When you think of modesty, what do you think of? For some strange reason I think if you ask most American Christians, it’s likely that the only thing that will come to their mind is the level of sexuality of women’s clothes.
Chances are when you read this headline, some vague, fleeting images of teachers measuring young girls’ skirts with a ruler floated through your mind.
Modesty certainly has applications for the way that we dress, and so we will talk about that in this post (gulp), but modesty is about so much more than clothing.
It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that modesty is a virtue that is close to the heart of the Christian faith. Achieving modesty involves battling pride, vanity, and the temptation to boast. It renounces the attitudes that are the most hostile to the Christian faith and encourages us to follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The aim of this post is to disentangle modesty from clothes, describe how the Bible presents the issue, and to then see what application it does have to how you choose to dress as a Christian.
Jesus was modest
Probably the best description of immodesty is the modern phrase “if you got it, flaunt it.” It’s likely that there was never anyone who ran counter to that statement more than Jesus.
No human being has ever had more to flaunt than Jesus.
Jesus literally created everything (John 1:3).
Not only that, but he is continually upholding it all by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).
Jesus is the only human being to live his entire life without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Oh and by the way, since in modern America wealth is the top measure of social status, Jesus was rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
But despite being the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus took on human flesh and was born into this world through a peasant family.
His adoptive father was a carpenter, a path that he apparently followed at least for a while (Mark 6:3).
His glory, which before his resurrection he only revealed to Peter, James, and John, was concealed by an appearance which had “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Instead of coming demanding to be served, he came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45).
For Christians modesty is important because we are trying to become like Jesus, who was modest.
Modesty, Propriety, and the way we Dress
Our understanding of modesty from the Bible so far has not been from the Bible using the word “modesty,” but rather from an observation of how that English word relates to a virtue found in the life of Jesus.
In actuality, the word modesty hardly appears in the Bible: depending on how you count it, it could be as few as once.
The occurrence is in 1 Timothy 2:9, which does have to do with how Christian women should dress. Here’s the verse:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works
1 Timothy 2:8-10 (ESV)
I say that this might be the only time that the word “modesty” appears in the Bible because this is the only passage that the Greek word aidos –which gets translated “modesty” in the ESV– appears in. Now, language isn’t a cut-and-dry thing where each word in one language only has one equivalent in another language. In this case, there are three very similar words in this one verse that all have ideas that are at least somewhat similar to the idea of modesty. In the ESV these Greek words are represented by “respectable,” “modesty,” and “self-control.” Interestingly, the King James Version actually translates the Greek word kosmios –“respectable” in the ESV– as “modest.” That word also appears in 1 Timothy 3:2 where Overseers are required to be “respectable.”
In any case, the presence of three closely related terms indicates that this is a critical passage when it comes to the issue of modesty in relation to how to dress.
What is interesting right off the bat is the fact that it starts with instructions for men to behave, and then transitions into how women should behave — and the two sets of instructions are different. Surely both sets of instruction would apply to both men and women, but he made the lists separate. There is no way around the fact that this will be offensive in our modern age that seeks to minimizes gender distinctives. Personally, I don’t know why he chose to give a separate set of instructions for men and women. My best guess is that either he regarded certain behaviors as potentially more harmful if carried out by a certain gender, or that he knew that certain things would be a bigger issue for one gender or the other. I can certainly see how in the modern day, the temptation for women to flaunt their wealth through their clothing can be extreme. While men certainly might struggle with this as well, there are easily 10 items of women’s clothing available for purchase for every one item of men’s clothing. Just go into the department store and look at the women’s section (most of the store), and the men’s section (that corner over there).
The other thing that is interesting is that after describing how women should dress using general terms, he gives the contrasting list of how women should not dress with specifics, and those specifics deal with displays of wealth and prestige, not sexuality. He then adds the instruction for women to metaphorically dress themselves in good works, which serves as an additional contrast to the improper way of adorning yourself. So we have the overall formula to cloth yourself in good works like the Lord Jesus did, to avoid costly and extravagant attire, and to dress in a way that is respectable, modest, and exhibits self-control.
The instruction not to dress in costly attire relates very closely to the issue of modesty in the larger sense: displaying your wealth through your clothing and appearance is a form of the toxic “if you got it, flaunt it” mentality. It should be noted that there are other applications that you can make of this same principal. For instance, Christian men shouldn’t display their wealth by purchasing expensive and flashy cars as status symbols.
