Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Final Word in the Modesty Debate

During this past summer (2013), I began to notice an emerging trend on my Facebook feed.  In addition to the usual fare of rants against Obamacare, coupon posts, sports team trash talking, and pictures of people's dogs and/or foot injuries, I saw an increasing number of links to blog articles with the word "modesty" in the title.  These articles usually discussed an issue that is (in certain smaller segments of American Evangelicalism) a hot topic--girls' and women's clothing choices.  Having read many of these articles and the accompanying arguments being waged in the comments sections of said articles, I decided to sit down and articulate the final word in the so-called "Modesty Debate."  I figure that, if no one else is willing to settle this issue once and for all, I might as well go ahead and get it done.

The last two sentences were written with my tongue in my cheek.  Obviously, I do not have the market cornered on the modesty debate, and I am certainly not one who is qualified to settle the arguments.  I will freely admit that I chose the title of this article for the sole purpose of catching your attention and surreptitiously inducing you to read what I have to say.  So far, my ploy appears to have worked in light of the fact that you have read all the way to this point.  In reality, my intent in this article is far less ambitious than my title would have you believe.  I would simply like to offer my own two cents about this issue.  I will accomplish this by dividing my comments into two sections.  Read them and do with them what you will.

Section One - My Personal Interpretation of the Biblical Guidelines for Women's Clothing

Ignoring for the time being the fact that discussions about modesty and dress choices almost always omit any mention of boys'/men's clothing, I would like to tell you what I believe the Bible teaches about girls'/women's clothing.  This is also what I plan on teaching my children (my daughter in particular) about this area.  I will be forthright with you, Reader, and admit that I have not spent a great deal of time studying the issue in all of its intricate nuances.  I have, however, done a fair amount of marinating on the passage in I Timothy 2:9-10, as this seems to me to be the primary passage in which God has given clear instructions about female clothing choices.  Many will argue with me and assert that the Bible contains a great deal more instruction about clothing, but I am always a bit wary when someone has to resort to an obscure, context-stripped verse in Hezekiah 45:11 for support.  (Yes, I know that there is no such verse as Hezekiah 45:11.  Everyone knows there's only 44 chapters in that book.)  Based on my marination on the passage in I Timothy, I have formulated the following 4 principles about female clothing choices:

1.  God's expectations in this area appear to focus far more on the heart attitude of the wearer than they do the specific clothing styles that the wearer chooses.  Even the passage in I Peter 3:3-4 (which is the other location in which we find mention of female clothing choices) puts the focus squarely on the inward rather than the external.  God's primary concern seems to be the attitude behind and the motive with which a woman wears her clothes.  One of the aspects of the I Timothy passage that I was quite surprised to discover is the fact that the idea of modesty is more accurately applied to the attitude of the wearer than it is to the clothes themselves.  In other words, it's not necessarily the clothes that should be modest but the person wearing them.  Certain Bible versions seem to be the culprits in propagating the semantical misconception that clothes themselves can be modest in the sense of humble and meek.  The ESV translates the clothing guideline as "respectable apparel" with the accompanying attitude of modesty and self-control.  To be sure, God did make a statement about the clothes themselves, and I will say more about that farther down the page.  At this point, however, I would simply like to point out that the majority of what God says about the issue deals with an inward state of the soul rather than a particular guideline about style.  It seems to me that our teaching on this topic should reflect that emphasis as well.

2.  There is nothing inherently wrong about a girl/woman dressing in a way that flatters and beautifies the body God has given her.  One of the bothersome (to me at least) aspects of the numerous modesty articles I have read recently is the implicit declaration to girls/women that their body is something to be hidden, camouflaged, or even ashamed of because of its alleged power over the male mind.  The female body is a powerful image and presence, to be sure.  (More on that later.)  I do not, however, subscribe to the notion that this power requires a woman to stifle the inherent physical beauty God has given to her or to limit the flattering/beautification process to only those parts of her body above her neck or below her knee (or ankle in some circles).  I find it revealing (almost no pun intended) that I Timothy 2:8 actually instructs women to adorn themselves.  This word does not simply mean to clothe.  It carries the idea of "decorating" or "beautifying."  In my mind, this seems to imply that there is nothing wrong with wearing clothing that flatters a girl's body and enhances her natural beauty.  I Peter 3 makes it clear that this adornment should not be exclusively external (refer to point 1 above for more details), but I do not believe God has prohibited girls/women from wearing styles that accentuate and decorate their bodies.  I do believe there is an appropriate and inappropriate way to do that, but I am going to save those thoughts for my big finish down in point number 4.  Before we get to that, however, let me present number 3...

