QUESTION: What does the Bible teach about modesty?
ANSWER: What an interesting question! And I must confess that until I studied the concept in more detail I tended to confine its application to women who wore too little, or too tight, clothing. It certainly includes that, but it’s a much bigger word.
Here are a few thoughts to ponder, drawn in part from the definition and significance of the English word.
It's About Decency
The Bible talks about doing things "decently" in the church (I Cor. 14:40). There, the word means in a fitting and appropriate way. Modesty is regard for decency of behaviour, speech and dress. It involves respect for what is appropriate and in good taste, according to established standards.
The catch there is that “established standards” can deteriorate (and have they ever!). As the Lord Jesus said of His day, "What is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Lk. 16:15).
What is immoral and immodest has often not only become acceptable, but the norm. In Canada we now have provincial and municipal governments bowing to pressure from women to walk around topless–arguing that men are allowed to do that. (My oh my!)
It's About Humility
Modesty includes freedom from vanity (an excessive pride in one's appearance, qualities, abilities, and achievements). It involves freedom from exaggeration and boastfulness, being based, instead, on a moderate and balanced opinion of one’s self (cf. Rom. 12:3).
False modesty is not modesty at all. This is when the person says things like, “Oh, I’m not really a very good piano player,” or “I’m not really that good looking.” The person isn’t stating a fact, or even what he believes to be true. He really thinks quite well of himself, and is fishing for compliments. Edward Gibbon said, “False modesty is the meanest species of pride.”
It's About Avoiding Worldliness
What we are combating is a worldly culture that encourages women to dress so that men will look at them, and consider them sexy and desirable. The girl or woman who does that may be guilty of “defrauding” the men who see her. This is a term used in First Thessalonians, meaning to awaken desires that cannot be righteously satisfied (I Thess. 4:3-7, esp. vs. 6).
It is the spirit of the world that we must combat (I Jn. 2:15-17), while being cautious about drawing too many narrowly specific rules that we insist should be imposed on all. We are to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts” (Rom. 13:14).
The Bible Word
When we turn to the Word of God, the actual word (kosmios, in Greek) is only used a couple of times. It means well-ordered, well-behaved, decent, harmonious.
We are told, “That the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” I Tim. 2:9-10).
And, “A bishop [church leader] then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior [kosmios], hospitable, able to teach.”
And this from First Peter, which describes an aspect of modesty, regarding the proper dress and behaviour of wives, though it doesn’t use the actual word modest. “Do not let your adornment be merely outward–arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel–rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (I Pet. 3:3-4).
Some Others Comment
To some extent, what is considered “modest” depends on a social and cultural context. The early church father Tertullian had this to say about makeup: “Whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on that, is the devil's work.”
Relatively few would go quite that far! But among Christians there is a wide divergence when it comes to appropriate dress, makeup and so on. Some, for example, might find the woman’s slacks inappropriate. Though I’ve seen skirts that are far more offensive and immodest than a pair of dress slacks--unless, as some wit put it, the only place they're "slack" is around the ankles!
We are to separate ourselves from whatever suggests we espouse a worldly view of life (II Cor. 6:17). Puritan Thomas Brooks, typical of the stern views of that group, said, "They that borrow the fashions of the Egyptians may get their boils and their blotches." (Ouch!)
Contemporary author Luke Gilkerson comments, “Modesty is a respectable manner of adorning one’s body and carrying oneself, born out of a freedom from a worldly definition of beauty and worth, and motivated by a hatred of sin and a desire to draw attention to God. Mr.
Gilkerson also says, “Modesty is about who you worship.” That hits the nail firmly on the head. If we want to honour the Lord Jesus Christ in our daily lives, our conduct, speech and dress must not be that which makes it more difficult for others to see the beauty of Christ shining forth in and through us.