Should We Dress (and Live) Modestly?
In modern society, the term “modesty” is often held in contempt as an outdated holdover from a bygone repressive era. Some people grew up in churches where the messages they heard concerning modesty caused shame and confusion about sexuality and the goodness of the body. In light of those hurdles, is there still any place to talk about modesty? This week, Jo and Vince discuss the biblical meaning of modesty and why this virtue, properly understood, is so profoundly important. They extend the conversation beyond a narrow view of modesty as equated with sexuality and dress, and encourage us to focus on modesty as a posture of the heart before God.
Question Asked in This Episode: “In the church community I grew up in, modesty was frequently mentioned, often in the form of stating that people who dressed immodestly ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know the Bible talks about modesty, but is it biblical to promote shame of one’s own body as the motivating factor of dressing modestly?”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. It is not a stretch to say that our culture is awash in sexuality. From the shows that we watch to the commercials that target us every single day, to the fashion trends that are inflicted upon our youth, everything in culture seems hyper-sexualized. The concept of modesty is no longer seen as a positive, but is now viewed as repressive and bad. Even things that were once almost universally accepted as harmful, like pornography and prostitution, is now starting to be seen as harmless at best and good at worst. How is a faithful Christian to explain the importance and blessings of modesty in a world that barely has a category for it? But before we get started, Vince, can you tell our listeners a little bit about the RZIM Academy and why they should consider taking the core module, our Online Introduction to Apologetics course.
Vince Vitale: Certainly. I tell people about this everywhere I go, all around the world. People have taken the core module from roughly 135 different countries. I think Ravi's traveled to somewhere between 70 and 80 countries, so that's incredible to think about, the extended reach. And you'll be in a class with people from many of those countries, if you sign up. You'll be in a cohort of sort of a 100 or less people all excited about questions of faith, difficult questions of faith, all struggling in one way or another and in a community that is trying to live out faith, trying to explore faith. There are practical exercises to go out and do, there are encouragements to have real conversations with people and you're also engaging with the content of RZIM and of many of our most experienced speakers, Ravi, Michael Ramsden, John Lennox, et cetera. Each person speaking on their area of expertise. I think it's the best. Obviously I'm biased, but I think it's the best starting point for somebody who really wants to dig deeply into understanding the reasons why they believe.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Yeah, all you have to do is go to rzimacademy.org to learn more. Okay, let's get to our question. This is from Eli. “In the church community I grew up in modesty was frequently mentioned, often in the form of stating that people who dress immodestly ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know the Bible talks about modesty, but is it biblical to promote shame of one's own body as the motivating factor of dressing modestly?”
Jo Vitale: I'm really happy that you asked this question today because actually I think this is a question that has huge implications for our culture...
Michael Davis: Amen.
Jo Vitale: ...today. It's a big question that people are asking all over the place. I mean if you just look at celebrityism, if you look at the things all over our media and then very much the message of today is that to be an empowered person, particularly an empowered woman, basically means you celebrate your body and the liberation that you have by exposing as much as possible, so that's one of the narratives that we're hearing. And then the counter narrative to that is what Christianity does is it makes you ashamed of your body. It says there's something wrong with your body, is says there's something dirty, particularly the idea seems to be that it oppresses women in this area and says that women need to sort themselves out because they are almost like temptresses as if to say that if a man or a woman are struggling in this area, it's the woman's fault.
She's the one who's leading him astray by the way that she looks and, and I'll be honest, I think sometimes this actually has been the message that has come across in the church. I think there's a myth in this cultural rule perspective, but I think there's also probably some truth in it as well. We've been having a lot of conversations lately within the Christian church around purity culture, I think this is one of the impacts of it has been how do we talk about modesty, what do we think about modesty? And I think for me, well this is such an important question to me, actually a lot of my PhD was on this topic. It was around the question of and blame and shame to do with women's bodies and beauty, particularly in the Old Testament and is it the case that beautiful women are presented as being to blame for when things go wrong in a lot of situations in the Bible, the short answer I would say is no, but...
Michael Davis: Spoiler.
Jo Vitale: ...one thing I really want to say here as a starting point...
Vince Vitale: It took a 100,000 words to say that.