3.  If, as I have posited above, modesty is an internal heart issue, then a woman who does not have this attitude is not fulfilling the requirements of the verse, regardless of what she is or isn't wearing.  This, in my moderately humble opinion, is where many a well-meaning follower of Jesus has missed the proverbial boat.  In some circles of American Evangelicalism an assumption is firmly entrenched in the minds of moms, dads, youth pastors, youth pastor's wives, and Christian school principals that their girls are just plain better off with "safer" or "higher" dress standards.  A girl's heart may be as far from modest as you can get, but at least her necklines and hemlines are appropriate.  If I am understanding Paul's inspired instructions in I Timothy correctly, then it is accurate for me to say that it doesn't really matter what clothes a woman is wearing or not wearing.  If her spirit is not one of "modesty" and "self-control", then she is not in adherence to the Biblical standard.  Dress codes certainly have their place in various contexts, but it is time to stop assuming that adherence to a dress code somehow puts a girl in a better place spiritually even though her soul is far from being spiritually healthy.  Even as some of you are reading those sentences the word "But..." is forming on your lips so I will hasten on to my finale...

4.  There is a standard of respectability and appropriateness for female clothing choices. If a girl does not meet this requirement, she is out of harmony with God's expectations, regardless of what her attitude and motive might be.  This, in my moderately humble opinion, is where many a well-meaning follower of Jesus has missed the proverbial boat. (Yes, I intentionally chose to repeat the same sentence I used in number 3, and I did it for dramatic effect.)  One of the problems that I have sensed in the comments and writings of those who argue against the "modest clothing" approach is the implicit idea that it doesn't really matter what a girl is wearing as long as her heart is modest and her intention is pure.  I do not agree.  Let us not forget that God did issue an instruction in the I Timothy passage about the clothes themselves.  The standard is listed in the ESV as "respectable apparel."  This implies that there exists in this universe styles we can call "un-respectable or unacceptable apparel."   If I am understanding Paul's inspired instructions in I Timothy correctly (Yup, I did it again.), then it is accurate for me to say that it doesn't really matter what a girl/woman's attitude or motive is.  If her clothes can be deemed to be inappropriate or lacking in respectability, then she is not in adherence to the Biblical standard.  Now, the crux of the issue comes when we ask the question, "What should be considered respectable clothing?"  You may not be surprised to discover that I have some ideas about that.  However, it has taken me a lot longer to type this much than I thought it would, so I think I will save those ideas and the rest of Section 2 for a follow-up post in a few days...

Please be honest but kind in any comments you may choose to submit...

(Read part 2 of this article by clicking here.)


  1. I agree so far. This is an issue that has been bothering me for a couple of years. I want to hear the rest of what you have to say.

  2. Well said and agree with so far....although my husband and I were debating if #4 contradicts some of what you mentioned above. We read it gain and then I read it out loud to make sure we understood what you were trying to say. I agree that the important thing is the heart but also you need to follow God's guidelines for respectable apparel. So the two go hand in hand...but we were not sure if that was what you were trying to say. I think I need to read it again! Looking forward to the second part. :)

  3. I feel honored to be referenced in your blog!

  4. "Modesty" is "Humility" in a literal, Biblical sense. The difficulty is that we have 2 areas that are often but not always connected... the inner heart and the outward appearance. One can be inwardly humble, but inadvertently "un-respectable" in appearance. (Such as an American in a foreign context that doesn't realize that their lack of head covering or their jewelry is considered very "immodest.") Conversely, someone can have a proud heart but wear a nun's habit. The challenge for believers is that we have to recognize God's gaze into the "heart" but be mindful that "man looks on the outward." Men have the same pride issues, but sometimes they are presented in different ways. Could an Armani suit and Rolex be the male equivalent to a bikini?