why modesty is (and isn’t) very important

(Note: Despite my closing statements, I really do feel like this is a good topic to debate. I am only learning and would be genuinely interested in discussion on the topic of modesty, at least at this time. I am using lots of scripture references in this post for your own further study, but please remember that I am not theologian. This is my own interpretation. Also, I am purposely including only New Testament passages in order to keep things relevant  As we continue to live under The New Covenant, the NT should continue to be our guide. Please join the conversation in the comment section if you have something to add!)

There has been a lot of talk lately about The Modesty Culture. From my spot here with Chrysanthemum (my laptop) it appears that the basic idea is this: Our traditional view of modesty for women is skewed and the way we dress and the way men act are not correlated. To the first point-yes. I noticed this in high school. Girls used to say things in youth group like, “Nike shorts are immodest, I don’t wear them.” And another girl would whip around, eyes wide, jaw-dropped and say, “They ARE?!” And then I was the one with the bug eyes as I realized that my peers thought modesty was something like 100% cotton or buy-one-get-one-free. It was something that an article of clothing either was, or wasn’t and you might as well just print it on the tag.

To say that immodest dress causes lust or rape is silly. That isn’t the cause of lust or rape. Lust and rape have been around a long time and are rampant in countries where women are forced to wear burkas, the most “modest” kind of clothing I can imagine. In these cultures, men are the boss, period. Women are merchandise. You wear the burka, no questions ask. You go to his bed, no questions asked. I seriously doubt girls in this culture are thinking, “Gee, if I was wearing a darker, heavier burka, maybe he’d respect me.”

So no, I don’t think immodest dress causes men to be lustful or violent creatures. That is a deeper, older heart issue. However, I have one issue with this tidy idea which brings us back to a place near where we started, though not via the same route at all. I still believe Jesus-following women are called to modest dress, and here’s why:

1. I am no theologian, but I am learning every day. I think that, though our cultures change for good and evil over time, 1 Timothy 2:9 was left in the Bible for a reason. I think that the plea for women to dress “with modesty and sobriety” is still relevant. If you read it in context, what Paul appears to be saying is that women should care more about good works than good looks. He says for men to try not to get so angry in church and women, likewise, try not to be so flashy in church. It appears to all be in context of a church service, but I don’t see why this wouldn’t apply to the rest of life. After all, church isn’t just a building or a time slot and our brothers and sisters in Christ see us all week long (along with the rest of the world.) I doubt Paul meant for the men to leave church and go back to their “anger and quarreling” nor likewise for a woman to pull off her clothes as she left the sanctuary, forsaking all sobriety of dress.

2. Immodesty may not cause men to lust, but it does tempt them. Hear me out on this one. I am not saying that we are responsible for what our brothers and sisters decide to act upon, but there is no one who can argue with the fact that as the American culture has become more lewd, as pornography has become a booming industry and body wash companies use female anatomy to advertise*, as lace thongs are being sold in little girls sizes and nudity is the norm at the movie theater, there has been a rise promiscuity and, in general, acceptance of “sexual freedom” (to do whatever we want, wherever we want, with whomever we want.)

*warning: link to Axe ads is quite provocative

I think the only way to further my point is the make a confession. I live in a college town where the #1 activity is what you might imagine and the second-most popular thing appears to be running. Yeah, running. All over town. In as little clothes as possible. Now, I know that this is Texas and yes-the summers here are sweltering, but that’s really not an excuse in my book. I understand why many guys don’t think anything of it when they run out of their dorm with nothing but shorts and tennis shoes on, but I also know that they work out for one basic reason-to make themselves attractive. (Not everyone, but most.) And my confession is this-they do look good and it does bother me. I have to turn away when I’m driving/walking around town and not stare at all of the half-naked college guys prancing around because it does affect me. 

