The Modesty Myth

Ever since I was old enough to be aware of clothing styles, I have heard Christians make an issue of modesty.

 Modesty, as they used the word,  had to do with how a person was dressed, if enough of their body was covered for them to be sufficiently covered. Depending on who’s defining it, it could even be used to mean clothes covering a woman from collar bone to ankle or plain clothes dressing.

I’ve seen church members accuse a nine-year-old girl of trying to seduce their little boys because she wasn’t wearing the right kind of clothing so she would be “modest.”

I’ve seen 100-point memos listing all the things to do and not do, wear and not wear so that you can be “modest.”

I even had children refuse to play with me as a child because my father insisted that I wear pants when I rode a bike: pants were evil, sinful, and “immodest” according to my accusers.

I’ve seen teens accuse other other teens of being promiscuous because they showed their ankles and collar bone.

There’s a problem with this.  It’s unbiblical. 

Bear with me as I explain what I mean. I’m going to challenge just about everything you have been taught about what scripture commands regarding how we dress.

Words have meanings. Those meanings change over time. Language morphs and adapts to new uses. Often a word is used in spoken language in a much different way than it is actually defined in the dictionary. Over time, definitions are changed in dictionaries to reflect their changed usage in spoken and written language.

But the meanings in the Bible are static. They are unchanging.

When a Bible translator is translating the Bible, he will (hopefully) choose a word that best equates to the meaning of the word in the original language. For that reason, when we’re reading the Bible, we need to consider what the word actually means, what the word meant when it was used in the translation.

An example of that would be the word “ass” which meant “donkey” in times past but is now used as a swear word. Imagine if you were reading the King James Version and were unaware of the original meaning of the word. This is an extreme example, but it shows why it is important to know what the words mean –or what they meant at the time they were chosen by the translator.

God has something He is trying to communicate through the words that were written in the Bible. We should be seeking to understand what God intended to communicate through the words that were written, not just assuming that the words mean what we think they mean.

This is the reason that I use a dictionary so much. I’m not a Greek scholar; I’m just doing my best to understand scripture.

So, back to our original topic of modesty.

Let’s look at the word modesty to see what it means.

From a modern dictionary (Google):


Modest definition

  1. unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements.
  2. relatively moderate, limited, or small.
  3. (of a woman) dressing or behaving so as to avoid impropriety or indecency, especially to avoid attracting sexual attention.
    (of clothing) not revealing or emphasizing the figure.


(Just as a note, the first time I taught on this, definition number 3 wasn’t there. It was recently added –within the last year or so.)

But is that what it has always meant? Remember that language changes over time.  Is that what is meant in scripture by women dressing modestly?


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. 1 Timothy 2:9-10


Now, let’s take a look at an older dictionary and see what the word meant in times past. Did it always mean “dressing to avoid sexual attraction”?

From an old dictionary (Webster’s 1829)


Modest definition  

  1. Properly, restrained by a sense of propriety; hence, not forward or bold; not presumptuous or arrogant; not boastful; as a modest youth; a modest man.
  2. Not bold or forward; as a modest maid. The word may be thus used without reference to chastity.
  3. Not loose; not lewd.
  4. Moderate; not excessive or extreme; not extravagant; as a modest request; modest joy; a modest computation.
  5. purity of mind and manners

Notice that the older definition is exclusively about your character and not about your appearance.  Sometime between 1829 and 2017 we (our American Christian culture) redefined the word to mean something it didn’t originally mean.

Consequently, there’s a whole generation of women going around judging others for how they dress when scripture repeatedly tells us not to judge someone’s appearance.  

If your interpretation of one scripture verse causes you to sin and violate clear commands other places in scripture, perhaps you need to reevaluate your interpretation of the verse in question.  

I’m as guilty of this as the next person. It wasn’t until I took time to delve into scripture and read the definitions that I saw this truth.

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” John 7:24

We are commanded not to judge on appearances. The second half of the verse tells us that judging by appearance is the wrong kind of judgement.  The use of the word “but” contrasts judging by appearances and right judgments. “Don’t do this, but do this instead.” We can conclude that judging by appearances is wrong.

And yet judging on appearance is exactly what happens.  Women go around rebuking and shunning each other based on what they are wearing.

So what does modesty, as it’s actually used in scripture, mean?

It means “proper, restrained and moderate, not lewd, purity of mind and manners.”

The definition of lewd is “crude and offensive in a sexual way.”

That’s pretty extreme. I don’t know many people who could be described as dressing in a crude and sexually offensive way –not even most people who are accused of being immodest.

But modesty isn’t even about the outside. It has to do with the character of the person.

“Purity of mind and manners” is a whole lot more than just if someone’s dressing a certain way, so as to not draw attention to their body.

I’m actually in favor not drawing attention to my body –not because I believe it is commanded in scripture only because I think it detracts from my testimony. I wrote and post yesterday about my search to find appropriate clothes to wear.

When we redefine modesty to only be exterior appearance we cheapen it. We take away the most important part of its meaning. The most important part is our character. We should have good character.

Have you ever heard the saying about putting makeup on a pig? The same is true of a person. You can dress an unsaved, unredeemed, poor-character person in modest clothing, and you still have an unsaved, unredeemed, poor-character person. The clothes don’t change the person.

I remember hearing a relative talk about the Amish in a community near them. Even though the girls were plain dressed and “modest,” there were still girls who behaved in an immoral way. The clothes didn’t make the person moral. Only Jesus can do that. Only a heart-change can do that.

God cares far more about our hearts than what we are wearing.

Don’t reduce modesty to the exterior.  It’s unbiblical. That’s not what the word means. It empties the word of its true biblical meaning.

It was redefined to mean that –but that’s not what scripture teaches.

Furthermore, the actual definition of the word means “moderately or not extreme.” Many of the Christian group’s and pseudo-Christian group’s attempts at modesty are extreme. They’re the exact opposite of moderate.  

Before I understood this, I was actually looking into plain clothes dressing like the Amish or Mennonites. I was trying to make my life align more with scripture.

Here’s the irony: in an attempt to fulfil the command to dress modestly (which actually means not extreme) women are dressing in extreme ways –and thus disobeying the very command they think they are obeying.


This is why good Bible interpretation and application is so vital!


Now, what is considered extreme and what’s not is relative.  It’s open to opinion. But, most people would agree that dressing like you’re still living in the 1800s (which I did in high school and what many plain clothes groups do) is extreme.

Is the way you dress not extreme? Unassuming? Proper? Not bold? That’s how we’re called to dress. That’s all that the command says.

Why are we called to dress this way?  So that our character will be the thing that people most notice.

For that reason, I support not drawing attention to your body by how you dress.  

But scripture does not command that you dress a certain way.

In fact, specific instructions about how to dress in the Age of Grace (the time we are living in now) is not given in the Bible. That means that how you dress falls into your Christian stewardship.  Pray for wisdom to make good choices, but know that if anyone says you’re in sin because of how you dress, they’re violating the command in John 7:24 to not judge by appearances.  

Unless of course you’re dressing lewdly. Lewd is pretty extreme. Dressing lewd would be violating scripture. I honestly don’t know any Christians who dress that way.

I have noticed that those who truly know Christ are concerned about their testimony and pay attention to how they’re dressing, trying to say more with their character than they do with their clothes. When in doubt, refer to Romans 14 on how to handle it.

Sisters, let’s stop judging the exterior.  

It’s the heart and soul that matters.

Blessings,

Sarah Forbes

P.S. Please don’t shoot the messenger. Rather than argue if you disagree, I request that you spend time praying about the possibility that what I am saying could be true. 

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