Church should be a place where believers are focused solely on Christ, but as a young woman in the church, I remember many times when my mind was fixated on something far more trivial. Her skirt is too short, I would think in my heart, glancing at the girl in the next pew, even while my mouth formed words of worship. How could she possibly think that’s appropriate? I’m being so much more holy than she is. Christian girls are called to be modest!
At the time, I saw no fault in my actions. Today, I am utterly ashamed. I was arrogant and self-righteous, even as I looked at my sister in Christ and thought that she was the unholy one. In the name of biblical modesty, I had become the most immodest person in the room, puffed up by my pride.
In the name of biblical modesty, I had become the most immodest person in the room, puffed up by my pride.
Modesty is an unusual fixation in sermons to young women. I have yet to hear a lesson directed specifically Christian girls that didn’t ultimately circle back to modesty at some point. Very often, we point the word “immodest” at Christian girls like an accusing finger – I know that I once did.
But what is biblical modesty? Is it about how much clothing we wear, or is it rooted in something more significant? And why is it commanded in the first place?
The Definition of Modesty
According to many Christian teachers, biblical modesty involves covering an appropriate amount of the body with clothing. Of course, this begs the question of how much clothing is necessary, and when an outfit can be truly deemed “immodest” for Christian women.
I’ve heard countless teachers and read countless books on the subject, and everyone seems to be locked in disagreement. It shouldn’t be obvious that we have breasts, say some. Or thighs. Or chests. Or butts, for that matter. Or shoulders, according to the summer camp I used to attend, where any strap smaller than the width of three fingers was deemed “distracting.” As a teenager in the church, I was left wondering if my entire body was dangerous, my beauty no less than a weapon, my femininity a constant invitation for the boys around me to wonder what I would like without any shirt at all.
As a teenager in the church, I was left wondering if my entire body was dangerous.
Whatever their particular set of standards encompassed, every preacher claimed that their view of modesty was the biblical view. So what does the Bible say about modesty, anyway?
Peter on Clothes
Some of the most commonly cited verses are 1 Peter 3:3–4, which read, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Context is key in interpreting this passage. In this section, Peter is writing to women who have become Christians, but are still married to unbelieving husbands. Peter is instructing the wives on how to live in such a way that their husbands will see the work of God and want to know Him as well.
As a result, it makes sense for Peter to remind women in a materialistic world that their true beauty comes from doing good in Christ’s name, which is an unmistakable witness of God to their husbands. This doesn’t mean that modern women can’t wear necklaces or bracelets to church – it means that if all we bring on Sunday morning is outward beauty, but not changed hearts, we are failing as testimonies of the gospel.
If all we bring on Sunday morning is outward beauty, but not changed hearts, we are failing as testimonies of the gospel.
As for the “gentle and quiet spirit,” which warrants a future post of its own, we know from Scripture that God honors plenty of women for using their voices. In the Old Testament, women like Esther boldly broke societal silence to follow God’s directives, and prophecies from women like Miriam are recorded in the Bible as inspired by God. In the New Testament, women were the first to see and proclaim Christ’s resurrection.
So the gentle and quiet spirit is not a spirit of quietness in the world, but a spirit of awe and wonder before an almighty God. Psalm 111:10 instructs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” Amidst a chaotic world, God says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (NIV).
The gentle and quiet spirit is not a spirit of quietness in the world, but a spirit of awe and wonder before an almighty God.
A woman of God is beautiful because of her love and respect for her Savior, not because of anything she wears. Using a verse about the higher importance of inner beauty to shame and regulate outer beauty goes against Peter’s entire point.
Using a verse about the higher importance of inner beauty to shame and regulate outer beauty goes against Peter’s entire point.
Paul on Clothes
1 Timothy 2:9–10 is another pair of verses about modesty. Here, Paul is writing to Timothy, a young pastor, about proper order in church meetings. He writes, “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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (NIV).
It helps to also read verse 8, which precedes this instruction: “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing” (NIV). Paul goes directly from an instruction on prayer to an instruction about clothing because the point of the passage is about neither prayer nor clothing, but about a spirit of humility that should be demonstrated in both men and women.
The point of the passage is about neither prayer nor clothing, but about a spirit of humility that should be demonstrated in both men and women.
James 3:14 (NIV) furthers the concept of good deeds being a Christian’s truest beauty: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Once again, humility is seen as the basis for good Christian conduct, which includes our choice of clothing.
Isaiah on Clothes
The prophet Isaiah also treated elaborate clothing as not a sin, but a symptom of sin, the sin being pride:
“The Lord says,
‘The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
flirting with their eyes,
strutting along with swaying hips,
with ornaments jingling on their ankles’” (Isaiah 3:16, NIV).
James on Clothes
There is a common factor between both 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, and Isaiah: the instructions about modesty specifically discuss elaborate fashion and dramatic jewelry, not how much of a woman’s body should be covered. This theme, too, is very present in James, where Christians are warned against favoritism.
The instructions about modesty specifically discuss elaborate fashion and dramatic jewelry, not how much of a woman’s body should be covered.