I know that even if I lived in a porn theater, my sexual decisions would be my own. I really believe that. But it’s a lot harder to fight lust and “save myself” for marriage (Hebrews 13:4) when there are tanned abs encircling my car. (Honest, aren’t I?) Modesty isn’t just for women. Modesty isn’t just about clothes. But if the way men dress (or don’t) affects my mind, why would I think my dress doesn’t affect the mind of my brothers?

Sex before marriage isn’t the only kind of impurity (Matthew 5:28.)  It all starts in the mind (or, as scripture calls it, the heart.) I have to be extremely, over-the-top careful about what movies I watch in order to avoid this kind of sin. I have to not look at the sidewalk while I’m driving. I have to scroll quickly through certain websites which use crude advertisements to avoid this sin. You can call that what you want-common sense? A sacrifice? (See Matthew 5:29) But it’s what I have to do to keep my mind from wandering to hurtful, degrading places.

Historically, men degrade women. I’m not being sexist when I say that. Women have long been objectified, oppressed and made to be a commodity. This is absolutely unjust, wrong and makes me angry. But I don’t want to degrade men either. I don’t want to be one of those moms who goes to the theater to drool over Twilight beefy werewolves. 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Max are two perfect examples of women recently degrading men. This isn’t just a man’s battle. (Romans 13:14)

I would like to tell the guys I know that modesty is for them too, because it helps protect us all. Especially, perhaps, modesty in their speech. Stop showing off and flirting with every girl you see. It’s embarrassing.

3. It’s really not that big of a sacrifice to keep your clothes on. We do things to protect our own minds, as Christian women, all the time. Don’t pick up that book, don’t turn on that tv channel. We can put hours of thought into if this outfit makes us look good, why not a couple of minutes into if it makes us look immodest? We aren’t our brother’s keeper, but, for some reason or another, Paul wrote that women should be careful about how they dress. And so what if it’s to help a brother out? Is that so offensive? Sounds more like “loving one another” than selling oneself, to me. Romans 14:13 begs that we never put a stumbling block in front of a brother. This is in context of food and drink, but it doesn’t say “in regard to food and drink” does it? It just says never.

4. Women appreciate modest women too, and not just women who struggle with homosexuality. Women show off to other women just as much as they show off for men…maybe even more! In our competitive minds, we want other girls to see how attractive we are, how fashionable or thin or tan or wealthy, and we do this by dressing brazenly. The only thing I can find that scripture tells us to wear is “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” and “above all else, love”. (Colossians 3:12-14) Showing off and putting others down is not kind, humble or loving.

5. Lastly and most grandly, clothing is only the tip of the modesty iceberg. A woman in a burka can seduce a man. A woman in a bikini can repulse a man. A man in a nice suit can be the most flirtatious jerk you ever met. A man with no shirt can be met with indifference. I think that the main reason women should dress modestly is because our dress should reflect our person. I want to dress like a woman. In my culture, that means certain things. In Scotland, a kilt is seen as manly. Here, we call those “mini skirts” and sell them to teenage girls. It is a matter of culture. I like to dress in a way that my culture will see as feminine because that is what I am, feminine. Not because my dad makes me or my pastor will kick me out of church, but because God made me female and I want to be seen as such. God also made me an heir. I want to dress like one. I want to dress with modesty because I am learning to be a modest person, not just a mannequin for modest clothing. Though many of you know exactly how I dress, I am going to refrain from describing it here. Some of you will see me as legalistic, others as immodest. This is where personal decisions are  made, and that’s fine. Not even the wordy Apostle Paul told us about necklines and swimsuits, so we can keep the details to ourselves. I make changes pretty frequently in what I approve of for myself or feel good in. I also make clothing decisions based on financial, ethical and aesthetic reasons. I like to look pretty. I like to buy fair-trade whenever I can. I like to save money. These things don’t have to do with modesty, they have to do with reflecting the rest of my personality and mindset.

Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25.)

