Recently, several Christian leaders have come under fire for social media posts about modesty. They exhorted ladies to “cover up” for their brothers in Christ and quickly came under fire. It can be controversial to suggest any “limits” on a woman’s clothing, especially in an age where a woman’s empowerment may be expressed by the amount of skin she bares. But before we dive into this debate, we should really ask, “What does the Bible teach?” And the answer is encouraging to Christians of both sexes!
Clothes After the Fall
Genesis 1:27 is clear that both men and women are created in God’s image—therefore, whatever the Bible teaches about clothes, it does not mean that women are less valuable. Both men and women are image-bearers of God. Genesis 2 relates the creation of Adam and the creation of Eve from his rib. Genesis 2:25 says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and not ashamed.” Before sin, there was no need for clothes; there was nothing to be modest about!
However, immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7). Something about the presence of sin made covering their nakedness necessary. Many people will teach that they were ashamed to be naked in front of each other, but the context suggests that this was not the only, and perhaps not even the primary, concern. First, Adam and Eve went on to have children, and the Bible also indicates there is nothing shameful about the marital bed (Hebrews 13:4). Second, what follows shows that the leaves hid their bodies but didn’t solve their real problem.
When they heard God walking in the garden, they hid themselves. When God sought them, Adam responded that he hid because he was naked. This meant that Adam knew that his covering was not sufficient, now that he was sinful, to stand before God.
Our first parents’ instinct to cover themselves was correct, but they could not provide a sufficient covering for their own sin—it had to be provided by God.
God’s judgment of Adam’s sin contained two bright points of mercy. First, Eve would bear children—and one of her descendants would defeat the serpent who deceived her once and for all. Second, God clothed them with garments of skin. Our first parents’ instinct to cover themselves was correct, but they could not provide a sufficient covering for their own sin—it had to be provided by God.
Nakedness and shame would go together from then on. When Noah became drunk and was uncovered in his tent, it was understood to be a shameful state. While Ham took the opportunity to mock his father, his older brothers understood that the right response was to cover their father without even looking at him in that vulnerable condition.
Post-flood, the way people clothe themselves for most of history has been heavily dependent on culture, the materials available to turn into clothing, and the skills and tools available to the populace. The climate also plays a role—tribes near the equator traditionally covered themselves much less than people in what is today Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska. However, there is almost universally an idea that there are parts of the body that should be covered and which are shameful to be exposed.
The New Testament has two main passages related to modesty. The first is 1 Timothy 2:8–10:
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 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.
It is useful to look at the context of the modesty command. It is bookended by two indications that Paul’s command is universal rather than specific to the context of Timothy’s congregation. First, he has direction for how men should act “in every place.” His direction for women begins with “likewise,” indicating that it is equally universal. Second, he grounds his teaching in the order of creation itself.
Paul’s direction to women about modesty has far more to do with prohibiting overly costly and extravagant clothing that showcases wealth than sexually suggestive attire. But if one studies the context of the ancient world, ancient prostitutes would adorn themselves in an overly extravagant way to make themselves attractive to their customers, so there might be more overlap than is immediately apparent.
The question is not whether a woman should adorn herself but what that adornment should consist of.
The question is not whether a woman should adorn herself but what that adornment should consist of. Christian women, according to Paul, should be adorned in “respectable apparel” and “good works.” When both men and women follow Paul’s commands here, the effect in the church is that we have a better witness to those outside the church.
1 Peter 3:1–4 contains a similar exhortation:
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 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.
This modesty exhortation is also a universal teaching but applied to a specific situation. Peter is addressing women married to unbelievers. Perhaps they had married as unbelievers and the wife converted, or perhaps a believer had an arranged marriage by unbelieving family to an unbeliever. A woman in such a situation, Peter says, should let her behavior influence her husband. Peter’s description of what a woman should and should not adorn herself with, and why, is very similar to Paul’s.
Both Paul and Peter exhort women to dress so that what is really valuable—their godly character and good works—is what people notice. This does not mean that women should only wear drab clothing! The Bible has positive portrayals of beautifully adorned women (Genesis 24:22–30; 2 Samuel 13:18; Proverbs 31:21–22). But when one’s clothing is overly ostentatious or attention-grabbing, it detracts from our Christian witness.
Even in the secular world, companies impose dress codes to make sure their employees reflect the message of the company. Dressing modestly, both in the amount of the body covered and in tasteful moderation of ornamentation, is considered professional and considerate of fellow employees and customers.
What does our attire tell others about the God we worship?
As Christians, we could be called to share the gospel at any moment. What does our attire tell others about the God we worship? I would suggest that as we consider our wardrobes, there are a few biblical standards:
- Clothing was given originally to Adam and Eve as a covering for sin. As Christians, our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. However, that does not detract from the point that our clothing should appropriately cover us.
- Clothing should not attract attention for its own sake. Both modesty passages explicitly call out fashions that were overly extravagant and would show off a woman’s wealth. We should dress with tasteful modesty.
- Christians are called to share the gospel with others, and that applies equally to women! We should be dressed in a manner appropriate for representatives of Christ so that if an opportunity arises for a gospel conversation, our clothing does not detract or distract from our message.
It might be apparent that one common focus of modesty articles has not been discussed thus far. Many people focus on the effect women’s clothing may have on men. However, men inclined to lust do not stop lusting simply because women cover up more (otherwise, universal burka wearing might be the solution!), and the modesty passages show us that women should be modest because of their relationship with God, not primarily to stop men from lusting. (It should also be noted that the Bible nowhere makes women responsible for men’s lust.) With the above concerns in mind, a Christian woman will of course avoid behaving in a way (which would include wearing intentionally revealing clothing) that would invite men’s inappropriate attention, which is addressed in Scripture and strongly condemned (Proverbs 7:10–23).
In short, women are responsible for dressing in a manner that reflects their relationship with God and gives a good impression as his representatives. This excludes dressing to draw attention to our bodies or to intentionally provoke inappropriate male attention. Men are commanded in equally strong terms against lust (Matthew 5:28).
Teaching on modesty is often ridiculed by the modern culture, as if following the Bible’s commands would force women to dress in comically unattractive clothing. It is also sometimes accused of contributing to the oppression of women. However, as Christians we believe true freedom is found in Christ and in joyful obedience to the entirety of Scripture.
Christianity teaches women many things that are in direct contradiction to the culture today that often twists the Bible’s teachings, so fellowship with each other where we can be encouraged in our faith is vital! The 2022 Answers for Women conference is one excellent opportunity to gather with like-minded women and receive excellent teaching from a variety of presenters on how to stay rooted in a twisted world. If you’re unable to come, why not get a livestream for the women in your church and gather locally?
We should not be surprised when we stand out against the culture as a result of following the commands of Scripture. We should also not be surprised when the culture is hostile to the Bible’s teachings and those who take them seriously. Rather, we should be prepared to explain why we are distinctive and to take advantage of any gospel opportunities that open up!