In coming across a well spread article on modesty, I began to have some red flags go off in me while reading it. While I’m sure the author is a Jesus-loving lady, I disagreed largely with her thoughts and I wanted to share some thoughts of my own taken from my journey regarding modesty.
While I didn’t grow up attending church and being taught on biblical modesty, I was taught self-value. I may not have entered a church at 2 years old, but I did enter the dance studio. Which means that as I grew, I took on my parent’s tall lean build and my “Dance Team” cheer skits were often shorter than others. My identity was formed in a typical MTV generation culture where women were viewed as sexual objects. Being raised in a time where media showed unfaithfulness, fornication, pornography, and impossible standards of beauty for women, what else was I to think? I didn’t know any better and I longed to be found beautiful by the opposite sex. This caused a long hard road of heartache, but out of it came great redemption from the love of God and his beautiful plan for my life to be pure and pleasing to Him. It is because of my experience in the freedom of Christ that I share these questions with you.
#1 Is There a Clear Line Regarding Christian Modesty?
Don’t worry! I’m not going to tell you that a way to measure modesty is by the “hallelujah” test where you raise your arms to see if your shirt is too short (an embarrassing and ridiculous test if you ask me—just wear long layers underneath your top). Nor am I going to give you a list of dos and don’ts. Instead I want to challenge us to think, ask questions, and seek to be those who fully love God.
The short answer to this question is no, there isn’t a clear line which is why there are so many views on this topic. I’m not saying that I have all the answers, but I feel it’s important to start by looking at what Scripture has to say about this topic.
1 Peter 3:3-5 says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves.”
1 Timothy 2:9-10 says, “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.”
It appears that both Peter and Paul were on the same page and I agree with them. I believe that all scripture is from God and that woman should dress as to reflect Jesus properly. I believe these scriptures equally mean that we shouldn’t be materialistic or obsessed with our outward appearance and our wardrobe. I also believe that there are some absolutes when it comes to modesty such as not having your breasts and other private parts hanging out (in a Western context, more on this later). Beyond the absolutes though in regards to manner of dress AND disposition of personality, I personally believe that daughters of God must listen to the Bible and to the conviction of the Holy Spirit themselves.
The reality is that someone could submit pictures to me of a woman wearing a particular outfit and I could give my personal opinion or even submit it before a panel of Christian men and get their opinion. If we all deemed the outfit inappropriate, one might be motivated not to wear it. However, until a person desires to please the Lord for himself or herself and listen to Him, they won’t have the personal conviction and proper motivation to please Him by what they wear and how they act.This is in my opinion where legalism can come into play and why many rebel against the “standards” that are set by others. It is one thing to comply with a dress code for a job or for a church service, but unless someone comes to a mature place to understand what pleases Jesus, they’ll often view these dress codes as legalistic and thus miss an opportunity to see His views.
The place modesty should start is in serving Jesus, not ourselves. When we get our focus on serving Jesus, we will seek to be pleasing to Him in all that we do. In so doing this we can eliminate the mentality of, “How close can I get to the line without crossing it?” and the attitude of flaunting our wardrobe and accessories. We can then be empowered to be as abandoned to the will of God as possible and become what God has always desired, a heart that is fully His. A heart that chooses Him, honors Him, and one that is quick to repent of sin and be near to Him. It’s important to know that Jesus doesn’t condemn us and shame us into submitting to His ways, BUT He will correct us and lead us into righteousness for His name’s sake as we choose to do His will. (Psalm 23:3) I say this to clarify that Jesus delights in us doing His will and doesn’t beat us up when we sin. He loves and takes pleasure in helping us mature in righteousness and become more like Him.
I’d like to say too that modesty is more than just our outward appearance. Modest clothing doesn’t always equal modest behavior. Any woman or man can be fully clothed and still be operating in a seductive and lustful spirit. By contrast, someone else may not be modestly dressed, but they might have a genuine heart to seek God and aren’t aware of how to dress. As believers we can teach and share with others, but it is not our place to judge based on non-absolutes that aren’t clearly defined in Scripture. Which brings me to my next point…
#2 Are We Teaching on Modesty in the Right Spirit?
