What does it mean to be modest? What are proper modesty rules?

I’ve been talking all month about how the message that “men lust all the time so women have to have sex to stop men from lusting” is so dangerous and unbiblical. Yet in far too many Christian marriage books (like Love & Respect or Every Man’s Battle) that’s the message that’s being given. It’s a fear-based message for women, and it needs to stop. And it’s an unbiblical way of looking at men’s sex drives as well.

A corollary to this idea that all men lust is that women should dress modestly to stop men from lusting. I’ve written before about how the Don’t Be a Stumbling Block modesty argument is actually unbiblical, too (and I encourage you to read that post! It’s important).

Perhaps because that’s so prevalent, I get a lot of reader questions from moms asking how they can teach their daughters to dress modestly (I very rarely get anything relating to sons in this vein). And so today I thought I’d tackle it in a new way.

Yes, what we wear IS important. But we have to make sure we’re tackling it with a non-feared based message, because so often that’s what we get.

Let’s take a look at what the Bible actually does say about modesty (because I think we’ve gotten it wrong).

Here’s the passage that is usually quoted:

Bible Icon - My 40% Modesty Rule: A Better Way to Look at How to Dress

1 Timothy 2:9-10

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

Okay, so women are to dress modestly. This leads, however, to two clarifying questions:

  • Why are women to dress modestly?
  • And what does modesty look like?

Let’s deal with the first one first.

Why does Paul want women to dress modestly?

It flows out of his purpose for writing his first letter to Timothy. The main purpose of that letter was this:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer (1 Timothy 1:3)

Paul wanted Timothy to fight against false teaching. His letter is really about how to set up a church that honours God and doesn’t spread false teaching or come into disrepute, but instead spreads the gospel. Hence all the references to being an apostle–he wants others to hear the good news. So the concern that Paul has here with regards to modesty is that the way that women are dressing may be turning people away from the message of Christ. Paul talks in 1 Timothy 2:3 about how God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” That’s the context for this verse–let’s make sure that people get to know God and are saved.

However, the way that women were dressing may be working against that. So let’s look at what women were doing specifically that was bad:

What does modesty look like?

It’s interesting that Paul’s version of modesty has absolutely nothing to do with causing men to lust or even about the shapes of women’s bodies, but everything to do with women dressing to look rich.

One of the big issues in the early church was a class divide. Rich people didn’t tend to associate with poorer people. So if women came into church wearing expensive jewelry and expensive hair styling, they would make others feel excluded. And Paul didn’t want anyone to feel excluded!

So that is Paul’s main modesty message:

Dress in such a way that you are approachable and welcoming and that you put Jesus in a good light.

I want you to hold on to that thought–dress in a way that you are approachable and welcoming–because when we look at modesty that way, something interesting happens.

Let’s make modesty cultural for a second: In our culture, how do you dress in a way that is approachable and welcoming?

The biggest way to make others feel welcome by what you wear is that you don’t make anyone feel that they somehow don’t fit in. You want people who come into your church or your social circle to feel as if they belong. My kids once attended a summer camp where a number of very rich teenagers went, and brand names became a big thing among the girls. My daughters had never been into brand names (we gave them a clothing allowance and so they paid for their own clothes, and they were really frugal!), and it did feel off-putting and exclusionary to them.

If you want people to feel like they fit in and that you are approachable, then you must be culturally appropriate.

Like Paul said:

Bible Icon - My 40% Modesty Rule: A Better Way to Look at How to Dress

1 Corinthians 9:19-22 NIV

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

He fit in to the culture so that the culture felt that he was appropriate!

So what does being culturally appropriate mean for modesty?

Here’s where my 40% rule comes in!

Human behaviour tends to fall on a bell curve, that looks something like this:

Bell Curve and Modesty - My 40% Modesty Rule: A Better Way to Look at How to Dress

What a bell curve says is that most people are remarkably similar. In fact, 68% of people fall within 1 standard deviation of the mean (the average), and 95% fall within two standard deviations. Then there are those outliers.

If we want people to feel as if they fit in, then, and we want to seem approachable, in general you want to be in that middle section where about 68% of people fall. That’s what’s “normal” in our culture, and that helps people to feel at ease.

If we think of this in terms of modesty, some people on the very right end of that graph dress very immodestly, wearing hardly anything, drawing attention to cleavage, etc. etc. You definitely don’t want to be like that.

But here’s the corresponding message that Christians often miss: when we fall too far on the left end of that bell curve, and try to dress extremely modestly, in long denim skirts, long sleeves, nothing below your clavicle, oversized T-shirts, etc., we are just as out of the mainstream as those who are very immodest. When you appear too modest, you actually make others feel like you are judging them.

That does not bring anyone to the gospel. That is very off-putting. That tells people they don’t belong in your church or community. That makes you seem very unapproachable.

Paul was not setting up specific modesty rules that applied for all time. He was setting a principle that people should not feel excluded.

When we think about modesty, we should be thinking the same thing.

So when I dress, I think something like this: “What’s about the middle point of modesty in our culture? And how can I be just on the left side of it?” And that pretty much works! That’s my 40% rule!

In fact, I wear some things now that I would not have worn twenty years ago because fashions have totally changed. Think of the difference between the mom jeans of the 80s and the jeans we wear today. Twenty years ago our modern jeans that are ultra-form fitting would have been scandalous; today they hardly make anyone bat an eye. But go out in a pair of those mom jeans, and people would think there was something wrong with you.

Here I am rocking those mom jeans back in 1990 (Keith and me about a year and a half before we were married):

Modesty rules are cultural

I’d never wear those today; I’d stand out like a sore thumb. I wear much more form-fitting ones, as does everyone else.

I’m not saying modesty is entirely cultural; there are some things I could never do

In Europe it’s normal to be topless at the beach, and that would likely fall within that 68%. I would never do that, for all kinds of reasons. So there are exceptions.

But on the whole, I think it would be better if we started talking about modesty the way that Paul did. It’s not about not causing someone to lust. It’s about being approachable and not being off-putting. That means that:

  • we should not appear so rich that people think they can’t talk to us.
  • We should not appear so immodest that we put others ill at ease.
  • And we should not appear so modest that we make others feel uncomfortable and even judged..

New Christian Modesty Guidelines: A better way to look at modesty

What do you think? Am I wrong? Is that a more biblical way of looking at it? Let’s talk in the comments!

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - My 40% Modesty Rule: A Better Way to Look at How to Dress Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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