An Apology for Modesty
by Douglas Wilson
The sin of immodesty is not a light matter. Nor is it a problem that can be isolated to this or that individual. We are God’s covenant people, and we worship Him together. We live together. Modesty in Christian women is therefore a very obvious indicator of whether or not a Christian people understand who they are.
In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works (1 Tim. 2: 9-10)
We should perhaps begin with a brief apology. We use the word apology in two basic ways. The first is when we are seeking to put something right, seeking forgiveness from someone we have wronged. The second is less frequently used, but it is the sense I am using here. An apology is a defense, and, given the nature of this subject, what we need to begin with here is a defense of plain-dealing. Because of our substitution of humanistic pietisms in the place of biblical law, we have found ourselves unable to deal with sin as God defines it. According to our traditions, there are certain things we must never say, and this has put us all in the position of having to ignore the elephant sitting on the coffee table because we have somehow acquired a taboo against saying the word "elephant."
But we should prefer having certain things said in church, so long as it is taken from the Bible, than to have other things routinely done in church, things which are plainly condemned by the Word. As we work through this, we should understand there are three basic sins in view—and none will be handled with excessive gentleness. One is the sin of being a pietistic and gnostic biddy. The other is that of thinking that one’s breasts and legs were meant to be displayed in such a way as to make the general public marvel. And the third is the sin of fathers and husbands who encourage or put up with either of the first two sins.
We need, obviously, a theology of modesty. I have noted a number of times that it is not possible for men and women, in their lives together, to avoid "talking" about Christ and the Church. Related to this, it is not possible for us to remove the question of dress from this.
We clearly have a need for reformation—doctrinal and practical infidelity on the part of God’s people is described throughout Scripture as adultery. And immodesty in Scripture is characterized as an invitation to adultery. So whenever a woman dresses in an immodest fashion, she is making a statement (although perhaps unintended) about the condition of the evangelical church today. Her statement is a public one—and not measured by what she says her intentions are—and that statement is I am easy. So the reason we have so much immodesty in Christian women today is that they are the Church in miniature. Too many women look cheap and easy because the Christian Church looks cheap and easy.
But we have to be careful not to fight with infidelity. Whenever a true problem appears in the Church, a natural response is for some to fight that problem "on God’s behalf," but the fight is offered according to the dictates of carnal wisdom. In other words, we fight with traditional values instead of with holy Scripture. And the reason we do not use Scripture is that God’s Word condemns more than just immodesty—it also condemns many of "our little virtues." But pietism always drags impiety after it. In short, we have to fight immodesty in a scriptural way, and not by means of Victorianism.
A big part of the problem is the sin of abdication—fathers and husbands today are simply not jealous enough. Men must look to Christ and the Church for their pattern because they in turn are representing that pattern. "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2). Tragically, it cannot go without saying anymore—if the goal is to present a chaste virgin, it should also be a goal to present her looking like a chaste virgin."Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27). A virgin daughter, and a chaste wife, are to be loved and sacrificed for, in order that they might be cleansed, glorious, spotless, without wrinkle, or anything like it, holy, and without blemish. These things mean, among others, that fathers should care very much about whether their daughters look like bed bait. It would be nice to say we don’t have that problem in the Church today—but we do.
We should see in the passage from 1 Timothy that we have a command to adorn—just as men are commanded to pray with holy hands in the previous verse, women are commanded to honor God in how they adorn themselves. An aesthetic principle is revealed here, incidentally. Simplicity is valued in Scripture, not because it is "plain and ugly," but because it is lovely. The question for Christian women is not "to adorn or not to adorn?" The question is rather to adorn the way God commands, or another way.
So let us return to the "three problems" stated earlier. The first is the problem of all gnostic attempts to define modesty. The second is immodesty itself (when scripturally defined). And the third is the problem of Christian men abdicating in the face of the first two problems. Christian men need to cultivate a biblically informed jealousy (2 Cor. 11:2).
As the text makes plain, Paul is looking for a modest demeanor. This demeanor, this heart, this spirit, is the heart and soul of true modesty. If the heart attitude is not there, then all the dress codes in the world will fix nothing.
The first thing to call for is a modesty of the heart. When this modest attitude is absent, the external sins that replace it can and will vary. Sometimes immodest women are ostentatious, decked out like a circus horse (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Sometimes they are silly, vain, giggly boy-crazy types—daughters of Zion strutting their stuff at the mall (Is. 3: 16). Sometimes they are sexually provocative (Prov. 7:10). This is not measured necessarily by the amount of cloth involved. Such a woman can be covered from the neck to the floor and do all her work with her eyes (Prov. 6:25). But they are always missing aidos and sophrosune, the words in our text that refer to bashful self-respect and prudent sensibility respectively.
