Clothing & Modesty
by David Crank
(From Volume 3 Issue 2 of Unless the Lord ... Magazine)
WHY write about clothing? Surely God doesn’t care about what we wear, does He? The Bible says man looks on the outside but God looks at the heart. So all that matters is our hearts, right?
Certainly choices in clothing are far less important than many other issues in the Christian life. Nevertheless, clothing was important enough for God to give a few specific instructions in the Bible through the writings of Moses, Paul and Peter. Besides these, some further insights can be obtained by studying other Biblical references to clothing.
Where do Christians stand on questions of how we should dress? Most Christians seem to follow the current fashions with little concern with where they lead. A minority of Christians seeks to dress significantly more modestly than the society at large. An even smaller minority advocates a strict code of dressing both modest and plain.
There was much Christian teaching about dress in earlier centuries. Early church fathers, Protestant reformers, and many church leaders (at least through the 1800s), exhorted Christians toward modest clothing. Why is this rarely taught today? It may be that all the Christians that proceeded our time were mistaken. Perhaps only the Christian teachers since the mid-1900s have applied the Bible correctly to this issue - or perhaps not!
The consistent teachings of earlier ages should really make us think. It is arrogance to just assume that the Christians of today are right and all those before have been wrong. It is certainly possible, but is it likely?
As Christians, we are not "of this world", but we are of necessity "in the world". We ARE influenced by the world system and the values of those around us. Even when following the examples of our Christian brethren, we must consider who has influenced them. They, like we, struggle to find and follow God's ways, without being conformed to this world. We must remember that some practices completely accepted by the Christian community, may be from the world rather than from the Lord.
The purpose of this article is to encourage us all to examine this issue in the light of God’s Word - prayerfully, objectively, putting aside as many of our biases as possible. Have we erred in either direction? Have we followed the world where we should have taken a different course? Or have we adopted convictions that go well beyond the Word and what God would have us do?
In this article, I will review a number of Scriptures and discuss some of the opposing arguments about clothing and modesty. The decision is yours! I will not be held accountable for your decision, any more than you will be for mine. We will each give account to the Lord.
1 Timothy 2:9-10. Paul's first letter to Timothy offers many instructions to Timothy about what to teach to the churches and how to deal with various controversies and false teachings. In chapter 2, Paul touches on some specific instructions regarding Christian women.
In the King James Version (KJV): “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”
The same verses in the New American Standard Version (NAS): “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”
For understanding, we need to look closely at the words (my primary sources used: Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words & Thayer's Greek Lexicon).
"Modest apparel" (KJV) and "proper clothing" (NAS) come from the Greek words, "kosmios katastole". "Kosmios" means orderly, well arranged, decent, modest. "Katastole" refers to a garment, the word being derived from the verb meaning ‘to send or let down, to lower’ (kata, "down," stello, "to send"). By its meaning, it is believed to refer to a long, flowing garment. This is not the only Greek word used for clothing or a garment.
"With shamefacedness and sobriety" (KJV) or "modestly and discreetly" (NAS) are the Greek words, "aidos" and "sophrosune". "Aidos" refers to a sense of shame, honor, modesty, bashfulness. "Sophrosune" refers to soundness of mind, self-control, and sobriety.
This was evidently a matter of some concern to Paul. His concern seems to be that the Christian women be good testimonies for the Christian faith, even in their attire. Many pagan women dressed indecently, immodestly, without any bashfulness or shame, with costly clothes and jewelry and extravagant hairstyles.
Christian women were not to dress the same way these pagan women did. In contrast to the pagan women, who adorn themselves to draw attention to their beauty, attractiveness or wealth, Christian women are to be adorned with good works. This is what is proper for the godly woman. Jesus also reminds us, in Matt 5:16, that it is our good works that bring glory to our Father.
1 Peter 3:2-4. The apostle Peter, writing to the churches in Asia Minor, also addressed much of the same issue as Paul did. After teaching submission to governing authorities and of slaves to their masters, he then begins to address Christian wives, saying, “In the same way ...”. He urges wives to be submissive to their husbands and explains how important this can be in winning an unbelieving or back-slidden husband to Christ. In verses 3-4, he further instructs the wives:
In the KJV: "Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price."
In the NAS: "Your adornment must not be merely external -- braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God."
