A Biblical Perspective on Modesty
Rev. John Marcus
(first published in the Beacon Lights)
The lack of modesty in dress is an issue that has
faced the human race since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Nor will
the issue disappear until we go to be with God in glory. One is often
amazed what young ladies (and older ones too) are wearing these days.
Not only on the street and in school but also in church it seems that
the standard of dress is less and less modest. How short may a skirt be
before it is considered immodest? Is it wrong to wear form-fitting
clothing? Is it appropriate for Christian ladies to wear bikini bathing
suits (or even regular bathing suits) in public? May our men wear Speedo
bathing suits in public? These and many more questions are faced by
believers in today’s society. Does the Bible provide guidelines that we
can follow in this area? If the Bible speaks to these issues we are
obliged to listen and obey. Where the Bible is silent and provides no
relevant principles, then we must remain silent.
Modesty is defined by Webster’s Dictionary
as "freedom from conceit or vanity; propriety in dress, speech, or
conduct." This definition brings out two aspects of modesty, the inward
and the outward. Both aspects are related; inward modesty leads to
outward modesty and outward modesty is a sign of the inward quality.
Christians need both.
We are told in I Peter 3:3-4: "Whose adorning let it
not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of
gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the
heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and
quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price."
From this Scripture, it is clear that inward and
outward modesty are related. Those who are adorned with a meek and quiet
spirit will be the same ones whose adorning is not outward. Both inward
and outward modesty ought to be cultivated among us. This is not an
option, this is what God’s will is for us as His people.
There are two biblical principles that guide us in
the issue of modesty in dress. The first principle is that we must not
seek to draw attention to ourselves by the way that we dress. Secondly,
we must very careful not to cause others to stumble into sin on account
of how we are dressing.
The first principle concerns pride and vanity that is
in our heart. Pride and vanity leads many to dress the way they do. Many
dress they way they do in order to get noticed by their peers. There are
many ways that one might dress in order to get noticed. Depending on who
one wants to notice them, they might take many different strategies.
They might choose to wear the absolute latest fashions, deck themselves
with all kinds of jewellery, pierce their body in unseemly places such
one’s nose, or tongue, or eyelid etc., colour their hair, and the list
goes on. God is terribly displeased with such haughtiness and promises
judgment upon those who practice it. "Moreover the LORD saith, Because
the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks
and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling
with their feet. Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of
the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their
secret parts" (Isa. 3:16-17).
Nor are young men immune from this pride and vanity.
In order to draw attention to themselves, they might buy the most
expensive Nike air shoes on the market, they might decide to pierce
their ears, or wear the latest sports clothing.
At other times, one might seek to be noticed by those
of the opposite sex. Young men might specifically dress to impress the
young ladies. Perhaps he will choose a tight T-shirt, or one with the
arms cut out that shows off the muscles that he has worked on all
summer. Young ladies can also fall into this trap by dressing to show
off their body. Clothing that has a low neckline, a high slit, or that
otherwise exposes one’s skin is inviting the attention of young men. Not
only clothing that shows a young lady’s skin is a problem, but also
tight clothing that highlights the shape of her body can be used to draw
attention to herself.
All such show in the way we dress is wrong for the
simple reason that it is born out of sinful pride. None of the items on
this list are necessities. All of them are worn for the wrong reason of
bringing glory to ourselves when we should be seeking the glory of our
Creator and Redeemer.
The second principle has to do with causing others to
stumble. Out of love for our neighbour, we may not grant ourselves the
freedom to dress in any way that we want. Especially the seventh
commandment speaks to this issue. In its treatment of the seventh
commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism says the following:
forbid in this commandment, only adultery, and such like gross
both our body and soul are temples of the Holy Ghost, he commands us
to preserve them pure and holy: therefore he forbids all unchaste
actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever can entice
men thereto (Q. & A. 109).
Especially the last phrase shows that the seventh
commandment forbids all things that would entice another to commit
adultery either with their bodies or in their thoughts. Clearly,
immodest dressing entices some to commit adultery in their minds;
therefore such dressing is forbidden by the seventh commandment. By
dressing extravagantly, it is also possible that others would begin to
covet what we have and desire the same standard of clothing for
themselves. Again, the principle of abstaining from whatever unnecessary
things that cause a brother or sister to stumble is the biblical policy
that we are obliged to follow out of love for our neighbour.
Do bikini bathing suits and Speedos cause our
brothers and sisters to stumble? Then we may not wear them. Is there a
modest alternative? Then we should choose it. If there is no suitable
alternative, then better not to go to the beach at all. Better that than
to cause another to stumble. And if we know that there will likely be
those at the beach dressed immodestly, then better to stay home than to
put ourselves in temptations way.
Modesty will always be an issue in the lives of God’s
people because the old man of sin will not be done away with until we
reach glory. From time to time we need to remind ourselves and our
fellow believers what the Lord requires of us as regards modesty. When
we inform ourselves on this issue, it must not be from the perspective
of the world and what standards it deems acceptable. Rather, we must
seek to know the will of God in the matter. God’s people will earnestly
seek the way of modesty, both inward and outward. They will do this for