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Misunderstandings about Modesty

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Before I started my job as a teacher in a Christian elementary school, I was asked to sign a “lifestyle agreement” that stated I must adhere to certain standards of conduct or risk losing my position. One of these condition was that I always dress modestly in “business casual” attire.

I had no problem following this stipulation, because I naturally dress modestly anyway. I never wear anything above the knee, and if I wear something that even skims the knee, I wear dark nylons underneath. I refuse to wear tops without sleeves, and all the ones I do wear are long enough to cover my bottom. I layer my clothes so as to not expose any cleavage. My sense of fashion is a bit on the fancy side (I don’t own a single pair of blue jeans and have twice as many skirts as I do pants), which made things easy for me because I didn’t have to go out and buy a special set of “teacher clothes.” What I wear to the mall when hanging out with friends can also be worn to work and to church. Not all of my colleagues can say that their casual “non work” wardrobe is something they’d feel comfortable having their students see them in.

This is all to say that my intention in writing this is not to tear down or discourage anyone from practicing modesty in their daily attire. The difference between me and other Christian women who feel the same convictions, however, might be my motivations for dressing in this manner. Christian women, especially singles, are constantly told to cover their bodies to keep their brothers in Christ from stumbling, because “men are visual creatures.”

When someone covets another’s possessions, we do not blame the wealthier of the two for the other’s jealousy. The envious man would be told to be grateful for what he has and that his desires are sinful. Lust is unique in that it seems to be the only sin where the perpetrator’s culpability is shared, even though the other party may be unaware that they are the subject of another’s sexual fantasy. Women are told to cover their bodies to prevent lust just as much as, if not more, than men are told to keep their thoughts pure. There are many things wrong with this type of thinking that we can ascertain from Scripture, as well as from observing what goes on around us everyday.

(For the purposes of this piece, I will focus solely on the lust men have for women. I am well aware that women can also lust after men, but how often are men told to cover up? [That’s a whole other post..]).

1. The Bible does not tell women that their immodest clothing is why men lust.

The following verses are often used to tell women that they must be covered up to prevent men from gazing longingly after them.

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

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 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 (ESV)

Books and blogs on purity and modesty will tout these verses, but rarely do their writers stop to consider the context. Read the entire chapters of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 and tell me where there is a logical connection between women’s wardrobes and sexual sin. There is none. Paul and Peter’s admonishments to women about their clothing have nothing to do with carnal thoughts.

What exactly does “modesty” refer to here? Paul defines it for us – “with decency and propriety.” Peter’s warnings are similar to Paul’s. The most logical assumption here is that these godly men are discouraging their sisters in Christ from putting the focus on their outward appearances and fashion. Rather, they would like for these women to prioritize exemplifying the beauty of their godly character. There is no mention of lust in these passages, so it puzzles me that many Christians’ takeaway from these two verses is, “Put your boobs away before you get raped!” When we don’t subject the Word to our own preconceived notions, it makes much more sense to view these as warnings against superficial vanity.

2. Being “modest” is not the same thing as covering up.

It is possible to wear expensive clothes, jewelry, elaborate hairstyles – all the things the women were told to avoid in the above verses – and still be covered up. Not wearing these cannot possibly be what Peter and Paul mean when they said women should dress modestly. In everyday English, we use the words modest or modestly to refer to the refrain from drawing attention to oneself. The original word in Greek for modesty, αἰδώς, refers to “a sense of shame”. Shame leads to cowering, which is the opposite of emphasizing, or accentuating, so our plain reading definition of modesty applies. Therefore, we can conclude that Paul meant that we are to dress in ways that do not draw attention to our bodies. This would require avoiding more than just revealing clothes.

In mentioning accessories, and their monetary value, Peter and Paul are stressing that they want women to abstain from using our bodies as an advertisement of our wealth. The women of ancient Rome were walking billboards that silently proclaimed their family’s social status through jewelry and other adornments. This is the behaviour Christians are warned to shun. By the same token, it would be sinful for a Christian woman to wear a baggy, non-figure hugging Gucci sweat suit, no matter how “modest”, if her intention was to show off the fact she was able to afford it.

