March 15, 2008

What does the Bible say about modesty?

Okay – time to dive into the topic. My thoughts on the topic of modesty begin with the fact that the word modesty no longer communicates what it meant a hundred years ago and earlier. There are shades of the original meaning still lingering, but for the most part the original meaning is lost in our current understanding of that word.

Modesty: 1531, "freedom from exaggeration, self-control," from M.Fr. modestie, from L. modestia "moderation," from modestus "moderate, keeping measure, sober," from modus "measure, manner." Meaning "having a moderate opinion of oneself" is from 1553. Modest (adj.) is first recorded 1565.

Modern Language Association: Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 14 Mar. 2008.

When the topic of modesty comes up in a youth group or a women’s bible study or a picnic table conversation, everyone’s thoughts immediately turn to clothing. This is somewhat odd since we still understand the statement, “they live modestly.” This statement means, of course, “they live simply” or “they are not ostentatious. The opposite would be someone who lives in a flashy way, drawing attention to themselves, living in the spotlight.

In the blog post I referenced yesterday (Walking Billboards), Mrs. McDonald used the King James Version’s translation of 1 Peter 1:14 to address the topic of modesty, which to modern society’s ears means clothing. In the King James, 1 Peter 1:14 says, “As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance.” It’s an interesting choice of verses to use, especially in the KJV.

Another word that carries a different meaning today than it did more than a hundred years ago is the word “fashion.” Fashion magazines are about … clothing. The fashion column in the local newspaper is about … clothing. A person of “high fashion” is a person who wears designer … clothing. So using the King James version of 1 Peter 1:14 was evidently an attempt to make the reader think that 1 Peter 1:14 has something to say about … clothing. In a distant, indirectly connected way, it may. The phrase “not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts” is translated in a more modern version (one in our language) as “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (ESV). The Greek word ( / suschematizo) that was translated “fashion” in the KJV and “conform” in the ESV is the same Greek word used in Romans 12:2 when we are admonished: “Do not be conformed to this world,” and I have never heard anyone make the argument that Romans 12:2 is speaking of clothing.

These verses do touch indirectly on our manner of dress, as we are told in these verses that our dress, along with all other areas of our lives, should not be patterned after, molded after, fashioned after those who make up the secular, non-believing world. That doesn’t mean that we are to reject everything the world does, as the Amish have done in their rejection of automobiles and incandescent lights, but that we should not be striving to live like the world. In other words, blending in with the world should not be our focus. But rather, our focus is to be on living lives worthy of our calling as children of God. So then, these verses are teaching us not what we should wear, but they are teaching us the proper target of our mind’s focus.

But now on to the topic of clothing and its related fashion accouterments. The bible does directly address these things. Here is one of the verses that deals with dress:

1 Peter 3:3-4 (ESV)  Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.

In this verse, examples are offered of the word “adorning” in order to establish a definition. The examples are: “the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing.” And then to further the definition an antonym is given in the phrase: “but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” And to show how very important this is we are told that this type of adornment “in God’s sight is very precious.”

If we take this verse on its face without using our ability to discern, it seems that this verse is telling us that we should not ever wear clothing (Do not let your adorning be external, … the putting on of clothing). But that’s not the point of the verse. What it is, in fact, saying is that we should not be consumed with interest in such things as fashion, manner or style of dress, and personal presentation, but rather with being a Godly person.

So then, Mrs. McDonald’s blog, which reveals that she writes often of matters related to clothing and dress and has even written books and magazine articles on the topic, is in direct violation of this verse. We are not to concern ourselves with this sort of focus.

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Does this topic come up elsewhere in the bible? 1 Timothy 2:8-10 says:"I desire then that in every place the ... women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

Once again, the parallel is given. Women are admonished to adorn themselves in “respectable apparel,” which is then defined as “good works.” In other words, Paul is saying that women’s focus should not be on how pretty they are, but on good works. These verses actually head in the opposite direction of essentially every discussion of modesty that I have ever heard. The typical conversation about modesty focusing the minds of the young ladies directly on their clothing and then encouraging them to be as plain and unappealing as they can possibly be. And I think the reason is because we misunderstand the meaning of the word modesty. Or perhaps because we know that if we redefine the word modesty, we can use the redefined term to force other people (say that teenage girl we happen to see walking with her mother through the store) to wear what we personally prefer to wear.

So what did modesty mean to people who used the word a hundred or more years ago? Perhaps we can get an idea by looking at something written back then:

June 4

Laden boughs hang low. The nettle mounts above its fellow weeds, but the violet lies shrouded under its leaves and is only found out by its own scent.

Walking one day by a stream, we were conscious of a delicious perfume, and only then did we perceive the little blue eyes which were looking up to us so meekly from the ground on which we stood. Virtue is always modest, and modesty is itself a virtue. He who is discovered by his real excellence, and not by his egotistical advertisements of his own perfections, is a man worth knowing. Spurgeon’s Daily Help

What made the violet modest in Spurgeon’s perspective? What made it modest was the fact that, although the violet had incredible beauty, it did not call attention to itself. It wasn’t modest because it had shunned the blue petals in favor of long, loose-fitting earth-toned petals that were thick enough to cover any bumps that might have lain beneath them. It was modest because its beauty was not being thrust upon the watching world.

This is what modesty means in the Bible. We are to be concerned with our inner man, with our spiritual condition, with our sanctification, with becoming more Christlike. Outward adornment, clothing, hair and other matters of fashion are still to be considered, but they are secondary to our primary interest of focusing our attention and the attention of others on Jesus Christ.

But as a side issue, I think it is unscriptural to develop ministries and careers based around advising young ladies about what clothing they should wear—as long as the only thing we’re telling them is don't wear this and don't wear that. The appropriate ministry, if one feels so called, would be to teach young ladies that their spiritual life is of utmost importance and undue focus on external fashion is of secondary importance (not unimportant, but secondary).


  1. Thank you for walking us through the scriptures and showing us what the Bible DOES say and why contrasts are so very important in scripture. It is clear that many people only take the first part of a contrast and teach it as the sole truth instead of seeing that the actual contrast is really what was the point of the scripture!

    I am encouraged to see that more people are starting to see things as they really are and trying to call attention to them.

  2. Thank you for these good thoughts. You make some great distinctions! I suppose it might seem like a subtle difference or just a matter of semantics since the outcome (in terms of outward appearance) might be the same. But the reasoning and motivation matters very much, especially when you're teaching others.

    And of course rightly handling the Scriptures is a must.

  3. I have addressed this topic on my blog and came to similar conclusions using Webster's 1828 Dictionary ~

    Modesty - That lowly temper which accompanies a moderate estimate of one’s own worth and importance. This temper when natural, springs in some measure from timidity, and in young and inexperienced persons, is allied to bashfulness and diffidence. In persons who have seen the world, and lost their natural timidity, modesty springs no less from principle than from feeling, and is manifested by retiring, unobtrusive manners, assuming less to itself than others are willing to yield, and conceding to others all due honor and respect, or even more than they expect or require.