The Heart of Modesty

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Bert Perry's picture

I applaud walking away from the stance that modesty is somehow about preventing men from lusting; writing as a man, good luck with that if you try, as I've seen people flirt successfully in cleanroom bunny suits and burqas. That noted, what in Scripture prevents a woman from drawing attention to herself through clothing choices?  

It is first of all an extraordinarily nebulous standard.  For example, would we say that it's permissible, perhaps, for a woman to have a natural hourglass shape, but that it would be wrong for a woman to influence that shape through undergarments like corsets, spanx, girdles, or "control top" hose?   Or would it be the case that the woman who has that shape naturally would be obligated to hide it?  What about the woman with a classically beautiful face, versus the woman who "paints the barn when it needs painting"?  Are certain colors going to be off limits because they catch the eye?

And if we say that there is some nebulous points where a woman ought not enhance her appearance, how do we reconcile that with God's interest in, and beautification of,  Israel described in Isaiah 16?  How do we reconcile that with the fact that no less than the Holy Spirit describes Rachel, Sarah, and Rebecca as "yaffe"--beautiful?  How do we reconcile that with the presence of Lydia, the dealer of purple, in the early church, and the noble wife of Proverbs 31?

Don't get me wrong--I think there is a Biblical case for a certain modesty, but I don't know that it's the one Miss Hicks presents.    While 1 Peter 3:3-4 tells us that a woman's beauty ought not consist in her outward adornment, at the same time we've got to admit that God elsewhere commends women (and presumably men) who dress themselves attractively, and describes God Himself as dressing His Church beautifully.  One might even translate 1 Peter 3:3-4 this way; be as beautiful, physically, as you want, but if that's the only beauty you've got, you have higher priorities than hair, makeup, and clothes to attend to.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

The next book on my reading list is "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes". This comment on the book is one of the reasons I'm getting it:

"When Western readers hear Paul exhorting women to "dress modestly," we automatically think in terms of sexual modesty. But most women in that culture would never wear racy clothing. The context suggests that Paul is likely more concerned about economic modesty--that Christian women not flaunt their wealth through expensive clothes, braided hair and gold jewelry."

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Don Johnson's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

The next book on my reading list is "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes". This comment on the book is one of the reasons I'm getting it:

"When Western readers hear Paul exhorting women to "dress modestly," we automatically think in terms of sexual modesty. But most women in that culture would never wear racy clothing. The context suggests that Paul is likely more concerned about economic modesty--that Christian women not flaunt their wealth through expensive clothes, braided hair and gold jewelry."

So are you saying bikinis are OK if you buy cheap ones?

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ron Bean's picture

I believe you were trying to use humor but just in case you weren't, the answer is "no". I am saying that Paul was not banning bikinis although we have that liberty.

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Dan Miller's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

I believe you were trying to use humor but just in case you weren't, the answer is "no". I am saying that Paul was not banning bikinis although we have that liberty.

Interestingly, it does mean that the man in the expensive suit is more literally disobeying “modesty” than a girl whose skirt is a little too short.

Bert Perry's picture

Dan Miller wrote:

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

I believe you were trying to use humor but just in case you weren't, the answer is "no". I am saying that Paul was not banning bikinis although we have that liberty.

Interestingly, it does mean that the man in the expensive suit is more literally disobeying “modesty” than a girl whose skirt is a little too short.

Seems like this would imply that Lydia and the Proverbs 31 wife were in sin, not to mention God would be in sin for His attiring Israel beautifully in Isaiah 16.  For that matter, our Lord's robe was woven in one piece (akin to top down knitting perhaps?), implying it was made by a craftsman/woman of unusual skill.  So I don't think the breadth of Scripture would be consistent with the idea that going to Macy's or Nordstrom instead of Target would be a matter of sin.   We'd be throwing too many bombs at people God commended.

