What the Bible Doesn’t Teach about Modesty

In honor of the Olympics (and futbol), and the current blog series on Lies We Tell Girls, a rerun. One of my favorites.


Yikes, cover that thing up.

The only thing that bothers me more than bad grammar is bad theology.

I heard it again, one more time, on Christian talk radio. “Guys can’t help how they feel. Girls don’t realize what boys feel physically when exposed to their bodies. They need to take responsibility to keep their brothers from stumbling.”

It’s time for this idea to die. It’s been around, healthy and strong, for too long. It’s dangerous. It’s demeaning to both genders. And—it’s unbiblical.

I could approach this psychologically, sociologically, or logically. But let’s go at the question with the criteria that should always come first—biblically.

Four things the Bible does not teach about modesty—and one it does.

The Bible does not teach that the body is shameful.

Four years ago, we spent an afternoon on a beach in Barcelona. Aware that parts of the beach were “clothing optional,” we opted for the first crescent, the one deemed “safe for the whole family.” We learned, quickly, that apparently tops are optional everywhere. So our first exposure to cultural norms in Spain was a bit of a shock.

But you know what? I didn’t see a single man on that beach assaulting a woman because she was topless and therefore he couldn’t help himself. What I saw were families and friends enjoying a day at the beach together, completely oblivious to one another’s state of not-dress.

Beth 9.9.11 056Genesis says that the creation of humans was very good. God rejoiced in the forms he had created. Shame entering the world didn’t change that. In fact, the Bible tends to celebrate beautiful women and strong men—as well as strong women and beautiful men.

This isn’t to say that we don’t dishonor our bodies when we treat them shamefully. It’s to give a starting point from which to have the discussion. That start is, and must be, that God created the human body fearfully and wonderfully (Psalm 139). It is never to be shamed for its mere appearance.

The Bible does not teach that we can “blame the victim.”

I can’t find a single instance in the Bible where a sexual assault is implied to be the woman’s fault. Bathsheba (2 Sam 11), Tamar (2 Sam 13), Dinah (Gen 34)–all recorded as sins of the men involved, not women who “had it coming” by the way they behaved or dressed.

No one said Bathsheba should not have been bathing naked on her roof. No one admonished Tamar for going into her half-brother’s bedroom without forethought. No one blamed Dinah for wandering into an area where “foreign” men might harm her.

Scripture solidly places the responsibility where it belongs—on the perpetrator. They do not get a pass because the women involved were beautiful and they couldn’t help themselves, and the opportunity was right in front of them.

It’s right there on the street. I can’t help myself. Must walk in and buy fudge . . .  Yeah, I don’t think so.

The Bible does not teach that we can blame others for our sin.

The New Testament follows suit, with Jesus warning that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5.28). Jesus doesn’t add, “unless she’s dressed revealingly” or “except when you feel like you can’t control yourself.” It is what it is—you choose to look with lust, you can’t blame the person you’re looking at. To imply otherwise is to strip from men the power to look away, to make a moral choice, to obediently honor others.

For no other sin do we offer this excuse. Try these alternatives. “Hey, you parked your brand new sports car in the driveway. You were just asking to have it stolen.” “The company leaves its books open for anyone to embezzle. I couldn’t help myself—I wanted money.”

No one would make such ridiculous statements. Yet that is exactly what we say when we tell girls, “Men can’t help how you make them feel when you dress immodestly.” No other sin we catalog gets a pass on personal responsibility. Only male lust. Yet we continue to perpetuate the lie that our girls have to cover up to save their brothers from themselves.

That is offensive to guys of good character and enabling to those of bad.

(And anyone who says girls can’t be just as visual hasn’t heard women watching the World Cup lately, trust me.)

We have more in common with fundamentalist Islam than with Jesus when we demand that women cover up so that men don’t sin. Jesus simply told the men—it’s in your power to look away. Do it. Honor what I created.

The Bible does not teach a dress code.

Yes, I would agree that the general message of Scripture is to cloth oneself with dignity. But those verses we always use as proof texts when preaching to girls? Let’s look at them again.

“Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2.9).

“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” (1 Peter 3.4).

In context, Paul and Peter are addressing the same thing, and it is not lack of coverage. It’s excess. Women who appear in church flaunting their wealth on their heads and necks. Ladies who felt the need to show everyone else how much they could afford to look good. The sin was pride—not immodestly.

The word “modestly” in these verses carries the meaning of “downcast eyes”–in other words, Paul is advocating humility and self-control. Funny, I hear plenty of teaching on how girls must cover themselves up to obey the Scripture, but I have yet to hear about how they should ditch the gold and pearls. Lots of folks want to expound on how tight a dress can be, but no one I’ve listened to recently has commented on the expensive designer label inside.

Yes, scripture warns against “playing the harlot.” It warns against seductive behavior. But this behavior is clearly one of attitude and intent, not dress. It is a warning for women who do try to use their sexual power to get what they want, certainly a valid warning for our day.

The terrible trend of our girls mimicking stage idols who sell their bodies for fame and profit has a host of consequences those idols don’t have to live with but our girls do. But the behavior described in Proverbs is that of words, looks, and actions, not of a woman walking down the street in a low cut shirt.

So what does the Bible teach about women’s dress?

The Bible teaches self (and mutual) respect.

IMG_4733Am I saying women should be free to wear (or not wear) whatever they wish? Rather, I’m saying women (and men) should be taught the truth about why they dress with care.

Girls should learn that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, amazing creations of God, costly purchases bought by Christ for His purposes. They should learn to respect and love their bodies as the image of God.

And so should men. The treatment should be equal and no different.

When a girl understands and believes this, truly? She will dress in a way that self-respects. It’s a natural reaction. It’s the reaction of loving obedience, not shame. It’s the reaction God wants from us all.

3 thoughts on “What the Bible Doesn’t Teach about Modesty

  1. Pingback: Lies We Tell Our Girls – jill.m.richardson

  2. Pingback: Jesus the Feminist – jill.m.richardson

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