Article ID: JAF0521MK | By: Matthew M. Kennedy


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The owner(s) of one of the more fascinating Christian Twitter accounts tweets under the handle, “IFB Preacher Clips.” IFB stands for Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, a denomination of loosely affiliated congregations that happily embrace the “fundamentalist” moniker and take pride in walking what they call the “old paths.” They are strict King James Onlyists, teetotalers, anti-Calvinists, anxious-bench tent revivalists of the old school. Whoever runs the IFB Preacher Clips Twitter account, however, is no friend of the IFB. The clips featured are generally embarrassing and/or outrageous, particularly when it comes to clothing and hair length. Scrolling through recent posts, one finds IFB preachers decrying long-haired men and short-haired women, men who dress and act like women, and women who wear pants. Indeed, what one should or should not wear and how one ought to cut (or not) one’s hair seems, if IFB Preacher Clips is in any way representative, to take up an inordinate amount of pulpit time during IFB services.

Some recent tweets from the same preacher, Pastor Jeff Voegtlin, address the vexing problem of women wearing pants. In the first, Pastor Voegtlin speaks to a moral dilemma facing some IFB women in the workplace:

Women shouldn’t wear pants….But an employer might come to you and say, you know a lot of hospitals will say to ladies that are nurses, ‘You have to wear pants.’ What do we do?….We can always leave an employee situation, right? It’s not like we’re bound into that situation. And then the other thing we can do there is we can request an accommodation. You are an employee but you’re not a slave.1

It seems that for Pastor Voegtlin, one cannot begin to teach girls about properly feminine clothing too young:

This is an area where I think it does take some discernment, little babies and their, what is it, their ‘sleepers.’ That’s a good word for it if it’s not the right one. I don’t think that it’s wrong, sinful, for a girl baby to have a sleeper on, but I will say that this is an area where you need to have discernment as to how long you let them wear those sleepers, okay. If they can walk around, they shouldn’t be walking around at church in their pant sleepers….This is an area where I would say I don’t know exactly where the line is there, but it is something that we need to understand: what are we teaching that little girl? There comes a point when she’ll know that she’s wearing that type of clothing and she should probably not wear it at that point….It’s a standard, you’re going to put a standard somewhere, and other people have a standard in another spot. And we shouldn’t be too judgmental there. [But] if you say, ‘my eight-year-old is still wearing pant sleepers around,’ I think that’s obviously wrong.2

Notice the language of sin. Women wearing pants is, for Pastor Voegtlin and for the IFB, a sin. This is an interesting doctrinal hill upon which to die because while there are biblical passages providing general instructions and some even quite specific admonitions regarding male and female attire, there is no text forbidding women from wearing pants.

A Principial and Transcendent Commandment

In Deuteronomy 22:5, perhaps the key text with regard to clothing, God tells us that “a woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”3 It is not too difficult to understand how the IFB preacher might reason from this command to the conclusion that women wearing pants is “obviously wrong.” Pants are garments for men, he might say. If a woman wears pants, therefore, she violates God’s law by wearing men’s clothing. She has sinned.

It is important to note, however, that the text, though written in a specific time and from within a particular cultural context, does not specify which garments belong to a man and which garments belong to a woman. The command is principial in nature and transcendent in scope, not culture-bound and specific. That is, there is a universal good to which the command appeals that is not bound to the historical community and context of the people of Israel during the Exodus.

Gender and Sex Inseparably Bound by God

Before going further, and because it does seem that contemporary western people, even some Christians, are confused about these things, it is important to identify the universal, enduring, and transcendent good to which Deuteronomy 22:5 and other texts dealing with male and female attire point. It is stated succinctly in the first chapter of Genesis, verse 27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” “Male” and “female” are not, in Genesis 1:27, identities in the contemporary sense of that word. Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman, did not look within to discover their true sexual selves. Adam’s maleness and Eve’s femaleness were inseparably bound to their physical bodies. After creating them male and female, after all, God commanded that they “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 28).

Whatever we might say about how this inherent difference between male and female, masculine and feminine, plays itself out in history and culture, we cannot escape that the binary difference itself was established by God before sin entered the world and that it is, therefore, good (see Gen. 1:31). Genesis 1:27 presents the difference as essential even to what it means to be made in God’s image. The essential thrust of the text is that God created the human person in His own image and that both the male and the female are constitutive of His image.4

In Genesis 2, moreover, which provides a more detailed description of the creation of humanity recorded in Genesis 1, God, seeing that it is not good for the man to be alone, puts Adam to sleep and from his body, creates the woman. Then He brings the woman to the man and the two are joined together as one flesh. Eve is both Adam’s body and his bride. Jesus points back to this first joining together in Matthew 19:3–6 as not only the first marriage but constitutive of every marriage. When any man takes any woman to be his bride, God joins them together as one flesh, just as He did Adam and Eve. And this mystical union, the apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:31–32, refers to Christ and His Church. God’s purpose in creating them male and female was to provide for the world a living parable, an icon, of the sacrificial love of Christ for His Church and the trusting submission of the Church to Christ.

