Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 5): Principles for an Ethic of Dress

ModestyIt’s not often that I get accused of being theologically liberal. In fact it’s generally pretty rare. Since I am largely conservative I am glad it doesn’t happen much, it means I communicating clearly what I believe. But sometimes it just can’t be avoided, and on the rare occasions that it does happen it is usually because I haven’t toed the “party line.” I have been arguing that Evangelical culture has both largely misunderstood the subject of modesty and we have therefore created an unhealthy approach to modesty. In this conversation it can be easy for people to misunderstand me and I want to avoid any confusion. For those who have been waiting to respond with criticism and pushback, thank you. While I am not ready to lay down rules about skirt lengths and necklines, I do believe that we should seek to be ethical in our dress. So I have three principles for a Biblical ethic of dressing.

As with most issues discussed in the Scriptures, it begins with an attitude of the heart. We ought, then, to consider the motivation behind our clothing choices. We ought to be ready to ask ourselves, “why am I wearing this?” What is going on in our hearts is key to Biblical modesty. If our desire is to draw attention to ourselves, to make ourselves look impressive before others, then we are already in sin. That is specifically what Paul and Peter are addressing in the frequently cited “modesty passages” (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:3). That’s not to say that looking good is a sin, but rather trying to get the attention of others is. It’s the difference between “I think this looks good on me” and “I want everyone to be impressed with my appearance.”  Style and fashion are, I believe, good things that draw out artistic beauty and value from the Biblical idea of covering our shame and nakedness. But, again, the heart is fundamentally central to the conversation. I can be modest in my appearance, so to speak, and yet utterly immodest according to the Scriptural definition.

The important thing to remember about this point, however, is that we can never determine the heart motivations of others. I know why I chose to wear something, but I can never determine why another person chose to wear what they did. So even as I recognize that modesty begins in the heart, it begins in my heart. I should never assign motives to someone else’s clothing choices simply because I dislike those choices. We cannot know the hearts of others, so we ought always to focus on our own.

In addition to engaging our hearts with critical questioning, we ought also to consider our context. There is a degree to which modesty is determined by cultural context. Who I am with, what’s considered acceptable, is part of cultural determination. What is acceptable to do at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and what is acceptable to do at Abricio Beach in Rio de Janeiro are not the same. Context is not the only issue, nor is everything relative, but we must concede that certain things are acceptable or unacceptable based on context. We recognize this easily with time. In the Victorian era women were forbidden from showing their ankles. Obviously we no longer believe that. Likewise in the Victorian Era for a woman to go swimming in a public setting she had to get inside a house that was wheeled down into the water. She could not be seen swimming at all! Whitney Bauck has responded to bikini critic Jessica Rey by pointing out this very fact. She writes:

Modesty is a product of culture. That’s not to say that everything is relative and we should throw out every notion of modesty because “it’s all subjective anyway;” nonetheless, it’s worth noting that what is considered modest in one culture would be completely inappropriate in another. What Rey wears in her presentation seems quite conservative by Western standards today, but rewind a few hundred years and the amount of leg (or arm) showing would be a disgrace. (A Response to Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit”)

There is, then, a degree of contextualization that we must consider. It may not be an issue of inherent “appropriateness” or “inappropriateness,” but it may be an issue of appropriate or inappropriate in this context.

Paul does tell us there are some universal boundaries. In 1 Corinthians 12 he speaks of our “unpresentable parts” as requiring “greater modesty.” The Scriptures indicate that after the Fall Adam and Eve “realized they were naked” and they sewed fig leaves for a covering (Gen. 3:7). Originally they were “naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25), but after the Fall sin impacted their nakedness such that they needed to be clothed. Nudism and exhibitionism, then, are not consistent with the Biblical picture of “nakedness” in the Scriptures. To “uncover” one’s nakedness in the Bible is to bring shame on oneself and one’s family. Sin has not made nakedness shameful, but it has dramatically impacted nakedness such that to publicly display our “unpresentable parts” is shameful. Clearly, then, we need to keep certain boundary lines.

In conjunction with recognizing this boundary line, however, we should seek to keep the spirit of it and not merely the letter. That is to say, we should not seek to toe the line while we attempt to be as progressive as possible. We may technically keep our “unpresentable parts” covered while totally dismissing the spirit of this idea. Again, it’s possible to be technically modest, and yet still immodest. That requires, however, that we return again to the principles of heart motivation and context.

There are some who will want me to say more than this. They will want a list. They may want me to spell out in no uncertain terms what is and is not acceptable in contemporary 21st century fashion. Part of the reason we want this is because it’s easy. If we don’t have to think about what the text of Scripture does and does not say, and if we don’t have to think about how to apply that text in specific ways relevant to our contemporary setting then we won’t. If I can just read a list given to me by some popular theologian, pastor, teacher, blogger, etc. then I will check my list and avoid the hard work. We should not assume, however, that God is beyond specificity. He is certainly specific in other areas, but he did not give us a list of do’s and don’ts as it relates to our clothing choices. He did not say spaghetti straps are out and open toed shoes are in. God desires that we do the hard work of thinking through these subjects, engaging in healthy conversations with mature believers, and in applying the text of Scripture in ways specific to our 21st context with grace and truth. So, I won’t make a list, it’s not good for me, you, or the church.

I am not a theological liberal. I have attempted to draw these principles from the actual testimony of Scripture. I believe the Bible and believe that what it says has authority over our lives. Yet on this point, perhaps, I cannot avoid looking like a liberal to some Christians. At the end of the day, however, I do genuinely think that we have done a poor job of thinking and dialoguing on this issue. If attempting to do that makes a me appear more liberal than I am, well then I guess I am okay with that.

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  1. […] and responsibility. We’ve noted the sliding scale of human evaluation, the important roles of context and humility. Each week I have been reminded that this is not a simple subject. The Biblical principles about […]

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