The first part of this article is an introduction to the subject of modesty, including some answers to common questions on this subject. The second part of the article is comprised of quotes from young brothers about what is modest and what isn’t, how immodesty affects them, and encouraging young women to pursue holiness in the way they dress.
Why talk about clothing?
Since the Bible so often portrays holiness as an inner quality, why should we also give attention to the way we dress? Doesn’t the Bible say in 1Sam 16:7 that “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart”? This subject isn’t as superficial as we might think. We see throughout Scripture that although our hearts are undoubtedly important, our outward clothing can please or displease God by reflecting what is in our hearts, and by how it affects those around us.
I could write an entire article about clothing in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t waste space or give useless details — and in multiple cases, it gives us information about the outward adornment of the people we read about. God looks on the heart, but He is clearly also paying attention to the outward ways in which we express our hearts! In many cases, the Bible mentions clothing because it had a significant impact on the other people in the story. Our clothes can affect those around us in multiple ways; however, I’d like to focus particularly on the way that our clothing, especially women’s clothing, can affect others sexually. Here are just two examples: in Gen 38, Tamar sought to have the duty of the next of kin fulfilled, and she used clothing to trick Judah into honoring his promise; her clothing communicated to him that she was a harlot. Similarly, in Prov 7, we are told that the woman who seduced the young man was married, but she was wearing “the attire of an harlot” (Prov 7:10). These women each dressed like a harlot (or prostitute) for different reasons, but they were both communicating the same thing with their clothing: that they were sexually available. And in each story, the man involved takes the bait.
Not even a hint
Most girls we meet in the ecclesia, CYC, or at Bible school aren’t actually trying to advertise sexual availability with their clothes. Instead, many are simply caught up in the habit of dressing the way the world says a normal young woman should dress. Instead of being holy, or separate from the world, it’s all too easy to find ourselves disobeying the Bible’s instructions for women to be modest.
1Tim 2:9 tells women to “dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (NIV). Though this verse applies to more than just sexual modesty, it shows that God cares about our clothing and the impact it can have on others. However, after reading this, we might still be wondering how much this instruction really matters to us person- ally. It’s worth noting that the Greek verb commonly used for “sin” or “trespass” in the New Testament is hamartano (Strong’s 264), and means “to miss the mark”, with the implications of someone who has wandered from their goal or didn’t hit the target they were supposed to be aiming for. When we think about what is right and wrong in God’s sight, we’re not trying to avoid what we might see as the “big sins” in life — we’re trying to hit God’s mark or target, the standard He has set for us in every area of our lives. He also encourages us to try our very best to help others to do the same. What is the “mark” that God has set for our clothing? Consider the following verses:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt 5:28). “Do not cause anyone to stumble…” (1Cor 10:32 NIV).
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity…” (Eph 5:3 NIV).
Based on these verses, can you be living a seemingly “pure” life, but still be “miss- ing the mark” in the area of your sexuality? Scripture says that you can, if you are causing others to stumble in any way. Prov 5:18-19 commands every Godly man to enjoy the body of only one woman: his wife. That’s the only kind of sexual fulfill- ment to which God gives His blessing. This means that God’s purpose for each of us, as women, is to only captivate one man with our bodies — our husbands. Any- thing other than that would be contrary to God’s design. So why do we sometimes dress as if we’re trying to captivate every man who sees us? We may be just trying to be pretty, or fashionable, or just dressing how we feel comfortable, but we can still “miss the mark” by showing too much of our bodies to the men around us.
Brothers are responsible for resisting the temptation to look at immodestly dressed women, because they’re trying to obey verses like “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt 5:28) and “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1 NIV). But human nature makes it difficult for a man to make righteous choices when he is in the presence of temptation, and James 1:14-15 teaches us that it’s very difficult to stop the process of sin once temptation has occurred. Unfortunately, for spiritual men, this kind of visual temptation happens everywhere, every day: at high school and college; on billboards as they’re driving down the highway; while walking past stores at the mall; in the pop-up and sidebar ads on the Internet. Our brothers in Christ are being bombarded! But when they spend time with us, where they should be safer from the temptations of the world, sometimes we’re showing them all the same things because of the clothing choices we make.
What does the Bible say about this? We’ve already read 1Cor 10:32 (NIV), which tells us, “Do not cause anyone to stumble”. What an uncomfortable commandment for those of us who have been fooled into thinking that dressing immodestly is just fashion, or just being comfortable, or just looking feminine! Eph 5:3 (NIV) pushes us even further out of our comfort zone, telling us: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity”. Our goal for purity is not just to avoid premarital sex — it’s not even a hint of any kind of impurity. Does your clothing hint at sexual immorality?