I'm thinking the New Testament modesty passages, again, could well be idiomatically translated "if all the beauty you have is bought from Chanel or Leger, you have some business to do with God--and if you're spending far more time attending to your wardrobe than to your Godliness, you have an issue with priorities."

I seem to remember Don's church has, on their website, a note that the use of "uncover nakedness" in Leviticus 18 indicates that when certain portions of the anatomy are exposed--through direct line of sight, tightness, or pattern--then the person is, whether they know it or not, signaling readiness for "certain steps in the relationship." Couple that with how Israel was to be humiliated in case of disobedience--exposure per the end of Deuteronomy--we can infer that those zones are, specifically the upper chest, hips, and probably part of the upper thigh.  Really the same areas actresses of modest ability use to get attention, no?

So Paul isn't telling us that certain areas ought to be covered, but other areas of Scripture give us that hint.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Don Johnson's picture

Both "indecent exposure" and "ostentatious display" are examples of immodesty. I thought Ron's quote was a little unbalanced, though I don't think he intended it to be.

If the author of the book he is considering wants to make immodesty exclusively "ostentatious display," then I think they are wrong.

I also think Miss Hicks did a fine job in her piece and pointed to an often overlooked point. I linked to it on P&D today also.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Jay's picture

Both "indecent exposure" and "ostentatious display" are examples of immodesty. I thought Ron's quote was a little unbalanced, though I don't think he intended it to be.

This is a really, really good point and something that is usually missing from our discourses on modesty.  Thanks for noting it.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Ron Bean's picture

I agree that indecent exposure is inappropriate for Christian women but if the context of I Timothy 2 is public worship and ostentatious display for women's dress, are we correct in applying this text to indecent exposure?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Don Johnson's picture

Fair question. I would say yes, we can apply Scripture to contexts that are different from the context in which we find them. The context of Scripture informs us as to meaning. The application of Scripture is much wider however. We have the Lord's and the apostles' usage of Scripture as precedents. We also have our own practices as examples. For example, if we could only apply Scripture to its exact context, to what could we apply 1Cor 8, meat offered to idols? Would Paul be in error to apply "muzzle not the ox" to paying the preacher? (1Cor 9)

i could go on but I think you get the point

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

In the case of "muzzle not the ox," what you've got is a case where the one doing the work is not to be denied his pay.....so there is a very real parallel to the concept .  Now what parallel are we going to make to the New Testament passages on modesty and uncovering skin?   If you don't have some connection, you might as well be making it up as you go along.

To be blunt about the matter, I think that a lot of people have figured out that a lot of people talking about modesty are indeed just making it up as they go along--and not surprisingly are declining to follow that teaching simply because it doesn't make any sense to them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Don Johnson's picture

Here is Merriam Webster on modesty:

  mod•es•ty \ˈmä-də-stē\ noun
1531
  1:      freedom from conceit or vanity
  2:      propriety in dress, speech, or conduct

Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).

When a woman is wearing ostentatious clothing in church (the presumed context of 1 Tim 2.9) she is immodest by common agreement, at least in this thread. She is perhaps guilty of conceit or vanity, she is inappropriate in her dress.

Why?

Because she is calling attention to herself instead of giving glory to God (1 Tim 2.10).

By extension or application, if a woman (or a man) dresses to call attention to herself as revealing clothing surely does, she is also being immodest. One could argue, I suppose that a bikini is modest on the beach in that it doesn't call attention to one's self since "everyone is doing it". However, two responses in opposition to that notion:

  1. Laws of nakedness in the Bible would seem to apply here
  2. It could also be argued that "everyone" is seeking to draw attention to one's physical person by wearing revealing swim wear.

It is a strange fight to pick when someone wants to argue for revealing clothing as somehow not covered by Scriptural commands/exhortations regarding modesty.

