Acceptable attire changes from place to place and from generation to generation. In 21st-century America, bikinis seem to get smaller each year and short shorts and crop tops are an increasingly common sight on the streets, in schools, and even in churches.
The line between decency and indecency, it seems, is a matter of opinion and custom without a uniform answer.
What Does the Bible Say about Showing Skin?
While we won’t find words like “bikini” or “crop-top” in any Bible concordance, scripture is not silent about nudity. Genesis 3 tells us that when Adam and Eve first sinned, they ‘realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’ (v 7). The shame of nakedness was evident to them from their earliest awareness of right and wrong.
In another example, when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Israel from Philistia, scripture tells us that King David danced and celebrated in his underwear:
Michal, daughter of Saul—and estranged wife of David—chastised David’s behavior, saying, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20). David, in response, justified his humiliation as an act of exaltation to the Lord.
Is Showing Your Body a Sin?
The above examples suggest that revealing too much of your body is shameful, but is that the same as sinful? In this situation, intent and context matter:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:12a, 19-20
In David’s view, his barely-clothed dancing was an act of honoring God, while Adam and Eve were ashamed before God upon realizing their nakedness.
While Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians were delivered to address the problem of sexual promiscuity and ritual prostitution—both of which were widely practiced and accepted in the pagan city of Corinth—the final admonition to ‘honor God with your body’ is broad and is subject, as verse 12 suggests, to contextual parameters.
Offering similar guidance to the Thessalonians, Paul provides further rationale for his instruction:
Failing to control our own bodies brings sin not only into our own lives, but also wrongly takes advantage of others.
Is Showing Your Stomach a Sin?
Intent and context, over and above details, are our determining factors in what constitutes a sin. So in the example of a bare midriff (a common focal point of the question in modern America), we can only say that it may be a sin if the intention is to arouse lust in others.
If our intention is to lead others to a place of lust, then we are running afoul of our responsibility to one another as Christians to ‘not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.’ (Romans 14:13).
Is it a Sin to See and to Be Seen?
When we apply the test of intention to Jesus’s teaching that ‘anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,’ (Matthew 5:28), we conclude that both the person who looks at another in lust and the one who inflames the lust are participating in a sinful act.
There are a couple of occasions in scripture where the beauty of a woman’s body is specifically noted:
- Rachel: Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” Genesis 29:17-18
- Esther: Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died. Esther 2:7
- Bathsheba: One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 2 Samuel 11:2
The Bible doesn’t tell us how Rachel and Esther were dressed, but both of them were noticed (and ultimately married) in part because they had nice figures.
Bathsheba, on the other hand, was presumably not clothed since she was bathing. But it is left to speculation and interpretation to determine whether or not she intended to be seen by David, or if it was simply coincidental that he saw her (the Bible points out that David had stayed behind while his men went off to war).
What does the Bible Say about Revealing Clothes?
These passages, while showing us that in ancient times there were occasions when men observed women’s bodily forms, do not get us any closer to understanding what constitutes revealing clothing.
Some Christians are quick to cite the New Testament writers’ admonition to dress modestly:
- 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. 1 Timothy 2:9-10
- Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4
But when we read these passages plainly and in context, it is evident that both Paul and Peter are addressing financial modesty, not sexual modesty.
More helpful, perhaps, is Proverbs 7, which cautions against being led to adultery by a seductive woman:
This verse, right in the middle of the passage, speaks to how the woman in this story is dressed. The New Living Translation says that she was ‘seductively dressed’. Whether or not ‘seductively’ means ‘skimpily’ is left unstated. But in the reader’s mind, however a prostitute dresses in your culture is sufficient for understanding and applying this passage.
So we come back a second time, as Paul does in Corinthians, to the difference between what is permissible and what is beneficial. If our actions, or even our dress, are meant to promote sinful thoughts and actions in others, then as Christians we are called to govern our own actions accordingly: