The Matter of Modesty: Challenging Traditional Church Perspectives

In an introduction to one of the first English translations of the Bible, Miles Coverdale said:

“It shall greatly help ye to understand the Scriptures if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after. ”

I think this is something we often forget as we are walking our Christian walks. We get caught up in traditions and we use scripture to create rules and prove points that probably shouldn’t matter. But if we were to follow the advice of Miles Coverdale, we might be surprised to uncover that there are whole passages that don’t necessarily mean what we think they mean. We often look for prescription, forgetting a passage’s intent is descriptive. 

In the United States, modesty teachings permeate Christian traditions of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps if we followed that string back to its roots, we would find that the special focus on modesty leads back to our puritan roots. (I’m only speculating here, but it’s a pretty good guess, eh?) Unfortunately, while the Modesty Culture may have good intentions, I no longer believe they are Scriptural. Let’s dive in and take a look at the most common passages used to make a case for women dressing modestly.

 Matthew 5

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Nearly every commentary* I’ve read on these verses state that the “lusting” is much more than a casual glance or a passing appreciation. The Greek word for “lust” in this passage is the same word used for “covet” in the 10 Commandments in Exodus. The word lust is not speaking to a natural attraction, but rather to a man using his eyes to deliberately stimulate desire, to think about that desire, and to use that thought to satisfy the lust.

My husband has always said that it doesn’t matter what a girl is wearing, whether she’s covered from nose to ankle or neck to ankle. It doesn’t matter if she’s wearing jeans or shorts or leggings or a v-neck top a Peter Pan blouse. It doesn’t matter if her toes are covered or showing, if her skirt is below the knee or above the knee. A man can still wonder and choose to think about what’s under those garments.

“To the pure all things are pure. But the man whose heart is defiled can look at any scene and find something in it to titillate and excite the wrong desire.”

Jesus says that it is better for a man to tear out the eye or cut off that hand that aids in fulfilling these lusts but he says nothing about women changing the way they dress to keep men from lusting. In some versions of the Bible, “causes you to sin” is instead “stumbling block” which was actually a phrase that meant something like a trap. Traps are usually set for the express purpose of catching something. I can guarantee that, for most women, wearing leggings has nothing to do with trying to trap a man, and everything to do with comfort, function, and self-esteem. Maybe she just had a baby and her pants are too small. Maybe she had a c-section and has a hard time finding pants that don’t irritate the incision. Whatever the case, most women are not setting traps. (This is not a post about whether leggings are pants or how long of a top should be worn with them so let’s save that discussion for another time.)

1 Timothy 2

“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 have been unable to find much evidence to support that this specific passage is referring to sexual dress. In that day and age women didn’t dress the way we do today so I don’t think it’s referring to showing too much leg.

My research has pointed me more toward this:

Paul wrote to Timothy and they were both Jewish. Timothy was working in a Church of predominantly Greek people. Both of these cultures must be taken into consideration. During this time women were classed with slaves and children. The Jewish culture treated women better than most, but even the Jewish men thanked God in prayer each morning that they were not Gentiles, slaves, or women. Because of this, women were mostly to be seen and not heard. The well-bred women pretty much stayed out of sight and it was nearly unheard of for them to be involved publicly in religion. Typically, those whom were involved were prostitute priestesses at the temples of Aphrodite and Diana.

Because of the societal expectations and presumptions about women, Paul wrote to Timothy to address the newfound freedom these women found in the Christian Church. It seems to me that Paul was concerned that the church would be seen no differently than the temples of the Greek goddesses and the women no differently than prostitutes. It doesn’t appear that this letter was ever intended to become a rule or regulation to which Christian women should abide for centuries to come, but rather it was a cultural need meant to speak to a specific situation.

Romans 14

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.”

1 Corinthians 8

“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

These passages are often used to support the modesty teaching because they speak about causing a brother to stumble. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul seems to be talking specifically about eating meat which was previously sacrificed to idols. In Romans, Paul is talking about eating only veggies and the Sabbath.

In Romans, if you read the entire chapter (not just the part that talks about brothers stumbling), Paul also talks about not criticizing others for what they feel they have freedom in Christ to do—it’s a two-way street.

I really don’t see how either of these chapters speak about causing men to stumble because of the way women dress. I think to come to that conclusion we have to project cultural traditions on these passages. I fully agree that we should not purposely do things that make the convictions of others difficult for them to maintain, but it’s a very fine line. Let’s take alcohol for example: I would never offer a drink to a person whom I knew was an alcoholic. I would also choose not to drink around them if I knew alcoholism was struggle. I can see how this passage fits this scenario.

But alcoholism is a much less subjective area than modesty. And the world where we live out our day-to-day lives is a much bigger world than a bar or a restaurant. In either scenario, I don’t know whom I may be triggering, but I cannot live my life on edge, feeling responsible for everyone I pass. When it comes to modesty there is NO WAY to know what might cause a man to covet a woman’s body. As I talked about last time, my husband has a much looser expectation of modesty than most of the guys I grew up with.

So I find it hard to believe that when Paul wrote these passages he would have concluded that they should also be applied to modesty.

What we can take from these verses is that those who do have the freedom to dress a certain way shouldn’t force their freedom on other people. If I were to encourage my friend to wear something she felt was inappropriate then she would be sinning because it would be a violation of her conscience. Likewise, those who believe dressing a certain way is wrong should not condemn those who do so with a clear conscience.

As members of the Church, we need to have grace for one another because we’re not always going to see eye to eye. Nor does self-righteousness make one person holier than another. Also, we may not know what another believer has been through, how they were raised, or what their cultural perspective was like. Have grace. Be open to the fact that we don’t always know the right course of action.

1 Peter 3

“Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” 

In this passage modesty refers to an attitude. It has nothing to do with sexuality, but with a concern for where ones priorities lie. Women can dress modestly, meaning they don’t wear anything too revealing, yet still be focused on outward appearance. Years ago I had a friend who didn’t wear pants (for the sake of modesty), but spoke about her large house all the time. I think that’s what Peter might be talking about here.

So is the idea of Biblical Modesty really Biblical?

Because I know that modesty is a tradition that was passed down the family tree of Christianity, I feel surprised. These passages have been used to keep women in check for years and make men feel dirty for lusting when they probably weren’t really lusting in the first place. The only way to conclude that women’s attire matters, within the context of men’s lust, is to cut and paste all these passages together and completely ignore the background.

I think there are some very good things we can take from these passages but none of it has to do with me wearing yoga pants or leggings or whatever the current item of clothing on the modesty black list might be. Additionally, dressing in an overtly modesty way is just as likely to draw attention.

Perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to intentions and less attention to method.

*I used Barclay Commentary for my primary research and then verified through several other sources.


Also in The Matter of Modesty Series:

The Matter of Modesty: A Christian Culture


3 thoughts on “The Matter of Modesty: Challenging Traditional Church Perspectives

  1. You are right… what people call “Biblical Modesty” is not at all biblical.

    As additional support for your assertion, I would like to offer an in-depth word study I did on 1 Timothy 2:9… I believe the passage is poorly translated and that has led to the inclusion of the word “modest” when that’s *not* what the Greek word means… especially when you compare the Greek word to the sexualized meaning of “modest” as abused by modesty culture advocates.

    I called the article, “Rightly Dividing 1 Timothy 2:9”


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