Two Standards of Modest Dress

Editor's Note: This article has been carefully written to be purposefully vague, so that it will be suitable for all audiences. However, if the referenced Scriptures are studied carefully, and if the stubs of logic are extrapolated judiciously, the patient student will find concrete applications for modest dress, which are too specific for this medium. As the reader and a student, you are entrusted with the completion of this task.

Introduction

We live in a world that encourages exhibition of our bodies. Although the Scriptures do occasionally note the outward beauty of someone or their striking features (Genesis 12:10-14; 39:6; I Samuel 9:2; 16:18-19; II Samuel 11:2; 13:1; Esther 2:7, etc.), such footnotes are always mentioned only as they are relevant to the events that followed. In fact, the Bible never encourages us to unashamedly flaunt such physical beauty. Rather, we should have a natural sense of shame and modesty that would move us to cover specific parts of our body. Unfortunately, we are living in a time, when that sense of shame is being devalued, belittled, and finally lost. It is a time, when too many no longer "know how to blush" (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12). Therefore, that sense of modesty must be taught again, based on God's Word.

The boundaries of modesty are actually defined by the overlap of two standards. Failing either standard defines a given suit of dress as being immodest. The first of these two standards is our culture, and it is dynamic. It may change with time and locale. For whatever reason, some cultures may define some innocent dress as being immodest, which God never defined as immodest. A people's sense of modesty may require more clothing than God would demand. In this case, we need to give up our liberty in Christ, put on the extra clothes, and "fit into" the culture, so as not to unnecessarily damage the reputation of Christ (I Corinthians 9:19-22; I Corinthians 11:14). For example, women might have to wear extra, otherwise unnecessary veiling in the middle east, just to fit into that culture. However, if our society defines modest clothing as being less than what God has defined (short shorts, for example), then we must submit to God's standard rather than men's opinion (Acts 5:29). We cannot wear less clothes than what God has required.

The principles defining modesty in our culture may arise from many sources: tradition, fashion, human religion, weather, etc. Regardless of the source, we obey them, so we can fit into our society. However, God's defining principles arise from our creation, anatomy, reproduction process, and loss of innocence (Leviticus 18:6-19; Song of Solomon 4, 6; Genesis 3:1-21). Therefore, God's standard is constant and absolute, since its basis does not change. These governing principles were applied to Jews in Old Covenant as well as to Gentiles outside the covenant (Exodus 28:42; Genesis 3:10-11, 21; Isaiah 47:2-3). Consequently, these principles indeed transcend all cultures and times.

Modesty is often unnecessarily taught by Christians as if it were a mere scruple, which is inherently not authoritative (Romans 14:1). In such a case, modest dress is treated as a "judgment call", and emphasis is placed on encouraging the listener to self-reflect on their motivation and their purity of the heart. This can be effective, if the person is deliberately being immodest and still has a tender heart, easily pricked. However, if the listener truly believes that his or her clothing is indeed modest, which most people seem to believe on the surface, then such an approach will have no positive effect. Many people do not realize that there is a transcendent, absolute standard for modest dress taught in Scripture. The following outline is provided to help us understand and follow both of these two overlapping standards, God's absolute standard and culture's relative standard.

