Does God Care What I Wear?

Getting to the Heart of Modesty

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Guest Contributor

Seventies fashions are making a huge comeback. That’s right — the era that featured hippy and boho-inspired styles like ponchos, platform heels, patterned folk dresses, fringed and crocheted accessories, and feathered shag haircuts. For hot weather, halter bra tops and hot pants were mainstays of this mod fashion palette.

For those of you who missed the trend when it last came around, hot pants are extremely short shorts — micro shorts — made of luxury fabrics like velvet or satin. They were all the rage when I was a teen. Everyone who was someone had updated their look with this chic wardrobe item. Determined to be as groovy as my peers, I caught a bus over to the local mall to buy myself a pair.

The fluorescent-pink flowered satin hot pants hanging in the window display were perfect. I was smitten. They were priced higher than I liked, but they were absolutely fabulous — certain to yield some adulation. So, I carefully counted out my hard-earned cash to make the purchase.

My euphoria was short-lived. My parents deemed my trendy purchase to be immodest. In their opinion, those hot pants were simply too hot for me to wear. Much to my exasperation, they sent me back to the mall for a refund.

Modesty Police

That’s when I was issued my first wardrobe modesty rule: my hot pants could be no shorter than five handbreadths above my knee. I remember standing in dressing rooms with my fingers stacked together as loosely as possible, placing hand over hand, trying to find a pair of hotpants that measured up (or perhaps I should say down) to this near-impossible-to-find standard.

Modesty. The word made me bristle.

What was with the sex-specific emphasis on girls and women dressing modestly? It didn’t seem fair. My five brothers didn’t have to endure endless scrutiny of their wardrobes. It wasn’t my fault that some guys couldn’t keep their eyes on their fries. Why should the responsibility for their thought life fall on my shoulders?

“Modesty has a lot more to do with the condition of our hearts than with the specifics of our wardrobes.”

In church settings, discussions about modesty focus predominantly on female clothing. Many teachers emphasize that men are visually stimulated. Women are told that if they dress in a way that is overly sexual, they can tempt their Christian brothers to sin, and may end up in sexual sin themselves.

The issue of modesty is thus often reduced to the question of the best way to help men avoid temptation: How low is too low? How short is too short? How tight is too tight? How sheer is too sheer? How much skin is too much skin?

Women can be each other’s worst critics. At church gatherings, self-appointed modesty police surreptitiously check out what everyone is wearing to determine whether any of the sisters are guilty of an offense against the brothers. (Women, you know what I’m talking about.)

I’ve had my share of run-ins with the modesty police. As a young pastor’s wife, I was once corrected by a well-meaning sister for the “sin” of wearing a pencil skirt and — to add insult to injury — one that didn’t extend well below my knee. This woman’s relentless evaluation of my wardrobe threw me into an ugly-baggy-long-dress phase that (much to my husband’s dismay) lasted nearly two years.

Hemlines and Hearts

Women who were raised in the church are well aware of the Bible’s instruction to dress modestly.

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. (1 Timothy 2:9–10)

We’ve heard the admonishment repeatedly. When I told a friend that I had been asked to write an article about modesty, she sighed, rolled her eyes, and quipped, “Seriously? Isn’t there anything else to talk about?”

I get it. The topic can be wearisome. Because all too often, modesty is presented as adherence to a legalistic set of rules. What’s more, the rules are somewhat arbitrary. They differ from place to place, church to church, culture to culture, situation to situation, and person to person. Yet if a Christian woman transgresses them, she can be taken to account, and her commitment to holiness called into question. The modesty police have given modesty a bad rap.

It seems to me that the emphasis on the dos and don’ts of how women ought to dress misses a crucial point. Modesty has a lot more to do with the condition of our hearts than with the specifics of our wardrobes. What’s more, modesty is not just applicable to women or women’s clothing. It’s also a trait that the Bible promotes for men.

Common Standard

Some of the wealthy women in the church in Ephesus were dressing inappropriately. Their clothing was opulent, their jewelry excessive, and their hairstyles extravagant.

In 1 Timothy 2:9–10, Paul encourages these primped women to dress in a way that is in keeping with their Christian character. He uses three Greek words to help them understand what godly dress involves. Their choice of clothing was to be kosmios, aidos, and sophrosune — respectable, modest, and self-controlled.

These three terms are closely related; their meanings are rich and overlap. They definitely give women some valuable insight about what, and what not, to wear. But they have a far broader application than that.

Just a few verses after instructing women to dress in a way that is respectable and self-controlled, Paul instructs overseers to be respectable and self-controlled (1 Timothy 3:2). Respectable behavior and self-control are traits that should be displayed by all who love Christ (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:23).

But what about modesty? Is modesty exclusive to women and women’s clothing?

A form of the word aidos (modest) from 1 Timothy 2:9 is also found in some manuscripts of Hebrews 12:28. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and [aidous].” But other manuscripts use deous instead of aidous here, and most scholars take that as the original reading. Hence, translators render the word as “awe,” “godly fear,” or “reverence” rather than “modesty.”

Nevertheless, this use of aidos suggests that the idea of modesty and the idea of reverence are intertwined. We are to worship God with modesty. That is, with proper respect and regard, and not with brashness, insolence, or a shameless sense of self-importance. What’s more, this usage suggests that early Christians viewed modesty as a godly attitude that influenced far more than the way a woman dressed. Indeed, everything a believer does should flow out of a beautiful, modest demeanor.

