Modesty Ideals in The Church

I grew up with a strong dresscode, trying to adhere to a strong level of Biblical ‘modesty’. You’ll remember from my last post, I grew up in a very ‘unconventional church’ called ‘The Message’, if you missed that post, go check it out here. The dress code I followed for most of my life was as follows:

  • Must not wear pants, yoga pants, sweatpants, leggings, culottes, or shorts
  • Must wear a skirt or dress at all times that covered your knees
  • Must not wear ‘form fitting’ skirts, dresses, or tops
  • Must not wear a skirt or dress with a slit (even if the slit ended before the knee)
  • Neckline couldn’t be passed an inch below your collarbone
  • No skin peeking through (must be fully covered with proper neckline, short sleeves, and knees covered)
  • No open-back dresses or tops.
  • Could never wear swimsuit, or other attire that breaches these rules.
  • Must not wear sleeveless shirts
  • Must wear panty hose/ sheer stockings and closed toed shoes when attending church
  • Must not wear heels over 2 inches
  • Must not have tattoos
  • Must not have piercings
  • Must not wear nail polish
  • Must not wear makeup
  • Must not cut hair (not even a trim for split ends)

WHOA! Right? Of course, those rules were a little different from group to group, with different levels of persuasion depending on many factors, but however you look at it there were a lot of guidelines for dress. There are religions and other Christian sects that adhere to similar or even stronger levels of ‘modesty’. 

I’m also aware, that modesty, albeit not as extreme, is a topic discussed in many ‘regular’ Christian churches. That’s why I thought it was worth discussing. After I left that group and decided for a myriad of reasons that Christianity was the right way for me to go. I did some research into what modesty rules should be, keeping in mind a biblical perspective. What does the Bible say? What are the different ways those verses are interpreted? Why and to whom were those scriptures written for in the first place? I wanted to really dig deep and come out with a solid set of black and white rules (because that’s what I was used to).

I did not succeed. So if that’s what you’re looking for, I’m sorry to disappoint, unfortunately there is a lot of grey area. The topic of modesty will remain an open topic for more decades yet – if not until the end of time. There simply isn’t a way to prove any one specific set of modesty guidelines via the Bible, in a way that all Bible believers would agree to be 100% accurate. Without using fear tactics, faulty forms of arguments, argument from authority, or other such manipulation that is. 😉

What I did find from scripture was helpful however. When looking at the historical context of some specific guidelines given that were specific to how one presents oneself. For instance in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul is speaking to the Corinthians and telling the women not to braid their hair (umm, what’s that about?). When looking into the historical context instead of taking it at face value, it would seem that at that time in Corinth, braided hair or intricate hairstyles were a sign of wealth. In the same verse I’ve heard quoted (and quoted myself) many times for people to ‘dress modestly’,  the direct translation however varies, but it goes on to say that you shouldn’t wear fine clothes. Paul was addressing the class issue in the church, where people would dress up to go to church. We are all equal in the sight of God, so he was telling people not to flaunt their wealth or encourage the class system.  Similarly in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells believers that women shouldn’t cut their hair, and that men should. This, interestingly enough, was likely correlated with a popular cult at the time (the cult of dionysus) whose members were known to do the opposite to affiliate themselves with the cult (men grew out their hair and women cut it). So Paul was saying, ‘hey, don’t go looking like members of that cult!’ and people reading it at the time likely knew where he was coming from.

The interesting research I did on those verses, brought me to this conclusion: Dress in a culturally respectful way, not thinking that you are better than anyone else, but also not wearing things that directly link you to religious groups or ways of life that contradict scripture. So, like, maybe don’t wear the shirt that says something sleazy on it. Maybe don’t wear fishnet stockings. Dress in a way that will be respected in your culture, and with environmental awareness (Don’t wear a skirt rock climbing, because when people look up….). I would also go so far as to say that if the majority of people around you are following a strict dress code for religious reasons, it would be prudent to do the same out of respect.

