The teaching that women should dress modestly is based on the words of Paul in the book of 1 Timothy:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
But, in our Christian culture, this encouragement has lost some of its value. It has been reduced to the instruction that a woman must cover every bid of skin or else men will be inclined to stumble and succumb to lustful thoughts and actions.
In other words, the implied purpose of 1 Timothy 2:9 is about other people’s behavior.
Certainly there is power in the feminine image, and it can be (an is) often misused. But, to say that a Christian woman is sinning by wearing a bikini or that shorts and skirts must come to the knees is simply religion and misses Paul’s point.
This legalism about dress has several unhealthy consequences:
First, it takes responsibility for a man’s thoughts and actions away from the man. It is now taught that it is the woman’s responsibility to not incite a man. As a man, let me tell you that you can have every bit of skin covered, and my imagination left uncontrolled can still find something to lust over. On the flip side, femininity can be seductive fully clothed, so there must be more to modesty than simply the way a woman is dressed.
Second, it encourages a sense of self-justification through dress. Now there is a behavior to know if I am ‘ok’ or not, and similarly a way for me to judge other women. For example, ‘she has not met my standard of modesty, so I must love God more‘.
Third, it teaches women to be afraid of their femininity. There must be something wrong with this body if it has such a negative power. This fear can affect how a woman interacts with her husband, having never come to terms with what healthy femininity is. It can also teach a women to use the power of the feminine as a tool. Masculinity and femininity interacting in a healthy way is something our culture struggles with.
Fourth, it teaches that modesty is related only to sex. Women were created for more than their sexuality. (Which is a very counter cultural message in a culture in which feminism has been equated with free exercise of sexuality.) But, the idea of a woman dressing modestly is not just about the attention of men. Women look for affirmation from each other too. Take a look at a sample of selfies on Instagram sometime and see who is leaving comments. Lots of women saying “I want to look like you.”
Lastly, it separates the relationship between appearance and identity in Christ. The context of Paul’s encouragement regarding modesty in 1 Timothy 2 is that it comes after a reminder of the hope we all have in the risen Christ. Modesty is about freedom for women. That her source of worth is beyond her physical appearance. She is no longer bound by the standards of the world. Yet, even if a woman dutifully covers herself from head to toe everyday, that does not mean she has internalized this truth.
Should a woman dress modestly? Of course.
Is the standard of modesty the same for all women? Of course not.
Displaying one self in a way that garners attention is a function of pride and the false self. It is a way to validate an identity that is independent of God.
So, if a purpose of the way you dress is to garner attention and approval, then you have a modesty problem. No matter how much of you is covered.
Modesty has to do with identity. From where do we find our sense of self? Is significance judged by what other people think or by men’s attraction? Or is significance found in Christ – in the understanding that Christ gave himself as your ransom?
I work with followers of Christ to energize discipleship, improve relationships, decrease anxiety and facilitate leadership development. I am a certified coach specializing in pastoral leadership, relationships, discipleship, life transitions, and Christian identity. Also, I am the author of the forthcoming book Discovering Your Root: Developing Your Identity in Christ.
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