In the first installment we learned that God cares about what you wear because clothing communicates, and because clothing is redemptive.
But those principles merely prepare us to talk about Christian modesty. The problem with modesty is that mere mention of the word conjures all sorts of emotions, applications, and objections. So, let’s begin with three ideas that will direct our conversation.
(1) Modesty isn’t distinctly Christian. Whether it’s Mormon boys singing the praises of modestly dressed young ladies or Jessica Rey’s thoughtful essay on swimwear, you don’t have to be a Christian to trumpet modesty. Believers, therefore, must approach the topic with a distinctly gospel-centered focus. Anything else might be good, but it’s not Christian.
(2) Let me paraphrase a question that Jeremiah first posed: “Why are you taking such great pains to mimic pagan dress when those same pagans hate you (Jer. 4:30)?” Now that’s a fair question that gets us closer to Christian modesty. Just as it made no sense for Israel to attempt to impress people who hated their God, it’s equally foolish for New Testament believers to dress for anybody other than God Himself. In fact, dressing for someone other God eventually alienates us from Him (Ezek. 23:18).
(3) Immodesty comes in varied forms. Consider the actions of these four Christians.
Trevor’s on the high school football team and enjoys squeezing into skin-tight polo shirts. Granted, he loses feeling in his fingertips, but his developing biceps, bronzed by the summer sun, ripple in all their magnificence.
Judy is a terminal cancer patient with little life remaining. Her emaciated arms can hardly carry the study Bible stored inside a Jackie Soft Crocodile Top Handle Handbag, made by Gucci of course.
Tom arrives at his great-uncle’s funeral sporting a hoodie, cargo shorts, and his favorite camouflage crocs. He swears those crocs are the most comfortable shoes he’s ever owned.
Sarah’s family arrives for Sunday Worship in well-kempt, perfectly matching spring attire. They’re trendy, yet understated. Sarah was so worn out by the manipulation-filled tantrum that was required to get her husband into those slim-fit Chinos, that she could hardly focus on the pastor’s sermon.
These believers are demonstrating that something other than Christ governs their clothing choices. How do I know that? Let’s work to that conclusion by studying the NT’s most important passages on the topic:
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. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)
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. (1 Peter 3:3-4)
We can summarize these points to three key words: think, recognize, and bow.
Both apostles direct us positively: “adorn yourselves,” Paul says. The verb adorn means to decorate (Luke 21:5) and accent (Rev. 21:19); not haphazardly, but intentionally (Mat. 12:44). How are we to adorn? Well, this may seem odd, but Paul says, “to adorn” (kosmeo) ourselves adornfully (kosmios).” This word kosmios, especially in tandem with the next word (modesty), implies dignity, sobriety, appropriateness, and a certain amount of decorum. “Self control” connotes reasonableness (Acts 26:25; 1 Tim. 2:15) or sobriety, perhaps “thoughtful” best captures the sense. Both apostles, of course, condemn dress that deliberately flashes wealth, power, or status.
Furthermore, the Bible expects dress to fit the occasion: wedding guests wear wedding clothes (Matt. 22:12), funeral attendants wear clothes of mourning (2 Sam. 14:2), soldiers don armor for battle (Jer. 46:4), and couples wear alluring clothing within the joyful boundaries of Biblical marriage (Song 1:10ff).
Thoughtfulness demands an immense amount of wisdom: What’s too expensive? What’s too dressy? Or too casual? “I like it” or “it’s comfortable” are factors to be considered, but certainly not decisive. So, what is the decisive factor? Keep reading.
Recognize the Place of Fashion
Both apostles refer to the practice of braiding hair, wearing gold, costly attire, etc, which alludes to an aspect of Roman fashion that may (or may not) have its genesis in temple prostitution. Either way, if their point was simply, “don’t dress like a prostitute,” they already had abundant Biblical material at their disposal. They could have pointed the reader to Proverbs 5 or 7 where public displays of sensual dress is both shameful and sinful. They could have pointed to the covenantal solemnity of marriage (Mal. 2:14) that pictures Christ and the church (Eph. 5:23-32).
So why mention Roman fashion at all? Because they’re doing so much more than teaching the wrong way to dress; they’re teaching the right way to adorn the gospel. There’s a temptation to take what’s wise or beautiful or rich in the world’s eyes and use those things to vindicate the gospel. But high fashion simply cannot adorn the gospel the way a gentle spirit and good works can.
Now at this point, we’re finally starting to get at the heart of the issue. And, unfortunately, it’s often the most ignored aspect of modesty. Modesty is the function of a redeemed heart that wants to communicate pure devotion to the Savior.
Bow to God’s Ownership
Paul and Peter spend at least half of their exhortations addressing the heart. Both apostolic writers painstakingly present God’s mercy in Christ Jesus our Savior in the preceding chapters. Only after establishing Jesus as the ransom for our sins (1 Tim. 2:5-6; 1 Peter 1:18-19), do the apostles start talking about how external clothing communicates inward realities.
Now the question arises: Why do the apostles link the ransom price of Jesus’s blood with modesty? This may offend our sensibilities, but we’re taken to the slave market. And we’re the slaves. When we walked in darkness, dead in our trespasses, we were slaves of sin (Rom. 6:17). When Christ bought us, we didn’t cease being slaves, we simply switched owners (Rom. 6:18). And our new Owner gets to tell us how to dress (Rom. 6:22).
Okay, so bringing this full circle, let’s revisit those folks from our introduction. Trevor, Judy, Tom, and Sarah are merely showing that something other than Christ rules their choices: Trevor by lustful pride, Judy by wealth, Tom by comfort, and Sarah by vain esteem.
God bought us. And He’s graciously given us the liberty to decorate ourselves in a way that communicates the joy of our salvation, that demonstrates godly wisdom, and that displays pure devotion to Christ Jesus, our great Savior.