There are two elements to this, and the first might be called creation modesty. When the attitude is right, any young woman who is not a fool wants instruction. She is eager for it. And in coming to the Word, we find that certain basic standards transcend cultural differences. When God, the first tailor, covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve, He covered their torsos. We know this from the word used for their clothing which is used a number of times in Scripture (Gen. 3:21). And when God rises in judgment against sexual immorality, one of the things He does is uncover the nakedness of those under judgment (Jer. 13:26-27; Nah. 3:4-6). This uncovering gives us a good understanding of what covering needs to do. The basic standard is evident (Ex. 28:42; cf. 20:26).
But there is also a cultural aspect to modesty. The Bible also teaches us that clothes are a form of language. They can communicate joy (Is. 52:1), sorrow (Gen. 38:14, 19), prideful giddiness (Is. 3:16), formality (Matt. 22:11-12), and so on. Now, consider the nature of language. The fact that certain obscene sounds in English were not obscene in the time of Paul (Eph. 4:29) does not mean we get to use those sounds as we please. It is the same with clothes. We cannot do certain things that have a particular meaning, and then when we get a drastic response because of that meaning, defend ourselves by saying that "this doesn’t mean that in China. Everything’s relative!" No, nothing is relative—but many things are particular. What does this mean here, now? Clothing can be immodest because a particular culture has given certain articles of clothing a particular meaning. If in a particular society, wearing red meant that a woman was a prostitute, it would be immodest for a woman to wear red, even though the Bible says nothing against wearing red in itself.
The point is often made that the "legalist" should not try to make rules that will cover every situation. And this is correct—he should not. But it is often not noticed that it is the "licentious" who loudly object to such rules while simultaneously demanding them. Suppose someone in authority (at a school, say) said, "All right. No rules about dress. Let’s all be reasonable. If you cross the line, I’ll send you home." The first objection that will be made when the discipline occurs, in a nasal whine, will be, "No one told me . . ." Yes, and if you had been told you would have laughed at the "legalism." What we are dealing with here is a complicated mixture of sin and stupidity. But this is not said in order to excuse anyone in any way. Being dumb is culpable, and being sinful is folly. A young girl with this problem does not dress in the way she does because she thinks it makes her look like a nun.
So the application is not difficult to understand, but some crucifixion is involved here. Christian women should resolve to master certain basic principles. Dress the heart before you dress the body—without the heart issues resolved, the more you study this issue, the more tangled it gets. But resolve, by the grace of God, to honor your parents, cultivate aidos, suspect your own wisdom, and suddenly everything becomes clear. Remember who you represent—as already discussed, Christian women represent the Church. You must not dress in a manner that replicates the dismal condition of the modern church. You represent your doctrine. You must not make Calvinist women look like tramps or prudes. You represent your family, and particularly your father or husband. More than one insufficiently-dressed woman has made her covenant head look either like a clueless idiot or like a whipped puppy. Dress like a fool if you want fools for children—God is not mocked. Women will reap what they sow as well as men. In the natural world, certain mating displays are calculated to attract the male or female of that same species. Well, it works here too. Fools reproduce after their kind just like the beasts of the field.
With these principles down, what about the details? The difficulty is frequently in the particulars. When we come to concrete applications and decisions, wisdom can be particularly tricky, and folly finds it easy to raise the objections. When we finally come to the point of decisions about this or that, folly has little difficulty in obfuscating the genuine issues. "But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14).
We need to begin by emphasizing the necessity of judgment calls. In countless ways, the Scripture requires us make decisions and applications. Such applications are not extra-biblical legalisms. Legalism results in contradicting the Bible, often in the name of holiness. Application means deciding how the scriptural requirement applies in a particular instance. The Scripture says that wine is a gift of God, and the Scripture also says not to be drunk with wine, wherein is dissipation. Consequently, somewhere between the first sip and the onset of drunkenness is a line that Christians must establish on their own—and the Bible does not give us a blood/alcohol limit. And like so much of what we are do, this is not individualistic. It is the same with standards of modesty—these are community issues. And so we should address them as a community, with the Scriptures at the center (Heb. 10:22).
We should begin by preparing the conscience. The Bible teaches that conscience is an important factor in all such considerations. But the conscience is to be informed—remember our text from Hebrews—and the informational hierarchy is established in such things by Scripture, church, parents, tradition, community, and last, your very cool cousin, the one who flaunts her belly button ring down at that government school gulag she goes to.
We should strive to abandon individualism. When others have an opinion on what you wear, they are not prying into business not their own. Clothes are a public act. The problem of being a busybody is not present just because something is said. The issue is what is said, and why. We should take care to stop searing the conscience. For example, in your entertainment standards, do not grow accustomed to that which is foul. That which is acceptable in digital two-dimensional space will soon enough be acceptable in three dimensions. Do not sear the conscience. But also remember that it is the prohibitionists in Scripture who are the ones described as searing the conscience (1 Tim. 4:1-5). St. Paul tells us that we are to think about, meditate on, whatever is lovely, pure, noble, etc. But here is a judgment call again. And an informed conscience is a good companion here. "Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Tit. 1:15).
