March 4, 2024

What Does the Bible Say About Modesty?

What is interesting is that the Bible doesn’t ever speak to modesty directly, but always addresses the heart.  It talks about the lust of the heart, and how a man can look at a woman to lust after her.  It talks about physical appearance– and how what a woman wears affects men.  It talks about how a deacon’s and pastor’s wife must be sober and have inner beauty.  It describes the woman in Proverbs 31 known more for what she does and who she is than what she looks like.  And it also talks about the pure love and desire found between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship.

So, let’s look at a few of these passages, shall we, and see what points God is trying to make about our appearance.

Clothing Tells a Story

Judah and Tamar are perhaps one of the first instances in the Bible where a person put on some clothing and it was shown to have meaning.  Not since the fall do we actually have a discussion of what clothing on the outside advertises about the inside?  Tamar was definitely seeking to have fulfilled the duty of the next of kin, and she used clothing to trick Jacob into honoring his promise.  Clothing telegraphed to him that she was sexually available.

Joab had a woman dressed in sackcloth to come to see David to try to change his mind about Absalom and to cheer David up.  She used clothing in a deceitful way so as to influence David.

Esther, when she wanted to show her authority and position when she was risking her life before the king, dressed in her royal robes.  They did not save her from the law, but they made her easily identifiable, and therefore pardonable.

The Priests in the Book of Ezra wore specific apparel to carry out their ministry.  It set them apart as someone special.

Mordecai was given the king’s clothes to wear as he was paraded down the street.  This signified the amount of thankfulness the king had for what Mordecai had done for him in saving his life.  The clothing showed status.

The point of these examples is this– we all know that what we wear telegraphs a message.  The Bible shows us plainly that this is the case.  Even if we are wearing “what everyone else wears” we are saying what everyone else is saying about their bodies.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Body

Before we get too far, I want to stress that there is nothing wrong with maintaining a healthy body.  It is something that every man and woman should do.  God didn’t give us this body to waste, and we should want to look our best for Him and our husband/wife.

Clearly, this passage in Song of Solomon teaches us this.  The companion passage is found in the Proverbs where the writer encourages the men to always be satisfied with the wife of their youth.  If there was something innately wrong with our bodies, God wouldn’t have created Adam and Eve naked.

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.

The Perfect Woman

Proverbs 31:10ff is not just a good place to find how to be a virtuous wife– it’s also to see what is valuable as far as a person.  In this passage, you will find nothing of how she looks, smells, or how much skin she shows.  Instead, you’ll find things like:

And here is the important one.  Her clothing is strength and honor because of her character.  Yes, she makes herself clothing that is of silk and purple, a fine thing for the times, but she is known for much more than her clothing.  You could say that she defines the clothing, the clothing does not define her.

New Testament Commands

When it comes to the New Testament, the passages are more direct commands to women that this is how they should be.  Some may say that the commands to the Deacon’s wives and Pastor’s wives should not apply to all women, but since they are signs of spiritual maturity, all women should strive to hold a high standard.

Peter starts out by laying the groundwork for all wives.  He starts out by talking about the inner persons and proceeds to talk about the comparison of the inner and outer.  In fact, Peter goes on to say that a meek and quiet spirit is of great price and is something that should be worn by godly women and that holy women of old adorned themselves with such being in subjection to their own husbands.

I find it fascinating that the Lord led Peter to write about this topic as Peter is one of the apostles that we know actually had a wife.  I can imagine the conversations that they had as he was writing about this topic; however, knowing the type of man that Peter was he probably did not have trouble ruling his home.

Paul repeats Peter’s admonition and encourages women to adorn themselves in modest apparel (a direct reference after all?) wearing good works more than something that attracts the outer person.  Why?  Because God created an order of man and then woman, and she glorifies God when she submits and continues in faith, charity, and holiness with sobriety.

It’s All About the Heart

So, what can we gain from the Bible’s references to modesty?  To boil it down, it’s all about the heart.  The heart’s attitude, the heart’s reflection, and the heart’s desire.  We’ve also learned that your clothing is broadcasting a message.  It may be broadcasting the message that everyone else’s is– but that doesn’t make it right.

What we wear should be broadcasting the message that we are different.  It should be drawing attention to those in authority over us.  It shouldn’t be drawing attention to ourselves.

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18 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Say About Modesty?

  1. “What we wear should be broadcasting the message that we are different. It should be drawing attention to those in authority over us. It shouldn’t be drawing attention to ourselves.”

