An old-fashioned word for a seemingly old-fashioned virtue, the word “modesty” doesn’t have much caché in American culture. Even in religious or Christian circles, the term sometimes smacks of school marms and Puritans, rigid dress codes and killjoys. In the most extreme cases, it conjures up images of Taliban-like sexism and the overzealous (and often violent) policing of women’s bodies.
Nevertheless, in recent years modesty has been making a comeback. The so-called “modesty movement” has emerged in Evangelical Christian circles, with websites, organizations, and programs seeking to encourage (mostly young and mostly female) Christians not to give in to the cultural demands to display their bodies and flaunt their sexuality. There are blogs such as ModestlyYours.net, programs like Secret Keeper Girl, and various clothing lines and swimsuit designs available in popular and specialty retail outlets, all striving against the tide symbolized by the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Most of the time the discussion is about women, and most of the time it’s about clothes.
Rather than joining the movement blindly, or dismissing the notion altogether as something irrelevant or oppressive, we might do well to take a new look at this old term in order to consider how it fits into the values, attitudes, and worldview to which Christ calls us. Like it or not, as Christians, male or female, we each have decisions to make about how we will respond to our very body-conscious culture. If we are to honor God and be examples of what he wants us to be in the world, then we would do well to take time to search Scripture for his teaching on the way we should treat and display the human body. There is no 11th commandment saying “Thou shalt always be modest.” Such a commandment probably wouldn’t be precise enough, anyway. However, God has promised us that through the Bible and the revelation of the Holy Spirit, we can receive all the instructions we need on how to live (2 Timothy 3:15-17). That means that in Scripture we can find guidance on how to handle ourselves in all areas of life, including this mundane but very important one.
What is Biblical modesty?
The English word “modest” appears just once in the King James Version of the Bible, and it does so in 1 Timothy 2, which is often cited in discussions of this subject. After counseling that men should “pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting,” Paul goes on to say, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided [braided] hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9-10 KJV). The New International Version renders that passage this way: “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” In that passage, the Apostle Paul doesn’t say anything about the way men should dress, but that’s probably because he didn’t need to: men in his culture didn’t doll themselves up in the same way women typically did. He doesn’t say anything about necklines and hemlines either. Interestingly, he talks about ornateness and about self-aggrandizing and excessive displays of wealth. The Apostle Peter offers very similar counsel in 1 Peter 3, where he states, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves.” (1 Peter 3: 3-5, NIV) Both passages call on Christian women to place godly character and actions above adornment, and to see beauty as a matter of the spirit and not only of the body. Some scholars also point out that in Paul’s culture and time, braided hair (probably hair braided with gold and pearls intertwined) was often worn by prostitutes, so part of Paul’s message would have been that Christian women dress in a way that marks a clear difference in character and lifestyle. If we also consider the Biblical instruction to “abstain from all appearance of evil,” then it makes sense for Paul to tell these women not to dress in a way that makes them appear to be unrepentant prostitutes (1 Thessalonians 5:22, KJV). (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Commentary On the Whole Bible, See 1 Timothy 2, and also Revelation 17:4)
Significantly, neither Peter nor Paul focuses on how women’s dress might affect men. Neither passage says, “cover thyself from head to toe lest ye tempt thy menfolk.” In fact, these passages suggest that women think of dress in relation to their own conception of themselves. The message in both places is “you should have beautiful character, not just beautiful faces and hair.” In other words, “rethink your own beauty because you are a spirit and not just a body.” Temptation and the effects of one’s actions on other people are important, and the Bible speaks to that, as we will see, but temptation of others is a separate issue. These passages draw attention to the ways that Christian women should think of themselves and manifest that self-concept in their appearance and actions. That is worth noting, especially because discussions of modesty can quickly become one-sided in their focus on how women might “tempt men.”
There is no comparable passage specifically dealing with men’s appearance and dress as an aspect of their character. Again, in all likelihood that is because the cultural context simply didn’t call for it. However, the Bible does have a great deal to say about what godly character looks like for all Christians, regardless of gender, age, or cultural context. Both Paul & Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, call on women and men to resist the temptation to think of themselves only as bodies. In other words, Scripture tells us that women should develop the same kind of godly character that men should: All of us are to imitate Christ’s humility (Philippians 2:4-6), to walk in love (Ephesians 5:2, 2 John 1:6), to act in ways that show that we are controlled by God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and to be mindful of the ways that our actions might affect other people, particularly our brothers and sisters in the faith (Romans 14 & 15).
