How the Church Abused the Modesty Message & What We Can Do to Reclaim It

The message on modesty has been skewed, misinterpreted, and abused for eons. Women in the church have and are still limping through the hurt and confusion we’ve experienced concerning the topic. For years, we were made to think it was an acceptable rhetoric when a male pastor said, “Do not wear this or that, lest your brother be tempted to look at you and sin as a result of your clothing choice.”

What a dirty, degrading status.

To be told from the pulpit over and over again that my body is a stumbling block and a potential incentive for sin rather than a beautiful temple I ought to be proud of was as damaging to my psyche at it was to my spirit. More often than the beautiful Scriptures about our body being a well-carved temple or our lovely hair being our glory, we were warned to cover up. Taught to be ashamed of our curvy figures. Frightened against garments deemed immodest by whoever happened to be in charge.

Like many women, for many years, I’ve struggled to listen to or heed any message on modesty because it was so often preached on from the premise of, “You can’t because a man might.” I have to believe that the people pushing this message didn’t realize how burdensome that is to women, or they wouldn’t have perpetuated it for so long. It’s only in recent months that God has softened my heart enough for me to face modesty once more, reconcile my hurt, and learn what His Word means. If we believe that He is good and His word is true, then there must be something good to be gained from those Scriptures on modesty besides the motivation of saving our brother from lust, an edict that doesn’t actually exist in the Bible.

A few weeks ago my mother asked me, “Why is it that so many Christian girls you grew up with don’t seem to care about what they wear anymore, or what their clothes might say about them?”

I was honest in my reply, and it opened a wonderful discussion between us where I was able to experience an older, wiser woman of God agreeing with me in this revelation which is new for me; I replied: “They’re rebelling against the modesty message we grew up hearing. Most of us have no desire to be modest, because we’ve been lied to about what it means, and what our motivation should be to dress modestly.”

To understand what modesty is, we must first unlearn the lies we’ve been told.

1. Men lust because of us, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they don’t. 

There’ so many things wrong with this lie, it’s hard to pick a place to begin. However, it always helps when you have a Scripture on your side, so here’s a fun biblical fact: when the Bible talks about modesty, it never, ever, not once, mentions men or their lust. In fact, the Bible uses the word “modesty” more seldom than most of us were brought up to believe. The first thing to take hold of is the fact that modesty is between you and God. Not between you and a man. Secondly, as many of us have experienced, a man can lust after any woman he wants to no matter what she is wearing. If a man is attracted to you while you are wearing a turtleneck, loose, wrist-length, ankle-length gown, he can choose to lust after you. It’s his choice to look and linger with his eyes. You can’t stop him. It’s not your responsibility. If you’re feeling perturbed by that claim, I challenge you to open up the Word and find a verse which says that we are to dress modestly so that our brothers don’t lust, or that they lust because of what we wear.

2. Modesty is defined by what you wear.

 It’s common sense that a woman could be clothed from head to toe while acting immodestly and vice versa. This makes sense considering that the dictionary defines modesty as “freedom from vanity, boastfulness, regard for decency, and simplicity.” Both 1 Peter and 1 Timothy give women the charge of concentrating more on their internal being than their external appearance. While many in the church have used their arbitrary definition of modesty as a judging wand to condemn women with, the male writers of the Bible who lived in an era far less friendly to women, said only about our adorning that it be of “the hidden person of the heart.” Likewise, we know that “man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.” Before you judge a sister who is dressed indecently in your eyes, consider that you don’t know the status of her heart; in God’s eyes, she might be far more pure than the long skirt-wearing woman sitting meekly beside her.

3. Decent clothing can be universally defined.  

Knowing that modesty is about decency, this makes our charge much more clear than the constant church battle of “should women wear bikinis to the beach? What about Nike shorts to camp?” The answer is different in every Christian circle because decency is different depending on where you are and who you are with. I’ve visited churches who take their Sunday Best quite seriously, and it’s an indecent distraction to show up in workout clothes. On the other hand, I currently attend a church in Austin where the congregation is comprised of trendy young folk whose idea of “dressing up” is wearing jeans. In that environment, it’s more distracting for me to show up in a dress and heels. The question to ask when getting dressed is, “What is decent for the occasion?” Most would say that a swimsuit is indecent for church, and in most places, it probably is. But it’s ignorant of Scripture and unloving to our neighbors to assume that certain garments of certain lengths or certain tightness are always best, always decent, or always modest. 

4. It’s okay to think less of a woman because of what she is wearing.

I’ll be the first to raise my hand: I’m guilty of this. It’s natural when you are deceived by the previous three lies to believe that the goodness of a woman or her intentions can be sized up based on her clothing choice. No, we are not pretending that clothes are never an expression of what’s going on inside. But when it comes to decency alone, and we see a Christian sister wearing something we wouldn’t consider “modest” or decent for the occasion, remember first that modesty of the heart is more important. Her heart may very well be doing the best it can to know the Lord or follow His Word. She may be a new Believer, or not know what it means to be holy and set apart. Which brings me to our motivation for modesty.

Now that we’ve got the lies out of the way. Here is your motivation to be decent in clothing and actually put thought into what you wear. After all, the Bible talks about, and it’s much easier to understand what it’s saying once you know what it isn’t.

God has made you holy, set apart, and different from the world. He has called us to be different than the world, and mindful that we are citizens of a heavenly country. One of the simple ways we can portray our status of pure, righteous, and redeemed is through our clothing choices. If our hearts are aligned with His, it becomes a joyful act of obedience to reflect our status of wholeness in all that we do. The Bible says faith without works is dead, and we are known by our fruit. Inasmuch as our good deeds and words should reflect Him, our clothing ought not to have the appearance of evil. When I consider this, I am joyful and eager to choose to wear what is decent for the setting. We should dress with the goal of reflecting the inner beauty He created us with. Wearing makeup, pretty clothes, and fixing hair, if done after one’s heart has been made beautiful before the Lord, can be an act of worship in keeping our temple beautiful as He made it.

It is not about what a man may think of you, or how a sister may judge you. How often in Scripture does it caution us to be pleasers of God rather than men! You can never satisfy the standards of world, so don’t try. Dress for God and God alone. Be honest with Him about your confusion when it comes to modesty, and ask Him to show you the truth; it will set you free.

What do you wish was said about modesty in the church?

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