In like manner, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment; but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works (1 Timothy 2:9-10).
God highly values the quality of modesty. Women are explicitly commanded to dress and conduct themselves in modest ways (1 Timothy 2:9-10), and this quality should not be lost upon men, either. Unfortunately, the meaning and requirements of modesty have become contentious topics, especially since our society has all but abandoned modesty as a virtue.
It has been fashionable among many religious commentators to speak of modesty in terms of standards of clothing. In this perspective, modesty is defined as “that which is not immodest,” and the focus is on defining immodest clothing.
Yet such a perspective is really putting the cart before the horse. Modesty is not exclusively about clothing– instead, it is an attitude, a frame of mind, and a form of behavior. Modesty involves having a proper understanding of one’s position in life– someone who does not act arrogantly or presumptuously. In this sense humility and modesty are quite similar and intertwined. Modesty also involves a strong sense of propriety and restraint. Modesty demands moderation in thought and behavior. For all intents and purposes, modesty can be understood as the quality of not attempting to stand out– someone who is not obtrusive, not demanding attention by their conduct or comportment.
When we consider what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 (and Peter in 1 Peter 3:3-6), we can see that it is this more comprehensive understanding of modesty that is advocated. The focus of a woman’s presentation, according to these Apostles, is not to be in how they adorn themselves physically. Instead, the focus is to be on their service to God– their good works and humble demeanor.
None of this is to say that modesty has nothing to do with clothing– far from it. But modesty is not equated with a certain level of clothing, for people can be modestly clothed while conducting themselves very immodestly. As with many elements of Christianity, modesty must be an internal quality that is manifested externally (cf. Mark 7:14-23, etc.). The woman (or man) who seeks to be truly modest will consider the clothing they wear and will make sure that it does not draw attention to themselves, either by exposing too much skin or by being overly ornate. The godly man or woman is not attempting to draw the attention of other people for immoral purposes– instead, they are trying to humbly serve their God in attitude and action!
Modesty, therefore, is quite the challenge for humans. It would be far easier if modesty only involved wearing a certain type of clothing! Instead, if we would be modest, we must not attempt to stand out in any circumstance. We do not go out with the attempt to be noticed for whatever reason, “godly” or otherwise, and we must not think too highly of ourselves (cf. Matthew 6:1-5, Mark 12:38-40, Galatians 6:1-4). Instead, we go out with the humble attitudes of servants (Luke 17:7-10). We still strive to be godly and to be the lights of the world, but it is not our goal to do so to be noticed (cf. Matthew 5:13-16). We seek the commendation of God, and God only exalts those who humble themselves and serve (Matthew 20:25-28, 23:12).
To limit discussions of modesty to how much a particular garment covers the human body is to really miss God’s purposes in advocating modesty for Christians. Modesty is about mindset, attitude, and behavior. When we have developed modesty in our estimation of ourselves and how we conduct ourselves among other people, we will make sure that our clothing appropriately covers our body without excess in ornamentation so as to not draw attention to ourselves (1 Timothy 2:9-10). We will also strive to be modest in how we conduct ourselves among other people, not attempting to draw attention by sanctimonious behavior or in any way putting on a show of righteousness to be seen as righteous (cf. Matthew 6:1-5). We will go about serving God according to the gifts He has given us, seeking God’s glory and not our own (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Peter 4:7-11). We will strive to be meek and gentle as our Lord and Savior (Matthew 11:28-30). In so doing, we will be better known for our character than our appearance, and we will have the prized internal beauty of the humble, modest servants of God. Let us not only dress modestly but conduct ourselves with modesty!
Ethan R. Longhenry