Posted in theology

Modesty: what are the limits and what does scripture say?

By Elizabeth Prata

Usually the discussions about modesty come in late spring as the temps heat up and we enter the summer season peeling off some layers of clothes. When bathing suit season approaches, the discussions online often turn to the limits of skin being shown, where to obtain modest clothing, and what the Bible actually describes modesty as.

But as the weather cools, and the leggings and yoga pants look ever more inviting, we can discuss modesty during this season too. Because modesty is not only of external adornment, it is an internal, heart issue as well. There are two sides to this coin, the inner and the outer.

I haven’t written or spoken much on the topic of modesty, but there is a little brouhaha online about it just now, so I’ve been thinking on the topic. I pray I do justice to the issue. I’ve been pondering, what is our responsibility as women to our men, whether they be husbands, friends, pastors? (Men need to be modest too, but my ministry is aimed at women). What is our responsibility to Jesus? What is my responsibility as an older woman to the younger? What does the Bible say about modesty? Is modesty something that is distinct from clothing, or a part of it?

Modesty: External looks of face, posture, clothing

Modesty at root is a heart issue. But let’s look to the outer woman, too. How we look is important. And not just clothes. The Bible shows that our attitude reflects in our face and posture. Are we joyful in pure love for the Lord? Or are we trying to grab attention with our bodies? Jesus pronounced woes upon the Pharisees because they were hypocrites. One way they were hypocritical was they were trying to gain attention to their supposed piety by composing their faces into gloominess when they were fasting. This was so people would ask about their gloom and they would be able to tell of their piety due to their fasting. Or, people would just know by looking at them:

Now whenever you fast, do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16)

Are you purposely composing your face a certain way just to be noticed? Yet look what happened when Jesus was praying, when we focus on Christ consistently, our face will change on its own:

And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. (Luke 9:29).

In other words, does our face look peaceful, joyful, and composed because we have been with Him? We are displaying our humility, which is our modesty as well.

In Bible times, people outwardly displayed their inner grief by the sackcloth they wore. (Genesis 37:34, Daniel 9:3). The outer clothing was a signal, a purposeful sign of an inner state of being. This shows that what we choose to wear says something to the world about our inner woman.

The Bible talks about what not to wear and how not to look as regards clothing.

Proverbs 7:10 says, And behold, a woman comes to meet him, Dressed as a prostitute and cunning of heart.

Well, how did a prostitute dress in those days? Gill’s Commentary says – “with showy gaudy garments, such as the Athenian whores wore, or short ones, as the Romans; the word signifies one fitted to her body, neat and well shaped, to recommend her.” In other words, loud, form fitting and short. Pulpit Commentary says the whore wore “conspicuous garments, very different from the sober clothing of the pure and modest.”

Paul said, Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive apparel, (1 Timothy 2:9).

What is improper clothing? It’s any clothing designed to draw attention to the woman’s figure and not to the Man-God who purchased her body with His blood. Here we see that it was any apparel designed to draw attention away from the focus of the gathering. Does what she wear spark envy in women? Lust in men? Is her body a temple of the Holy Spirit, or a mannequin-like figure for display of expensive garments and jewels?

Rome was a hierarchical society and what people wore announced their status in that society. For example only Roman citizens could wear a toga.

In the book Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture by JC Edmondson it's explained: "Roman citizens, therefore, both male and female, were marked by their entitlement to wear what was construed as distinctively Roman civic dress". 

In late Republican Roman times, the toga muliebris was the prostitute’s outfit. Respectable wives/matrons wore not a toga, but a stola. “[T]he dress of the matron was designed to shield its wearer both physically and morally from the prying gaze of disreputable males who might impugn her chastity.” [Edmondson, ibid.]

Chastity. Now there’s a word we don’t hear much these days.

So, back to Paul’s verse about female modesty- Paul said, Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive apparel, (1 Timothy 2:9).

This scene from a satirical play by the early Roman playwright Plautus shows us there were many temptations around in the marketplace for the Roman woman to adorn herself, much of which was expected because ostentation was a signal of status in that hierarchical society, and that was the battle Paul was warning against in his cultural times. It’s not about braids and pearls, it’s about ostentation for ostentation’s sake.

