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Defining Modesty

As the summer months come to a sweltering end with a scorching bank holiday weekend it seemed a good moment to reflect on the topic of women dressing modesty.

The Bible seems pretty clear about it. Paul says to Timothy:

“Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 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. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:8-10)

And Peter writes to women saying:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. 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. ( 1 Peter 3:3-4)

Those texts focus on what dressing immodestly says about a competitive character that sees our identity and beauty in the way we look and what we wear. Rather our deeds and our humility are supposed to be the most eye-catching apparel.

There is of course the issue of distracting men and causing them to sin by coveting and lusting to some degree. Men do have to bear their own responsibilities in where they look and what they cherish in their minds. They have to weigh character not measure vital statistics. This is a serious matter for men to consider, especially in the light of Jesus words about lust, and heart adultery (Matt 5:27,28). But it is a loving thing that Christian women can do, in not making it more difficult for men.

But the main thing Paul and Peter seem concerned about is the obligation on women to think about the character they portray by what they wear. They are not saying it is wrong to wear pretty clothes but dressing with decency and propriety and focusing on good deeds is more important and lasting.

But what does that look like, literally look like, in terms of what women wear? Should there be set of rules about how long skirts should be and how much cleavage should be shown? About rules, John Piper says:

“It is impossible to come into a church… 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, culture of modesty. 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 honour Christ”

This is spot on. We do not want to lead out with a set of rules. Our priority is not at first looking at what we wear but examining our hearts and asking for God’s help to be the kind of women God wants us to be.

But let’s suppose our hearts are right, we really do want to please the Lord and do not want to boast or distract with our clothes, what will we do? Surely it must mean that we will think about what it means for us to be dressing modestly.

Some of this is context specific. What we might wear on a beach or in family setting is different to what we’d wear in a church meeting. (Having said that, even on a beach there are more or less modest ways of dressing).

But in a general public context Christian women think about what they wear. You might be the sort of person who naturally tends to cover up or not but each of us must at least give the matter some thought. If in doubt it’s worth asking a trusted friend of family member – is this too revealing?

If you are wearing clothes that are designed to draw attention to you and more especially to draw the eye to the tops of your legs or down the breasts you might want to at least ask the question: why am I wearing this, what does it say about me, and what effect will it have on the men who talk with me? Do I dress to impress and attract men, and compete with other women?

We want to honour Christ with all our lives and this is one way we can do that.

It is the grace of God that assures us we are still loved and accepted despite our lack of modesty, propriety and purity as men and women. It is the grace of God that he speaks to us, sometimes in ways that are painful or awkward, but that reveals our hearts and helps us develop a character that is more honouring to Christ and more like Christ.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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