by Matthew W. Bassford
One of the longest modesty texts in the Bible never mentions the word once. It appears in Colossians 3:12-17, a passage about the virtues in which Christians should clothe themselves. They are the things that others should see when they look at us.
To many Christians today, this application might seem contrived. They have been trained to think of modesty as women dressing so as not to excite the lust of men. While I appreciate it when my sisters in Christ choose to dress considerately, we must recognize that this focus on revealing clothing has little to do with the Biblical witness about either modesty or lust.
In the New Testament, immodest dress is that which flaunts one’s wealth, not one’s physique, and the law of Christ uniformly places the responsibility for lust on the one doing the lusting, not its object. Instead, the modesty contexts, I Timothy 2:9-10 and I Peter 3:1-4, are concerned with a different problem — the splendor of a woman’s outward adornments eclipsing the splendor of her holiness.
This is really a focus issue. The first-century sister who bought a slave to style her hair elaborately was spending her time and money on the wrong things. Her hair revealed her wealth and status, but it concealed her good works and discipleship. People who looked at her saw riches, not Christ.
Today, we too must beware of Christ-concealing adornments. Sometimes these are physical, like the dress of the daughters of Zion in Isaiah 3:16-26. Perhaps more commonly, they are spiritual. It is no coincidence that in Colossians 3:10, Paul tells us to “put off” the vices of the old self. If flashy jewelry is a distraction from Christ in us, how much more are sexual immorality, greed, and malice! They focus attention on the old self that we were supposed to have put to death. They are immodest.
By contrast, the godly change of clothes (“put on”) in Colossians 3:12-17 puts the emphasis on Him, not us. Selfish, worldly people aren’t compassionate, forgiving, or loving. They don’t seek the peace of Christ, sing the word of Christ, or act under the authority of Christ. In fact, people only do these things when they are determined to glorify Him.
This is not a change that we can make by blowing thousands of dollars on a new wardrobe. Instead, it is an attitude that we put on patiently, humbly, every day. Nobody is going to stare at us or build a statue of us because of these things, but they might be moved to contemplate our Master. We have modestly deflected the glory from us to Him.
It is good for us not to dress in a way that might put a stumbling block before another. It is better for us to remember that the most important adornments of the disciple can’t be seen in a mirror. A Christian in a burqa who is bitter and spiteful is still showing too much of the wrong things. By contrast, when we resolve to exalt Christ in every area of our lives, comparatively unimportant matters like our clothing will sort themselves out.