Modest may not be hottest, but hot isn’t the goal — holy is

It took me a while to gather the courage to write a response to Joel Michael Herbert’s recent installment of convenient Christianity, “‘Modest is hottest’ is not in the Bible” — not because there isn’t a lot to say, but because of the backlash I know is coming.

You can always tell which ones are going to spark outrage, because it’s always the stances that are contrary to our habits, desires, instincts, and ultimately, our sinful nature.

One of the biggest ironies of living in the age of internet outrage is that all the things we love to hate are things *almost* nobody is actually inclined to do. Focusing on the narrow sins someone, somewhere is probably committing allows us to finger-wag at the hypothetical rather than examining the evil growing quietly within our own hearts.

I use first person pronouns because, well, I’m no stranger to it.

One of the first dangers you have to confront as a regular analyst/critic is the reality that continually turning the spotlight on others tends to leave your own actions and choices in a comfortable darkness. Most people don’t question the questioner, so it’s important for us to seek out accountability from older, wiser Christians who can see past the public image to question the individual motives and rationales that cultural combat can sometimes blind us to.

It’s easy to harp on the sins of other people. Hard to focus on your own. Harder still to accept that they can be equally wrong and equally sinful. Most of us, if we’re honest, tend to rank sins not by importance, but by distance. Think about the things everyone condemns. It’s a pretty short list these days, but there are still a few areas of general consensus which are likely to stay that way until a large enough group of people enamored of that particular fault decide to start a pride campaign. Things like racism, hatred, violence, and pedophilia are pretty safe to criticize in most online contexts, because only an insignificant portion of the population actually does any of those things.

It’s much harder to call out the sins that appeal to us all. So hard, in fact, that the only people who can be reliably trusted to do so, are those engaged in the less popular sins, who use the more popular ones as a shield. It usually goes something like this:

“Well sure I had an illicit relationship with a minor, but the Bible condemns gluttony too — are you telling me you’ve never overeaten?!”

The reaction is as predictable as the statement.

“Well sure but that’s not the same thing — everyone overeats but that’s not really gluttony… (insert generic rationale)”

Everyone is eager to justify or marginalize their own bad habits, while condemning someone else’s, and that’s every bit as dangerous as the tug of moral relativism’s universal acceptance.

Why can’t we sincerely mourn and repent of our own gluttony, while still acknowledging that pedophilia and other sexual deviance is also wrong? Why is it so hard to see that pride is, in fact, just as disgusting to a holy God as rape and murder — maybe more if Proverbs chapter six is any indication.

Why do we tend to see a comparison of sins as an excuse of one, rather than an indictment of both?

I think it’s necessary to explore these kinds of questions before diving into an issue like modesty, because it’s the kind of discussion that immediately lends itself to mud-slinging, comparisons, and accusations of legalism or being judgmental.

We need to look at the bigger questions first because, ultimately, modesty isn’t a problem of clothing. It’s a problem of the heart, as expressed by clothing.

Having grown up in a group of believers who made dress length, headcoverings, and suit jackets an issue of codified church polity, I feel like I’m qualified to speak to the issue in perhaps a broader capacity than many.

As a teen, I questioned the church’s clothing standards from both the purity side of modesty and the simplicity side. To me it seemed strange that we interpreted modesty in a way that forbade makeup and jewelry, but required button up shirts and dress shoes. It was clear to me that plain and modest for 1900 was all kinds of dressy for 2000. I saw guys who dressed in perfect conformity with church code but clearly placed too much value in their appearance and found ways to get attention anyway. I saw women who wore church-approved dresses pulled as tight as any nightclub top you’ve ever seen. I sat through hours of arguments and church business meetings discussing — in inches — skirt length and hair coverage.

I know at this point most of my mainstream Christian readers are shocked at what they consider to be pure legalism, but before the fingers start wagging too much, I want to point out that the questions addressed in those meetings are symptomatic of nearly every practical application discussion that believers have: we always want to ask how much we can get away with, rather than asking what is most pleasing to our Lord.

