Christians and Modesty: We’ve Heard a Lot About It, And a Lot of What We Hear is Wrong

I have struggled for a while wondering if I should even write this post. I mean, I know I’ve made no secret on this blog that I’m a Christian, but I didn’t want this to become a “religion” blog. Not only that, but articles on this subject are becoming ubiquitous.

I honestly don’t know how many articles I’ve seen shared on Facebook recently about Christians and modesty, written from a multitude of perspectives, and even different takes on the subject. Some lament on how modesty seems to have become a lost virtue and others on how we’ve become too judgmental about how unchurched women visit our churches are dressed.

But I’ve noticed something about all these articles. They make two assumptions and both assumptions are wrong.

First, they assume that Biblical modesty is all about how much skin a woman shows in public. This is wrong. That can be part of modesty, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it, nor is it really what the Bible stresses about modest dress. For example, 1st Timothy 2:9-10 states “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, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” (emphasis mine)

I don’t think that the Bible is condemning any form of braided hair or jewelry, either. But let’s look at another verse about modesty and apply context clues and what the Bible teaches us about the character of God.

1 Peter 3:3-4: 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. (again, emphasis mine)

A few things: first, where in either of those verses do you see any mention of “do not show too much of your flesh?” It’s simply not there, and in fact nowhere in the Bible does it talk about how much or how little a woman is allowed to show. There are verses that refer to “dressing like a prostitute” but even these do not go into detail about what that means. We know that there were certain perfumes, adornments, make-ups, colors, etc., that prostitutes wore in Biblical times, so even verses like that don’t really have anything to do with uncovered skin. Another passage talks about women who look upon men with “lustful eyes” and walk about with “mincing steps” and bangles on their ankles, but still don’t talk about how much or how little skin they reveal.

And please, don’t try to tell me that skin coverage or lack thereof is not mentioned in the Bible because it didn’t need to be. I hear that a lot; that all women back then covered up much more than we do now. Umm…

That’s a couple of Egyptian women from Biblical times. Or how about:

No, that’s not a prostitute. That’s a woman getting ready to be seen in public.

But that’s Egypt. What about the areas Jesus was actually around? Well, here’s a Roman woman:

Here’s some more:

Jewish women did tend to conform to the Mosaic codes, which, yes, did mean draping themselves in long robes, among other things, but the Mosaic codes were given specifically to Jews, while the word of God is for all, Gentiles included.

So I include those pictures just to make it visually true that, if the same God who commanded the disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel were concerned about how the women of these other cultures were showing too much skin, He definitely would have instructed Paul to relay that message to Timothy, or Peter to relate it to the churches. What does He say? To clothe themselves in “respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire”. But what’s wrong with braided hair, gold, pearls or costly attire? Nothing, in and of themselves, but think about this; how modest is it to wear something specifically for the amount of attention it will bring you? How much does a ton of adornment and special hairstyles help to show the hidden person of the heart, or the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit?

And now we come to the crux of what God means when he commands women to dress “modestly”. Not “be sure your hemline doesn’t come above your knees” but “draw attention with your inner beauty that comes from a heart for God, not with your hair or physical appearance or wealth.” Again, let’s put these verses in context with what the Bible tells us about the character of God. God told Samuel that it is man who looks at the outward appearance. God, meanwhile, looks at the heart. Peter reinforces this by reminding us that the “hidden person of the heart” and “a quiet and gentle spirit” is very precious in God’s eyes.

Modesty is about intent, not about how much of you your outfit covers.

Let’s use a couple of real-world examples.

Jenny and Amber are getting dressed for the day. The girls don’t know each other and are from two different walks of life, but both of them end up choosing the exact same outfit to wear; a spaghetti-strapped tank top and a pair of shorts. Jenny has chosen this outfit because it is a hot day and she plans to do some cycling and working out. Amber has chosen her outfit because she likes the attention she gets from boys when she wears clothing like this.

Jenny is most likely modest. Amber definitely isn’t. Despite wearing exactly the same thing. Jenny is not trying to draw attention with her clothes. Amber, however, is.

