The Cultural Component of Modesty

By March 20, 20128 Comments

Following my last post, I was surprised (and pleased!) by the number of commenters who asked me to write more. I thought for sure that my post had dragged on way too long, so your responses tell me that this is a topic about which you are interested in learning more!

As I looked through the newest comments on Caryn’s Her.meneutics post, two things struck me: First, a lot of Christians have a startling disdain for the human body. Second, some of the most popular assumptions about modesty are not Scriptural but cultural.

Regarding the first point, I am not going to address that now. I need to spend more time thinking about it and studying God’s Word. I don’t think I fully understand the complexity of this problem and why it is so pervasive, so I want to do the topic justice.

What I will address today is the cultural aspect of modesty.

We live in a culture that hyper-sexualizes the female body. Advertisements frequently display the female body as though it is an enticing piece of meat, and countless men are addicted to pornography. It is because of this climate that the responses to Caryn’s post are somewhat understandable. When a woman’s body is on display, our brains are trained to process it in a very particular way.

Where we go astray is when we label that instinct as innate. Although men will always be attracted to women, there is also an element of cultural conditioning at work. This becomes clear when we look at Christians in other cultures.

In the last couple years I have had the privilege of taking some Intercultural Studies classes as a part of my degree, and my professors have all shared stories about the conflict that arises when Western missionaries impose their standards of modesty on other cultures. In the name of purity, these missionaries have sometimes sexualized the female body in a way that it had not been sexualized before. To give you an example, I found an excerpt from a book titled Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions. Written in 1958 by Eugene A Nida, he recounts the following comical yet thought-provoking experience:

“But we are not going to have our wives dress like prostitutes,” protested an elder in the Ngbaka church in northern Congo, as he replied to the suggestion made by the missionary that the women should be required to wear blouses to cover their breasts. The church leaders were unanimous in objecting to such a requirement, for in that part of the Congo the well-dressed and fully-dressed African women were too often prostitutes, since they alone had the money to spend on attractive garments. Different peoples are in wide disagreement as to the amount or type of clothes required by modesty. Not long ago one of the chiefs in the Micronesian island of Yap forbade any woman from coming into the town with a blouse. However he insisted that all women would have to wear grass skirts reaching almost to the ankles. To the Yapese way of thinking, bare legs are a sign of immodesty, while the uncovered breasts are perfectly proper.

Stories likes these remind us that we read Scripture through a cultural lens. Some of the standards we assume to be Biblical are actually societal, which is one of the reasons we need the church. Christians from other cultures help us to identify our own context with a little more clarity.

Does that mean that cultural standards of modesty are irrelevant? Definitely not. In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul instructs women to adorn themselves with modesty, not with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” The IVP New Testament Commentary tells us that this was a caricature of wealthy women of the day. In other words, the problem is not the wearing of pearls and gold itself. Women do not sin by braiding their hair. Instead, Paul is applying a universal principle to a cultural practice. These descriptors signify the flaunting of wealth, to which Paul replies with an appeal for modesty.

(It is also worth pointing out that Paul’s understanding of modesty is here applied to wealth, not the sexual body. Again, I think that speaks to our culture’s fixation on the body.)

All of that to say, the cultural aspect of modesty does not thrust us into moral relativism. Scripture calls us to respect our surrounding culture and give weight to existing norms if we hope to have a credible witness. In a culture that objectifies women and interprets bodily exposure as self-exploitation, we cannot be naive about the message we send with our dress.

HOWEVER, this cultural standard is not to be confused with a universal standard of bodily modesty, nor does it communicate how God feels about your body. I tend to think that the universal principle of modesty is much larger than any discussion about dress–it is instead about the orientation of our hearts toward God and the proper use of our bodies and possessions.

What’s more, there is an important tension between respecting cultural standards and redeeming them. Our culture has some extremely destructive views of the female body, so while it is important to guard our Christian witness by acknowledging societal norms, we must also work to undermine those beliefs and practices that are antithetical to the character of God.

