We live in a world that is very concerned about how women dress. But we live in a culture that is not at all concerned about immodesty. C. J. Mahaney describes immodesty this way: “Immodesty, then, is much more than wearing a short skirt or low-cut top; it’s the act of drawing undue attention to yourself. It’s pride, on display by what you wear.” And that can be pride in your looks, your taste, or your purchasing power.
Often, Christian women are motivated to modesty by a fear of causing lust and fear of display. But that is an unChristian understanding of modesty. It is so easy for modesty to merely external, and to fall into legalism because our clothing is not an expression of a heart that is in love with Christ and seeks to bring good to other people. Modest clothing is motivated by a desire to bring God glory and to bless others.
John MacArthur asks, “How does a woman discern the sometimes fine line between proper dress and dressing to be the center of attention? The answer starts in the intent of the heart. A woman should examine her motives and goals for the way she dresses. Is her intent to show the grace and beauty of womanhood?…. Is it to reveal a humble heart devoted to worshiping God? Or is it to call attention to herself, and flaunt her…beauty? Or worse, to attempt to allure men sexually? A woman who focuses on worshiping God will consider carefully how she is dressed, because her heart will dictate her wardrobe and appearance.”
As Christian women, what we wear must flow from an understanding that we are creatures who bear the image of our Creator who created beauty; that we are redeemed sinners living in a fallen world; and that we are servants who need to be ready to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. Modesty is an attitude of the heart that seeks to give glory to God, serve others, and put self to death. Its most visible expression is what we wear.
I Timothy 2:9-10 tells us to dress “in respectable apparel with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works.” Tim Challies and R W Glenn write in their book Modest that “We need to be sure that our understanding of modesty flows from the gospel and leads to gospel love. If it doesn’t, we’ve missed the mark and our modesty is no virtue at all.”
So what does that look like? What does modesty motivated by love of God and love for others look like? Because once we do understand that modesty flows from the heart and we want to serve God in this way, we need to buy clothes and get dressed. We need some guidelines that keep us within biblical bounds while allowing individual freedom. So here are six attributes of modest clothing for a Christian woman.
1. Modest clothing covers. This is probably the trickiest aspect of addressing modesty, because it involves some Christian freedom and is such a controversial issue. It is also one aspect of modesty that has some degree of cultural and chronological leeway. In 18th century Quebec, one Roman Catholic priest lamented the immodesty of the women living around him. He wrote, “They do not seem to understand that nothing excites the male passions so much as the sight of the forbidden female ankle.” Something that we don’t worry about at all was a real concern two hundred years ago.
So there are changes over time in what people consider is modest, but if we are concerned for God’s glory, we will not allow our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit if we are believers, become public property by wearing revealing clothing. And if we are concerned for the good of others, for our witness in a fallen world and concern for holiness in other believers, we will not facilitate lust (or envy, or disgust) by wearing revealing clothing. Now, the Bible does not say how much skin clothing should cover; we’re not given a percentage or exact directions. But Scripture does give some base lines—implicit directions that we need to follow.
When Adam and Eve fell, they made aprons to cover their nakedness. When God confronted them about their sin, He also made clothing for them – tunics to replace their aprons, which indicates that stomachs and backs are not to be on public display, even for guys.
Here they were, a married couple, the only people on earth, and the coverings that they had whipped up for themselves were inadequate. God had to kill an animal in order to cover them, foreshadowing the fulfillment of the promise that Christ would die to cover their naked souls with His own righteousness. So our clothing must reflect the gospel reality of being covered. If we thought more biblically about sin, we would think more biblically about nakedness and clothing. Matthew Henry says, “Clothes came in with sin. We should have no occasion for them…if sin had not made us naked.” Our clothing must cover us, and what we would naturally think is adequate is often not enough.
Through Scripture, the metaphor of being clothed is a beautiful one: as believers, we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness; as the Bride, we are clothed with beauty; as the Redeemed, we are clothed in white robes. A lack of adequate clothing is always associated with paganism, apostasy, or backsliding, and with God’s judgment (Gen. 3:7; Is. 47:2, 3; Jer. 13:26; Nahum 3:5; Rev. 3:18, etc.). But Christians are a clothed people, spiritually and physically.
To wear inadequate clothing is to deny that you are a sinner and that you need a Saviour. Immodesty is actually a denial of the gospel, and it has no place in the life of a believer. Wearing inadequate clothing says that you don’t need God’s covering, that you don’t think you’re sinful, or that you are content in your sin. Calvin said that immodesty was an expression of despising the Master, “who intended clothing to be a sign of shame.”