Just Don’t Blur the Binary Distinction Between Male and Female

Perhaps now it is easier to understand why God does not want men setting out to dress as women or women as men. Any attempt to purposefully blur the binary distinction between male and female does violence to the gospel, the image of God, and God’s created order. This also, I think, explains why Deuteronomy 22:5 cannot be more specific than it is. The male/female binary distinction is essential to our humanity and is thus foundational to every civilization, culture, and nation; but the expressions of this binary will differ from people to people, place to place, and time to time. What might be seen as masculine attire in one time and place might be considered feminine in another. The Scot in his kilt is every bit as masculine within Scots’ culture as the American man in his blue jeans. An American woman wearing blue jeans in 2021 is every bit as feminine as the Englishwoman in her hoop skirt in 1851. And yet the principle — men ought not to set out to dress as women, nor women as men — can be applied across the board.

Legalism

The IFB seems to be engaged in a familiar form of legalism — with at least a 2000 year pedigree — which elevates particular human applications of general commands to the status of divine decree. God, for example, commands Israel to rest on the Sabbath day. He gives some specifics. In Exodus 35:3, for example, He commands the Israelites not to light a fire. And in Jeremiah 17:21 God forbids bearing burdens. But to more comprehensively apply the command to rest, pharisaic scribes added a multitude of requirements, including restricting the number of steps that could be taken outside the home5 and forbidding even plucking a head of grain from its stalk (see Mark 2:23). By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had elevated these regulations, called the “tradition of the elders,” to the status of divine decree. As Jesus said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mark 7:6–7). The IFB, in similar fashion, have elevated a limited, time-bound application of Scripture to the status of revealed law.

Head Coverings?

There are, of course, as IFB preachers will be quick to point out, some passages that do seem to deal with particular articles of clothing and even the length of hair. In 1 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul specifies that women ought not to uncover their heads while praying or prophesying and that men must keep their heads covered. He also tells women not to cut their hair, “If a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head” (1 Cor. 11:6). Paul even goes so far as to ground these commands in the created order, “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:7–9). These instructions would seem to forever and always require women to wear head coverings and not to cut their hair short. There are some still today who read 1 Corinthians 11 in just that way. But even if such a reading were correct (and I do not think it is), it would not give individual churches and pastors the authority to extend clothing and fashion requirements beyond Paul’s words. We could not say: “since Paul commands women to cover their heads and not to cut their hair, they should also not wear pants.” To take that step would be to “teach as doctrines the commands of men.”

But I do not think Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 intended to establish a universal rule with regard to head coverings or hair length. As Wayne Grudem summarizes, “All interpreters agree that head covering was a symbol for something else, and that Paul was concerned about it because of what that symbol meant….Whatever we think a head covering symbolized in first-century Corinth, it does not symbolize the same thing today….The very fact that it does not symbolize much of anything to people today, even to Christians, is a strong argument that Paul would not have wanted us to follow it as sort of a meaningless symbol.”6 In other words, Paul defended a time-bound and particular custom of attire because at the time that custom symbolized a transcendent and universal principle touching on the created order. If there is a reprimand in the passage, and I think there is, it is directed toward those women (and, perhaps, men) who have purposefully set out to discard the symbols as a way of subverting the revealed universal principle.

External Adornment?

Another text to which the IFB preacher might turn to support forbidding specific articles of clothing or fashion is 1 Peter 3:3–4, in which Peter exhorts women, “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” A careful reader, however, will note that Peter does not forbid jewelry and braided hair. If that were the case, the same passage could also be used to require female nudity (with the exception of hats) since one of the three things with which Peter says women are not to be adorned is clothing. At least they would not be wearing pants. Instead of this, Peter instructs women not to depend on external attire as if it were the ultimate source of beauty. A gentle and quiet spirit is, rather, what pleases God.