I think that Caryn’s post was a method of Christian resistance in this area. While many Christians respond to the perversions of our culture by further hiding the female body, I think this accomplishes little in the way of redemption. Although modest dress may guard our witness, we must also put forth a theology of the female body that is true to Scripture and proclaims the goodness of our creation. As the comments section on Caryn’s post reveals, this latter category is an area in which we have much more work to do.


  • Tim says:

    Sharon, thank you tons for giving us this follow up post. I hope you give us another as you think through how some believers have come to wrongly disdain the human body.

    In today’s post, this line seems central to me: “applying a universal principle to a cultural practice.” That’s it. The Bible has universal principles, eternal principles. Applying the Bible’s teaching on modesty, or avarice, or gluttony, or idolatry, or whatever, will play out differently in different cultures.

    It is nothing but cultural chauvinism to think we know the best – the only – way to handle a situation because of how we handle it in our own culture. It’s hubris too, since we don’t really handle these things all that well all the time anyway.

    Good job again, Sharon.


    P.S. Thanks for visiting my post at The Radical Journey this morning. It’s my pleasure to advocate for our sisters, and I left a reply to your comment there expanding on that.

  • Patricia says:

    This post is so good I don’t know what to say! LOL. We just had a Bible study on 1 Timothy 2 at my church last Friday and it was good….except when one brother said “modesty” meant “not skimpy.” I understood what he wanted to get at, but it was obvious to me that the word “modesty” is often interpreted as “covered” when the passage actually discusses ostentatious displays of wealth. Its tough, and nearly impossible, to read such a passage without a cultural lense. But by the help of the Holy Spirit, I think we can do better! I’m printing this post and showing it to my dad so he can put in (my) 2 cents for this Friday Study 🙂 Thanks!

  • Gina says:

    Nice job, Sharon!

  • Adam Shields says:

    I think one of the significant problems in a cultural discussion of modesty is the lack of sophisticated understanding of what culture really is. When I talk to many Americans they have not really studied another language or culture. I certainly am not fluent in another language, I only have some Greek and some Spanish, I have traveled internationally a couple times, but I have lived in a variety of cultural contexts in the US.

    But even in my small understanding of culture I have all kinds of red flags go up because most of the discussion has no understanding that there are any different cultural norms than the ones they operate by. This is a similar problem with the bible because most American don’t understand translation theory. American Christians often read a single version of the bible and read it as if it were not a translated document from a very different culture than ours.

    So when we have a discussion of modesty as Christians we have two problems. One we don’t understand the cultural context of scripture (or even that there was a cultural context that the passage was written into) and that we need to translate that passage into a cultural context in order to actually figure out what the passage should mean for us now.

    So I think it is hard to separate the theology of the body from cultural context because our cultural context so influences out theology of the body that a theology of the body simply cannot exist without a cultural context.

  • Liz says:

    Thanks for this post, Sharon! I was just talking about culture and modesty today with my fiance so this post was appropriately timed. I would be extremely interested to hear your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 11 in light of cultural modesty.

    I’m constantly blessed by your ministry through writing and aspire to bless in return!

  • Louise says:

    It’s true that modesty has become hyper-sexualised…when women are ashamed of nudity that shows that something has gone seriously wrong with our way of thinking. It’s so true about cultural differences- even between America and the UK, where modesty is an important topic but not obsessed over.

  • Carol J. Marshall says:

    Very significant post–and comments! The issue of universal principles vis a vis cultural practices is a crucial one. As individual believers and as the church we’re confronted with this continuously. Simple dogmatic pronouncements fall flat in the face of real life. God’s truth will always be magisterial, but we have to be very careful in discerning what those nuggets actually are. Bravi tutti for thoughtful words on this!

  • Rhonda Baker says:

    This was an excellent post. As a Women’s Pastor in Vegas I am obviously faced with living in a culture where girls and women of all ages are conditioned by what they see on the strip and on billboards – what is hyper-sexualized in one place in America is super hyper-sexualized here. I find that one of the first things I must teach women is to understand their identity comes from Christ. It is only from this place that I can begin to speak into the individual lives of new believers coming into the community of God. I have spoken about modesty (not in a wealthy form) to women who have never heard or even considered such before. It is quite a challenge here.

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