But this is even light, in comparison with when they ask for their allowance; there stands the scourer, the embroiderer, the goldsmith, the woolen-manufacturer, retail dealers in figured skirts, dealers in women's under-clothing, dyers in flame-colour, dyers in violet, dyers in wax- colour, or else sleeve-makers, or perfumers; wholesale linen drapers, shoemakers, squatting cobblers, slipper-makers; sandal makers stand there; stainers in mallow colour stand there; hairdressers make their demands, botchers their demands; bodice-makers stand there; makers of kirtles take their stand. Now you would think them got rid of; these make way, others make their demands; three hundred duns are standing in your hall; weavers, lace-makers, cabinet-makers, are introduced; the money's paid them. You would think them got rid of by this; when dyers in saffron colours come sneaking along; or else there's always some horrid plague or other which is demanding something. (The Comedies of Plautus. Translated, Henry Thomas Riley. London. G. Bell and Sons. 1912.)

Modesty: Internal heart attitude

Modesty is a heart attitude of submission to Jesus and in honor of Him. "The purity of the heart will show itself in the modesty of the dress, which becomes women professing godliness". Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible, on Proverbs 7:10.

Christian women are to dress modestly with a humble heart and a demure demeanor. The outward dress is a sign of the inward state. Do we dress to entice? Or do we dress because we desire to obey the many verses that call for women to be submissive, gracious, and self-controlled? Dressing provocatively gives opportunity for the adversary to malign us. We do not want that.

Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, have children, manage their households, and give the enemy no opportunity for reproach; (1 Timothy 5:14).

Dressing provocatively is conforming to the world. We do not want that.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

The world dresses for showing off skin, enticingly, provocatively. The world dresses like the Roman whore, we do not want to do that or even come close. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “abstain from every form of evil.” Even the appearance of it! Why would we want to lead a man astray? Why would we want to signal to our daughters that it’s OK to dress with provocation or lustful attention in mind? It’s our faces that should be adorned – with joy, grace humility, THAT is what we clothe ourselves in.

The world has gone far down the path of licentiousness. You can wear nothing in public at a nudist colony or a nude beach and it’s OK. Most of Europe is OK with topless sunbathing. Cleavage is de rigeur. Short shorts, tight fitting jeans, and even ripped jeans showing underwear is normal. For a Christian woman to seek attention to her body not only is a sin, but she is going to have to go pretty far to compete with the above. But displaying modesty, humility, meekness, grace on her face and in her demeanor, all heart attitudes, all make a stark contrast to the world’s version of womanliness. We DO want that.

Rebuttals: But, but my husband likes when I dress this way, and he is my head, so it’s OK, isn’t it?

No. Your husband may be sinning in making a licentious display of his wife. He should be proud of her for other reasons. His headship does not cover the wife in his sins. If he likes it when his wife wears short shorts, hoochie mama dresses, or bared midriffs, by all means do so- at home. In privacy. For him, not for the world.

But, but I just lost 100 pounds and I’m really proud of that! Why not show off a little?

Your face will show the grace of Jesus who helped you lose that weight. Your attitude of modesty in appropriately covering your now beautiful figure will go a long way to pleasing Jesus rather than the world, or in seeking attention to your accomplishment. If you won a hard-earned medal for cross country, would you wear it around your neck every day, because you’re proud of your achievement? Do actors carry around their Emmy Award? Of course not. That would be boasting. Same with immodest dress to show off a hard-earned figure. Be respectable in apparel choices and people will see your new figure AND your godliness.

But, but, aren’t you judging me when you say I’m not modest?

Yes. We are judging you when you dress immodestly. Not all “judgment” is bad. Some of it is good, and necessary: Titus 2:3-5. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. Remember, the entire point of our life is to glorify Christ. It’s not solely about this or that but about our life trajectory in honoring Him and striving (with the aid of the holy Spirit) to meet His expectations.

Show me chapter and verse exactly where it says how high our hemlines can’t be!

It is always good when a woman turns to the Bible for advice or clarification on a life issue. However, as with much of what involves our life (not our doctrine) there are gray areas and contexts to consider. There are verses on modesty, but they don’t specifically address current cultural issues with exactitude. For example, Paul’s admonition about braided hair and pearls was specific to the times. But the principle still remains, are we dressing in reasonable apparel appropriate to the situation or are we dressing with sinful heart issues like vanity or ostentation? And, any person who demands chapter and verse in a belligerent way is actually hiding under a subterfuge, for we all know the righteousness of God, but many suppress it. (Romans 1:18). People who say this know full well there aren’t any chapter and verses outlining heights and lengths. It’s like saying, “God is not a threefold person in one God! Show me the word Trinity in the Bible!”

You’re being a legalist Pharisee! John 7:24 says, “Do not judge by the outward appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” So you shouldn’t judge my appearance!