Again an apostle speaks of a Christian woman's "adornment" (her clothing, jewelry, hairstyle, etc.). Peter seems to be speaking against "looking good" in accordance with the styles of that time. Rather, a Christian woman's prime concern should be her heart and her spirit, not her outward adornment. A meek and quiet spirit is the type of adornment to be truly valued, not the worldly and extravagant styles of the pagan women. Simple, modest and functional would seem sufficient for external adornment.
Deuteronomy 22:5. This verse, from the Law of Moses, raises a different issue concerning the clothing of both men and women.
In the KJV: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God."
In the NAS: "A woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God."
Note that though many think that women and men dressed much alike in Bible times, from this verse we see that there must have been a very clear distinction between the clothes of a man and that of a woman. There is no further elaboration on this verse in Deuteronomy, so there are differences of opinion as to the exact meaning and reason for this command. It was clearly a matter of importance to God, as breaking this command was referred to as an abomination. Many believe this command stems from God's original creation of male and female and the very distinctive natures and functions of each. Any blurring of these distinctions in the realm of clothing might also blur the differing roles God prescribed for each.
Genesis 3:7 & 3:21. In Genesis 2:25, we read that before they sinned, Adam and Eve were naked but not ashamed. Immediately after their sin, they became aware of their nakedness. In verses 7 and 21, we read of their first clothes.
In the KJV: 7 "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." … 21 "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them."
In the NAS: 7 “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings." … 21"The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them."
After they sinned and knew good and evil, they were concerned over being naked and God seeing them in that state (even with loin coverings). Note that their prime concern was to cover one particular area of their bodies. Yet when God came walking in the garden to see them, they hid, because they still regarded themselves as naked. Then in verse 21, God made clothing for them from animal skins. Both by comparison with the “aprons” and by the Hebrew word used, a garment that covered much more of their bodies (and that hid their bodies better) is implied.
Why did God provide them with this clothing? Was it to cover them well enough so that they no longer felt naked? Was it because God wanted them to have more modest clothing? They had not been cold before without clothes, so I assume it was not for warmth.
Deuteronomy 22:11-12. Shortly after the passage above concerning women wearing men's clothing and vice-versa, are two other commands relating to clothing:
In the KJV: 11 “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together. 12 Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself.”
In the NAS: 11 "You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together. 12 You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself."
There is much uncertainty about the reason for the prohibition in verse 11. Is there some health issue related to such blended fabrics? Was this sort of material related in peoples' minds with certain pagan worship practices? It is also mentioned in Leviticus 19:19, but with little help for understanding the "why".
The requirement for tassels in verse 12, is elaborated on in Numbers 15:38-40, explaining that these were for the Israelites to look at and remember all the commandments and to be holy to God. In effect, they were to wear one piece of distinctive clothing that set them apart from all other peoples, as a special reminder that they were holy to God and were to obey His commandments.
Prov 31:21-22. In Proverbs, we read of the excellent wife and how she clothes herself and her family.
In the KJV: “She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.”
In the NAS: "She is not afraid of the snow for her household, For all her household are clothed with scarlet. She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple."
The excellent wife is praised for clothing her family and herself well. Use of fine material and beautiful colors are not condemned, but praised. Her family looked very nice - wearing, perhaps, higher quality and better looking clothes than most. Perhaps this example is needed to balance the New Testament verses, that we not go too far and conclude that God prefers ugly clothes with no color.
Other Scriptures to Consider. There are many other Scriptures we could look to with passing references to clothing. There are also Scriptures relating to worldliness, causing a brother to stumble, looking with lust, etc., all of which might be applied to this question.
Applications / Opposing Arguments
Stylish Dress / Extravagance
The passages in 1 Timothy and 1 Peter seem to argue against extravagance in dress, hairstyles or use of jewelry. As was the case in ancient times, many styles of dress popular with unbelievers may fail this test. Christians should not thoughtlessly follow the dictates of fashion without considering what sort of dress is pleasing to God.
We should not dress so as to call attention to our wealth or social status. Clothing should not become a status symbol for us. We should be concerned with our hearts and with serving God with good works - not with impressing others or "fitting in" with our clothing. This may be best achieved by very simple and plain clothing.