Let’s use another visual aid. Lauren is a young Christian woman who loves God and never misses church. She’s very active in her church and loves serving God and interacting with her fellow believers. All who really know her will tell you that she is a young woman after God’s own heart, and it shows in all her words and actions. She cares much more about her personal relationship with Christ than she does the more legalistic mindset, and so, one warm, sunny summer weekend, she wears this to church:

As she comes into the building, she is noticed by Helen, who is the wife of one of the deacons. Her husband is a lawyer and makes a lot of money, and Helen greatly enjoys the affluent lifestyle her husband’s career affords her. Her mother also taught her how a godly woman is supposed to dress, and she tsk‘s to herself that young Lauren over there has chosen to brazenly display herself like a prostitute. She is almost certainly driving the young men of the church to lust in that whorish outfit. Shame on her! Helen, meanwhile, is wearing a tasteful, and very expensive, designer dress that shows she is so much more pure and holy than that harridan Lauren. She’s wearing this:

She tends to hang around in the church foyer for as long as she can so that all who enter the church can see her outfit and know that Helen is a proper Christian woman. It makes her feel very good about herself that she’s such an example to the younger women of the church. Besides, as much as this dress costs, the extra people noticing doesn’t hurt.

Which one of these two women is modest, according to God’s word? I’m just gonna let you decide.

The second improper assumption I’ve seen in the many articles I’ve seen on modesty is that the writer, male or female, always takes the approach that their standard of modesty is the only standard of modesty. Again, this is more than just wrong; it comes close to blasphemous. God is not concerned with how much neck or arm or shoulder or leg you’re showing. What He is concerned with is why you’re doing it.

Now, some of you might be objecting strenuously to that idea because it seems to suggest that women can dress however they want and God doesn’t care. That’s not at all what I’m saying. But I am saying that if we’re strictly defining modesty by our own standards, then we are hypocrites.

Standards of modesty are in constant flux and they always will be. For example, did you know that when it initially ran, this advertisement for Coca-Cola was considered scandalous?

And would you like to know why? Because the woman’s feet are visible. Yes. Her shod feet can be plainly seen. Horrors! Society will crumble if we continue to allow such brazen displays of women’s attributes!

The attitude we have these days to women who, for purposes of comfort or personal preference, choose to leave their shoulders, thighs, knees, or arms bare in places like church is no different. After all, such clothing is hardly church-appropriate, we think to ourselves. But why isn’t it? Because the Bible says so? I’ve already shown that the Bible says no such thing, and in fact God is far more concerned about why you’re wearing what you’re wearing than what it is

The attitude we, and yes, I include myself, have toward clothing would find nothing scandalous about the woman in the Coke ad today. If anything, she’s almost over-dressed by today’s standards. But if you were to transplant a Christian from that day and age (early 20th Century) to today, they would likely find every woman in church to be dressed scandalously. Do you think that’s silly? If you do, why does it offend you when you walk into your church and you see a teenaged girl dressed like this:

Now, I’m gonna confess something to you, and it’s an uncomfortable thing to admit. And that is that when I walk into church and see girls dressed similarly to that (and I do see it, a lot) it makes me a little angry, and if I’m honest with myself, it has nothing to do with how “revealingly” the girl is dressed. Because really there’s nothing too revealing about this outfit. Sure, it’s got more leg showing than I’d like, and I can sometimes be an old fart that doesn’t appreciate the modern “distressed” look of jeans. But really, look at the outfit. What’s revealing about it? All her parts are covered, and she’s not even showing cleavage. The shorts are a little tight, but not painted on, and the shirt is actually loose and a little flowing. Her midriff is completely covered, and it even looks like there’s enough material there that it still would be even if she raised her arm higher.

And in the interest of full disclosure, my wife sometimes wears outfits like this and has no problem with our daughter doing the same.

But still, when I walk into church and see this, it bothers me. It bothers me on a deep level that I have only recently delved. See, when my wife wears clothing like this, I appreciate it on a number of levels including sexually. This kind of clothing draws my eye, and it has since I was old enough to be sexually aware. Of course, I always find my wife beautiful and sexually attractive, no matter what she’s wearing, but she knows, and even likes, that my eye is more naturally drawn to things like bare arms and legs. I am not saying that seeing clothing like this “turns me on”, because I don’t really get “turned on” merely by visual things. I am definitely not saying that this kind of clothing automatically makes me attracted to its wearer.

But it does, however, cause me to notice it in a way that I don’t notice clothing that is more covering.

It causes my brain to instinctively react the way it’s always reacted. No, I’m not “aroused” by the outfit. I’m not “turned on”. I’m not attracted to the wearer. But there’s that trigger in my brain that says I should be.

And that angers me. It angers me, but it really shouldn’t.

