As a young woman I held a vague notion that a Christian woman should dress modestly. I’m not sure that I would even have known to use those words, and I’m certain that I was unaware of the specific scriptural teaching on the subject. Yet, somehow, whether through training or instinct, I acquired a general awareness that the way I dressed carried some power to affect the young men with whom I interacted. In retrospect I can even see that some of those young men were earnest and bold enough to attempt to communicate something of that truth. My friends and I did not get the message. In fact, I am ashamed to confess that for more than a decade I wavered between a desire to “capitalize” on that affect and an increasing understanding of its selfishness. As I matured, my conscience became more sensitive and I began to feel uncomfortable with styles that fit tightly, revealed thigh, etc. Still, my perspective lacked greatly in depth and specificity. I frequently questioned other women, “Do you think this is ‘o.k.’?” “Are these pants too tight?” “This sweater too fitted?” In companionable ignorance they all assured me that my clothes were “just fine.” My young fiancé was the first to challenge that status quo. Twice during our engagement he requested that I refrain from wearing a certain style to help him maintain pure thoughts. I was mortified. The styles that I wore were not anything that mainstream America would call indecent. They were chosen with general modesty in mind. Yet, the fact remained, the way that I chose to dress had created a stumbling block for at least one young man who desired to “live godly in Christ Jesus.”
That early introduction to the masculine perspective proved to be a mere “tip of the ice-burg.” Once Greg and I were married I possessed a more reliable source of information on appropriate attire for a Christian woman. I could go right to the source—a man—to seek the insight that my conscience still told me I was lacking. Two barriers, though, continued to obscure my vision. First, Greg lacked confidence in calling me to a godly standard. He would say, “Well, it’s not perfect, but it’s what everybody wears.” Without having articulated an awareness of it, he felt limited by the standards of our society. Certainly he couldn’t ask me to dress in a way that did not conform to a style that our culture considers normal. This was an idea completely foreign to our experience of Christianity.
The second remaining barrier was my attitude. I constantly sought input from my husband without really wanting to hear the answer. I did not want to sin, but neither did I want to relinquish my “right” to look cool, stylish and, though I never would have said it, sexy. So I asked, and grumbled in my spirit when the answers were given. It took several years of my husband humbly answering my questions (which was often painful for both of us) to awaken my conscience. I began to understand more clearly that God had designed men and women very differently. I had always related to men under the assumption that their minds worked basically like mine—that their struggles with purity were of the same essential character as my own. I had been so ignorant. If any brothers are reading this, we women require detailed explanation. The general summary that “men are visually aroused” simply does not communicate the power of visual temptation on the male mind, body and spirit. Once I really understood this difference and its implications for the men around me, I was ready to change—ready to repent.
Love, Not Law
Thus far I have shared some of my own experience, but little from the word of God. This is where the scriptural teaching begins, and where I would ask my readers to open their hearts. I have found that many Christian women become defensive when the topic of modesty is broached. This seems to hold true for women who have known a more “wordly” (fitting in with the culture around us) Christianity like myself, as well as for those who grew up with very strict standards of “nonconformity.” I believe that the root of this defensiveness lies in a lack of depth in teaching (partnered with the sinful nature, of course). Where modesty has been seriously taught it has often been put forth as a set of rules—Christian women must wear long skirts, etc. When superficial standards are imposed without a foundation of personal conviction, resentment builds and rebellion follows.
Look with me at Matt. 18:5-9.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
I believe that any woman who does serious, prayerful research on the subject will find that much of what is considered “normal” and “decent” and even “modest” or “conservative” in our cultural dress code does indeed cause temptation for our brothers.
Notice how Jesus’ words in verses 8 and 9 echo his teaching about lust in Matthew 5:27-30—“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Given the parallel, I do not think that it is a stretch to apply the Matthew 18 passage to purity as well. Our Lord cries, “Woe to the world because of temptations to sin! It is necessary that temptations come,”—This has always been true, but look around any city street and you will see that it is now more so than ever before. “But woe to the person through whom the temptation comes.” Sisters, let those words echo in your soul.
In speaking to men about purity, Jesus commands radical sacrifice—“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” When it comes to inciting this sin through visual temptation, are we offered a lower standard of repentance? Do we read, “Do your best to avoid causing a stumbling block without cramping your style”? or, “Try not to cause a fellow believer to sin without leaving the mainstream”? Because we all know that Jesus’ followers shouldn’t look “weird” to the world, right? Jesus says just the opposite—“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). Dear sisters, we are not called to “fit in.” We are called to the same standard of repentance as our brothers. If your style causes a brother to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to enter into life “frumpy,” than “looking good” to be thrown into the fire.
