Modesty and the Scandalous Culture
The world screams sex and licentiousness – on billboards, in magazines, television and movies. The growth of the pornography and sex trafficking industries, teen sexting, and increasingly seductive fashions are just three examples.
The church frequently mirrors the values of the world instead of promoting believers’ identity in Christ and solid biblical values. Modern, Western culture has clearly influenced and desensitized Christians, but God’s standard for moral purity is still high (Matthew 5:27-29; Job 31:1; 1 John 2:15-17; Romans 14:13).
Sexual lust is not just a men’s issue, but because of the Fall (Genesis 3), men are more prone to lust via visual temptations, especially regarding sexual images. Because of this struggle, men are usually addressed in Scripture regarding self-control, sexually. Women are usually addressed regarding modesty. Sadly, many women today are not taught modesty in the home or at church.
Modesty and the Sinful Human Heart
Modesty can be tricky because our hearts deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9). People can be technically modest, but have proud, immodest hearts. People might wear scant clothing to cover up heart issues: insecurity, seeking attention or affirmation, or self-gratification. Young or immature Christians may not understand how immodest dress can make others “stumble” into sin (Romans 15:1-2; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
An important point that women should understand is their bodies, in and of themselves, are not evil. The solution to lust is not totally covering up a woman’s body. The solution is both genders using self-control and discretion, seeking to please and honor God, and serving others in purity and wisdom.
Should church leaders address modesty?
Modern culture promotes, “As long as I don’t hurt anyone, I can do what I want—no matter what you think,” but Christians know behavior impacts others. Godly modesty is born from a humble sense of justice to not stir up desires in others that can’t be fulfilled righteously (Micah 6:8; Song 3:5). If church members don’t care about their immodesty and how it affects others, church leaders can rightly call them to repent.
Many church leaders fail to speak up about immodest dress and behavior because they fear their congregations will label it legalism. Perhaps they fear offending those who are comfortable wearing provocative clothing, even in church. Others might fear negative responses that reflect on them personally. Leaders might even be concerned about transcultural differences—modesty can look different in other cultures.
But the church can’t afford to be silent on this issue because modern culture continually drives an immodest agenda. There’s no need to go to extremes regarding addressing modesty, which can become legalism or idolatry; but whether from the pulpit or in special classes or small group studies, leaders must not avoid the topic.
Biblical Truths about a Believer’s Body:
With those truths in mind, Pastors might ask heart searching questions: “Does your clothing and behavior reflect who you worship?” “What kingdom are you representing?” and “Are you displaying the gospel or detracting from it?”
Modesty in dress and attitude begins in church leadership and then, as it is biblically taught and modeled, modesty should become evident throughout the church congregation.
Design Credit: Bethany Pyle
How should church leaders teach modesty and address immodesty?
1. Call the Church to Holiness
A clear difference should be made between biblical suggestions and God’s clear commands. As a first step, pastors and church leaders might build a foundation in their churches for loving and studying Scripture (Hebrews 4:12) because it is the authority of God’s Word that matters most.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9)
Spiritually immature and immodest church members may not fully understand the gospel or how to live it out in all matters of holiness. Leaders have a wonderful opportunity to create and cultivate a culture of modesty in the church founded in the gospel message itself—the practical outworking of sanctification in God’s redeemed children.
Leaders can help church members examine their hearts with sober judgment (Romans 12:3), and help them place their identity in Christ rather than their ability to attract attention to themselves (Philippians 2:3-4).
2. Call the Church to Humility
Modesty, like all of life, is not essentially about us. Christians do not belong to themselves; they are bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Romans 14:8) and are meant to bring glory to God (Psalm 115:1).
The Apostle Paul gave instructions to the early church regarding modesty (1 Timothy 2:9). His context was the over-the-top dress, hairstyles, and jewelry of wealthy women in the church—possibly a reflection of immoral lifestyles. Because of the poorer women and slave women in the congregation, Paul asked rich women to dress modestly—in simplicity and respectability—and to preoccupy themselves with generosity and good works. It was a call to Christian humility.
Christians are never to judge motives or treat people differently (favoritism) on the basis of what they wear, which would be judgmental and self-righteous (James 2:1-5). Rather, Christians should all be taught to be clothed in humility (1 Peter 5:5-6), righteousness, dignity and love. Modesty isn’t a dress code, but rather character. It’s about values, not rules.
3. Approach Individuals with Compassion
Matthew 18:15-20 gives insight into how to confront sin in the church, but sometimes it’s necessary to share the truth about immodesty with individuals directly.
Before confronting anyone over immodesty, it’s wise to ask, “Why?” Why do people feel it’s necessary to draw attention to themselves by how they dress? What are they covering up in their heart by what they are exposing in their bodies? Immodest behavior is typically a symptom of a deeper heart issue.
Whether it’s someone in authority who makes the decision to confront, or a mature believer the immodest person respects who takes the lead, whenever confrontation is necessary, it must be approached in a biblical way—with love, truth and grace (Ephesians 4:15; 4:29; Colossians 4:6), never with personal opinions, judging or shaming. Certainly, it’s never accompanied by gossip (Proverbs 11:12-13; 21:23).
Jesus is our example. In John 8:3-11, a woman was “caught in the act of adultery” and likely wasn’t modest at the time. Jesus approached her in love—with truth and grace. But He also said, “Go and sin no more” (v. 11). He expected change.
Confrontation must begin and end with compassion. Once a person has repented and renounced immodesty, that person needs encouragement and friendship to encourage further growth. Learning biblical modesty is best accomplished in loving community.
4. Address Individuals in Loving Community
Titus 2:1-8, 12-14 calls mature men and women in the church to speak to younger members about practical matters. In regard to modesty, men can be challenged to be self-controlled, and women can be challenged to evaluate whether they are sending a wrong message to men.
It’s been said, “If you have to ask, ‘Am I showing too much?’—you probably are.” For what is not specified in Scripture, Christians can be taught to prayerfully seek the Lord and seek out caring authorities in the church.
Mentors can remind women that, while frumpiness does not equal godliness, true beauty is internal (1 Peter 3:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:8-10). The Bible never says it is sinful for women to look beautiful or wear lovely, modest clothing. A key word to understand is “adorn,” which refers to arranging or putting in order, to fit the occasion in a humble and modest manner—never extreme, overdone, or flaunting.
Mentors can help other women and girls consider modesty in practical matters, and perhaps even take them shopping to look for beautiful, respectable apparel. Always, mentors should encourage mentees to be righteous Christ-followers, not judgmental rule-followers.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
Photo Credit: Getty/JanetRhodes