On the other hand, the excellent wife of Proverbs 31, did show some concern with looking good for her husband and clothing her family well. Just because a style is new, does not mean it is bad. If it did, we would need to revert back to the oldest style of clothes (Adam and Eve's animal skins). Clothing can look nice and be colorful without being extravagant.
Sloppy or Disorganized Dress
Paul speaks of Christian women dressing in an orderly fashion and dressing properly. Some of the styles of today are extremely informal, with little concern for looking neat or orderly. Such clothing was first popularized by those living very undisciplined lives. Does adopting such a mode of dress give good testimony to our God, who is a God of order and the creator of all the beauty around us? If we are His servants, shouldn't our example show a little of what He is like? Can you picture Jesus in "sweats" or shorts and T-shirt? (But maybe that’s just because we have only thought of him in the robes of the first century.)
On the other hand, the verses in 1 Timothy and 1 Peter seem more concerned with not dressing very formally or richly. Is it not possible to dress informally without being considered "sloppy" or "disorganized"? Perhaps the best testimony is simply dressing with the degree of formality that the occasion calls for.
Women's Clothing: Dresses Only?
This is perhaps the most controversial question today about clothing.
For Dresses Only - Argument #1 - Violation of Deut 22:5. Pants have historically been men’s clothing, only recently (1900s) being adopted by women. When women wear pants, they violate the Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibition of women wearing a man's clothing. Though some women's pants are considerably different from men's pants, women's jeans and some other pants are virtually identical to the male version - the only recognizable difference is the shape of the body inside them. By adopting men’s clothing (pants), women are obscuring the God ordained differences between men and women's roles and this is an abomination to God.
Against Argument #1: 1) The Deut 22:5 passage is fairly obscure and may be just condemning what we refer to as cross dressing (where a man or woman truly tries to disguise themselves as being of the opposite sex). 2) Deut 22:5 is an Old Testament law pertaining to the Jews only. As Christians we are not under the Law. There are many other detailed rules like this in Deuteronomy that clearly do not apply to those outside the nation of Israel. 3) In Bible times, both men and women wore long robes similar to dresses. There is probably as much distinction today between men and women's pants and tops as there was then between men and women's robes. 4) Pants have now become women's dress in our society, so when women wear pants, they are not dressing in men's clothing. 5) Women in eastern Asia have worn pants for a very long time. Pants were not exclusively men's clothing there, as they were in the West.
For Dresses Only - Argument #2 - Obscuring God’s Design / Origins of Women’s Pants. Wearing only dresses maintains the clear distinction in dress taught in Deuteronomy 22:5. When women always wore dresses and men wore pants, there was a clearer distinction between the sexes. The significant difference in external clothing affirmed the significant differences in God given roles. Women looked very different - feminine - and were generally treated very differently by men.
The adoption of pants by women was brought about by the early women’s rights advocates, women wanting to eliminate or obscure all God ordained differences between the sexes. It was these same women who advocated sexual freedom for women (aided by both birth control and abortion), and tried to encourage women to forsake their traditional roles of wives and mothers.
Though women today wear pants almost as much as men, still our culture views pants as men’s clothing. Look at the restroom signs. Consider expressions we still use, like, "Who wears the pants in the family?" By this we mean who is the true leader of the family (the role God ordained for the husband, but often usurped by the wife).
The frequent unisex dressing of our society, as well as the prevalence of women working alongside men in nearly every occupation, has greatly narrowed the differences between male and female -contrary to God's design. There are many women today who choose to dress basicly the same as men nearly all of the time. Many also cut their hair very short, almost in a man's cut. Women choosing distinctively feminine clothing and hair styles, communicate that they embrace their different role as women.
Many Christian women of today, who have begun wearing modest dresses only, testify how men treat them differently when they are so dressed. They find most men to be more courteous and respectful. They are never treated like "just one of the guys". Maintaining distinctiveness in dress, as God intended, serves as a protection for women.
For Dresses Only - Argument #3 - Modesty. Pants are inherently immodest for women. Even loosely fitted pants reveal a great deal of a woman's shape in a way that encourages men to improper looks and lust. Tight pants (the way most are worn) clearly reveal every detail of a woman's shape below the waist. Pants quickly draw many men's eyes, at least long enough to assess how sexually attractive the woman is or isn’t. Many women do not realize how much many men appreciate this exhibition (some women do realize, but enjoy this form of admiration).