So, then, the first half of this appeal is a warning for the sake of our own souls. The second is a call to compassion for our brothers who are striving earnestly toward the teaching of Matthew 5 in the midst of an utterly sensualized society. I do not think I exaggerate to say that purity is the greatest challenge to Christian men of our time. It is a source of constant struggle for all, and of discouragement and defeat for many. Temptation takes the form of mere girls and even grandmothers; of young mothers pushing strollers and teenagers in the grocery checkout line. It is impossible for them to escape without leading a life of complete hermitage. How disheartening for Christian men and boys that this temptation also takes the form of their Christian sisters. Paul exhorts Timothy to encourage “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). How can we expect our brothers to do this when we are dressed as a prostitute might have been less than 100 years ago? Do I exaggerate? Your eyes may be desensitized to it, but, when we follow the fashions of the world, that is what we look like. Yet the words of scripture remain unchanged—“older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
Freedom, Not Fetters
Freedom, sisters, does not reveal her breasts.
Freedom does not swing her hips for the effect.
Freedom will not laugh too freely and reserves her smile.
For Freedom, though few know it, is Chastity’s child.
Yes, Freedom knows the danger of ensnaring another—
That a man bound cannot then free sister, mother, brother.
So Freedom does not paint her brow, though Fashion chides her.
Content, she lives and quietly trusts the beauty inside her.
Then, when she is kissed, she knows that she is free—
Treasured for that hidden self that is freely given, freely received.
—Lorna Rivera Stierle, 2009
Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear– but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. 1 Peter 3:3-6
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1John 5:3
The births of my four children provided unforgettable spiritual lessons for me—each in a different way. With my second child, my first baby girl, the lesson was surrender. A strong relationship exists between fear and surrender. Fear forbids surrender. Thanks to a wise mid-wife I had prepared my mind and spirit to focus on surrender during labor. I was in the hands of my all-knowing, all-powerful Father who had designed my body to be able to bring forth a child. Still, it took every ounce of strength I had to surrender my body into His hands and refuse to grasp the rope of fear. Fear told me that if I did not fight I would be consumed. It offered power, but would have led me into hysteria. That is the nature of fear. It is a deceiver.
Fear deceives us more quietly on a daily basis. Fear whispers that if we surrender to modesty, we will be unattractive, conspicuous, overlooked, ridiculous, insecure. Fear promises security. But again, it lies. It lures our hearts with the satisfaction of looking as good as or better than the women around us. In reality it binds our hearts in constant comparison. It is only in surrender that we are made free. It is in sacrificing our desire to “measure up” to the world’s standards that we see that standard for what it really is—a vulgar substitute for true beauty. With our eyes opened to this truth we are free. Free to function in a sphere outside the ring of competition. Free to cultivate a holy beauty that flows from a gentle and quiet spirit through a body adorned with simplicity, modesty and grace. It would be untrue to say that I never struggle with insecurity or comparison anymore. Sometimes I do, but I am not bound by these sinful thought patterns as I once was. Choosing modesty over worldly gratification has been the agent through which Christ has set me free. 1 John 2:15 says that “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” I have found that as I push out the love of the world, the love of the Father fills me. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
What Is It, Anyway
Ahhh, sisters, with no small regret I leave the solid ground of direct scriptural teaching and begin to wade in the potentially murky waters of personal conviction. In this section I will address the “nitty-gritties” of modesty. To some degree, I will attempt to define it. Though I will not be able to do that perfectly, and will surely go too far for some and not far enough for others, I still believe the task to be worth undertaking—indeed, even necessary. I remember being a young woman desirous of dressing modestly, but truly not knowing what that meant. How I would have benefitted from an older sister taking my hand and “laying it out” for me. If that is your position now, let me take your hand.
First, let us review what we do know solidly from scripture. We know that if a man looks lustfully at a woman, God considers him to have committed adultery in his heart (Matt. 5:28). We also know that to cause another to sin is a grave matter in the Lord’s eyes (Matt. 18:6). The Oxford American Dictionary defines “lust” as a “strong sexual desire.” The Greek word (epithumeo) translated “lust” in Matt. 5:28 can mean “to set the heart upon, long for, covet, desire, would fain, lust (after)” (Strong’s Dictionary of Bible Words). I think the picture is clear that lust is looking at someone with sexual desire. Exactly where the line falls between temptation and lust may be difficult to define, but since the warning of Matthew 18 still echoes in our souls, we probably don’t need to define it too closely. The heart’s desire of a Christian woman is not only to avoid sin, but not to cause temptation in the hearts of our brothers.
