I wince when I look at the photo. Don and I are standing in the sun with our firstborn son, flanked by Don’s elderly grandparents. Grandpa has just lifted up our son toward heaven to give thanks. All of us are beaming with joy.
And I am wearing a very short dress.
The dress was in style at the time, but it looks immodest. I wish I had been wearing a different dress for this impromptu, but now important picture.
That’s a tough word.
That’s a tough concept for women.
Modesty is a relative concept that is difficult to define. Take the hijab, for example. When the young woman waited on me at the store, I did an involuntary double take.
“So, N______ allows the hijab,” I said.
“Yes, they’re really good about it,” she answered.
“Why do you wear it?” I asked.
“It’s for modesty.”
“Modesty?” I questioned.
“Yes, to cover the hair and look more modest. Of course, in Muslim countries it works better because a woman wearing one blends in, whereas here it makes her stand out. I get lots of stares!”
“So why do you wear it, if people stare?”
“It’s what God wants,” she answered.
I asked, “Why does he want that?”
“For me to be modest,” she said again.
What is modesty? Is it necessary for a woman need to wear a hijab to be modest? Surely not. Yet, what does God want from women? Does He give us a list to follow so that we know we are modest? Shall we adopt the hijab just to be ‘safe’ and ‘know’ that we are pleasing Him? And what about cultural factors such as age, geography and climate, and what activity we might be engaged in, e.g. sports, beach?
Modesty is needed in every century and in every culture. It is needed by women of every age, but it is variable. Modesty has to do with the occasion. What is modest and appropriate for exercise and beachwear, is not appropriate for worship and weddings or the workplace. And modesty has to do with the expectations of the culture in which one lives. Swimmers of an earlier era would not have dreamed of wearing the modest bathing suit I wear to swim with my grandchildren.
What does God have to say in His Word about modesty for women? It may surprise you to learn that He says very little about the word modesty. The word modesty appears only once in the NIV, as does modestly.
Each of these words is translated from a different Greek word. In 1 Corinthians 12:23, “the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty” the Apostle Paul uses euschemosyne. In 1 Timothy 2:9, “I want women to dress modestly” he uses kosmios to convey his meaning. These two Greek words are used infrequently in the New Testament, making it difficult to build a theology of modesty.
But what we can do, quite well, is build a theology of purity. Purity is the value God is seeking in women. This is standard for dressing ourselves. Purity beats modesty any day. Purity addresses a whole different issue—whom does my heart want to please as I clothe my body?
Purity is an internal quality—no one can see it. But as soon as we dress ourselves and live our lives, purity begins to show. Purity is a choice of the spirit, the soul. God calls for both women and men to be pure. The NT writers—Paul, Peter, James and John, all use the same Greek word for purity, the word hagnos. They consider purity an essential of the Christian faith.
Paul says that we are to think about whatsoever is true, noble, right, pure (Philippians 4:8). He wants to present the Corinthian church to Christ as a pure virgin with right doctrine, not deceived by the serpent’s cunning (2 Corinthians 11:2). He admonishes young pastors to keep themselves pure (1 Timothy 5:22), and to instruct the older women to teach the younger women to be pure (Titus 2:5). He counsels young pastors to treat the young women in their churches with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2).
Peter says that the purity of a woman’s life can win over an unbelieving husband to faith in Jesus (1 Peter 3:2). He links purity to a woman’s style of dress, saying that her beauty should not come from braided hair, gold jewelry or fine clothing. He stresses that she should depend upon her internal gentle and quiet spirit for her attractiveness (1 Peter 3:1-6).
James says that the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving (James 3:17). And John uses the word pure to describe our Lord, asking his readers to purify themselves just as the Lord is pure (1 John 3:3).
Wow, powerful stuff about purity.
If we Christian women are truly seeking God’s purity, we will have no issues with modesty.
To be pure is to please God, in every way, with everything that I put on my body. To be pure is to look in the mirror, and ask, “Are you pleased, Lord? Do the clothes that I have put on bring glory to Your Name? Am I dressing for You or to cause men, and women, too, to look at me? Is this neckline too low? Is this skirt too short? Are my jeans too tight? Do these clothes reflect Your purity, Lord?”
Aren’t you thankful that the Lord didn’t decree a dress code in the Bible? We are not called to wear the hijab or the burka, and we don’t have to wear a corset as women did centuries ago, to the detriment of their own health! No, we are free to wear pants to school and comfortable shorts for a hike, to wear a swimsuit to swim at the beach, to wear a skirt to a wedding. And we don’t need a ruler to measure the length of our skirts.
All we have to do is meet God’s standards for being pure.
So easy, and so hard.
May God give us women grace and courage to follow His ways.
For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.