Can I make a confession?
When I see articles and blog posts about modesty I get a little squeamish as I click on over. I don’t know about you, but I often approach the modesty issue with preconceived ideas of what I think people will say and stand for. Sometimes I’m surprised by what they say, sometimes I disagree with their position, and sometimes I’m saying a silent “amen” as I read their point of view.
In conservative and liberal circles, Christians and non-religious alike seem to have some strong views about modesty and the role it plays in femininity and womanhood.
And I have my own strong feelings as well. But they may not be quite what you’d expect.
I’ve read countless blog posts this summer admonishing young women to be aware of what they wear, to dress modestly and cover up their body so as not be a temptation to young men. I understand this point of view. I really do. But I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing a disservice to our culture, our churches, and our own moral standards when we limit the modesty dialogue to young men and women. People of all ages, men and women, young and old, are aware of their own bodies, their own sexuality, their own temptations. If we remove the age parameters that somehow have been built around the modesty discussion, I agree that women, no matter their age, should dress appropriately and modestly.
And while I cannot hold women accountable for the thoughts or actions of men, I do believe that as Christians we are commanded in Scripture to bear one another’s burdens and to be mindful of those around us who may stumble more easily than ourselves. Because of this I personally believe that Christian women must take seriously their responsibility to be mindful of men (and other women!) who wrestle with sexual temptation.
That being said, I’ve also read many blog posts that aren’t quite as quick to absolve men (usually boys and young men) from the need to respect women, regardless of how the women are dressed. These posts bring up an important topic that must be brought up in Christian circles. Every person will be held accountable for their own thoughts and actions, regardless of how they are tempted.
I agree with those who posit that the Christian culture has placed too heavy a burden on women to protect they eyes, and by extent, the mind and heart of men. When we tell our young ladies to cover themselves up, it often results in an unspoken, but highly logical end that men are some how not responsible for how they deal with temptation when they are faced with it. It is the woman’s “fault” for tempting the man, she is the guilty one because she dressed provocatively, and thus caused the unsuspecting man to stumble.
I can’t help but notice that when Jesus said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:27) He places absolutely no guilt on the woman, nor does He add an exception that places guilt on the woman if she is dressed inappropriately.
Summertime brings up the modesty discussion for many reasons, not the least of which is the millions of people flocking to beaches and swimming pools, with plenty of skin (from both sexes) being on parade for any and all who wish to watch. As I’ve read articles and posts this summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I read, and praying over my own reactions to the posts. And I’ve asked myself time and again, “What does the Bible say about modesty?”
As I began to study I realized this one thing that seems to have been forgotten or overlooked in the Christian culture:
In the Bible, when women are admonished to dress modestly, it is always within the context of her relationship with God, and never within the context of her sexual relationship with a man or men.
The only possible exception to this is found in Proverbs 7, which describes the fatal plight of a man who is “immature and lacking sense.” In verses 10-11 we read,
“A woman came to meet him
dressed like a prostitute,
having a hidden agenda.
She is loud and defiant;
her feet do not stay at home.”
Even in these verse we see the woman’s character and actions clearly outlined, juxtaposed to a description of her dress. It is important to keep in mind that this verse is not an imperative (direct statement of command about how to live) about how women should or should not dress, it is a story told in the literary genre of “wisdom literature.” This story, much like the parables that Jesus told, is likely a made up story that illustrates a heart matter of eternal importance.
So what does the Bible say about modesty?
Let’s take a look at two of the most popular verses that are used as a call to action for modest apparel, and together maybe we can dig a little deeper.
I Timothy 2:9-10
“Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.”
Let’s make a few observations about the context of these two verses:
- These words are written to a younger, less experienced pastor, about church life and how a church should function.
- If you believe in the inspiration of Scripture – that is, that every word of Scripture, while penned by the hands of men, is inspired by the Spirit of God – and I do, we must submit to the fact that while these words of instruction are not from Jesus, they are from God.
- The verses that immediately follow are the topic of much debate and discussion, the likes of which far extend the parameters of this blog post. However it is important to note that the the following verses further delineate the importance of a woman’s character, spirit, and actions.
And what exactly does “modest clothing” mean? If we take a look at the original language, Greek, we can discover a beautiful and profound meaning:
Paul used a form of the Greek word kosmos to describe how a woman should dress. Does that word sound familiar to you? It’s the same word from which we derive the words cosmos (as in the universe and the world) and cosmetology (as in make up and beauty products). In the Greek language it is literally translated, “something ordered” or ” an ordered system.”
Paul, in writing to Timothy, instructs women to dress in an orderly fashion.
Orderly. Having order. When I think of the word “modest” I personally think about how much skin is covered up by clothes. But that’s not at all what Paul is instructing! He’s telling women to dress with order, in an ordered way that makes sense.
And Paul continues to outline the importance of Spirit living, living a life in submission to the Spirit of God, and appropriate actions that come from a quiet and peaceful heart.
I Peter 3:3-4
Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes. Instead, it should consist of what is inside the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God’s eyes.
Let’s make a few observations about the context of these two verses:
- Peter writes to Christians living in a hostile, and often persecuting world.
- In this particular section of his letter he is writing about personal holiness, and how a Christian is to behave. There is a two-fold purpose for holy living: the first is to please God and honor Him, and the second is to be a witness to an unbelieving world.
These verses don’t actually address the topic of modest clothing, but it does address the topic of beauty and clothing. Some interpret these verses to mean that women cannot wear jewelry or beautiful hair styles. However, I personally believe that these verses are a New Testament counterpart to an Old Testament truth:
Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. (I Samuel 16:7)
Peter’s words remind us that our beauty, true beauty cannot be made up with fancy clothes, elaborate hairstyles, and gaudy jewelry. You can cover up ugly with pretty things, but the ugly is still ugly. You can cover up skin with layers of clothes, but an immodest, provocative spirit is still there. And God sees it.
Instead of merely placing restrictions on what women can and cannot wear, Peter encourages women to pursue inward beauty, a loveliness that comes from a heart that is wholly delighted in faithfulness to God. And that is very valuable to Him.
What I didn’t point out about these two passages is that just as Paul and Peter are admonishing women, they are also offering commands to men. And just like their emphasis is on attitudes, actions, and a woman’s spirit, the same is true for what they command Christian men.
My fear is that when we limit the discussion of modesty to what a woman puts on her body, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice. When we emphasize modest clothing at the expense of Christ-like living, we undermine Scripture, and put women on a dangerous path that leads to guilt and shame. And we subtly undermine the eternal truths of Scripture: that God is more concerned with issues of the heart than He is with outward appearances.
My challenge is this:
When engaging the topic of modesty let’s follow the example of Scripture:
- Scripture never limits the discussion of modesty to a specific age group.
- Scripture never blames women for the thoughts or actions of men.
- Scripture always addresses modest/appropriate dress along with Godly living. The two cannot be separated.
- Scripture always address men and women when discussing modest dress and Godly living.
- Scripture tells us that we are each accountable for our own thoughts and actions.
- Scripture tells us that we must be mindful of the “weaker brother” – or the person we know who wrestles and struggles in a particular area more than we do.
Oh friends, I hope you hear my heart on this. I know this topic is a tough one to tackle, and I know that there are many differing views about modesty. It is my hope and prayer that we as Christians (my self included!) are able to see past our preconceived ideas about modesty and understand the invaluable lessons of grace and Godliness that the Word of God offers.
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