12 Days of Giveaways - Spin & Win! Sign up before Dec. 25th to win daily prizes and a $250 Amazon.com Gift Card. Find out details.

7 Myths about Modesty Christians Should Stop Believing

7 Myths about Modesty Christians Should Stop Believing

From the flurry of articles I see being exchanged as the weather gets warmer and hemlines rise, necklines plunge, and shirtless men become more common, modesty is a hot topic—especially among believers.

And it’s surprisingly complicated. You can find people throwing out Bible verses and opinions on a whole spectrum of what is or is not appropriate, many of them extremely passionate. Does a strictly traditional view of modesty encourage blaming rape victims? Does a liberal view of Christian freedom in dress represent how even the church is beginning to conform to the world?

I’m not going to answer those questions directly, but I do want to add a few areas to think about as I talk about some misconceptions I see in Christian discussions about modesty.

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock

  • 1. Modesty is all about clothing.

    The most-cited verse in Christian discussions on this topic is 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.”

    Let’s be careful before reading our own culture in the passage. Paul wasn’t talking about plunging necklines or short skirts here. He was asking the wealthy women of the church not to flaunt their wealth, especially when other members of the church were poor. He didn’t want these women to put their identity in their physical appearance. (1 Peter 3:3-4 says the same thing.)

    As this passage illustrates, modesty is a deeper, more interesting virtue than we think, one that includes both genders equally. It’s giving credit where it’s due, never being entitled, helping others feel welcome, and refusing to brag about your accomplishments. By reducing discussion of modesty to a checklist of dos and don’ts for women’s dress, we miss the heart of what the Bible teaches about true modesty in all its forms. 

    So modesty is not just about clothing. But since most discussions in the church focus on that area, the rest of the myths will all relate to that one (relatively narrow) application of modesty.

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock

  • 2. Modesty is a universal standard that's the same in all cultures.

    My friend, a teacher in South Africa, told me that women in her culture don’t think twice about a low or even bare neckline. Breasts are not sexualized in that culture—they’re for nourishing babies and it would be silly to think of them as an attractive feature. Legs, on the other hand, are considered very sensual, especially by the older generations, so out of respect for them, my friend doesn’t wear even knee-length shorts, even though to her, those would be modest.

    No matter how many checklists you create, you won’t be able to please everyone. I read a Christian article as a teenager that advised me never to apply Chapstick in the presence of male friends, because that would call attention to my lips. Most of us would agree that’s extreme, but where do you draw the line? Is this even about drawing lines? Read on, friends. Read on.

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/vadimguzhva

  • 3. Modesty is about shame.

    If I need to explain why a discussion of modesty should never be based on fear or shame, we should go over some basics of Christian ethics. And yet, most people’s cringe-reflex to the word “modesty” is because they picture a list of hyper-conservative rules and hear hushed, judgmental whispers of, “Did you see what she was wearing?” 

    Why?

    I think it’s because it’s easier to enforce a dress code than to deal with issues in our hearts. It’s more black-and-white to blame lust on something that can be easily fixed with looser clothes and longer hems. It’s more effective to use scare tactics than to talk through the nuances of professionalism, self-respect, and consideration of others.

    But all of these seemingly simple solutions are short-term… and can leave lasting damage behind.

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/pecaphoto77

  • 4. Modesty can prevent others from stumbling.

    If you don’t believe me, then listen to Matthew 18:9, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Notice where Jesus puts the responsibility for sins of the eyes, which certainly includes lust: on the person who sins.

    A women could cover herself in a burqa, or a man could wear a scuba suit to go swimming, and we’d still lust, because our hearts are sinful. Other people are not responsible for our sin—we’ll all be held accountable before God for our choices.

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock

  • 5. Modesty can't prevent others from stumbling, so it doesn't matter.

    All of the New Testament passages referencing “causing your brother to stumble” are in the context of Christians who weren’t sure if they could celebrate certain feast days or buy food from a post-idol-sacrifice butcher shop. They do not directly apply to modesty and lust, and to say they do is to rip them from their original context. 

    That said, there’s a general principle that Paul hammered home in those passages, which is this: if you are asking whether it’s okay do something and you are thinking first about yourself, your desires, and your rights… you are doing it completely wrong. Instead, Christians should be radically devoted to making choices based on the good of others, seeking their good and restricting their own freedom for the sake of their weaker brothers. (See especially Romans 14:10-15.)

    Yes, a good place to start when talking about modesty is self-respect—dressing appropriately for a context and not letting a hyper-sexualized culture objectify you. But it’s also about respect for others.

    Please don’t misunderstand me: I hate how the church has sometimes handled discussions of modesty, placing the blame for lust (and sometimes even abuse) where it doesn’t belong. But I don’t want to throw out the essential biblical concept of considering others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-4), even in areas as seemingly trivial as eating, drinking, and dressing.

    We keep asking all the wrong questions—where to put blame or how much is too much or how can I please absolutely everyone with my outward appearance. But the real issue is at once simpler and more complicated, because it involves not just our hemlines, but our hearts. 

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Discha-AS

  • 6. Modesty is always legalism.

    Here I want to speak especially to people who, angry about how modesty has been discussed in the church, have dismissed the whole thing as a misogynistic tirade complete with a frumpy, shapeless wardrobe.

    I’d be the first to admit that within the church, standards and slogans about modesty have been wielded in a way that creates shame and keeps people away. But it doesn’t have to be. At its best, modesty is asking a simple question, “Why I am I wearing this?” and making sure the answer is a good one. That’s something significantly less controversial than debating whether or not “Modest is Hottest.”

    With that in mind, please don’t assume the family in your church modeling more conservative clothing is looking down on you. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You may disagree on what is appropriate church attire, and it’s good to have gracious discussions about those things. But you aren’t saved by your freedom to wear shorts, just as they are not saved by their long jean skirts. You’re both saved by the gospel, so let’s keep our focus there.

     

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock

  • 7. Modesty is never legalism.

    On the other hand, if you take more offense at my implication that a list of standards for clothing probably misses the point, keep this in mind: it’s very easy to make modesty into an idol. If you pride yourself on your standards or the way you’ve taught your kids about this subject, if you find yourself judging a newcomer to church based on a percentage of exposed skin, if you are in any way putting your identity in the rules you follow… something is wrong.

    The same passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians that talk about not causing a brother to stumble also warn against judging those whose consciences don’t condemn them in actions that the Bible doesn’t specifically address (Romans 14:1-4). It can happen subtly, and it can be just as destructive as a careless disregard for others, because it reveals wrong motives.

    I’ll end with this: when you’re caught up in a discussion about modesty—whether it’s a Facebook debate on a blog post about bikinis or a parents’ meeting about how to present this topic to the youth group—don’t reach first for the easy answers on either side of the spectrum. Don’t respond with fear, shame, and a list of rules… and don’t dismiss respect for others in the name of freedom.

    Let’s strip down discussions of modesty to what matters most: as one more way to show love to one another.

     

    Amy Green enjoys the long-awaited coming of spring from her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She’s a jr. high youth group leader, and she blogs about life, faith, and pop culture at themondayheretic.wordpress.com.

    Photo credit: ©Thinkstock