Jun 302011
 

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.

Image Source

  • Wow, excellent post, Eric! This encouraged me today.

    • Delighted to hear it, Rachel! Thanks for letting me know.

  • I love all the verses you found about garments.  I believe that the church’s focus on clothing and modesty is slightly misplaced. 

    I hope you don’t mind if I share a link to a post I wrote about Paul’s insturctions for modest dress. http://newlife.id.au/christian-living/pauls-instructions-for-modest-dress/

    • Excellent observation in that post, Marg: the opposite of “modest,” in the very few verses the concept is even mentioned at all, is not “sexually provocative” but “ostentatiously expensive.” Love it! Obviously we’ve misplaced our focus on quite a bit.

    • Daniel

      I liked that post you shared, too, Marge. I like the fact that you point out what modesty means in context, but I also like how you don’t have the “anything goes” sort of attitude with it.

  • *instructions

  • Jessica

    While I agree with all of the principals of what you are saying I feel like you are dancing around the practical issue. We live in a sexually charged world that is telling women sexier is better… every time. When a 16 year old girl is standing in front of a rack of swimsuits trying to decide what to buy and she looks at her mom and says “what kind is best?” What is a mother to say? Clothe yourself with the glory of God? How would you respond to the practical questions of dressing as a women of God in a counter culture within the principals of your post? I’m definitely NOT disagreeing with you I just wonder what your thoughts are.

    • Jessica – I’m probably not especially well qualified to give “practical” advice on that, since I’m not a parent nor even a woman. (Maybe some experienced moms can chime in?)

      Certainly I do agree that our culture tends to be over-sexualized– though arguably not as much as biblical Corinth, on the other hand! However as I mentioned in the article, James 1:14 pins responsibility for that on the people who commit lust, not on what other people wear. Also, ironically, the misdirected “modesty” doctrine can completely fail to be counter-cultural in that respect, since it accepts the culture’s presupposition that women’s bodies are inherently sexualized objects. A genuinely counter-cultural attitude might be, “To the pure all things are pure.”

      About all the “practical” advice I can think of is to try to turn it into a discussion for a teachable moment: “Which one of these would you feel comfortable wearing? Why do you think you feel that way? Does this show how we sometimes mistake our culture for the Bible?” etc. Hope that helps! Thanks for commenting.

    • Lisa

      Jessica, I have three daughters and I’ve been a parent for 21 years now. The thing that many Christians still need to realize is that God doesn’t expect us to manage everyone else’s sin. Jesus already conquered sin. Just because a young 16 yr old girl and her mom are shopping for a bathing suit doesn’t mean they need Christians creating laws to halt them from wearing them. The response I give my girls is what would look good on you and make you feel comfortable?

    • She’s going to be swimming in it, right? So she needs to think about which design lends itself best to swimming, first of all. Will the shoulder straps slip down and get in the way? Will the design of the suit produce unwanted drag? Then there’s the question of where she will be swimming. Pools, unless they are salt water pools, have chlorine which causes fading, so she might want to think about that when selecting a color. How much care will this garment require? (She is washing her own clothes at 16, right?)

      IOW, if you keep the focus of her selecting clothing on the function of the clothing, what the weather is likely to be like when she is wearing the clothing, what kind of care the clothing requires and whether she wants to provide that much effort, the cost of the clothing and how that fits into her budget, the focus automatically isn’t on sex because it’s on something else.

  • Daniel

    Eric,

    Even though I agree with what you’re saying about modesty not being about sexually alluring, I have a hard time believing that we Christians can go around wearing whatever we want. Also, a lot of modesty teachers will always, always, ALWAYS say this about modesty:

    “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” -1 Corinthians 6:19-20

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but does this verse mean that we can’t wear whatever we want? Can you explain this?

    Again, I’m NOT disagreeing with what you’re saying.

    • Excellent question! In context, the passage you quote from 1 Corinthians 6 is about sexual sin such as sleeping with a prostitute (which is the example Paul gives). It doesn’t mention clothes at all. So it only works as an argument for “modesty” if we start by assuming “immodesty” with clothing is a sexual sin. That’s a case of circular reasoning: “Those clothes dishonor God, this verse says to honor God, therefore that proves those clothes dishonor God, QED.” Obviously not a good exegesis at all!

      To put a finer point on it, though, I’d say my reading is not “Do whatever you want” but “Do everything from a gospel-based understanding of your freedom in Christ.” There are cultural standards for clothing, and we should respect those out of love for our neighbors. That doesn’t mean we’re not free; just that we should use our freedom to love others. That’s hardly the same thing as the hard-and-fast religious laws those “modesty teachers” are looking for!

      • Daniel

        Interesting point. One more thing, what about Genesis chapter 3? Doesn’t that passage say that God gave a specific clothing standard? The passage is Genesis 3:21

        • And the LORD God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife. (Genesis 3:21)

          So… we should all wear animal skins? Are cotton and linen allowed? What about wool? There’s nothing there about a specific clothing standard; it’s just saying that God made clothes for Adam and Eve. I suppose we could extract the application “Don’t go around naked” (fair enough), but that’s not terribly specific otherwise.

  • Daniel

    The arguments that the legalists make to “support” their modesty doctrines are endless. My personal favorite one is the Isaiah 47 argument.

