A biblical look at modesty as a joint responsibility

I’ve never been afraid to talk about the difficult subjects. If there’s a danger area, I’ll happily go skipping through the landmines and twirling among the machine gun pits. Here’s a classic – Modesty. Did the room suddenly go all quiet and still?

Relax your shoulders a little. It’s going to be okay.

As disciples of Christ, it is useful for us to face these difficult issues. It is an important biblical concept but it can also be driven by society and be a flashpoint for many cultural reactions that are a visible indicator of gender difference. These reactions can be polarizing and harmful to our communities. These polarizing views can seep into our churches, leaving us with an impoverished view of each other. So we need to re-look at these issues to help us understand them via a biblical lens and not the lens of secular culture, with all the baggage that brings.

Why is modesty such a tricky concept?

“Modesty” has traditionally been applied as a concept to women as a positive virtue and as a visible indicator of her character and worth. It is rarely applied as a virtue (positive or otherwise) to men. It conjures images of a woman who is quiet, meek, demure and unassuming. It becomes applied most obviously to apparel and adornment and dressing (and behaving) in a way that avoids all sexual interest. A woman who is modest is commonly imagined as someone who is pure and chaste.

In our earliest recorded usage in our post-Medieval vernacular, “modesty” meant temperance, moderation, not excessive or extreme.[1] This would seem to be a good thing. But for the last 200 years, women have strained against the societal concept of modesty and the physical and emotional leash it had come to represent.  This is because of the exaltation of the modest woman through the 18th and 19th centuries, both in dress and character expectations.

In 1760, Charles Allen wrote “Modesty, my Dear, is the outward expression of a pure and chaste mind: and therefore, every word you speak, every action you perform, every gesture of your body, every look of your eyes, every part of your dress; in fine, every thing, by which the inward dispositions of the mind can be expressed and discovered, comes under the regulation of this virtue.”[2]

This was seen as an inner/outer life contrast which led to mental and moral emptiness. This was a heated topic for Mary Wollstonecraft who regarded true respectability as sourced from “the beauty of moral loveliness, or the harmonious propriety that attunes the passions of a well-regulated mind.”[3]

Florence Nightingale in 1852 lamented the disconnect between a woman’s inner life and outer expression. Outwardly she must be quiet and pliable with no habit or occupation that could not be laid aside at a moment’s notice. Yet inwardly she has passions and thoughts that went to waste for want of mental occupation.[4]

Yet by 1860 women were still told “Remember that a lady-like deportment is always modest and quiet” and regulated tone and volume of voice, modes of dress, topics of conversation and scrupulous attention to conduct on the street.[5] Throughout that book, modesty is linked to quietness more than anything else.

The primacy of modesty had resulted in the tightest corsets, strictures on behaviour, limitations on movement, restrictions in thought and had constrained women’s opinions and voices as tightly as a corset. The rise of suffragism and then suffragettism was a direct result of the downward pressure on women to conform to the ideal of womanhood as typified in modesty. Modesty, not as temperate behaviour, but as acceptance of inferiority. Please note, I am not making a feminist statement here, merely acknowledging a view at the time. Stepping out of the boundaries of female expectation, as the suffragists and suffragettes did, garnered a myriad response including that “women were physically, intellectually and morally inferior to men and to give them the vote would damage the country and the Empire.”[6]

While 1st wave feminism had a focus on women using their voices, 2nd wave feminism had a focus on women using their voices and their freedom of self-expression. The societal concept of modesty was still seen as oppressive and how a woman presented herself became a sign of freedom to express herself.  Since modesty in this sense was dressing and deporting herself in a manner which avoid exciting sexual interest, to gain freedom from oppressive expressions of modesty included the freedom to dress in ways that did exactly that.

What is the big picture here?

This then is how we reach the battle ground. Women wanted freedom from what was an oppressive expression of modesty, that had begun as a descriptor of avoiding excessive behaviour. Exercising that freedom can, in some cases, be provocative. Some think the pendulum has swung too far. Some want a return to the modest view of modesty – it just being the value of avoiding excessive behaviour.

I think two observations are key here.

First, the burden of modesty is still carried solely by women. The concept is almost entirely a yardstick against which women were (and are still) judged.

