Modesty: Legalism, Antinomianism, or Obedience?

Over the weekend, the Aquila report linked to an article by Matthew Tuininga on modesty, which has been a hot topic for the past few years in evangelicalism. The article argued that “the problem with an issue like modesty is that one can always take a stricter, more modest position than the next person” and that in discussing modesty or enforcing certain aspects of it, we “fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden”. We have all been around women who dress in a way that hides the fact that they are women; they behave as though breasts, waists, and hips are an embarrassing necessity instead of part of God’s good creation. This error is not helpful.

But neither is the error that modesty is a relative issue, that each woman can come up with her own standard. And even in conservative churches, the tendency to antinomianism when it comes to women’s clothing is just as prevalent and dangerous as legalism is. I know of a conservative, Reformed congregation where the elders decided to keep the sanctuary uncomfortably cold this summer so that women would be forced to wear cardigans instead of baring so much skin in worship. A little while ago I was speaking to a young woman from a church that is full of legalism but who looked more like a soap opera actress than a professing believer. Even for conservative Christians, immodesty is still an issue.

Tuininga is “not saying women should dress provocatively, or that it is acceptable for them to show as much skin as possible.” But he does say some things that tend to relativism, and this is not helpful, either, especially in a culture that is hyper-sexualized. He points out that “[i]n some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church.” Yes, there are cultures in which near nakedness is acceptable. Have you ever noticed that those are the places that have never had their cultures transformed by the gospel? They have as much a distorted view of modesty, women, and sexuality as the Muslims do. And when they are converted, the universal pattern is that they start covering up, not because they want to be saved, but because they are.

He continues, “Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles,” as though the Victorians were standards of biblical morality, en masse. He goes on to argue that “Paul’s writings show that he was concerned about wealthy women drawing too much attention to themselves through their physical adornment. Throughout much of human history, and one sees this in the descriptions of the adulterous woman in Proverbs as well, sexual immodesty had to do with the kind of clothing and makeup a person put on to draw attention to herself, not with the showing of skin. And Jesus puts the burden of preventing lustful thoughts on Christian men, not on Christian women.”

First, referencing the Victorians to prove that showing some breast is a culturally relevant option is an untenable argument. How many pictures of Susanna Spurgeon have you seen that show her cleavage? Jane Austen’s heroines often wear very low cut dresses, but the images we have of contemporary, godly women like Ann Judson never do. John Owen’s wife would never have worn the sort of clothing that the Stuart princesses did. In every age, Christian women have resisted fashion trends that are not in accordance with Scripture. They have not been frumpy or outdated or ugly, but they have covered up.

And yes, legalism, the belief that we can merit favor with God by our own actions, is to be avoided. But that does not mean that we can all wear whatever we want. There are some biblical standards for Christian women, and each family and couple must have their own dress code in order to help daughters, wives, and yes, sons and husbands, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, open to the local church’s teaching and leading on this issue. That is not legalism. And though Scripture does indeed place the burden of not lusting on men, that does not give us ladies leave to bare what we want.

While there is not a specific passage that tells us which body parts to cover, through church history women have used patterns in the Bible and their common sense to know which areas to cover. What are those? I Cor. 12:23 says that, “on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty.” While there certainly is Christian liberty involved in how much of our bodies must be covered, it is obvious from other passages in Scripture that some body parts are not to be visible to anyone but your spouse (and of course, your doctor if you are ill). And what are those? Well, for sure any part of your body that Scripture associates with your sexuality. How do we decide what to cover?

Here’s a little case study as an example. Can a Christian woman wear a shirt that shows cleavage? No. Why not? Scripture associates breasts with either modest breastfeeding or with a sexual relationship. Proverbs 5:19 says, “Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” This tells a man to be delighting in his own wife’s breasts, and implies that a woman must keep her breasts for her own husband, not letting other men see them. So cleavage is out for all of us.

What about knees? Can a Christian woman wear something that shows her knees? Well, does Scripture associate knees with sexuality, or the marriage relationship? Not that I’m aware of. That does not mean that your husband can’t appreciate your knees – it just means that they are not specifically sexual. If we covered every part of our bodies that our husbands appreciated, we would end up looking like conservative Muslim women. So if you feel that showing your knees is immodest, you are free to cover them, but if your conscience is not bound in this area, then you are free to wear clothes that do not hide your knees. We can’t make rules for each other where Scripture is silent, but are free to follow our own consciences.

In between these two fairly clear-cut examples, there is a great need for wisdom, biblical thinking, and careful exercise of Christian freedom that each woman and couple needs to work through. But if in doubt, add more clothes. While you can’t cover up too much, you can certainly err in the other direction. We must be careful to dress in a way that does not inflame lust in the men who will see us, both out of love for them and because we are caring for our bodies as temples of the Spirit. But we do not have to dress is a way that prevents the most lecherous man around from lusting – someone determined to lust regardless of clothing is not our responsibility. Deuteronomy 22:8 provides a pattern of this sort of thinking; we’re to build in safe guards but not to be obsessive.

We are to look carefully how we dress, not as unwise nor as paranoid, but as wise, because the days are evil and we are called to holiness (Eph. 5:15). When you leave your bedroom, can men outside your family look at you as a sister in Christ who is encouraging them to holiness, and not a stumbling block? Each of us has to have a clear, biblically informed conscience when we answer this question.

So yes, please let’s avoid legalism in this area. Let’s not judge a woman who wears modest pants, or something else that we’re not used to ourselves, as deliberately sinning against God and our husbands. Let’s not braid jewels intro our hair, or buy Gunex pants and Jimmy Choo shoes, or have a new Prada bag every month. But let’s not put cleavage in the “culturally relative” category. Let’s treat our bodies like temples of the Spirit, resist being squeezed into the mold of this world, and dress like the holy women we are. If we are motivated to modesty by fear of lust, we’ll wear burqas. If we’re motivated to modesty by fear of show, we’ll wear Mennonite garb. If we’re motivated to modesty by a concern for God’s glory, our witness, and love for the souls of our fellow men, we’ll wear clothes that free us to live out kingdom lives in a fallen world. Fear of legalism is just as big an issue as fear of antinomianism – both are antithetical to the gospel.