Modesty: Obligation or Privilege?

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In my last post, I addressed five common ideas that people frequently reference to suggest that modesty isn’t important. I explained why I don’t think they prove what people think they do. At the same time, I don’t think knocking down bad arguments is sufficient. As believers, we want to love God’s commandments, not finding them grievous.¹ This issue of modesty, reflected in outward appearance, quickly becomes tricky. It’s easy to view it as a necessary evil, something we submit to out of duty that keeps us from being “cool”. If we focus solely on why we can’t be immodest, it can drain the joy out of our obedience. Worse yet, in a world where dressing modestly will set us radically apart, resentment could start to build.

That’s why I think we should aim to embrace Biblical concepts of modest dress. We’re going to be different; that’s unavoidable. But a simple perspective change could help us to deeply appreciate God’s principles and be excited about sharing them with others. If God has instructions for us on this issue, we can know that there are reasons for them, and that they are not merely inconvenient “rules”. If we can understand the heart behind His commandments, we will be better motivated to love and serve Him. Can we come not only to accept His commands, but to love them and be prepared to joyfully share them with others? This is where I want to direct our thoughts, starting first by looking more in-depth at some Scriptures on the issue and then making application to our lives.

Before delving into the Word, I’d like to encourage you to be looking for insight on how God wants to direct our hearts. The Bible says very little about specific clothing requirements, at least outside of the Levitical law. But one can see God laying out principles that, if properly understood, will unquestionably have profound influence on our clothing choices.

Let’s start by looking at God’s post-Fall conversation with Adam and Eve. There are two observances I find useful for our purposes. First of all, Adam and Eve’s dress was worth addressing even as God was dealing with the catastrophic implications of their rebellion. Secondly, not all attempts to cover the body are sufficient, as the fallen couple had already used fig leaves to make aprons. God still shed the blood of an animal so that they could be sufficiently clothed, progressing from aprons to coats. This whole encounter signifies that God is not indifferent on the issue—and this happens very early in Biblical action.

Jumping to the New Testament, we see emphasis on moral excellence, purity, and humility. I think this is key. Paul exhorts Timothy to be an example to the believers through his purity.² In the same letter he encourages women to dress modestly, in sobriety and shamefacedness.³ When Peter lists necessary attributes for securing the believer’s calling, virtue (moral excellence) comes first.⁴ And perhaps most significantly, in speaking to women, Peter says that true adorning doesn’t come from outward appearance, but is rather hidden in the heart. This meek and quiet spirit is something God holds up as a thing of great value.⁵

None of these verses give specific direction about the style of clothing we should wear. But can we extrapolate relevant principles to guide us in choosing our wardrobe? I think so. In order to do so effectively, it’s important that we search for a believer’s ideal, instead of trying to merely define what is wrong for the believer. There are numerous possibilities for our dress that are not necessarily sinful while falling short of excellence.

Since modesty should be inextricably tied to purity, we’d do well to understand our responsibilities in this area. To start, the Christian’s sexual ethic is exceptional in its demands, surely calling for a large degree of weight in our approach. While the Levitical law is severe in its condemnation and criminalization of sexual sin, Jesus sets an even higher standard. In one of the most exacting statements of scripture, He pronounces looking lustfully at women as a kind of adultery.⁶ Marriage and its ensuing intimacy are for one man with one woman.⁷ Under the new covenant, purity is something rooted in the heart, and its attainment is nearly impossible, humanly speaking.

How should this relate to our dress? As we walk in love with our brothers and sisters, shouldn’t our clothing show respect for our vulnerabilities? Put bluntly, men are heavily visually oriented, and women can easily dress in ways that pose temptation. Society clearly exploits this, as styles for women are dizzying in their raw sensuality—and it’s getting worse. Women are glad to expose their bodies and most men certainly don’t complain. While styles for men don’t utilize the same degree of sheer flesh, men are not immune, either; their preoccupation with trends can easily set an example that exalts fleshy instincts in its own way.

Perhaps the severity of the world’s sensuality makes it more difficult for us to see our own needs. One can be quite removed from the world’s degree of sensuality and still be immodest. That’s where I think we would do well to properly identify the goal. Are we simply trying to be comparatively less ungodly than the world? Or are we aiming for something else entirely, a true example of Biblical respect and purity?

