The heart of modesty (part 2)

Having seen in part 1 of this series that modesty is essentially the antidote to grabbing glory and attention for ourselves, let’s turn our attention to see how the Scriptures ought to shape our awareness and convictions.


The purpose of clothing

As I said in part 1, the main occurrence of the word translated as ‘modest’ is found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. Here are two translations:

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. (NIV)
likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (ESV)

But before we get there, we need to ask, “What’s the purpose of clothing?”

In the garden, under the Creator’s good hand and rule, the man and the woman were naked before each other, utterly comfortable and utterly unashamed:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen 2:24-25)

But then Adam and Eve declared independence from Goddoing what God had specifically prohibitedbecause they wanted to know more, and be more, than God had created them for. Eve takes the fruit, eats, and gives some to Adam, who also eats. The very first effect of this treacherous act of rebellion is found in Genesis 3:7-10:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

A series of questions about these passages in Genesis 2 and 3 present themselves:

  • Why is the word ‘naked’ mentioned in 2:25?
  • And why is the word ‘ashamed’ also mentioned in 2:25?
  • Is it setting us up for what is about to happen?
  • Why didn’t Adam and Eve require clothing in Genesis 2?
  • Why were Adam and Eve then clothed in Genesis 3:7?
  • And why did God replace their wardrobe with a new one in Genesis 3:21?

There is now a radical difference in the way this first man and woman see each other: they know they are naked and they are ashamed.[1]

By rejecting the divine reference point that the Edenic fellowship provided with God at the centre, Adam and Eve must now claim the new central reference pointthemselves. They are each now ‘Number One’ in their own eyes. Following the rebellion, their first emotions are fear and shame. Could this be because the one viewing Eve’s nakedness (Adam) is no longer trustworthyso Eve is afraid she will be ashamed? She is self-conscious about her body so she feels shame. She knows that the one who sees her nakedness is selfish (just like she now is) and not committed to her in that covenant love of 2:24. She knows that she is vulnerable and can’t trust him because he is not safe. And it’s the same for Adam.

What is their answer to this problem? To stitch together flimsy fig leaves onto a belt to cover their nakedness and hide their shame from each other. They make ‘aprons’ and cover their loins; anatomically they cover that which differentiates them.

Adam and Eve also feel that shame before God. In verses 8-10 they are afraid because they now stand exposed before God. They are now defiled, guilty, unworthy and ashamed. They need to hide from him. They have covered themselves with fig leaves, but they are still naked before God. They know what they have now become, and there is a mighty chasm between that and what they were meant to be, what they were made to be. And their pathetic little belts with fig leaves attached cannot cover their inadequacy before God; cannot cover the ugliness and shame of their sin.

So God steps in and does what Adam and Eve cannot do. He makes them presentable before him!

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen 3:21)

An animal is sacrificed and blood is shed so that God can provide adequate clothing for Adam and Eve. God confirms that covering up was an appropriate response to the disgrace of their sin. And the clothes do not conceal their shame before himthey acknowledge and confess it. From this point on, humans will wear clothes “not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be.”[2]

Ask a social theorist why humans wear clothing and they will tell you that it is a socially agreed contract, or that it is the evolutionary response to homo sapiens losing body hair and migrating to colder areas. But it is really a theological issue. God clothes us. It is one of the merciful gifts of grace from God that allows us to own up to and deal with our sin and shame so we can come before him. So clothing bears witness to two things:

  1. The fact that we have lost the glory and beauty of our original relationship with him (our pre-Fall nakedness).
  2. The fact that we cannot deal with our post-Fall shame on our own… we need God to clothe us.

And God continues to clothe us this side of the crosshe clothes us in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lamb of God is slain, divine blood is shed, and we are clothed in his righteousness.

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:14)   
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal 3:26-27)

The problem of our shame and nakedness has been dealt with decisively and permanently. Look at what Jesus says to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:4-5:

Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.

…and then to the church in Laodicea in verse 18:

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

Notice the two words there, shame and nakednessthe very words used in Genesis 2-3. We have come full circle, and this is why clothing is so important and right… and nudity is so wrong.

John Piper comments:

Those who try to reverse this divine decision in search of the primal innocence of the Garden of Eden are putting the cart before the horse. Until all sin is gone from our souls and from the world, being clothed is God’s will for a witness to our fall. Taking your clothes off does not put you back into pre-Fall paradise; it puts you into post-Fall shame. That’s God’s will. It’s why modesty is a crucial post-Fall virtue.[3]


The motivation for modesty

So what is our motivation for modesty? When we look at the New Testament, we get a clear answer. Our motivation is not primarily to avoid being sexually provocative, but to live as the gospel and the grace of God trains us to live.

Titus 2:11-14 says:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

This passage does not speak about modesty as such, but the instructions before it are full of admonition to be dignified, self-controlled, pure and reverent in behaviourall of which are at the heart of modesty. And what is the reason Paul gives for being self-controlled, dignified and reverent in behaviour? It is because that is what the grace of God trains us to be!

