Modest Apparel

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

"Therefore I desire that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works" (I Timothy 2:8-10).

This commandment was specifically written for women, but principles taught in this passage can be applied to men as well as women. Christians are to be modestly attired. Few people dispute this. However, when we try to define what modesty is, we are faced with many different opinions. The Amish (a religious sect that wears clothing styles dating back to the late 1600s) debate whether suspenders are modest or immodest. Some say they are modest; some say they should not be worn; still, others say that only suspenders that form a "Y" in the back are modest, the "X" style is immodest.

So how do we figure out what is modest? The latest fashions are constantly changing. In the late 1800s, it was immodest for a woman to show her ankles. Therefore, women wore long dresses and high top boots. Today, no one thinks twice if a woman's ankles show. A woman wearing high top boots and a long full skirt would have many people staring at her as she walks down Main Street. Even if we restrict ourselves to the current fashions, there are some outfits that everyone would agree are definitely modest and others that are definitely immodest. However, we can't rely on popular opinion to totally define modesty. It shifts too much and often allows things that would offend most of our tastes as Christians. What we need is an unchanging yardstick to learn if an outfit is modest. That yardstick will be the Bible.

The problem of modesty originated in Genesis 3. Before sin entered the world, both Adam and Eve were naked. This was not wrong, nor shameful because that is the way God created them (Genesis 2:25). This state did not last. When Adam and Eve sinned, they became aware of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves. Their first attempt was to sew fig leaves into an apron (Genesis 3:7). The Hebrew word for the garment is chargorah, which means a garment that covers the mid-section of the body, tied about the waist. The same word is translated in other passages as a girdle or a belt. Adam and Eve's attempt was unsuccessful because they still considered themselves naked. When God visited them in the Garden, they hid because they were naked. After God issued the punishments to Adam and Eve for their sin, he took animal skins and made tunics for the man and woman (Genesis 3:21). The Hebrew word for tunic is kethoneth, which describes a shirt that reaches to the knees.

We can now define nakedness.

  • One Hebrew word, 'arom refers to being without clothing. It can mean without any clothes or being inadequately clothed.  In Job 22:6, the Bible talks about stripping the naked of their clothing. In other words, it is possible to be naked but have some clothing on. This could a person who is wearing clothing whose material is transparent or threadbare, leaving people with no doubts about what exists underneath the clothing or it could refer to someone wearing clothing that does not cover completely in all situations.
  • Another Hebrew word 'erwah refers to the exposure of the genitals. God told the Israelites not to place the altar up where the priest would have to climb steps to reach it (Exodus 20:26). As the priest walked up the steps, there would be the possibility of the worshiper at the base of the steps seeing underneath the priest's garments. As an additional precaution, the priest's garments included short trousers that went from the waist to the thighs to cover their nakedness (Exodus 28:42-43).
  • A third Hebrew word 'eryah refers to being exposed and unprotected after clothing is removed. For a woman, the exposure of her breasts or her groin region would be considered nakedness (Ezekiel 16:7).

Therefore, any clothing that does not cover your sexual organs in all positions would be improper for a Christian to wear. For men, this would mean the region from the waist to the thighs must be covered. String bikinis, bikini briefs, and shorts that are split on the sides up to the waist would not be adequate coverage. Clothing made out of very thin material or loosely woven material, such as the fishnet weave, would be improper material for the groin region. If you are uncertain, place your hand behind the material. If you can "see" your hand, find another article of clothing. When you are trying on trousers, notice whether you can see the edge of your undershorts through the pants. If you can, find something else to wear. In addition, clothing that is tight or form-fitting would not be modest. Much athletic clothing, like those made out of spandex, hugs the body so closely that you can easily see the outline of a man's penis. Very tight jeans can be a problem as well. Form-fitting jeans can leave little doubt about what is underneath the pants.

Clothing that does not cover your nakedness is definitely not modest. However, clothing that does cover your sexual organs may still be considered immodest. For example, under the old law, a man was not allowed to wear women's clothing and a woman could not wear men's clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5). What is appropriate dress for a man and a woman varies greatly over time and between societies? Whatever is the current standard, that is the standard you must abide by.

Let's look at I Timothy 2:9-10 again. The Greek word for modest is kosmious, which 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, of good judgment, and moderate in all that he does.

A modest dress doesn't call attention to the wearer. This is a reason why clothing that exposes your nakedness is immodest. Costly jewelry or elaborate hairstyles can also be immodest. People should notice a Christian because of who he is and not because of what he is wearing. Therefore, the clothing that I wear should fit the occasion so that my attire does not outshine my Lord, whom I represent. When going among farmers, I won't wear a formal three-piece suit; jeans and a flannel shirt would be more appropriate. If I need to teach someone of the Amish faith, I'll wear a dark suit with no metal buttons and a broad brim hat.

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you" (I Corinthians 9:19-23).

We should always be modestly attired because we represent Jesus to those around us at every moment of our lives.

Before we leave the topic of clothing, I would like to mention one more thing. Right or wrong, people judge us by the clothes that we wear. If we dress as if we are going to dig ditches, but we are not, people will conclude that we don't care. If we greatly overdress for the occasion, people will conclude that we are stuck up and aloof. When you begin searching for a job, notice what the administrative people are wearing before you apply for the job. When you go in for an interview, dress at least as well as the person you will be talking to. When you are formally stopping by to teach the gospel, recognize that people have certain expectations about what a gospel preacher should look like. Don't place a stumbling block in front of your message by dressing so that people lose credibility with you.

Hair Length

You may have difficulty believing this but God told us very plainly about how men and women ought to wear their hair. In I Corinthians 11:14-15, Paul tells us that it is natural for a man to wear short hair and for a woman to wear long hair. Long hair on a man is a dishonor to that man. The context of these verses shows that this is a statement of fact. It is not optional; it is not a suggestion; it is a fact that can be readily observed in the world.

If it is so natural, why do some men wear their hair long? The long hair is a symbol of their rebellion - rebellion against their parents, against society, against religion, or against everything. God is not pleased with people who rebel against things that are right. As Christians, we need to be more mature in our attitudes. Wrong things happen all the time in this world, but you cannot correct a wrong with another wrong.

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