Yesssssir. I don’t actually think this issue is about bikinis or necklines or fabric. We should really be asking ourselves, “Am I following Christ? Am I representing Him well? Would immodest dress reflect a proud spirit?” Jesus tells us that the Father listens to the humble, not the people who dress a certain way. Should we think about what we buy, what we eat, how we dress, how we speak, where we go? Yes! But that is of so little concern compared to greater things. Perhaps, instead of complaining about what our neighbor is wearing, we should focus on the main thing Jesus says about clothes-clothing the poor. Perhaps, instead of bemoaning our culture day-and-night, we should reach out to the girls who have been victimized by porn and prostitution. This may sound like a bit of a rabbit trail, but I think it’s true. Jesus himself said not to worry about clothes. It may be an issue, but not a salvation-related issue. Not a gospel-related issue. Not a huge issue. It’s just an outer layer, worldly issue.

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

Stop worrying so much about how you or I look on the outside. Our clothes and our bodies are so very temporary. We’re all going to the grave to turn into dust momentarily. In Heaven, we’ll have new bodies. We might just be walking around with crowns for all I know. Until then, read scripture for yourself, consider your decisions and then go and live in freedom.

10 Responses to why modesty is (and isn’t) very important

  1. Jessica S June 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I appreciate your point about guys running without shirts on, I totally feel the same way.
    But there’s something that is missing, though you hinted at it, and I think it needs to be said.
    “Not causing our brothers to stumble” is not enough of a reason for us to dress modestly. It’s not enough. It’s objectification.
    Here’s why. If the only reason that we dress modestly is in order to keep our brothers from lusting after us and objectifying us, then in that moment, we are nothing more than a body that needs to be covered up. Modesty is supposed to keep men from objectifying us, right? But when the only reason that we dress modestly is because we don’t want men to lust after us, our body is being objectified. If I am told to cover up, lest my brother in Christ stumble because of me, I’m just breasts and hips and thighs to hide. I am nothing more. I love that you did address this issue as more than just the stumbling block issue, but I think that we can emphasize this too much, until we begin to objectify women in the name of Christian love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a talk on modesty that included any reasons other than “don’t cause your brother to stumble”.
    But if, in fact, I am made in the image of God, I am much more than just a body. I am a soul, a spirit, a mind, a heart, and a body. And I have the Spirit of the Living God within me. If we understand the purpose of clothing, it becomes much less an issue of “one piece, tankini, or bikini?” or “jeans, skirt, mini-skirt?” and much more a question of “am I honoring God in my body?”
    In Genesis we find that clothing is a gift given by God to cover our nakedness and shame, and that when we stand in our bedrooms and put on clothing, it is a confession to God that our relationship with him and with others is not what it was created to be and that it is broken. We are not intimately related to God the way he meant us to be, and our clothing is a confession of that. But Christ dies, in nakedness, suffering for our sins. Christ overturns Adam and Eve’s nakedness, he takes it upon himself and thus becomes our righteous clothing.
    And so as believers we are called to clothe ourselves with Christ (Colossians talks a great deal about this, putting on Christ), and I think that for me, the question I have to ask when I am trying to decide what to wear is whether I am clothing myself with Christ, and whether what I wear is a confession of my need for him, or is rather a declaration that I don’t need him and am free to live without him. I know this is long winded, but the point is, are we honoring Christ, and we should think of that before we ask about our brother. And I think you sort of got there, but maybe not quite. Does that make any sense? I think you’ll probably agree with me on all of this, I just thought it was worth putting out there. I’m curious to hear what you think.

    • Everly Pleasant June 11, 2013 at 5:47 am #

      Hmm, I think I see what you’re saying, Jessica, and we may or may not agree. Let’s see if we can figure this out.

