Everything the Bible says about Modesty

This is part four in a series on modesty. The first three posts can be found at the links:

Bikinis are not immodest

Modest or Immodest: A Handy Guide to Telling the Difference

Topless and Totally Modest

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:

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.

Oh, Audry… your floor length dress, pearl necklace and tasteful style might be… how do I say this? A little immodest for a Christian woman.

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.

Author: Matt Mikalatos

Matt Mikalatos is a writer not a fighter.

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  • Dan Lockwood

    Thanks, Matt. These have been thought-provoking. I’m also reminded of that crazymaker verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (esp KJV) “Avoid the appearance of evil”…?

    Must we also take care so as to not cause our brother or sister to stumble by judging us? LOL!…?

    • mattmikalatos

      Ha ha ha. I… I have no idea.

  • Bart

    Hey Matt.

    From one perspective, I think this is much needed information. That was even what I was hinting at in my comment on the previous post: that this is information that is good food for thought for those that grew up in more traditional conservative Christian circles. The “modesty” thing is way overblown in that particular cultural portion of the body of Christ.

    My problem here is with the Biblical hermeneutic you’ve used here (which is actually the same one that the “modesty” people have tried to use, which has led us into this present cultural reality in which a series of posts like this even need to be written!). This hermeneutic, or way of interpreting what the Bible actually says, is basically:

    The Bible is our rulebook and guidebook. Specific verses say specific things about specific circumstances. The Bible is our answer book. It tells us how to live our lives.

    This isn’t a wholly bankrupt hermeneutic. It has a lot of truth to it. The problem is, that’s not really the way the Bible operates. It’s not an encyclopedia of life-issues. It’s not a reference tool to figure out how to either please God or know Him. It is a story. And stories work differently than reference tools.

    The “modesty” people–like the kid in your school, or the pastor in Footloose, or those you’ve said that have pulled aside young girls to reprimand their dress, use the Bible as a reference tool. They say, “The Bible says we should be modest, and avoid sexual temptation both in ourselves and others according to 1 Tim 2:9-10. This is biblical. So, how can we begin to live that out?” The intentions are good, honestly. These people seek to honor God and his rule with every action of their lives. But the manner in which the Bible is used causes quite a bit of harm in the way these actions are carried out. The rulebook determines the praxis, rather than the story determining the praxis.

    What happens when rulebooks determine our praxis? We become legalistic and forsake relationship. The rule becomes primary, the person or people become secondary.

    The people in this camp say things like “biblical” or “biblically based” or “scriptural” to affirm their convictions. This is a normal way of describing what they think the Bible is clear about.

    My problem with your hermeneutic here is that you’ve done the same thing. You’ve played the game on their turf. This post is titled “What the Bible says about Modesty,” but I would say that this post says very little about what the Bible has to say about modesty.

    The Bible has so much to say about what it means to be modest! It’s just not presented in a rulebook way. We can’t look up “Modest” in our Bible dictionary and walk away certain of what the “Biblical definition of modesty” must be. We definitely can’t use an obscure verse in 1 Timothy and then walk away saying what is or is not “Biblical” in any particular area, let alone modesty. All that to say, I pretty heartily disagree with you when you say that our “insight into ‘Biblical modesty’ will come from this precise passage.”

    I can agree that, should we accept the hermeneutic of the “modesty” crowd, then we can and must use that verse to try and show how their understanding of Biblical modesty is off. But I just don’t think that particular hermeneutic is effective in this particular case, nor is it faithful to the way the Bible itself works.

    Biblical modesty is a beautiful and multi-faceted thing. It includes sexuality, of course, but encompasses so much more. It can be researched and studied in the stories of Abraham and Moses and Daniel and David and Peter and John and, of course, Jesus. In fact, to talk about Biblical modesty without mentioning Jesus is probably a large enough red flag as it is.

    Whew! That was a lot. My keyboard is smoking.

    I will reiterate what I said at the beginning, though. This post is useful as an entry point to conversations about Biblical modesty with those that come from conservative Christian circles. I’ve said in my 5 million words after, that, in my estimation, the bigger problem is not with the conservative christian culture enacting weird modesty restrictions/judgments, but that these restrictions/judgments come out of an impoverished understanding of the way the Bible works and tells its story. I’m afraid you’ve coalesced to their poor understanding in this post.

    • Dan Lockwood

      Bart, I love what you shared here about using the Bible as another rulebook. It connected further with me when today I read John 14:15. For when Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey what I command” I get overcome with performance anxiety all over again.

      If the Jews were unable to obey the Law of Moses, but were indeed given the law to prove to them their sin and need for a Savior and mediator, how could I believe myself capable of adhering to Christ’s commands as if I could earn or maintain his love? It becomes just another works trap. (But, indeed, a righteousness from God apart from the law has now been revealed.)

      This is the problem for me, dare I say, with MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech; he assumes either such a dream is attainable by a general population of people if only we’d decide to change and make it happen, or that his audience (yea, the whole country) is comprised completely of Christians, possessed of the Holy Spirit (A third assumption might be that his dream is really even God’s will and vision for the U.S.). Yes, Jesus changed everything, but it wasn’t from one set of rules or guidelines to another, for God’s commands are powerless when combined with our weak and sinful human nature.

      Yet people throw the words of Christ around indiscriminately with no regard for the larger story within which those words make any sense; they expect all who hear will recognize Jesus’ wisdom and snap to it.

      Until we come back to realizing or remembering that this is his command: to believe in the name of his son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1John 3:23)

      So the story and context of Christ’s commands is not own self-actualization or achievement of American dream(s), etc. according to our own aspirations, but God’s story (there are many ways of putting it) of seeking and saving the lost and making us more like Jesus. He does’t want to fit into our stories; He wants to fit us into His.

    • mattmikalatos

      Ah, yes. I agree with you. If you look at my books you’ll see that I can’t help but go to story. That’s where I live. I read almost no non-fiction.

      You’re right, though, that I’ve taken the argument to their turf using their language… to show that EVEN IF we do that, what they are saying is not (to use their term) “Biblical.” Because their arguments are almost all cultural and philosophical, my first few articles started there, undermining that, so that when we got to what the Bible “actually says” there’s nowhere else to take the argument.

      And yes, the Bible has plenty to say about sexuality, modesty and plenty of other things in the story… but I think a tutorial in how to read stories might be necessary for some before we delve into that!

      • Bart

        Let’s have that tutorial! There’s another series idea for ya.

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  • So… did you decide not to do the post on nakedness in the Bible? Because I was really surprised to see you say this one verse was the only place the Bible addressed modesty. It may be the only place that this particular word is used, but it’s certainly not the only time the concept comes up or this issue is addressed. If you want to talk about what the Bible says about modesty “in a sexual sense,” you have to look beyond the word “modesty.” Because, as you pointed out, this particular verse isn’t even using the word in that sense.

    I figured you’d be getting to that in the follow-up post on nakedness… but perhaps you changed your mind?

    • mattmikalatos

      Hey Rich… Sorry I missed this when you posted. I had intended to do a post about nakedness and never got around to it. But I’m thinking about it again and maybe I will!