This is part four in a series on modesty. The first three posts can be found at the links:
My family moved from Missouri to California when I was in fifth grade. I remember what I was wearing when I walked into church. Jeans, a collared shirt and sneakers. Beat up, dirty, white sneakers. A kid a little older than me walked right up to me, looked down at my shoes and said, “You are going to Hell for wearing those sneakers.”
He was joking, but I didn’t know that. I went to a school in Missouri that taught me you could lose your salvation for a variety of infractions, and so far as I knew “dirty sneakers” was on the list. That wasn’t modesty, really, but it gave me some idea of what it feels like to get your outfit critiqued along with a small serving of theological language.
I’ve heard plenty of young women tell me the story of wearing a new dress to church only to be pulled aside by a young man and told, “You’ve caused me to stumble” followed by questions about whether she had respect for herself and others. Moments like these can leave people confused, upset, frustrated. I’ve seen more than one young woman who decided that the best thing to do was bundle up and do their best to hide that they are female.
I don’t think anyone intends that to be the result of these conversations.
So. Let’s do this. Let’s take a look at what the Bible actually says about modesty.
The core verse, the one which must be addressed if we’re going to look at what the Bible says is 1 Timothy 2:9-10. This one gets a lot of attention, and we may as well quote the whole thing:
“9 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, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” (NIV)
The Greek word translated modesty here is “αἰδώς” (aidós) which, yeah, basically means modesty. (There is conversation about this word among scholars, especially related to its root word and connections to shame and honor. In some older Greek writings it has a meaning closer to “respect” but everyone seems to agree that “modesty” is more or less a fine translation.)
We talk a lot about modesty in Christian culture. We spend a good amount of time discussing it, especially with our youth. Guess how many times this word appears in the New Testament?
This is it.
Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Clearly it matters. It does mean that our insights into “Biblical modesty” will come from this precise passage.
Before we look at that, we need to think for a minute about the word “modesty” in English. It’s a word that has two main definitions. The first is that of being “moderate” in one’s opinion of one’s self. Not boastful or arrogant. The second is about being proper or respectful in one’s dress.
So that’s why when someone says, “Oh, winning the trophy was no big deal” we might reply, “Don’t be so modest.” In other words: don’t be so humble. It’s okay to take a little credit.
Or, we could use the word in the sense that we nearly always do when having this conversation in Christian culture, when we say, “Please wear a longer skirt tomorrow so that you can be modest.”
The thing is, in this particular scripture, the reason “modest” is a good translation is because of the first definition, not the second.
Note that the verse goes on to describe what modest, ordered, respectful, appropriate clothing looks like: no elaborate hairstyles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes. Instead, be dressed “modestly.” In other words, don’t dress like a wealthy person. Don’t flaunt your cash. Don’t make a big deal out of being elegant and thus draw attention to yourself. Instead, let yourself be known by all the good things you are doing… don’t have a reputation as “the woman who always looks like a movie star” but rather “the woman who takes care of her neighbors.”
I Peter 3:3-4 says essentially the same thing (although without using the word modesty).
So our sermons on this passage ought to be about not wearing expensive clothes, or diamond rings, or spending a lot of time on our hair.
Ah, but what about that definition of modesty we used from way back in the first post on this topic? “Modesty is a mode of dress and deportment intended to avoid encouraging sexual attraction in others.” That definition is within the semantic range of the English sense of the word. The problem is that it’s not the Biblical definition. The Bible simply does not use the word in that sense.
The Biblical definition would be something closer to: “Modesty is a mode of dress and deportment intended to avoid emphasizing one’s wealth or status.”
Huh. But wait, what does that mean about all our many conversations about “modesty” in a sexual sense?
It means that those conversations aren’t based in a scriptural understanding of modesty. That’s all. It doesn’t mean there isn’t good content, or wise ideas or truth in those conversations. They’re just not Biblical.
That went longer than I intended, and is really just the first step in what the Bible says about modesty. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at “causing our brothers to stumble” in the sense of “causing them to lust” and then maybe we’ll take a look at how scripture talks about nudity. Also still to come: sexism in the modesty conversation.