What Is Modesty?

Editor’s Note: The following chapter is reprinted with permission from the book What Is Modesty? For more information about the book, please contact Iron Sharpeneth Iron Publications.
modesty_cover.jpgWhen you think of modest clothing, what words come to your mind? Can you describe a modest person? Maybe you think of a mousy, quiet soul with no personality, or an unattractive woman who is proud of how she dresses and is openly critical of anyone who differs from her style in the least bit. Do you think of a beautiful woman at all? How about the way she acts? Does that factor into your assessment of her modesty?

Your answers to these questions reveal to some degree how you understand the concept of modesty.

Because many people (including Christians) have difficulty understanding what modesty is, we should begin by establishing a good definition of modesty. It is helpful to begin by examining how a modern dictionary describes modesty. The American Heritage Dictionary says that modesty is “reserve or propriety in speech, dress, or behavior.”

Because most of us think of clothing when we consider the word modesty, it is important to notice that this definition includes more than simply what a person wears. It involves speech and behavior as well as dress. This definition is actually consistent with what we find in the Bible.

In fact, you might be surprised to see how the Bible defines modesty. Let’s take a closer look at the Bible to see how God describes this modest person we Christians are supposed to be.

The first key to understanding a biblical definition is that modesty is not merely what you wear. Modesty is not a “good” article of clothing, and immodesty is not a “bad” article of clothing. Actually, modesty is quite different. Biblical modesty is more about what you are than what you wear.

We draw our current understanding of modesty from several biblical concepts, including the biblical word modest (KJV), which refers to appropriateness. In passages that deal with how Christian women should dress and act, we see humility and purity emphasized as well as appropriateness. It is significant that none of these words refer to specific articles of clothing. Let us look briefly at some verses that use these words, come to a conclusion on a definition, and then discuss the parts of the definition in more detail.

I Peter 3:3-6—Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.

Peter instructs Christian ladies to adorn themselves with a meek and quiet spirit. A meek spirit in this context is a spirit of humility. Peter illustrates this attitude by describing godly women who in humility placed themselves under the authority of their husbands. The grace of humility is essential for submitting to authority and is a rare and precious adornment for a Christian lady. It affects why we do what we do, including why we choose certain clothes and how we wear them. No matter how we dress, if we are filled with pride in our “modesty” and superior disdain for others who dress differently (even if we believe they are wrong), we show that we misunderstand what modesty really is.

In several modern Jewish books on modesty, the authors describe humility as a crucial element in deciding what they wear. They point out that the modern Hebrew word for modesty is the corresponding word that is translated humble in the Old Testament passage of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of thee? But to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly [modestly] with thy God.” This idea is consistent with passages in 1 Peter and 1 Timothy that indicate that modesty is not compatible with showy, excessive attention to appearance. In other words, pride is not modest, but humility is.

Titus 2:4-5—That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

1 Peter 3:2-4— While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

In the Bible, pure is often translated chaste (KJV). Notice that purity is something that comes out in our lifestyle—the word conversation in 1 Peter means behavior or our lifestyle. We have a tendency to limit purity to sexual purity, especially when it concerns what we wear, primarily because purity can be expressed through what we wear. We talk a lot about purity, such as saving your body for your husband or not doing anything sexually that we would regret or that is outside God’s clear rules for sexuality. But purity encompasses far more than just sexual purity.

Hebrews 12:1 tells us to get rid of anything that hinders our walk with God. James talks about staying unspotted from the world (James 1:27). A person who finds his speech is beginning to be characterized by sarcasm and innuendo may determine that he needs to limit the television he watches. And a young lady may be surprised to realize that the unsaved coworkers she spends time with after work are affecting her desire to serve the Lord with her family. These examples illustrate the importance of this concept of chaste, or pure, living. Have you ever done something wrong that leaves a yucky feeling in your stomach every time you think of it? Would you want a sinful choice you made to limit the effectiveness you could have for the Lord? So although chaste living does include purity, it implies much more, including our lifestyle, thought processes, and desires.

