I have debated writing this post for a while for a few reasons. One of these is that there are simply hundreds of blog posts on modesty, modesty standards, the lack of modesty, having a modest heart, etc. Some push a certain standard, advocating against bikinis; others claim modesty is solely a heart issue.
In writing this post, I wanted to stay away from defining certain standards—so you don’t have to worry about being condemned for wearing a bikini. I won’t tell you that you’re causing your brother in Christ to sin every time you wear shorts. My hope is that this post won’t be condemning, though it may be convicting. Modesty is a touchy subject and I’ve tried to be honest and reflect the truth of God’s Word.
And so, without further ado…another opinion on modesty.
If you were raised in the church, you probably heard many Sunday school lessons and youth devotionals on purity. And if you were a girl, you probably heard just as much about the importance of modesty.
Christian modesty standards are all over the place. Some churches believe women should wear only knee-length (or longer) skirts at all times. Others see no issue with wearing bikinis. Wearing shorts to the Sunday service in one church may be the norm, while in another you would get disapproving stares.
No matter what kind of church you were raised in, have we been doing this whole modesty thing wrong?
More importantly, what does the Bible actually say about modesty?
The Modesty Equation
Let’s face it. Most churches’ modesty standards are made up. They are created by what the church believes is appropriate—the opinion of the church’s leaders. Most quote this verse to back their modesty claims:
Likewise also that women should adorn themselves 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. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 10)
However, I think that this verse is somewhat taken out of context. The verse before says this:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves… (verse 8)
I think that Paul is focusing on behavioural modesty here, although he also gives clear instructions for apparel. He says that women should cloth themselves in respectable clothes. He says that they shouldn’t focus on their hair, or how much their clothes and jewelry cost, but on doing good. He also says that we should dress ourselves “…with modesty and self-control…”, behavioural characteristics.
Most people take this verse to mean meeting certain modesty standards. But then they go and pair it with this verse:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)
So we end up with this equation:
1 Timothy 2:9 + Matthew 5:28 = women need to be modest and not make men stumble.
Where did we get the idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to not create a stumbling block to men?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about stumbling blocks in the context of eating certain foods.
Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. (1 Cor. 8:8 – 11)
Essentially, Paul is saying that whether we choose to eat a certain food or not does not make us better or worse in God’s eyes. What matters is how we look out for each other. Yes, we have a right to choose—but that choice may get in the way of someone else. We need to be willing to give up our “right” for the good of our brother or sister. If we are knowingly causing another to stumble, we will be answerable to Christ.
That being said, I do not think it is solely a woman’s responsibility to keep men’s minds pure, just like men are not responsible for keeping women’s minds pure.
Say you’re at a friend’s house for supper. If they offered you pie and ice cream for dessert and you accepted, could you blame them for breaking your diet? Of course not. You made the choice to accept. Hopefully, you wouldn’t get upset with your friend because you broke your diet.
It’s the same with modesty. When you see a guy shirtless, you have a choice whether or not you’re going to lust after him. When a guy sees a girl in a swimsuit, he has a choice to keep his thoughts pure or allow himself to continue down that path of thought. When we stand before God and he calls us to account for our thoughts, we can’t say to Him, “Look God, I know it’s wrong to lust, but they were dressed provocatively! How was I supposed to resist? She should’ve known better than to dress that way.”
Romans says this:
So then each one off us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Romans 14:12 – 13)
This verse makes it pretty clear that we will all be responsible for our own actions, words, and thoughts. We are each held accountable before God, independent of anyone else.
Everyone is going to have different standards of modesty. So how do we decide what’s modest and what isn’t? (The bikini debate gets pretty tiring!) Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the best question should be this: “Does this, whether it be clothing, words, or actions, show that I love God and others more than myself?”
At the end of the day, how you dress is up to you. God is not going to condemn you because of your wardrobe. You are responsible for how you dress and your motivation for doing so. The modesty “standard” is different for everyone.
Please, please, please do not hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that this means you can go out and wear whatever you want. I’m not saying that guys should just deal with it. While we should be mindful of how our actions and wardrobe affect others, we shouldn’t be motivated by guilt or shame. Our choices should all be made out of love.