What does the Bible say about modesty?

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.” 

Proverbs 7:10-11

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?

What does the Bible say about Modesty? - via A Royal Daughter

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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  1. Rachel G says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes, finally! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the 1st Timothy verse taken as an example of why women can wear t-shirts but not tank tops, or some version of showing skin like that. But from a common sense viewpoint of what the Bible says–it’s definitely not saying anything about the appropriate amount of skin that can be shown at any time.
    Also, when people try to claim that it’s un-Biblical for women to wear pants–I understand the argument that women should look like women and men should look like men….But sometimes I do want to point out that even men did not wear pants in Bible times. So to me it seems like quite a stretch to claim that “The Bible says” that women should not wear pants.

    • Not being picky Rachel at all :) but I believe the robes the men and women wore were very different in those days. The women wore long loose robes with nothing under them and the men’s robes were shorter and they had short, knee-length “pants” on underneath their robes. When they had to do something strenuous like say, get a chariot out of a ditch, lol, they would gather up the robe and tuck it into the waist of the pant, that was called “girding up your loins”. So their garments were quite differentiated even then.

      • N/A says:

        I know this was posted a little while ago…but I have to respond. There was actually VERY LITTLE differences between male and female clothing during biblical times. Both men and women (in Israel) wore a loose, woolen (or linen, etc.), robe-like (Kethoneth) cloaks as outer wear. They all were fastened at the waist using a belt or sash. A tunic was worn beneath the cloak. As far as girding the loins goes…that was practiced by both men and women (Isaiah 32:11=King James Bible: “Tremble, ye women that are at ease; be troubled, ye careless ones: strip you, and make you bare, and gird [sackcloth] upon [your] loins.” & Proverbs 31:17=”She girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.” for example). So that can’t be used as a reference to the difference between men and women (because it wasn’t one). Also as far as men wearing pants underneath their garments (not all men did that by the way), that really has no bearing as to how EVERYONE was dressing at that time. In other words, that was just their general area (When we come to Christ, we aren’t told we have to dress like a certain group of people so I never understood this whole crossdressing debate as it would vary area to area). In fact, pants were first historically worn by the Persians (4th century BC). Both men AND WOMEN in Persia wore them (…for some reason, a lot of people think Europeans invented pants and that women only started wearing them recently…). Greek men were wearing skirts and found pants effeminate etc. etc. So pants have never just been a “man thing.” …But getting back to the point…You’re definitely right about length of the robes as the women did have longer robes (though many say rabbi/preach dudes had equally long robes so I don’t know if that can be seen as a complete distinction. I’m not sure though). The colors and amount of embroidery were also different (with women’s robes being more decorated). But that’s pretty much it as far as distinction goes…which, if thought about, still appropriately applies today. Sorry for writing a book and all lol.

    • clement says:

      Yes man did wear pants in the Bible times, they called them britches. Well, you can believe what you want, but the fact is simply this, in the Bible days, women did not wear crotched garments. Pants have a crotch. Men in the Bible days wore crotch garments. Not only that, women in any society did not wear pants until close to the middle of this century. Pants are called britches in the Bible, and britches were worn exclusively by men for the first 5,950 years of human existence (which means up until about fifty years ago). Even the garments worn by men and women in Bible days were different. The woman wore a long flowing robe, and men wore a shorter and tighter robe. Underneath the woman’s robe would be nothing. Underneath the man’s robe would be a pair of short pants that would go down to the knees. Whenever a man would have to do some type of labor, such as to team up an ox, pull a trailer or dig a hole, he would pull up his skirt and tuck it in his pants skirt, and that was called in the Bible “girding up your loins.”

  2. Amanda, I love this! You wrote this so perfectly an I definitely think God is speaking through you on this subject. I recently read a post that said something about guys not being able to help themselves because a part of their brain shuts off when they see too much skin and I just rolled my eyes. I’m pretty sure women have thoughts too when they see a buff man with his shirt off, it really does go both ways and I am so glad someone pointed out that the woman is not to blame for the man! Love you & your heart!

