What does the Bible mean by gender-based clothing?

Evan Plante

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A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a man wear women's clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. Deuteronomy 22:5, NIV
Not too long ago, respectable women didn't wear pants. Now, women are as likely to wear jeans as men. Even beyond that, parents are letting boys wear dresses, and men are wearing make-up. In other countries, men wear long robes, and in the military, often uniforms are uni-sex. How do we apply the biblical mandate for gender-based appearance in today's world? And is it a matter of local culture or God's word as illuminated by the Holy Spirit?

It is true that we must continually weigh the pressures of culture against God's word (which the Holy Spirit illuminates), but there are mitigating factors in the world that remove this question from the "either/or" category. The true answer is more complicated, and it lies in the methodology of interpreting the Bible ( exegesis), but it is further complicated by the fact that the Christian culture — as opposed to the Bible itself — can be seen as insisting upon certain specific behaviors which the Bible does not mandate.

For example, the USA has many fundamentalist pastors who act as if their dress codes came down from Mount Sinai — and some insist that women always wear dresses (and never wear slacks or trousers). But the Bible does not teach this. This is merely a cultural preference that is propped-up by Bible-flavored. Never allow this type of thing to "suck you in." We need to let the Bible speak first — and in the context of its original culture. Only then may we understand what it is saying to our culture, and only then may we bring it forward as God's word. Let us look at Deuteronomy 22:5 as an example.

Does this verse (and/or its context) specify the particular clothes that one must wear? No, it does not. Neither the verse nor the context speaks of specific garments — let alone speculate on the garments that might be worn in future millennia! What does it teach then? It teaches that the way we dress should never cause confusion in identifying one's gender. Furthermore, this verse is located in the context of other verses that teach separation as an Old Testament mandate (which will become New Testament teaching — 1 Peter 1:14-16). One could legitimately expand, then, and teach: maintaining an overt separation in the appearance of men and women points to God's desire for his people to separate themselves from the world (2 Corinthians 6:17).

As you can see, we must take that idea forward, not the details, and it is the idea that travels across time and across the standards of dress in all cultures. As such, it does not matter that in different parts of Africa that men do not wear trousers, because the burden for the Christian is to perform God's ideals in a culturally effective way...and in whatever culture we find ourselves. God never intended that the ancient garments be copied and worn by believers thousands of years later. If this were true, we would all be wearing robe-like garments and not culturally appropriate attire. Indeed, only the priests wore trousers at that place and time! But even the flintiest fundamentalist pastor wears trousers today — and he does this in spite of the fact that the Bible neither models, recommends nor condemns them for non-priestly attire.

This is why I cannot accept the premise that we were pitting the Holy Spirit against the culture. Every Christian believer lives within a culture — and it is within that culture that we must serve. We do this by understanding God's word in its original context and then interpreting his precepts as faithfully as we can for our contemporaries. This requires being faithful to the original word of God...but being faithful to his word does not require being brittle with its details. Details in the Bible are like physical archaeological artifacts: they have value within themselves — but as artifacts. Their purpose is to teach. It is wonderful to let God's truth consume you, but never allow yourself to be consumed by the details of his true accounts. They point somewhere else — that's their job. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul was very concerned that men and women maintain their gender identities. Paul wanted men and women to play their traditional roles in society because male headship symbolizes the headship of Christ over his Church — which is the central relationship in our age. Therefore, until Christ comes back for us, we are to behave in certain ways to best communicate this truth: We must remember his sacrifice in the Lord's Supper, and we must continue in our separate male and female societal roles until his return. Please note, however, that Paul was not saying that women were intrinsically inferior. He knew better than that.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28, NIV, emphasis mine

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Published 8-18-15