James 2:2–4 says, “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
The early church, like today’s church, was made up of people from all economic backgrounds and social standings. Biblical modesty, alongside being a prohibition against pride, was designed to keep the poor from feeling lesser, as compared to those who could afford to wear gold jewelry at church meetings.
Interestingly, there’s still been no mention of how much a Christian woman ought to cover her body. Here’s the shocking truth: The Bible never demands any such thing.
So how is a Christian woman supposed to determine what clothing is appropriate?
While there is no such things as a biblical dress code, there are biblical principles surrounding both the human body and human sexuality.
While there is no such things as a biblical dress code, there are biblical principles surrounding both the human body and human sexuality.
Your Body is a Temple
Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (NIV). As Christian women, any decision we make about our bodies – including how to clothe them – should be based in a desire to glorify God.
1 Corinthians 6:12–13 and 18–19 also addresses the importance of respecting God with our bodies: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but I will not be mastered by anything… [The body] is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
Verses 18–19 elaborate, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
What can we learn from this passage?
- We have freedom in Christ to make individual choices (“I have the right to do anything”)
- Our bodies are meant to glorify God (“the body is meant… for the Lord”)
- Our bodies are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, who is God (“your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit”)
- Christ bought us back with his blood, so he has claim to our bodies (“you are not your own”)
- We must respect God in how we treat our bodies (“honor God”)
Despite the absence of a biblical dress code, this gives us a clear description of what the human body is for – glorifying God. If I wear my fanciest clothes to a church event to impress those around me, but I bring a heart stained with pride, then I am not glorifying God with my body. On the other hand, if I wear my baggiest clothes to church because I am ashamed of the body that God calls His temple, then I am not glorying God with my body. So the underlying principle is not about how much or how little I am wearing, but about how my clothes reflect the state of my heart and my desire to honor God.
The underlying principle is not about how much or how little I am wearing, but about how my clothes reflect the state of my heart and my desire to honor God.
This flies in the face of what so many churches tell Christian girls. If you’re a woman who grew up in the church, I guarantee you’ve heard this a thousand times: “Women are called to be modest because revealing clothing calls men to lust.”
This rests on two problematic assumptions: first, the idea that modesty regulates revealing clothing; and second, the idea that a woman’s choice of clothing makes her responsible for the actions of nearby men. I’ve already addressed the fact that biblical modesty was about wealth, pride, power, and social status, not how revealing a given outfit was. Now I’ll address the concept that a woman can become “a stumbling block” because of what she wears.
What’s a Stumbling Block?
The concept of a “stumbling block” is founded in two passages of Scripture: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Both are about the eating of ceremonially “unclean” food, which was forbidden in the Old Testament but permitted after Jesus declared all food equally holy.
The concept of a “stumbling block” is founded in two passages of Scripture: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.
Evidently, some Christians still felt that eating the “forbidden” meat would be a sin. Other Christians insisted that since Jesus allowed it, they saw no harm in eating whatever they liked. Paul addresses this argument in both Romans and 1 Corinthians.
In Romans 14:2 – 3, we read, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servant stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (NIV).
Essentially, Paul says that neither man is wrong. If a man believes that eating the meat would be wrong, he shouldn’t eat it, but if another man can eat the meat with a clear conscience, he can do so. Verse 12 summarizes that “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (NIV).
So if both eating or not eating the meat was okay, what was the problem?
The person with “strong faith” was apparently shaming the person with “weak faith,” urging them to eat the meat despite their personal reservations against it.
The person with “strong faith” was apparently shaming the person with “weak faith,” forcing them to eat the meat despite their personal reservations against it.
Verses 13–15 is where Paul explains the concept of a stumbling block:
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died” (NIV).
Verses 19 and 21 elaborate, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification… It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”
So what is a stumbling block? A stumbling block is a Christian who feels confident that God sees no harm with him doing something not explicitly forbidden in Scripture – drinking a single glass of alcohol (not to the point of drunkenness,) for instance, or watching a movie that includes some swear words. The stumbling block is not sinning by engaging in this behavior, so long as his conscience is clear before God, but he sins by encouraging another Christian – say, someone who is personally convicted against ever drinking alcohol – to have a drink because God doesn’t forbid it in Scripture.
Summary: A stumbling block is a Christian who pushes another Christian to act against his conscience on a matter of personal conviction.
A stumbling block is a Christian who forces another Christian to act against his conscience on a matter of personal conviction.
1 Corinthians 8: 9–12 gives a similar guideline to Christians on areas of personal liberty: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (NIV).
What common factors can we learn about the “stumbling block” from these passages? He or she is exercising their freedom as a Christian, which is good, but also urging other Christians – who may be led differently by God – to have the same personal rules as them, which is sin. If a person feels convicted against doing something, other Christians should respect their conviction and not force them to engage in the questionable behavior, which would be sin to them.
How, then, does this apply to modesty?
Some Christians argue that a woman who wears “revealing” clothing has become a stumbling block to the men around her because revealing her body causes them to lust. We now know how the Bible defines a stumbling block. But what does the Bible say about personal responsibility in lust? Who is at fault if a woman walks by with her shoulders exposed, and the surrounding men immediately fall into sin?