With this foundation, let us proceed to the “practicals.” We have seen that men are visually stimulated by the female body, and that this is not a corruption, but a fact of creation. God made men to be stimulated by the female body. Did God, then, make men to lust? As absurd as it sounds, this is a reasonable question. Many believing men have concluded that, given their “make up,” lust is impossible to avoid. But, would our loving God design our brothers for constant failure? I cannot believe that to be true. Why the conflict between the command and the reality? I am firmly convinced that men were designed by our Creator to live in purity with their sisters (1 Tim. 5:2). In our current cultural environment, to walk in “absolute purity” among the women of the world may, indeed, be impossible. We must leave in our brothers’ hands how to limit those interactions so that they can live victoriously. But shame and shame upon us if the same is true within the Lord’s church. There, at least, a brother ought to be able to relax and enjoy fellowship without having to be on constant guard lest his eyes land upon the enticingly clad figure of one of his sisters.
What would a “safe haven” for our brothers look like? How should a woman dress who means to entice no man to look at her body, but rather to encourage purity and brotherly love? Let me say, first, that I am not going to describe here some prudish, puritanical modesty. Our bodies are not dirty or evil. They are beautiful. Even though they are not bill-board bikini bodies, they are beautiful—created by the Lord with many purposes in mind, not the least of which is pleasure.
Have you ever, when shopping for a swimming suit, noticed where the only suits that even approach modesty are located? In my experience, it is in the plus sizes. The last time I shopped for a swimming suit in the store, I noticed this and pondered it. The message was obvious. In the world’s eyes, the only reason to cover our bodies is shame. We cover what we consider to be embarrassing or unattractive. Not so for the Christian woman. We cover our bodies, as we have seen, out of selfless consideration (love), and we cover because we understand the treasure that our bodies are. That treasure is far too precious to be gawked at by any man we happen to pass on the street. It is a special gift to be saved for our husbands alone. And, believe me, sisters, a godly man will cherish it all the more because it is only his to see.
So we cover. But how do we cover? Our eyes have been so desensitized to immodesty that most of us do not even recognize it except in its most extreme forms. In the rest of this section, I will attempt to outline a basic standard of modesty that I believe all Christian women can and should follow. I do not claim to have any special revelation from the Lord on this matter. The strength of my conviction lies in the diligence with which I have sought answers. I have asked the hard, uncomfortable questions. I have read books that shocked me (such as Every Man’s Battle by Fred Stoeker and Stephen Arterbern) and articles that convicted me (such as “The Modesty Survey” on-line). I have observed the responses of men (Christian and not) as I have changed my mode of dress. I still do not have answers to all my questions, but what insight the Lord has given me, I will share.
The basic principle behind Christian modesty is that our feminine curves are not revealed. I would define the “curves” as the sensual areas themselves (buttocks, breasts, etc.) as well as the subtle slopes that lead up to them. A thigh can be as alluring as the most intimate parts. So, basically, the “curves” would include everything from shoulders to knees.
There are several ways that these curves can be revealed. The first is by simply uncovering. In this category would fall tops that are low enough to reveal cleavage, strapless or “spaghetti” strap tops, short tops that reveal midriff and shorts or skirts above the knee.
A more subtle way that our bodies are bared before our brethren is through clothing that allows “peeps.” I was completely unaware of this as a problem before I was married. It never occurred to me to notice that when a woman leans over in a v-neck top her breasts are revealed. Let me tell you, it occurs to our brothers. When I say “peeps,” I do not mean to imply that like “peeping Toms” our brothers are trying to see. Undoubtedly some men are, but even brothers who strongly desire not to see cannot help but be affected when glimpses are flashed before their eyes. Those images stick with them (For Women Only, by Shantee Feldham). Clothing that allow “peeps” include v, scooped and wide-necked tops, most sleeveless tops, tops not long enough to cover when arms are raised, low-rise pants and skirts, most shorts and skirts shorter than two or three inches below the knee. I would also put long skirts with slits in this category. Even when nothing is actually revealed, the impression that you are revealing can cause temptation. Another little tid-bit that completely surprised me is that little glimpses of underwear tops and bra straps hinder our brothers’ purity. One brother confessed in an anonymous survey that seeing a “Victoria’s Secret” label caused him exceptional struggle. Clothing that is partially transparent can prove a snare in this way. When bra lines or underwear lines are seen through clothing, they are seen. And, foreign as it may be to our female thinking, many male minds jump instantly from the undergarment to the thing it covers. Truthfully, are not modern undergarments even designed for that purpose?