Questions and answers
Whenever this subject is discussed, certain objections almost always come up. Even if they’re not voiced out loud, it’s understandable that there be questions about an issue like this. Here are a few that might have come to your mind in the past.
“Is all this talk about modesty just about hiding the fact that we’re female? Why are we so negative about beauty?”
Although God implores us in 1Pet 3:3-4 to be more concerned with our inner characteristics than our outer beauty, He also provides a consistent Biblical theme of appreciating external beauty, if it is connected with a godly character. Sarah was so beautiful that Abraham was afraid that other men would kill him to have her. We’re told that Rebekah was very beautiful and chaste. Esther is the Bible character who perhaps did the most good with her beauty. There are more examples, but on top of that, God Himself is described in undeniable splendor and beauty in the Bible — in Rev 4, He is described as looking like beautiful jewels, with rainbows and fire. The ecclesia is described as a beautiful city, and Psa 45:11 depicts us as a bride, with Christ greatly desiring our beauty! It’s only fitting that we join with our Father in appreciating physical beauty. Modesty is not about looking down on beauty — it’s about the sexuality of your clothing and behavior, what you’re displaying and what you’re keeping hidden.
How about hiding the fact that we’re female — is that what modesty is about? Not at all. Modesty is about protecting people from being sexually captivated or distracted by our bodies, not about trying to look androgynous! This principle about our responsibility to protect our brethren is illustrated well in the Law of Moses, with one example shown in Deut 22:8 (NKJV), which says: “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.” Why were you supposed to build a guardrail? Not to hide the fact that you have a roof, but because you were responsible for protecting people from falling off of it. Modesty is no more about hiding the fact that you’re female, than building a guardrail is about hiding the fact that you have a roof. The purpose of the guardrail is so that no one falls off the roof and dies, bringing guilt upon the homeowner; and one purpose of modesty is to prevent men from “falling” on account of your uncovered body.
“But won’t some men lust after me no matter what I wear?”
Yes, of course — just like some men will jump off a roof, despite the fact that the homeowner has carefully built a guardrail around it. The guardrail will not prevent someone who intends to deliberately jump off of a roof, in the same way that you cannot control the thoughts of all men, regardless of how modestly you dress. The guardrail is there to keep people that don’t want to jump from falling. The reason we cover up is not only for our own purity and obedience to God’s commands — it’s to help the men who don’t want to lust.
“It’s not my problem if men are lusting after me! Isn’t it their responsibility to control their minds?”
There is truth to this — we are all responsible for what we allow ourselves to think about.
However, remember the guardrail commandment in Deut 22:8. The message of this verse is that we need to look out for the spiritual safety of those around us! Also consider that we’ve just seen that the Bible commands us not to cause anyone to stumble into sin. James 4:17 takes this idea even further: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Not to help someone, when it is in our power to do so, is one way that we can “miss the mark” of God’s standard for us. If your friend was on a special heart-healthy diet, should you bring her a bacon cheeseburger every day? When we wear clothing that accentuates, draws attention to, or highlights the feminine parts of our bodies, it’s like wearing a flashing neon sign pointed right at the very thing that godly men are trying to avoid. Guys can resist the temptation to lust, but when we dress immodestly, it makes it very difficult for them to do so.
If we’re feeling uncomfortable with the standard of God’s word, we need to be honest with ourselves — do we have a modesty problem, or a love problem? Be- cause we’ve already seen that if we love our brothers, we will help them as much as we can. The Bible says that we are supposed to be laying down our lives for each other! The least we can do is wear a camisole under a low V-neck shirt, or a modest tank top instead of a bikini at the beach. Furthermore, when we truly love God and Jesus, we obey them. Their teachings might be hard to swallow, but we still follow them, as Jesus says:
“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).
“How can I tell what’s modest and what isn’t?”
This question can be likened to asking: “How tall does the guardrail around my roof need to be?” Some people judge this choice by asking, “How low can I make the rail and still fulfill the requirements?” While others ask the better question: “How tall should the rail be so that it will protect those on the roof?”
To help answer this question, I sought the counsel of CYC-aged brothers who were willing to describe for me what is helpful, and what isn’t, when it comes to the clothing choices of their sisters. I hope that you find their words convicting and encouraging.
