Modesty is a dangerous topic. It is surrounded with pitfalls towards pride, shown in our destructive bent towards legalism and license. Even worse, it can inflame old scars and fresh wounds left by abuse and trauma if not handled carefully. With so many dangers, why risk discussing it at all?
Scripture speaks to all of life, and we can’t steer away from hard topics just because they’ve been mishandled before. Our bodies belong to God, ransomed to bring Him glory. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Okay, but what does that have to do with clothing? Why does God care what we wear?
God Designed Us as Sexual Beings
These days, sexuality is considered a modern construct: something is only “sexy” because society has deemed it so. So it follows, to stop the rampant sexualization of women we simply must normalize their bodies. Somehow, even posing naked for magazines is considered a form of female empowerment now. This mindset is problematic on multiple fronts.
Ever since humanity’s fall into sin, it has been necessary for men and women to cover themselves. This is not because our bodies are shameful—we have been created as image bearers of God, and all that he creates is good. But we cannot be naked and unashamed anymore, because the moment lust entered the world, the recognition of our dignity was distorted.
In 1 Corinthians 12:22-23, Paul uses the human body as an analogy. Though the purpose of the text is to shape how we view the church, it does so by communicating what is already true about our physical bodies. The passage says that our “unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it…” This implies two things: first, that we actually have “unpresentable parts;” and second, that the reason to cover them is to treat them with honor.
We are called to dress modestly to honor our bodies, not because we’re ashamed of them! Modesty matters to God, because we matter to God. He wants our bodies treated with the same honor that he bestows upon them.
On an intuitive level, we also can’t escape the difference between sexual and non-sexual parts of our bodies. There’s a reason a woman feels more violated if a man gropes her breast or butt against her will than if he grabs her arm. While both aggressions are sinful, the first is more damaging because it is more dishonoring.
Regardless of the intent, if sexuality is dismissed as a mere social construct it will minimize the pain of those who’ve endured any level of sexual abuse. This causes unspeakable damage to people who have been victimized. How can someone heal if the severity of their wound is denied? Either our sexuality is sacred or it isn’t. We can’t have it both ways.
I used to feel extremely uncomfortable when I went to my mechanic. The garage was covered with posters of half-naked women. Why did this bother me? Had they had been posters of Serena Williams or Mia Hamm in sports uniforms, I’d have thought nothing of it. But because these posters accentuated female sexuality, it was obvious they were hung for the purpose of indulging lust. (This, I think, is one example of our modern inconsistency—women want the liberty to dress in ways that highlight their sexuality but don’t want to be sexualized. And while it’s true that we can’t control how others view us, we can choose to honor our own bodies.)
Lust Is a Common Temptation
Lust begins in the heart. It is a serious sin that not only plagues the world, but has also deeply infected the Church. And the temptation to lust is common. It doesn’t just lure the young or spiritually immature—godly, passionate, and humble Christians battle against this temptation, too.
As Jesus made clear in Matthew 5:27-30, looking at someone with lustful intent is the same as committing adultery in the heart. Pornography consumption, among men and women, is an epidemic. For the holiness of the church and the sake of the world, it’s vital to repent and combat this heinous sin.
It’s also vital to understand that lust encompasses more than viewing pornography. If the bar is only to avoid pornography, it’s just another law that could be feasibly upheld without Jesus. The Pharisees thought they were clean because they hadn’t committed adultery—it is a similar mistake to assume we are clean because we don’t view porn.
Lust includes any indulged look or thought or fantasy which objectifies and dishonors image bearers of God for the sake of personal pleasure.
Because sin dulls our conscience and hardens our hearts, we usually don’t even notice how deep this sin goes until we start fighting it. As the Spirit lights up the dark crevices of our hearts, we increasingly find how much needs to be cleansed—and how much we still need Jesus.
We’re Called to Pursue Holiness… Individually and Together
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7
We are called to control our own bodies. “The woman made me do it” isn’t any better of an excuse now than when Adam said it. God promises us enough grace to overcome every temptation. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he fled. And it got him sent to jail. A commitment to purity can cost you.
Temptation is real, but temptation is not an excuse for sin. Though many temptations come from outside of us, sin comes straight from our hearts. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality…” (Matthew 15:19). Joseph wasn’t culpable for being tempted, but he was responsible for how he reacted.
We must ask ourselves, how can we flee sexual immorality? How can we honor God by pursuing purity and holiness in light of the temptations around us?
But we don’t stop there, because love for God always impacts how we love our neighbors. So we must also consider how to help each other flee sexual immorality. How can we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, protect each other from temptation and help each other live in purity?
Christians should always desire to serve, to lay aside our preferences, and to live sacrificially for the holiness of the Church. And, since our bodies are sexual and should be honored, and the temptation to lust is common and should be fought, shouldn’t we want to alleviate some of that temptation by dressing modestly?
And just as we should never blame others for our sin, we also shouldn’t judge others who battle temptations we don’t. Being tempted is part of living in a fallen world. We may struggle in different ways, but we all know how difficult it is to battle sin and what a blessing it is when others help us in our weakness.
Modesty Calls for Discernment
“…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). This is usually a go-to text for modesty. As such, it’s important to understand rightly.
First, to say that women should “adorn themselves in respectable apparel” indicates that beauty is not the problem. Nobody “adorns” themselves in drab, frumpy clothes. This passage is not a prohibition of beauty but a prohibition of flaunting sexuality or wealth. Modesty is about more than hemlines—it also means we don’t spend exorbitant time and money on our appearance. It means we’re more devoted to good works than good looks. It means we dress in ways that honor our own bodies and show respect to those around us—which means it adapts based on whether we’re attending a wedding, or ministering to the homeless, or witnessing to Muslims.
And though this passage provides several godly principles, it’s not as precise as some of us would like. It’s not a list of rules.
Sometimes rules are good. Children depend on rules for development—it builds a sense of security, and protects them until they learn the skill of discernment. Rules help in business, education, and law. And of course, all of God’s rules are righteous and good (Psalm 119). However, sometimes we want clear-cut rules so that we can avoid the hard (and Spirit-dependent) work of discernment.
One of the reasons modesty is difficult to address is that there is a subjective element to it. Standards of modesty shift over time, and what is considered modest in rural India is different than what is considered modest in New York City. This is why we can’t simply write up a long list of do’s and don’ts.
Scripture has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Yet we’re rarely given annotated details about how to apply Biblical principles in every specific context and situation. The second greatest command to “love our neighbor” looks different based on who our neighbor actually is.
He Will Help Us
While there are many nuances which make this issue difficult to tackle, one thing is certain: we must strive to walk in humility before God. He will teach us to recognize and honor the worth he’s bestowed to our bodies. He will convict us of sin and lead us in repentance. He will show us how to love and serve others well. He will help us discern how to live as salt and light in whatever contexts he places us. He will enable us to glorify him in all things—including in what we wear.
Related article: What Wonder Woman Can Teach Us About Modesty