When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, the first thing they tried to do was cover themselves. They sought out modesty to cover their shame, but it was wholly insufficient. Their flesh was hidden, but the sins of their flesh were left hanging in the breeze like so much dirty laundry. God Himself had to cover their sin and it’s worth noting that He did so through death.
There are essentially three ways to respond to shame. The first is to ignore shame and to approve of things which are shameful. This is the current response of our culture; it plays itself out in many ways, not the least of which is women wearing clothing that serves only to showcase and advertise the parts that it only barely covers. This response to shame is nothing more than a manifestation of pride and unbelief.
The second response to shame is to cover it yourself. This is the response of the self-righteous type: the kind who writes blog posts about how women cause him to stumble and he wishes they’d knock it off so he could maintain his purity. This person sees his shame and makes excuses; he blames other people for his sin or he puts them down to make his sin seem excusable. This pride and unbelief manifesting itself in another manner.
The third response is the correct one. It is to see one’s shame and sin clearly and to cry out, “Wash me Savior, lest I die.” Until that happens, no discussion of modesty, immodesty, or prudishness will help. Only God in Christ can cover shame and everyone needs Him to cover theirs, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Too many articles on modesty forget the gospel. They ignore the issue of shame or they assume like Adam and Eve that simple wardrobe modifications can resolve the issue. But neither bikinis nor burkas deal with the root issue. A woman who does not trust Christ to remove her shame is left naked and ashamed regardless of how many layers of clothing she dons—note that the same goes for men.
At the risk of being repetitive, let me restate this one more time. Men and women who have not come to Christ for cleansing should feel ashamed of their bodies regardless of how much clothing they’re wearing. This is because they have a sin-shame that goes down to the bones, then even further into the soul and spirit. Man apart from Christ is wholly defiled in every part. But Christ took on the whole nature of a man in order to cleanse whole men and women from shame. Until a woman hides in Christ, her shame cannot be hidden, not even by the most prudish kinds of modesty.
This is why the Calmed Consciences through Careful and Copious Coverings remedy has left so many women feeling ashamed of their bodies. It’s using bandaids to cure cancer and it simply won’t work. Shame issues need gospel coverings.
How Should We Then Dress?
Although the issue of shame may be addressed, a woman must still be dressed. Let’s keep in mind what Paul told us. We never move on from the gospel, but we do move on in the gospel (Colossians 2:6–7). The Christian life is faith from beginning to end (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:3–5). A Christian woman should approach her wardrobe in the same way that she approached her shame, with eyes fixed on Christ in faith.
It might seem reasonable to come to the same clothes-free conclusion I satirically proposed in my last post, but coverings exist as more than just broken attempts to hide shame. Failure to understand the purpose for clothing can easily result in error. This often plays itself out in immodesty, prudishness, or frumpiness (and sometimes a combination thereof). Our theology will be reflected in our wardrobe.
The Nature of Beauty
A mistake that is easy to make when God gives us gifts is to forget that they’re just that: gifts. There is nothing that we have which we have not received, and the fact that we have only received everything we have means that we have no right to boast about any of it (1 Corinthians 4:7). But for some women, their bodies are something to boast about and their clothing is their megaphone.
God does not give us gifts in order that we should boast in them and feel special. He gives them to us for a purpose. Man was made for an end, and the gifts God gives him help him to accomplish just that. A man who has the gift of teaching does not have that gift so that he can feel good about himself. The same goes for beauty. When we are given gifts, we are responsible to find out how God intends us to use them to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. This isn’t to say that feeling good about the gifts God has given you is wrong, but it is certainly wrong for the gift’s usefulness to terminate there.
We are expected to act as godly stewards over the gifts we’ve been given. This means that we should receive God’s gifts in joy and thankfulness, and then look at Scripture to understand we are to use them. Women (and in a difference sense, men) are given as a gift an uncommon kind of beauty in their bodies.
The heavens shout about the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1), so a sunset is beautiful. Sunsets are a common kind of beauty given for the enjoyment of people everywhere. The human body is an uncommon form of beauty to be enjoyed specifically by one’s spouse. This is one reason we are not permitted to commit adultery or fornication. A woman’s body is something that is meant to be seen and enjoyed—but not by just anyone. In this sense, your body is special—more so than even the nicest sunset.
There are some kinds of goodness and beauty that we want everyone to see. We take pictures of sunsets, beaches, architecture, and the rest of it—then we display them online and in picture frames. We want everyone to have the privilege of seeing these. Then there are other kinds of goodness and beauty that we understand are made even better by their exclusivity. Gold is precious because it is rare. Movies that show in theaters at $12 a ticket are being given a place of honor by restricting access to them. Movies that go straight to television or Netflix are less honorable because they are more common; everyone can see them.
Peaceful landscapes are good and beautiful, but they aren’t exclusive. A woman’s body is exclusive. It is not common; rather it is set apart for her husband. When movies are released straight to CBS, it devalues them. This is a thoroughly biblical concept; there are holy things and there are common things. To call an holy thing common is to dishonor or profane it. So likewise, when a woman puts her body on display for everyone to see, she is undervaluing her body; she is calling common what God has set apart as special for only one other person.
