Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 3): What is Modesty?


There’s a rather ironic expression about modesty that tends to miss the point of so many modesty conversations: Modest is hottest. It’s just one example of how modesty is going through a bit of resurgence (was it ever really gone?) within Evangelicalism. It’s popular right now to both write and rant about modesty, but I am not sure that we always know exactly what we’re talking about when we do. If we’re going to be at all helpful when talking about modesty we ought to start by clearly understanding exactly what modesty is.

The Bible speaks rather plainly about modesty. So Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy saying:

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, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

Likewise, Peter says:

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing –  4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

It’s important that we consider these passages and what is and isn’t being said by them. For starters, we should note that neither passage focuses on modesty the way contemporary Evangelicalism does. For both Paul and Peter pride is the evident opposite of modesty. So both authors contrast being modest with adoring the body with “gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” Modesty for these two authors is not directly related to covering up the body, rather it’s about not thinking too highly of ourselves. The modern reference for the concept of modesty is important, and I’ll get to that, but at the outset it’s worth noting that the commonly cited passages on the subject don’t address what we think they do. They are intended, instead, to be a corrective to the self-promotion and arrogance that all of us fight whether we are dressed head to toe or showing some skin.

Then again, the passage does relate to the idea of modern-day modesty because it warns us about dressing in a way that intentionally draws attention to ourselves. It warns us not to be consumed with garnering the awe and gaze of others. So, when many Evangelicals speak of modesty they warn young ladies not to dress in a manner that would draw inappropriate attention. It’s a fair point and one that all people, not just women, should heed. Yet we end up saying more than these passages themselves say. The modesty rules that we have concocted are noticeably absent from these passages. The text does not spell out all the details that we sometimes want for what qualifies as “modest” and “immodest.” There’s a reason for their absence: the “rules” are not fundamentally the issue at the heart of modesty.

Modesty is fundamentally an orientation of the heart aimed at honoring God more than at receiving the praise of men. That’s why Paul and Peter speak of “putting on” character, not putting on more clothing. In fact it is possible to be “modest” according to contemporary standards and “immodest” according to Biblical standards. A recent article captured this idea very well. Jefferson Bethke warns young women that they can be just as sinful if their focus is on modesty and not primarily on God. He writes:

Let me say this loud and clear, ladies: you are not an object! Dressing so “church people” will accept you or dressing so guys will gawk at you is the same sin—becoming a slave to the praise of man.

Bethke believes that in some circles of the church we have made modesty an idol. I think he’s right, and with this idol we have also created a new form of legalism. Again Bethke writes:

Because promiscuity is so prevalent today, we in the Church have reacted by elevating modesty to unhealthy proportions. We jump too quickly into behavior modification and don’t realize that most of our modesty campaigns are actually borderline legalism. One rule in particular that “Christian” schools, universities and clubs like to enforce is the “skirt test.” It usually involves the woman getting on her knees to see if the skirt touches the ground, which if it does, it’s deemed acceptable. My question though is what are we doing in that moment? Is the gospel being exalted, or are we heaping shame and condemnation on them? The fact that she is on her knees for the test couldn’t be more symbolic of submission, power, shame and guilt. The trouble, however, is that while modesty standards are set up to not make women’s bodies an object, it is in fact doing that very thing. Highlighting the girl’s dress in front of everyone, and telling her she should dress a certain way because she doesn’t want “to make the men stumble” is simply making her an object.

We are consumed with the rules, the lengths, and the heights, but the Bible is concerned with the hearts. Often what happens, then, in order to make people conform to a certain set of rules we assume certain motivations of their heart. We make the connection so we can justify the rules. This is a dangerous trend among so many modesty police.

The biggest failure of the current popular level conversation on modesty is that it assumes to understand the motivations of another person’s heart. If a person’s attire does not conform to our set of rules then we assume that this person has impure motives behind their attire. Brad Williams made a particularly insightful comment on this point recently. Discussing the issue of modesty he said:

You do not have the authority to judge intentions, and neither do I. When you see cleavage, you might think, “This woman is causing me to stumble. She is tempting men to lust on purpose!” She might simply be thinking, “I look pretty, and that’s pretty cool.” Just as you might wear something because you think you look handsome, but did you ever put on a shirt and think, “Hmmm…this shows a bit too much bicep. I might cause a sister to stumble.” I find that hilarious to consider. (I mean, personally, because I don’t have stumble biceps.) But apparently, any cleavage, anywhere, anytime, causes men to lose their minds. (“This Should Go Without Saying: Stop Blaming Rape On Women,” comment #11129.

In other words, modesty is an issue of the heart and that is not something I can discern in other people. So I am responsible for my motives, and others are responsible for theirs. This does not mean there are no standards at all, that all modesty is relative. Nor does it mean that there is no place for challenging one another on our attire, though how that is done is important. What this does mean, however, is that we need to think more carefully and more biblically about what modesty is and isn’t. As with most things Jesus teaches, it starts with the heart.

This is a conversation we need to keep having. We need to reconsider how we think about and communicate modesty. We need to be guarded against imposing our own ethic on others, and sliding innocently into forms of legalism. Modesty is important. But it’s not always as simple as Evangelical culture wants to make it.

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