This is for more than one reason. For one thing, I’m doing the same thing I have decried others for doing; judging the modesty of the woman or girl in these outfits by what my standard of modesty is, or perhaps, what I think their standard of modesty should be. For another, I am assuming intent on her part that most likely isn’t there. Third, I’m blaming her for how I react, when my reaction is in no way her fault.

But some of you might be saying “Okay, sure, your reaction is your fault. But if she wasn’t wearing that sort of outfit, you never would have had that reaction.” Which is sort of like saying “it’s not her fault, but it is.”

“A godly woman should not dress in ways that cause men to stray, even a little!” I hear you cry. I’m not making a strawman argument, either. I have seen this very sentence said even in articles that suggest we need to treat the “immodest” woman with Christian love. But really, let’s examine that phrase. Women should not dress in ways that cause men to stray? Really? Can you find me that passage in the Bible?

Women should not choose their mode of dress solely based on how much attention it will get them, true. But how have we twisted this into blaming the woman for a man who looks at her and feels lustful?

I’m gonna level with you; there is not a single outfit on the planet that you could wear and be completely safe from the lusts of a man. Maybe not all men, but there’s almost certainly several times in your life when a man looked at you and was driven to lust, no matter what you might have been wearing at the time.

Think of the woman in the Coca-Cola ad. No one in today’s world would suggest that her outfit in any way was made to inspire lust, but there are foot fetishists even today. Not only that, but lust is a sin that is in the heart of every man on the planet. Yes, all men. It’s still a sin, still very wrong, but we’re each and every one of us fallen creatures, and the sin nature that has been in us since birth will never leave us until we get to Heaven.

Seriously, I may not find a woman’s ankle sexually suggestive, but I guarantee there are other men who do, and they may very well be looking at the sandal-shod women at church and feel a twinge of lust. Others may be attracted to necks, and thus, no matter how high your neckline is, unless you’re wearing a turtleneck, and maybe even if you are, a neck fetishist may be looking at you and reacting sexually, even if just on the inside.

This is not the woman’s fault. If she did not leave the house in her outfit hoping to inspire lust (or just generally attract attention to her clothing and adornments instead of her heart), she is modest.

Let’s also just quickly touch on the idea of what’s “appropriate for church”. This is only sort of related to the topic at hand, but let me put it to you this way; if you’re uncomfortable wearing an outfit to church, you probably shouldn’t be wearing it anywhere. Because what you’re really saying is that you’re okay with people seeing you in that outfit, but you’re ashamed of God seeing it. But of course, God can see you everywhere, so if you really don’t think the outfit is appropriate Christian attire, why do you wear it at all? By definition, that outfit, regardless of what it is, is immodest when you wear it because you know you’re wearing it for the wrong reasons. You know that when you have it on, you’re hoping people will notice the outfit instead of your heart or your spirit.

Let’s return to the teenaged girl above. There’s a reason I chose to mention teenagers, and that’s because teens, all teens, not just unchurched ones, and yes, even your teen, have a tendency to want to do things their peers will approve of. This is reflected in much of what they do; how they speak, what TV shows they watch, what music they listen to, and yes, what clothes they wear. The teenaged girls in my church who I feel angry at for dressing too revealingly most likely aren’t concerned about inspiring lust in men. Most of them are probably far more concerned about whether other girls find their outfits trendy enough. Now, this is still wrong, because they’re more concerned about the approval of their friends than they are about the approval of the Lord, but even this is not a sin of immodesty. It’s a sin of holding man above God. And that, I think we can all agree, is something we are all guilty of, male or female, no matter what age and no matter what we’re wearing.

Now, some of you may be taking away from this that I am saying that it doesn’t matter how much skin women have showing; that they could walk around in public in a bikini top and spandex bike shorts, or a plunging neckline and micro-miniskirt and still not be sinning as long as they don’t have the intent of drawing the wrong sort of attention to themselves. Well, honestly, I don’t see how anyone, at any age, could dress like that and not be trying to draw the wrong sort of attention to themselves. I fail to see how it’s possible to dress like that and still be making any attempt to draw the focus to your quiet and gentle spirit.

But our focus on modesty-as-keeping-covered has turned the modern church into a society that equates this:

With this:

…and focus far more energy on outer appearance and not nearly enough on the heart.

When Christian women renew focus on modest hearts, on drawing more attention to the secret person of the heart and their quiet, gentle spirits, then and only then will God’s commandment of modesty be followed.


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