In the end, the problem with legalism isn’t legalism. The problem with legalism is that it results in license. Legalism and license aren’t opposite ends of a spectrum. They’re two different evidences of the same heart problem — a refusal to follow the shepherd.

Legalists like to talk about the importance of building a fence before the cliff as a protection against sin, but that’s not how it ends up working. In reality, legalism hangs its whole body over the cliff with one hand still on the fence, while license just jumps off and hopes for a parachute.

The truth of the matter is that if you’re following the shepherd, you don’t need a fence; and if you’re not following the shepherd, no fence will stop you.

Legalism and rigid moral codes allow us to define away sin, masking the evil in our hearts with an outer appearance that deflects challenge and rebuke from other believers and hardens our consciences against the Holy Spirit.

In short, it directs our gaze to the minimum requirement rather than the highest goal.

So rather than addressing whether “Modest is Hottest” is in the Bible, I want to ask a different question:

How can we please the Lord and honor others in our clothing choices?

See it’s pretty easy to make the case that wearing whatever you want isn’t sinful, much harder to make the case that it pleases God — which should be our goal in everything we do. The principles of scripture apply just as much to clothing as anything else, and I don’t believe anyone can honestly make the case that the requirements are gender-specific in any way.

The New Covenant is all about the heart, all about the motives, and is a much harder, much higher calling than the Old Covenant. The call of Christ on our lives doesn’t allow us to measure our conscience by skirt length or brand tag, it’s a call to live in a way that’s separate from the world, and be known for our character.

Thus, the question of modesty needs to start and end with motivation, and I think an honest application of scripture will give opportunity not just to modify our habits, but also our hearts.

By way of disclaimer, I’m going to say that when discussing modesty it’s necessary to speak in generalities, so please don’t ignore the rule for the exceptions that are bound to come up. Yes, there are times you’ll have to go to the store in your bathrobe because that’s the only clean laundry you have. No, that doesn’t mean you should make a habit of it.

With that in mind, here are a few scriptural principles that I think should inform our clothing choices.

  1. Physical clothing matters in the spiritual realm.

Too many folks like to start the clothing debate in Timothy, when really, it begins in Genesis. God created Adam and Eve in the garden, perfect, naked, and without shame. After the fall, Adam and Eve sought to cover themselves with fig leaves, an instinctive reaction to the shame sin had wrought in them. After God confronted and sentenced them, he clothed them with animal skins, endorsing the concept of clothing and tacitly acknowledging the element of shame now connected to the naked state.

Now a lot of folks go off the rails theologically here, speculating on the fact that clothes were meant to symbolically cover sin, that the animal skins were a representation of the eventual sacrifice of the redeemer, etc. I think such speculation isn’t really necessary here, though, since we can clearly establish two things:

a) While clothing was not God’s original design for man, he immediately endorsed it as necessary after the fall.

b) Ever since the introduction of sin by Adam, nakedness has been associated with shame, though not necessarily sin.

These two elements are reinforced throughout scripture many times. The prophets continually refer to the shame of nakedness, but Saul, while prophesying, was caused to lay down naked in the street all day and night. David’s wife Michal shamed him for exposing himself while celebrating the return of the Ark of the Covenant, and rather than denying the shame, David responds that he was being shameless in worship, and would be “more vile” for the sake of dancing before the Lord — to his credit. Much descriptive wording is used about clothing, with Proverbs referencing “the attire of an harlot”, and the Chronicles referencing the robe of a king. Ephods, girdles, cloaks, and sandals sometimes get their own subplots in scripture. Clothing is referenced in the gospels and the epistles, and when Revelation wraps it all up, it discusses the clothing we will wear in our perfected state in the new heaven and the new earth — white robes.

All this should establish the fact that there is a spiritual significance to clothing, nakedness, dignity and shame. What we wear — or don’t wear — matters.

2) Modesty, in all of its applications, stands in opposition to pride, vanity, and self-centeredness.