True. Accidents happen. Perhaps a newly saved person has no other clothes yet. Perhaps the Spirit hasn’t convicted the woman yet of her appearance. Perhaps the leggings hurriedly put on were tighter than you remembered or the shirt worn over it shorter than you knew. At the G3 conference on one of the days, a photographer doing her job wore a long shirt-dress. It was a bit short though. I don’t think she knew how short…until she started having to kneel and bend and twist to get the shot. She struggled every time she knelt on one knee to make sure her apparel covered her bum. I felt bad for her, I suspect it was a casual mistake and not an ongoing modesty issue. We don’t judge for a one-off, a mistake, or a new babe in Christ. We do judge the mature Christian woman who persists in immodesty after several warnings and advice from elder women. Of course we judge, how else are we to know when to warn, admonish, or take further action? Who to mark and avoid or who keep away from because they’re living an undisciplined life? (Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

When I was in Italy, I visited the cathedrals and the basilicas. I was not saved then. Modesty was not a thought, nor a concern in my life or my mind. In fact, I purposely dressed licentiously so as to entice attention from the male of the species. One day I was wearing shorts and a tank top. I was denied entry into the cathedral. (It was a Catholic religious building, and please note, Catholicism is not of the faith, it is a false faith).

There was a sign on the door saying that women must have covered shoulders, shirts that cover the belly button, and skirts or shorts to the knee. The guard stopped me at the door and pointed to the sign. I was aghast. Dress standards? This was new to me.

The Catholics consider it disrespectful to enter a place of worship with too much skin showing. (link for more info). Think on this: if even the pagans have standards for dress in religious places, how much more should women of the true faith consider these things? Both in church and out?!

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

In your body ... - Let your entire person be subservient to the glory of God. Live to him; let your life tend to his honor. No stronger arguments could be adduced for purity of life, and they are such as all Christians must feel. Source-Barnes' Notes

Purity. That’s a good word.

In conclusion, do you want people talking about how little clothing adorns your body, or talking about how much your graciousness and demure attitude adorns Christ?

For More information

What is the meaning of modesty in the Bible?

Appearance and actions reflect the life we live. We present ourselves to the world based on our self-perception and aspirations. To be modest is to consider what our clothing and behavior represent. Modesty isn’t vain or boastful. It takes more than selfish desire into consideration and accepts responsibility for the influence our choices have on the lives of others.

What does it mean to dress modestly?

If a woman professes to be a Christian yet she dresses in a way that will unduly draw attention to her body, she is a poor witness of the One who bought her soul by dying for her on the cross. She is forgetting that her body has been redeemed by Christ and is now the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). She is telling the world that she determines her own worth on a purely physical basis and that her attractiveness depends on how much of her body she reveals to them. Again, we have to go back to the matter of the attitudes of the heart. If a woman’s heart is inclined toward godliness, she will wear clothing that is neither provocative nor revealing in public. Her clothing choices will not signal pride or ostentation and will not reflect negatively upon her personal testimony as a child of God.

The Appearance of Women

The wearing of expensive clothes and jewelry that drew attention away from the Lord was obviously inappropriate for women in the church. They were supposed to be demonstrating humble godliness, not appearing like prostitutes or showy pagan women. To come to church so attired was at best a distraction from honoring God, and at worst an attempt to seduce the men of the church.

Dear Christian Woman: Cover Your Breasts

You know the kind of woman I’m talking about. She names Jesus Christ as her Savior, has a Christian husband, has children, goes to church….maybe even sings in the choir. She seems confident in her knowledge of her faith, volunteers for different ministries……yet there’s that glaring incongruence. She has no problem with her breasts hanging

Are Daisy Duke Shorts Modest?

The answer is no. But I'll get to that shortly. See what I did there? I wrote about modesty in general earlier today, here. This is a little addendum. Daisy Dukes were coined back in the late 1970s when the actress playing the character Daisy Duke in the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard sported short-shorts. The style became synonymous with her character, hence, the name of the garment stuck.

Dis/Contentment in your life and how to overcome it The End Time Blog Podcast

“The Cellar of Affliction” was episode 7 in Season 1 of The MacArthur Center for Expository Preaching The Women’s Hope podcast with Dr. Shelbi Cullen and Kimberly Cummings discuss “Contentment in the Midst of Chaos“ This episode is also available as a blog post: https://the-end-time.org/2021/10/16/dis-contentment-in-your-life-and-how-to-overcome-it/
  1. Dis/Contentment in your life and how to overcome it
  2. This woman spoke volumes by not speaking
  3. ‘It’s a darkness that claws at your sanity…’
  4. Drifting…Alas, and did my Savior bleed
  5. Jesus, the High Name Over All

Author:

Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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