Connecting Faith and Life

Modesty: A Dying Virtue

About ten years ago, as I can recall, it became common for young women — my peers — to wear spaghetti strap tank tops, leaving their bra straps visible to the public gaze. When this practice first came to my attention, I was, in agreement with my mother and grandmother, horrified. Just a few years later, I had somehow overcome these qualms and taken up the fashion, revealing what I had once considered private with many other women of my generation. I relate this true anecdote to exemplify the ease with which sensibilities can change. In a few years, what had once seemed inappropriate and even appalling to me now seemed perfectly normal and attractive. This sort of change in sensibilities is exactly the difficulty when broaching a topic such as modesty. No one could deny that the Bible mandates modest dress, specifically for women. Paul writes to Timothy: “I desire […] 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” (1 Tim. 2.8-10). (Of course, modest dress is necessary for men as well. But Paul, in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, focuses on women here because this is an area in which women are more likely to sin.) A primary difficulty with applying this passage is the definition of “modesty.” In a single week, I have first seen modesty defined as nearly ankle-length, long-sleeved loose dresses for all the women in a congregation and secondly heard biblical modesty exhorted by a young Christian woman in skin-hugging jeans and a shirt cut three or four inches below the nape of her neck. I do not write this to deride the second young woman but merely to note that the practical definition of modesty – enunciated by what a Christian woman chooses to wear – can be a profoundly wide-ranging and slippery one.

So where might we begin to discover a definition of modesty that would accord with, as Paul writes, “what is proper for women who profess godliness”? The world’s definition of modesty would surely be something to the effect of “less provocative clothing than what is fashionable; the least revealing choice among mainstream fashion.” The problem with this definition for Christians, however, is that the world is always growing more sinful (2 Tim. 3). Even my own brief experience proves this. My parents took a photograph of me ready to leave home on the first morning of my senior year of high school. I’m standing in our driveway, wearing loose, long pants and a button-up shirt, with another shirt underneath. Fast forward six years: to my shame, a search in my closet would have, at that time, revealed skin-hugging jeans and form-fitting shirts. And in both cases, I was merely following the fashion trends- that is, in biblical terms, conforming to the world (Romans 12:2). It is apparent that fashion trends, and along with them social definitions of acceptable dress, modest dress, and provocative dress, change with the times. God’s word and his standards, however, are surely unchanging. Unfortunately, the church has generally followed the world, particularly in its fashions. Francis Schaeffer once remarked, “Tell me what the world is saying today, and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying seven years from now.” Sadly, in the area of dress and fashion, Schaeffer’s words are all too true.

How, then, can we begin to define modesty, if we seek to uphold God’s word and discover what is acceptable to him? Nancy Leigh DeMoss in her teaching on modesty poses a powerful question, useful as a daily self-diagnostic: “If the Lord were to dress me this morning, what would I be wearing?” We know from Matthew 5 that Jesus would not condone any clothing that would prove sexually enticing to a man, for he taught: “You have heard the commandment that says you must not commit adultery. But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye, even your good eye causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29, NLT). We usually consider this passage as directed largely to men, since women are, I think, less likely to lust after a stranger passed on the street. But there is wisdom here for women as well. First, Jesus confirms that men are likely to lust in just such a situation – simply by sight, without physical contact. We women must take this into account, even if and especially because it is different from our personal tendencies. Secondly, I think we would be wise to remember that sins often come in pairs; thus if men are more prone to lust at the sight if a woman, women are more likely to revel in vainglory over their appearance – to be overly concerned – if not obsessed – with our own physical beauty. Moreover, there is a companion verse to Matthew 5.27 that must be applied to women. In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches “…Woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! (Matthew 18:7-9). According to Jesus, it is a sin for a man to lust after a woman, and it is equally a sin for her to tempt him to do so – to tempt him by provocative dress, speech, or actions. How Satan must delight in using this sin pair against the church, Christ’s body on earth! He has tempted women, and Christian women among them, to forget the need for modesty –to accept a loose, worldly definition of modesty in order to satisfy our own sinful desire to be considered fashionable and attractive. And by tempting women thus, the Enemy has already secured for himself a victory over men as well.