The word modesty is a knife in Christian circles, and dropping it into casual discussion can immediately divide a room into two groups: the cover-up crowd and the dress-up crowd. Some will start tugging at hems and necklines, trying to stretch fabric into places they didn’t intend to cover when they left the house, others will pull a sleeve down over a flashy watch or tuck a pearl necklace under a collar. In his MiH article, Herbert chooses to focus on the dress-up element of modesty, which is perfectly valid. But I disagree with his choice to dismiss the second, equally important element of modesty — purity. Both sides are critical because both evidence a heart problem that’s actually the target of scriptural teaching on modesty. The common thread is selfishness, not style.

Typically, the guy who wears the ten-thousand dollar Rolex with his three piece suit isn’t concerned with condescending to men of low estate, as scripture commands. Ditto the hipster who waltzes into the room wearing all the latest styles and trends. And the woman with the plunging neckline and the jeans lacking sufficient slack to accommodate a cell phone. And the homeschool mom in the denim jumper.

Their clothing choices were all made specifically to attract attention, though they certainly seek different types of attention from different people.

Watch guy wants you to know about his wealth, though if you ask him I’m sure he’d say he just wants to be respectful or professional. Hipster wants you to know he may not be rich, but he’s cool, and you should probably ask him for music suggestions. Jeans lady wants you to know that she spends a lot of time working out, and your stare is the payoff. Homeschool mom wants you to know she’s not a slut like jeans lady.

Now of course all of these are generalizations, and there will be individual circumstances where they don’t apply. I never want to suggest that every clothing choice is made selfishly, I know that’s not always the case. But more often than not, the clothes we wear and the wardrobe we build are intentional, meant to convey something about us that we want people to see.

3) What do you want people to see in you?

I think this is the main point of the admonition in I Peter 3:

Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2 While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. 3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 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. 5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:

It’s not just a generic commandment, a clear contrast is drawn. Don’t do this, do that. Peter places outward adornment and inward adornment in contrast with each other, and encourages believing women to choose the latter. He also carefully intertwines the concept of modest apparel with humility and subjection within the marriage relationship. I can’t imagine the flak any pastor would get today in encouraging women to call their husbands “lord”, but that’s what Peter holds up as the ideal. These verses suggest that modest apparel for women is honoring both to God and to a husband, and it includes a challenge to both halves of the marriage. Women aren’t to seek out attention by their beauty or adornment, but are to remove themselves from the spotlight and direct attention to Christ by their character and demeanor. Likewise, men are not to objectify their wives either materially or sexually by exhibiting them to the world, as King Ahasuerus tried to do with his queen in the book of Esther.

Women want to know they’re desired, guys want to know they’re respected, and both of these dynamics are at play when it comes to modesty within marriage.

My wife is gorgeous, and every day I’m shocked that she ever agreed to marry me. Since the first time I met her, I was struck by her face and her figure and an overall hotness score way out of my league. I enjoyed her beauty for its own sake, sure, but a fringe benefit was seeing the surprise and jealousy from other guys when they saw us together. For a guy who had spent his whole adult life shopping for husky jeans in the “you’re such a nice person” section of the friend zone, it was/is incredibly satisfying to know other people were/are jealous of my hot girlfriend/wife.

And as much as I’d like to say that’s a compliment to my wife or a way of showing my appreciation, in fact it’s just selfishness and pride, and it’s ugly. When I show off my wife, I want people to see her and I want people to see me, I’m not trying to display Christ.

For my wife, choosing not to accentuate her body in dress is not just an act of humility, but it’s also an exercise in trust, because a wife who chooses not to accent her sexuality in dress might naturally worry that her husband will start to look elsewhere in the sex-saturated culture that surrounds us.

But the call of holiness as it relates to modesty is to become invisible, so that Jesus can shine through our character. People only see the invisible when the distraction of the obvious is removed, and most of us can think of a time in our lives when we have misjudged someone based on their clothing, only to find that our assumptions were totally wrong. The goal shouldn’t be to look good or to look bad, to look rich or poor or hot or professional or pious. The goal should be to let others look past us and our clothes and see Christ in our attitudes.

