Question:

Hi Mr. Hamilton,

I agree with you on modesty but was wondering what you would say in the case of societies like some in Africa where women are bare-chested as well as the men. Is this like the case similar to an ankle in the Victorian age or are we right in saying these societies have got this wrong, even if it doesn’t provoke men to lust or ogle as people from our culture would if they went to live among them?

Thanks for your help.

Answer:

How do we resolve the issue of modesty? Do we use subjective standards, such as what a particular society accepts? If so, then can a person justify a mode of dress simply because there is someplace in the world where that mode of dress is accepted? Even a gauge of lust depends on each individual's view. We know that a person can get calloused to things that ought to invoke strong emotions (Ephesians 4:18-19). Or do we accept that since the command for modesty comes from God (I Timothy 2:9-10) and, therefore, God defines the limits of what is acceptable as modest.

Appropriate attire in I Timothy 2:9 was defined to have three aspects:

  • The Greek word for modest is kosmious, means orderly, well-arranged, seemly, or modest. In other words, "modest" refers to clothing that is neat and appropriate for the occasion.
  • The Greek word that is translated shamefastness is aidos, which means having a sense of shame, modesty, and reverence. A shamefaced person can blush when faced with things that are irreverent or immodest.
  • The Greek word for sobriety is sophrosuna. This is a person of sound mind, with self-control, good judgment, and moderate in all that he does.

Appropriate clothing acknowledges that there are some parts of the body that should not be generally exposed. "On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it" (I Corinthians 12:22-24). By covering the less presentable parts of our body, we are treating those areas with greater honor. They are special and not shown to just anyone because public view just makes those areas common and unimportant.

But appropriate clothing also realizes that what we wear in some situations is not appropriate in all situations. "But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?' And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'" (Matthew 22:11-13).

And appropriate clothing demonstrates good judgment and moderation -- not calling attention to one's self by the clothing one chooses to wear.

In some societies, wearing no clothing at all is accepted, but is it modest? No, because God stated that certain areas of the body, those involved in sex and reproduction, are to be kept private. Exposing those areas is considered nakedness and ought to bring a reaction of embarrassment. It doesn't matter that in a particular society people have become numb to nakedness. While some cultures accept bare-breasted women, in the Scriptures such a state is described as being naked. "Then you grew up, became tall and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown. Yet you were naked and bare. Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness" (Ezekiel 16:7-8).

Therefore, yes, the cultures that have long allowed nakedness among their people are in the wrong because they have corrupted their sense of modesty to accept what ought to cause embarrassment.

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