Is this not the essence of immodesty - dressing in a manner that regularly attracts attention to your body in this way? Is any form of clothing that strongly draws men's attention to a woman's body and her sexual attractiveness, properly classified as "modest", "discrete", or "proper" as described in 1 Tim 2:9-10?
With most women wearing pants much of the time, don’t men become desensitized to pants? Yes, they do - somewhat. A woman in pants does not generate the level of excitement and attention that would have resulted when women were rarely seen in pants. Yet even so, men today do commonly notice what is before them. Many Christian women might be a little embarrassed to find how many men could quickly recall the details of their shape in pants and perhaps even pick them out of a crowd by the same.
Aren't loose pants modest? They are certainly more modest than tight pants, but are not nearly as modest as a well chosen dress. Why? Virtually any motion that results in a little bending or just sitting, tends to pull the material of even loose pants close to the body, clearly showing the form. If a man or boy has any slight interest in determining the attractiveness of the woman, he will be ready to get an eye full at the appropriate moment. Looser pants of stiffer material and long tops that cover both the rear and the upper legs, help the cause of modesty a lot, but not like well chosen dresses.
Aren’t loose pants more modest than many dresses? Yes they are! The fashion designers have perfected the art of making immodest dresses. However, there are many types of dresses that are more modest than loose pants.
Looking at many different cultures over many centuries, why is it that women's clothes have generally revealed very little between the waistline and the knees? Perhaps it has been due to husbands and fathers trying to protect their wives and daughters from other men. Even in very primitive societies there are commonly significant differences in mens and women's clothing. The men may wear the barest of loincloths, but the women are usually much better covered below the waist, often with grass skirts. There seems to have generally been a concern for modesty in this area, with a loose garment like a skirt or dress preferred.
Arguments Against #3: 1) When a type of clothing has become common and widely accepted, can it still be considered immodest? If modesty is measured only by community standards - that which is accepted and deemed appropriate - then pants would meet this definition at this time and in this place. 2) If men want to look and lust, they are going to do so whatever you wear. It's their problem. It's not the woman's concern. What's the big deal about men seeing the shape of your body? They see a lot more when you go swimming. 3) Loose pants are as modest as most dresses - sometimes even more so!
Reasons for Women Preferring Pants
Reason #1 - Comfort: Pants are more comfortable than dresses (both in terms of how they feel and not worrying about keeping the dress down and your legs covered).
Response to #1 - Comfort: Many women will say that dresses are much more comfortable - IF you choose to wear comfortable dresses. Many women associate dresses with wearing pantyhose and high heels. If you choose to wear long and loose fitting dresses, jumpers or skirts, made from comfortable material, and wear socks and comfortable shoes - they are very comfortable. With long and full skirts, there is little problem with keeping your dress down. With pantaloons (or pantalettes) underneath dresses, even small girls can play and tumble with no concern of exposure.
Reason #2 - Practical: Pants are more practical than dresses for sports, outdoor activities, working in the yard or garden, climbing trees, or just for keeping warm.
Response to #2 - Practical: Long, full cut dresses actually work very well with most any sort of activity. Prior to 1900, women and girls did most everything in dresses. Women who wear only dresses can tell you how little they are hindered in any activity. Little girls can easily run and play, tumble, climb trees, without problem or discomfort and with complete modesty (with pantaloons underneath). Dresses can be plenty warm in most climates. Women used to only wear dresses, even in the coldest states of the U.S. Stockings, leggings and pantaloons can be used under dresses for added warmth.
Reason #3 - Fitting In: With so many other women wearing pants, it is easier to "fit in" when you dress the same. If you wear a dress in a place where most are wearing pants, you stand out and draw attention. Dressing differently sometimes leads to rejection by others.
Response to #3 - Fitting In: Should Christian women be afraid of looking different? Or of being rejected because of their clothing choices? If we are so different on the inside after coming to Christ, shouldn't we look a little different on the outside too? Is it bad to be different in terms of dressing in a more modest and feminine way than most?
Immodest Dresses, Skirts & Blouses
Dresses and skirt outfits can sometimes be very immodest. There are many ways that the female figure can be shown off to allure men. Dresses can be made tight fitting (showing a clearer shape) or short (showing more leg), or with a low neckline or low back (showing more flesh), or with clingy or see through material (more shape or flesh).