This is not a tirade against beauty; God made the female form and his word notes that a woman’s hair is her glory (1 Corinthians 11). The sovereign Lord and his word are not ignorant or contemptuous of female beauty; rather, he asks women who profess to be his followers to expose that beauty appropriately, to be modest before the world and to save sexual allure for our husbands. Are we willing to consider how the Lord would have us dress each morning as we stand before the mirror? For one day, we will stand before him and give an account of why, by our careless or wilful satisfying of our pride, we have caused men for whom Christ died to sin. I offer these thoughts not in self righteousness, for I have sinned greatly in my dress. I am grateful to the Lord that he, in his mercy, has been patient to teach and convict me in this area, and so I write these reflections only in the hope that they may be of help — eternal help — to any Christian sister.

By Laura Kuruvilla


  1. Debbie Sunil says

    Modesty is an attitude of my heart that seeks to give glory to God, serve others, and put self to death. Its most visible expression is what I wear.

  2. Divjyot says

    I see the general point you are making, and I agree with it in principal, namely that both Christian men and women are to be modest in the way they dress. While I completely agree with the sentiments, I think that it is extremely difficult to give an appropriate criteria for dress.
    For example, can we say with any amount of certainty as to what a Christian can or can not wear? If we do so what is the criteria? At this point I wish to remind that I am referring to specifics, not general criteria like “it should be modest.” For the sake of discussion, let’s take the issue of “skin-hugging jeans.” By what biblical standard can we say that this is immodest?
    As a consequence of this we should be extremely cautious in making value judgments about the manner in which other people dress. For example, you said that you were ashamed to find form fitting clothes in your wardrobe. So do you mean to say that anything that reveals the human form is immodest? Again, I ask for a biblical standard from which such a statement could be made.

    1. host4kfn says

      Dear Reader,

      Thanks for stopping by to pass a comment. I wish the author of the article is with us to respond to your valuable comment but unfortunately she is not. But as the editor I would like to make just one or two general comments. I agree with you that the Bible does not give us a list of modest or immodest apparels. Nevertheless, the virtue of modesty is not a vague or relative term. We wear dress primarily to cover ‘those areas’ of our body which needs to be kept hidden from pubic gaze. When a person’s dressing does not fulfill that purpose, instead attracts people’s eyes to ‘those very areas’ – then modesty becomes an issue. A dress in itself is not modest or immodest. A lot of factors come into play. Who wears it? When is it worn? Amidst whom? so…on so….forth…For instance, a see-through night garment will be considered as an immodest apparel for shopping trip whereas the same thing would be quite appropriate to be worn in the bed room where the spouse is the only other person. Im sure that the Spirit of God will help individuals (who are open) to discern between modesty and immodesty. Thanks again for your comments. Appreciate that.

      Sam K John

  3. Divjyot says

    Thanks for your reply.
    However, I am still not convinced by your argument. It looks like you are also accepting the fact that the Bible does not give us a dress code, but somehow you are still not willing to accept that modesty is a cultural construct.
    First, If the function of clothes is to cover or conceal then would it not be far more easier to prescribe a burkha/long gown type of apparel which covers everything other than the eyes!
    Secondly, you say that some areas need to be covered. I agree. But where do we get the norm of what should be covered and what can be left uncovered? In this case too the Bible is silent. I would say that our ideas of modesty are culturally and socially conditioned.
    It is for this reason that a man exposing his legs is perfectly alright in Scotland (wearing kilts) and South India (lungis/mundu/dhoti) but not appropriate in, say New Delhi or Mumbai. Again, take the example of wommen wearing sarees; it is perfectly appropriate to leave the midriff and back uncovered but to do so while wearing a T-shirt would be considered inappropriate. Hence, spiritual sounding advice about modesty, and appropriateness are only an excuse to impose ones own ideas of decency and morality when there is no objective standard.
    Finally, when you reply with answers like, “the Spirit of God will help,” you are in a way acknowledging the impossibility of dictating ANY standard or norms. Hence, I would say its far more appropriate to leave the decision to individuals.
    [And if we are to apply the rule that Jesus himself articulated, if your eyes cause you to sin, dont ask the women in front of you to cover herself up, but pluck your eyes out…]

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