On Christian Modesty in Dress
Are Christians supposed to dress modestly? And what does that even mean? Can my wife wear a plunging neckline or a miniskirt for me to enjoy on a date night? What is Christian Modesty in dress codes and the like?
Let’s look at a couple Scriptures that address this topic.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 in the NIV says, “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” [emphasis mine].
Meanwhile, 1 Corinthians 12:23b-24a talks about our body “parts that are unpresentable parts [that] are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.”
The Word clearly depicts a distinction — without a doubt there are cases wherein we dress in a particular way.
When I consider the Greek words employed, I notice there’s a strong emphasis on context. Special modesty’s euschēmosynē, presentable’s euschēmōn, decency’s aidōs, modesty’s kosmios, and propriety’s sōphrsynē all have an inherent consideration of an audience: what can be presented, what’s prominent, what’s accepted, what draws respect, and what is suitable respectively. Each one is dependent on the audience and often the setting.
What about the Audience of One?
Admittedly, we have an Audience that trumps all, but I don’t think He weighs in on this in a manner that supports the traditional view of modesty.
After all, God made us naked in the first place (Genesis 2:25) and hung out with us in the cool of the day while we were naked without issue (Genesis 3:8). Every person since then was born naked (Ecclesiastes 5:15), including the sinless Son of God Himself. Micah went about naked to make a point for God (Micah 1:8). Job acknowledged he’d end up just as naked as he’d begun (Job 1:21). And Paul counts his bouts of being garmentally challenged (2 Corinthians 11:27) among his many acts of service to Christ.
A low neckline is nothing to the Inventor of breasts.
Clearly, God has no beef with nakedness altogether. It’s part of being human. And lest there be still any concern, Paul even specifically writes that nakedness cannot separate us from this Audience of One (Romans 8:35-39).
In short, a plunging neckline is nothing to the Inventor of breasts.
The Human Audience
What matters, rather, is the mortal audience around us, including the one in the mirror. And that audience varies widely.
Say I take my wife dancing, and she wears a tiny miniskirt that flashes thighs every time she moves. She’s focused on one key audience: me. I consider her thigh (and anything else that happens to flash me) to be something worth presenting, worth being prominent, worthy of both acceptance and respect, and very suitable in this specific circumstance.
Great, but what about the rest of the audience? Well, in many dance clubs, there would be no complaint. From thighs and thongs to bellies and bras, seeing such things can be commonplace in that environment, and no one pays it any mind. In that setting, with that audience, doing that activity, that attire is sound (another meaning of the word sōphrsynē, translated as propriety).
Now, make her a teacher in a children’s classroom, a spectator at an opera, or a volunteer at church, and things change. The setting, the audience, the activity, and the soundness all change. The attire is no longer something that is suitable, draws respect, or may be presented. She would be indecent, immodest, and lacking propriety.
Check the Context
I have a hard time seeing Paul’s instructions as being universal condemnations of certain decorations (the word for “dress” in Paul’s letter to Timothy literally means to decorate or make beautiful) such as high hemlines or sheer panels or keyhole necklines. Or, to use his own examples, braided hair or expensive clothing. Even God seems to recognize the situational suitability of expensive clothing based on His metaphor in Ezekiel 16:8-12.
Expressing the love of God is always in style.
Taken in context, I believe he’s instructing us to remember to be appropriate, and to always know that while this dress or that neckline may or may not be appropriate from one context to the next, good deeds and the worship of God are always appropriate. It doesn’t matter if you’re covered head to toe in the Antarctic or taking a bath in the nude, expressing the love of God is always in style.
A Stumbling Block
There is one other concern, though, and a rather important one.
Modesty means being aware of how your attire affects the spiritual walk of your audience. We’re not to cause fellow believers to stumble (see my post on offending others), which means having a finger on the spiritual pulse of the believers in the audience. At the dance club, the flash of one woman’s thighs, cheeks or even panties among dozens of others doesn’t affect walks in a culture of acceptance like a bit of cleavage framed by a lacy bra could in a one-on-one encounter with a sex addict.
Except when the audience is small, the culture will be obvious and a good rule of thumb. With small audiences, be observant and cautious.
Don’t Let Culture Influence You!
Some might debate my interpretation (go figure; no one plays the devil’s advocate more predictably than Christians), saying that it’s wrong to let human culture influence our decision making on this (or anything else). Instead, we should look to God and see how He feels about it.
Such people really need to think that rationale through. Scripturally, so far as I can tell, God’s cool with anything up to and including nudity, and it’s humanity’s influence that put us in clothing in the first place. Thought through, this argument to seek God rather than human cultural influences is more of a statement supporting Christian nudism — which exists, by the way — than anything resembling prudishness.
Ironically, it’s the influence of earthly Western culture that says we shouldn’t let earthly culture influence our wardrobe. What that culture is really saying is this: “Regardless of what is suitable in the eyes of others, our idea of suitability trumps all in all situations.”
How very Pharisaical.
And how very counter to the very point Paul’s trying to make in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, which is that only God’s love is universally suitable.
Originally posted 2015-02-14 11:00:41.