Jo Vitale: It's amazing how long it took to say that. At times I was like, can I just write a one word answer and that can be my thesis. Anyway, I spent all that wasted time so you don't have to, you can just say the answer to the questions. No, but anyway, my point here is that I think often we see this as if the Bible blames women for answers. Modesty is a woman's problem and women should be ashamed of themselves. I just want to start by saying that is not what the Bible has to say on this subject.
Vince Vitale: I'm really glad you started there Jo, because that's just where I wanted to start as well that this is so often seen as just an issue for women, but that's not the way the Bible talks about it. Paul uses the word [foreign language 00:05:25] for modest and he uses it in First Timothy both for women and for men. So he uses it in first Timothy two to describe how a woman should present herself but then in first Timothy three he also uses it again translated as in this case, respectable or of good behavior and it outlines one of the qualities that a man must have in order to be an overseer in the church. So he uses this adjective of modest to describe both what should be true of a woman and what should be true of a man and it's an interesting word, [foreign language 00:05:58] coming from that root of cosmos, right?
So we're thinking about the way the universe is and the meaning is really something like orderliness or something which is well arranged and then I got myself thinking, well what is the order and arrangement of the cosmos supposed to do? And it takes me right back to that passage I love in Romans one, for since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made. The purpose of the order and great arrangement of the cosmos is that we would look to it and actually see the God who's behind it. So it seems like modesty is spoken of not as an arbitrary rule in scripture, but because in some way our modesty, both men and women is supposed to point to the majesty of God in the same way that the modesty of the cosmos points to the majesty of God.
Jo Vitale: That's so good and I think we see that reflected in some of the instructions given to men within the Bible. Most notably the words that Jesus himself says in his sermon on a mount, which is in a culture where women were typically treated as they were immodest, and therefore if a man was led astray by a woman it was very much her doing the leading astray, it wasn't his fault, it was hers. She was the temptress, her beauty was a problem. She needed to be covered up and hidden away because otherwise she was going to be a great danger and you can read a lot of examples of that sort of writing in some of the Jewish literature from that period actually outside of the Bible. But then Jesus says these really shocking words in that context. He says, "You've heard it said you should 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."
What is Jesus saying here? He's saying, hey, you can't just look at a woman you might consider to be immodest in some way and blame her for your struggle with lust. You need to take responsibility for what is going on in your own heart. The problem begins within you. You can't point the finger and say it's her fault and actually nobody is allowed to do that. And the problem is within our vision, the eyes that we're looking at, but more deeply, it's a problem within our heart that actually we're looking at someone and seeing them as a sexual object rather than a human being created in the image of God and that is each of our own responsibility. Whenever any of us male or female are struggling with lust, that's why Job says, "I've made a covenant with my eyes. Why then should I look upon a young woman?" Take responsibility for what you're doing with your eyes.
Also in Proverbs five it talks about rejoice in the wife of your youth. Don't go looking elsewhere. So I think all of this to say this isn't about pointing the finger at women and saying, “you need to take ownership entirely over this area of modesty,” actually it's saying, “we all have a responsibility when we're struggling with lust in this area to behave in modest ways.” And it's also interesting to me that when you look at the whole line of David's household and what goes so catastrophically wrong in the books of one and two Samuel, it has so much to do with the vanity of the men in the household because they weren't behaving in modest ways because they got caught up in their beauty and their appearance. And then you see this kind of downfall of the whole household and so much is to do with this very lack of modesty and this kind of pridefulness in the way that they look rather than a sort of humility and a greater concern about glorifying God, so I think that's kind of the starting point here before we start getting into what people should and shouldn't do around this issue is to say, hey, the Bible is actually very even handed in its treatment of modesty.
Vince Vitale: Right, and surely Jesus is also the ultimate example of appearing in a modest way, right? The one who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped and said he was found in appearance as a man, very natured God, found as a man from Nazareth of all places, this no-nothing-town and he humbled himself. He didn't grasp for worship, but he wanted to appear in the way that would best point people to worship his father and that's a really challenging model for all of us. Do we want others to worship us or someone else?
