Originally published in Rabyd Theologian 2.0 on May 9th, 2009.
One of my mentors once told me to remember that modesty is culturally defined. He said if I didn’t believe him that I should go to the Bible and find a definition of modesty. I think I did find a definition, but there is no way to be clothesline preacher with it.
1 Timothy 2:9-10 “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
I want to note something here Paul never defines what proper clothing is. What modest means is also left undefined — discretion is a matter of not being flashy or boisterous in the way one dresses.
Peter my shed some light on this as well.
1 Peter 3:1-4: In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external–braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.
What this passage causes me to ask is whether modestly is about clothes so much as it is an attitude of heart. Jesus asks us to judge not on outward appearance (John 7:24), but then we look at these passages and use them as a licence to judge a woman’s modesty on how she dresses when that is not what Paul or Peter are advocating at all. It is simply a misapplication of the passages to use them this way. The real issue is the heart of a woman — whether it is quiet and gentle is the issue.
One thing should be noted that neither of these passages addresses nudity. I can say that, because the culture of day included massive slavery and slaves often were naked as it was a symbol of their station. It’s a point we often miss in this ancient Greek-Roman world culture. If either Paul or Peter excluded people from Christianity simply because of nakedness their would be a lot of people forced by the culture out of the faith. The fact remains that Christianity spread through the slave cast very quickly; a group where nudity was common because of who they were in relation to their culture.
Paul and Peter are actually addressing free women who are rich — that they should not allow their upward station to cause themselves to be snobs, think more of themselves than they should or be unsubmissive to their husbands. The two apostles are not addressing nudity or skin, but actually the opulent display of wealth and status in clothes before those who do not have wealth or status.
In missions the nudity/modesty question has always dogged us as Christians. In Africa where the heat causes clothing to be not much more than a scrap of cloth around the waist and the women were and are topless, many missionaries made the mistake of addressing the outward dress (or lack there of) instead of addressing the gospel. In South America one tribe was discovered whose definition of naked was ‘beltless’. To us they would be considered naked all the time but they consider themselves naked only if they take off their work belt — the only thing they wear.
Here at home in the USA, the issue is muddied because we have two cultures. The traditional culture which sees any sign of skin and cleavage as immodest and a more open culture which does not see this as so but would like to see women walk around topless just like men can. There are of course two million different views in between these extremes.
As people argue this from the Christian side the great problem is there is no Biblical definition of what constitutes proper clothing. Paul tells women to wear proper clothing but never defines what he means. The issue of how Christian men in or sex crazed culture are supposed to deal with more and more skin being shown by women is still a problem. Looking down at the ground all the time or sticking one’s head in the sand does not work as you will eventually run into something hard and hurt yourself. The real question might be how does God see nakedness.
Next: Does God Hate Nakedness?