Modesty is defined as the appearance or behaviour intended to avoid indecency or impropriety. In the bible, modesty does not seem to be mainly concerned with how much flesh is covered. Consider 1Timothy 2:9-10:
Women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes, but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds.
Kosmios is the Greek word translated as “modesty” in the passage. It derives from kosmos (the universe) and signifies orderliness and appropriateness. The Greek word kosmios was used twice in the New Testament. In the second usage in 1Timothy 3:2, it was translated as “decent”:
Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach.
Today modesty is usually associated with sexual matters but in the New Testament, it is primarily concerned with character and decency.
Inasmuch as a lot of Christians would want a universal code for dressing, that is not the main goal of modesty. Consider various cultures and you see that modesty is relative. What is considered appropriate changes depending on context and culture. Rachel Marie Stone gives an account of her experience in Malawi. She says in Malawi women and men generally do not touch each other in public because it is considered rude. And neither would a woman and a man sit across from each other at the table because their knees might touch and knees are sensual. “On any given day in Malawi, you’ll see a woman pop an entire breast out of her top and offer it to a baby and no one blinks. But if a woman walks by in jeans, a skirt that shows her knees, or – even more scandalous – in shorts, heads swivel.” 1
There are two extremes relating to modesty which has the woman at the centre. One extreme tells women that they are to dress to sexually appeal to men. You find this message on magazines with images of women soooo “photoshopped” as to appeal sexually to men. They feature impossibly thin celebrities with sexy bodies. This is a culture which values a woman based on her sex appeal instead of character. This culture should be condemned and we should play our part to change it.
The other extreme is one that hangs a man’s fall on the woman because of her dressing. “Cover your curves, your legs, your breasts so as not to make a man fall.” This manner of thinking tends not to make the man responsible for his action. First, let me be clear: there may be no universal code for dressing but I believe there should be decency. Decency however can be influenced by culture and context. I have already mentioned Rachel’s experience when it comes to culture. It would be strange to always see a woman perform house chores in an evening gown just as it would be strange for a mechanic to wear his work clothe to a wedding.
Now back to the point I wanted to make. Some men will lust after a woman whether she is decently or indecently dressed. This is quite different from attraction. Attraction is a natural biological response to beauty. Lust obsesses on that attraction until it objectifies the woman who becomes a property to be claimed. When this happens, the man is responsible regardless of what the woman is wearing. Let me make this clearer. If I should keep my phone carelessly, and Musa comes along to steal it, when Musa is caught, it would be a lie for him to say he stole because the phone was carelessly kept. No, he stole because he was a thief. A man does not lust simply because a woman is indecently dressed; he lusts because he lacks self-control.
I think Jesus pointed this out but which is not clear to many. After saying, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28), he does not turn to women to say, “Dress so that a brother does not stumble.” Rather, he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Mt. 5:29). By this he teaches men to be responsible for their thoughts and actions. Lust is not conquered by blaming a man’s fall on the woman’s wear but by bringing up boys to respect women and treat them with dignity instead of objectifying them.
Let the woman dress for herself not for men. Let her dress for her comfort. Let her however bear in mind that her dignity and self-respect which are more important and transcends culture will be reflected in her clothing. Let her pay more attention to her character in order to build it.
- Rachel Marie Stone, The Real Meaning of Modesty, TCW, www.todaychristianwoman.com/articles/2014/may-week-4/real-meaning-of-modesty.html.