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The modesty conversation we need to have

October 2021 | by Megan Hill

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Once when I was a college student, some friends and I spent some time reading and discussing Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering a Lost Virtue. Shalit, a Jewish philosopher, argued that a culture of sex without limits is harmful and that female modesty is good for both women and for society as a whole.

My friends and I would spread a blanket on a sunny patch of campus grass and debate things like whether female modesty is inherent or cultural, whether modesty standards diminish or empower women, whether Shalit’s argument is consistent with the Bible’s teaching, and whether our modesty is as important as Shalit seemed to think.

Hearing about our discussion, a group of Christian guys on campus began to refer to us as ‘The Puritans’. It wasn’t a compliment.

Difficult topic

In the twenty years since my college days, it hasn’t grown any easier to talk about female modesty. On the one hand, Christians decrying the legalism of purity culture recoil from teaching that would seek to lay out standards for dress and sexual conduct specifically aimed at women and not specifically named in Scripture.

On the other hand, the unbelieving world throws off all limits for sexual self-expression and hates any attempt to correct someone’s choices. Beyond that, all of us are rightly wary of inadvertently placing responsibility for abuse on victims.

Female modesty raises questions about cultural norms, sexual differences, and biblical interpretation. For some, it also evokes guilt and shame. No wonder we’d rather ignore the subject altogether.

But every morning, women are still getting dressed. And if we don’t examine the choices we make, we fail to obey Paul’s command to ‘look carefully… how you walk’ (Ephesians 5:15).

Opportunity for discipleship

The mothers who approach me about modesty typically ask something like, ‘Should I let her wear crop tops?’ or ‘What about bikinis?’ While those may be the immediate questions, the deeper issue concerns what kind of people God is making us to be. In order to help our daughters make wise choices, we need to lay firm foundations.

Standing at the rack of shorts and swimsuits, we have an opportunity for discipleship. The real question is not about how short or how low (though we may have to answer those along the way to be truly helpful); it’s about identity.

Shalit says that an immodestly dressed woman ‘is presenting herself in a way that does violence to who she really is’. What we wear tells a story about who we are. When God tailored the first clothes for Adam and Eve (clothes that, I’m convinced, were beautifully made and not at all the ragged Fred Flintstone outfits pictured in Sunday school materials), he was expressing something about who they were: fallen and yet tenderly cared for by God. And everything we’ve pulled out of our closets in the generations since ought to tell a similar story.

As mothers talking to daughters, or older women encouraging younger women, we have an opportunity to shape not merely hemlines or necklines but people with undying souls. When we call young women to remember who they are, it will help them decide what to wear.

Consider five truths about our identity that can help women (young and old) get dressed.

1. You are not your own.

‘You are not your own,’ writes Paul, ‘for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Whatever we do with our bodies must be done with the acknowledgment that our bodies are not our own. To the child of God, the outfit choices on the rack are not without limits. We have an opportunity to point our daughters to the privilege of selecting clothing with an eye to glorifying God in the world. Because he created and redeemed us, we dress – and do everything else – to honour him.

2. You are a woman.

In the beginning, God created them male and female, in his own image. We are not merely people in general; we are women. The New Testament’s instruction about male and female hair lengths (1 Corinthians 11:14-15) indicates that women ought to look different from men.

We are diverse women with various preferences, bodies, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, circumstances, etc. One woman will require different clothes from the next. But whatever we select, our clothes should not aim at androgyny. They should aim at expressing (and delighting in) the fact that God created us women.

Every person has body parts that are ‘unpresentable’ and so must be ‘treated with greater modesty’ (1 Corinthians 12:24). A woman, by the Lord’s design, has a particular body, and so what we choose to wear must accommodate the body the Lord has given us. Covering certain parts doesn’t deny the fact of our God-given sexuality or seek to diminish our beauty. To the contrary, as Paul’s analogy indicates, treating these parts with modesty is a sign of honouring their importance.

As Elisabeth Elliot wrote in Let Me Be a Woman, ‘The fact that I am a woman does not make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I am a Christian makes me a different kind of woman.’ God made you a woman. Dress accordingly.

3. You belong to a community.

In all Scripture, there are no lone Christians. As soon as God calls someone to himself, he immediately joins that person to all other believers. We are part of the church – the community of the redeemed.

This means we don’t get dressed with an eye only to ourselves. We get dressed as people who belong to other people. When the apostles instructed women to adorn themselves with gentleness rather than jewellery (1 Peter 3:3-5) and good works rather than costly clothes (1 Timothy 2:9-10), they were writing to the gathered church. These words publicly called the congregations to create a culture in which godliness was more important than clothing. As individuals and as a group, the appearance of the women in our churches should testify that we care much more about hearts than about outfits.

This also means we will do everything in our power to promote holiness in the hearts and minds of our fellow believers. We are ‘called to be saints together’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). We don’t want our clothing to be an occasion for jealousy or for lust. It may not be our responsibility if someone sins, but it is our privilege to help prevent it. Because we love the saints – because Christ loves the saints – we are willing to choose our clothing to encourage the holiness of the community.

4. You are called to serve.

There are plenty of fancy clothes in the Bible: wedding garments, robes for feasts, ornate coats for favoured children. The command to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ (Romans 12:15) means that some days we will dress in clothes designed to celebrate God’s good gifts and to join in other people’s joy. But most days aren’t feast days.

Most days are work days. And so most of our clothes should enable us to serve: to lean over to pick up a baby, to reach down and clean up a spill in the lunch room, to walk up a staircase to visit a friend, to stand on a platform and teach, to help carry someone’s belongings or put supplies away on a shelf.

Our clothes should not prevent us from being useful; they should assist it. If we are called to work and to serve – and we are – we should dress ourselves with our calling in view.

5. You are under authority.

Christian parents pray for their children, point them to Christ, and seek to train them in biblical truth and in the way of wisdom. As necessary, parents also give their children specific rules. This is obviously essential for toddlers, but it’s equally important for teenagers. Whether the issue is sweets before dinner or clothing for church, parents have an obligation to disciple their children to love what is best.

It’s not always easy to make decisions about what our daughters should wear, and it’s also often tempting to dismiss the legitimate authority of those who set dress codes. Years ago, working at the uniform swap at my kids’ school, I regularly encountered skirts that had been shortened or tightened against dress code, not for reasons of fit but simply because the girls preferred that style and the parents acquiesced.

But we are people under authority. We submit to the authority of the Lord, first of all, but also to every legitimate authority he has established. A parent’s rule about particular outfits, the dress code at school or camp, and the guidelines at the pool or workplace – no matter how arbitrary they may seem – were given by authority. We throw off such rules at the peril of our souls; we joyfully submit to them under the Lord.

Although the popular imagination assumes modesty is nothing more than a few inches of skin, modesty begins with robust discipleship. And it’s no trite matter. By the clothes we choose, we tell a story about who we are.

Let’s tell the truth.

A version of this first appeared at The Gospel Coalition. Reproduced with permission.

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