    I think this last sentence should be clarified. As a modestly-dressed and head covering woman, I’ve drawn attention to myself because of what I choose to wear. [My clothing is mostly Goodwill stuff – neat, clean, and somewhat close to fashion.] Usually it is just stares. Of course you will look differently and that will attract attention. Its what you do with the attention that counts.

    One interesting trend I’ve noticed is silence or questioning among my “audience.” Christians in church or out in public, do not ask me questions. They are polite, stare and are quiet. Those who have asked me questions are not believers. I’m a real puzzle to them! Now, I think this is the right sort of attention. 🙂 I have had much more opportunity to explain my beliefs than I ever had just being a Closet Christian.


  2. Well, Anna, if you look at the verse talking about wearing a head covering there were two purposes that Paul had:
    1. To cover her glory as in submission to her husband.
    2. “Because of the angels.”

    In those cases, what she is wearing is drawing attention away from her form, and instead showing submission to those in authority. Does that make sense?
    Said a different way, you’re not drawing lustful attention as much as your drawing quizzical attention.

    I wonder what the Christian “audience” is thinking. My guess is that they’re trying to figure out why you are wearing what you are wearing– especially compared to what they are wearing. I would guess it to be an internal comparison on their part, and they don’t know what to say about their own choices. Since your apparel probably “smacks them in the face” as far as it is an obvious feature, they are dumbfounded about what to say.

    As far as witnessing opportunities– that’s terrific!

  3. Just passing through but did want to point out – the Bible does in fact speak of modesty. 1 Timothy 2:9-10 says “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control…” (ESV)

    Also – as far as the heart goes – though we are called to have a heart like Christ’s, we have to be careful in dealing with teens that they don’t get the wrong impression that if they follow their hearts – certain things might be ok. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (ESV)

    Just a few comments…thanks for reading!

  4. The bible calls upon women to dress modestly, but describes this modesty as avoiding adornments, braids and jewelery.

    “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. (NIV, 1 Peter 3:2-5)”

    I will stand to be corrected if anyone can find a biblical reference to not wearing short skirts or low cut tops. Today’s meaning of modesty tends to be not revealing to much of the body beneath the clothing but the biblical description is quite different. The bible also calls upon women to wear a veil or else shave their head so any woman not doing this in a public place cannot claim to be true to the bible and the (Christian) god.

    “… any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head–it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 11:4-7)”

    If religious people can re-interpret the bible with modern meanings applied to ancient texts, they have no right to dictate to others how they should dress. In fact they have no right to dictate to others on how they should dress period.

    1. You are certainly entitled to believe that all you have to do is not wear braids, jewelry and fine clothes. The question then comes up– why not? What’s the purpose? The answer is in your passage. You should be more focused on your inner self than outer. So if you’re drawing attention to the outer self– through wearing clothing to show off your body– how does that fit in with this passage?

      And I would also argue that you have to take into account passages such as Romans 14 and Matthew 6. In the latter, Jesus taught that if one sins in the mind, it is like sinning with the actions. In Romans 14, Paul talks about trying to prevent others from stumbling. If we take these principles together with 1 Peter, the picture that I get is that men and women have the obligation to take care not to tempt one another– sexually or otherwise.

      As far as head coverings, I don’t believe that you have the context right when you say “in a public place.” Specifically, I take it to me in church, but the argument could be made for “wherever the woman prays.” I have personally wrestled with this one for a time for the exact reasons you state. I have yet to hear a good answer for someone saying that we don’t have to observe this because it was “cultural”.

      I’m not trying to “dictate how other people dress.” I’m trying to help those that want to look at modesty to be informed.

  5. This is another excellent article. The comments and conversations are very interesting, too. It is good to read these to see what other people say and think.

    I hope this counts for the #Feb2011NCAgiveaway.

  6. Very good article! I especially like the parts about how we communicate different things by what we wear. Maybe shorts and a tight top aren’t communicating the worst, prostitute-like things, but are they communicating purity and modesty?

    Also found the comments interesting here.

  7. I am struggling with something in my church. My pastor thinks I’m getting into legalism when I object to all the exposed flesh that is visible on the praise team and the attire of the women in ministry in our church. Low cut blouses, skin tight leggings with short blouses that don’t come down and over the buttocks, and short shorts during the service. My husband and I are ministers and have expressed our concern to no avail. We love the outreach of the ministry. They are reaching people that are non-traditional, such as bikers, tatooed covered women etc. Am I in legalism? We are praying for our church

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    Just a thought on the head covering discussion. This too, is something that I have been wondering about and my husband and I read the Scriptures together and came to a conclusion we believe to fit the Scriptures (although I definitely don’t think I have it all figured out and am open to clarification if someone has a better understanding than I).
    1Cor. 11:3-10 (NAS)
    3.”But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”

