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Does Modesty Really Matter?

Ed Gungor says the key to modesty lies in our hearts—not necessarily our dress.

The apostle Paul wrote that Christ-followers should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (1 Timothy 2:9). Inherent in Christian thought is the notion of “modesty” (for both men and women), which implies a kind of reserve about how one dresses, along with a humility that willingly owns the fact that our actions and choices do affect others. Whether we like it or not, we can dress and carry ourselves in ways that illicit inappropriate and lustful reactions in others. But this opens up a proverbial can of worms—when is it, “I lusted and it’s your fault,” and when is it, “I need to be responsible for the fact that I am a lustful person”? The “who-is-culpable?” question is full of subjectivity and complexity. 

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis contends that Christians must be careful not to get confused about what constitutes modesty. “A girl in the Pacific islands,” he writes, “wearing hardly any clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).”

He goes on to argue that “people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard” and that “old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ‘emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard.”

"Enough Is Enough"

Back in the late 1980s, it became fashionable for young teenage girls to wear colored nylon stockings that went from their ankles to mid-thigh. I remember how disturbed I was when some of the young ladies in the church I was pastoring showed up wearing those stockings. I thought they looked like prostitutes, and I was appalled. I immediately wanted to do a series on chastity along with a call to repentance before the whole church went to hell in a handbasket. Thankfully, I had enough sense to talk it over with my wife, Gail, and to ask my teenage boys about what they thought about it.

“What do you think about those stockings?” I queried Gail.

“They’re very stylish,” she responded.

“Don’t you think they make the girls look like young prostitutes?” I asked leadingly.

“They’re just trying to be cute,” she said looking at me a little surprised.

“What do you boys think?” I asked.

“I don’t know what prostitutes look like, Dad,” one responded.

“That’s a really weird thing to say,” the other one added.

“Anyway, who cares?” the first son said as he changed the subject.

I took pause.

Why was this bothering me and not my wife and kids? It took me some honest reflection, but when I thought it through, the reason I had such a negative reaction to that particular fashion was it was reminiscent of the provocative photos I had seen in my junior high locker room when my friends passed around some “soft porn” girlie magazines. Somehow the memory from that time was triggered by this particular fashion moment.

The problem wasn’t what these girls were wearing; it was in what Ed Gungor had experienced and how it had triggered a negative reaction in my soul. So, I had a choice. Was I going to blame my reaction on what they were wearing or was I going to own my own stuff and leave them alone.

I chose the latter.

Much more than clothes

I believe the whole lust issue transcends mere clothing. I have been pastoring people for more than 30 years and have watched the lives of thousands of people over that time—many of them from childhood to adulthood. Though I believe the way a person dresses externally is important, it is of less importance than the way a person dresses internally. Let me explain.

Some years ago an attractive, young, divorced lady come to see me in my office. Her marriage had ended because of her husband’s infidelity and she had developed a cynicism about men that made her delight in dressing and carrying herself in a seductive ways. “I know I mess with men,” she told me, “and I like it.”

She wasn’t a promiscuous dresser per se, but she did carry herself in a way that caught men’s eyes and induced a lustful reaction. She said it was a power she had grown to love. But it was her soul, not what she was wearing that brought out the worst in those men. (I referred her to a mental health professional who was able to help her process through what was precipitating that behavior.)

I have spoken to many men and women who told me they were frequently “hit on” as they traveled and went out into public. Though some of them were exceptionally nice-looking and fashionably dressed, many were not. On the other hand, I have spoken to both men and women who were attractive by anyone’s standard—even some who dressed more revealingly than I was comfortable with—but they were seldom “hit on” or ogled by others. Why? What was the difference? It wasn’t their clothing; it was their souls. It has just as much (or more) to do with the person they wanted to present and their own struggles with lust as with what they wore.

What's in your heart?

Fashions come and go. Skirt hems go up and down; clothing gets tighter in some seasons and baggy in others; sometimes necklines plummet to depths that leave little to the imagination—somewhere in the milieu of the fashion waterworld, believers need space to think through what they believe modesty, decency and propriety are. But you need to be honest about what constitutes inappropriateness within your particular cultural context. This is an issue that demands careful reflection in the heart and honest discussion with the community one is called to be a part of. (That being said, don’t necessarily let prudish church people tell you where the center on this issue is. In the fear of sin, church folk tend to overprotect and over-sanitize their views on just about everything.)

Bottom line? I think you can get away with being as fashionable as you want, as long as your heart is clear and clean and you don’t have patterns of complaints from those you love and trust. If your heart is clear and clean, you can confidently tell the occasional accuser who makes the “you-make-me-lust” accusation to go look in the mirror for the source of his or her inappropriate desires.

