Summer has arrived, and with it, renewed questions about modesty in the inbox. So, Pastor John, can you speak into the issue of modesty regarding clothing at the pool — especially bikinis? Speak to pastors and leaders. Should they take time to directly address the topic? If so, how would you counsel such a brave pastor to best step through that minefield?
The most important thing to say is this: It is impossible to come into a church, youth ministry, or school — say, a Christian school that is permeated with immodesty — and fix it with rules about modesty. Rules have a place. Guidelines have a place in families, schools, youth ministries, and churches. But if you try to turn that institution around by starting with the rules, you will not accomplish a Christ-exalting, gospel-rooted, Spirit-empowered, faith-sustained, Bible-informed, joyful, free culture of modesty. You won’t. Yet that is the goal.
I never started with rules or guidelines, but with God, the gospel, the Bible, the Spirit, faith, and joy. Deep things must happen in a woman’s or man’s soul before they have any chance of thinking and feeling about these things in a way that honors God.
“Cultivate the joyful sense that modesty is beautiful.”
To any woman or man who dresses inappropriately I say this: 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 toward your clothing and your appearance will be controlled by forces that don’t honor Christ.
Every pastor can see we have work to do — deep soul-work. A pastor will spend 99 percent of his effort establishing these glorious, supernatural works of God in people’s hearts. He will preach, teach, worship, and model in himself and his family how the gospel changes everything. He will realize that, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit through the word and through faith, his church will be split between two kinds of carnal people. One group will bristle at every mention of modesty and say, “How dare you tell me or my children how to dress!” That’s a bad attitude; it is carnal. But the other group will put all their emphasis on outward appearance with little sense of the heart. They will make the outward appearance supremely important. These two groups will never know peace. They will both fail. Neither are deeply transformed by the gospel.
Teach, Expose, Pray
My counsel is this: Teach your people these things year-in and year-out. Expose the pride of licentiousness and self-will. Expose the pride of externalism and formalism that has no heart in it, that doesn’t see the gospel as precious. Preach and pray for a gospel culture where men and women have a sweet submission to Christ, a saturation with the word of God, a humble attentiveness to the wisdom of others, a desire to grow and learn, a deep suspicion of the power of worldliness to control our habits, and a loving consideration of others when choosing what to wear.
“Until you supremely value Christ, your attitude toward clothing will be controlled by forces that don’t honor God.”
When the time is right (here I am trying to get more specific), take up texts like 1 Timothy 2:8–9: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Work through it, making sure everyone feels that the Bible really does care about how we dress. It really does want us to dress in a way rooted in humble, joyful, Christ-exalting, others-serving, gospel faith. I will give three closing practical tips from my experience.
1. Start at the Top
When it comes to guidelines that grow out of the gospel, start with your staff and leaders of up-front ministries. Don’t start with everybody. Start working from the inside out, so that culture and modeling emerge from your worship leaders, from your staff who are in front, from the leaders of the youth ministry, and so on. Work with your leaders.
2. Work with Parents
Deal with parents quietly, and work toward common expectations for young people. This is not easy, but it is wise to prioritize it instead of attacking things at the most painful point — namely, the way the girls and boys are dressing. Let’s get the parents on board here.
3. Cultivate Joy
Cultivate the joyful sense that modesty is beautiful. Renounce any mindset that modest means frumpy. From my own experience — I am testifying as a man now who has been a teenager, a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 40-year-old, a 50-year-old, and a 60-year old — I can testify without any doubt that at every age of my life, my masculine life, women’s sexy dressing is less attractive than modest beauty. Of course, it makes the eyes turn. It makes the eyes turn, but there is a world of difference between making men’s eyes turn with sexy dressing and being attractive as a beautiful or handsome person.