Some Christians argue that a woman who wears “revealing” clothing has become a stumbling block to the men around her because revealing her body causes them to lust.
Who is Responsible for Lust?
Jesus equates thought to action and lust to adultery in Matthew 5:27–28, but in verses 29–30, he clearly blames the one who is lustful for his own lust: “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 way. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (NIV).
This is obvious hyperbole on Jesus’ part, but his point nevertheless stands. A man (or woman) is responsible for their own lustful thoughts, and they are to take personal precautions to avoid stumbling. Nothing is said about expecting women to take partial responsibility for men’s sinful tendencies. I’ve seen many men tell Christian women to wear more clothes, but few who take drastic personal measures to conquer their own sin.
I’ve seen many men tell Christian women to wear more clothes, but few who take drastic personal measures to conquer their own sin.
1 Thessalonians 4 says “that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (NIV), holding each individual responsible for their lustful thoughts and actions.
In Genesis 3, immediately after sin enters the world, Adam attempts to blame Eve for his own sinful decision: “The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’
To Adam he [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it…’”
Before explaining Adam’s punishment, God makes it very clear that no matter how Eve behaved, Adam is still responsible, personally, for his choice to sin.
So is it possible for a woman’s clothing to be a “stumbling block”?
Personally, I feel convicted against wearing bikinis. I feel that I would be doing so for prideful reasons, for attention, and that doing so would diminish the importance of eventually becoming “one flesh” with my future husband in marriage. If my sister in Christ can wear a bikini with a clear conscience, there is no biblical mandate that says she can’t. But if she shames my desire to avoid bikinis and coerces me into wearing one, she has become a stumbling block to me.
If she shames my desire to avoid bikinis and coerces me into wearing one, she has become a stumbling block to me.
This is the only way in which the “stumbling block” doctrine can be logically transferred to modesty. Elsewhere in the Bible, a man is held responsible for his own lust. Men who struggle with lust would lust after me if I wore a paper bag to church, and holding me responsible for their sin is illogical. Lust is not about being lead astray by a woman, “but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:14, NIV).
Men who struggle with lust would lust after me if I wore a paper bag to church, and holding me responsible for their sin is illogical.
Once we start holding other people responsible our own sin, we invite a slippery slope of excuses for our own behavior. If I struggle with envy, should the other Christians in my church avoid mentioning any nice things they own? If I struggle with anger, can I blame a grumpy customer for my having an outburst at work? Regarding lust, I find muscles attractive; should a man with strong biceps be required to wear sleeves? I find accents attractive; should a man with an accent avoid speaking too much in my presence? We would never hold one Christian responsible for another’s sin, except when it comes to men and lust.
We would never hold one Christian responsible for another’s sin, except when it comes to men and lust.
Do Not Judge
In areas of spiritual liberty, which includes clothing, Christians are explicitly warned against indulging their pride by judging others.
James 2:12–13 says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (NIV).
Matthew 7:1–2 echoes, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
I remember again my boastful thoughts and confident judgment of the other girls at church. I would not want to be judged by such an arbitrary and self-righteous standard! My behavior was to my shame, even as a woman judging other women – the same principle applies to men who feel entitled to tell Christian girls how they should dress.
In Isaiah 29:13-14,
“The Lord says:
‘These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.’”
Christianity is more than clothes, and godly womanhood is a matter of the heart, not what we wear to church on Sunday. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:23, NIV).
Christianity is more than clothes, and godly womanhood is a matter of the heart, not what we wear to church on Sunday.
My judgment of the other Christian girls, not the length of their skirts, was the real threat to godliness in the church. In reality, it was something of a coping mechanism for my own spiritually imposed shame about my body.
I remember constantly tugging at my shirt as a young teen, fearful that it would swing too low at my neck or too high at my rear, making me the cause of a passing boy’s selfish thoughts. I remember racing directly from the pool into a towel, despite my extremely modest two-piece bathing suit, for fear that my legs would invite inappropriate looks. I remember wondering if it was possible to be sexy without being a “stumbling block,” or if sexiness was something I could flip like a light switch on my wedding night, an aspect so divorced from my actual self that it would only appear at my future husband’s bidding.
Sisters, you are not called to live in shame, but in freedom. Your body is a temple, not a stumbling block, and when people disrespected the temple, Jesus drove them out with a whip (John 2:13–17). How much more so must he defend you as a spiritual temple? Seek humility, seek authenticity, seek a beauty that comes from your heart and not your hair, but do not believe the lie that your body is an invitation to sin. It is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Seek humility, seek authenticity, seek a beauty that comes from your heart and not your hair, but do not believe the lie that your body is an invitation to sin.
Galatians 5:13–15 is a sobering final warning for us: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
I pray we will stop destroying each other. I pray we will all embrace the freedom we have in Christ, to make our own choices and battle our own demons, by the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us.
I pray we will all embrace the freedom we have in Christ, to make our own choices and battle our own demons, by the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us.