It of course, also relates to the issue of modesty we most often think of: the sexuality of clothes. A person can clearly be immodest when they select clothes to attempt to display their sexuality as part of a “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” mindset. Some may object that the relationship between clothing and sexuality is cultural, and that is to a large extent true. However even within the verse, there are three terms used to describe appropriate dress, and two of them (respectable, and modest), take into account the cultural context. If you are going to dress respectably in your culture, you obviously need to take what your culture considers appropriate. This is a secondary meaning of the word “modesty,” one that can be pretty well summed up with the word “propriety.” Christians should dress appropriately, we should not be the ones on the cutting edge, pushing boundaries and crossing lines when it comes to how sexually explicit our apparel is. I don’t think this is all that restrictive, dressing reasonably and respectfully seems to come pretty naturally for most Christians.
Really, I see it as a simple matter: if your conscience is clear that you are free from provocative intentions and ostentatious self-display, whatever you’re wearing is fine.
Modesty and Lust
Over the years, Evangelical churches have developed something of a culture around modesty and recently there has been a vocal backlash against that culture. The most specific thing that has come under attack is the notion that women should be told to dress modestly so that men won’t lust after them. For what it’s worth, I’m fully on board with that critique.
Here’s the thing, lust is a severe problem. Its something that both women and men should fight to stay away from, but the men need to be especially vigilant as in general it is a stronger temptation for men than women.
There’s no way around the fact that the Bible strongly condemns lust. Immediately after Jesus likens looking at a woman lustfully to committing adultery (Matthew 5:278-28), he says: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).
When it comes to the Devil, we are told to stay and fight (1 Peter 5:9), but when it comes to lust we are told to turn and run (2 Timothy 2:2).
Lust is an issue that every Christian should take very seriously. Lust is to sexuality what adultery is to worship. Desires that have perverted when attached to the wrong object.
Unfortunately our culture seems to revel in lust and men especially are exposed to countless images every day that are designed to get their blood boiling. The allure of visual gratification is offered pervasively in media and the internet has proliferated things even further.
The reality is that men are exposed everyday to what should honestly be called pornography, even if it rarely is. Images that are intended to cause him to objectify woman and engage in lustful thoughts.
With all that in mind, it seems that we need to acknowledge three things:
1) That men need to take responsibility for their own sin and agree (with the Lord’s help) to put their best efforts into their fight against lust and to not blame the apparel of women for the state of their own heart
2) That women are not necessarily sinning in wearing a certain piece of clothing, but that they in fact do sin insofar as they have impure motives should they ever dress with the intention of arousing the sexual desires of men they are not married to.
3) That we need to take seriously the fact that media in general is a huge culprit in perpetuating all these problems. Men are constantly exposed to images designed to allure them and women are constantly exposed to imaged they feel they have to live up to. This isn’t healthy for either gender. As Christians we all need to be wise and cautious in our consumption of media and give each other a healthy measure of grace knowing that the deck is stacked against us.
This means that for men you can’t blame what a woman was wearing for your lustful thoughts. It also means that if you struggle with lust you need to carefully scrutinize what you are allowing yourself to view. Too many Christian men in the name of their freedom in Christ allow themselves to be exposed to things that are actually enslaving them. Hopefully just reading this will cause you to recognize just how much in movies, television, and advertising is specifically designed to allure you.
This means that as a Christian woman you don’t need to fret over your wardrobe choices worrying about if you might accidentally make a brother stumble. That’s his responsibility. Your responsibility is simply to refrain from joining the worldly culture that intentionally seeks to garner the sexual attention of men.
Because I think that dressing modestly is most often an issue of the heart, I don’t think that imposing strict dress codes upon women is the best way to combat the issue.
Now I do realize that there are certain extreme examples where you really could declare an outfit innapropriate without knowing what was going on in a person’s heart. If a guy shows up to a business meeting in a speedo or a woman decides to wear her lingerie to a formal evening wedding, we can probably all look at that and declare it wrong at face value.
In all honesty though, it’s been my experience that most of the women who truly love Jesus usually dress pretty modestly without needing anyone to police their outfits.
Modesty is about so much more than clothing, but certainly does have implications for how we dress. Christians should avoid the “if you got it, flaunt it” mentality wherever it has the potential to pop up, and that includes both overly sexual and overly lavish clothing.
There certainly can be a time and a place for exposing more skin or for wearing an outfit that’s a little nicer, but as a Christian man or woman your primary concern with how you dress is to wear respectable clothes that make you happy without any ulterior motives.
Beyond how you dress, make sure you always have the example of Jesus in front of you. He could have demanded a king’s luxury and lived in a peasant’s poverty. He could have demanded to be served but instead he served. Jesus is the ultimate example of modesty. He’s the one we want to be like and the one by God’s grace we will be like when it is all said and done.
Look to Jesus and you can’t help but grow in modesty.
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