Notice for a moment, that your daughter does not need to be old enough to understand sex and lust in order to understand why modesty is important. Girls only need to be old enough to read Genesis 3 in a story Bible to see why we need clothes. It is primarily because of sin; hormones are secondary.
And they do play their part. The first time I spoke on modesty was to a group of teenaged girls, and I read them this quote from a young man: “The thing that women do not seem to fully grasp is that the temptation toward lust does not stop. It is continual. It is aggressive. And it does all it can to lead men down to death. And women have a choice to help or deter the goal and purpose of lust. Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, “She probably doesn’t even know that 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again, maybe she does.” To be honest, I don’t know… All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it at all costs.”
Modest clothing encourages holiness instead of baiting lust. A man lusting is not your fault. There are men out there who lust after women in burqas. But you can be responsible for encouraging or enabling that lust. We don’t want to go there. We want to help deter it. We don’t want to be as close as we can to immodesty without causing lust: we want to flee temptation and flee being a temptation without being paranoid or bound by other people’s sin.
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.” Notice that neither this passage, nor any other, gives a list of which parts of the body are unpresentable and must be covered. But while there is some 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, doctor if you are ill).
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. We do not have to dress is a way that prevents the most lecherous man around from lusting – someone determined to sin regardless of our safeguards is not our responsibility (we see the principle for this in Duet. 22:8). 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).
2. Modest clothing is appropriate. In our culture, this seems to be an increasing problem as individualism and postmodernism try to erase any standards, so it’s something to think about carefully.
Dress appropriately for your age. If you are 50, please don’t dress like you are 18. That’s not being modest. It shows a discontentment with where God has placed you, and it draws attention to yourself in a way that is not respectable.
Also, dress appropriately for a female. There are cultural and chronological variances here, and what is feminine in one place might be problematic in another. You don’t have to be decked out in pink frills all the time, but wear something recognizably feminine. In a culture where cross dressing and gender confusion are affecting styles, this is becoming more difficult, but it is still possible. Don’t wear a t-shirt that would look just as good on your teenaged son. Stay away from generic shoes, or other pieces that are not distinctly womanly. Of course, if you’re camping, or mucking out the barn, your clothing should be suitable for that. But in general, our clothing should be visibly feminine.
Also dress appropriately for your marital status. William Gouge, one of the Westminster Divines, said that “it beseemeth all women, so wives after a peculiar manner…in attiring themselves to respect their husband’s place and state…A wife’s modesty therefore requires that her apparel be neither in costliness above her husband’s ability, nor for curiousness unbeseeming his calling…It is a token of great reverence in a wife towards her husband to have an eye to his place and state in her apparel.” Gouge said this is especially important for women who are married to judges, professors, and ministers of the gospel. In other words, dress in a way that’s appropriate for a wife, and dress in a way that’s appropriate for your husband’s wife.
Lastly, wear clothes that are appropriate for the circumstance or event. If you are going to church, it is immodest to dress as though you are headed to the beach. If you are going to the beach, it is immodest to dress as though you are headed to a funeral. It’s attracting attention to yourself and not considering others. Modesty means that we dress according to the occasion and love others by fitting in with the occasion. Modest clothing is, as the I Timothy passage says, “respectable”.
3. Modest clothing enables us to serve in a given circumstance. So if you are taking your children to the park, high-heeled boots or platform wedge sandals (even if you think they are modest in other situations) need to stay home. Wear something that allows you to have fun with and take care of your children. If you are going to visit someone in the hospital, wear something that is cheerful and clean. When you get dressed in the morning, think about whether the clothes that you are wearing will help you to do the work that you need to that day. Modest clothing enables you to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do – honouring Him as you serve in His name.
4. Modest clothing is moderate, not elaborate, decadent, or flashy. If you are walking around in a red sequin shirt, you’re not being modest. Always wearing Saks Fifth Ave is not modest. Heading to J. Crew at the beginning of every season to stock up on the latest trends is not modest. Wearing a new outfit every Sunday is not modest. All of these examples show a heart that is in love with attention and looks instead of a heart that desires to bring glory to God and serve others. A modest wardrobe is temperate and self-controlled.