      I understand how the modesty arguments can turn into objectification. Totally. I hate the phrase “modest is hottest” because, in essence, it’s saying, “Guys will think you’re sexy if you dress mysteriously.” The one time I went to youth camp and heard a talk about modesty/lust etc, I am ashamed at how much I bought into the objectification of women that the talk included. The *male* speaker gave a talk to just girls in which I remember two main points:
      1. our bodies intoxicate men
      2. surveys show that the clothing men find most attractive on women is their own (larger) articles of clothing. He then encouraged us to dress modestly, basically in large baggy clothing that guys would find attractive. The logic would be atrocious if I could find any logic in this argument at all!

      You said,

      “Modesty is supposed to keep men from objectifying us, right? But when the only reason that we dress modestly is because we don’t want men to lust after us, our body is being objectified. If I am told to cover up, lest my brother in Christ stumble because of me, I’m just breasts and hips and thighs to hide. I am nothing more.”

      I understand what you are saying here, but I don’t agree (which could simply be my own ignorance…I’m trying to develop my own opinions on this matter perhaps for the first time.) The way I see it, when I clothe my physical exterior, even with the intention of protecting the eyes of men, I am not objectifying myself or being objectified by anyone else. It could become as such, but I don’t think it innately is. Animals do not clothe themselves beyond their hides because they are *only* “breasts and hips and thighs”. I feel that I cover myself *because* I am more than that. I clothe myself, I would go as far as to say, in order to protect myself from objectification. My mind (thoughts) and heart (emotions) and soul are all hidden upon first impression. I expose them only as I choose, as I trust. Why not my skin as well? Why not my figure?

      I don’t think the only reason we need to dress or dress modestly is in order to keep men from lusting. I think you are right in stating that we shamed ourselves in the garden and have to wear clothing for that reason (which is both theological and now practical.) I do think it has a lot to do with sex, though. Adam and Eve had the whole world as their bedroom. They were a married couple with a planet to themselves. In my case, I share a planet with billions of people, 100% of whom are not my spouse! I feel as if that might have played into the story. The world isn’t your private place anymore.

      If the whole purpose of clothing was to “cover our shame” in the eyes of God, though that does sound much grander than my theory, I think Jesus would have told his disciples to give up clothing entirely as part of the New Covenant. I also think the OT people would have trouble bathing without being naked before God! I know this is taking things rather literally, but apart from the symbolism of clothing, I think there are person-to-person reasons today.

      I just can’t quite see why we jump from “if our reason for modesty is to keep our brothers from stumbling we are being objectified” to “because in that moment we are just a body.” What moment? Our entire lives are supposed to be lived in modesty, inside and out. If we say that dressing modesty is objectifying ourselves or allowing ourselves to be seen as mere objects, why doesn’t this apply to a million other areas in which our physical bodies are involved? Could we say that to eat, merely to feed our bodies, is to objectify oneself? What about to wear make-up? To cut our hair? To exercise? I am honestly not playing the devil’s advocate to provoke you, I’m trying to figure this out myself. Just because something deals with the physical, doesn’t mean it makes me an object, something less than human. And I believe, as it sounds like you do, that modest dress or clothing in general have much more to do with the spiritual. You just seem to think it has to do with me and God, wherein I feel that it has to do with purity before God through a different avenue.

      Your argument (though I’ve heard it before and really do see why people tend to think this way) seems to boil down to something selfish. I am not saying that my purpose in this world is to please or protect men. I am not a doormat or a mistress or a my-father-is-my-king sort of girl. What strikes me as selfish is the thought that, if we do do something to protect our brothers, that makes us an object. That line of thinking would, in my mind, lead to greater issues. If you use your body to please or serve someone, are you an object? Do smiling, making love and giving birth all objectify women? After all, we’re using our bodies for the sole purpose of loving/serving/protecting another.

      I don’t think, as I think I expressed in my post, that modesty is just about “is this too short?” or bikinis vs. tankinis. I do think, however, that it has to do with lust and purity.

      Thank you very much for participating in the conversation. I hope you get this and find the time to read it (heehee-I’m long-winded too) so as to continue chatting. I am really curious about this issue right now, having read several varying perspectives lately.

