: in a setting dominated by Christians who feel it is wrong. To do so in that context would be to incite division where I believe the scriptures would plead with you to abstain for the sake of unity and wear our bikini on another occasion.

      The second scenario I would suggest is if you are with a Christian brother who is weak in the Lord and heavily struggling in that area. Help the brother out not just with your words (“Suck it up bub, I am empowered woman christian who can wear whatever I want”) but with your actions, (“God has given you the grace to overcome this struggle, but I’m not going to make it more difficult on you by wearing this bikini”). This is not holding the woman to fault for the struggles of the guy (as if someone is not allowing a woman to be a woman or whatever), this is a sister in the Lord choosing to help a brother in the Lord with words amd actions.

  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    Derek, this is a good, balanced perspective. I don’t know if you saw my related treatment of the subject last year, but it got me a lot of flak on one particular Facebook thread: To My Younger Sisters.