Modesty and Dress Standards: Towards A Gospel-Centered Approach

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I once stumbled across a 1970s interview with 108-year-old Florence Pannel, a woman born during the Victorian Era. She snickered as she recalled a cartoon of a row of men turning their heads to catch a glimpse of the ankles of a woman who was lifting her dress to cross the street. Just a few days later, a disciple at my dinner table shared his shock at having seen a local teenage girl cross the street without pants—or so he thought, until he realized that her “shorts” simply vanished beneath the hem of her sweatshirt. These two examples remind me of another cartoon: an American woman in a bikini passes a Middle-Eastern woman in a burka, both with the same reaction to the other: “What a cruel, male-dominated culture!” We may have been “liberated” from the prudish climate of Victorian morality, but we are still enslaved to the spirit of the age.

The same week that I heard the report of the “pantless” teenager, I sat in Burger King with two other disciples. One confessed his fatherly frustration in trying to convince the women in his home to cover their bodies appropriately. The other, younger, man raised a related question about the modest attire of some of the families in our church.

If you are a pastor or a church member serious about God’s command to make disciples, you have likely encountered similar challenges. How should we respond? What does a wise, Christlike, and theologically-informed approach to these issues look like?

Seven Common Approaches

The word “approach” is crucial here. When I speak of our approach, I am referring to how we start to deal with something, how we speak to someone about something for the first time, or how we frame a discussion. For example, we obviously need to include various key Bible verses in our teaching; however, this does not mean that we should take a chapter-and-verse approach to modesty.

Before exploring what a gospel-centered approach to modesty and dress standards might look like, here is a brief survey of common approaches:

Approach 1: The “what does the Bible say?” chapter-and-verse approach. This approach is common among fundamentalists. The disciple-maker jumps to a few key texts such as Exodus 20:26 on what qualifies as nakedness or Deuteronomy 22:5 on gender distinct clothing or 1 Peter 3:3–4 and 1 Timothy 2:9–10 on adornment. He may draw a straight line from what Scripture says to whatever his church says (e.g., “The Bible says, ‘A woman shall not wear a man’s garment,’ which is why our women don’t wear x”). He may even refer to the applications or traditions of his church as “Bible standards.” A more skillful teacher would explain the difference between principles and applications, and be transparent about where and why he or his church makes an application from biblical principles.

Approach 2: The “just let God lead you” subjectivist approach. This often means, “I have no idea how to explain or justify what I do, so just wait around until the Spirit gives you a ‘personal conviction,’ which I hope will align with our convictions, since I’m convinced that we have ‘the light’ on these issues.” This is a flagrant abdication of the church’s teaching responsibility. It’s Bad Discipleship 101. God primarily leads us through his word, so it would be far better to take the previous approach than to train new disciples in a dangerously subjective and individualistic approach to the Christian life.

Approach 3: The “this is what we’ve always done” historical approach. In this approach, the disciple-maker emphasizes the historical precedent for certain standards of modesty. He might mention that “we are Methodists” or “we are Holiness people” and point to Wesley’s sermon “On Dress” or the writings of the founders. He might lump a variety of practices into the vague category of “the old-fashioned way” which is said to be the key to God’s blessing on one’s life or church. This approach often goes hand-in-hand with rhetoric against “compromise” and the slippery slope: “If we change what we’ve always done, what’s to keep us from doing x, y, and z?” Those who take this approach are susceptible to the charge of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9; cf. Mk. 7:7).

The “this is what we’ve always done” approach to modesty is susceptible to the charge of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Approach 4: The “this is what we do” local traditions approach. Though seemingly  identical to the previous approach, this is not always the case. When done well, it emphasizes the importance of applying biblical principles in community to arrive at corporate convictions or customs which may or may not be what the church has always done. This is the direction that I typically go after the approach that I will explain below. For an excellent explanation, see David Fry’s article “When in Rome: Augustine’s Rule and Its Application Today.”

