During the summer, the topic of modesty comes out from hibernation. But with the renewed conversations come many assumptions about modesty, assumptions that are always worth re-thinking.
Here’s the main assumption: Feminine modesty is about sexual provocation. If a woman’s skirt is too short or blouse is too low, it will cause her Christian brother to lust.
Two Important Texts
This assumption raises two challenges. The first one is whether feminine modesty is about sex in the first place. If it is, the two main texts in the New Testament don’t make this point very clear.
1 Peter 3:3–4:
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 Timothy 2:9–10:
. . . women 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.
We see nothing here about sex or lust or leading men into temptation.
So what’s at stake with feminine modesty in these texts?
Perhaps we are talking about a modesty of submission? Both passages are set in a discussion about female submission at home and in the church. So yes, it seems the topic of submission is at least partially in play.
Perhaps we are talking about modesty of wealth? Maybe all this modesty talk is about not wearing gold and “costly attire.” We know that simply wearing valuable clothes is not the problem, since the Proverbs 31 woman wore purple (Proverbs 31:22). But a Christian woman should not use apparel and jewelry to flaunt her wealth, nor should a Christian man (Psalm 49:6). In this sense, female modesty seems to overlap with not flaunting wealth.
Is Feminine Modesty About Sex?
Now we return to the original question. Do these modesty texts in the Bible have anything to do with women dressing in a sexually provocative way?
The answer seems to come in a bold passage from the pen of the Apostle John. It often goes unmentioned in discussions on this topic (and you will soon see why).
Here’s what he writes in Revelation 17:1–6:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
How’s that for a plucky text in the modesty debate!
Revelation 17 is a valuable key to help us interpret the other two passages. The compilation of expensive garments and outer adornments are a form of first century sexual enticement, here personified in this “mother of prostitutes.” She embodies spiritual adultery (idolatry).
I doubt a Las Vegas prostitute today would choose a purple dress, braided hair, and pearls to market herself. As the world’s oldest profession, prostitution has surely taken many different external forms over the centuries, one of them captured in Revelation 17.
John’s imagery is powerful, but it’s not unique. In the ancient world, “Courtesans were used, particularly by moralist writers, as personifications of the vices, including incontinence, profligacy, covetousness, and flattery. They had a recognizable way of dressing and are often depicted as conspicuously well dressed. Successful courtesans could be very rich and sported gaudy jewelry exacted from their lovers” (Aune, 935).
Revelation 17 seems to settle it — 1 Peter 3:3 and 1 Timothy 2:9 are concerned with misusing clothing to flaunt sexuality in public. The language of Scripture links the two modesty passages with sexual promiscuity. Further, based on the evidence of Revelation 17, it seems reasonable to correlate the immodesty of the first century (in its excessiveness), to the immodesty of our culture (in its skimpiness).
For us, this means ongoing discussions about the particular details of what constitutes modest female clothing (not my specialty). This also means viewing the discussions, not as leftovers from a frumpy soapbox of a horse-and-buggy tradition, but as valuable deliberations rooted deep in the continuing relevance of ageless Scripture.
Are Men Off the Hook?
So let’s make the connection clear. The feminine modesty texts are about sexual allurement. But does this connection abrogate men? Or, does this connection introduce another assumption: If women dress modestly, men will not lust.
This assumption may sound valid, but it remains an assumption (and a false one). In truth, every woman in our society can be dressed in a hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest) and it wont stop the sexual advances of men — in fact it may escalate harassment (see Egypt). Feminine moderation alone cannot break the power of male lust.
Men in this world will always need to guard their own hearts from women who unintentionally lure their eyes, as much as from women who intentionally dress and speak to lure lustful hearts (Proverbs 5).
Men and women serve each other here. A godly Christian man refuses to treat women as objects of lust, humanizes them, and shows respect to his sisters in Christ as fellow heirs (Romans 8:17). A Christian woman, modestly dressed, serves her brothers in Christ, honors her husband (1 Peter 3:1–6), and removes an unnecessary obstruction from her testimony of personal godliness in society and the church (1 Timothy 2:8–15).
Whether or not men are also called to a standard of modesty in fashion is a relatively new conversation in the church, and one we need to think through together in the future. But what we do know is this: clothing was God’s idea (Genesis 3:21), and modesty was God’s idea. He finds this modesty precious. It honors him. It honors boundaries of sexual purity. It honors marriage. It honors churches. It honors God’s design for biblical masculinity and femininity.
Compelled By Christ?
So long as fashion trends exist, Christian women are called to be self-consciously aware of the changing forms of sexually promiscuous dress. Clothes must be chosen, not merely on the basis of whether other women will find an outfit “cute,” but whether the message the clothing sends to men is sexually restrained. None of this is easy or convenient, but obedience to God is never easy or convenient.
For men to show God-glorifying self-control over their eyes and for women to show God-glorifying self-control over their wardrobes, both require obedience to God with greater motivations. Pure hearts are behind pure eyes (Matthew 5:28) just as internal modesty is behind external modesty (1 Peter 3:1–6).
In the end, the ultimate question is this: What do we treasure?
As Pastor John recently put it:
Until God has become your treasure, until your own sin has become the thing you hate most, until the word of God is your supreme authority that you feel to be more precious than gold, sweeter than honey, until the gospel of Christ’s death in your place is the most precious news in the world to you, until you have learned to deny yourself short term pleasures for the sake of long term joy and holiness, until you have grown to love the Holy Spirit and long for his fruit more than man’s praise, until you count everything as loss compared to the supreme value of knowing Christ — your attitude towards your clothing and your appearance will be controlled by forces that don’t honor Christ. (APJ #342)
And there’s the aim for both women and men. Together we desire to not be controlled by outward appearances. Instead, we make it our aim to be compelled by the invisible love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:12–15).
For more on John Piper’s recent thoughts on this subject, listen to Ask Pastor John episode #342 — “Bikinis and Modesty” (9 minutes):