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Modesty as Ministry

By January 31, 20127 Comments

By now you’ve probably noticed that I have been thinking about modesty a lot lately. I wrote a post for Her.meneutics last month and then I wrote another post on this blog, both of which contain some critiques against the current conceptions of modesty.

My reflections on the topic have been motivated by two key ideas: First, God created the female body as good and beautiful, so our language about the female body (and modesty) should be consistent with that theological tenet. Second, modesty is not just a female issue. It is relevant to men and women alike, young and old. And just because you cover your body does not mean you are a modest person.

Although I believe that standards of bodily modesty are somewhat relative to the culture, that does not mean we should ignore those standards altogether. Paul encouraged both men and women to respect the cultural mores of their contexts, to the extent that they did not undermine their credibility in proclaiming the gospel. Given that Scriptural precedent and the sinful temptation to exploit our own bodies for selfish ambition, there are times when Christian women DO dress immodestly and we do need to talk about it. But how we conduct that conversation is a different matter.

Over the weekend I spoke with a friend who was embarrassed after some of her pastors’ wives objected to a dress she wore to church. It was a dress she had worn numerous times before, and with her husband’s (also a pastor) blessing, so she felt a bit blind-sided by the criticism. Not only did she feel the dress was appropriate, but she wasn’t given a reason why she shouldn’t wear it–other than the fact that it was “too short.”

Now when you think about it, “too short” is not really a reason. Although we probably understand the subtext of the objection, we need to move away from such blanket condemnations that risk communicating something unbiblical. We need to get to the reason behind the reason. Why is “too short” a problem? Is it because women’s bodies do not belong in church? Is it because a woman’s body is inherently tempting to men and should always be hidden? Is it because we are making assumptions about the intentions of a woman who wears such a dress? Or is there something more?

As I have written about before, modesty is about more than dress. It is about an orientation of the heart. The word modesty itself means “free from conceit or vanity,” so it is an other-oriented posture. The modest person is oriented first toward the glory of God and second toward the love of neighbor. Personal glory is last.

While it is difficult to know whether a man or woman has God in mind as they select their outfit, I think that love of neighbor is a more helpful category for discussing modesty in dress. By this I am not only referring to the edification of our brothers in Christ who struggle with lust, but the less frequently discussed ministry we have to women. There are times when a short dress might be a stumbling block for women also, and that is a valid consideration for women in leadership.

For a lot of women, their body is a source of power. It is how they command attention or feel noticed. And for that reason, some women are willing to objectify themselves to get that attention. Exposing their bodies is not about celebrating the image of God in themselves, but their own glory. And this misguided motivation is further encouraged when visible female leaders play the same game.

For both leaders and non-leaders alike, the female body can be a false idol for women. We spend countless hours and dollars keeping ourselves trim and pretty and presentable for others, sometimes spending more time serving ourselves than we do God. In this way, women can become enslaved to their own bodies. And while it is difficult to know whether a specific woman is in bondage to this type of idol (and we should be VERY careful before making such an assumption), we can think carefully about our own role in addressing this larger problem.

Modesty in dress, home, or lifestyle is about the primacy of God’s glory, but it is also a loving witness to those around you. Modesty is the discarding of self-styled idols that have captured our culture and our Christian communities. When a kind of idolatrous vanity has entrenched itself in your community, the most loving thing you can do is to live modestly in response.

William Wilberforce once wrote, “When blessed with wealth, let them withdraw from the competition of vanity and be modest, retiring from ostentation, and not be the slaves of fashion.” I encourage you to consider the most troubling “competitions of vanity” in your church community. Is it bodily exposure, is it having a nice home, or the illusion of a perfect family? Is it self-righteousness masquerading as holiness?

Whatever the idol, modesty is one means of envisioning a different way. When your weaker sisters are captured by the idol of materialism or sexual objectification, you have the opportunity to either encourage their behavior or exemplify a godly alternative, and modesty is one avenue for doing so. In this way, I see modesty not as a trump card for holding women accountable to arbitrary standards about dress, but as a self-giving ministry to others. It asks not what your sister should be doing differently, but how you can better love and build up your sister with your own example.


