Christian cleavage and modesty

I was on a walk this afternoon and got into a rhythm that reminded me of a song, and started humming, keeping time with my left foot, then my right:

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray

"The Good Old Way" | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (

"The Good Old Way" | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (

Not much is known about the song's origins. I had always assumed it was an old spiritual, and it might be, but Wikipedia is a little less assured. It first showed up in 1867 as "The Good Old Way," and some of the lyrics were different--was it "down to the river" or "down in the river?"--but the main idea was there. You go to the river, the place of endless energy and strength, to pray together, to receive grace.

The song stuck in my head after a friend sent me a link to yet another blog post by yet another pastor enjoining women to be modest. At first, the blog's title was "The Problem with Christian Cleavage," which some objected to, and was changed to "The Importance of Dressing Modest." Horrible Oscar Wilde ripoff aside, this saddens me to no end. Dressing modestly may be a worthwhile topic of conversation with a friend or relative, but as the subject of a blog, it's silly. So many people have gotten used to preaching via blog post that we forget that the Holy Spirit rarely convicts us online. In the meantime, my heart breaks for the women who will read this post and assume, because of their chest size or wardrobe choices, they are not welcome at the river.

There are some people who would say only certain types of people are allowed at the river. Up until not so long ago, white and black people in this country were told to go to different rivers, and sometimes they still do. Men get more of the river than women, and rich people drive themselves while poor people walk miles in bare feet to get the river's grace. Women who cover up and dress modestly are allowed to the front of the river, while those who come in yoga pants or cleavage-baring tops; those women have to wait for what's leftover. They will only ever achieve a fraction of holiness, according to some.

But the river, which is the Holy Spirit, whose law sets us free from sin and death, bids us all welcome. And for women who are weary of being told how to be, how to dress--for women who are told their bodies are a source of shame--well, I want to invite you down to the river. I want to be your sister.

I'm at home now, back from the walk, but the song still plays in my head. O sisters let's go down; down in the river to pray. Maybe it is in the river, soaked in the presence of God, that we will finally understand who we are.


  1. Oh the irony of this line:

    “So many people have gotten used to preaching via blog post that we forget that the Holy Spirit rarely convicts us online.”

    On another note, dress and act a certain way and don’t be surprised if you get treated a certain way.

  2. Perhaps, but as followers of Christ, who was not big on jumping to conclusions or stopping at the superficial, we can do better.

  3. Indeed we can and it starts by taking personal responsibility on how we present ourselves.

  4. A confusing article. Is it meant to evoke another blog war of words over modesty? To start a sincere discussion of modesty? Does the author believe in some level of modesty? I am confused by this piece.

  5. There is nothing more pathetic than a goody-two-shoes trying desperately to sound hip, this time by defending people who are too lazy or immature to dress in a way that is natural for their surroundings. If I’m going for a job interview for a professional position in a conventional business, I’m not going to show up in a polo shirt, a baseball hat, shorts, top-siders, and no socks. That’s for beaches and boats, not interviews.

    The writer and her generation need to realize that their “shtick” is retro-late-1960s and is, in its own way, just as conformist as the 1950s. It is not bold, daring, original, or profound… is slavishly conformist.

  6. I hear you. I used to feel ashamed of my body as a kid because I’m pretty curvy and people would be offended by my curves and have me dress like an old women even in church but with time I learned to love myself and realized I may never live up to everyone’s standard of modesty and no matter what I wear I can not stop people from thinking whatever they want. I now wear what I want to wear, what is modest to me because I trust my own judgment. In the end , they’re just clothes. Jesus is more universal than that.

  7. “But the river, which is the Holy Spirit, whose law sets us free from sin and death, bids us all welcome. And for women who are weary of being told how to be, how to dress–for women who are told their bodies are a source of shame–well, I want to invite you down to the river.”

    Women who are weary of being told how to be would gain no respite by going down to the river, if the river is the Holy (emphasis on holy… let that sink in) Spirit; God tells women (and men) who to be, and that God includes the Holy Spirit.

    1 Peter 1:15 – “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.””

    Romans 6:1-2, 15 – “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? … What then, are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

    1 Peter 3:1-5 – “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 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.”

    God, as our creator and master, tells us what to do and who to be. That’s all simply part of being a slave, and we ARE slaves… (Romans 6:17-18) “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

    Slavery to Christ is freedom, because it allows us to escape the bondage of sin and live fulfilling lives in a relationship with God. However, in order to be with God, we must be like him.

    John 3:1-3 – “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

  8. Amen Stephen! “Christians” today want to have it both ways. They don’t want to be told what to do or what’s wrong and right. They want to eat their cake and have it too. Utter nonsense!

  9. Cleavage serves no other purpose than to show off your body. If it’s a hot day, you should maybe be topless. If it’s a cold day, you should be completely covered. The in-between is not very logical. This is why cleavage if indefensible.

    (I’m not saying being topless is a good idea. I’m just pointing out the logic if we were really going to be objective and practical).

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