Immodesty is a shameful thing, not because a woman’s body is shameful, but precisely because it isn’t. Immodesty understands a woman’s beauty in the wrong way and reveals it too broadly, making it common. The world speaks of modesty as dishonoring to a woman’s body, but it is exactly the opposite. A woman’s body body is a special gift, meant only to be unwrapped only by her husband (1 Corinthians 7:4).
Peeking At Other People’s Gifts
God tells that marriage should be held in honor and that the marriage bed should be undefiled—not made common (Hebrews 13:4). Immediately after this, He tells us to be content with such things as we have (Hebrews 13:5). Men need to understand that the secret to keeping the marriage bed from becoming common (defiled) is contentedness. A man is given one woman as a gift to unwrap (himself being given to that woman in return), and it simply won’t do to walk around unwrapping other people’s gifts in his mind. They aren’t for him.
Children who, on Christmas Eve, sneak into the living room and peek at all the presents under the tree—including those with other people’s names on them—are often going to be less than satisfied with their own gift. It is important that the gifts be wrapped and kept secret until they are opened, not because the gifts are ugly or not worth opening; but rather in order to increase the joy when the time to open them finally comes.
As it is today, many women parade about as half-unwrapped gifts, thinking that this increases their value. After all, the best way to market something is to showcase it, right? But marriage is a covenant, not a sales agreement. People’s bodies are gifts given freely, not products chosen based on perceived value. A man who makes his decision in women based on which semi-unwrapped gift looks most appealing is going to have a very hard time resisting temptation when a more-unwrapped, more appealing gift is spotted.
Men who are drawn to the most unwrapped gifts are like insatiable children. They don’t understand contentedness and if you manage to catch one with your cleavage, you can’t be certain that he won’t be led away again by someone else’s legs. Modesty keeps your body off the market; it keeps you a gift, not a product. Keeping the gift wrapped helps to ensure that the man you find will not be concerned with what is not his business, which means he’ll appreciate your—ahem—business far more.
Now, the pragmatic objection at this point is that if all the other gifts are partially unwrapped, who is going to want a fully wrapped gift? Men are accustomed to knowing what they’re getting, so shouldn’t a woman at least play that game a little in order to make sure she at least enters the competition?
The answer is an emphatic no. Pragmatism often makes an attempt to trump Scripture. Life would be a lot easier if we didn’t need to tithe, rest on the Lord’s Day, stand up for our principles at work, and the rest of it. But God knows that. He has promised blessing for people who follow His Word and honor what He honors (in this case, the female body). Disobedience often seems practical, but there is a way which seems right to a man that ends in destruction (Proverbs 14:12).
This is where faith shows its important again. Christians are often called to do things in faith that seem impractical from our perspective. But as Abraham said when he was called to offer his son, God will provide. The Christian woman can be sure that if God was faithful to provide the church with a bridegroom in Jesus Christ, He is also able to provide a faithful bridegroom for her.
Causing Men to Stumble
Probably the most common reason given for women dressing modestly is so as not to cause men to stumble. This reason is a legitimate one, but the distortions of it—as well as its emphasis over what has already been discussed—is something that has often caused women to stumble. I hope to do better here.
The first thing we need to understand is that women in the church cannot be understood apart from men in the church. When Achan disobeyed God’s command in Joshua 7, all the people suffered loss. Women sinning in the church inevitably affects men and vice versa. Women who dishonor their bodies by revealing them inappropriately hurt men in the church, regardless of whether or not the men are provoked to lust. Likewise, men who lust after women in the church hurt them, regardless of whether or not they know it or were even dressed to provoke it. The church is a body and when one member suffers, all the members feel it—even if they don’t know it (1 Corinthians 1:26).
There is a complicated pattern of sin surrounding modesty in the church. It begins with husbands and fathers not loving their wives and daughters with a love that is righteous and jealous enough to keep them pure in modesty (as Paul commends in 2 Corinthians 11:2). Instead, men feed their lust on immodesty, which feeds the desire of women to dress immodestly. This spirals downward and then here we are today.
The primary responsibility is on the husbands and fathers, as it always does—that’s part of the job description. Men in the church need to stop allowing or encouraging their wives and daughters dress dishonorably and they need to stop treating women immodestly by further undressing other people’s wives and daughters in their minds. Until this happens, the modesty issue will never be fully resolved.
In the meantime, women who have disobedient fathers and/or husbands can choose to honor God by honoring their bodies—even if they’re not being encouraged to do so by the men in their lives. Perhaps, in exercising obedience like this, you will win their hearts without a word (1 Peter 3:1).
Women are, then, responsible for their own actions. Dressing is something that is always public and it always affects the people around you. I want to be very clear, though, that there is a line beyond which a man’s lust cannot reasonably be your responsibility. There is a kind of man who wishes to fight lust, but has a hard time doing so because even looking you in the eye to talk to you cannot be done without seeing things that are none of his business. It is absolutely your responsibility to help him (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:13).