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Vince Vitale: And that affects us in many ways. Like yes, it's dress and how we adorn ourselves and this sort of thing, but in many other ways as well. Am I more eager to make sure I get credit for something or to make sure that God gets credit for something? That's an issue of modesty, right? It's an issue about the truth of the order of the universe. Does what I post on social media represent me accurately or do I try to inflate myself? That is an issue of modesty. Are things properly ordered and the way I present things and represent myself.
What do I want people to say to me after I give a talk as a speaker at RZIM? When someone hears me give a talk, do I want them to walk away thinking about how great I am or how great God is? What do I want them to say? Do I want them to say, Vince you're awesome or do I want them to come up and say, "I never realized God is so good and that he cares for me specifically in that way," right? That's a really important question for me as a speaker to be able to answer. All of these are questions of modesty.
Michael Davis: It's interesting how you guys are making that distinction because right now, so many people believe when you equate modesty, it's a sex, sexuality.
Vince Vitale: Totally.
Jo Vitale: Right.
Michael Davis: But you're right, the biblical concept of modesty is more about pride, so very interesting point guys.
Jo Vitale: And even fascinating because the two classic texts that people go to, the New Testament, when we're talking about modesty, particularly in regards to the clothing that you wear, whether we're talking about First Peter three or whether we're talking about First Timothy two—in both those instances, I think people read it through the lens of assuming it's talking about modesty in regards to how much skin you're showing. Actually when you read the text, the modesty being talked about here is actually much more to do with how are you using your wealth and your adornment. It's not actually talking about how much skin you're showing. Whether you're reading Peter and it says, "Let your adorning not be external, the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry or the clothing you wear," and then Timothy's even clearer.
It says here, "Women, it's not about their braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire." Actually in both these cases it seems to have more to do with it flashing your wealth and your status and implying that actually your worth and your value comes from how much gold you have then seems to be in these cases about how much skin you're showing, which is really interesting because that's where we take it now, but the application there seems to be, hey, how many of us are going to church and showing off our newest iPhone model or our super flashy amazing truck that we drive if you live down here in Georgia, or what is the status symbol for you?
Michael Davis: Or your Prius.
Jo Vitale: What is your status symbol? What are the things that you're implying in the way that you live that your value is in those things, whereas God is saying in these instances, actually in the case of women, for example, that what's proper for a woman to who professes godliness is it's the good works that you do. That sort of shows what you're made of, what your value is or if you look at Peter, it's this beautiful statement where he says, "Actually that your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit," and by quiet, it's not saying shut up and don't speak women. Quiet, he means tranquil. This kind of peacefulness that comes not from getting so caught up in needing to be defined by everything else around you, that there's this constant stress and panic that you need to prove yourself. But it's actually saying it's God's sight that says that I'm precious. God says that I'm precious in his sight and therefore I can have a peacefulness and I don't need to constantly strive to define my worth by all these other things of value because I'm valuable because he says I am and that is where modesty comes from.
Vince Vitale: And this has to do with, as we've already said, so much more than just dress and appearance, but it also does relate to that and there are real challenges for us, men and women in that respect and it should be a God glorifying time early in the morning when you're getting ready to present yourself for the day. Is God on our mind at that point in the day or is that more just our time? We're thinking about how we're going to appear? It's a tough question. I mean, with respect to women, one thing that I've always found interesting is that form of makeup that's called cover up and I've always thought that's interesting language. It at least raises questions about what are we covering up and why? What do we rely on to be our covering and to cover our blemishes? Like those are deep spiritual questions, or foundation, the other word for it.
Again, I think what an interesting choice of word and again just raises those questions. What is our foundation? What is the foundation on which we want to begin each day? I don't think that gives simple answers about what we should or shouldn't use or how much we should use but it's interesting in terms of the language of it and it raises spiritual questions that we should at least be considering. But then on the male side, the questions are just as challenging. I'm going to put on my power suit and my power tie, right? Because I don't want people to think that actually I'm weak and God has particularly shown in his strength, in my weakness. No, I want people to think I'm powerful. That's why I got the power suit and the power tie. What about the beach muscles?
Michael Davis: Yeah, that's right.
Vince Vitale: Right? You go to the gym...
Jo Vitale: Sun's out, guns out.
Vince Vitale: suns out, guns out, right? You go to the gym and you spend your time working on muscles that are not functional, that are not doing anything for your cardiovascular health and at our age, Michael, that's all that really matters at this point, right?