      Everly

      • jessica s June 12, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

        Everly,
        thanks for taking the time to respond! I wish we could just sit down over coffee and talk about this, because it is so much harder like this, but i’m going to do my best to respond to you in a way that makes sense. Here we go. :)

        You have a much more holistic view of modesty than I had for many years. I grew up in the evangelical culture, and from around the age of twelve, I heard about what you heard at that camp: cover up your body because guys are super visual and think about sex all the time. It took different forms and had different leanings but the gist was always the same: if you love your brother, you will dress modestly. And I ended up with this mindset that if you were a good Christian, you dressed modestly, and if you didn’t, you were worldly. I had my own standards of what that meant, but in my heart it boiled down to this: if you aren’t dressed according to my standards of modesty, you must not love Jesus. Obviously that was not so healthy.

        In my own heart, my motivation for dressing modestly was not because I loved Jesus, but because I was supposed to honor my brother. Because that’s what good Christian girls did. And for me, it became idolatry and objectification. Now, you hit in a good point in saying that we don’t really objectify ourselves. But I bought into the lie that “not causing my brother to stumble” was the trump reason, so to speak, to dress modestly. So when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t ask myself, “Am I clothing myself in Christ, both outwardly and inwardly, am I honoring God with what I wear?”. I asked myself “Will this cause a guy to lust after me?” Now, the second question isn’t a bad question, but it can’t be the ONLY question. I wasn’t trying to be a person of modesty through and through like you expressed in the post. I was trying to honor Jesus, but I was changing the order of the commandments: ‘love your brother’ began to trump ‘love the Lord your God’ when it came to this issue. For me it DID boil down to “tankini vs. bikini” and “is this too short” and “am I covering what needs to be covered?”.

        So, I hope that gives you a better idea of where I’m coming from with all of this. Now, to address your arguments.

        I agree that there IS a person-to-person aspect of modesty. And whether we like it or not, to some degree the way we dress can subtly change the way people interact with us. For example, in high school, one of my good friends discovered that if she dressed in a more professional manner, even just wearing a blouse with jeans instead of a T-shirt, adults would treat her with a little more respect, more like an adult and less like a kid. So our clothes do make a difference in our interactions with each other.

        I do think that the primary reason for clothing is to cover our shame and nakedness – a confession of our broken relationship with God. But there are different aspects of this that would include person to person relations.
        I do disagree with what you said about the New Covenant, that Christ would have commanded his followers to forsake clothing. We still live in the world and still interact with other people. There is a not-yet sense in the way we live, so even though we can live without shame, we still have to live in the world and interact with the people of the world.
        There’s a really good chapter on this on Rosalie de Rosset’s book “Unseduced and Unshaken: the place of dignity in a young woman’s choices”, if you’re interested in it. (The whole book is really terrific if you have the chance to read it.)

        Anyway, I know that there’s a lot there, and I’m not even sure I’ve fully addressed your arguments. I have been reading a lot about this recently as well, and for me what really blew my mind was the idea that I am supposed to be dressing myself in Christ, like it talks about in Colossians. And because I already understand the lust/purity aspects of the topic, it was so freeing to stop asking myself if I was going to cause some guy to stumble and simply ask if I could be comfortable having my clothing be a confession of my need for Christ. That’s sort of an abstract idea that doesn’t translate well when I’m typing, but I hope it makes sense. Feel free to come back at it again from a different angle. Like I said earlier, you have a much more holistic approach to this than I did for a long time, so we may be saying the same things from different directions, if you know what I mean.

        thanks again for taking the time to respond! sorry it’s so long again…haha.
        Jessica

        • Everly Pleasant June 13, 2013 at 2:53 am #

          Jessica,

          Thanks for sticking with me. :) I think we probably do agree on a lot of things, but it’s difficult to communicate this way. I too wish for a time slot in a coffee shop with you! That would make this easier and probably more fruitful.

