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Modesty: A Refined Christian Perspective

Growing up in a fundamental church modesty in regards to appearance was a huge topic. We read books on modesty, watched videos on modesty, I even led small groups and retreats about modesty. The topic has been stirred back up in my heart and mind as of late, with certain news stories precipitating discussion about attire and how it does or does not affect behavior of self and others. This is geared towards women simply because I am one, and because we are the ones who have faced the bulk of the brunt of ill thought “religious” speak in regards to fashion as of late.

A lot of what I have to say has more to do with what God DOESN’T say about our choice of clothing/fashion than what He does say. This is because, growing up in my evangelical/fundamental circles the number of “rules” for proper attire was indeed long, yet the Biblical backup for the list was short.

So let’s start with a few observations about what God and scripture doesn’t say…

  1. God doesn’t say we are responsible for the sins of others.

Let’s be frank. Entirely too many people in the church, and out of it for that matter, have turned to the habit of scapegoating lifestyle choice of the person sinned against as the reason they were sinned against. If you want to see steam come out of my ears just try to go down that road in front of me.

We will deal with the topic of whether wearing certain things is sinful, but putting that aside for now, no choice of clothing makes you responsible for the sins of another. I don’t care if you are walking around stark naked, you do not bear the brunt of another persons choice to sin by lusting after you, touching you without invitation, leering, or anything else sinful. Scripture is full of discussions of personal responsibility for choices. You may indeed be sinning if you willfully set someone else up for sin, but that doesn’t make them any less responsible for their choice. And if someone sins against you (lust, pride, assault etc) without your willful intention to tempt them, and you hold no ill intent in your heart, then you bear no responsibility at all.

It’s simple really. You are responsible for your own actions. Men and women alike.

  1. God doesn’t give us a list of appropriate fashion

Sure, scripture references clothing, piercings, tattoos etc, but it is always about the meaning behind the clothing. Don’t get tattoos to worship the dead. Don’t mix fabric types if you live under old testament law. If you are an old testament priest you get a specific uniform baby. If you’ve experienced a certain dedication to God, don’t cut your hair. If your heart is in the wrong don’t wear braids/jewelry etc. But, you’d be hard pressed to find a list of “appropriate” fashion choices for all believers at all times.

As much as we love to live with “lists” and black and white do’s and don’ts, God loves relationship. So, relationship means He will talk to you individually about your choices, and what He tells you may be different than what He tells another, and that doesn’t give you license to make his personal word to you into a law for the whole body of Christ.

So, now that that’s out of the way, what DOES He say?

  1. God says we should not worry about what we wear

In Matthew 6 we read that we are not to worry about our provision for clothing, or even to spend too much time in thought about it period, because life is so much more than clothing. Rather than measuring every hem and neckline perhaps we would be better served by treating clothing as the tool it is. It is meant for utility as well as appearance, but how often do you stress over looking perfect before walking out of the house? Are you spending too much on your clothing, jewelry, tattoos, hair etc. out of a fear of what others think of you? Examine your motives for the type of fashion you choose, and be honest with yourself if it is consuming too much of your time and focus.

  1. God says our beauty should not come from outer adornment. In other words, don’t be vain.

1 Peter 3 warns us against making the outer appearance our focus. This scripture when taken in context isn’t speaking against a certain fashion style (despite it’s reference to gold jewelry and braids) but rather a heart focus. Are you vain? I’ve known many a modest fundamental believer who was far more vain than the girls I knew who wore seductively cut clothing or dozens of tattoos. I think sometimes we miss the irony of living in a “religious” world with the accepted modest clothing while prancing about with an attitude of vanity and pride about our appearance. This is not rare in Christian circles.

I think God speaks clearly on the intent of the heart because church accepted “modest dress” changes from region to region and time frame to time frame. In some cultures women walk around with bare breasts but cover their ankles. In others the face must be covered to be “modest”. In others earlobes are considered erotic. It is really silly to assume the rules for modesty you or your church may have created are those of God himself. If God didn’t put a list in scripture, I don’t intend to inject my own. We each need to spend personal time with God and ask him to help us identify our motives for certain fashion choices and allow him to help us move in a truly modest fashion… not just in outer appearance but in our heart.

  1. God says not to cause a stumbling block for others.

Now I want to be careful with this one. Please read my first point on what God doesn’t say for full context. Without creating a specific list of rules, scripture does say not to make ourselves a stumbling block for others. In laymans terms, don’t purposefully act in a way that you intend to make another sin.

Regardless of the response of someone else, we are responsible for our own actions. If you size yourself up in the mirror and pull your blouse a little lower because your married coworker is cute and you are hoping to draw his attention… it doesn’t matter if he does or doesn’t lust after you, you are the one in sin. Equally, if he does lust after you, it doesn’t make you exempt for your willful decision to set someone up for temptation.

God doesn’t tell us to go around fretting about every item of clothing and jewelry in case it might tempt someone somewhere… burka anyone? But, if you choose an item specifically with the intent in mind to make another jealous, lustful or angry then you are in sin. This is person to person, and no list of “modesty” rules will get you out of this one. You could wear a burlap sack, but if your intention is to draw another into an inappropriate response, you are in error.

  1. God says you are a temple

You are His walking representation here on earth! The very home of God! You don’t have to walk around frumpy and lumpy because you are scared to be you. If you love sweats and t shirts, rock it with pride. If you love the newest fashion, go be the fashionista. But whatever you wear, do so with godly pride as a daughter of the king. Don’t be ashamed of your beautiful body. Do you know how many scriptures elevate the form of the woman? The mothering woman, the young woman, the old woman… scripture is clear that you are a strong and beautiful creature. He even references femininity when describing himself at various points through scripture. You, my sister, never need to live in shame regarding your body.

So, in summary, let God speak to you out of his individual relationship with you. Styles change. Fashions change. Culture expectations change. God doesn’t change. Let him speak to you about your fabulous, beautiful, counter-culteral, modest style in a relational, intimate way. If you feel beautiful, aren’t overly preoccupied with drawing attention to yourself, are representing yourself in a way that uplifts you, and you are not intentionally trying to make someone sin… then go! Go be you! Go have fun in a world of fantastic styles, colors and art. Glorify God, going forth as your strong, capable, beautiful self.