The idea of modesty for Christians has been predominately cast within the framework of a set of rules about what kind of clothing (mainly for girls) is considered to be appropriate. Whether its skirts below the knees, dresses to the floor or necklines for shirts no lower than the collar bone, the list of do’s and don’ts can be long—really long. But is this kind of list what God intends for us to have and hold others accountable to when it comes to modesty? Where do we get such a list from anyways? Who gets to make it and by what criteria? Is there possibly another way both to define modesty and to live modestly?
Tim Challies and RW Glenn think there is. In their new book, Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel, Challies and Glenn pave a new road for understanding modesty that centers on the gospel and lacks a set of do’s and don’ts—no matter how bad they know you want one!
Feeling that the gospel has been largely silent in most discussions of modesty the authors set forth their plea:
We want to see your heart so gripped by the gospel of grace that modesty becomes beautiful and desirable to you, not just in your wardrobe but in all of life. We want you to understand that modesty isn’t just motivated by the gospel, it’s an entailment of the gospel—it flows naturally from a solid grasp of the good news of the gospel. (p. 6)
This plea for gospel-centered modesty is a response to the legalism that has dominated the topic for far too long in far too many Christian circles. The consequences of a gospelless modesty are devastating. “When we build theology without clear reference to the gospel, we begin to take refuge in rules….the regulations become our gospel—a gospel of bondage rather than freedom” (p. 11-12). A view of modesty that is void of the gospel will have nothing more than the appearance of godliness. In this way, a rules based modesty for dress can produce a kind of spiritual immodesty. “Pursue modesty outside of the gospel and not only will you fail to be genuinely modest, but everything you do in the name of that supposed modesty will undermine the very gospel you profess to believe” (p. 38).
So if modesty should not be defined by a set of rules then how is it to be defined? This is where it can begin to get sticky. For Challies and Glenn there are two aspects that play into defining modesty. First, there is the situational aspect. Here the idea is that what may be viewed as appropriate or modest in one context (like a one piece bathing suit for women at the beach) is not in another (a women wearing that one piece bathing suit to church on Sunday or to work at her fortune 500 job on Monday). Even the most diehard rules based proponents of modesty could agree with this.
The second criteria for defining modesty is where some are going to cheer and other will no doubt squirm. This aspect draws on the cultural context. That’s right, the authors believe that cultural norms regarding modesty are a big factor in defining modesty. For those who are flipping through their Bibles right now for verses to counter this claim, wait one minute. The authors are already ahead of you. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul tells Timothy “that 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.” There are two things that can be seen here. First, Paul does not define modesty. Second, whatever Paul does define as modest he is clearly using the contemporary culture as a reference point. The authors point out that no one is going to claim Paul’s words here as a claim upon every Christian for all ages. The reference to “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” is a clear reference to something within the culture. So wearing these items in Paul’s day would have been viewed as immodest and they were not to wear them at church. Notice also how Paul grounds his example of external immodesty first in internal modesty.
These two aspects of defining modesty boil down to three parts:
- Virtue. Modesty is first and foremost a virtue— an inner attitude that may be internalized and largely unconscious, or very intentional.
- Respect. This virtue is grounded in respect for an appropriate cultural standard (the broader, general context) and appropriate situational standards (the narrower, specific contexts).
- Result. This respect is ultimately made evident in dress, speech, and behavior that willingly conforms to these standards. (p. 22-23)
These three parts then boil down into one defining statement—“Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech and behavior in a given situation” (p. 23). From here the authors make the following statement:
When the gospel controls your modesty, everything changes. You want to be modest because God sent his son, Jesus, to die for your immodesty and especially because Jesus willingly died for it. When the gospel controls your modesty, you won’t see it as a way of putting God in your debt because you don’t need to twist God’s arm to accept you— he already accepts you freely and fully in Jesus Christ. This gives you both the ability and the desire to respond to him by joyfully being modest in appearance and character. (p. 35)
In the end, Challies and Glenn want the gospel to be the root from which modesty grows from. “Don’t see your immodesty as the root of the problem; see it as the fruit and go after the plant where you can do the most damage— the tangled roots of your idolatrous desires” (p. 68).
If I were to write a book on modesty, I would hope it would be like this book. Challies and Glenn have rightly taken the list of rules out of modesty and replaced it with the gospel. This is a book for both men and women because men struggle with modesty as much as women albeit in different ways. My only contention with the book is I think the authors have misunderstood Mark Driscoll and the discussion he tried to have regarding sex in his book Real Marriage (p. 47ff.). Having read and reviewed Driscoll’s book myself, I don’t think he commits the error they think he does.
That difference aside, I would recommend Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel to anyone, especially teens and their parents. The position offered by Challies and Glenn would help a lot of people be freed of the legalism and rules that have dominated the discussion on Christian modesty.
About the authors
R.W. Glenn is Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Redeember Bible Churcn in Minnetonka, MN, and author of Crucifying Morality: How the Teaching of Jesus Destorys Religion (Shepherd Press, 2012). He blogs at solidfoodmedia.com.
Tim Challies is a pastor, blogger, author, and book reviewer. He has written Sexual Detox, The Disicipline of Spiritual Discernment, and The Next Story. Visit him at Challies.com and DiscerningReader.com.
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and is pursuing the MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.