Modesty and Affirmation

Reframing the Summer Modesty Debate

Summer is upon us. And with it, sometimes fraught decisions for women and girls about whether to wear a one-piece or a bikini, a strapless sun dress or a short-sleeve option, cut-offs or Bermudas. Going summer-clothes shopping with one’s pre-teen daughter can quickly become a foray into conversations about morality and modesty.

Growing up in a large mainstream church, what little instruction I did overhear on modesty seemed to always fall into the camp of treating the female body as a temptation. “Dress modestly,” goes this line of reasoning, “lest you cause a teenage boy to sin by looking at you.” There is a place for such considerations; in Luke 17:1b-2, Christ warns His disciples:

“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

As Christians, we are to be careful not to tempt each other. If you’re a girl going on a boating excursion with a co-ed group, and your shirt is a bit loose and the neckline tends to fall down a bit far, well, the kind thing to do is probably to change.

But the problem with the “female-body-as-problematic” approach to modesty is that it places emphasis not on a young woman’s own heart, but on those of others. Instead of being responsible for her own thoughts and intentions, she is taught to be ever mindful of what others might think of her—which really isn’t where Christ wants our minds to be.

I’m going to suggest, instead, an alternative approach to the concept of modesty for Christian women. It was actually brought up by SALVO editorial assistant Robin Phillips in a piece on religiosity and sex. (Spoiler alert: They go together.) Phillips writes:

“Some women have told me that modesty is important to them, not only because it helps men not to stumble, but also because it helps them place a high value on their own sexuality. They have told me that modest apparel affirms the true importance of a woman's sexual identity, since it proclaims that her body is not a tame, benign, and commonplace thing. Modesty affirms that our bodies in general and our sexuality in particular are special, charged, even enchanted, and too exciting to be put merely to common use.”

The body is a powerful thing, created by God, and covering it is a mark of its power. Likewise, in I Corinthians 12: 22-23, Paul says discusses the body of Christ, the Church: “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor . . . “ There are parts of the body that may seem to be weaker, that may seem to be less honorable. In fact, they have been given greater honor by God, because those parts of our body are vital to the joy, wonder, and beauty of sex, marriage, and procreation. There is, as Philips notes, tremendous power in human sexuality, power so great that it deserves to be covered and treated with respect, rather than flaunted.

But back to the dressing room on our mother-daughter clothes-shopping excursion. The specifics of what makes for “modest” apparel are what so often cause the hang-ups. And on that, the Bible gives some guidelines:

  • 1 Tim. 2:9-10: “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”
  • 1 Peter 3: 3-4: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

Notice that in both of these, the focus on braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes (all of which, in the first century, were associated with seduction) is really about the woman seeking to draw attention to herself by showing off her wealth. Likewise, in the Song of Solomon and other places in the Bible where the writers discuss prostitutes or temptresses, the women are described as having painted eyes or fingers dripping with perfume. Does that mean Christian women should never wear makeup or perfume? I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, again, we should look at these women’s hearts. They were seductresses, actively seeking to draw men away from their duties (and their wives!) and to themselves, for material gain.

This has been summed up by blogger Jennifer Clarke when analyzing the verses from 1 Tim.

“Modesty is presenting myself in a way that doesn’t draw attention where attention doesn’t belong. So if the attention of people doesn’t belong on my bank account or my breasts, I ought not present myself in a way that implies otherwise.” The Christian woman seeks to know God, to bring honor to Him. She should be focused on good deeds, on “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

Her heart is devoted to her Savior, to serving those around her. In other words, a truly modest woman is beautiful not because of her adornments, what she is or isn’t wearing, but because of her faith. She is beautiful because of her spirit. She may dress carefully and well, she may even be lovely to look at. (Christian women are allowed to be pretty, or wear nice clothes!) But she doesn’t devote overmuch time or thought to those things, because her heart is focused elsewhere.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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