Furthermore, modesty is not an issue of the body, but a condition of the heart. Jesus wants us to be modest in more than just our wardrobe choices. He commands us to fast in secret (Matthew 6:18), pray in secret (Matthew 6:6), and to give in secret (Matthew 6:4). Our service and worship to God is not meant to be a show for others, so neither should our desire to cover our bodies. Phrases like “modest is hottest” defeat the purpose of the movement. I am reminded of the episode of 19 Kids and Counting where Jill Duggar’s knees were accidentally exposed and consequently blurred. I never would have noticed her knees if it weren’t for the blurring. Flaunting your modesty isn’t modest.

3. Men are responsible for their own lust, not the women they fantasize about.

So, we have established that the verses Christians often cite to connect female modesty to lust aren’t about lust at all. Interestingly enough, what the Bible actually has to say about lust is geared towards the observer (men) and not the object of their desire (women). For example:

“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” – 2 Timothy 2:22 (ESV)

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” – James 1: 14 (ESV)

James’ writings are quite poignant – temptation begins not with a glance at a bare leg or a peek down a blouse, but with one’s own desires. Why aren’t (hetereosexual) men tempted in locker rooms when other men disrobe in their presence? Because their desire isn’t for men! So why would a man lust after a scantily clad woman? Well…they are merely staring at what they want. Jesus addressed the issue of men lusting after women quite explicitly.

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 (ESV)

Jesus equates the basal desire for illicit sex with the act itself. This has huge implications for men. While many of us view sexual immorality as adultery, homosexuality and other ‘deviant’ acts, sexual harassment and ogling are often overlooked. We need to accept unwanted comments, advances and lustful staring as sexual sin as well. The fantasy does not need to be carried out to completion to be considered sin in God’s eyes. What Jesus says later to men is even more damning:

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell[a] of fire.” – Matthew 18:9 (ESV)

What the “men are more visual” crowd fail to note is that Jesus didn’t tell men to avoid the object (or woman) that captures their eye, nor did He tell them to rebuke her. He tells the man to mutilate himself lest he sin against God and face eternal punishment. This puts the blame squarely on the man. With such blunt words from Jesus, I find it hard to imagine Him accepting, “But she was dressed so skimpy and I couldn’t control my thoughts!” as an excuse for lust on Judgement Day.

4. Female modesty is not the antidote to male sin.

There is always a war waging within the Christian, and it is between his flesh and God’s Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit when we are saved (Romans 8:9), but this does not mean we are free from temptation. Men may be more visual, but that’s not an excuse for them to be led astray by the lust of their flesh, and opportunities to do so will always bombard them. Christians are delivered from the penalty of sin, but sin lies in wait for us (Genesis 4:7). This is why Paul warns:

“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” – Galatians 5: 16 (NKJV)

New King James Version (NKJV)Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A modestly dressed, godly woman is not the victor over men’s sins. God is not leaving men to fight their carnal desires with their flesh. Instead, He gives you His Spirit! This isn’t just good advice – Paul is stating a promise. If you, God’s child, live by the Spirit, you will not gratify your sinful desires. Jesus conquered and defeated sin on the cross so that His Spirit can dwell within you. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you can overcome any temptation to sin when you depend on Him and not your own strength. After all, one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control, demonstrating that this is not an innate trait that can be honed from the flesh. Men undermine the gospel every time they argue that they could stop sinning only if women watched what they wore around them. The weapon in a man’s fight against lust isn’t a woman in a long skirt and turtleneck, but the presence of God Himself.

5. Lust is rooted in a disrespect for women.

The sin of lust begins with viewing a woman as an object to be obtained for one’s own pleasure and amusement, instead of as a creature made in God’s image. Men, if you pass a scantily clad woman on the street and can’t control your thoughts and desires, you might want to ask yourself what you truly think about women. You are in violation of Philippians 4:8, Romans 8:6, and 2 Corinthians 10:5 – just to name a few warnings about the importance of our thought lives.

Why are there so many men’s magazines known for publishing nude photos of women, but there are hardly any with naked photos of men meant for female consumption? I’ve seen hundreds of bots on social media with photos of women in lingerie to entice male followers, yet not even one with sensual photos of men. This is because our society doesn’t objectify men the way it does women. The female body is commodified and vilified, and unfortunately this type of thinking has permeated the church, which is why verses about women’s inner beauty are twisted to become warnings on protecting male virtue. You cannot objectify someone you respect, and loving your neighbour demands respect.

