I appreciate the pressing need for the church to be vocal on topics of sexuality, including the issue we commonly call modesty. However, in our rush to say something, I often read or hear things that do not help the cause, or in somewhat helping the cause, they create another problem to be resolved.
So to help, here is my list of 6 Things Not To Say About Modesty.
1. Don’t cite 1 Timothy 2:9 as if it settles the issue.
The easy thing to do here is use a search engine for verses about modesty and arrive at 1 Timothy 2:9:
Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.
Typically, articles about modesty will cite this verse, assume a definition of modesty, and then start in on whatever item of clothing they decide is the topic du jour. However, notice that modesty in this passage is not used in reference to wearing provocative or revealing clothing. Here, modesty is defined negatively in the passage as “not wearing gaudy or costly attire.” Compare to 1 Peter 3:3-4 for a related point. The passage is a warning against wearing too much, not too little. Immodesty in this context has nothing to do with your definition of immodesty and everything to do with Paul’s definition of immodesty.
2. Don’t make this a single gender issue.
A lot of Christian mom’s are blogging about modesty, especially if they have sons. They like to talk about how their sons are being tempted to lust (more on that one later) by scantily clad young girls posting pictures of themselves on Facebook or Instagram. The irony is that the boys and their mothers are then posting pictures of their boys, shirtless and flexing their muscles (So proud!) because teenage girls apparently don’t have any problem controlling their desires.
My point here is that it has to go both ways. Modesty cannot be a single gender issue. It cannot be about immodest girls and helpless boys who cannot control themselves against the wiles of such temptresses. Both genders are trying to attract the opposite gender (or in our modern times, sometimes even their own gender). Modesty sermons and articles that single out women as the unique source of immodesty demean women and place the burden of guilt and shame on only one of the participants in the problem.
3. Don’t determine modesty based on male (or female) arousal.
Another oft repeated refrain is that anything that provokes arousal or desire in another person is something you should not be wearing. A church member recently told a funny story of how she was at the market wearing a long skirt, boots, and a turtleneck. Some man came up and hit on her. She was literally covered from neck to toe in completely appropriate clothing! The fact is that God has created us to desire the opposite sex, and short of a burqa there isn’t much you can do about it. At certain times in life the God-given chemistry in our bodies creates desires that no amount of clothing will suppress. Teenagers can be aroused by a properly arranged fruit bowl.
A related statement is that you should not dress with the intention of being attractive or “hot.” This seems to fall into the same category. I agree that the first priority in your attire should not be attraction but rather imitation of Christ. That being said, God gave us beautiful bodies. He even said they are “very good” (Genesis 1:31). It seems contrary to fact to then do our best to disguise or even destroy God-given beauty. What God wants covered is not your beauty, but your nakedness. In fact, if more of these modesty sermons started with a thorough study of the Bible’s treatment of that word, we would probably not use the term “modest” much at all.
4. Don’t ask your Grandma.
Well, would your grandma wear that? I hope not! I don’t know why we believe that we need to dress like grandma, or that grandma’s opinion of fashion is authoritative. Maybe this little cliché helps someone, but it doesn’t do much for me. Let’s try it out on a few other topics. Would your grandma write a blog about modesty? Would your grandma read her Bible verses from an iPhone in church? Would your grandma pay that much for shoes? Would your grandma go running every morning? Would your grandma go to the gym? Would your grandma go on a diet? Would your grandma enroll in college? How much wood could your grandma chuck if your grandma could chuck wood? Whether yes or no, does the answer to any of these questions matter at all?
It seems strange to proclaim the authority of God in Scripture and then to enslave a generation to the arbitrary fashion sense of a generation twice removed from their own. I appreciate a proper respect for our elders. I appreciate the wisdom of those that go before me. That said, I refuse to bind their opinion as if it were gospel.
5. Don’t ask Jesus unless you know how to get an answer.
What would Jesus wear? I have no idea, and I have no way of knowing. Now, I could consult a book of Bible customs and see what people were wearing at the time of Jesus, but that is no better and no more helpful than asking what people are wearing in our own time. Some dress appropriately and some don’t, then and now. About the most we can say is that his cousin John believed he might be wearing sandals (John 1:27, though largely a metaphorical reference), and at one point he wore a seamless tunic (John 19:23, but on the cross even that was removed). Really, there isn’t a lot to go on. While I am certain Jesus dressed appropriately, I am not given much of a picture of what that entails. Furthermore, I’m fairly certain he didn’t wear women’s clothing at all, so even less help there. Very few are actually thinking that much about the phrase when they say it. Instead, they are relying on a preconceived idea in your head about what Jesus would wear.
The point that can be made is that our clothing should reflect a character that reflects Christ. Jesus’s character was of true modesty, so I can conclude my clothing should not be opulent or an attempt to draw attention to myself through wealth. Jesus’s character was submissive to Torah, so I’m sure he did what he could to cover his nakedness. These would be valuable lessons to develop further.
6. Don’t use the word “lust” until you have studied it.
Finally, we need to come back to a topic that dogs this conversation consistently. Related to point #3 above, we are told and are telling others, “Lust is a sin, so clothing must prevent lust.” I’m fairly certain that this statement is partially false on both counts.
First, the term “lust” means desire. James is pretty clear in explaining that we are tempted by desire, and that temptation can often lead to sin (James 1:14-15). This also means that the desire is there to start with, long before the sin. Desire is God given, including the sexual kind. To desire is to be human. If Jesus was a human “made like his brothers in every respect,” who “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Hebrews 2:17; 4:12), then Jesus was created by God with those same desires, including the sexual kind. If Jesus did not have “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions,” then he could not be tempted by them (1 John 2:16).
Where lusts become dangerous is when they become loves, supplanting even the love we have for God. When our choices are guided by desire for this world instead of for God, then lust has that negative connotation that you were probably searching for.
That said, “clothing must prevent lust” is a statement also not clearly aligned with Scripture. The person who is responsible for controlling my desires is me. God holds me accountable. You should not put clothes on merely because your nakedness provokes my desires. You should put clothes on because God wants you to cover your nakedness. It is similar to blaming my wife’s good cooking if I become a glutton, or blaming a store if I give in to greed and superficial commercialism. I agree that they are not helping the cause any, but I am the problem. God and I together work on my desires, not you. Tempting another person is certainly a problem, but by bringing that point up so much, we are subtly washing our own hands of the problem and placing the burden of guilt on someone else.
My goal is not to discourage anyone from writing on modesty (or nakedness). I believe the church has a lot it should be saying here. I do want to discourage anyone from making arbitrary rules for other people. I do want to discourage anyone from justifying such rules with assumptions, subjective standards, and misapplied Scripture. I do want to discourage anyone from hunting for specks while ignoring that beam (Matthew 7:1-5).
We have a lot of real problems in this world. We don’t have time to waste on the imaginary ones.