There are also many little things in the design of clothing or in the placement of decorations that can cause undue attention to a woman's body. Husbands and fathers should be of help in recognizing these smaller problem areas.
Modesty for Men and Boys
Scripture makes no general mention of modest dress for men, though there is a general concern with nakedness. Most Biblical instructions to modesty are addressed to women (though there is one pertaining to the Levitical priests and their clothing).
Modesty in women’s dress is of particular importance because of the way men are attracted by sight. Most women are much less affected in this way. However, there is still some impact, and increasingly so in our society, which has tried to condition women to respond like men in this area.
So it seems only wise for men and boys to also be reasonably covered in the presence of women. Running around shirtless in the sight of women or wearing very tight pants, might not present the best example. Though men have most always labored and fought less covered then their women, this is usually in the presence of other men or around immediate family.
Husband & Father's Role in Clothing Decisions
Wives, consult your husbands on this matter. Do not make major changes in how you or your daughters dress without your husband's approval. He is responsible for the whole family. Also listen to his advice about what things may attract improper looks from men.
Sometimes a husband wants his wife to dress immodestly. Why? Husbands enjoy looking at their wife's form. This is fine when there is no one else around. The problem is that there usually are others around, so the wife's attractiveness is displayed to any number of other men - men who have no business seeing her in this way.
A husband may also want to show off his wife's attractiveness to other men. He is proud of what an attractive wife he has. However, there is a difference between looking nice and looking very attractive. Husbands should carefully consider what they are encouraging others to admire - and possibly desire.
Wives, appeal to such a husband to reconsider what he is asking of you. His attempts to show you off also communicates something else - an advertisement to other men. In some cases it can expose you to other men’s advances and possible temptations to infidelity.
Where We Are
As you probably know by now, we hold to the dresses only position. Lori was not "dresses only" when we married, but shortly thereafter came close to that position (with my encouragement).
However, we made compromises on this conviction, most of which we came to regret as the years passed. With our first daughter, we began as dresses only, but then allowed her to follow her Christian peers in many ways during the teen years. We reestablished some of the dresses standard with her at a certain point, but with many exceptions where pants or shorts were permitted - to “fit-in with the group”. Perhaps we should have been stricter. Changing the dress standard during the teen years can be very difficult.
With our much younger girls, we have tried to be very consistent with holding to our convictions. Lori truly and totally wears dresses only. She makes nearly all of the girls’ clothes and chooses styles and materials that are very practical and modest. She also makes pantaloons for underneath the dresses, usually out of the same material as the dress. That way, even when a skirt rides up, it is hardly noticeable as the pantaloons look just like the dress. Even for nightclothes, the girls wear long gowns and pantaloons underneath.
There are also many practical advantages to making the girls’ dresses. Lori usually makes matching dresses and makes both at the same time (more efficient that way). Their clothes look very nice, but are very low cost. Their dresses also fit them for a longer period than pants would, as they start out near ankle length, then before they get too near the knees (if they are not worn out yet), Lori may add a ruffle to the bottom to extend the length again.
Another benefit of dresses for mothers: Jumpers and dresses with full skirts and loose waists can continue to be worn through a significant part of pregnancy and also work well for moderate variations in body weight. A well chosen dress or jumper can also make a very thin woman look a bit fuller, can hide excess weight and lumps, and can cover up either spindly or chunky legs. In comparison, pants tend to show all - the good, the bad and the ugly of your shaping. Dresses can make almost any woman look better, without disclosing all the details of her shape, for modesty's sake.
An added benefit of making your own clothes is being little impacted by the whims of fashion. However, it does take a little scrounging to find and stock up on good patterns. Sometimes a little mixing of pattern elements is also called for. Yet, this is a lot easier than finding ready made clothes that do not exhibit the excesses of whatever is the current season's fashion.
Probably no two Christian families will make exactly the same decisions on clothing. We must prayerfully apply the few scriptures we have to the clothing choices we make.
None of us are likely to perfectly please God with our family’s standards - we are too lacking in wisdom and sometimes resist where God may be leading. We need to extend grace to our brethren to be different in these areas.
However, that does not excuse any of us from the responsibility to carefully study the Scriptures and to apply them as fully as we are able. To reject the instruction of Scripture because you have already decided what you want to do, is sin and rebellion against God.