Men may argue that being bombarded with images of women on a daily basis makes them feel futile in their battle against lust. Christian men may feel they are unable to distinguish themselves from worldly men in terms of their attitudes towards their female counterparts as a result. Consider Paul’s advice on how to avoid this trap:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2 (ESV)

English Standard Version (ESV)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Paul’s solution to having a carnal mindset is not to blame the carnality around you or to physically isolate yourself from it. Paul tells the Christian let the Spirit transform His mind and as we saw earlier from Jesus and James, this is where sin begins – from within.

6. Modest clothing doesn’t stop men from objectifying women.

There are also extra-biblical reasons – things we can commonly observe on a daily basis – that prove the “modesty movement”does not prevent impure male thoughts.

  • a) Most women who use social media regularly receive sexually explicit messages from men regardless of how much (or how little) of their bodies are visible. I have personally experienced this on Twitter when all I posted was a selfie from the shoulders up.
  • b) Women who cover their bodies from head to toe can still allure men with seductive words, excessive flirting, and other enticing behaviour.
  • c) Culture often determines which part of a woman’s body is sexualized. What is considered modest changes depending on the region, time, and even the individual. There are societies around the world where women walk around topless, but the men don’t lose their minds.
  • d) Holding women responsible for men’s desires is also useless when different men desire different things. A woman who covers her legs and breasts can still be fetishized for her feet.
  • e) Saying that men are visual creatures who are prone to lust isn’t an excuse when male doctors see female patients in various degrees of disrobement without experiencing the least bit of arousal. This shows that sexual desire is not some inevitable consequence of nudity.
  • f) Men may be visual creatures, but blind men have sexual desires, too. Should Christian women avoid wearing scented lotions because some blind men find the fragrance arousing?
  • g) Some well meaning Christian men say they are attracted to women who, “dress classy, not trashy.” Putting a woman’s worth in her appearance is the very essence of objectification. Besides, one man’s trashy (such as pants on women) is another man’s classy.
  • h) If revealing clothing entices men, then:
    • Why do elderly women past their sexual prime still get raped?
    • Why are children (both male and female) sexually abused by adult men?

Should Christian Women Dress Modestly?

In writing all of this, I am in no way saying that women are free to dress however they please (see #2 above), but please, let’s stop making women culpable for men’s evil thoughts, or worse, their own sexual assault. This is not even an issue of women’s rights or feminism – it is downright unbiblical to think that the only way for a man to avoid sexual temptation is for every female within his immediate vicinity to cover up. This misguided belief makes it much easier for our brothers in Christ to blame someone else for their sin, which is exactly what the first man did when he was caught in his transgressions. It is blasphemous to think that women hold the keys to solving the problem of men’s sins, and for women to assume they are responsible for defeating men’s sins, when Jesus already did. Misunderstandings about modesty are rooted in misunderstandings about the Bible and more importantly, about God. The question remains – do women have a responsibility to dress modestly? Paul told the Corinthian church:

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10: 31 (NIV)

New International Version (NIV)Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Doing the right thing with an unbiblical motivation is still wrong. God is robbed of His glory when we as women think that our wardrobe is the decisive factor regarding a man’s righteousness. My decision to dress modestly comes from viewing my body as God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19) and a failure to see how putting my body on display brings glory to God’s name.

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Debi

I am the admin and founder of www.beautyofhope.ca

10 replies

  1. Wow ! I love this post. It is well written, and profound.
    I grew up when girls and women did not wear trousers, and I have continued to wear skirts and dresses because I find them more comfortable. I do wear exercise wear for exercising, however.
    I like how you referred to blind men and their desires.
    I am enjoying your posts, and best wishes in your valuable work of guiding our young people. 🤗

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much 🙂

      I also choose to wear dresses and skirts. They are definitely more comfortable.

      Thanks again. God bless. 😃

      Like

  2. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts and experience in this post. I also read more about your blog and can identify with the lack of (non-seminarian) Christian women in theological spaces. I went to seminary but still see the immense need for women and men from all backgrounds to engage with scripture on a deep and thoughtful level. Excited to see your journey continue!

    Like

  3. I’m so glad you found me so I could in turn find you! It’s a rare pleasure for me to read the thoughts of someone else who both sees that modesty isn’t about lust and sees that that fact doesn’t make modesty less important.

    Liked by 1 person

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