Like many Biblical teachings that cannot be directly carried out, we have a tendency to distill from them enduring principles that we insist fulfill the spirit of the law. One such teaching is that of modesty. Trying to find a simple explanation of modesty that is somewhat universally agreed upon was somewhat difficult – but I think this best sums it up: Modesty is the code (a set of conventions governing behavior or activity in a particular sphere) that women are to follow (obey) for the sake of (benefit of) men.
Biblically speaking, there’s only a modest amount of information upon which to define the modesty teachings:
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, – 1 Tim. 2:9
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. – 1 Peter 3:3
These two verses most directly address what ought and ought not be worn, in both verses there is no direct connection with: wear modest clothing in keeping with purity. In context, 1 Tim. 2:9 is discussing instructions for worship. In context, 1 Peter 3:3 is talking about how wives ought behave when their husbands are non-believers. Neither one really set up for or explain the purity concept that modesty is known for today, but both connect modesty with inexpensive fashions and normal hair-styles.
The purity code tells women that men are visual and can’t help but look. So it is the duty of women to not give them anything to look at by covering up their skin and hiding their figure as much as humanly possible. To help young girls learn what is and what isn’t modest, there’s any number of tests one can try to see how modest an outfit is – look in the mirror to see how much an outfit covers, then sit down in a chair to see if the outfit uncovers too much, bend down forward or backward, bend down to the left or right, ask yourself: “What am I trying to achieve? What am I trying to convey? Am I “advertising”? Will it lead other minds to wander into sin?” and if all else fails, ask your brother or father if it passes the thought test. Granted, you have to ask them to think things outside of the boundary of modesty, but they’re related to you so it’s okay and it doesn’t count as being immodest particularly if they tell you to change into something else before you leave the house.
The purity code also tells us that anything that causes men to think about sinning or act upon the sin they were thinking about is immodest, therefore only men may define what is modest and what isn’t. That’s why there’s a long list of rules that comes with the teaching: (the shameful rules of Modesty – a great post with excellent comments!) Not only that, but the modesty teachings are flexible from one church to the next – something that would have been seen as modest might suddenly become immodest; or something you grew up knowing as immodesty might be modest in another church. Even clothing styles and fashions that doesn’t exist yet can always be branded as immodest for failing to fall within these ever-changing rules.
I couldn’t tell you which Bible verse says that men are visual and that women must dress in such a way as to prevent sins. I couldn’t find one. Part of the Sermon on the Mount is this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-30
I’ve heard it said that Jesus isn’t literally instructing men to blind themselves or cut off their hands, but to take responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. Jesus was not saying: “You have heard it said, “do not look at a woman lustfully because that’s committing adultery in your heart.” But I tell you, the woman is at fault for wearing immodest clothing, yes, she caused you to sin by her poor wardrobe choices. It is better for her to wear modest clothing so that you do not go to Hell.” The Bible Study for this verse says that “Christians must not only avoid the act of adultery (“hand”), but also those things that would lead to a lustful attitude (“eye”).” But it fails to note that Jesus was stating that the sinner was responsible for his own thoughts and actions that lead to his sins. It was never the duty of the other party to prevent him from sinning in thought or deed.
Jesus had more to say about the source of sins: Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” … “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” – Mark 7
That is what the core issue with modesty is – it denies Jesus’ teachings in favor of a code or rules that place a burden on women who are obliged to obey them. It blames women for the evils in the heart of men. It shames women and hurts men, too. It doesn’t give men the chance to learn better, to rise above, and to prove the teachings wrong. Modesty isn’t what we think it means.