Michael Davis: I'm not really worried about much of anything in regards to my health right now. Beach bod this is not.
Vince Vitale: We're spending that time investing in what? Is it just so that people can say, "Oh, have you been going to the gym? Oh, have you been working out?" Because they see something which is about our appearance and we want a compliment, not because we're thinking, hey, what's the sort of workout I should do so I could be healthy for my family and support them as well as I can for as long as I can, so the questions are just as difficult I think in both directions and sometimes we ask some of these things, whether it's the workout at the gym, the power suit, the power tie, certain forms of makeup, like everything can be used in different ways but sometimes we ask these things to play roles in our lives that God is intended to play.
Now just a quick qualification, just to finish off that point, I don't want people to hear me saying, so therefore, the most godly thing to do is to just dress and present yourself in a boring way, in the most depressing way, the most bland way that you can think of. I'm not saying that. I mean dressing in a way that's just boring or depressing might in particular not speak to the joy which is supposed to be a fruit of the spirit that is supposed to point someone from the Christian to the God who's clearly given them something different. So these are not easy answers. Dressing in a way that is creative can speak to living a life that's full of purpose and hope that is found in God. So there aren't simple answers here about how we are or aren't supposed to dress, but there are challenging questions for each of us that we should be asking as we consider how to present ourselves each morning.
Jo Vitale: And actually a lot of what you're saying there is the theme that you find throughout scripture. When you do find places in the Old Testament that are critical of the way people are behaving in regards to the way they're dressing or putting on cosmetics or oils or whatever it may be, it's because it's a power play. So whether we're talking about Jezebel putting on eye makeup to try and use her beauty to talk away out of the judgment that's coming for her after she has treated people so badly, or whether you're talking in Isaiah chapter three about the daughters of Jerusalem who are kind of strutting around town all dressed up and all about themselves and their pride and the reaction they're getting from other people, while meanwhile people are dying in the streets, the poor are suffering, justice has been lost within the city and God is saying your priorities are so wrong.
You're making this about yourself and your pride and how people react to you as if what defines your worth is the reaction you get from other people and how they see you rather than putting your eyes on me and saying, how I see you is what defines you and what matters, so that's when you're going to find criticism within the Bible when it's saying you made this about yourself and it was never supposed to be about you. But having said that, what I really want to get at in the heart of this question is this idea about shame. That shame should never be the motivator for telling people you need to dress modestly as if there was something shameful about our bodies or as if God wanted to put us to shame. And I think this idea is deep-rooted for some people that they do actually think is there something shameful about the body that I have, the body that God has given me.
I think for some people that even goes back to some of the purity laws you find in Leviticus for example, and some of the laws around the rituals women need to go through when they menstruate and I think people read that and they think, well is this saying that women's bodies are somehow dirty or unclean? Maybe even more unclean than men's because although both men and women have to go through purity rituals in Leviticus, it seems more strident for some of the women. But one question to ask around that text in particular and anytime we come across what seems like a severe law in the Old Testament is what is the law of protecting what is so important and valuable that God wants to keep it and preserve it? What is so worth celebrating here? And in the case of Leviticus, it's actually the life giving power of the mother that is unique to her. That she can bear children and it seems this enormous gift and blessing to be celebrated that women get to do this.
But in Hebrew, the idea of blood is actually that the life is in the blood and therefore when menstruation comes, blood is a sign of death and that's why there are all these purity rituals. Not to imply women are dirty or unclean or less than the men in some way but actually it's a way of signifying how sacred their role is, how important they are and how actually beautiful and valued their bodies are and therefore you have rituals around those bodily functions actually to honor the beauty of a woman's body and what it can do rather than to demean it in some way, and I think it's the same with modesty. We need to look at when the Bible talks about modesty, what is it actually asking us to celebrate here? And I think what it's celebrating is to say, hey, you're not just a sexual object.
Vince Vitale: Right.
