Whatever happened to modesty?

Whatever happened to modesty?

For centuries modesty has been treated primarily as a woman's issue. That is, women were to dress in such a way that wasn't very flashy, or didn't show too much skin. Modesty has often been measured by ruler sticks and defined by feet and inches. Dresses were to be worn down to your ankle. Hair was to be extremely long. Wearing makeup and jewelry were rare. Seeing any skin below the neckline was out of the question.

But the sexual revolution of the 60's changed that. Women burned their bras in public. Plunging necklines and mini skirts became acceptable. Flaunting what the good Lord gave you became something of the norm. Skin was in. Magazines, music videos, and pop culture began to push and reflect these changes. 

And progressively, such cultural norms began making their way into the church.  Sermons have been preached. Debates raged.  Battle lines were drawn.  Feelings of teen-aged girls were dashed to pieces as they were excluded from church activities because they were dressed rather "whore-ish."  Worship leaders began to sport tattoo's. Pastor's started talking about their "hot and sexy" wives from the pulpit.  And after a lot of back and forth, some people just became tired of it all, tossed their hands in the air, and have stopped saying anything altogether.

However, I think the issue of modesty is something the church cannot afford to give up on.  For in giving up on modesty, the church loses terrible ground in the social and ethical arena.  For modesty is a virtue that shows that we as Christians are a people who have a different value system and ethos, because we live as people who are participants in the death and resurrection of Christ, and are a people who look forward to His coming.

What is modesty, and why is it such a big deal?

In its essence, modesty is the art of living life in such a way as to not draw attention to yourself.  Modesty is the manifestation of humility, and is expressed through simplicity.  Modesty serves as a check to materialism, consumerism, self-indulgence, and "vain glory."  

Modesty is such a big deal because as Christians we realize that our chief end is to draw attention to Christ and glorify him.  We are to embrace a simplistic lifestyle because we realize that everything in this world is passing away, and that living our lives in light of eternity, we strive to put our money towards things that really matter.  Therefore, while we may enjoy some luxuries and creature comforts as the result of working hard, we realize the best use of our money is not to frivolously spend on getting the latest and greatest "stuff." (i.e. buying the new iPhone every time it comes out)  While looking to dress nicely and respectfully, we aren't consumed with having a huge wardrobe with the latest designer labels and brand names.  Rather, we prefer to focus on the "inner man" and the beauty of our hearts.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, I don't see modesty as primarily having to do with women and the length of their skirts.  Modesty is a Christian virtue that is egalitarian.  It is a virtue for men and women, young and old.  And it isn't centered around clothes.  Modesty is a spirit that one walks in.  It is an issue of the heart.  Of course, how one dresses serves as a reflection of how modest one is.  But then again, so are the toys you buy, the cars you drive, the places you vacation, and the size of the house you live in.  

I think the more affluent we become as a society and as a church, the more the spirit of modesty is threatened, and the more it is quickly forgotten by the church.  For with affluence comes the opportunity to buy more and more stuff.  With affluence comes the ability to buy nicer things, bigger things, sexier things, flashier things.  That's not to say poor people lack the opportunity to be immodest.  They certainly can be.  But with wealth comes the opportunity to buy more "bling."  And since wealth brings with it a sense of privilege and entitlement, it becomes easy to justify indulging in an over-the-top materialistic lifestyle.  After all, you've earned it!

I also think about the impact the lack of modesty has had on the church as a whole, especially in the "mega-Church" phenomenon.  Increasingly in Evangelical circles, "the worship experience" is becoming an over-the-top musical and visual arts performance.  We saturate congregations with light, music, video, fog, and whatever we can in order to fully elevate and stimulate the senses.  While there is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, I cannot help but feel that the church is striving to be more "sensual" than "simplistic."  Having a low-key modest worship service has become out of the question.  We must go for bigger, better, and flashier.  And since the pews are full of people and since the offering plate is pretty full, we feel it's not such a big deal to spend $10,000 for one service. Yet it never dawns on us that the early church primarily met in living rooms.

In having such grand worship services, I feel the church is affirming that living an over-the-top lifestyle is ok, and is even to be preferred to that of a modest one.  We affirm that beauty is found, not in simplicity, but in extravagance.  But, as the late philosopher and theologian G. K. Chesteron reminds us:  Modesty is always beautiful.  Such is a powerful statement, and one I think the church would do well to burn in our souls.  Let us live our lives in search of elegant simplicity, and find beauty and value in the things that are truly beautiful and the things that are truly valuable.  For if we cannot do such, then we have failed to look at the world in light of our belief that Jesus Christ died and rose again, and are in grave danger of living how the rest of this world lives.


  1. I chatted to a Mennonite some years about dress codes. He made an interesting comment. "We believe clothes were given to conceal, rather than to reveal or enhance." There was a peaceful logic to that comment that has never left me.

  2. Thanks for pointing me to your blog, Jimmy! I especially loved this line you wrote: "Let us live our lives in search of elegant simplicity, and find beauty and value in the things that are truly beautiful and the things that are truly valuable." Great work.