And so, what about some judgment calls? Is it a sin to have two beers? Of course not. But if I saw a young man having two beers right in a row, I would still smack his fat little head. And there is no contradiction. With clothing, be mindful of lines of sight. Just as a painting done well draws the eye to a certain focal point, just as a wise architect knows how to draw the eye to certain places on his building, so the lines of clothing can do the same. Examples include unbuttoned blouses, tight jeans, or high slits in dresses. The issue is not what is seen, but rather what is indicated, whether out of sight or not. Then there is the problem of ankle busters. Barbie doll high heels are engineered to accentuate the buttocks. But if you are not selling, don’t advertise. Then there is the problem that is summarized by the phrase too tight. Tight skirts, tight tee-shirts, tight jeans, tight sweaters, are all indications of loose character—or the other possibility, which is the presence of a bimbo of very little brain. But we want more options for our daughters than easy or stupid. So if your daughter puts a quarter in her hip pocket and the boys can tell if it is heads or tails, then there is a problem. And what about swimwear? Too many women are schizophrenic here. The Bible does not require modesty, "except at the pool." Clothing also has a behavioral aspect. Many young Christian women must learn how to sit, stand, and walk like ladies. This is far more important than many realize. And of course, there is the obvious problem of too little—short skirts, teeny spaghetti-strapped tee-shirts, short shorts. Try to limit exposed skin to half an acre or so.
There are two temptations here. One reaction just runs away from all this "legalism." The other overreaction heads off in the opposite direction and start dressing like an androgynous humanoid unit. But women should dress as women, and they must glory in how God has made them. And how God has created them should not be denied in the name of modesty. But an essential part of that feminine glory is a modest reserve, a certain attractive reticence. A Christian woman should dress with a clean conscience. Are you willing to change how you dress? And she should dress as an intelligent woman—immodest women dress as though they hadn’t a clue about the effect they have. But other women panic over immodesty as though Christian men will be undone at the sight of a knee. Or two knees.
So. Let us suppose for a moment that we are all convinced. Such things as a general cultural modesty will not be brought about through simply convincing people. The issue is not what we are prepared to think about in our heads, but rather what we do as a community of saints with regard to this issue.
True belief is measured the same way love is—through what brings about discipline. Without discipline, the most strongly-held belief is mere opinion, to be disregarded and unloved by others. And why should they not disregard it? The one who professes to love this position refuses to protect it. Why should anyone else care to protect it?
When something goes wrong, we have two legitimate options, and one popular illegitimate one. The first option is to cover it—when someone shows up in an outfit that you believe is inappropriate, the first option is to overlook such offenses in love. There are many instances when love is called to cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). But covering it means covering it. Even if she has not adequately covered herself, you should cover her with love. The second option is to confront it. There are times when love cannot permit an instance of immodesty to pass by. In such circumstances, then love confronts, honestly, openly, and up the middle. We will address how this is to be done in just a moment. And the third option, the one that is not an option, is to carp about it. This illegitimate option, so natural to many, is to refuse to cover it in love, and also refuse to confront anyone about it. Instead, these folks go off in a corner and whisper about it critically and at length with all the wrong people. Either you speak to the person, or with those who are appointed to help you speak to the person, or to no one at all.
So we need to deal with a series of ifs. What do we do when . . .? And the problem we have to solve is this: how can we live together as a community on this issue without creating two-hundred different "dress codes?"
First, what do we do when advice is sought? In many instances, women have sought advice on a particular article of clothing and have been assured that it is just fine, when it is not. So if someone seeks your counsel, tell them the truth. This especially includes the hard cases where unattractive and/or insecure girls dress in this way.
And when you find yourself in a situation where you need to talk about his, start with questions. On this subject, in any confrontation, do not start with a charge or accusation. Start by asking. Initiate a conversation. Be willing to hear the other person out. You will freequently learn that you did not have all the facts. If you ask, "Why are they so defensive?" it may have been because they saw your face as your approached.
It is sometimes a good idea to have the men who are involved talk about it. If there is in fact a consistent problem that must be addressed, then have your husband or father talk to her husband or father about it. Perhaps this will not result in the necessary fireworks. That would be good.
What about a girl friend to girl friend? As above, tell the truth when asked. And, depending on the closeness of your friends, a peer may approach a peer with questions and prudent suggestions.
There are some young men who want to take it upon themselves to talk to the girls about modesty issues. But, going out on a limb here, I want to say that under no circumstances should a young man undertake to correct a woman about her dress. It is important to note here that women dress the way they do because it gets a desired response, and the young men are responsible for giving that response. Now some young men cluster round because they enjoy the show. But others happen to be around, and are regularly provoked in a negative, but do not know what to do. Instead of offering rebukes, what they should do is find some other friends. And if anyone asks about the reason for the change, tell them.
We also have to deal with the young man who needs to get a life. There is a type of young man who falls in love with the models in a Sears catalog. He has his sensibilities affronted by the fact that young women are built differently. He thinks women immodest simply because they bother him, but what he doesn’t know is that he is a piece of work.
Fathers and husband should always remember their responsibilities to love, lead, teach, and admonish. And of course, they should do nothing from exasperation (Gal. 6:1), and nothing with a double standard (Matt. 7:1-2).