It is an even stranger position to take that we must rigidly apply Scriptures only to the exact context in which their truth is expressed. We don't live in the 1st century. The 1st century context informs us as to meaning but not to application. If you want to insist it informs us as to application, then the Scriptures have nothing to say to us at all. We don't live in the same context.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Much neglected in discussions on the topic: "modesty" is about humility and meekness. What has complicated biblical application for a number of years is several cases of 'wrong passage' application. There are plenty of passages that call both men and women to humility and meekness as well as to respect for sexual boundaries. It's the combination of these two principles that speaks most to things people choose to wear. The passage about "modest apparel" is relevant, but not the most important text on the topic.

From Webster...

Definition of modest

:placing a moderate estimate on one's abilities or worth:neither bold nor self-assertive :tending toward diffidence
:arising from or characteristic of a modest nature
3:observing the proprieties of dress and behavior :decent
4a :limited in size, amount, or scope 

a family of modest means

b :unpretentious 

a modest home

Modesty in clothing is the opposite of "bold" and "daring" and "provacative" and other terms that are quite popular in the clothing selection mindset in our culture. (And most cultures before it, in one way or another!)

 

Phil Siefkes's picture

There's an old saying I've repeated often at church: "Be attractive without being an attraction."

Discipling God's image-bearers to the glory of God.

Bert Perry's picture

It occurs to me that Merriam-Webster is a dictionary of the modern English language, and any of us not succumbing to the Biblical and linguistic illiteracy of KJVO ought to concede that, ahem, a koine Greek dictionary might be a better bet for determining the meaning in 1 Timothy and 1 Peter.  (odd that the pastors among us would not be the ones to pick this out)

Here is your definition.  

Cognate: 2887 kósmios (from 2889 /kósmos, "world"; see also the other adjectival form, 2886 /kosmikós) – literally, ordered (properly organized); hence, well-prepared (well-ordered).

Notice it says absolutely nothing about coverage.  There are places in Scripture from whence one can reasonably infer that a degree of bodily coverage is expected of God's people, but 1 Tim. 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4 do not appear to be among them.  Their primary reference is not to the coverage, but the ostentation, of clothing, and even that needs to be weighed in light of the examples of Lydia, the Proverbs 31 wife, and the example of how God clothes His bride in places like Isaiah 16.  

Really, Scripture doesn't say a lot about coverage, probably because there was no need.  Pale skin was the fashion, and the jobs of the day used clothing as protective equipment.  Plus, they didn't have cheap stretch knits, and the places where people would go "less clad" or unclad altogether--baths, gymnasia, temples--were also those associated clearly with paganism.  

Now in our day of cheap stretch knits, fashionable tans, and sedentary jobs, we've got our work cut out for us to figure out our approach, and the worst thing we can do is use a modern dictionary of English to shoehorn a Koine Greek word into submission.  Well, second worst--worst is to blame women for "leading men astray".  Again, thankfully, the author backs away from that.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

AndyE's picture

There are three words in 1 Tim 2:9 that are mentioned here.  In the KJV they are modest (kosmios), shamefacedness (aidos), and sobriety (sophrosyne).  It’s this second term that speaks to dressing with a “sense of shame or honor, modesty bashfulness, reverence, regard for others, respect.” [Outline of Biblical Usage per Blue Letter Bible]  So, dressing with a sense of shamefacedness is dressing in a way that is honorable, that avoids the shame of nakedness, and that is bashful about exposing what is inappropriate.  There are plenty of verses in the Bible that connect shame with inappropriate covering or dishonorable covering (what is often referred to as “nakedness” and does not normally mean being completely nude), and thus helps inform what modest covering actually entails (for both men and women).

Jay's picture

"There are plenty of verses in the Bible that connect shame with inappropriate covering or dishonorable covering (what is often referred to as “nakedness” and does not normally mean being completely nude)..."

That being said, it's not like we can or should expect everyone to share the same ideas of what causes shame.  Proverbs warns us of the strange woman, who has no shame, as a quick example.

