Does Modesty Matter Anymore?
I’ve wanted to write this post for some time. I believe it’s a message needed more than ever, yet part of me is still fearful. I’m afraid my voice will be swept up among the boorish voices of ignorant men keen to blame their juvenile lusts on someone other than themselves. My options then are to either dissent silently, or swing in my opinion of what Scripture says. I’m not willing to do either.
Though there has been a growing voice, dominant in wider society and growing in volume even within the church, that has said, “Modesty is for a by-gone era, it holds no purchase now.” — I cannot escape that in the currency of God’s values, modesty matters. I guess the question we must ask though is, why? Many who argue for modesty (often men) use as their foundational argument the effect on men when modesty is laid aside. I’d like to come back to that argument a little later, but first I think there is a greater principle at stake when considering modesty in today’s culture.
A Gospel-Centred Self-Image
I don’t believe the Bible teaches that the modesty of woman is primarily for the benefit or the comfort of a man. In other words, those who argue that modesty among women is so that men won’t be tempted — misread, misunderstand, or more seriously, deliberately twist Scripture. The two most often referred to passages in the New Testament on this topic never once suggest that modesty exists to make men’s lives easier, or that they might not be tempted to sin.
likewise also 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 Timothy 2:9-10 ESV)
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1-6 ESV)
Both these passages contrast two opposing ways a woman (and I would argue that this is a principle transferable to men also) may ‘adorn’ themselves. Both Paul and Peter, under the inspiration of the Spirit, address a key question that continues to plague our culture today—“What makes a person beautiful?” Of concern here is how does one live as a new creation in Christ and make that image look beautiful? What qualities are revered and elevated among those who walk after Jesus and example the gospel of grace? Are there better ways, or worse ways, to display what Christ has done in us?
Both Paul and Peter address this by inverting the cultural norms and saying, “Yes, there is a better way than what is widely accepted.” When all the world judges worth by external measures, subsequently, all the world will fight tooth and nail to maintain external measures. When value is judged by external beauty, external beauty becomes prized above all else. This is not just about how low a top is, how high a skirt is, or how tight a dress is—this is a far more comprehensive concern than that. Our entire beauty industry, Cross-Fit industry, and selfie culture, is predicated by this reality. We are continually fed the lie that self worth can be Instagrammed.
The Bible says there is a better way. Biblical modesty is about revealing true gospel value — in fact, not just revealing it, but adorning it. Biblical modesty shines the spotlight on what God says is of eternal value and makes it look beautiful. A plunging neck-line can never adorn grace like a gentle spirit will, nor will a rock hard stomach and bulging biceps demonstrate what it means to be strong in Christ.
Freedom To Set Aside Your Freedoms
Of course, like all gospel-driven principles, modesty cuts against the grain of our modern sensibilities. And yes, I think it is dangerous to regulate what constitutes ‘modesty’ and then enforce it. As cultural norms of external beauty shift with time and culture, so also will a sense of what is ‘modest’. So I think it is good for us to exercise a sense of Christian freedom in this matter. As Paul instructs the Corinthians on practicing Christian liberty in matters of eating or drinking, so also might we consider varying understandings of what is acceptable to wear or not. Yet even in this, we must not be too ready to flaunt our freedoms. My liberty, though based squarely on my conscience before the Lord, must still consider others more highly than myself. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. (Romans 15:1 ESV)
In this issue, are we willing to set aside our freedoms for the sake of another? If our freedom is prized above another person’s well-being, maybe we misunderstand Christian liberty. Modesty matters. It matters most because the beauty of the gospel is adorned by it, yet even in my liberty in this matter, I must be willing to set aside my freedom for the good of another.