I stated earlier that my “cheer skirts” were short. School dress code prohibited shorts or other skirts to be any shorter than fingertip length with arms fully extended by your side. Therefore due to my genetically long monkey arms, my fingertip length for shorts/skirts was considered “dorky” back then and I would’ve been made fun of mercilessly. When summer time came with no school restrictions on my outfits, I typically wore “short shorts” and tank tops where my midriff showed some. Where I’m from in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it gets into the 100s and the less you wore, the more comfortable you were. That was all I knew.
When I made Jesus the Lord of my life my junior year of High School at 16 years old, much changed in my life. I was so hungry for God, I attended church a few times a week, read my bible everyday, but I was still a baby in Christ and had plenty to learn (and I still do!).
Often after youth group, some of us would go for Tex-Mex and I’d get free food like chips and pop from the waiters. I’ve always had a strong personality, a deep love for people that caused me to talk to everyone, and then there’s my vibrant red hair. This combination definitely caused me to be noticed more than I realized. At this stage in life I didn’t have a strong identity in Christ, nor did I realize that I was drawing impure attention from men. I knew I wasn’t sleeping around and wearing super revealing clothes so I thought that in comparison with other girls, I was doing great! I just couldn’t see my blind spot.
One day during my senior year of High School, I had a talk with some of my male youth leaders that changed my life forever. They spoke with me about my strong personality and how that combined with how I dressed, men were turning their heads and giving me attention that wasn’t pure. These leaders shared the struggles men have with sexual sin and it helped me understand the realities of lust. They celebrated my leadership “command the room” type personality, my desire to connect with people, and they helped me find a righteous balance. They spoke in such a tender Spirit led way that I didn’t walk away feeling ashamed. Instead I left the conversation feeling beautiful and I desired to protect the beauty that God had placed within me. Their talk left me realizing that my personality gave me an opportunity to point people to Jesus and that put a joyous responsibility on me and it is partially why I’m secure in who I am today.
There were other love centered rebukes in the years that followed and I appreciated the insight and the correction that came with being held to a righteous standard. However, there were a few other instances where I was told in rather harsh ways that what I was wearing wasn’t proper and even that the way that I swayed my hips in worship could be distracting for men. Those moments always left me feeling embarrassed and degraded rather than corrected in love. For a short while I became more focused on how I moved while worshipping Jesus, than focused on actually worshipping Jesus.
The point in sharing these two examples is to emphasize the contrast of confrontations. One group sought to turn what God had given me, a people loving outgoing personality, into a pure hearted and modest awareness that displayed Christ; whereas the other sought to correct an outward appearance based on personal opinion without welcoming the love of God into the situation.
I think that as believers we MUST meet people where they are and speak in love. We can’t assume that they’ve had the best examples growing up or that they understand their new identity in Christ. I believe there is a way to teach modesty to women and men in a way that helps them fall more in love with Jesus and who He’s created them to be. I often think of how Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8 with tenderness and empowerment to walk away from a place of sin with renewed hope. This approach can cultivate a desire for one to yield themselves to Him not only in their outward appearance, but also in a manner of heart.
#3 Have We Become Victims to Culture and Society?
There are common mentalities in the world today that provide opportunities for people to not own responsibility for their actions or to be held accountable to a moral compass that sets boundaries. Simply put, people don’t like to be told what to do. These ideologies have crept into the church and have given believers an excuse to do as they please instead of being accountable to God. If we profess to follow Christ, the Bible should be our final word of authority, not the society around us. I believe that when our desire is to please the Lord in every area of our lives, He will help us. As believers, we must all become responsible for our actions and our attitudes. When we stand before God one day He isn’t going to ask how many people made us stumble. He will ask if we partnered with His word to overcome the temptations we found ourselves in and if we turned away from sin.
I had plenty of excuses with my MTV background and my flirty skirts to play victim to circumstance. I faced plenty of temptations in the area of sexual sin as well as being involved in impure relationships in my teen years. Instead of remaining in a place of hurt and insecurity, I sought the Lord, read His word, and invited His loving correction into my life. I’m grateful as this turn of heart caused me to experience freedom and I ended up marrying a holy, Jesus-loving man, whose heart towards me is pure.