Unbelievers have a radically different opinion of what it shameful from what believers do. Believers themselves can differ on what should and should not cause shame based on their individual liberties and the level of their conscience and how informed it is; I'm certain that if we discussed specific examples of what should and shouldn't 'cause shame' that the SI members would be divided about it.  Paul comments on this in 1 Cor. 10 - some people were horribly offended by the idea of eating meat offered to idols, and some had no compulsions about avoiding it.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Jay's picture

1. Laws of nakedness in the Bible would seem to apply here.

If you're talking OT laws, then no, they do not.  The OT laws have been done away with, and the only references to 'naked' or 'nakedness' that I found in the NT are in Romans 8:35, Revelation 16:15, & Revelation 17:16.  None of them apply in this discussion.

We have to stop pulling passages that are clearly written for the nation of Israel as a part of the Mosiac Law and forcing them into an New Testament context in order to defend whatever current practice we have.  End of story.

It is an even stranger position to take that we must rigidly apply Scriptures only to the exact context in which their truth is expressed. We don't live in the 1st century. The 1st century context informs us as to meaning but not to application. If you want to insist it informs us as to application, then the Scriptures have nothing to say to us at all. We don't live in the same context.

How is it 'strange' to rigidly apply specific principles for specific people at a specific point in God's work from hundreds/thousands of years ago to only that context?  I'd be pretty concerned if we took the OT laws on say, the handling of dead bodies and applied them to the church.  Aren't the books of Galatians and Hebrews clear enough on this?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Bert Perry's picture

...is the definition of aidos.  One use in Scripture not referencing coverage directly, and a few from Homer/etc.. that also...do not seem to address coverage.  And here is the third word.  

As Ron's comment towards the top notes well, we have to be careful that we read these definitions in their historical and literary context, not from our cultural preconceptions.  There is indeed a Biblical case for coverage, but it's going to be a bit more sophisticated than to simply see the word "modesty" in the definition and assume that it refers to covering up.  As I noted above, it's more than likely that, had they been told explicitly to cover up private areas with clothing, their response would be as if we were told to breathe--"you're telling us this why, exactly?".  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

AndyE's picture

Jay wrote:
That being said, it's not like we can or should expect everyone to share the same ideas of what causes shame.  Proverbs warns us of the strange woman, who has no shame, as a quick example.
That’s true. The Bible refers to those who have been given up to a debased mind and to the dishonoring of their bodies.  Christians, though, ought to have a renewed mind based on revelation from God’s word regarding these matters. I don’t believe it is nearly as subjective as some make it out to be. If the Bible says something is shameful, shouldn’t we agree?

Jay wrote:
If you're talking OT laws, then no, they do not.  The OT laws have been done away with…
The OT and the Mosaic Law are still authoritative Scripture. It may not be authoritative directly or in the same way as it was to Israel but we can’t just dismiss OT Law as having no bearing on our daily NT lives. Should we just excise Lev 18 from our Bibles? Or when the passage says over and over again, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your <fill in the relationship>” that there is nothing for us to learn from the repetition, the reasons given, the terminology used, the bluntness of the commands, etc? Is that just for Israel and so we don’t have to worry about it? I’ve mentioned this before but the reading of this chapter in our family devotiond really had a big impact on my kids. I’m very thankful that they didn’t dismiss it as so much irrelevant OT mumbo jumbo legalism.

Bert Perry's picture

I, too, believe that the Hebrew idiom used in Leviticus 18 means something, and it beautifully illustrates the difference between many uses of the Torah and the right use.  Very often, people will quote, say, Leviticus 19:28's prohibition on tattoos and ritual scarring and say "that settles it" without understanding why it might be wrong to have a tattoo, but we're OK violating Leviticus 19:27's prohibition of cutting the corners of one's beard.  

Looking at the word picture of Leviticus 18, however, ought to force us to do a little bit of Biblical theology to get to systematics.  What does it mean to uncover nakedness?  Is it just the sex act, or is there an assumption that when X body parts are uncovered, that fornication is coming?  Which parts?  Is it just the Hebrews, or do we think about the same way in our culture?  Is this a universal, or near-universal?  What other passages would give us this hint, or modify our views?