  3. Yes, exactly. Modesty is not really about how much skin is showing. If it were, many Christians in third world countries would be in trouble! It’s part attitude, part dressing in an orderly and appropriate manner. Yes, we need to be considerate of our brothers in Christ… but more importantly, we need to have modest heart attitudes before our outward appearance can ever be considered modest.

  4. Peggy says:

    This is very well written! Thank you…I’ve read the posts you’ve mentioned, agreeing with some, and being un-sure with others about how they derived their views on modesty. I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head here, “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.”
    And, “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.”

    We are all {across all the ages and generations} accountable for our own actions, deeds and thoughts. Forgetting that the ultimate goal of living Christ-like is what we should attain, we can be quick to place rules on ourselves, and make judgements about others, based on those rules. But, as you said, that is not what His word says on modesty, as He is concerned with the {heart}.

    Thank you for this post!


  5. Kimberly says:

    Love all that you have to say here. Thanks for sharing from the Bible and from your heart!

  6. i think honestly that many of these “surface” issues are just that– when in reality we should be looking at the heart. it’s SO easy to get caught up in how much skin we are showing, whether or not we drink, whether or not we have kids right away, when in reality it is about the HEART. And when your heart is changed, most likely how you are dressed will change a bit too– I know how I dressed from junior high to high school changed– when I really accepted Jesus.

    What also relates to this is that fact that I drink beer and wine. I love both but I know that some Christians think that it’s really sinful for me to enjoy. However, I look at my heart and I know that my drinking does not change my relationship with God. I am not getting drunk, I’m enjoying a beverage– and where I live, it’s a community-culture thing; there are more bars than restaurants. It would be easy to write me off because I’m having a beer at a bar with friends– but I know my heart.

    but then again, like Paul says, I try to be present in the community I live in– maybe if I moved to the Bible Belt or the South, I would have to learn to without my fancy, microbrew craft beer!

  7. Tara says:

    Best article on modesty I have read. I admire you leading people to Truth and not legalism. Thank you. Tara.

  8. Jesus didn’t follow that verse with “if you have lust in your heart to go tell the women to cover up and dress more modestly”, He followed the verse with this one: “…if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away…” Matthew 5:29. It’s time to stop portraying our men as helpless and instead TEACH them lust is a real temptation to all men that requires constant vigilance and an active prayer life! It is not impossible, nothing is impossible with Jesus, Jehovah of the Old Testament, God who came in the flesh for US and gave Himself as a ransom! He is the living God, there is nothing He cannot do!

    But that does NOT leave the woman without responsibility….I just finished an entire curriculum lesson for a Bible college class on the subject. I agree with everything that has been said, especially that it COMES FROM THE HEART! But if the heart is right, if we ARE filled with His spirit, the outside will show it. I don’t mean we are prudes. But whose eye are we trying to catch? Why does everything have to “spill” out when we say we belong to Him? Men might not be tempted to lust but they shouldn’t be embarrassed either or have to concentrate to keep their eyes at eye level just to hold a conversation with other Christian women.

    I have seen it time and time again when new babes come to the Lord, HE will be the one to work on their tender hearts and s-l-o-w-l-y they will see things in their life that need changing. And when HE whispers it, no one can take it away or tell them any different. ♥

  9. Casey Ranalli says:

    Hey Amanda, I’m writing a paper on Controversial topics and I chose modesty and I was wondering if I could use a couple of your pints of view for my paper? If yes I have to directly refer to you as source soI would need your last name?
    Thank you! I love reading your posts!

  10. Sally Kilps says:

    You actually left ut an important definition in 1 Tim 2.9……proper clothing. The Greek word is katistole where we get the english word stole…. which in the Greek was a long, flowing covering

  11. Ashley says:

    Lovely post! Well written and researched. You are right on point, in my opinion. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. People DO often shy-away from this topic, which causes a lot of confusion. You have made this crystal clear and easy to understand. Thank you.


  1. [...] New Testament writers challenge godly women to modest dress and modest behavior (I Timothy 2), which often is assumed to be “not [...]

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