There is another kind of man who will not look you in the eye. He is the sort who shakes the present under the tree to figure out what’s inside. His eyes intentionally scan women for each patch of exposed skin and every curve. When determined, he could not be prevented from lusting after you if all he could see was your the top of your head poking out from behind a brick wall. It is not your responsibility to stop someone who is determined to lust—except to pray for him and those like him.
But What Should I Actually Wear?
To this point, I’ve spoken very generically so that the principles can be established before the particular applications are made. Licentiousness often deals only in principles, neglecting application. Legalism deals only in applications, ignoring the principles. We want to be faithful to both.
I’ve mentioned immodesty, prudishness, and frumpiness as three errors that bad theology can lead a woman into. I’m going to define each of these and talk a little about how to avoid them.
Ironically, a modest amount of clothing sounds like less clothing, not more (like a modest helping of potato salad). This is because modesty is about the heart, not the amount of clothing. Modesty is fundamentally a desire to not elevate yourself in your clothing.
In this sense, modesty doesn’t just include clothing that is too tight or too scant. It also includes clothing or jewelry that is gaudy, flashy, or otherwise extreme. Immodesty describes the kind of clothing that turns heads when you walk in the room and says “look at me!” In our culture, it often says “look at my body!” But in other cultures it has spoken of wealth, education, strength, and I’m sure many other things.
A woman must consider whether she is dressing to make women in general look good or to make herself look better than other women. There is a way of dressing that doesn’t hide the fact that you are a woman; this is good. There is another way of dressing that emphasizes in all capital letters the ways in which you differ from other women; this is immodest. Immodesty in our culture is all about getting men to look in places where they have no business looking.
Keep in mind that it’s also possible to wear baggy sweats and a t-shirt in a way that is still immodest. The way you carry yourself, even down to the kind of eye contact you make, can be intended to do precisely what immodesty does—all while not violating even the strictest dress code (Proverbs 6:25). Again, the issue is motive.
Beyond the issue of motive still comes the issue of wisdom and understanding. You might think that something is modest, but not understand how it makes you look from certain angles. Here it is helpful to ask for input from your father or husband, and also to ask questions of godly female friends who seem good at modesty. Part of modesty is being open to correction.
I’m not going to talk about skirt lengths and the rest of it here because many of those things are judgment calls that you’ll need to make based on the situation. Other things are so obviously immodest that they aren’t worth mentioning here. But if you remember that modesty is an issue of the heart and you’re open to correction, you should do well.
Prudishness runs in the opposite direction of immodesty. It generally grows out of legalism and it seeks to hide anything that sets men apart from women. We must remember that God made men and women differently and declared this to be a good thing. By way of example, this is why Paul emphasizes the importance of women having long hair in 1 Corinthians 11.
Dressing as blandly and shapelessly as you possibly can gets things all wrong because it refuses to be thankful for God’s gift of beauty. Our goal isn’t to have paper-brown, identical gifts under the Christmas tree. We want to have beautifully wrapped gifts, but we want to make sure that they remain wrapped. We don’t want to encourage men guessing at the contents, but we also don’t want to dishonor the idea of a gift.
The question that will help you walk this line is, “Will this make God’s design for men and women as different look glorious?” This should be followed by the question, “Am I wearing this to shout about the ways in which I specifically am designed?” In areas of uncertainty, again, a woman’s best ally is her father or husband, and her godly female friends.
By frumpiness, I mean general lack of concern for personal appearance. There are some women whose idea of dressing up is a new pair of sweatpants. This is like prudishness, but instead of failing to promote women as beautiful because of legalism, it fails because of laziness or lack of effort.
Men and women both ought to care about their appearance because God cared enough to make men and women visually appealing. To fail in this is to undervalue God’s gift of beauty, but in a different way from immodesty. We don’t always need to look our absolute best, but we do want to dress in a way that appropriately makes God’s image in man look good. This obviously varies when going to the gym or when attending a dinner party.
If you think you tend toward frumpiness, you should talk to your godly female friends about it and see if they can give you some tips. Run these through the filters of modesty and prudishness, and talk to your husband or father about anything you might still have questions about. I’m reversing the order here because your female friends are probably more fashion-forward than your husband or dad.
If you’re discouraged after reading the application, take heart because the Christian life is hard everywhere. Our motives matter everywhere—not just in our wardrobe—and we sin in motive and action far more often than we are even aware. This is precisely why God sent Christ to take our sin and to forgive us.
You might also be discouraged because you feel that you have been dressing shamefully. Remember the beginning of this post. If we confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive and to cleanse from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Look to Christ in faith and your shame will dissolve.
Lastly, far more can be said on this than has been said. I’d intended to address more the issue of male modesty and a great deal more remains to be said to husbands and fathers. I will get to it in future posts, but this post was long enough as it is.
Remember that the burden of blame doesn’t fall squarely on your shoulders. Actually, for the believer it has fallen on Christ’s shoulders and you stand innocent. Remember also that the burden of obedience in this is not just yours, but also the whole Church’s. But Christ has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.