Applying the Principle of Gender-Distinct Clothing


Last time, I noted

  1. that gender-distinctness in clothing is a part of the much larger biblical theology of the image of God in man,
  2. that God regards failure to be gender-distinct in clothing as an abomination (Deut. 22:5b), and
  3. that God did not spell out precisely how men and women are to express gender-distinctness in clothing.

Before addressing how to apply the principle Deuteronomy 22:5 to our culture, let me say a word about culture. What I mean by “culture” is the values, perspectives, and practices shared by a group of people. Culture is multi-layered. We belong to national, regional, local, family, church, and perhaps corporate cultures. Culture is multi-faceted. It includes our entertainment, education, work, methods of relating to others, modes of self-presentation, and so on.

There are at least three aspects of any cultural practice we must evaluate when seeking to view it biblically: its direction, communication, and theological character.

The “direction” of a cultural practice involves its history, its present practice, and its future direction.

The “communication” of a cultural practice involves answers to questions like: “Why do the creators and participants say they engage in this cultural practice? What do participants and observers say this cultural practice means? What are the cultural consequences, intended or unintended, of this practice—i.e., what values and perspective are promoted or demoted by the practice?”

With regard to what observers may think about what we are doing, Paul enjoins us to consider three groups of people as we follow Christ: the Jew, the Greek, and the church of God (1 Cor. 10:32). The “Jew” was the unsaved monotheist with deeply held conservative values. The “Greek” was the unsaved pagan polytheist, who nonetheless had ideas and values about what is appropriate and what isn’t.

The church of God included all true believers, whether weak or strong in their faith. Paul commands, “Don’t give offense” to any of these groups of people, even in matters as mundane as eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). Rather, we are to seek their profit—for the unsaved that would be their salvation; for the saved that would be their edification (1 Cor. 10:33).

The “theological character” of a cultural practice is determined by asking questions such as, “What theological truth and/or error lies at the root of this practice? How does this practice reflect love for God and for others? If Jesus’s values were applied to this practice, how would it be different? To what degree are its direction and communication in harmony with Scripture?”

Without careful attention to all three of these components, cultural analysis is easily skewed either in favor of what is traditional or in favor of what is popular. My best effort to analyze these three components of clothing trends over the last century in America has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. Direction: In America, prior to the 1880s our culture was monolithically gender-distinct in its clothing. The trend of the last 120 years has been unisex and seems now to be “any sex—your choice.” These are trends Christians should reject. God desires us to be visibly gender-distinct in our clothing.
  2. Communication: The cultural authors and early adopters of women wearing pants were unapologetically opposed to any form of men’s clothing being off-limits to women. Contemporary cultural observers (social critics, fashion designers, feminist ideologues) say that pants on women still communicate masculinity and power, despite its near universal adoption by women. This surprises me. I wonder if ads like Dockers’ “Men Wear the Pants” reflect a desire for unambiguous masculinity, even in clothing.
  3. Theology: A rejection of God’s plan for gender distinctions is one error which helped spawn our culture’s rejection of gender-distinct clothing as a value.

When a culture retains gender-distinctness in clothing as a value, and replaces one form of gender-distinct clothing for another, then a Christian is free to adopt the new style without compromising the biblical value of gender-distinct clothing. Our culture has not retained gender-distinctness in clothing as a value and has not sought to replace the old norm (pants-dress) with a new norm that honors that value.

Originally published in the  Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).