No, really, I’m serious…
As Christians we shouldn’t take any culture or practice and label it good or evil a priori, but with sound minds and the guidance of the Scripture and the Spirit we should be able to have solid, informed, and convincing reasons for all that we do.
Take burkhas. Seriously. We conservative Christians talk a lot about modesty and the lack of it in American culture. Trust me, conservative Muslims around the world talk about America’s lack of modesty even more than we do and it stains our supposed status as a Christian nation in their eyes.
So, why not have our modest Christian women demonstrate their modesty by wearing burkhas?
The answers that would probably immediately come to mind might run along the lines of “That’s sexist” “That’s impractical” “My wife would never do it” “People would think we were weird” “That’s not very seeker-sensitive”, etc. Sorry, none of those answers hold water in God’s eyes. If something is right, it doesn’t matter the practicality or what others think, we should do it to the glory of God.
Whoa there, maybe there’s the key, the glory of God. Isn’t that how we should structure everything we do? So the real question is “Do wearing burkhas glorify God? Why or why not?”
Sometimes extreme examples are useful to show the “bare bones” of a question—burkhas are simply an extreme example of the use of clothing and “outward adornment” in the life of a Christian woman. Obviously, there are issues that men must consider as well but for clarity let’s confine our focus to women.
There are three major principles to consider in the whole realm of how we as Christians should deal with the physical beauty of women: the principle of the primacy of the heart, the principle of stumbling blocks, and the principle of displaying God-given glory.
First, consider the principle of the primacy of the heart. Simply said, a woman’s (and a man’s) primary focus must be on the cultivation of a Christ-like spirit, must be on her heart. The primacy of the heart is repeated throughout Scripture, from Proverbs 4:23 “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” to Jesus’ description of the Pharisees’ corrupt hearts in Matthew 23:27.
The most direct exposition of this subject is Peter’s oft quoted and oft misused direction in 1Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your beauty be that outward adorning of arranging the hair, of wearing gold, or of putting on fine apparel; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible ornament of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” It doesn’t get much plainer: a woman should be most concerned about cultivating the beauty of her heart, and not with outward adornments and enhancements. (And as many experiences tell us, the woman who focuses on her spiritual beauty often sees an overflow into her physical appearance as well).
So, where do burkhas stand on principle #1? Well, actually quite well. Burkhas ensure that a woman does not focus on her outward appearance, although it must be noted that not devoting time to one’s outward appearance has no relationship to actually devoting time to one’s inward appearance. I unfortunately have met women who spend little time on either their inward or outward appearance. But there is nothing wrong strictly from a principle of focusing on the heart with a Christian woman who wanted to wear a burkha.
Second principle: stumbling blocks. This is a principle that many women do not consider at all, and some women consider very well, but in the wrong way. An important text is obviously Romans 14:13, “Let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.” The application verse in this instance is from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Simply put, a woman who dresses to deliberately get a man’s sex drive racing, to assist him in committing adultery with his eyes is grieving the heart of God. Many Christian women do not consider this when they dress, and unfortunately some women deliberately consider this when they dress and make it their aim.
However, there is more to be considered here than simple rules about skirt lengths. A woman who wants to be provocative can be so in almost any type of clothing, and a man fixated on lust can mentally undress a woman even in a burkha. Both women and men need to use wisdom in this area. But on the whole, there is certainly nothing about wearing burkhas that violates this second principle of stumbling blocks.
So, what are we left with? Is my wife destined to go without a tan for the rest of her life? She is not rescued from this fate by practicality, by feminism, by her own opinion, by the primacy of the heart or by not laying a stumbling block before other men. She is actually rescued by the third principle, one that is not often mentioned or considered in Christian circles.
This principle is the principle of displaying her God-given glory. God has ordained that women’s physical bodies are beautiful: it is a gift He has given them, a blessing, part of the unique way that they reflect His glory. God could have easily chosen it otherwise, but every daughter of Eve has been bequeathed beauty. Although I’ve never heard it quoted in a Sunday School class, William Blake was speaking truth when he once wrote, “The naked woman’s body is a portion of eternity too great for the eye of man.”
Because after Adam’s fall men have a flesh nature, God in His wisdom has chosen through clothing to veil some of a woman’s God-given glory and reserve it only for her husband, to protect men from their own corrupted desires. But the glory remains, and God has not meant for it to be completely hidden. Over and over again, the Bible describes women as beautiful (Rachel, Esther, Solomon’s bride) and never once in anything but a positive manner. God meant for women to be physically beautiful and to reflect God’s glory in that beauty as surely as he meant a rose to be beautiful and reflect His glory. In 1 Corinthians 11:15 Paul says that a woman’s long hair is a glory to her, given to her by God for a covering. I know that physical beauty is not the main exegetical point that Paul was making in the verse, but the point remains that Paul states a physically beautiful attribute was specifically given by God to women
Christian women should not wear burkhas because their physical beauty is God-given and accomplishes a God-honoring purpose when not misused, and it is dishonoring to women and dishonoring to God to completely veil that God-given beauty. That is the true reason that women should not wear burkhas, and strangely enough that is a reason that Islam cannot theologically grasp, because its God intends to be unknowable and does not wish for His true nature and glory to be revealed. The true God wishes His glory to be declared through his creation (Psalm 19:1), and woman, being the last divine creation, is the capstone of His creative glory. He does not wish that glory to be smothered under yards of black cloth, it is not His will that the beauty of a woman be submerged under the weight of a burkha.