    “Take the millstones and grind meal. Remove your veil, Take off the skirt, Uncover the thigh, Pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, Yes, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance, And I will not arbitrate with a man.” -Isaiah 47:2-3

    Think for a moment about how silly this sounds. Now, the legalists always, always, ALWAYS say something like this; “Ladies uncovering the thighs is about as shameful as being publicly naked in God’s eyes. Sisters, if you’ve uncovered your thighs, you’ve committed a heinous sin in God’s sight! So put away your short shorts and miniskirts or else the fires of Hell await you!” (Yes, I have actually seen stuff on the web like that before, yikes!) We need to look at the context of this passage. This passage was meant to illustrate the humiliation of Babylon by reducing (depicted as a proud queen) them to slaves by doing manual labor which is something slaves would do. It’s not shameful because their thighs are exposed, per say, but because they no longer have fancy garments to boast their pride. In other words, riches to rags.

    • Wow. That goes to show how much legalists really have to grasp at straws, doesn’t it? If the best verse they can come up with to support their own doctrine is, “Something something something thighs, see that proves it!” then they really should just give up! Thanks for your thoughts. 😀

  • Daniel

    One more thing that the pro-modesty people like to use is the infamous “stumbling block” argument. It kind of goes something like this:

    “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung
    around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” -Matthew 18:6

    But to paraphrase in the pro-modesty POV:

    “If any woman dresses in a way that attracts sexual attention from men, it would be better for her to have a large millstone hung around her neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” -Modesty People 18:6

    Now, Jesus repeats this phrase three times in scripture, Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:2. However, when I look at these scriptures, I don’t think they have anything to do with sexual desires. First of all, when Jesus addresses lust in scripture, he clearly says that the responsibility falls on the one lusting, not the one being lusted after, plus it contradicts what James says in James 1:14 about man being “…enticed by his own lust…” not by what anyone else wears, or isn’t wearing for that matter. Secondly, in the context of these scriptures, Jesus seems to speaking about people who are preventing others from having a relationship with him, which I believe is exactly what these modesty teachings do, so ironically, the modesty teachers are the one’s who create the stumbling block. Mark chapter 9, I think reveals the context of what Jesus is saying a lot better. Jesus said in verse 42 of Mark chapter 9 that “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me —
    to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” But why did he say that? If you look back at verse 38, the disciple John was telling Jesus about someone who didn’t follow him that was casting out a demon in his name and he wanted him to stop him. But Jesus told John not to forbid him from doing that and tells him to allow him to come to him (sheesh, this comment is really long).

    Now, does this mean that I’m trying to excuse women who DO dress a certain way in order seduce men? Absolutely not!

  • Alisha Jackson

    As I read this article it states that the Bible never says anything about clothing. But it does. In the verse 1 Tim 2:9 it says In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel … They give the definition for modest but they say it doesn’t say anything else about clothing but it says apparel which in the Greek is καταστολή which means equipment, dress, properly a long garment or robe reaching down to the feet. So putting those two words together modest apparel would say someone with well ordered, long dress ,skirt,flowy pants,ect.. We must be careful not to leave out what the Bible says to fit our discussions.

    • Hi Alisha! I appreciate your desire to pay close attention to everything the Scripture says. However, the word “καταστολή” in any lexicon I consult is defined simply as a generic word for clothing– “apparel, dress in general.” It is derived from the word for “letting down,” but it would be the etymological fallacy to say that therefore it can only mean a dress or skirt or something flowy. Shorts and t-shirts and trousers and leggings are just as much “letting down” in that sense– picture them in a closet on clothes hangers, hanging down. It’s a simple description of what fabric does. There is in fact a Greek word ποδήρης that specifically means “reaching to the feet” (it’s used in Revelation 1:13 of Jesus’ robes), so if Paul had meant to indicate that in particular, he could easily have used that word in 1 Timothy 2. He didn’t.

      We need to be equally careful of the opposite error, which is to try to make the Bible seem to say more than it does to fit our discussions. As I describe above, the Bible actually has a quite a bit to say about clothing— it just doesn’t give us any legalistic rules about it! Thanks for commenting.

      • Alisha

        Of course I did not reply to get you to agree with me but in the article it says that in scripture it doesn’t say modest clothing and I was just showing it does. I’m sorry your Greek and mine show a different definition but that does not make mine wrong either and mine says long flowing to the ground. Tight article of clothing or short article of clothing can be harmful to others but I know we have to be in prayer and allow the Holy Spirit and Gods Word to direct us. I always see it is better to be safe then sorry. We all will stand before the Lord and give account. I don’t understand why woman would ever have a problem being encourage to be modest especially in this immodest world. I guess we will just have to disagree on this subject. Praise the Lord we know what’s most important and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. May the Lord bless you.

        • Thanks for the reply, Alisha. Of course I don’t have a problem at all if someone wants to wear “modest clothing,” since that is indeed what the verse says, as I discuss in my fifth paragraph. My point is nowhere that “scripture doesn’t say ‘modest clothing'” but that our applications and definitions of “modest” in most cases are taken not from Scripture but from culture. (You say “flowy pants” are modest for women, and so they might very well be in our culture, but in the culture of the 1860s they would be considered criminally indecent. For some island tribes, meanwhile, they would be considered bulky and impractical, way too overdressed for traveling through the jungle!)

          In the context of 1 Timothy 2, “modest” is explained not by saying “not with short or form-fitting clothes” but “not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” In other words, in that verse the opposite of “modest” is not “sexy” but “extravagant.” Again, if Paul had really wanted to emphasize “floor-length skirts” there are plenty of more specific words he could have used to do so. Rather, his point is that women should “adorn themselves… with good deeds.” As I wrote in the article:

          …the Bible’s instructions about modesty aren’t terribly concerned with clothes. …The Lord’s looking at the heart, and we’ve made it about the outward appearance.

          You’re entirely right that Jesus is the most important thing, as seen in all the rest of the verses I quote about clothes—and even in 1 Timothy 2 as well, if we look at the context of the first eight verses. I hope that clarifies what I’m saying! Thanks again for commenting.