We’re still learning and growing, but we’re trying to set goals in a way that’s different from the world. I don’t want to be known as the stocky guy in the cheap sneakers and carpenter jeans. I want to be known as the guy with the infectious smile and the love of God written all over his face. My wife doesn’t want to be known as the hottie in the mom car. She wants to be known as a godly wife and mother who chooses each day to prioritize the Lord and her family over her makeup kit and sex appeal. How does this play out in our clothing choices?

Cost, comfort, and utility have moved up our clothing priority list. Fashionable, flashy, and fitting have moved down. In terms of family fashion, we would all be described as utterly unremarkable — which leaves a lot of opportunity for people to see past that to our clothes to what we really want to display.

4) Culture does matter, but scripture matters more

Citing the modesty standards of South American hunter-gatherers isn’t really an honest attempt to wrestle with God’s design for sexual purity as much as an attempt to escape any objective standard at all — The fact that some remote tribe eats other people doesn’t mean that God doesn’t mind cannibalism.

Likewise, insinuating that American women adopt the hijab because someone might get excited about an ankle gets the charity argument backward and imposes our liberty on our sisters, which is equally wrong.

Of course there are different standards of modesty, but that doesn’t mean that we ignore the concept completely. There are a lot of different cultures, but we don’t live in all those cultures, we live in our own. And I completely agree that there’s nothing in scripture that says Victorian England or the 1950s American Midwest cornered the market on modest apparel. Clearly, there have always been more sensual and less sensual clothing choices, forming a range within each culture and time. But attempting to isolate modesty within that broader spectrum is a deliberate obfuscation of the clear and simple responsibility before us: within the context of our time, and our culture, be modest.

Again, stop trying to build fences, and follow the shepherd.

5) It’s really not about you.

One of the critically defining differences between a Christian worldview and a secular one is the idea that your life ultimately isn’t about you. The fact that a cosmic drama is playing out and your individual, day-to-day choices can affect the course — though not the conclusion — of that struggle should make us feel small but honored, wondering with the Psalmist “What is man, that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou visitest him?”

Our clothing choices can reflect this if we choose to prioritize our own preferences below the call of holiness and the call of charity on our lives — and make no mistake, charity builds on the demands of holiness. Holiness says don’t dress in a way that draws attention to yourself, charity says be willing to defer for the sake of others as well. Paul addresses this in I Corinthians 8, where he talks to believers about meat offered to idols, which had become a point of contention in the early church.

9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. 10 For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; 11 And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12 But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.

I think the application to dress is apparent — even in acknowledging our rights and liberty in Christ, the call of charity is to consider our brothers and sisters before ourselves. In that sense, though none of us are responsible for someone else’s sin, we are all responsible to help each other pursue righteousness, and as James reminds us, to him who knows to do good and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.

I have never heard any Christian suggest that women are sexual gatekeepers as Herbert suggests, neither that men aren’t responsible for their behavior, neither that a woman is to blame for tempting a man too far.

Never. Not once. Not in a dozen different churches over the course of my whole life.

That whole assertion smells a bit like a strawman — deliberate misinterpretation of an argument so that it can be easily refuted.

The Bible clearly teaches personal responsibility — that we will all give account for our choices when we stand before the Lord. Finger-pointing won’t be an option. If I were locked in a room full of naked models, the requirement of holiness and purity for me would be exactly the same.

Situation is irrelevant to our responsibility. It is not, however, irrelevant to our struggle.

A woman is not responsible for a man’s lust problem, but the fight against lust is a microcosm of the cosmic drama I referenced earlier; and though we can’t determine the conclusion of an individual struggle against lust, we can certainly impact the course, and make it harder or easier for a brother or sister to stand strong. To act like our choices don’t impact each other is to deny the impact of the church in its entirety.