Top Comments

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Gideon commented…

So I wonder, with all this talk about men stumbling over what/how women should wear themselves and how they should be responsible for dressing modestly (in the church environment?)... what would it be vice-versa? Is there an aura of double-standard-ness in our comments (as men) or would we apply the same rule to ourselves? My guess is it probably couldn't be done as I think it's safe to say MEN more than Women struggle with our visual/physical senses???

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Claudia commented…

As a woman, this conversation doesn't oppress me in the least! I wish it were addressed more in the church (primarily to women) and clearly defined, despite cultural norms. I want to go up in front of my congregation sometimes (especially during the summer) and tell some of those chicks to just cover up! I restrain myself from doing so however...

I have found a freedom in covering myself up that I didn't have when dressed more fashionably, neckline uncomfortably plunging and me constantly pulling at my too-high hemline. Dressing more modestly hasn't just meant covering up for me; it's also meant dressing more simply. I'm not a slave to fashion and I can focus more on relationships with people and not on trying to impress them with how well put together I look.

It's pretty obvious why women are targeted with this issue more than men - I think it's pretty universally known that men are more visual creatures and struggle more with lust than women do. We should be so considerate to do the best we can to be modest in dress and attitude.

God is concerned with our hearts, but we shouldn't rely on our hearts to direct us in the decisions we make. Jeremiah 17:9 says "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" 'Nuff said.

85 Comments

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Venom Froggy commented…

Oh yeah! Don't cheapen yourselves! Because male sexuality is filthy and disgusting, didn't you know that? It's degrading!

Those ANIMALS!

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Venom Froggy commented…

Yeah, Ann! You're awesome! Teach those girls to deplore the thought of arousing men! Because women need to learn to put erections in the same camp as RAPE.

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Mccbadgersrock commented…

I have been a female youth minister for over 20 years and it always bothered me when summer arrived and every pool party or youth camp the dress code for the girls always demanded they wear a t shirt over their bathing suit when the boys were always allowed to go shirtless. When I questioned this I was always told that we didn't want to make the boys stumble. After about 10 years in, I decided I would not support that any longer because what we were saying was its always the girls fault...the boys have no accountability because they just can't help it. So I decided instead of making the girls feel guilty because of the boys behavior we would teach the boys to be responsible for their own lust. There is a balance, I don't think it's appropriate for Girls to walk around wearing string bikinis and we should, as females, be diligiant about how we dress because modesty does matter. But don't blame me if you you look at me and have lustful thoughts, thats all you!

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Jill M commented…

'But don't blame me if you you look at me and have lustful thoughts, thats all you!'.

Ouch.

I am sorry that the other leaders did not have the understanding to instruct the boys to put on shirts. I do know that, while it is definitely* not* as prevelant, women could lust as well. That is too bad that they made a bad decision in that regards. Still, I quoted the comment above because I was taken aback by it, as it is unscriptural. We *are* accountable for causing a brother to stumble: "Offenses will come, by whoa to him through whom the offense comes". "If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble....". "We should resolve this - not to put a cause to stumble in our brother's way". I could put many, many more scriptures here,butI hope you get the idea. They are accountable, you are right, but so are we!

We should neversay that becausesomeone else does not do what they oughtthat we don't need to either. That would be like me saying, "Oh well, I'll go ahead and get drunk because hey, other people do and why should I worry about being a bad example when other Christians don't care". Or... "I'll go commit adultery because, hey, my husband doesn't seem to keep his eyes to himself anyway, why should I?"

Even though those boys did not don shirts, I would hope that you would have supported the girl's dressing modesty anyway - in spite of them.

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Abidinginchrist commented…

I completely concur with this article! Many churches have characterized women as the epitome of their problems. Christ did not elevate women by disregarding their sexuality or gender. He did not place them in paper bags and call them to be hidden from the eyes of men. Yes, modesty is the responsibility of women as much as men; however, modesty is not a guilt-ridden duty in response towards men, but a response of identity in Christ. Without a proper understanding of self-respect, women are merely mailable sex-objects that hold power in their grasp. This type of philosophy of human sexuality is perverted and inaccurate! "Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life" (Prov. 4: 23 NLT). It is the heart that leads a man's sight, hands, and mind. If salvation is a personal decision determined through individualistic pursuit, then sanctification resides in the hands of the individual as well. We are not judged by our excuses but by our usage of the Word and Will of Jesus Christ.

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