When someone sees you at the grocery store, do you look like you are trying to imitate Hollywood, to associate with the wealthy and powerful, or the uber-trendy, hip and urban? Or do you look tasteful and ready to serve? Do you look like a thankful servant who points to her Creator, or like someone in love with the world and the things in the world? It’s not wrong to have your own style, but it is wrong to be flamboyant about it, spend large amounts of money on it, or to let it define you. Matthew Henry says, “Little reason we have to be proud of our clothes, which are but badges of our [spiritual] poverty and infamy.”
Clothing that is temperate in style, price, and number of items is modest as it uses God-given resources wisely and helps keep us from being obsessed with how the world thinks we should look.
5. Modest clothing is culturally sensitive. So this would mean that even if you think that shorts are modest in North America, it would be immodest and foolish to wear them in the Middle East. It would be immodest to wear a head scarf in Southern Sudan because it is associated with Islam there and is offensive. If you move from, say, Denmark to Indiana, it would probably be immodest to continue wearing clothing that looks futuristic to the people there.
But, if you move from, maybe, Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, do you have to wear a bikini to fit in and minister to the beach crowd? Nope. You always fit into a culture within the biblical guidelines of covering unpresentable parts, regardless of the culture in which you live. Elizabeth Elliot wore modest clothing and ministered successfully to a tribe wearing strings and beads.
Most of the time, we can be biblically modest while being culturally sensitive about what we wear. This is just one aspect of being all things to all men, and not causing needless offense or drawing needless attention to yourself. This is why missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael adopted local dress as they tried to minister the gospel. Cultural sensitivity in the way you dress is simply loving your neighbour through modest clothing.
6. Modest clothing is beautiful. While we each have slightly different perspectives on what is ugly, as Christian women we should try and dress in a way that is beautiful. Not elaborate or decadent or seductive, as I said, but beautiful.
Carolyn Mahaney says, “[B]ecause we are created in the image of our Creator, each of us has this propensity to make things beautiful. That means, when we decorate our homes, or plant a lovely flower garden, or seek to add some form of beauty to our surroundings, even when we attempt to enhance our personal appearance—we are actually imitating and delighting in the works of our Great Creator.”
God loves beauty. He created beauty. Christ is the One who is most beautiful, and dressing in ugly clothing denies this truth and dishonours the One who gave us the gift of beauty and creativity. As Christ’s children, we should be delighting in the beauty He gave us by enjoying colour, texture, creativity, skill, and even the beauty of figure and form that are all gifts from a benevolent Creator to His creatures. We should be an adornment to creation. We are the crown of creation but we can look like the dregs without trying.
Calvin points out that Scripture condemns extravagance, not elegance. So often, modesty is associated with frumpy, dated, tastelessness — clothing that attracts attention simply because it is aesthetically offensive. But of all people, Christian women should be exemplifying right use of beauty and creativity in clothing instead of ignoring them in reaction to a world that abuses them. Modesty exemplifies a right use of beautiful clothing – a use that glorifies the Creator.
There is actually a great Protestant tradition here: through church history we see believers dressing in attractive, contemporary clothing within biblical guidelines. Some people accused John Owen of dressing in a way that was too fashionable for a minister because he wore the same clothing that other young men were wearing instead of the traditional professors gown. He argued that Christians are free to wear attractive clothing as long as it is not revealing or extravagant. C. S. Lewis pointed out that the Puritans “were very fashionable and up to date.” Christianity has never held to a form of modesty that is unattractive.
I think also that those of us who are wives need to think more of our husbands when we’re buying and putting on clothes. It’s not nice for them if we’re wearing stuff that’s dated, stuff that doesn’t fit right anymore, or stuff that doesn’t match. I know it’s so easy with a crowd of little kids to just pull on something clean and try and keep on top of the laundry. We’re at home, we have no idea what normal people are wearing, we barely have time to go shopping and if we do, we feel guilty going anywhere but Target. But often we can forget that our husbands have to come home at the end of a long day of work in the world, and look at us across the dinner table.
My sister once told me that I was at an age that I should go shopping with a trendy teenager to balance out the “mom look”. You know that look: stretchy shirt because you’re nursing, something that you saved from the last postpartum period that fits over your baby belly, and sensible shoes so you can chase the toddler. We could be a little more thoughtful of wearing attractive clothing for our husbands, as well witnessing to the Lord’s design.
So, when you leave your bedroom in the morning, can men outside your family look at you as a sister in Christ who is encouraging them to holiness, and not a stumbling block? Can unbelievers see you as temperate and self controlled in your clothing? Does our clothing set us apart as servants who serve a glorious God? Each of us has to have a clear, biblically informed conscience when we answer these questions.