Second, this is a worldly wisdom driving the view of modesty. While 18th to 20th century visions of modesty may have been borne out of Christian views, its expression and ultimate exaltation was driven by secular culture and was based (largely), not on Christian character, but on belief in the inferiority of women. We all come from a variety of doctrinal beliefs, but I think we can all agree that the inferiority of one gender is not a Christian concept. As a complementarian myself, I believe God created us to be different, but God did not create one gender to be inferior.

But, no matter your doctrinal position, how should we deal with modesty? This seems an important issue to grapple with since there are many exhortations to avoid excessive behaviour and to live respectfully and temperately. How should we take that? And how should we apply it?

Re-calibrating from the Bible

Biblically, a key passage used to guide is 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.”

It would be easy to cite 1 Timothy 2:9 as the biblical imperative and maintain the focus of modesty on women.  But we need to look deeper at what is going on, and what is at stake. The word “modesty” is translated from the Greek aidos. Aidos was the Greek goddess or the personification of modesty, shame and respect. This word is not used anywhere else in the bible so its use here is telling.

Plato wrote that “Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect [aidos] and right among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together.” (Protagoras, 322c). For the Greeks, aidos was a concept linked to conscience. It was an instinct which stopped a person from doing something that would bring harm, just as fear might cause us to be more cautious in how we approach something, aidos is a preventative instinct, not a prohibitive behaviour.

The word chosen by Paul for “self-control” is sōphrosynēs – another interesting choice and only used 3 times in the New Testament. Sôphrosunê is a Greek virtue of temperance and self-control and which Plato described as self-mastery. Plato highlighted this virtue as not just abstaining from things, but actually exalted it as practical wisdom.

What is interesting here is the emphasis not on the physical direction about what to wear, but what we wear as an outworking of our conscience and wisdom. Further, Paul is saying that these virtues are what we should adorn ourselves with. Conscience and wisdom are far more beautiful adornments that jewels and fancy hairdos.

But where does this leave us in terms of “modesty” as a concept and an outworking? I would argue it leaves us first with a joint responsibility for modest behaviour, and second, a focus on modesty as an instinctive compulsion.

First, as to joint responsibility, the fruits of the spirit which includes self-control (Gal. 22-23) are universal. It does not provide some for men and some for women. We can have a tendency to compartmentalize biblical imperatives. It’s easy to see why, when Paul directs things to men and women. But the characteristics in Galatians 5 are comprehensive and all-inclusive.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 shows us our joint responsibility more plainly “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” (v3-4)

We each have responsibility for our own body and how we use it and show it. Particularly in the context of what this passage exhorts as it deals with not taking advantage of anyone. We need to remember that we have a responsibility to each other in not leading others into sin. We should consider the use of our bodies with a God-inspired conscience and practical wisdom to be holy and honorable. But it is important that we see this as a responsibility for women and men. In the Bible, women are not solely responsible for thoughtful, temperate and conscience-driven behaviour.

Secondly, if we view modesty as a sharpening of instinct, conscience and practical wisdom, this gives us a much more useful avenue for discipleship. Rather than just telling people what to wear, we can have more honest and deep discussions about our characters in Christ and honing them in this God-ward direction. The aim, just as we develop a healthy instinct for avoiding danger, is to develop a strong instinct for godly obedience and responsibility to each other. And out instincts will guide what we do and how we express ourselves – which is the goal of all our authentic discipleship.

The focus of authentic discipleship is God. We need to remember this as it can be so easy to get whipped up by the wisdom of the world and all its “my body my choice” apparent freedoms. The Bible tells us that modesty is a mutual responsibility – not just the remit of women. But we should not swing the pendulum too far and place the burden of modesty then on men. It is a joint responsibility that is an outworking of a true heart for Christ, that seeks the good of other people before our own desires.

[1] Abigail Williams, A Brief History of Modesty in Measure and Excess XVII-XVIII Revue de la Société d’études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles 71, 2014, paragraph 2.

[2] Charles Allen, The Polite Lady: or, a Course of Female Education quoted ion Abigail Williams’ A Brief History of Modesty

[3] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication on the Rights of Women

[4] Florence Nightingale, Cassandra: An Angry Outcry Against the Forced Idleness of Victorian Women, 1852

[5] Florence Hartley, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Chapter 4 paragraph 41, 1860 accessed on 22nd December at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35123/35123-h/35123-h.htm

[6] Sir Almroth Edward Wright, a letter to The Times 28 March 1912, quoted in Diane Atkinson, Rise UP Women. The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), p319.

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