The movie Top Gun came out my senior year of high school. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my girlfriends and I went crazy over the volleyball scene—shirtless, sweaty guys diving into sand in sync to the iconic beat of “Playing With the Boys.”
Truth be told, we watched and fantasized about those men repeatedly. All the while, we attended church youth group, and it never occurred to me that we were crossing a line (i.e., lusting). Ironically, I did not think highly of men who ogle over women’s bodies. And I questioned the modesty of women who receive payment to dress and act hot in movies. The double standard didn’t occur to me until embarrassingly later in life.
For a long time, I thought of modesty strictly in terms of a woman’s outfits and behavior: How sheer is her top? Is her neckline too low? How tight are her pants? How short is her skirt? Is she making it easier or harder for men who battle lust? Is she inviting disrespect to herself and other women? Is she embodying the life of a God-honoring woman?
It did not occur to me that modesty has a much broader biblical definition.
Some years later, while navigating occasional attractions as a married woman (wedding rings don’t end that), I began wondering if modesty applies to men: Does a man’s shirt, or lack of, ever send wrong impressions? Does the fit of his jeans ever invite women to linger and (gasp) lust? Does immodest behavior, like flirting, ever harm his relationships? What does modesty require of a God-honoring man?
Turning to the Bible, I found that modesty calls for much more than most of us know. Whether or not our clothes invite sexualized attention is just the beginning.
Modesty Applies as Much to Men as to Women
It’s easy to camp out on external appearances of women when discussing modesty. After all, the Bible makes some important points about women’s dress. Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9-10—the go-to passage on feminine modesty—discourages elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls and expensive clothes drawing attention to self instead of God.
As we covered in a previous article, these instructions fall smack in the middle of words to men and women about false teaching and angry disputing over ways the surrounding culture is creeping into the Ephesian church.
The big idea prohibits any and all human practices, including fashion, getting in the way of worshiping God. We are responsible for ourselves and, to some degree, the impact our behavior has on others. Biblical modesty (kosmios)—meaning orderliness, moderation and appropriateness—applies to attitudes and behaviors of men and women.
We Practice Modesty When Choosing God’s Ways Over the Status Quo
From the get go, God established boundaries (orderliness, moderation and appropriateness) for our own good: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Sadly, we have a track record of transgressing the limits (Romans 3:23). We see the roots of wrong (Genesis 3:16-19) replay on the news each day—tensions between men and women; parents and children; brother and brother; differing religious, racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups. Conflicts and violence go on and on. Henri Nouwen describes our fallen human condition: “When God looks at our world, God must weep. God must weep because the lust for power has entrapped and corrupted the human spirit” (The Paths of Power). Stepping outside God’s bounds has serious consequences.
In Malestrom, Manhood Swept Into the Currents of A Changing World, Carolyn Custis James reminds us that the tensions we experience are not rooted in God’s original design and purposes for humanity. She calls us back to our truest identities as men and women: “The Hebrew connotation is that the creation of God’s image bearers—a blessed male/female alliance with God at the center—is ‘emphatically,’ or ‘exceedingly,’ or ‘forcefully’ good—the grand equivalent of a divine fist bump!” Although powerful forces threaten to conform us to a fallen status quo, the spirit of Jesus promises to clothe us with new lives.
“I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).
Biblical Modesty Calls for Our Undivided Devotion to God
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Modesty permeates Micah’s instructions for God’s people. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our Creator are at the heart of Christian living.
Those wholly devoted to Jesus are not preoccupied with self or external appearances. Men and women with this kind of heart do not seek selfish attention, flaunt wealth or diminish others. Like Brother Lawrence, we are to practice lifestyles of worship spilling into every day of the week.
Modesty is to be Clothed in the Spirit of Jesus
The apostle Paul offers an elegant solution to immodesty—being clothed in good deeds. As God’s beloved children, he urges us to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12). Rather than selling out to worldly values, we are to dress in the spirit of Jesus.
“Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14).
Modesty Builds Shalom, Bringing Glory to God
Parents remind their children again and again to listen and obey. Similarly, God’s Spirit whispers to us to abide in Jesus’ love, the source of wisdom and strength to embody God’s purposes (John 15:1-17). Scripture promises an overflow of goodness, fruits of shalom, spilling into our communities.
Chris Marshall writes in The Little Book of Biblical Justice that shalom is “the positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is the state of soundness or flourishing in all dimension of existence—in our relationship with God, our relationships with each another, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves.”
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).