The error into which the IFB preacher has fallen has, I think, been made manifest. But while the IFB has succumbed to legalism, the Christian must not think that the matter of attire and fashion is morally neutral. It is one thing for women working in factories and fields during World War II to wear for functionality’s sake what had up to that point been men’s trousers, and for pants, subsequently, to become disassociated with masculinity. It is another for a woman to take male hormones so that she can grow a beard. It is one thing for men to wear the Scottish kilt and another for a man to don high heels and a slim-fitting skirt.7

Transgressive and Subversive

Ludovic de Saint Sernin, along with several other designers, has recently set out to push this envelope, designing skirts for men. Reporting the trend, Priya Elan of The Guardian writes, “For De Saint Sernin, the element of subversion appeals. ‘It’s just really fun, I guess, being able to wear something that usually belongs to womenswear, and at the same time keeping the look believable on a man.’”8 Note that word, “subversion.” It’s a common theme. Writing in Newsweek, Sofia Lotto Persio observes, “The heat wave that’s hit much of the western hemisphere this week has highlighted a surprising societal quirk: Men have realized they’re still subject to some of the sexist dress codes that have troubled women for decades. There are still places where men can’t wear skirts.”9 Persio goes on to discuss various times and places within which it has been appropriate for men to wear what we might today call skirts overlooking the fact that in those times and places skirts were normative male attire. The man who wore a toga in ancient Rome, for example, was not setting out to undo dress codes or blur the gender lines. No one would have considered his attire in any way transgressive of the sexual binary.

Likewise, Amanda Hess, writing in the New York Times celebrates a burgeoning men-in-makeup trend, “As these men cake on the makeup, they’re unpacking gender norms, too. The male beauty experts of YouTube and Instagram are not drag queens, performers who use makeup to transform themselves into a heady mirage of feminine excess. Many of them embrace their traditionally masculine features — stubble, beards, bald heads. As Patrick Starrr says in one of his videos: ‘I am a man. I am a man in makeup. And I love makeup so much.’”10

So, What’s the Problem?

This may at first seem rather harmless. It sounds, after all, as if these men are merely expressing themselves, having a little fun, and shocking all the right people (like IFB preachers). They are men and identify as men. They are not trying to be women. So what, really, is the problem? It is true that there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about most articles of clothing and even make-up. It is also true that fashions that distinguish men from women and women from men differ widely from culture to culture and naturally change over time. The Christian is generally free to adapt to and adopt these changes. But the Christian should never purposefully seek to subvert existing gender demarcations. When men set out to purposefully adorn themselves in ways culturally associated with women, or when women do the same, they undermine the divinely established binary between male and female. And since the male/female binary is essential to God’s created order, and since through it God displays His own image to the cosmos and tells the story of Christ and His Church, undermining the male/female binary is an act of cosmic rebellion wherein creatures rise up against their Creator, demanding the right to remake His world in their own preferred image.

The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.

NOTES

  1. Jeff Voegtlin, “Women Shouldn’t Work in Jobs That Require Them to Wear Pants,” IFB Preacher Clips, April 10, 2021, YouTube Video,
    https://youtu.be/lpvs2PmQVcA.
  2. Jeff Voegtlin, “Don’t Let Toddler Girls Wear Baby Sleepers Too Long, It’s Like Wearing Pants,” IFB Preacher Clips, April 10, 2021, YouTube Video, https://youtu.be/KIfDhm9qedI.
  3.  All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
  4. For discussion on whether the singular “man” in Genesis 1:27 refers to the male and thus foreshadows the Genesis 2 account in which God takes the woman from the man, see: Lionel Windsor, “Male and Female: Equality and Order in Genesis 1:27,” The Gospel Coalition, June 20, 2019, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/male-female-equality-order-genesis-127/. The question is irrelevant to the point that the male/female binary is essential to the imago Dei.
  5. This was, in Jesus’ day, an oral tradition alluded to in Acts 1:12 that has since been written and is still observed within Orthodox Judaism. Solomon Schechter and Michael Friedländer, “Erub,” Jewish Encyclopedia, https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5841-erub
  6. Wayne A. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than 100 Disputed Questions (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 2004), 333-334 https://www.csmedia1.com/tbcphoenix.org/evangelical_feminism.pdf
  7. Mark Bryan, Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/markbryan911/.
  8. Priya Elan, “’Super Freeing’: Men’s Skirts Emerge as Pandemic Fashion Trend,” The Guardian, March 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2021/mar/24/super-freeing-mens-skirts-emerge-as-pandemic-fashion-trend.
  9. Sofia Lotto Persio, “Gender Politics: Why Men Are Claiming the Skirt,” Newsweek, June 23, 2017, https://www.newsweek.com/why-men-are-claiming-back-skirt-628539.
  10. Amanda Hess, “Those Lips! Those Eyes! That Stubble! The Transformative Power of Men in Makeup,” New York Times, October 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/19/arts/design/those-lips-those-eyes-that-stubble-the-transformative-power-of-men-in-makeup.html.