What seems clear from these scriptures is that Biblical modesty is a matter of character, and the concept involves appropriate humility and a rightful focus on attitudes and actions rather than on bodies and appearances. It is also clear that the qualities women are exhorted to have and display in their dress reflect the priorities that all Christians are called to display in all areas of life: love for God over love for self; self-control over self-indulgence; appropriate humility over prideful display, concern for the spirit rather than obsession with the body. Whatever else Biblical modesty is, at its core it is this set of priorities. In some circles, they call this holiness.
It’s about clothes, but it’s not about clothes.
How short is too short? One-piece or two-piece? Covered shoulders or bare shoulders? These are silly questions. Or maybe they are serious ones. We could easily get bogged down in trying to make up rules: 1.45 inches above the knee is an appropriately modest length, but 1.57 inches is scandalous and will send you to hell. Maybe we should measure in millimeters in order to really get some precision here? Trying to nail things down so precisely would be as unhelpful as it is absurd. Striving for minute precision in the rules also distracts us from the real questions. Yes, some things are no-brainers: t-shirts with profanity on them, outfits that show underwear, and tops that make you look like you’re “dressed for open-heart surgery” don’t meet most Christian’s standards of modesty, no matter where you are in the world. Sweatpants with suggestive phrases printed across the rear end, and shorts with ¼-inch in-seams probably don’t make the list either, but more people might take issue with that assessment.
The more important truth is that how we display our bodies often says much about how we think of ourselves: As one of my favorite fashion writers, Robin Givhan, once said, “Dress is always code.” She meant that dress symbolizes our worldview, mood, culture, class, and many other facets of ourselves. The way we dress is an important aspect of who we are, and as Christians, we are not what we once were. In fact, the very idea that dress is self-expression should lead us to reflect on which self we’re actually expressing when we get dressed. As Christians we have new selves that are being shaped into the image of Christ. That self doesn’t seek to call inordinate attention to itself, nor does it deliberately elicit sinful desire. Jesus wouldn’t have done either of those things. Jesus was humble, holy, and inwardly beautiful. As far as we know, he owned only one good robe. He never took action to lead people to sin or to distract them from God’s truths. That was his character, and that is the character God wants to form in us. Our aim is to be like him. We too should allow God to shape us into humble, holy, beautiful people. Insofar as what we do and wear reveals our character, dress matters. Our clothes can’t and won’t capture all of who we are (which is why we should not judge based on appearances), but they do reveal part of who we are, whether we intend them to or not. If we profess to be Christians, all areas of our lives need to reflect who we are in Christ.
It’s about women, but it’s not about women.
Can you picture a modest man? Probably not too easily. If we associate modesty with anything, it’s probably with women and the way they dress. Too often, modesty is treated exclusively as a matter of concealing women’s bodies. This has led many to allege that even the new modesty movement “shames” women by portraying the female body as inherently sinful. Women’s bodies, according to this logic, are the source of men’s temptation and ought to be hidden if both sexes are to live Christlike lives. That kind of thinking has led some women to feel pressured to conceal their curves or be embarrassed about their shape. Undoubtedly sexism both within and outside the Christian community has lain too much of the burden of modesty on women.
It should be emphasized, however, that this conception of modesty as a women’s issue is related to a larger reality: in our culture and many others, women are portrayed as bodies—and their bodies are sexualized—more than men. Modesty isn’t often seen as a male virtue, probably because female bodies are most often portrayed as enticing, whereas male bodies are portrayed as powerful or strong. This is certainly changing, but most of the time it still holds true. Thus the concern with women’s bodies isn’t just evidence of subterranean sexism in Christianity. It’s at least as much because our culture (and lots of other cultures, for that matter), view women’s bodies as somehow “more sexual” and therefore more dangerous and more deserving of hiding or concealment. It’s just a fact that men’s clothing doesn’t have revealing necklines. Indeed, most of the time, men’s clothing has them covered throat to ankles. That’s how it has been in many cultures for some time.
This context—a culture that treats women as bodies, and treats bodies as sexual objects—means that discussions about modesty necessarily involve conversation about how women dress. But as we have seen, Biblical modesty is a matter of character, and all Christians are called to develop the same kind of character (which is not to say that we’re all to have the same personality). All of us are on a journey toward becoming more like Christ. Thus all of us should be striving to reflect him in all areas of our lives. That means that men and women should seek to bring every area of their lives, including dress, into alignment with the character of Christ. Moreover, men also have decisions to make about what they wear: risqué messages on t-shirts, underwear masquerading as outerwear, skin-tight jeans—the specific instances may be different, but the issue is the same: does this kind of dress accord with the Christ-like character and purpose that God has for me?
