Modesty is definitely addressed in the Bible, but Christians consistently inflate the scriptural concepts to unbiblical proportions in an attempt to solve the problem of men’s lust. In the typical dialogue on this issue, I detect three very crippling opinions: that bodies are evil, that men have uncontrollable sex drives, and that it is selfish for a woman to be beautiful.
Bodies as Evil
Not long ago, when I heard liberal voices accusing conservative Christians of labeling the body as evil, dirty, and sinful, I thought they were being a bit harsh. I didn’t remember any sensible Christian saying anything like that.
Yet as I’ve listened to more conservative opinions on modesty, I’m amazed at how consistently this undertone can be identified in the rhetoric. Here’s an example from www.minthegap.com, one of the first articles I found in a search for “bible modesty”:
However, because of sin, there is only one person that should see your body—your husband/wife. Displaying that body now tells the story of the morally loose woman, not the morally pure. (http://www.minthegap.com/2007/07/12/what-does-the-bible-say-about-modesty/).
This article goes to great length to explain that there is “nothing wrong with your body,” yet ends with this absolute statement that, “because of sin,” only your husband or wife should see your body.
When does the Bible say this? What about your doctor? What about your parent? What about your child?
… sin at the fall made us feel shame—and shame is not wrong when it comes to sin and nakedness… Just think about every time you go to look for a swimsuit. Even if you have a terrific body, you still fuss over which one will hide the “bad areas”, etc. (http://isthismodest.com/2008/11/13/good-excuse/)
This one says it more bluntly: breasts are bad; genitals are bad. Sin and nakedness are used side by side, as if they were synonyms. But where, after God declares that his creation is excellent in every way do we read the amendment, “Breasts are no longer good. Shoulders and thighs are under review.”
Shame is useful if it points out sin in our lives and drives us to repent and return to a right relationship with God. There is no use in feeling shame about our bodies—good things given to us by God himself.
Men as Villains
Often conservative articles will admit that the Bible isn’t concerned with the amount of thigh or breast or midriff that is visible on a woman. Dress standards are determined by society, but God is concerned about the attitude and the heart, not what’s hanging off of the body. So as long a woman’s heart is in the right place, what she wears is secondary, right?
Wrong. Because, as we all know, we must always be aware of these volatile creatures known as men. Men are well-meaning beasts, but are known to spontaneously burst into bonfires of uncontrollable lust when placed within eyeshot of female skin. In fact, in many cases, combustion only requires a hint of the female shape beneath fabric.
Joking aside, as a man I find it somewhat degrading to be identified with the gender with such a lack of self-control that women must be constantly vigilant lest they “cause us to stumble” by doing everyday actions like bending to pick up a pen. The constant message—to both women and men—in these discussions of modesty is that men are slaves to their sex drive: that sexual temptation is as good as sexual sin.
By insisting that a bare thigh causes men to think sexual thoughts, we make this the reality. By constantly warning that the inevitable reaction to cleavage is lust on the part of men, we turn them into the villains that we fear. Men are constantly reminded which parts of a woman are “supposed” to cause a sexual reaction, and so that’s what happens. We criticize our culture for being hyper-sexualized, yet instead of fostering mastery of our bodies and setting an example of how Christian men and women can interact with freedom and restraint, we adopt the culture and become slaves to it, trying to band-aid the problem with more clothing.
Beauty as Selfishness
The true arena for the fight between modesty and immodesty is in a woman’s mind and heart. It’s true; if a woman is dressing in order to attract attention because she craves acceptance or praise, she is being immodest, by definition.
Just as our language or our habits can speak for our character, so our choice of clothing can send messages, and we should be aware of this. Admittedly, black leather miniskirts or sexy lingerie communicate different intention than a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants.
Yet we seem to often go beyond the heart and condemn ladies that dress in a way that flatters or reveals their bodies. A beautiful woman should be ashamed if she doesn’t show appropriate self-diminishment by sufficiently obscuring all of her attractive features. If she wears tight jeans, or short shorts and a sleeveless shirt on a hot summer day, she is accused of promoting herself and not Jesus Christ, and she bears part of the responsibility for all the men who notice her and lust uncontrollably.
Bodies—and especially the female variety, I suggest—are beautiful. God created them, declared them very good, and never gave us universal instructions to cover them up. Modesty is important as it relates to the attitude and motives of women—mostly I think because of the power in the beauty of their bodies.
Let’s not be so draconian as to saddle women with men’s self-control issues, and burden them with the guilt that their God-given beauty will be the cause of other people’s sin. The solution to men’s lust is a healthy view of women as people, not a smokescreen of unflattering clothing. The solution to women’s desire for acceptance is a healthy view of themselves as people, not an emphasis on clothing and their role as sexualized objects.
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world. So why do you keep on following rules of the world, such as, "Don't handle, don't eat, don't touch." Such rules are mere human teaching about things that are gone as soon as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, humility, and severe bodily discipline. But they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person's evil thoughts and desires. (Colossians 2:20-23)