My husband grew up as a missionary in East Africa and as a single man, he was a missionary in Burundi. This offered him unique insight into modesty as it relates to cultural differences. Almost every time he would preach in a church in Burundi, women would begin to openly breastfeed their babies. I understand that this varies from the typical American church service where women would never do this, but in Africa and many parts of the world this is completely normal. Hello—hungry babies + moms hungry for word of God=breastfeeding in service and anywhere for that matter. So here was my husband having prayed and prepared a word, continually faced with the onslaught of up close and personal breasts as he preached. He said to me, “It wasn’t their fault that their babies are hungry and that they chose to feed them during service. It was my responsibility to have my flesh crucified so that I was only looking to Jesus and focused on what He wanted to say to the people. There was no excuse to entertain lust just because there was an opportunity for it, for I’m accountable to God’s Word.” I realize most men aren’t going to be preaching in a cultural context like Burundi, but the same principle applies if they see a woman dressed improperly or if presented with pornography.
There are natural chemical responses in our bodies that manifest physically when faced with a sexual temptation. Particularly for men being more visual than women, they can get an adrenaline rush just from seeing a woman’s body. I agree that it’s not their fault that their bodies are made to respond like that because in the context of marriage it is wonderful and holy. HOWEVER, it is the man’s responsibility to deal with their response to culture and society in a way that glorifies God just as much as it is for a woman to dress and behave in a way that glorifies God. This means glorifying God both inwardly in their thought life as well as outwardly by turning away their eyes. The influence of the world doesn’t give believers the right to play victim to unrighteousness. We are held to the same Biblical standards regardless of others actions.
#4 Are We Protecting the Hearts of Others?
When people dress or act inappropriately it is often rooted in insecurity from a lack of identity in Christ. This insecurity produces selfishness that can lead to pressures to compete and compare with others, which can ultimately lead to compromise. If we honor the opposite sex selflessly as brothers and sisters in Christ, then we have an opportunity to mature in our identity in Him. This produces a pure heart that wants to protect others.
Proper identity in Christ as a son or daughter teaches us to honor, love, and protect those around us by treating them as we would the Lord Himself.
When a person reaches a place where they love the opposite sex purely and serve them with the heart of Christ instead of operating out of insecurity, God releases maturity into their hearts that can carry them into a healthy marriage. My single years taught me to be a sister to other men and to keep my heart guarded for the man I’d marry someday. Holding to this posture as a married or single person can help us create safe environments for godly relationships to flourish so that we can purely partner together for His kingdom.
#5 Have We Truly Experienced the Freedom in Christ that Sets Us Apart from this World?
Unrighteousness living presents “freedom” as being whoever we want to be and doing whatever feels good. The freedom in Christ produces what others could view as “restrictions”, but it ultimately gives us authentic liberty. Modesty isn’t limiting who we are; rather it’s releasing us into who God made us to be. Let me say to all the ladies reading this; there is incredible beauty in being a daughter of God. There is likewise a heavy burden in being a daughter of this world enslaved to what others define as beautiful.
When I read the blog that I mentioned in my intro, I was sitting in an Islamic context with women physically covered up all around me. This could be why the blog struck me as so bizarre as it conveyed that the more covered up a woman was; then the less men would lust, which I disagree with. I don’t know if that author is familiar with Islamic culture, nor do I pretend to be an expert, but I do know how oppressive that religion can be for women in various ways. In the manner of dress, they are typically covered up from head to toe, often in strict culture having only their eyes visible. The rationale behind this is because women’s bodies elicit lust and men simply can’t control themselves. Islam teaches that it’s the woman’s fault that men lust and that she must cover up her entire body. The Bible on the other hand teaches us to deny OURSELVES, crucify OUR FLESH and put to death the lusts of OUR SOUL. Herein lies my problem with Christians who teach that it’s not the man’s fault when he lusts after a woman. I wasn’t there, but from what I read, Bathsheba was only taking a bath! I’m not sure how it was her fault that David lusted after her. We must remember what Jesus said, “if anyone even looks at a woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). If we say that it’s exclusively the woman’s fault that a man looks and then lusts after her, how then is that any different than Islam? If we suggest that women should only be covered in large baggy garments, how is that releasing freedom to the daughters of God?
I share this because the freedom that we have in Jesus Christ is not bound in legalism and oppression that the world offers. There is HOPE in Jesus that liberates us from sin and separates us into righteous living (right standing with Him). He calls us out from serving our flesh and into finding our beauty in who He has created us to be. This freedom doesn’t permit us to make others stumble. Rather, our modesty becomes worship to the one true living God.
*If you’d like to encourage someone with this blog, share it! If you’d like to comment on this, I’d love to hear from you. :)
I’m working on expanding this into a short book and would love your feedback! (Jan 2014)