If I have given in to lust and am pursuing sin, then it’s correct to say that no matter how much clothing a woman applies, I will find a way to lust. Again, no fence will stop someone intent on jumping. But that’s not always the case, and especially not within the context of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes people — men and women — are gritting it out against the devil and fighting for purity one step at a time in a sex-soaked culture where access to every kind of fantasy is only a URL away. The fight for purity is exhausting, and when someone has spent the last month trying to break a porn habit — which, by the way, is epidemic within the church — the last thing they need to see is selfies of you in your two-piece swimsuit on Facebook.

In other contexts this isn’t controversial at all. Scripture clearly doesn’t prohibit alcohol consumption, but I’d never break out a case of beer in front of someone struggling with alcoholism.

Is it my fault if he falls off the wagon and kills himself and six other people in a car wreck?

No.

But could I have been the reason he held on a little longer? Could I have helped him choose a different path by denying my own impulse and deferring my own liberty because I cared more about his soul than my drink?

Yes.

You and your husband might be fine with you showing off your legs at Bible study, but what about the younger single girl sitting across the room who has struggled with loneliness and can’t seem to attract a guy by dressing modestly and displaying her godly character? Is your choice going to embolden her to flaunt it in violation of her conscience?

You might be fine with your wife wearing a sexy dress when you go out for a double date, but are you setting your friends up to struggle with lust? Is it worth it?

You might be perfectly okay tubing down the river with a bunch of guys in your swim trunks, but are there brothers there who have struggled with same-sex attraction? Maybe you should consider enduring the discomfort and covering up for their sakes.

Brothers, your ego needs to be put aside. Sisters, your sense of beauty and confidence needs to come from Christ, not from your threads.

To paraphrase Romans 14:15, Destroy not him with your clothes, for whom Christ died.

6) Don’t treasure appearances

I think some of the key passages about appearances are seldom referenced in the context of dress.

One is God’s challenge to Samuel at the anointing of King David (I Samuel 16:7) — “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

The other comes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.

28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

And finally, from I John 2:

“15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

If there’s one way to wrap up a discussion of modesty, it’s to remember that there are much, much bigger things to focus on. The call to purity and shamefacedness (a lost concept in our age) shouldn’t be something that stresses us out or makes for lengthy churchwide battles between believers.

Most people tend to paraphrase “take no thought…” as “don’t worry”, and while there’s certainly a valid exegesis in that direction, I like the first phrase for its breadth — which is actually more in keeping with the passage as a whole. The point isn’t that God will provide, though He certainly does. The point is that the believer shouldn’t be focusing on the material, but the spiritual; the fact that God provides is offered only as a reason in support of that conclusion.

So if you’re standing in front of your closet for 15 minutes chewing your nails trying to find the right outfit, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t give your mind to that. Don’t give it more importance than it deserves. Don’t let it steal away your joy. Take no thought for what you will put on. Seek the Kingdom, and your clothing choices will be made for you.

There’s some merit to the allegation that Christians argue about things like modesty so often because we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Christians in Egypt, China, and Sudan don’t have the luxury of fighting about headcoverings, they’re busy preparing their families for the eventuality of martyrdom for the gospel. Surely they care about many of the same scriptural intricacies we do, but they also understand that those things are less important than sharing the gospel and encouraging one another in the face of hostility and persecution. Doctrinal nitpicking is something of a Western privilege.

It’s not contradictory to assert that clothing matters, and then suggest that we should “take no thought” for what we wear. Christians are called to live in the tension of uncomfortable truths, and this is no exception.

So if you’re someone who works hard at honoring the Lord through your modesty, let that be its own reward. Don’t seek the praise of men, don’t spend your time worrying what others think of you, and don’t allow yourself to look down on those who are still immature in that area. Let truth govern your personal standards and grace flood your relationships.

If you’re someone who has let the world dictate your standards of dress by comparing yourself to others rather than seeking out what is most honoring to the Lord, don’t live in guilt or become defensive when others approach you with critique or challenge. Rather, practice humility, accept reproof, then check it against scripture to see if there are habits God would have you change.

Don’t love the world, or its trends, or its praise, or the things it says are cool. Be set apart in everything, even dress.

These are the dynamics of Christian life, and they all evidence the Spirit in our hearts more than any piece of cloth ever could.

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