The world loudly screams at us that attractiveness and value is found in sexuality. Do we subconsciously adopt the world’s value system and just make sure to tone it down? I fear we often fail to recognize how much it has influenced our thinking. Perhaps our imitation is removed from the baser motivations and outworkings, yet it still fails to acknowledge God’s superior intentions.

There are dangers to avoid. But there is also a beautiful plan to embrace. God has ordained men to be pure, disciplined, and strong in Him, serving others in meekness and integrity. Women are to be virtuous, chaste, and shamefaced, faithfully representing Christ through purity of spirit. Friends, this isn’t some kind of oppressive guideline that keeps us from enjoying life. This is better, a million times better! The beauty of countenance found on the face of someone who is obediently following Christ far surpasses the temporary appeals of fleshly attraction. It is a great tragedy when this true beauty is traded for superficial charm that simply cannot compete. Yet this is precisely what will happen by default if we do not learn to rejoice in God’s desire for His people.

In a sense, it’s true that modesty is a heart issue. It’s vital that we are in love with Christ and relying on Him for the joy and assurance that can make us a powerful testimony for Him. Once we are surrendered and delighting in God, our wardrobe choices will seek to reflect how we view Him and our appropriate care and love for our brothers and sisters. Certainly we don’t want to be a stumbling block. But going deeper, can we dress in such a way as befits joyful servants of a King, devoid of sensuality—not drawing attention to ourselves—while reflecting our love and gratitude that we have a reason to live?

As I look at my life, I wonder where I’d be today if it wasn’t for the sisters in my life that were a godly example in this area. Of course their example wasn’t limited to their dress. But their obedience in practical matters attested to a deeper reality. In the darker moments of my life, I still couldn’t deny the reality of these pure, radiant lives. It inspired me to seek better things, battle for complete purity, and allow God to strengthen a greater desire for Him. If you’re serving Him faithfully without recognition, don’t give up.

In conclusion, I haven’t laid out specifics of how I think you should dress, precisely. The Bible doesn’t either. But I hope you are convinced that this is an area that matters. If we can all truly seek to reflect God’s glory in our appearance, instead of merely trying to stay out of trouble, I am convinced that the way will become clear. As we understand these principles, God will give us wisdom in the more practical matters of choice. We can serve Him more joyfully as we come to love His will.

May our outward appearance truly reflect the deeper joys and realities of our hearts, so that Christ receives maximum glory!



¹ 1 John 5:3

² I Timothy 4:1

³ I Timothy 2:4

⁴ II Peter 1:5

⁵ I Peter 3:3, 4

⁶ Matthew 5:28

⁷ Mark 10:6-9


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About the Author:

Drew Barnard is a musician, writer, and a lover of good conversation. He believes that a pursuit of God should lead to a whole-hearted engagement of the mind and emotions. Raised in a Christian home, Drew watched his parents move into the Anabaptist circles at a young age. After his father left the family when he was sixteen, Drew faced many questions about his purpose in life and learning how to discern God’s will. As a result of these experiences, he is passionate about seeing others faithfully serving Christ, regardless of trying circumstances.

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4 thoughts on “Modesty: Obligation or Privilege?”

  1. “Are we simply trying to be comparatively less ungodly than the world? Or are we aiming for something else entirely, a true example of Biblical respect and purity?” Ah yes, that is the point entirely. And that “true example” is what goes far beyond outward appearances.

  2. In many ways God’s people fail to see the influence of fashion trends and worldly culture. If it is seen, it is not hated as it should be if we would but see the deeper agenda, origin, or effects of such.
    The entire discourse in this matter is often subjective, with opinions and stories being used to portray this or that in a negative light in order to discourage a certain style or fashion.
    I agree and believe with you that there must be a belief in and focus on a transcendent principle and practice of modesty.
    May God help us to discover, embrace, and unite firmly around His values and principles.

  3. Thanks for pointing out that God found it worthwhile to address the clothing question in his first discussion with the fallen couple. I had not thought of that fact before.


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