Jo Vitale: Let's not turn it into a power play where we think our freedom and our value or empowerment as women comes from lording it over men by getting a sexual reaction out of them. And what are we doing when we do that as women, we're basically saying, I'm only powerful if people see me as a sex object," and in the process we've objectified ourselves. We've turned us into products to be consumed rather than saying, "I don't need to do this. I'm so much more than this." Actually, I think the shame comes when we turn ourselves into objects rather than saying, "I am free from shame. My body is a beautiful gift from God and therefore I don't need to flaunt it. I don't need to look to other people for my value because actually I have nothing to be ashamed of. I don't need cover up because there's nothing to hide here." Also saying, "My foundation is on God and he's the one who defines my worth and my value and therefore I have nothing to be ashamed of. So I don't need to cater to what the world says I should be doing in order to have value."
Vince Vitale: And practically I think this can look very different for different people, which is partly why it's not always helpful to start with some form of legalistic rules.
Jo Vitale: Right, exactly.
Vince Vitale: Instead we have to start with God's heart. But the person who thinks that their value was based on whether people think that they're sexually attractive or whether other people compliment their appearance, well maybe that person might need to actively dress in a way that doesn't draw that kind of attention. Doesn't draw the attention to parts of the body that are going to distract from meaningful interaction, distract away from the face where we can actually engage with people not as objects but as people. But on the other hand, the person who thinks that they are ugly and not worth anything might need to dress up...
Jo Vitale: Yeah.
Vince Vitale: ...to combat that lie because again, modesty is about telling the truth. It's about telling what's true in the order of the universe and that's a lie to. That person might need to put on some nice clothes. The woman in Proverbs 31 interestingly wears purple. It's an expression, a symbol of valuable clothing. And one example here, which I thought was so moving, is in the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen. 40,000 prisoners there and when the British troops arrived and freed those prisoners, there were many women there who are on the verge of death and they were so weakened. And from what I can tell, they haven't been able to figure out who had the idea or who did it, but somebody sent an enormous crate of lipstick to the camp. And these women, many of them only having a sheet to wear or no clothing, but they put this lipstick on their lips and these women were walking around with this bright lipstick and it was just that very first step back to them being able to see themselves as human. Back to humanity, back to the idea of them being valuable them being someone who should be adorned because of the value that God places on them.
And some of the accounts from that are so moving when people say for some of them it was literally the difference between life and death. So this can looks so different in different people's lives, but we have to ask the question. We have to be thoughtful and not just conform to whatever society is telling us to do. We have to ask the question, when I do this or when I don't do this, what is it saying? Is it modest? Is it telling the truth about the order of the universe? Like the cosmos, the cosmos tell the truth about the awesomeness and majesty of God, they also tell the truth about us. Both about how small we are and how finite we are, but also about how unique we are and that there's a special value that's placed on us because we're different from the rest of the universe. That's what the cosmos speaks to when we are modest. We are speaking the truth about the order of the universe that can look different in different people's lives.
Michael Davis: That's awesome. Well guys, we are out of time, Jo, sum it up for us.
Jo Vitale: All right, so I think what we've really been saying here is modesty is such a bigger concept than what we've often narrowed it down to in some of the more legalistic teaching that we have done within the church. I think certainly this idea of shame being the motivator is off base. I don't think that's how the Bible talks about modesty in any regard, but I think maybe a helpful filter for us as we're considering, how should I live in this regard? What might good applications be? Three questions to run it through. Firstly, am I loving other people well in this sense? Certainly everyone is responsible for their own lust, for what's going on within their hearts, but we also don't want to be stumbling blocks to other people, so are we loving them and the way that we dress in the way that we live, in the way that we interact in our behavior, the way that we talk, the things that we value in all of these ways. Are we being a stumbling block or are we helping others?
Secondly, are we loving ourselves well? Are we in some way buying into a cultural myth that says you need to look a certain way or be a certain way in order to have value? And that is putting shame on you. Whereas actually Jesus says, "We are freed from shame. There's no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Anyone who believes in me will never be put to shame," so that is the truth that we live within. And then finally, is it loving God? When we get up in the morning and we think about what we're doing with our day, both the things that we put on and the things we're going to value and what it says about us in the ways that we're going to behave. Is it an act of worship? Can we honestly say that we're loving God, in particular, when it comes to this question of bodies, the Bible talks about the fact that actually, we're not our own, that we were bought at a price and therefore we honor God with our bodies, so how is God calling us to honor him with our bodies today?
Michael Davis: Excellent. Vince, Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.
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