    I agree that this passage is speaking to the context of speaking in the church setting. Women are not to teach/pray in church without the authority of their husband (or if not married, their father, and if fatherless, the church leaders), and the veil/covering is an outward symbol of that submission to their husband. Again, it is a matter of the heart, but that shows a picture of that submission. Reading the whole context here (and there is even more – so read on) clearly shows that this has to do with the God-ordained roles of men and women and how we ought to submit to the authority above us (women to men (not all, but husbands and fathers), men to Christ, Christ to God, etc.) to glorify God and His plan. So if a woman is not going to be prophesying (speaking forth the Word of God – teaching) or praying out loud in church, she doesn’t need a veil, but if so, she does (which is the permission of her authority). At least this is how it seems to me….but I would encourage you to read for yourself and not stop there. The Bible is not meant to be broken apart and read just a verse at a time – the context is easily defiled that way. It is meant to be read as a whole to understand the meaning. We never read other texts or passages of other books breaking them apart and calling it good to understand what the writer is saying – its not sufficient. Nor should we do that with the Bible.

  9. Ray, as a man, I am appalled that you would justify the wearing of short skirts and low cut tops. Is there a verse in the Bible that says you shouldn’t do drive by’s in LA? C’mon brother. The verses don’t have to be direct. It is all about the heart. Men are attracted to women’s bodies end of story. God created us that way. HINT: The only body any man should have to be concerned with being attracted to is his own wife’s. You are right that people don’t have the right to dictate how others dress. This is not about rule, it is about love and respect for each other.

  10. I am an ex exotic dancer of 10 years and a newly devoted christian and I can surely tell you that what a women wears does matter. The bible is quite clear on the apparel for both men and women. Deuteronomy 22:5 The women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a women’s garment for all that do so are abonmination unto the Lord thy God.
    1 Timothy 2:9 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency, and propriety, not with braided hair of gold or pearls or expensive clothes (with shamefacedness) but with good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
    This does not go to say that women should not dress fashionable, it suggest modestly not overdone or too exposed. Too much of anything is not good for you. Shamefacedness simply means not to draw attention to yourself. Anything tight or form fitting shows off your figure whether it be pants, shorts, skirts, or dressess and is therefore not shamefacedness! Men are naturally attracted to a womens curves this is how God has designed them. A women should guard herself and protect her future husband from falling short. The bible says in 1 Corinthians 13 “Charity doth not behave itself unseemly.” You shouldnt seek to do things that would cause someone to fall. Jesus says that if a man looks at a women with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultry. Being an ex exotic dancer, my apparel caused alot of men to lust after my figure and thus I lured them into committing adultry in their heart which I am not proud to admit.
    I have found a great link online that has some great backup biblical literature on this sort of topic. I suggest that everyone check it out. It address questions of how short is too short and the reasons why things are the way they are.

  11. @Sabrina – your apparel or lack thereof did NOT “cause a lot of men to lust after your figure.” They did NOT come into the club to see your dance clothes. They came into the club to lust and you were there to be lusted after. (This does not mean you did not encourage their lusts by your dancing.) You are not responsible for theirs or my actions and thoughts. You are accountable for your own actions and thoughts.

    As for the link you suggested, while he (the author) appears to back it up from Scripture, he is selective regarding which verses to use and ignorant of history. Pants were worn by 15th century Korean women and 4th century Pakistani women. In short he is interpreting the ancient texts of the Bible based on his current cultural viewpoint.

  12. @Pat
    There are quite a few verse which talk about violence and quite a few examples of Jesus refusing to condone violence and refuting it. Your specific example of drive-by in LA is covered in Scripture. You are correct, it is all about the heart/motivation. A woman who wears low cut tops or short skirts is wrong if her motivation is to attract unrighteous attention to herself. You and I however, can not determine her motivation/heart and therefore have no business judging her.
    Why, as a man, should I not find other women attractive? Can I not tell my daughter or my mother she is beautiful? Are they not created in God’s image as well? Did he not pronounce Eve’s body “good”? The attraction to others is not wrong. The actions (deed and thought) based on the attraction is the problem.

  13. I found this discussion interesting. I certainly think there is true value in dressing in a manner that engenders respect above anything else.

    As a former believer now looking back through a gendered analysis of biblical text, I am stunned by how the clear discrimination of women never phased me. Once again the age-old tale of women as either evil temptresses, whores, or honorable wives prevails. As if men do not distract? As if men really should be invested with all the authority?

    But of course women were created for men’s sake, not the other way around. Of course men are the image and reflection of God. “Men make the gods and women worship them.”

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