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A Biblical Perspective on Modesty

John is a member of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan. He wrote this essay for the 2003 Protestant Reformed Young Peoples’ Scholarship.

The lack of modesty in dress is an issue that has faced the human race since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Nor will the issue disappear until we go to be with God in glory. One is often amazed what young ladies (and older ones too) are wearing these days. Not only on the street and in school but also in church it seems that the standard of dress is less and less modest. How short may a skirt be before it is considered immodest? Is it wrong to wear form-fitting clothing? Is it appropriate for Christian ladies to wear bikini bathing suits (or even regular bathing suits) in public? May our men wear Speedo bathing suits in public? These and many more questions are faced by believers in today’s society. Does the Bible provide guidelines that we can follow in this area? If the Bible speaks to these issues we are obliged to listen and obey. Where the Bible is silent and provides no relevant principles, then we must remain silent.

Modesty is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “freedom from conceit or vanity; propriety in dress, speech, or conduct.” This definition brings out two aspects of modesty; the inward and the outward. Both aspects are related; inward modesty leads to outward modesty and outward modesty is a sign of the inward quality. Christians need both. We are told in I Peter 3:3-4, “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” From this Scripture, it is clear that inward and outward modesty are related. Those who are adorned with a meek and quiet spirit will be the same ones whose adorning is not outward. Both inward and outward modesty ought to be cultivated among us. This is not an option, this is what God’s will is for us as His people.

There are two biblical principles that guide us in the issue of modesty in dress. The first principle is that we must not seek to draw attention to ourselves by the way that we dress. Secondly, we must be very careful not to cause others to stumble into sin on account of how we are dressing.

The first principle concerns pride and vanity that is in our heart. Pride and vanity leads many to dress the way they do. Many dress they way they do in order to get noticed by their peers. There are many ways that one might dress in order to get noticed. Depending on who one wants to notice them, they might take many different strategies. They might choose to wear the absolute latest fashions, deck themselves with all kinds of jewelry, pierce their body in unseemly places such as one’s nose, or tongue, or eyelid etc., color their hair, and the list goes on. God is terribly displeased with such haughtiness and promises judgment upon those who practice it. “Moreover the LORD saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet. Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts” (Isaiah 3:16-17). Nor are young men immune from this pride and vanity. In order to draw attention to themselves, they might buy the most expensive Nike Air shoes on the market, they might decide to pierce their ears, or wear the latest sports clothing.

At other times, one might seek to be noticed by those of the opposite sex. Young men might specifically dress to impress the young ladies. Perhaps he will choose a tight T-shirt, or one with the arms cut out that shows off the muscles that he has worked on all summer. Young ladies can also fall into this trap by dressing to show off their body. Clothing that has a low neckline, a high slit, or that otherwise exposes one’s skin is inviting the attention of young men. Not only clothing that shows a young lady’s skin is a problem, but also tight clothing that highlights the shape of her body can be used to draw attention to herself.

All such show in the way we dress is wrong for the simple reason that it is born out of sinful pride. None of the items on this list are necessities. All of them are worn for the wrong reason of bringing glory to ourselves when we should be seeking the glory of our Creator and Redeemer.

The second principle has to do with causing others to stumble. Out of love for our neighbor, we may not grant ourselves the freedom to dress in any way that we want. Especially the seventh commandment speaks to this issue. In its treatment of the seventh commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism says the following in Question 109.

Doth God forbid in this commandment, only adultery and such like gross sins? Answer. Since both our body and soul are temples of the Holy Ghost, he commands us to preserve them pure and holy: therefore he forbids all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever can entice men thereto.

Especially the last phrase shows that the seventh commandment forbids all things that would entice another to commit adultery either with their bodies or in their thoughts. Clearly, immodest dress entices some to commit adultery in their minds; therefore such dress is forbidden by the seventh commandment. By dressing extravagantly, it is also possible that others would begin to covet what we have and desire the same standard of clothing for themselves. Again, the principle of abstaining from whatever unnecessary things that cause a brother or sister to stumble is the biblical policy that we are obliged to follow out of love for our neighbor.

Do bikini bathing suits and Speedos cause our brothers and sisters to stumble? Then we may not wear them. Is there a modest alternative? Then we should choose it. If there is no suitable alternative, then better not to go to the beach at all. Better that than to cause another to stumble. And if we know that there will likely be those at the beach dressed immodestly, then better to stay home than to put ourselves in temptation’s way.

Modesty will always be an issue in the lives of God’s people because the old man of sin will not be done away with until we reach glory. From time to time we need to remind ourselves and our fellow believers what the Lord requires of us as regards modesty. When we inform ourselves on this issue, it must not be from the perspective of the world and what standards it deems acceptable. Rather, we must seek to know the will of God in the matter. God’s people will earnestly seek the way of modesty, both inward and outward. They will do this for His glory.