“I’m tired of hearing so much talk about modesty. God sees the heart. Can’t we focus on loving God and the gospel? We’re not going to get anywhere by arguing about dress patterns.”
You’ve heard thoughts like this before, perhaps said such things yourself. It’s an explosive issue, one that has caused church splits, family tension, and lots of confusion. Perhaps you think we’d be better off if we just stopped talking about it.
But before you run off, I’d like to look at five ideas about modesty that I frequently hear. I want to unpack them a bit. Do they really suggest that this subject isn’t important, or are they just an attempt to dodge the issues?
1. We should be more concerned about the gospel than how people dress.
This is true, of course. If we are more worried about how others dress than we are about seeing the gospel advanced, we have a problem. But the hidden suggestion in this statement is that those who are truly concerned about the gospel don’t have time to worry about clothes. And that just doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t the whole message of the gospel one that changes our hearts and our approach to life? In what way does thinking seriously about how we dress contradict our love for the gospel?
I think this could be particularly sensitive for someone who has seen legalistic emphasis on dress without an understanding of the gospel. Perhaps some of you are fed up with the legalism. I’m encouraged to see you choose to believe in God and not stake your relationship with Him on your appearance. But we can still be responsible about our dress, guided by the Spirit, relying on God’s word and His grace for wisdom.
I think this statement can be appropriately turned into a question: “How should gospel-loving people dress?
2. Modesty is really about the heart
In other words, you can be modestly dressed and have a proud, ungodly heart. And as Peter writes, our adorning should be hidden in the heart, not outward appearance.¹ There definitely is a need for a modest, humble spirit. There are issues that must be dealt with in the heart that no amount of external efforts can transform. This is all true, but there’s nothing logical about suggesting that this makes outward appearance irrelevant.
Our clothing choices alone cannot constitute a life and example of godliness and purity. But if our hearts are pure, shouldn’t our appearance be consistent? There may be cases of ignorance where someone has a blind spot and fails to see how his or her dress is less than godly. But if you’re fighting exhortations to dress modestly by appealing to the heart, that’s just not going to work. A pure heart will seek pure choices.
3. We don’t need to be stuck in tradition
Perhaps you feel your church is dogmatically sticking to traditions of dress for no good reason. Your community insists on adhering to certain standards. Or maybe you’re just looking at the Anabaptist community at large and its dress seems arbitrary. It seems people are simply conforming to expectations to fit in and not cause trouble.
You could be right. There are segments of the Anabaptist populace that are more focused on maintaining tradition than understanding precisely why it’s important. But even if some have lost their sense of purpose, it doesn’t logically follow that their actions are flawed.
If it were really true that there were no good reasons for traditions of modesty, then they could be safely disregarded. But while staleness of tradition doesn’t make a good argument for anything, it doesn’t make an argument against anything either. So in this case, we’re back to the drawing board. What does God think about how we dress?
4. Modesty is culturally relative
In our society today, things have clearly shifted. Expectations have radically changed, as clothing that would have been offensive a century ago has become the norm. Styles change, and why wouldn’t we, too? We don’t need to dress as loosely as the world, but why be stuck up and dress like it’s the nineteenth century?
Here’s the thing: if it was only a style issue, then there would be nothing to be concerned about. It could be the equivalent of adopting cars or electricity. But it just isn’t. What drives the fashion industry today? Let’s be honest: sex. As our culture has accepted all manner of promiscuous activity, they dress to match.
Most of the world is up front about this. They are deliberately highlighting their sexuality in their dress and they enjoy doing so. So why are Christians so ambivalent about this? Is it going to work to adopt the world’s sex-crazed ideas about dress and then act like we’re concerned about purity? I don’t think so.
5. Modesty won’t fix a lust problem
At the end of the day, though, dressing modestly won’t keep others from lusting, particularly men. No amount of modest dressing will address the dark issues hidden in the hearts of men. Men just need to learn to stop lusting.
Yes, they do. Especially in this day and age, purity isn’t going to come from total isolation from tempting situations. Men need the grace of God to deliberately turn down the appeals to their flesh that are constantly flashed in front of them. But if we are seeking to be examples of purity as brothers and sisters, do we show respect for each others’ weaknesses in how we dress? (Guys, you can’t get off the hook on this one, either.) God forbid that we allow our appearance to appeal to the baser instincts of the opposite sex.
In summary, while there are bits of truth to all of these ideas, none of them show that modesty doesn’t matter. It is certainly true that our outward appearance doesn’t fix all of our problems. Nor is it at the center of the gospel. But this just isn’t relevant. As disciples of Christ, we don’t want to be wrong about the issue of dress.
Right after the fall, God made sure that Adam and Eve were properly clothed. Their fig leaves were not sufficient. God could have simply focused on their sin in eating of the tree. But despite the dire, cataclysmic circumstance of their rebellion, God saw fit to address their clothing. Throughout the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, it’s clear this issue is one that God cares about. It’s nothing to glibly pass over or make excuses for. If God cares about how we dress, we should too.