1 Timothy 2:9—In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

Finally, we must make appropriate choices in our clothing and behavior. Having a heart that is humble and pure is the first step to modesty. Now we must apply these principles to specific situations.

1 Timothy 2:9 is the only verse that contains the English word modest in the Bible. So, whatever modesty means here, we Christian ladies are supposed to dress this way. The apostle Paul is not talking about a particular style; the Greek word for modest in this context actually means appropriate. Paul clarifies his meaning by contrasting the word translated modest (and its synonyms shamefacedness and sobriety) with examples of immodesty. The elaborate, over-the-top hair, jewelry, and clothes were excessive, too much—in stark contrast to the concept of modesty that Paul was trying to teach. Compare this verse with 1 Peter 3:2-4, which also contrasts excessive attention to appearance with a godly lifestyle. Both Paul and Peter wanted Christian ladies to dress appropriately, with restraint.

Proverbs 11:22 says, “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.” Knowing what is appropriate isn’t always easy. That is why discretion is so important. A beautiful woman without the ability to make good judgments about what to do, say, and wear is just as mixed up as putting valuable earrings on a smelly pig. Knowing what to do in a situation takes good taste—seeing all the facts, deciding what facts are important, and even knowing what is beautiful and attractive. In the church today, God wants us to grow through the exercise of discernment based on biblical principles. Paul describes this skill when he says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

If we take all of these words—humility, purity, and appropriateness—and put them together, we get a good picture of our current understanding of modesty. Here are some ways that we can describe modesty.

Modesty is an attitude of humility that seeks to please God rather than man or self. It is characterized by restraint and self-control, and dignity in dress, speech, and actions.

Modesty is a product of pure thinking and is not determined by what you wear. You don’t become modest simply by putting on a “modest” dress.

Being appropriate requires discretion to evaluate what is modest in each situation.

Although it is not true that modesty equals clothing, it is true that what we wear and how we wear it can be modest or immodest.

To sum up, modesty is a way of thinking that is characterized by humility and purity, and results in appropriate actions.

We must now attempt to put into practice these principles we find from God’s Word. Sometimes the application is easy, like getting rid of a t-shirt that is too tight. Other times, the application is more challenging, like changing how we think or talk about men. Following a list of rules is far easier than the difficult process of learning to apply principles. It is often a lazy substitute for the careful study and application of God’s Word. We should strive to be like the Bereans who were commended for their excited diligence in searching Scripture to verify the truth that they were being shown.

Remember that God did not give us a list of complex rules, complete with a vast index, to live the Christian life. There simply isn’t enough space to give step-by-step instructions for every variation of every situation a particular person will experience in her lifetime. Instead, God gave us the Bible, complete with principles that apply to every variation of every situation a person will experience.

The elements of modesty we will study can all be expressed through what we wear. Although many of the examples you will find here are clothing examples, keep in mind that while specifically identifying clothing applications can be helpful, they do not substitute for the emphasis on the heart attitudes that are discussed throughout Scripture. It is far better for each of us to prayerfully take principles from God’s Word and apply them personally and specifically to our lives than to mindlessly follow a list of rules.

Michelle BrockMichelle Brock is Associate Editor of SI. She is the wife of Lee, a military pediatrician, and mother of three young children in New Mexico. The Brocks are active in La Luz Baptist Church. Michelle is active full-time at home, where she is involved in her husband’s military career, teaches her children, ministers in her local church, and has time for other personal projects. Last year, Michelle published her first book. She enjoys reading books about grammar and the English language, children’s novels, and books on special education. She and Lee also enjoy hiking, target shooting, and gourmet cooking. Their burden is to live life in such a way that their children will follow Christ as they follow Christ and that their lives will ultimately be a testimony to God’s grace and mercy in their lives as He leads them. She can be contacted at michellebrock@sharperiron.org.