  • Tim says:

    So many great points here, Sharon!

    1. “The modest person is oriented first toward the glory of God and second toward the love of neighbor. Personal glory is last.” And I have found that when I put my personal glory last it is rare that I ever get that far anyway.

    2. “Modesty in dress, home, or lifestyle is about the primacy of God’s glory, but it is also a loving witness to those around you.” Yowza, that’s good!

    3. “I encourage you to consider the most troubling ‘competitions of vanity’ in your church community. Is it bodily exposure, is it having a nice home, or the illusion of a perfect family?” In my community (not necessarily church, but generally), it’s all of the above Sharon.

    4. “I see modesty … as a self-giving ministry to others. It asks not what your sister should be doing differently, but how you can better love and build up your sister with your own example.” Yet another Yowza line! Build by example, not tear down by derision of the other person’s choices.

    Good job again, Sharon.


  • Patricia says:

    Thanks for turning the “modesty discussion” away from “shame” to “responsibility.” I think you made a much-needed distinction. In general, I try to be modest but I went through a spell where my “covering up” was the result of shame regarding my body, fear in relation to men being attracted to me and hope of being perceived as “spiritual” by other women at church. I wasn’t thinking about my responsibility to God or my brothers and sisters, I was thinking about myself. Vanity. The Lord revealed His truth to me and I saw that modesty should not come out of fear, shame and self-righteousness. How would you recommend discussing this topic in an effective way–my youth group seems to always gravitate towards shame and creating “problems” for men. :/

  • Meghan says:

    You’ve given me a lot to think about. For a long time now, I have been conscious of trying to make dress choices that were not immodest in the sense of possibly causing men struggling with lust not to stumble. But your post is making me think about the way in which I dress that possibly causes other women to stumble. I really enjoy fashion and styling–I see them as art forms and ways of expressing creativity. So, when I get dressed, once I have figured out that I’m not dressing in a lust-captivating way, I move on to thinking about what colors and styles and textures and types of pieces go together. What’s interesting is that I don’t dress like this to impress other people–I just think it’s fun and creative–but then other girls will start to gush with, “Oh, you’re so cute,” “always so put together,” etc., etc. I start to feel badly because of the attention I get; which is not my intention! So, what would be a good approach here? I will definitely be praying about this: how can I reflect my great love for my neighbor and brothers and sisters in my dress? Any feedback would be helpful, though. I don’t think our great, big God, the original creative genius, would want me to limit my own creativity, do you???

    I could go on and on…but I won’t. 🙂 Would love to hear your feedback, Shannon, and other ladies’ opinions as well!!!


  • Meghan says:

    Oops! Sharon (not Shannon), is what I meant…sorry! 🙂

  • Tammy says:

    I don’t know how helpful I can be here. For years I struggled with a poor self-image, then lost a significant amount of weight. The weight loss came before my acceptance of God’s unconditional love, so I very hesitantly began accepting my “new” (actually the one God created) body.
    I think I’m closer to a balance now. I belong to a vibrant women’s Bible study and an equally vibrant church, and I tend to observe how the women closest to my age dress. I don’t try to imitate; I follow their lead and add my own personality with accessories.
    Until very recently I had trouble accepting compliments, but now, with a better understanding of God’s love (that it includes me!), I can give a simple “thank you!” and not feel bad about it.
    I think when we look our best – not hot, not obvious, not trend-obsessed – we reflect God’s grace. We feel good, and people can see more of Christ in us; it helps us in our everyday witness to others.
    I have a long way to go in my journey, but my advice is to dress in a manner pleasing to God, let it reflect the personality God gave you and accept the positive reaction! Then give Him the glory. I hope this helps.

  • Tammy says:

    I just thought of this. There is an excellent book, “Good Girls Don’t Have to Dress Bad: A Style Guide for Every Woman,” by Shari Braendel, that might help. I have heavily highlighted my copy!

  • Meghan says:

    I just read your response to my post, Tammy. Thank you very much!I’ll have to look into the book you suggested!


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