On the topic of undergarments, I am going to deviate slightly from my main point for a moment. I believe that we need to consider the purpose of the bras that we select. My grandmother once told my mother something along these lines, “In my day, we wore bras to flatten our breasts and keep them from bouncing around.” Have you shopped for a bra recently? I don’t know what the undergarment industry had in mind in the 1920’s, but that is decidedly not what bras are designed to do today. They are made to “push up,” perk up, build up and in every possible way make the breasts more noticeable and attractive. How, if our breasts are made noticeable and attractive, can we expect our brothers not to notice and be attracted by them? Extra effort is required in searching and trying on to find bras that simply support and maintain natural shape.
The final area of concern with clothing is where I have the most difficulty drawing a clear line. When the form of our bodies is defined by the fit of clothing the effect is nearly the same as when it is revealed. By “defined” I mean that clothing is fitted so that the shape beneath can be clearly discerned. Obviously tight-fitting tops pants and skirts fit this description. After careful observation, I would say that almost all pants do. There are some very loose-fitting pants that do not. Skirts can reveal this way even if they are loose and long when made of certain materials—especially thinner or spandexy-type fabrics.
The grayest area for me is in the fit of tops. I have conservative Anabaptist friends and relatives whose consciences would not permit them to wear a dress or blouse that communicated even a suggestion of the shape beneath. Their “double-layer” dresses are undeniably modest. I have long pondered whether I should learn to make and wear this type of dress. The two reasons that I have not are that I believe it creates a sense of “otherness” that can be a barrier to evangelism, and that my husband does not think it necessary or best. If he did, I would, despite my other misgivings. It would certainly make modesty more clear-cut. But as it is, I continue to sort of muddle through the process of finding more “main stream” modest tops in a time when clothing is designed to show off curves rather than to conceal them. The question I am still unsettled about is whether a top is modest if the form beneath is discernible but attention is not drawn to it. That is the standard to which my husband has called me, and there I stand, though I confess that when I am with my more conservative friends and family I do not always feel sufficiently modest. I welcome input from any readers.
That brings me to another matter of consideration. A friend and fellow believer suggested to me that my concern over modest dress was misplaced because, after all, modesty is relative to the culture in which we live. In other words, as long as we dress modestly by our culture’s standard, we are dressed modestly. Before we dismiss this question too quickly because of that dangerous word “relative,” let us consider it. The Bible does not provide us with an exact prescription for modesty. That fact leads me to conclude that there is a cultural dimension to the question. But, as we examined closely in previous discussion, devout men struggle mightily to maintain pure minds in the presence of women whose modesty meets, or even exceeds, our culture’s standards. From what I have observed, I would conclude that modesty is at least partly cultural, but that when a culture becomes as sensualized as ours has, it is no longer an accurate barometer. To flesh that out a little, let me discuss beach attire. I have a swimsuit with shoulder to knees coverage (RebekahGrace.com), but last year when we traveled to Lake Michigan, I forgot it. So, on the beach, I wore a tank top under a calf-length linen jumper with linen capris. It was quite cool and comfy. I was able to ride bike and crawl around in the sand with my one-year-old without, to my standards, compromising modesty at all. And, while I enjoyed friendly smiles from strangers and compliments on my “beautiful family,” I am certain that no one was “checking me out.” In the context of “beach wear,” my choice of clothing communicated, “Move right along boys. Nothing to see here.” No modern swimsuit that I have ever seen (except those specially made by Christian women) communicates that. To quote Jeff Pollard from “Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America” (a must read)—“A yard or so of stretchy material that exposes the body underneath is not modest. Does anybody reading this really think that it is?” (p.38). Modern swimsuits, even the “modest” variety are designed to present our most intimate parts attractively. A regular swimsuit, therefore, I would define as absolutely immodest, regardless of the context. The modified versions that I wear are not as modest as the clothing that I choose for everyday life. Sitting in church, walking down the road or visiting a neighbor my bare arms and shoulders might attract attention in the same clothing that, on the beach, seems extremely covering.
For the sake of clarity, I have been very specific about what clothing styles compromise the purity of our appearance. I cannot bear, though, to leave us in the land of “thou shalt nots.” As the poem that I included at the beginning of the last section indicates, once we have embraced the principles of modesty at a heart level, we are not fettered, but freed. I am reminded of the encouragement given to Christian wives in 1 Peter 3:1-2—“Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” The Holy Spirit through Peter continues in verses three and four, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.” Does the Lord not so beautifully express what we all desire? “The lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” As in so many aspects of our Christian walk, when we lay down our lives for our Lord, we find them reborn whole and beautiful.