Another thing I’d like to point out in such a post, is the double standard between men and women. The Bible says, If you look at a woman with lust, you have committed adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:27–28). I’ve seen this used as a verse to encourage women not to be a stumbling block for a man, by dressing in such a way where he isn’t tempted. I believe that if someone uses this verse for women, then likewise men should be expected to pay attention to what they wear, having equal standards for themselves. I understand that men and women are ‘wired differently’ and men may very well be ‘more visual’ in thought than women, but if men expect that courtesy from women, they should return the favor.

I would also like to note that we are are each responsible, with the Lord’s help, for our own heart health. I don’t think it a prudent mindset to blame the opposite gender for a lustful thought, when we should be constantly vigilant to protect our hearts and minds. If anything, I felt like the dress code I grew up with in The Message, though perhaps well intended, sexualized women more, by teaching women and men that women should wear knee length flowing dresses so as not to be a sexual temptation was often times a self-fulfilling prophecy. A man who is not raised in such a culture will be (from what I’ve seen) less likely to feel tempted by a women in jeans. A man who is raised hearing that women should wear dresses so as not to tempt a man, is far more likely to feel tempted when he sees a women wearing jeans.

I noticed when I was 16 and started working as a waitress wearing a knee length skirt, I got ‘checked out’ more than my coworkers wearing pants. Why? Because I was out of context, set apart from my waitress coworkers. Therefore, arguably, my skirt (non-form fitting, long skirt) would have been more of a ‘stumbling block’ or more ‘sexy’ in that work environment. When I later wore pants in the same environment, I got less lingering stares.

This is my current stance and thoughts on the modesty issue. I think some things look ‘slutty’ depending on the surrounding culture. For instance, when I was in The Message, I would have felt convicted if I was wearing jeans standing among my peers. Likewise, if I was wearing something that would have been wholly respectable to that church, next to a group of women in full hijab… I would once again feel exposed. I say a lot of it is about context, but a lot is about your heart too. If you believe a certain set of rules are the way to go don’t dance on the border (as I like to say). Back when I followed the above dress code, I saw some girls dressing on the line in every area, a skirt just BARELY passed the knee which wasn’t TOO tight, with a neckline not TOO low, with sleeves not TOO short, heels not TOO high. You could tell that they followed the rules but JUST ENOUGH, not having a personal conviction or a reason why behind the rules. The why, I would argue, is more important than the rules themselves. Because after all, who are we trying to please here, God or man?

How do you lovely ladies (or gents) feel on this topic, have you ever had to follow a strict dress code? What is your idea of dressing modestly? Let’s start some healthy discussion in the comments! 🙂

 

3 thoughts on “What Does it mean to Dress Modestly?

  1. This is an interesting and profound piece and I might add, well written. A lot of scriptures have been misinterpreted and misappropriated which in turn has kept people in a cycle of religiosity and man made laws. It’s shocking to discover that most of these laws perverted out of the scriptures are laced with double standards and women have been on the receiving end of these perversion the most..I’m glad you came to light and freed from the burden of religious restrictions and laws..For young believers and everyone in general…Don’t just believe what someone’s says because they are Christians or because of their title(Pastor, prophet etc) Read the scriptures, ask the What, why, to whom, and most importantly ask the Holy spirit to interpret to you what you’ve read, how to appropriate it and work with it..His(Jesus) yoke his easy and his burden is light.

    • Thanks for reading Jide! It makes my heart weep to see how people take the authority of the Bible and take scriptures out of context to use for their own agenda or personal convictions. Even if we believe our heart is in the right place and that our interpretation of scriptures is the right way, we shouldn’t try to force that on someone else! In college there were a few times I’d write a paper and then go look for resources… Which was obviously the wrong way to go about a research paper. Sometimes we do that with the Bible, instead of reading with an open mind and in context.

  2. This does not mean you should never cut your hair. Nowhere in the Bible does it forbid modest cutting, curling or styling in a feminine manner. Any style and many lengths of hair are appropriate if its length can be considered a “covering.”

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