Another in my series for Quivering Daughters
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”
—Jesus (Matthew 6:28-30, NIV)
Why do we worry about clothes? Ever since Adam and Eve’s sin made them ashamed of their nakedness, there’s something about the subject of clothing that makes people a little tetchy. Just ask, “Is it OK to wear this?” and everybody will chime in with an opinion until you’re too dizzy to care.
Jesus, of course, was talking to people who were worried about whether they’d be able to get any clothes at all, helping them remember God’s faithfulness to provide. Lots of other things make people worried about clothes, though. Am I overdressed? Am I underdressed? Is this tie too geeky? Will that skirt be too chilly? Is this too revealing? Will that cause a brother to stumble, or will he stumble on his own? Why exactly is it so horrible to wear white after Labor Day? And of course the all-time classic: Does this make me look fat?
Living under a system of rules is a great recipe for worry. Especially religious rules: if you have to do the right thing to glorify God, what if you do the wrong thing? Yet most Bible teachings about clothing are crammed with moralistic, rules-based readings of Scripture, especially once they get to “modesty.” I think we’ve missed the point.
One way to read the Bible, as I’ve described elsewhere, is to treat it as God's Little Instruction Book. You scour it to find out what it says on topics X and Y and Z, and then tell us the instructions we have to follow. That’s where most teachings on modesty seem to come from. “See? There’s a verse in the Bible with the word ‘modest’ in it, so you can’t wear that!”
That’s problematic. For all the fuss people make about it, the Bible’s instructions about modesty aren’t terribly concerned with clothes. The Greek word translated “modesty” (kosimos) just means “well-ordered,” like the universe or a good library. The only place in the New Testament it refers to clothing for women, details like fashion and cut and fabric aren’t discussed; apparently it’s more important that women “adorn themselves… with good deeds” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). It’s used only once more, about an elder’s moral character (1 Tim. 3:2), where it’s translated “respectable,” or “of good behaviour.” The Lord’s looking at the heart, and we’ve made it about the outward appearance.
These aren’t the rules we were looking for. If anyone thinks these verses say anything about skin or skirts or jeans or shoulder straps or dresses or shorts or swimsuits or necklines or hemlines or sunbonnets, they’re committing eisegesis—reading things into the Scripture that simply aren’t there. So if we treat the Bible as a book of rules about what to wear or not to wear, it comes up surprisingly short. “Dress reasonably” is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go to any specifics at all. That’s not what we would expect if God was giving us an instruction book. What can we do?
We could play the part of the Pharisees, making up extensive lists of rules about what counts as “modest” or not, then enshrining them as “biblical principles.” We could become lazy legalists, checking hemlines with tape measures and calling it “an issue of the heart.” We could get all chauvinistic and tie it to the sin of lust, blaming the way men sin on the way women dress. (Never mind that James explains, “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust,” not “by what someone else wears.”) We could try to find a reasonable middle ground, invoking Romans 14, saying that Scripture expects us to come to our own conclusions based on our cultural context.
Or we could read the Bible the other way.
When we look at the Bible to find rules, as the example of “modesty” shows frustratingly well, it becomes a morass of vague, conflicting ideas and banal moralizing. We’re left trying to insist that our favorite proof texts are more definitive than they are, and facing strong temptations to legalism and pharisaism. Even if we found clear rules and laws, how could we expect to live up to them, anyway? As C. S. Lewis quipped in another context, this is “the discovery of the mare’s nest by pursuit of the red herring.”
The other way of reading the Bible is the way Jesus interpreted Scripture. It involves a simple, but very challenging, readjustment of the way we look at things.
What if the Bible isn’t a book of moralistic platitudes? What if there’s a bigger, bolder, more glorious theme that everything else in it points to?
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27, ESV)
Jesus said that “all the Scriptures” have something to say about Him. A daunting claim, to be sure, unless of course you’re the Son of God incarnate. On other occasions He went even further, calling out the Pharisees on their elevation of the Bible above the Person it’s about:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40, ESV)
The Scriptures point us to Jesus. If we make obeying the Scriptures more important than seeing Jesus in the Scriptures, we’ve missed the whole point of the Scriptures.
Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24, NASB)
If we don’t let the Scriptures direct us to Jesus in everything, even in what we think of as the Law, then we’ve failed to get the lesson the Law itself is there to teach us. God isn’t concerned with making sure we can check off a list of idealized behaviors. God wants us to— well, I’ll let Jesus say it:
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29 ESV)
The “work of God” is singular: Believe in Jesus. Check.
When we read the Bible as a book that’s meant to point us to Jesus, we start to see the big picture. It’s the Gospel. We can’t possibly keep the Law, so Jesus came to die to set us free from sin and let us live by grace instead. By comparison, nit-picky moralistic rules about clothes seem paltry and trifling. Who cares about hemlines when you can look at the beauty of grace?
Yes, that one verse mentioned earlier says “modesty,” but it says it as an application of the idea that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (see 1 Timothy 2:1-10). The point isn’t “Keep this rule.” It’s “Look at Jesus. Look at the salvation and mercy and redemption and reconciliation with God Jesus gives you in the Gospel. Show people the Gospel in the way you act. For instance, don’t act as though clothes are the most important thing in your life; that would be Jesus.”
This is where it gets really interesting. Although that’s the main verse people try (wrongly) to make a rule from, it’s not an isolated example. When the writers of Scripture talk about the Gospel, they start talking about clothes. Not legalistic rules about clothes—clothing as a metaphor for salvation.
I delight greatly in the LORD;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61:10, NIV)
Clothing is a persistent image of salvation throughout Scripture, from God covering Adam and Eve’s nakedness in Genesis to the choir of redeemed souls clothed in white in Revelation. It goes like this:
Our sin covers us in shame like dirty garments. Even our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). And then we have to stand before the King. What could be more humiliating than showing up in the throne room covered in sewage? But the King has something to give us:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”
Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.”
Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5, NASB)
We can’t clean our own clothes. Some stains don’t come out. So God gives us new clothes, clean clothes, garments washed white to cover our shame.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Revelation 3:18, NIV)
Salvation is a new beginning, coming home, starting over again. When the Prodigal Son came home, the first thing his father did was to show his welcome and forgiveness by giving him new clothes.
But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24, ESV)
You were covered in ashes, mourning, despair, filthy clothes from a pigsty. God wants to dress you in beauty, gladness, joy— the garments of praise.
[God has sent me] to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:3, NIV)
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.
(Psalm 30:11-12, NIV)
The message of the Gospel is that we don’t have to clothe ourselves with our own righteousness, religious efforts, or good works. We’re clothed in Christ Himself.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:14, NIV)
The message of the Gospel is that when we’re clothed in Christ, we become like Christ.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV)
The message of the Gospel is that in Christ all things are going to be transformed, changed, made new. Christ covers death itself with resurrection, immortality, and victory. At the end of things, we’ll take off our worn-out earthly bodies and be given new, immortal ones to wear.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54, NIV)
That’s how the Bible looks when we read it as a book about Jesus. And we wanted to trade that for rules about “modesty”?
The truth is that you don’t have to worry about clothing. God will provide it for you.
You don’t have to worry about spiritual clothing either. You don’t have to worry about righteousness. You don’t have to worry about holiness. You don’t have to worry about being pure, being good enough, being clean, measuring up, being saved, having joy, being loved, being comforted, having everlasting life.
God gives you those, too.