Christ’s death has redeemed us from the tyranny of using our behaviour and clothing for self-centred and narcissistic reasons (i.e. the worldly passions of verse 12). Jesus’ redemption of us through his ransom-paying death means that we get to call ourselves ‘his possession’, and our lives will reflect that reality and identity.

So my decisions about what I buy, and what I wear, and how I wear it, and where and when I wear it, are not decisions that sit apart from my identity as a redeemed, Christ-owned person. Our identity will affect our decisions!


A closer look at 1 Timothy 2:9-10

1 Timothy 2:9-10 says a similar thing: your decisions start with your mind and your heart. Paul is saying that before you make decisions about what clothing you wear and how you wear it, think about who you are: a woman who professes godliness and wants to adorn her life with her good works and with what God loves, and not with what impresses other people.

The logic of these two verses comes in three stages:

  1. The positive command or statement of principle is in verse 9a: women are to dress modestly and discreetly.
  2. The negative application follows in 9b: not with braiding, gold, pearls, or expensive clothing.
  3. In verse 10, we are reoriented to focus on what is of ultimate concern: character adornment.

So we begin with the principle of modesty, then we see application followed by reorientation. That’s why we need to wrestle with this issue, with the practical question of what/not to wear. Our clothing is not meant to be about us; it’s meant to display deep and profound truths about God and the gospel. We put on Christ, we wear Christ’s righteousness, and we are meant to adorn ourselves with godliness.

Let's look at the three key words in verse 9a and see what light they throw on the rest of the passage. They are often translated differently, and they overlap. I have gone with the three English words from the ESV:

  • respectable (kosmios)
    The Greek word is related to kosmeô, meaning ‘to put in order, ‘to arrange well, ‘in the proper place. So is Paul saying here that our dress, our adornment, ought to be proper and consistent with who we are? And who are we? We are sinners clothed with Christ’s righteousness! As we choose clothing, we ought to be thinking, Is it respectable? Does it fit with and is it consistent with the situation I am going to wear it in? For example, a swimsuit may be kosmios at the beach, but not in church. Will my clothing fit with the situation I am going to be in, and the people I am going to be with? So should I be wearing holey jeans and a t-shirt to my friend’s wedding? But really the big question here is: is it consistent with my identity, the reality of who I ama sinner clothed with Christ? This word can also be translated as ‘modest’.

  • modest (aidôs)
    This second word has a root meaning of shame and disgrace; so what Paul means here is dressing in such a way that is reserved, that avoids the shame and disgrace we talked about when Adam and Eve realised they were naked. It is a stance that honours God, where you want to choose clothing that pleases him, and which is decent and modest in his eyes. Dressing ‘aidously’ means shrinking back from provocative and seductive clothing that displays your nakedness and says “Look at what I’ve got! I’ve got a great body and I’m not ashamed of it. I will flaunt it.” It means recognising that our clothes are meant to cover our nakedness, not draw attention to it.

  • self-control (sôphrosunê)
    This word means ‘of a sound mind’sober-minded, self-controlled, self-restrained, curbing impulses and desires. Paul is saying that our choice of clothing should be governed by a sense of restraint; not choosing to wear something because we can, but asking ourselves, “Why do I want to dress that particular way? Why do I want to buy that particular pair of shoes? What is going on in my heart that is pushing me to make those decisions?” And if I don't have a good answer, then maybe I can exercise self-control.

I think this is what Paul picks up in the negative application of the second half of verse 9. In and around Ephesus (the church community of 1 Timothy), contemporary literature tells us that one of the most popular fashions of the day centered around a woman’s hair. If the women had the time and the money they would create hair sculptures, piling their hair up on their head into some sort of towera lot like the way Marj Simpsons hair looks.[4] Then they would take gold jewellery and pearls and weave it through their hair as a sign of wealth and status. Their clothing was expensive and opulent as wellcostly attire.

There were also indications that their choice of clothing resembled the dress of temple prostitutes. Bruce Winter comments, You also were what you wore in terms of jewelry and hairstyles. In Greek, dresses and gold was the standard phrase used of the accoutrements of an hetairai [a high class prostitute]”.[5]

Here, in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul is making a profound statement: women of Christ, do not go down the path of gaining your identity through how you adorn yourself outwardly; your choice of clothing should be characterised by self-control and restraint, because your godliness and character are of far greater importance.

Part 3 of this series will address 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 past 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.


[1] The word ‘shame’ is not used here, but I take it 3:7 stands over against 2:25.

[2] John Piper, ‘The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing’, Desiring God, 24 April 2008 (emphasis mine).

[3] John Piper, ‘Nudity in Drama and the Clothing of Christ’, Desiring God, 20 November 2006.

[4] Juvenal commented on the incredibly lavish nature of certain first-century hairdos:  So important is the business of beautification; so numerous are the tiers and storeys piled one upon another on her head! (Juvenal, Satires 6.501-3).

[5] Bruce Winter, ‘You Were What You Wore in Roman Law: Deciphering the Dress Codes of 1 Timothy 2:9-15’, SBL Forum, June 2004.