I’d love to hear thoughts from any of you, especially if you think I unfairly represented the arguments or left some out. And in the meantime, stay tuned for another post that will delve into the positive reasons we should be thinking about our clothing.
¹1 Peter 3:3-4
12 thoughts on “These 5 Common Ideas About Modesty Don’t Prove What You Think They Do”
Right on, bro!
I appreciate the writing very much and agree with it.
Have you thought about the man that was possessed with devils, and after he had the encounter with Jesus… it’s written, he was clothed and in his right mind. This high lights the fact that being covered is relevant along with gospel work.
You raise a great point, Ben. Clearly it was important to note that his conversion brought decency in his appearance. We need wisdom in knowing how to lovingly help new converts be appropriately clothed.
Very well written. I appreciate this point
“But even if some have lost their sense of purpose, it doesn’t logically follow that their actions are flawed”
Often the outward is maintained over time by rigid control mechanisms which are seemingly easier to establish than than foundational biblical teaching.
One question I have is, what does it look like to come to a place of unity in (The Church)? With so many different views, should believers have a belief statement relating to dress?
This is an intriguing. somewhat difficult question. Certainly written belief statements can be useful, but I think their purpose needs to be understood. There is no way that putting something in writing (or verbal expressions from leadership) can insure that the principle is being understood by others. No matter how well a position is articulated, it will need to sink into the hearts of the individuals. This doesn’t mean that statements are useless, although I think it’s important that they be personally understood and more mature brothers be prepared to openly share with those that have questions.
Of course there’s also the issue of how specific these statements should be. I think their specificity needs to be directly correlated to a Biblically rooted understanding of why the statements exist in the first place.
God grant us wisdom in these issues; the balance needed is extremely delicate.
I appreciate what you have written. You have answered common objections to the topic very well. May our dress be such that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves and our shape but give maximum opportunity for others to think about God instead of us when they interact with us. We want every choice we make to bring honor to God.
I’ve read this several times now, and appreciate the thoughts. Good stuff. I especially like how organized it is…
One thing bothers me: I feel like you just scratched the surface. I would have appreciated delving much farther into it. 🙂
Also, I do have one comment to make in regards to #4. I absolutely agree that we should not be fashioning our clothes after the world’s trends and believe ourselves to be innocent in doing so. HOWEVER, it IS true that to a point, modesty IS relevant to culture, and I often think we need to keep that in mind and in perspective more than we do… For example, if we wear skirts down to our ankles and necklines to our chins, we can find it easy to take pride in being the godliest most modest-looking people out there. But if we visit a mosque, in an attempt to reach out to that community, we may still offend them by the amount of hair and skin showing – are we (female perspective here) humble enough to graciously wrap a shawl around our head in respect to them? Suddenly OUR lofty idea of modesty has taken on a picture of immorality and immodesty to someone else … Or, coming from the opposite side of the spectrum, if we entered the jungle to live amongst naked tribes, surely for them to begin wearing even the fig leaves would be cause of great celebration and peace in our hearts. 😉
Thanks for the comment! I can’t disagree that I just touched the surface. 🙂
About cultural relativity and modesty, I think we need to distinguish between God’s standard and respect for other cultures. Is it respectful for women to wear a shawl when visiting a mosque? Absolutely! This isn’t because it’s immodest to go without a shawl, though–it would simply be rude. Jungle tribesmen wearing fig leaves have certainly made an admirable move in the right direction, but I still think God’s standard remains the same. To whom much is given much is required, of course, nor would it be wise to act as if though the first priority for converted tribesmen should be the implementation of the cape dress. 🙂
If going from nakedness to fig leaves is a satisfactory progression, Genesis 3 might read a little differently…
I would agree that modesty largely determined by culture. There was a time when it was considered scandalous for women to have short sleeves or have there ankles showing, to the point where lustful men would gather on street corners where the wind was blowing just right to lift skirts, hoping to catch glimpses of women’s ankles. In that time and culture, it would have been extremely immodest for a women to wear the type of cape dress that is typical among anabaptist today. But culture has changed, and so has the definition of modesty in dress.
I think we need to be careful not to equate modesty with cultural expectations. If modesty is something ordained of God, it is not subject to change with culture. If we are in a culture that is sensitive and views something like ankles as sexually alluring, it would show respect to dress in a way that does not offend. (We are most assuredly not in that situation today!)
It doesn’t work the other way, though. If we’d fly as missionaries to a remote jungle where the people are unclothed, it doesn’t suddenly become modest to go around in skimpy swimsuits. We should always be modest, finding our principles in the Word of God. There are, of course, many stylistic options that are modest, and we are free to be flexible in our styles, assuming they are still modest, which I think can be safely defined as covering and concealing the form.