Modesty — from the mouths of Brothers
The quotes in this section were gathered from baptized Christadelphian brothers from across North America, aged 18-30, through an e-mail survey. They agreed to have their words used with the hope that it might help their sisters understand their struggle, and to encourage their sisters to godliness. Each new paragraph is a new quote.
“Modesty is an issue that is firstly between the sister and God. Nevertheless, God in His wisdom knows that modesty is important for a sister who is looking to help preserve the purity of her brothers — ‘in order to stir up love and good works,’ as opposed to stirring up lust and passion.”
“When you make the effort to dress modestly, you show love. Think of it this way — if someone has an addiction to something, like smoking, do you help them by always showing them cigarettes? It’s the same with modesty. God made men to be visually stimulated, but He also calls every man to keep his eyes only for their wife. Do you think you are being loving when you parade your body like any other girl in the world?”
“I’m bombarded every day by girls in the world with their careless dress. The ecclesia and CYC should be a safe haven. A CYC night or study weekend can be made so much better by the presence of thoughtful girls who care enough to dress modestly.”
“For obvious reasons, you don’t want to end up in a relationship with a guy who thinks first about your body. But you can invite that by how you dress — you teach people how to treat you by the way you present yourself.”
“Dress that shows too much skin and leaves little to the imagination (but as such, only prompts imagination) is very distracting to most males. I think girls should look to attract their partners by displaying their inward qualities such as humor, compassion, caring, kindness, generosity, etc. If they put that vibe out there, then young men who are seeking a lifelong partner in the Truth will find them.”
“Even though I can control my eyes, it’s hard to talk to a girl when their clothes are putting me at a disadvantage for purity — like a neon sign pointing at some- thing I know I should avoid. It’s uncomfortable. Please don’t put your brothers in that situation!”
“The parts of your body that are private should stay that way. Don’t show too much of anything exciting! It’s the see-through / short / plunging stuff that does the damage.”
“In terms of specifics, I think spaghetti straps, visible bellies, short shorts, and V-necks that go way too low, are definitely NOT modest! I think often girls think this will attract boys to make them think they are pretty. This may bring some attention, but not positive attention… if anything, you are possibly causing us to sin, and that WILL get our attention, but not in a good way for you or us.”
“In simple practical terms I think one can look to the world to see what should be avoided — short, tight, thin, etc. styles of clothing that are designed to allure and glorify the body first and foremost. A sister will not be able to prevent the thoughts of lust and desire in a brother, but she can actively attempt to find out how best to stifle some of them in how she presents herself.”
“The typical areas that are going to cause visual distraction to guys are: legs, stomach, bust. So clothing that is tight and shows it ‘without showing it’, or clothing that is loose that can allow for glimpses, are two things that can be troublesome. The ideal thing would be if the guy can just ‘not look’. And we will try to do that, but we make mistakes. And so if we are going to slip up, it is always helpful to know that you all have our backs as well.”
“Obviously we (brothers) understand it’s not easy for the sisters to be modest (it’s probably hard to even find modest clothing to buy these days!!), but please do your best for yourselves, for us and most importantly for the honor of our Heavenly Father.”
“It is incredibly encouraging to see sisters fight what the world says is important and do what is right in God’s eyes. Plus, when sisters dress modestly, it makes the lives of brothers in an ecclesial setting a lot easier, and personally, it encourages me when I see that they are striving to be righteous.” “It really all comes down to faith: are you going to trust the world’s method of attracting a guy? (which, admittedly, totally makes sense. You attract bees with honey right?) Or are you going to trust in God’s method of attracting a guy? (which, as oftentimes God’s way does, doesn’t seem as likely to work). The way you dress shows where your faith is. Make sure you are putting it in God.”
“What would I say to encourage sisters who are trying to be modest in an immodest world? Thank you! After the barrage of temptation that this world throws out at you, the comfort of a refuge from the things of the world is SUCH a blessing. It is possible to look attractive and presentable without being immodest. I am not talking about being frumpy… there is a lot of scope for a young sister to attract the eye of the brethren without ‘putting it out there.’ ”
“To girls who make an effort to dress modestly: thank you. Thank you, thank you! Because of who you are, and the faith it takes to sincerely flee youthful lusts, forsaking the short season of pleasure this world offers, and instead seeking a godly (and more self-sacrificing) way, you are the friends I look forward to talking to at memorial meeting, Bible schools, and youth weekends: distraction-free. Your character shines a beauty that is precious in the sight of God, and also in the sight of brethren who seek to think like Him. Thank you!”
“Be modest and then you will be beautiful.”
Tara Laben (Baltimore, MD)