Modesty. It is one of those topics we have all discussed at one time or another. We have all heard a preacher or youth pastor talk about it. And somehow we rarely seem to be satisfied at the end of it all. Modesty, it turns out, is a difficult subject.
I find modesty a fascinating subject exactly because we find it so difficult to discuss it well. I plan to share some thoughts on modesty in just a couple of articles. I want to encourage us all to be men and women marked by modesty—modest men and modest women clothed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Note: Modesty can cover a wide range of character including speech and behavior, but in this series I will speak only about modesty in dress.)
An Appearance of Wisdom
Colossians 2:20-23 makes an interesting place to begin as we think about modesty. There Paul writes,
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
In these verses we see the stark truth that as sinful human beings we are rule-makers, ruler-followers, and rule-breakers. We love rules! We love to make rules and we love to break rules. And if there is any discussion in all of the Christian world that is dominated by the making, keeping and breaking of rules, it must be this one. The modest woman is the woman who knows the rules and keeps the rules. And this is exactly where this passage helps us.
Paul wrote this letter to Christians, to people who wanted to honour God by allowing their faith to extend to every part of life. They had encountered some challenges to godly living and had determined they could meet these challenges by creating a list of rules. Here is how they would please God in this situation: Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch. They were sure the rules would guard them from sin.
That is how it always seems to go. This is exactly what the New Testament Pharisees did. They wanted to keep the Ten Commandments so they created hundreds of other laws that would keep them safely within the ten big laws. Paul sees this in the church in Colosse and understands that while the rules may have been well-intentioned, they were actually very, very dangerous. He tells the church that while rules like this do have an appearance of godliness, they are actually of no value when it comes to the most important thing—addressing the heart. These people could follow every rule and still be utterly spiritually rebellious. Paul knew this because had been a Pharisee. He had been the most zealous follower of rules and the most righteous person in the nation. But then he met Jesus and immediately realized that the rules had not helped him but hindered him, they had not brought freedom but captivity. He had almost followed the rules straight to hell.
And this is what so many modesty discussions turn into. “Only this high. Only this short. Never in this combination.” We feel what may be a good desire to be modest and we address it through rules. Soon we become captive to the rules; the rules become our salvation and our sanctification. (Of course not all rules are bad. There is a time and place to talk about dress codes. But it needs to be gospel first, and then specific rules and specific applications.)
Paul wrote to this church with a far better solution than rules. He went straight to the gospel to show them that if they wanted to put sin to death, if they wanted to live holy lives, they would need to do it by and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. This tells us that before we even think about limits and rules, we need to think about the gospel and all the freedom it brings. The gospel frees us from thinking that obeying rules will save us. It frees us from thinking rules will actually stop behavior God hates or motivate behavior God loves. It frees us put aside and to deny our freedoms and desires out of love for others.
Before we get to a text that speaks directly to modesty, I want to cover two things: A little thought experiment and a definition of modesty.
A Thought Experiment
I want to try a little thought experiment through a series of three questions.
The first question: Can you dress immodestly and be sinless? I think you can. Imagine that you have traveled to a foreign country. You did your research before you left home and thought you understood how to dress. But when you arrive, you walk out of the airport and find that you have blundered. Maybe you did not understand that women are supposed to cover their heads in public; you did not know this, and now you are in public with an uncovered head, drawing shocked looks. In a scenario like this you have not sinned because you genuinely wanted to honor God and the people around you. You simply didn’t understand how to do this.
The second question: Can you dress immodestly and be sinful? Of course you can. You can dress in such a way that you draw attention to your body. You deliberately arouse sexual desire and attract attention because you desperately want to be noticed. You can do this as a man or as a woman and when you do so, you are sinful in your immodesty.
The third question: Can you dress modestly and be sinful? Yes, you can. You can wear a burlap sack that covers every inch of flesh and every hint of shape, yet be full of pride. Dressed in this modest apparel, you can look around judging others. You may even dress modestly, but want others to notice your modesty, something that is actually immodest!
I do this little experiment because it shows that modest dress is no guarantee of spiritual health or maturity and that immodest dress is no guarantee of spiritual sickness or immaturity. Modesty is just not as simple as we sometimes make it. It is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of dress, and that heart is both tricky and deceptive.
So what is modesty? How should we define it? I believe modesty needs to account for at least three things.
First, modesty takes into account the heart. Both modesty and immodesty display something about the heart. Again, modesty is an issue of the heart before it is an issue of dress, a fact that is far too commonly overlooked. I will focus more on this in our next article.
Second, modesty takes into account the situation. What is modest in one situation may well be immodest in another. We all know we can dress modestly on the beach, but if we were to wear that very same thing to church it would be terribly immodest. Modest beachwear makes very immodest church-wear.
Third, modesty takes into account the culture or cultural context. What is modest in one culture may be immodest in another. One year ago I was in India and it became clear that the way even a modest woman dresses for church in Toronto may well be considered immodest in India.
These three factors highlight why discussions on modesty are so often difficult and unsatisfying. What is considered modest changes from situation-to-situation, culture-to-culture, and age-to-age.
So what is modesty? For our purposes, we can say: Modesty is a virtue that shows love to others and brings glory to God through appropriate dress.
According to this definition, only a Christian can truly be modest because only a Christian can deliberately pursue God’s glory. Whether we realize it or not, we are always attempting to bring glory to someone. Through our clothing we may be drawing attention to ourselves or we may be drawing attention to God. The heart of modesty is dressing in such a way that you show love to others and bring glory to God. The heart of immodesty is dressing in such a way that you show self-love and claim the glory for yourself. Immodesty is wanting to be noticed by others and being willing to do whatever that takes to make that happen.
Read Part Two: Imperishable Beauty.