Outline

  1. What is the New Testament Command?
    1. To dress modestly - I Timothy 2:9-10
      1. must be modest
      2. with an understanding of shame - what should, and should not be worn or would be shameful
      3. with a sense or understanding of discretion
      4. should be clothing that is fitting for a godly woman
    2. To reflect godliness - I Peter 3:1-5
      1. not focused on mere outward appearance, like arranging one's hair, wearing jewelry, putting on fine clothes
      2. but, the focus should be reflecting the hidden person, the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit
      3. which inner beauty is very precious in God's sight
  2. What does this mean practically?
    1. All clothing choices should be based on these above four principles.
    2. The latter verse (I Peter 3:1-5) directly condemns expensive overdressing. Therefore, a godly woman should not wear lavish, excessively expensive clothing.
    3. To wear too little clothing would also violate these rules.
    4. A Christian woman's dress is to be balanced or modest - not too much, not too little. Rather, it should allow a woman's godly character to be seen which brings glory to God. Immodest clothing detracts from a godly life of good works, and accentuates our bodies or our wealth instead of God and His way of life.
  3. How does this apply? What is "modest" and "immodest"?
    1. We should never overdress so to attract unusual attention to our clothing or ourselves.
    2. We should never dress in a way that is considered shameful or sexually appealing by our society and culture.
      1. Therefore, modesty is partially relative to culture.
      2. Clothing that is marketed and designed to attract attention from the opposite gender would violate all of the four guiding rules.
    3. The Bible does allude to certain parts of our bodies that are sensual and, therefore, should remain covered by loose clothes.
      1. Adam and Eve: Genesis 3:7,10,21
        1. Adam and Eve made small coverings - vs. 7
        2. But, they were still naked - vs. 10
        3. God made them tunics which, by the Hebrew word, would have covered from knees to shoulders - vs. 21
      2. Levite priests: Exodus 20:26; 28:42
        1. Exposing the waist to thighs was considered nakedness
      3. Blessings of marriage: Proverbs 5:18-20
        1. Specific parts of a woman's body are reserved for marital bliss. They should not be paraded outside of this relationship.
      4. Description of wife's body: Song of Solomon 7:1-9
        1. Consider husband descriptions after marriage, but before honeymoon (Song of Solomon 4:1-5). Only non-sensual parts are mentioned such as teeth, etc. Whatever else is mentioned is only what cannot be hid unless one wears a box or barrel.
        2. After being married for some time, the husband describes his wife's beauty in vivid detail. The parts of her body additionally described in this passage represent what is reserved for the marriage relationship and what should not be flaunted outside of marriage.
        3. The differences in these two descriptions - one given based on what everyone sees, one given based on what only the husband should see - defines the boundaries for the eyes and hands of all not married.
      5. Shaming of the Lady Babylon: Isaiah 47:2
        1. It was shameful to uncover her thigh.
        2. Although this is part of a figurative reference to the nation of Babylon, the figure's merit is rooted in a sense of modesty that would have been common to the Jews and the Babylonians.
      6. Direct relation between the marital relationship and being uncovered: Leviticus 18:6-20
  4. Whose responsibility is this? Mine?
    1. We all have an obligation to guard our eyes and the thoughts of our hearts (Job 31:1 and Matthew 5:27-30). This is every man's responsibility to himself and God.
    2. The above question is hauntingly similar to Cain's question (Genesis 4:9). Are we not our brother's keeper, and should we not seek his best interest? (See also, Luke 10:29-37.)
    3. Would we want to do anything to cause a brother to stumble and sin?
      1. I Corinthians 8:9-12 - It would have been a sin against Christ for the Corinthians to eat meat and cause their brother to stumble.
      2. Matthew 18:6-9 - It is a terrible thing to offend a brother. It is better to sacrifice our rights and do without.
    4. It is everybody's problem. We must answer for the direct commands found in I Timothy 2:9-10 and I Peter 3:1-5.
    5. Dressing modestly is not a restriction or penalty, but it is rather an opportunity to help our brother and seek his best interest through love (I Corinthians 13:1-7).

Conclusions

Our clothing should always match the four principles of I Timothy 2:9-10 and I Peter 3:1-5 based on our culture and society. It should also be based on an understanding of our body's design as described by God in the Bible. So, the style and boundaries of our clothing may fluctuate with the changes in our societies and times, but the definition and limits of our apparel should never expose more than God's universal, minimum standard. We may have to add to this minimum standard to match our society or culture, but we should never fall below this guide and expose what should remain hidden, lest we tarnish the reputation of Christ, cause our brother to stumble, or give place to our pride and wanton need for attention.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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