I was talking with Chris Barnett the other day, and in the course of the conversation, I noted that the brethren at Jackson Heights were free to ask me to write a blog post about any spiritual topic (as, indeed, is anybody else. I love post requests!). He thought for a moment and requested that I write about modesty.
As topics go, this is a fraught one. In many congregations, it’s the subject of simmering tension between those who disapprove of the clothing choices of others and those who resent being told what to wear. Honestly, I think both sides have a point, but I don’t think either is completely correct.
The key text here, of course, is 1 Timothy 2:9-10, which reads, “. . . [W]omen should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”
Even though Paul is writing about modesty, it’s clear that his primary concern with immodest dress is different from ours. When it comes to modesty, we’re primarily focused on revealing clothing—bikinis and crop tops and short shorts. Paul, though, is focused on expensive clothing: gold, pearls, and costly attire. Back in the day, even braided hair was a sign of wealth. It signified that you could afford a slave who knew how to create elaborate hairstyles.
This doesn’t mean that we’re wrong to worry about clothes that don’t cover enough. However, we must recognize that the text is broader than that, and that our concern about scanty attire is an application of the passage, not its core meaning. The overall principle here is not that young Christian women should wear clothing of a minimum square inchage. It is that all of us should be careful to avoid clothing (and possessions generally) that focuses attention on our appearance rather than our character.
The worldly, by contrast, use clothing for self-glorification. This is obvious in the curvaceous young woman who has it, so she flaunts it. However, it is equally present, though less obvious, in the successful businessman wearing his bespoke silk suit and Italian-leather loafers. Both of these people are saying, “Look at me! Be impressed with me!” rather than “Look at Christ!” Both outfits represent a spiritual problem.
However, when it comes to modesty, we are apt to zero in on the first set of problems and ignore the second set. This is of a piece with our tendency to view some forms of worldliness as better than others. Worldliness when it comes to sex is bad; worldliness when it comes to materialism and status is acceptable. We will be much better off, though, if we remember that it is not the love of sex that is the root of all kinds of evils. It’s easy for a “faithful” Christian to spend four hours a week worshiping God while spending his life bowing down before the altar of covetousness.
I suspect too that this is another expression of the habit of focusing on the sins of others rather than our own sins. It’s a fact that men in our society have a much easier time avoiding sexually suggestive clothing than women do. It’s also true that when it comes to sex, men are more responsive to visual stimuli than women are (which explains why women’s clothing is often revealing and men’s clothing usually isn’t).
As a result, it’s easy for men to notice that kind of modesty problem and equally easy for them to condemn it. It requires no change from them and offers them the cheap satisfaction of self-righteousness. I fear that more than a few Christians will lose their souls over a line of spiritual reasoning that begins, “Why don’t they just. . .”
None of us can change anybody else. We can only change ourselves. Each of us must ask whether and how the way we dress is keeping the light of Christ from shining in us. This certainly applies to revealing clothing. Godly women particularly must choose their attire so that those who look at them will notice their good works rather than their bodies. Women who are unsure about a particular item of clothing ought to ask their husbands, fathers, and so forth.
However, it applies with equal (if not greater) force to expensive attire and all the other signs of conspicuous consumption. When we dress in a way that focuses attention on our prosperity, that too is sinful. A pricey purse with an eye-catching logo is no less a spiritual trap than is a cute blouse with a plunging neckline.
Nor should we limit this to what we wear. When we pull up to the office in our brand-new Lexus (note that you’ll never find a Lexus without a hood ornament), what’s the janitor going to think of us? If we approach him about the gospel, will he be comfortable, or will he be intimidated and suspicious? We have to watch out for anything in our lives that signals “status” rather than “Jesus”.
Ultimately, immodesty isn’t a sex problem. It’s a selfishness problem. It’s an expression of the desire that all of us have to boast in something, anything, other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly, we should try to guide and help others who have succumbed to this desire. Most of all, though, we must guard against its manifestation in ourselves.
–M. W. Bassford