A Modest Proposal About Modesty

Every year as summer approaches, the world hastens to embrace its warmth. Restaurant patios shake out their snowy dust, kids trickle back into parks, sunscreen appears in the checkout aisle, teenage lifeguards ready the pools, vacation ads become relentless — and the clothing departments transform overnight.

Oversized sweaters vanish; swimsuits now welcome shoppers. Spaghetti-strap dresses stand in place of trench coats, and short shorts overtake long pants. A flock of oddly named tops — crop tops, tank tops, halter tops, tube tops — sidelines the long-sleeve section. Weatherproof boots no longer necessary, strappy shoes (of questionable durability) line the shelves.

The first glimpses of summer often appear on in-store mannequins and online models. For Christian women, that glimpse often causes not only anticipation, but anxiety, as that nagging and perennial question emerges: How might we dress modestly?

Asking Questions Carefully

So, how might we dress modestly? Of course, true modesty springs from the heart’s disposition, not the closet’s contents, and extends well beyond the clothes we keep. As one author states, “The external signs of what we call ‘modest behavior’ — not bragging, not showing off your body too much — are ultimately signifiers of modesty, not modesty itself” (Shalit, A Return to Modesty, xxv).

At the same time, when the summer months roll around, a choice in clothing still stands between us and the sun. So, to answer the question, I often find myself asking another: Would it be wrong if I wore this? I imagine many women can relate. In the pursuit of modesty, we tend to censure our clothing for sin — which can be an immature approach. Though the Bible commands modest dress (1 Timothy 2:9–10), it doesn’t include a list of modesty dos and don’ts. Were we to hold up an outfit and ask Matthew or Peter to tell us yay or nay, godly or sinful, we may get little response. “Thou shalt not wear . . .” is, well, nowhere.

As a result of Scripture’s supposed silence, we can begin to define “modest” as “not too immodest” — not too much like the world. That’s when the tricky questions really start firing: Are these shorts too short? Is this shirt too revealing? Are these pants too tight? And so we sift through summer clothing racks, hunting for items that won’t look too much like the way the world dresses in warm weather.

As such, we place modesty’s meaning (and expression) at the mercy of the masses, whose sense of “too far” only seem to inch further away. The tendency is not unique to our age. As early as the second century, church father Tertullian addressed the issue, in a work suitably called On Modesty:

The modesty of which we are now beginning to treat is by this time grown so obsolete, that it is not the abjuration [the rejection] but the moderation [the restraint] of the appetites which modesty is believed to be; and he is held to be chaste enough who has not been too chaste. But let the world’s modesty see to itself. (2)

So long as society sets our standard of dress, “modesty” simply means being less immodest than others. But “let the world’s modesty see to itself,” advises Tertullian. How might we? Is there a way to leave the house knowing not just that we tried our best to avoid worldliness, but that we actively aspired to godliness? Don’t we long for more than looking good without feeling too bad?

Perhaps the apostle Paul can assist us. Though the Bible is quiet on wardrobe particulars, it is loud on wisdom principles. One in particular from 1 Corinthians may help us to wade into the summer with truth and grace, rather than imprudence or stress.

‘Is It Helpful?’

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul tackles a similarly sensitive topic for first-century Christians: food. What can they eat, and what can’t they eat? The Corinthian believers want to know. (Sounds familiar!)

“In what ways does the desire to wear what we want when we want rule over us?”

Though Paul responds to this tension multiple times, we’ll focus on what he says in chapters 6 and 10. In both places, he begins by quoting a maxim the Corinthians themselves held: “All things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). In other words: No food is unclean. Because in the new covenant, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11). So, what can they eat? In theory, anything.

Even so, that’s not the end of his response. Upon declaring all foods clean, he adds, “. . . but not all things are helpful.” Eating this or that food isn’t inherently sinful — but that doesn’t make it helpful. “Not wrong” doesn’t spell “automatically good.” Could the same be said of our clothing?

God’s word outlaws no outfits, but that doesn’t mean every outfit “helps” — benefits, profits, serves, encourages — ourselves and others. So, while the questions “Is it wrong?” and “Is it too [blank]?” tend to flounder around, maybe we can begin to anchor our dress in another direction: Is it helpful? Following Paul’s lead, let’s consider the helpfulness of our clothing choices in two areas.

