Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

3 Things We Keep Getting Wrong about Modesty

  • Bronwyn Lea Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 29, 2021
3 Things We Keep Getting Wrong about Modesty

In the dozens of messages about modesty I heard growing up at school, youth group, and camp; there was one unifying theme: Christian women better be modest, and the application of this message was consistently clear. ‘Modest’ meant women needed to cover up and eschew any revealing or tight-fitting clothing.

As a woman, the responsibility for this was mine. And the reason for it was just as clear: to protect my Christian brothers from stumbling.

“Trust me,” warned youth pastor after youth pastor, “I was a teenage boy once. I know how they think.” I went to an all-girls school and lived in a house full of daughters: I was duly chastened. Get behind me, spaghetti straps of Satan.

Now, with twenty years of ministry with college students and young adults behind me, and now the parent of a teen girl myself; I realize how much more there is to modesty as a virtue than the narrow message I once heard.

Here are 3 surprising truths about modesty Christians should know:

1. Modesty Is Not about Clothing

The dictionary definition of modesty explains it as the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities, or showing moderation in one’s behavior (such as being free of boasting, pretension, and vanity.) It is a virtue; a character trait overlapping with humility, self-control, and meekness.

The Greek word for modesty, aidous (found in 1 Timothy 2:9) can also be translated as decency or appropriateness. Its opposite is hubris, an inflated pride or grandiose sense of self. When Romans 12:3 instructs us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but with sober judgement; we might explain this as instruction in modesty.

Modesty does more than describe a kind of closet, with revealing clothing and inappropriate wardrobe choices. Rather, modesty describes a kind of character, revealing humility and contextually appropriate wise choices.

We are called to modest budgets and lifestyles, modest responses and reactions to inflammatory things we hear and read, and a modest assessment of our gifts and opportunities. Romans 12:3 gives a beautiful description of what modesty looks like in practice: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has given you.”

As followers of Jesus, men and women of every age are called to modesty. Rather than a set of high-pressure rules just for women, it is an attitude of the heart towards God that all Christians should aspire to.

2. Modesty Is about Valuing Something Positive, Not Covering Something Shameful

While modesty is a character trait that can refer to many aspects of life (including emotional disclosures, spending habits, and more), in Christian circles the conversation about modesty has usually focused on how we care for and clothe our bodies.

Our self-care and grooming choices are one area where we practice our beliefs about modesty. But more often than not, the motivation for modesty is shame about our bodies.

The Holy Scriptures teach that God created our bodies, and he made them good. Our bodies are temples to be taken care of.

God himself came to earth in a body, showing the dignity of the human body in the most intimate way possible.

The church has been battling the old gnostic lie that the spirit is good but the body is bad since the Council of Nicea in AD 325, and yet it still sneaks its way into the church in many forms.

When we treat our bodies and sexuality as “problems” to be solved—or at least ignored so we can flourish spiritually—we are creating a division that God did not intend. Scripture repeatedly affirms God’s good creation intent in our bodies: he created us with flesh and called it good, and God himself took on flesh in the incarnation (Genesis 1:31. 2:7, 21-25; John 1:14).  

As such, when we come to think about the principle of modesty as applied to our bodies, it is worth reframing the conversation. Modesty is about honoring and protecting the dignity of our bodies, not about covering them because they’re shameful.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 5:28-29, it is because we love our (and our spouse’s) body that we feed, care for, and clothe it. And in some mysterious way, this models the way that Christ loves, feeds, and clothes his body, the church.

Our bodies and our sexuality are precious to God--but God created sex to be enjoyed. So rather than feeling ashamed of this fact, we can embrace it, and cover our bodies with nobility and dignity--honoring God in the process.

3. Modesty Is Important in Relationships (But Not for the Reasons You Think)

One of the things modesty does in practice is it accurately assesses a situation and then chooses how to engage wisely. Let me give a couple examples of how this works out in non-clothing-related ways before we turn to the application between men, women, and dress code.

Example 1: Modesty is one of the five virtues taught in martial arts training. An instructor explains that being modest can help keep you out of trouble: if you can accurately assess the potential danger of getting into a fight, know how dangerous physical confrontation can be and how to avoid it, and also have a good self-assessment of what your skill levels are--you can avoid unnecessary danger or conflict. In other words: modesty will help you pick your battles.

Example 2: Modesty means having the self-awareness to reveal what is wise and appropriate in the context. This could refer to your secret ninja skills in the example above, but it also could mean knowing when to share emotional disclosures.

Intimacy is built when people reveal personal things to one another, and the more exclusive the reveal, the more intimate we consider it to be. Whether you’re showing parts of your soul or parts of your skin--if you’re showing someone something that no-one has seen before, you’re wading into the waters of intimacy.

Someone who shares a huge amount of deeply personal information to a stranger might be described as emotionally immodest. They’re revealing more than is wise given the intimacy of the relationship.

Thinking of modesty in this way--as something that protects intimacy--can help frame how modesty can bless and serve relationships within a community (rather than just police teenager dress code). If we are a community who want healthy, vital and holy intimate relationships, then we will honor modest acts of self-restraint that protect those intimacies. Because we honor bodies, we don’t flaunt or hurt them.

Because we honor truth and trustworthiness, we don’t over-disclose. Because we see sex and sexuality as a gift of God, we protect and steward it, rather than suppress or abuse it. All these are expressions of modesty: ways we show honor to ourselves and others in our day to day actions.

These 3 surprising truths about modesty don’t lower the bar, in fact they raise it. The call to modesty is about far more than the length of a skirt or whether swim apparel has one-piece or two: it’s about a worldview that honors the good things God has given us, and places the responsibility on each of us to honor these things too.

The world might say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, but the Spirit reminds us to be modest. But modesty doesn’t say, “If you’ve got it, hide it.”  Rather, modesty says “If you’ve got it—whatever it is—give thanks to God for it, and use it with joy and for the common good.” 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World. She and her husband are from South Africa but now live in Northern California, where they and their three kids count their church community as family. Find out more at www.bronlea.com.