In many ways, we're left with the issue of "covering up" much in the same place we find ourselves vis-a-vis abortion; how do we address practices that were unthinkable to our ancestors in the faith, and hence are not discussed in Scripture? We are usually working from word pictures or narrative passages, trying to suss out what God thought of the matter, and then trying to see if we've got a reasonable parallel to today's life.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

The OT and the Mosaic Law are still authoritative Scripture. It may not be authoritative directly or in the same way as it was to Israel but we can’t just dismiss OT Law as having no bearing on our daily NT lives. Should we just excise Lev 18 from our Bibles?

You're right.  The next time I head to the Temple to offer a burnt offering, we should get coffee afterwards and discuss this further.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

TylerR's picture

Editor

I agree. I'll meet you in the court of the gentiles, by the fifth pillar, after morning prayers. Unless, of course, you come into contact with a corpse. If so, I'll just catch you next week. Watch out for lepers. By the way, I'm running low on cash this week, so if you could spot me a turtledove for a sacrifice, I'll get you back next month.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Let us remember that Deuteronomy 22:5 addresses that problem of Israelite women wearing pants. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

T Howard's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

Let us remember that Deuteronomy 22:5 addresses that problem of Israelite women wearing pants. 

Ron, that's "breeches," not pants.

Bert Perry's picture

T Howard wrote:

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

Let us remember that Deuteronomy 22:5 addresses that problem of Israelite women wearing pants. 

 

 

Ron, that's "breeches," not pants.

Actually, neither, just that which pertains to the opposite sex, no?  And figuring out what that is can be another whole ball of wax--and whether I'm obligated or not, I'm very comfortable saying that I apply this by not wearing a bra or skirt!  (kilt, on the other hand....just kidding, I don't own one)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

Anyone want to defend the Mosaic principle of ensuring that only one type of clothing fabric is used in all your clothing, from Leviticus 19:19?

Come on, guys.  The liberals and unbelievers have been making these kinds of arguments against us, particularly when it comes to homosexual activity, for dozens of years now.  There should been all kinds of good answers for these questions.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

AndyE's picture

Jay wrote:
Anyone want to defend the Mosaic principle of ensuring that only one type of clothing fabric is used in all your clothing, from Leviticus 19:19?

Come on, guys.  The liberals and unbelievers have been making these kinds of arguments against us, particularly when it comes to homosexual activity, for dozens of years now.  There should been all kinds of good answers for these questions.

Are you claiming they actually have a good point? That Lev 18:22 or Lev 20:13 have no legitimate say any more?  Your mocking post earlier came across loud and clear, so I'm not all that inclined to engage further on this, but I'm still surprised at what appears to be your position.

Bert Perry's picture

Jay wrote:

Anyone want to defend the Mosaic principle of ensuring that only one type of clothing fabric is used in all your clothing, from Leviticus 19:19?

Come on, guys.  The liberals and unbelievers have been making these kinds of arguments against us, particularly when it comes to homosexual activity, for dozens of years now.  There should been all kinds of good answers for these questions.

Jay, I think we need to remember that the people you're talking about are going to respond with Leviticus 19:27 (and the like) anytime a conclusion from Scripture is reached that does not meet with their desires.  Your point about not abusing the law is well taken, but the proper use of God's Word simply does not ensure that the group to which you refer is going to take it seriously.  This kind comes out, really, only by prayer and fasting.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

All joking aside, I do think the issue of the law for today is, as they say, "complicated." And, speaking of 1 Peter 3:1-6, Peter's point is not modesty ​per se. It's about submission to husbands - which is a whole new can of worms! Jay never did get me that turtledove for my burnt offering; I settled for a young pigeon instead. I got it for a good deal from a guy in the courtyard.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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