1. Is it helpful for my soul?

Paul first mentions lawful-yet-unhelpful matters in 1 Corinthians 6. There, he equates helpfulness with what is personally profitable: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (verse 12). In other words, we “help” our faith along only so far as we flee anything that seeks to dominate us — govern us, control us, dictate us — apart from God. What our hangers hold is no exception.

Do we fidget over how to appear expensive, or fit, or even perfectly unkempt? How much hold does an approving or affectionate glance have on our heart? In what ways does the desire to wear what we want when we want rule over us? If someone we respect and admire were to question our swimsuit choices, would we mutter to ourselves about “legalism,” or would we walk away from the conversation open to the notion? “Inward examination,” writes Kristyn Getty,

should not make us fearful. It is necessary as we seek to fix our eyes on Christ. We don’t keep the course of steadfast faith accidentally. It’s a costly path that requires diligence, repentance, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work. (ESV Women’s Devotional Bible, 1551)

If we value Christ above everything, then we will gladly consider whether any one thing (even our favorite dress) is competing for our affection. And when we do, we’ll grow in godliness and increase in joy. Happy is the woman who has no reason to pass judgment on herself for the clothes she buys, for she knows that her purchases proceed from faith, not fashion (Romans 14:22–23).

2. Is it helpful for my neighbor?

But dressing “helpfully” reaches beyond what bolsters our own faith. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul expands the meaning to include what is loving toward others: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (verses 23–24).

When it comes to our clothes, we have the same freedom as Paul’s first-century readers. Neither dietary laws nor dress codes bind new-covenant Christians, no matter the era. But also like the early church, we have the same responsibility to use that freedom helpfully. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). A proper response to our freedom in Christ, explains John Piper, is not simply to assert our freedoms.

No, that’s not the way a Christian talks. We ask, “Will it be helpful? Will it be profitable? Will other people benefit from my enjoyment of this?” . . . That’s the principle of love.

With great freedom comes great love toward God and neighbor.

But how does that love dress on Monday mornings and Saturday nights, in church and at the pool? We must answer for ourselves. What is helpful for me (as a Coloradan wife and mother of little ones, with long-standing battles against pride and envy) may differ from you. Only let both of us answer the question “How might we dress modestly?” in a way that lovingly, sincerely seeks others’ good (1 Timothy 1:5).

For pews and grocery stores alike brim with people God loves, people for whom Christ died (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 8:11). Given the astounding lengths to which the Godhead went to save them, might we be willing to adjust the length of our shorts?

“The principle of helpfulness enables us to be serious about our clothes without being legalistic about our clothes.”

Perhaps we have a friend sensitive to her size. More than likely we have sisters in Christ, whether teenage girls or peers, looking to us as models for modest apparel. Remember likewise our brothers, who may battle against lust. Though never responsible for others’ sin, we should seek not to provoke it unnecessarily (1 Corinthians 8:13). Maybe a new acquaintance, an unbeliever, learns that we’re Christian, and because we dress so differently, this person wonders aloud about the God we say we serve — not just with our lips, but with how we look too.

From Heart to Head to Toe

If we’ll let it, the principle of helpfulness enables us to be serious about our clothes without being legalistic about our clothes. Humbly we stand before the mirror, asking God to reveal to each of us, as women with different temptations and contexts, how to dress helpfully.

The more we prize God’s gaze above the world’s, the more we will take every outfit captive to obey him (2 Corinthians 10:5). The desire to honor him with our hearts can’t help but reach from head to toe.

Together, may we become so enthralled with pleasing and proclaiming God that we care more about “good works” than fitting into current fashion (1 Timothy 2:9–10). Sometimes, perhaps even often, the two can coexist. But when they cannot, may we happily decline to dress like the times for modesty’s sake — which is to say: for God’s glory, our joy, and others’ good. Seen this way, “How might we dress modestly?” sounds a lot less like a nagging question, and a lot more like an invitation.

works from home as a wife, mother, and editor. She and her husband, T.J., live in Denver, Colorado, with their sons.