It’s about you, but it’s not about you.
Personal liberty is pretty high up there on the list of values for many of us, especially those of us who are Americans. Dress is certainly one way we often choose to display that liberty and express our individuality. It’s one way to show the world “who we are.” For Christians, this liberty has an added dimension. While God has not given us the same detail about dress that he gave to say, the priests of ancient Israel (See Exodus 24), the Bible does exhort us to consider how our actions affect others. True Godly love requires that we consider the feelings and weaknesses of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, before we take actions in their presence. Romans 14:21 tells us that “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall” (NIV). Paul is speaking about food offered to idols, but the principle is certainly one we can apply to matters of dress and behavior. Other people don’t dictate every single action we take, but if wearing a looser fitting shirt, or shorts that stop at the knee helps another person avoid temptation, then Christian love compels me to choose the thing that helps my fellow Christian steer clear of trouble.
A couple of points should be noted here. First of all, none of this is a call to make oneself unattractive. God doesn’t hate our faces and bodies, and attraction between men and women is not inherently sinful. (In fact, it was God’s idea!) Attraction that’s corrupted by illicit desire (for example, desire for someone else’s spouse) is sinful, and that is just one of the kinds of temptation we do not want to place before others by the way we dress. Secondly, we can’t control all of the ways people react to us, and each of us is responsible for our own actions and reactions. There is no room for blaming someone else for being so tempting that we can’t help sinning. God doesn’t buy that. Neither should we. We can, however, often make things a little easier on others by making different choices. Historically, most of this kind of responsibility has been placed on women, sometimes with awful consequences. Men have to take responsibility for how they dress and behave, including how they behave toward women, no matter what women wear. All of us are to be about the business of building each other up in our choices and in the way we respond to each other. Finally, older Christians in particular need to consider how those who are younger will respond to their example. Older Christians need to keep in mind that young people are watching and may someday be emulating them. Our loving concern for the generation behind us should also inform our decisions.
Some ideas for practical application
• Pray for guidance. God cares about all areas of our lives, and when we ask for guidance to make wise decisions that will honor him, he will give it to us. We don’t want or need to be obsessive or paranoid, but we should want to please the Lord, and he wants to help us do that. Don’t think that this is too small an issue to bring before him in prayer. Dress is a matter of Christian character, not just of style or preference. Our desire to please our loving God should lead us to ask for his direction in this area as well. If we do have anxieties about our bodies or the ways that peers or the larger culture might pressure us to display them or make them conform to some silly or ungodly standard, we can and should ask for God’s help in learning to inhabit our bodies in dignity and peace.
• Seek advice. Ask a Godly friend or mentor to help you settle some questions for yourself. It’s probably most helpful if this person is of the same gender. They can offer you perspective, help you make choices, and provide reassurance or correction if necessary. Making decisions about dress can sometimes be difficult because they involve an unavoidable tension between one’s own feelings and preferences, and the perceptions and responses of others, most of which are outside our control. It’s also quite difficult to locate a single prevailing definition of what constitutes modest dress for each sex in every situation. That doesn’t mean we can’t make decisions, though. The passages from 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 offer important and helpful principles. More mature Christians can help us as well. God is our final authority, so the conviction of the Holy Spirit on our hearts must be the final word, but mature Christian friends are an invaluable resource in our decision making about these and other more pressing matters.
• Use a mirror. It can be that simple. Take a 360° view of yourself before you venture out in public. Make sure you and God feel comfortable with the message your outfit might be sending.
A final thought
All this discussion of modesty and dress might lead us to see the problem as a problem of the body. We might be tempted to think that modesty is about shielding ourselves from the dangers of the body. But our bodies are not the problem. They are God’s beautiful creations and designs. Adam and Eve in the garden didn’t worry about modesty because they were in perfect loving relation to each other. Sin distorted that relationship so that the uncovered body became vulnerable—to disease, ridicule, envy, lust, violence, and predatory desire. I believe God gave them clothing in part to help protect them from those forces. That same loving protection calls us to treat our own bodies and those of other people with respect, dignity, and care.