Does Custom Define Morals?

By F. Maurice Ethridge

When Paul said for women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he surely did not imply that there is only one way for women to dress. Women today, obviously do not dress as women dressed fifty years ago, and women do not dress as they did in Paul’s day. Customs are constantly changing. Today, they seem to be changing faster than ever, because of an alert psychology employed by the garment industries. But, the point is that there is change in custom of dress. People simply do not adorn themselves the same in different ages and in different cultures.

Furthermore, they look back at the clothes people wore in other ages and say, “my, how foolish they look; why did they ever wear that thing?” Or, they might say, “How immodest people used to dress.” If the women of Paul’s day could see the women of today they might think that they were very immodest, or we might think the same thing of them. So, when the styles of clothes change, the judgment of their value also changes. What is “immodest” in one generation may be “modest” in another, and vice versa. And we may say the same thing of different cultures of the world today. What is “modest” in the U.S. may be “immodest” in India. Therefore, two women may be considered modestly dressed in their own cultures and yet each would think that the other is immodestly dressed. Now, the odd thing about all this is that both would be obeying Paul’s command to adorn themselves in “modest apparel.”

The real problem here is this, “Does Custom Define Morals?” Or, we may say it another way, “Is the Christian Moral Standard Relative to the Environment of the Individual Christian?” What would be your answer to that question? One’s cultural environment does come into consideration of what is right and what is wrong for each individual. Probably no one today would say that a woman who wears make-up is “immodest.” Yet, such a woman would have been kicked out of almost any church seventy years ago. Well, which one is right? Neither is right and neither is wrong, depending on the definition of the culture. For example, the covering of the head of the woman in 1 Cor. 11. They would consider the modern woman very immodest, but we do not think they are immodest just because they do not have a veil over their heads.

So, we may say that Custom Does Define Morals–But only to a very limited degree. The Eskimos used to put their old people on icebergs and let them drift out into the warm sea. The fathers are customarily murdered by their oldest son in a native sub-culture of India. This is the custom. The father expects it, the mother expects it, and everybody expects it. The oldest son has sinned if he fails to carry out this custom. If he should become a Christian, could he do this? Customs define morals, but only to a very limited degree.

The limitation is the law of liberty, the New Testament. It commands us not to murder not to commit adultery, not to steal, etc. In some cultures, however, it is customary to do these things. But the Bible says that we are “immoral” if we do them. When there is a conflict between the custom and the Bible, the custom is always wrong. Sometimes SIN IS THE CUSTOM.

It has become a custom today, for women and girls to wear shorts and other articles of clothing, which are designed to give almost full view to every shape and contour of the female form. Fifty years ago it would have been “immodest”, but in our time “its all right.” The standards of modesty are defined by the culture, BUT ONLY TO A VERY LIMITED DEGREE. Are shorts, etc. modest?

Some people may point to some of the tribes of Africa, South America, or the South Pacific, and say, “They wear much less and nobody thinks anything about it.” Native women are only half-dressed by our standards but their cultural environment says that they are modestly dressed. No one in their village may think that they are immodest, because they wear nothing above the waist, but they would be immodest if they should paint their toenails. Does this mean that a grass skirt can be “modest apparel” for some people. We may go a little farther with this logic and say that modest apparel for some may be no apparel at all.

This ought to show that there is a limit to the cultural determination of morals. But, where is that limit? SIN. When you find the dress customarily scanty you also find their morals customarily scanty. You find many forms of plural marriages, as well as customary pre-marital and extra-marital relations. SIN COMES TO BE THE CUSTOM. So “short shorts”, bikinis, etc. are becoming the custom; so is fornication. The only way to check this tendency is by the public records on divorce, rape, illegitimacy, prostitution, etc. How much adultery is not recorded? How many “shot-gun” weddings are there? In our modern American culture, sexual promiscuity is becoming more customary. THERE IS A DIRECT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THIS TREND AND THE WAY WOMEN DRESS TODAY.

Jesus said, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Everywhere we look today, man sees the partially dressed female. Most females want most males to see what they have to show off, and their shorts, etc. are a big help. In the summer-time men may revel in a free burlesque just by going to the lake. Next summer most men will commit adultery (at least in their hearts), thanks to the omnipresent temptation presented by the young American female. Those who do not are either Christians, blind, or to old. Few will be able to resist the temptation, and few women will give them much help. These sweet, innocent little teen-age girls in “short-shorts,” are contributing a major part to the destruction of the morals of our country and the Church in America, because they are helping to lower our standards of morality. If the trend of less and less on more and more continues, we will reach a point when there is nothing on everything. What kind of moral standard will we have fifty years from now? Will sin become the custom? Parents, and young women, this question is yours. You and your children will determine the moral standards of our country and the Church of tomorrow.

Custom defines morals to a limited degree, and that degree is sin. Shorts, etc. are becoming customary, and so is sin. These two things are related.

(Via The Defender; St. Louis, Mo.)

Truth Magazine VI: 3, pp. 4-6
December 1961