Approach 5: The “we need to be separate from the world” counter-culture approach. This approach usually fixates on the rampant immodesty in our culture and then presents a specific approach to modesty as the best or only alternative. I once attended a conservative church where an elderly woman stuck her finger on my chest and said, “That tie bar needs to come off. I learned long ago, ‘How are people supposed to know that you are a Christian unless you wear the uniform?” (As a young, zealous, Bible-reading Christian, I sheepishly responded, “Didn’t Jesus say that they would know us by our love?” She wasn’t impressed.)

Approach 6: The “everyone has a standard” approach. This is usually combined with one of the approaches above, but I have heard some presentations that spend a large amount of time with clippings from the news or Readers’ Digest to establish the importance of a standard of modesty, even outside the context of the church or religion. This may take a variety of forms. For example, “If the military and hospitals have standards for their employees, surely the church should have authority to set standards for its members.” Or, “If public schools expected x in 1950, and our culture has degenerated since then, then x must be reasonable for Christians now.”

Approach 7: The “please God in everything” approach. This approach is increasingly common. Rather than beginning with appeals to authority (e.g., Scripture, history, local customs) or defining modesty by what we are against (e.g., culture or compromise), it frames the discussion with the great commandment: loving God. I appreciate this approach, but I do not think that this is the best place to start for at least one significant reason: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). In Scripture, nakedness and the clothing that covers it are signs that point to what God has done in Christ. In other words, modesty is about the gospel.

A Gospel-Centered Approach

Approach 8: The “good news” gospel-centered approach. That day in Burger King, I considered turning to a few key verses (Approach 1), but I remembered that these men had heard very little teaching on the subject. So we opened our Bibles, not to a few proof texts, but to the very beginning. In about fifteen minutes, with a lot of napkin drawings, we traced the major lines of a biblical theology of modesty from Genesis to Revelation.

Immodest clothing is a symbol of the human tendency to cover our guilt and shame according to our own standard of righteousness.

We looked at how the symbols of nakedness and clothing are key to the fall narrative and set up the Bible’s whole story of redemption. Nakedness, a part of God’s very good creation and a sign of man’s innocence before the fall (Gen. 2:25; cf. 1:31), was corrupted by sin. When publicly exposed after the fall, nakedness became a symbol of sin’s shame and guilt (Gen. 3:7; cf. Lam. 1:8; Ezek. 16:35–37; 23:29). We looked at how immodest clothing is a symbol of the human tendency to cover our guilt and shame according to our own standard of righteousness (Gen. 3:7; cf. Isa. 64:6). Modest clothing, however, was God’s first gracious provision after the fall, given at the expense of a slain animal (Gen. 3:15, 21).

A fully-clothed person is a signpost to the full clothing of Christ’s righteousness.

This pointed to Christ who bore our sin and shame as the new Adam, stripped of his clothing and publicly exposed through crucifixion, the most shameful of all deaths. Because Christ came as the innocent lamb of God to be slain on the cross, God’s righteousness has been provided as the only clothing sufficient to cover our sin and shame (Gal. 3:27; cf. Isa. 61:10; Ezek. 16:18). We concluded that a fully-clothed person is a signpost to the full clothing of Christ’s righteousness. He or she also anticipates the full clothing of the resurrection bodies which Christ provided, bodies in which we will once again experience happy nakedness (unashamed transparency) in God’s immediate presence (1 Cor. 5:2–3).

Symbols, of course, do not always correlate to realities. An improperly clothed person may have the reality of Christ’s righteousness covering their sins, but be unaware of the inconsistency in their outward symbolism. A fully clothed person may be a white-washed sepulcher. God wants people who experience the reality, but also embrace the symbolism.

After hearing the gospel-centered approach, one woman exclaimed, “All my life, modesty seemed like such a burden. This makes it seem so joyful!”

Since then, I have taken a similar approach with new disciples and lifelong members alike. After hearing the gospel-centered approach, one woman exclaimed, “All my life, modesty seemed like such a burden. This makes it seem so joyful!” Sadly, for many people, “modesty” is simply a list of rules to conform to in order to be considered holy and fully accepted within a Christian subculture. As always, a good thing divorced from the gospel becomes toxic.

Let’s teach a gospel-centered modesty. After all, modesty is good news.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.