          First of all, I want to clarify that I agree with your interpretation of the symbolism of clothes in the Bible. However, I don’t believe that symbolism is the only reason for clothing or modest dress. (I don’t think you do either, but I’m clarifying.)

          I have always been taught that God’s law (new and old) are for our own good, protection and blessing. There is a practical reason behind every NT commandment I can think of. Loving our neighbor, not arguing with young believers, not worrying about tomorrow, giving to the poor–all of these have practical, earthly reasons, even if they’re counter-cultural. Why can’t dressing modestly have a practical, earthly reason behind it too? I see it the same way I see the passages about not eating meat or meat offered to idols in front of those who are weak in the faith. (Not that men have weaker faith than women! As I wrote in the original text, I think men should try to be modest too. They are, however, supposedly more “visual.”)

          Our brothers should never come before God, that’s definitely true. However, we love God by loving our brothers (and sisters) in this life, yes?

          I love your abstract thoughts on clothing and modesty-really, I do. They are the bigger picture. But why be offended by the small picture of men lusting after women who flaunt their bodies? Why deny that this is an issue or that trying to help the issue (dressing modestly) is offensive/objectifies us? That’s what I don’t quite grasp.

          No, it’s not all about our bodies. It’s not all about our brothers. But those are major pieces in the game, I think.

          I’m putting that book on my wishlist! Thanks for the recommendation. :)

          Everly

          • Jessica S June 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

            Everly,
            sorry it has been a bit – I didn’t forget! (Okay, maybe for a little.) But I haven’t lost interest. ;)

            I agree, I don’t think you can boil very many things down to mere symbolism, much less modesty. For some reason God chooses to use very material and practical things to advance his kingdom, though many/most of them have wells of theological significance. I absolutely do agree that modesty has very practical person to person implications (see my fith paragraph above.) And I very much do want to honor my brothers in Christ and not dress in a way that causes them to stumble. I don’t deny that there are earthly, practical reasons for modesty.
            Where I take issue is with those (I would confidently venture to say that you are not among them) who speak only regarding the earthly, practical side. All too often the pursuit of modesty becomes legalism and far too many people have been burned by such a system. There is a “culture”, so to speak, surrounding modesty and the ideas regarding it in our evangelical culture. You mentioned it above, the “modest is hottest” idea and other such derogatory terms. I love how in the original post you ended by saying, “don’t worry about clothes!” The truth is that I wish I’d heard it sooner.

            You wrote “why be offended by the small picture o men lusting after women who flaunt their bodies?” If that “small picture” is in the context of the church, then, to be honest, I must confess that I am offended by both – the man who lusts and the woman who flaunts – because they both distort the image of Christ. I’m not entirely sure what you meant by “Why deny that this is an issue” (I don’t at all) “or that trying to help the issue is offensive/objectifies us?”
            It’s not offensive to address modesty. It IS offensive to address it from a standpoint entirely made up of the man’s perspective – neglecting to bring Christ into it in a healthful/helpful way. That is where I take issue and have concern.
            I hope this helps clarify, but I appreciate your comments on all of this. As we’ve both agreed, this is an awkward way to communicate, but I hope I’ve not come across accusatory or angry: i’m simply interested in the discussion. I’d love to talk further – on this or other topics. (though I can’t think while typing and have to write by hand…snail mail?)
            feel free to email me.

            ~Jessica

          • Everly Pleasant June 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

            Jessica,
            Well, I really think we are on the same page now! This discussion has been very nice. :)
            I would love to write snail mail! Though I warn you-I mull over real letters even longer than blog comments, so it may be a practice in patience!

            Everly

  2. Aunt Dee June 4, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Love your writing Everly! Love your wisdom, and love your heart!!!

  3. Natasha Metzler June 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    And this is why I love you, Everly. :)

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