Pastoral Perspectives

Modest is Hottest

Some time ago, someone asked me this: “Where does the Bible say that women should dress modestly so as not to cause men to stumble?” My reply was simple. Nowhere. This may be surprising, but there is not a single passage or verse in the Bible that specifically warns women against causing men to sin by what they wear. It is an oft perpetuated notion that is likely a result of misreading or misapplying certain verses in Bible. However, it is the unsaid assumptions behind this notion which are problematic. While I believe Christians should adorn themselves appropriately so as not to cause offence, I would also wish to challenge the way we think about women’s modesty.

Modesty is often taken to be some kind of objective universal measure on a sliding scale based on what body part is on display and how much skin is exposed. Bare shoulders? Bad. Body hugging yoga pants? Demonic! It is important to note that what constitutes modest dressing is largely a social construct. Social constructs are ideas or concepts that arise from social convention or collective agreement and do not possess an objective reality outside of that. It is the difference between the statements, “it is good for men to have short hair,” and “the acceleration of gravity on Earth is 9.81ms-2.” The latter always holds true objectively while the acceptance of the former depends on whether it is said in Tang dynasty China or in Singapore in the seventies—a shifting convention.

Modesty is like the former. What is deemed as “modest” varies according to cultures and within a culture according to the occasion. It differs even among the different generations of people within a culture. Some in Singapore may deem it inappropriate for a woman to wear a midriff baring top in public, but certain tribeswomen in Africa or South America do not even wear tops. A Christian lady from South Korea remarked that she was shocked women could wear sleeveless tops and crop tops to church services here—she would need to ensure her upper body was sufficiently covered back in her church. Wearing a bikini may raise eyebrows on the streets but is perfectly fine on the beach. A tuxedo might be fine at a black-tie event but would be a fancy dress costume in an office on a weekday. My late grandmother would deem it inappropriate for women to wear shorts in public, but no one bats an eyelid to that today.

Therefore, there is no such thing as a universally accepted modest (or immodest) dressing. Of course, this does not mean anything goes because what is appropriate or not largely depends on the social setting and what the attire connotes in that context. So, it requires wisdom and prudential judgment, especially if you like to be fashionable! If you are going to a church service, then perhaps wearing what is culturally respectable would connote a sense of worship. Avoid wearing what may be attention grabbing and therefore distracting for everyone—this may mean avoiding something too formal as well, like a full three-piece suit!

What is really problematic about the notion of modesty is that it is often asymmetrically applied to women and appeals to a victim-blaming culture. A rather disturbing excerpt from an Evangelical book for teenagers will demonstrate what I mean:

Every man is staring at you. When you wear those tight little shorts, every man is staring at your butt. When you wear the tight, revealing shirt, every guy is looking at your breasts. Think about that the next time you get dressed. … If you dress like a piece of meat, you’re gonna get thrown on the BBQ. It’s that simple.

This is victim-blaming. Instead of stressing the sinfulness of male lust, the stress is put on what women wear. This leads to inappropriate judgment being cast on women based on what they wear. When one holds to the notion that a certain way of dressing is a manifestation of moral defect, then there is a tendency to deem women who may not dress in the way one deems modest to be “sluts.” This then further leads to the assumption that women who dress “immodestly” are inviting sexual harassment and assault. Women are then blamed for the violence committed against them by men.

The thing is, women covering up has not stopped men from lusting and committing sexual sins. The sexualisation of women takes place in the heads of men and that is not something women can stop by wrapping themselves up. Women during Jesus’ time were always well covered up from head to toe, but he still had to warn the men, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5.28). Not the women’s fault! It is interesting that Jesus does not tell women to cover up more, but goes on to say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5.29). If a man does not know to mortify sin and pursue virtue, then he will lust regardless of what women are wearing before his eyes. All of us ought to recognise our sinfulness and deal with our sin instead of blaming others for it.

Furthermore, the asymmetrical application of modesty paints an unhealthy image of men for women. The whole idea that women dressing “immodestly” causes men to stumble makes men out to be out-of-control sex addicts who cannot help but think sexual thoughts about women all the time. This is unhelpful for both men and women. It has led men to either excuse their sexual sins by appealing to “nature” or feel needlessly tormented by what is a normal sexual attraction to women. It has also led women to distrust men in general because they bought into the belief that all men are sex fiends and will mentally violate them at any instance. Instead of reconciling men and women in the body of Christ, stressing modesty for women creates division.

One place in the Bible often used as a prooftext for women to cover up is 1 Timothy 2.9-10: “… 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.” Most translations use the words “modesty” and “decency” to respectively translate the two Greek words αἰδώς (aidos) and σωφροσύνη (sophosune). For most contemporary readers, there is a tendency to quickly understand “modesty” and “decency” in relation to sexuality. This is more a testament to our immersion in a heavily sexualized popular culture than the actual meaning of the terms intended by the Apostle Paul.

Just after modesty and decency are mentioned, Paul illustrates what that should look like. Women should not braid their hair with gold or pearls, or wear expensive clothes to the church assembly. The problem was not with women showing skin in church and stumbling men. The problem was with some women dressing opulently with the intent of standing out and showing off their wealth. This show of wealth would separate the haves from the have-nots in the assembly, thus dividing up the body of Christ. Imagine a woman of modest means going to church in Uniqlo and being alienated by the rest of the women in their Prada and Gucci. Instead, what women should do is to adorn themselves with what truly matters to God: good works. God does not care if you are wealthy or not. God cares if you are virtuous or not. Therefore, modesty and decency in the context of the Ephesian church has to do with being low-key and not flaunting one’s wealth to others. It has nothing to do with covering up.

1 Timothy 2.9-10 is often misapplied along with Matthew 18.5-6. In verse 6, Jesus tells his disciples, “… but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin (skandalizo), it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Therefore, women should not cause men to sin by what they wear. However, this is not how the verse should be applied. One commentor writes, “The phrase ‘cause to sin’ does not indicate a single isolated indiscretion. Rather, drawing on the metaphorical nature of the verb skandalizo (‘cause to stumble’), it points to a person who has been led astray into sin and fallen badly in his or her walk with God.” In this context, the verb even has the sense of causing one to apostatize. Unless the woman is persistently and intentionally trying to seduce other men with what they wear and cause them to sin (like Jezebel), it would be inappropriate to appeal to this verse for women’s modesty.

What is most important is that Christians understand they are made in the image of God and wholly redeemed—body and soul—by God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, men and women ought to love and care for their bodies and bear the sacred image well in a broken world. It is good to reflect on why we choose to wear what we wear. Am I wearing something risque because I have a problem with self-esteem, and I desire persons of the opposite sex to notice me? Am I wearing something branded and expensive because I lack the confidence in myself? Some self-awareness helps us to grow in our maturity in Christ. We can certainly enjoy nice clothes have fun with what we wear, but we should also exercise prudence and temperance in all circumstances so as to glorify the God who has created and redeemed us. As a corollary, we also ought to uphold and protect the dignity of others regardless of what they wear. The other is also made in the image of God and how we think of their bodies should not be destructive of their God-given worth. Modesty is ultimately a state of mind, and not a mode of dressing.