The idea of biblical modesty seems antiquated or puritanical to some; to others it carries a belittling connotation that seeks to oppress others by refusing to let a person express themselves through how they choose to dress.
The biblical teaching on clothing and dress (as with all rules and laws), however, is intended to make room for the people of God to flourish in their God-given environments and on the mission to which all of God’s people in all times are called: to make much of the glory of God while making disciples.
The idea of “modesty” is primarily associated in Christian circles as referring to clothing that is not indencent, revealing, or sexually provocative. Some may extend the idea to clothing that is intended to draw attention to oneself. And while modesty can certainly refer to these things, the idea of modesty for Christians can—and likely should—be expanded to better fit the more broad meaning of the word (accounting for the range of meaning in both English and the Greek of the New Testament) and biblical teaching on subjects related to how believers should live modestly.
- Modesty, more broadly, can refer to being moderate or not excessive
- Modesty can speak to the idea of not trying impress others by means of pretentious display
- Modesty can carry with it the idea of refraining from display that leads to dishonor through a self-display that may be considered indiscreet or unbefitting given the setting
In many places, modesty in the Bible is closely linked with the idea of simplicity: not adorning oneself in external extravagance so as to intentionally bring attention to oneself or appear well-off. And while decadence exposes the sinful desire of fleeting physical and material pleasures, fine clothing is not always condemned.
Because every culture and society across the globe is different, modesty, too, will certainly take various forms.
In essence, modesty seems to be an issue of the heart that expresses itself in various forms, and can be applied to the issue of what clothes to wear or how to dress.
Biblical Guidelines for Modesty
Although the Bible never compiles a list of guidelines on modesty, one might gather some general principles by taking the heart of texts that speak to modesty.
- Believers should seek to be guided by the principle of glorifying God in all things, including the clothes we wear or the way we dress (1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 1 Peter 2:12).
- A believer’s material possessions, including the clothes a person wears, should not be excessively extravagant such that they distract from the beauty of Christ.
- Believers should not try to impress others by their material possessions or expressions.
- God’s people should seek to avoid a display of self that dishonors God, objectifies oneself, or places ultimate value in external beauty.
- Christians should avoid dressing in a way that is a known cause of temptation for other people, or would be deemed so through careful consideration of others.
The Bible speaks to how a person should dress only on a few occasions. The general guiding principles on modesty can be helpful here, though there are a few occasions when specifics about clothes and dress are mentioned.
Although talking specifically to wives, the heart of this text can be applied to men as well by way of extension: The internal adorning of Christ and the outward expression that results is much more valuable than is the desire to stand out.
Believers are at times warned of the dangers of placing moral “stumbling blocks” before others. Although thinking of specific examples, Paul seems to be speaking of the idea of leading someone else to fall into sin.
Applying this guidance universally to specific clothes people can and can’t wear would be as impossible as it would be unwise. In many cases, however, wisdom, prayer, studying the Word of God, and guidance from within the local Christian community can be a significant means of identifying ways of dressing modestly.
Thinking of modesty in terms of living humbly or unpretentiously, Paul’s words in 1 Timothy:
Paul speaks of the godliness of contentment. Especially in the consumerism of American culture, men especially (though not exclusively) are sold the idea that freedom and happiness are attainable through more and bigger toys, newer cars, nicer boats, high-end gear, a more luxurious vacation, a more important or higher paying possession—you name it. But there is always a cost, and it’s not only the price tag.
Paul reminds Timothy of the fleeting pleasures of “having it all” or the pursuit thereof: “godliness with contentment is great gain,” but the “desire to be rich…plunge[s] people into ruin and destruction.”
On the occasions when the Bible speaks specifically to men as husbands and fathers, there is an element of moderation that is often being encouraged:
In both of these examples, men are called to modesty as it relates to being self-controlled in their relationships with their wives and children. Men are called to beware and fight against the temptation to use their power and position in an excessive or harsh way.
Paul specifically links modesty to self-control. Paul is essentially teaching women to keep in check the desire of finding one’s self worth in beauty and bringing excessive attention to oneself. Instead, women in Christ should focus on adorning (or magnifying the beauty of) good works. While Paul’s words have been misconstrued at times to specific expressions of modesty concerning dress, it is important to remember that “respectable apparel” certainly was different in the first century than in the 21st century. Discerning what clothes or expressions of dress are modest today would ideally happen with the counsel of wise and thoughtful Christian friends.
The dangers of materialistic conformity are present in every age. And while Paul is speaking specifically to the idea of clothes and dress, the guiding principle can be applied more broadly: whether it is the clothes a person wears, the desire to be noticed or perceived in certain cultural depictions of beauty, or even the temptation to impress others through accomplishments or knowledge, the Bible teaches a modesty that brings glory to Christ.