“A woman’s faith ought to influence her wardrobe choices as much as it influences the rest of her behavior.”

When Paul told the women in Ephesus that their clothing ought to be modest, he wasn’t applying an isolated standard to women or women’s clothing. He was pointing out that a woman’s faith ought to influence her wardrobe choices as much as it influences the rest of her behavior.

Her clothing should be respectable and modest, demonstrating self-control, because that’s the common standard for all Christian conduct. This standard applies to men, too.

Three Crucial Questions

Notice that Paul didn’t join the ranks of the modesty patrol. He didn’t establish an external set of rules. He didn’t tell the women in Ephesus that the necklines of their togas needed to cover their clavicles or that their hemlines could only be a specified number of handbreadths above their ankles. He didn’t specify how many braids, how much gold, or how many pearls a modest woman could wear.

No. He took the discussion to a deeper — and much more profound — level. The Bible sets a standard for godly dress that far surpasses adherence to a set of rules. It promotes the type of godliness that flows from the inside out. True godliness. Not just the appearance of godliness.

And for this, we must turn from discussing the height of our hemlines to addressing the condition of our hearts. The three qualifiers in 1 Timothy 2:9–10 help us examine whether our hearts are in the right place when we consider what, and what not, to wear.

1. Is it becoming or unbecoming?

The Greek word kosmios means that something is becoming or respectable. Paul’s primary concern is that our clothing is becoming, congruous with, fitting to, and consistent with our character as children of God. Respectable means that, on God’s terms, it makes it easier, rather than harder, for others to give us their respect.

This word challenges us to bring a cosmic perspective to bear on our everyday decisions. According to Paul, godly women adopt an entirely different approach toward clothing than women who don’t know Jesus Christ. They dress in a way that is in keeping with their Christian character.

Our Lord wants his girls to be stunningly beautiful. And he repeatedly stresses that a woman’s beauty — and her beautification — is something that begins on the inside. The heart is where we put on Christ and his clothing. Therefore, a godly woman is far more concerned with her spiritual appearance than her physical appearance. The righteousness of Christ is the clothing that she puts on for others to see (Romans 13:14).

Spiritual adornment is the reality. Physical adornment is the symbol of that reality. Our external clothing is of secondary importance, yet it is not inconsequential, for it bears witness to our spiritual clothing.

What we wear on the outside should be befitting, or “proper for women who profess godliness” (1 Timothy 2:10). The external should express and match the internal.

2. Is it decent or indecent?

As mentioned earlier, aidos, the biblical word for “modesty,” means appropriate respect and regard. It is the opposite of brashness, insolence, audacity, or a shameless sense of self-importance. Aidos involves an inward restraint or aversion toward everything that is unseemly or indecent in God’s eyes.

Dressing modestly means first that we are not defiant toward God. We choose clothes that are decent in his eyes, not clothes that are provocative, seductive, and honor nakedness. When we dress decently, we recognize that God ordained clothes to cover, and not draw attention to, our naked skin. We cover up out of respect for him, the gospel, other people, and out of respect for who he made us to be.

“God ordained clothes to cover, and not draw attention to, our naked skin.”

Our clothing is supposed to tell the truth about the gospel. It shows the world that Jesus covers our shame and makes us decent. Our clothes cover our nakedness as the clothing of Christ covers our sin (Revelation 3:18).

Decency means we agree with our Lord about the true purpose of clothing and humbly set aside our self-interest to dress in a way that exalts Jesus.

3. Is it moderate or excessive?

Godly women are self-controlled — in their behavior and in the way they dress. They rein in their impulses and avoid crazy extremes in fashion, hairstyles, and makeup. They avoid spending crazy amounts of money or stuffing their closets full of crazy quantities of clothing. As is the case with everything else they do, their clothing decisions are governed with a holy sense of moderation, simplicity, and self-control.

Understanding the purpose of clothing and asking yourself these three questions — “Is it becoming?” “Is it decent?” “Is it moderate?” — will help you figure out what to wear. And don’t forget to include your “Helper” in the process. The Holy Spirit cares about your clothes. He has a vested interest in making sure you adorn your body in a way that honors Christ.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)

Clothing is not meant to be about us. It’s meant to display deep and profound truths about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Spiritual adornment is the reality. Physical adornment is the symbol of that reality. A woman whose heart has been made beautiful through holiness will delight to dress in a way that pleases her Lord.

Beyond Legalism and Laxity

This summer, the world will roll out its latest and greatest fashion trends. Retro hot pants and halter bra tops might be all the rage. Some Christians will join the modesty police to determine whether the sisters are covering up enough skin. Others will rebel against any attempt to curb feminine freedom and to shift the responsibility for male sexual purity onto women’s shoulders.

But the Bible counters both the legalistic and the lax attitude. It challenges us to reject a judgmental, rule-based approach that measures modesty by the hemline rather than the heart. It also challenges us — both men and women — to joyfully embrace the concept of modesty, and to consider it a beautiful (rather than a restrictive) virtue.

is an author, speaker, and professor of women’s studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of several books, Bible studies, and videos, including Girls Gone Wise and The Right Kind of Strong.