Where are we heading?
Before you leave the house, do a modesty check. Stand in front of the mirror…
If I am wearing a button-down top, I need to turn sideways and move around to see if there are any gaping holes that expose my chest. If there are, I’ve got to grab the sewing box and pin between the buttons.
The same check is needed if I am wearing a sleeveless shirt. When I move around, can I see my bra? If I do, I need the pins again.
Am I wearing a spaghetti-strap, halter, or sheer blouse? Not even pins will fix this problem! Most guys find these a hindrance in their struggle with lust. It’s time to go back to the closet.
Thus begins the text of 'A Modesty Check', a document that a well-known church in America hands out to its women.
So often discussions about modesty end up in a list of rules: this is godly, that is not; only go this low, not that high; don't show this, or that… There is a ferocious legalism associated with modesty. If you, the reader, are a woman then I want you to know this article is a rule-free zone, because legalism will kill the heart of modesty.
The second thing about modesty that is commonly expressed is that it is primarily addressed to girls and women, and the motivation for Christian women and girls is couched in terms of ‘be modest so that you do not arouse your Christian brothers into impure thoughts’.
There has been a backlash amongst Christians to this kind of thinking. In an article called 'Why Do Fundamentalists Obsess About Modesty?' Suzanne Calulu asks, “Why all this obsession over women keeping themselves covered up from the gaze of men as if men were some lust-driven beast that cannot control their own sexual feelings?”
Another blogger, Elrena Evans, looks at a very legalistic website for 8-12 year old girls that advises:
Stand up straight and pretend you are going for it in worship, and extend your arms in the air to God. Is this exposing a lot of belly? Bellies are very intoxicating, and we need to save that for our husband!
She goes on to ask, ”Are you serious? Bellies are very intoxicating? On 8-year-olds? Is this what we want to be teaching our girls?”
Now, being considerate of our Christian brothers is a worthy thing to consider and a loving motive to have, but it is not the only motive, nor do I think it is the primary motive when considering modesty.
By the end of this series on modesty, I will not have put forward a list of rules; nor will I try to ‘guilt’ anyone into dressing in certain ways only because of how men are tempted; BUT I am praying that all of us, men and women, will be challenged to think through how and why we dress the way we do.
There is a third issue I want to raise as well—that modesty is not only about women and dress; it affects both men and women, and encompasses all that we say and do.
Purity vs modesty
When it comes to modesty, there is a contextual, cultural question in play: what is appropriately modest in one context may not be in another. Societies have different definitions of modesty. For example, in many Pacific Island societies it is immodest for women to wear shorts or jeans—only skirts or dresses are considered suitable. However, in many of those indigenous cultures, it is not considered immodest for women to expose their breasts. In many conservative Muslim countries, a Western woman going without a burka or hijab would be very immodest; in Western society—not so.
There are different situational contexts too. If a woman wears a swimming costume that is considered modest (i.e. not too low, not high cut on the sides) to the beach, that’s modest dress. But if she were to wear it to church on a Sunday morning, that would be immodest. Here, modesty is determined by the situation.
Part of the problem with this backlash in talking about modesty is that Christians often confuse sexual purity and modesty. There is a difference! The Christian standard of sexual purity is the same for all Christians at all times:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body*in holiness and honour… (1 Thess 4:3-4)
…older women are to train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure… (Titus 2:4-5)
Sexual purity (sexual intimacy in monogamous marriage) is a given, for all Christians for all time. It’s non-negotiable.
But the rule of modesty or decency has more of a social dimension that can change. So a girl on a Pacific Island with very little clothing or a Muslim woman in Syria in a top-to-toe burka might be equally ‘modest’, or proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies. We can’t really tell if they are sexually pure or not. But we Christians are called to be pure and chaste and modest.
Some helpful definitions
The issue of clothing has been a focal point for Christians, and we will revisit it later. Before we do, however, there is a wider context in which we ought to explore modesty in the Christian life.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines modesty as:
- the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
- regard for decency of behaviour, speech, dress, etc.
- simplicity; moderation.
It’s interesting to note that these definitions do not focus primarily on women and dress, but extend the focus to behaviour and speech.
For the purpose of these articles, and for the Christian, I want to define modesty as that desire for purity/holiness which will result in self-controlled ways of dressing and speaking and behaving that draw attention to God, and not to ourselves.
I call this the heart of modesty, because it addresses all of us—men and women—and it strikes at the heart of our attempt to grab glory for ourselves, our lack of humility, and our narcissism.
In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, we get the main occurrence of the word that is commonly translated as ‘modest/modesty’. It’s a word to women about the way we dress and adorn ourselves. This is no doubt the reason that women and dress has been the focus of attention down the centuries. But there is something much deeper in the sinful human condition that ought to shape our understanding of modesty.
Narcissism and modesty
In John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks to the Pharisees he highlights the real, deep desires and motivations of the human heart. We want glory!
"How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:44)
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (John 12:42-43)
The questions we may ask ourselves include: Am I appealing to you? Am I accepted by you? Have I got your attention? Are you taking notice of me? Have I put myself ahead of you on the social and fashion scale? I’ve got it, so why shouldn’t I flaunt it? My body is MY body so why can’t I use it, or decorate it, in whatever way I like?
As sinful people, narcissism is our default position. We want to grab glory for ourselves from others and from God, ignoring the mandate for creatures to evaluate ourselves in the light of the Creator and give glory to him! Modesty then is the antidote to taking glory for ourselves: the necessity to intentionally take mastery of our thoughts, desires, behaviour, speech and dress, and divert attention away from ourselves and focus the attention on Jesus.
Immodesty says, "Look at me, notice me, give me your attention”. Modesty says, "I want to live my life in the shadow of my Saviour. I want people to notice him, not me."
Part 2 of this series will examine more closely the clothing issue, and part 3 will raise some implications of modesty for men and women.
Lesley Ramsay has been in local church ministry with her husband, Jim, for 47 years. After university she trained as a teacher and then raised four children. Over the last 30 years she has worked as a Bible teacher and evangelist across Australia and overseas. She has written and edited several books and training packages that are sold and used internationally. She now works at Moore College in Sydney, in pastoral care to the students. To relax, she enjoys a good coffee and a good book and hanging out with her grandchildren.