Is Modesty Immaterial?

When we talk of modesty, I always think of the story Elisabeth Elliot told of the Auca Indians. They wore nothing but a string around their bellies. But to them, the neighboring tribe who was lacking that tiny bit of adornment was walking around stark naked and terribly immodest. That did not mean that Elisabeth and her daughter Valerie adopted the same mode of (un)dress to minister to them. But neither did they equate wearing clothes to believing in Christ. Ever since the Garden of Eden, a realization of one’s nakedness seems to follow an encounter with one’s Creator (Genesis 3:7).

In another part of the world, my cousin Jennifer, careful not to offend her new African friends, wears several layers of skirts and a head covering when going out, since only one layer of fabric is deemed quite immodest. Jennifer has freedom in Christ to wear only one layer. Elisabeth and Valerie could have demanded that the Aucas wear the clothes they had neither money nor opportunity to buy. But in so doing, each of these women could have forever damaged not only their own reputation, but their Lord’s, in the minds of these people.

My husband often talks of how we have made it “Christian” to dress, talk, and act in a certain way here in North America, despite the fact that very sincere believers in other countries have an entirely different style of dress and behavior, whether by situation or by necessity. That is not to say we believe modesty is unimportant. But perhaps it is, in a way, “immaterial.”

Wearing a specific style or cut of clothing will not save anyone. I dress my daughters in cute and modest attire now, praying that by the time they are grown enough to make their own clothing decisions, they will have acquired a heart of modesty which will be reflected in their wardrobe.

As a married woman, I am incredibly jealous for my husband’s eyes. But in my desire to protect him, I have to guard against not only a self-righteous attitude, but a spirit critical of those who expose more than I would have my husband see.

I am responsible for how I dress. It reflects directly on my husband and my Lord. My actions and attire have the power to “commend the gospel.” I must use that power wisely, so that no one will “dishonor the Word of God” because of me (Titus 2:5).

I married a godly man. In submitting to him, I submit to my Lord. My husband’s smile of approval is my daily encouragement to dress modestly, attractively, and femininely. After all, I am his beauty. And his is the approval I dress for.

originally published in an interview for Feelin’ Feminine

18 Comments

  1. Do you have a link to the Elizabeth Elliot article or know where it is in her books. I have use it in the past and can no linger find it.

  2. I love the phrase “heart of modesty” in paragraph 4. That’s a great way to put it!

  3. At the risk of being called legalistic, can I point out that, just because some people dress modestly with an attitude of self-righteousness is no reason to stop dressing modestly. Another person’s bad attitude is not a justification for forsaking what I believe to be scriptural (keeping in mind, of course, that what I see as Scriptural is definitely subject to error – but, hey, the God of the Universe can handle that, right? Just like He can handle all the people I feel like condemning, and give them perfect guidance.)

    I guess I see a tendency for ‘reacting’ going on in the Christian community. Our parents went a little too far in the strictness of their standards. Therefore, we swing to the opposite extreme and let standards go down the drain. Our parents were domineering. Therefore, we wave goodbye to Biblical obedience (and there IS such a thing) and follow the error-fraught path of independence. Do you see what I mean? Just because someone has taken something and run with it, doesn’t mean we have to do the exact opposite. As in all things, there is a balance in the modesty issue, and dropping all standards doesn’t quite cut it.

    Also, while I agree that, as a wife, you are ‘his beauty’, we cannot forget that we are first for God. We are first God’s beauty. Everything about our lives should bring Him glory. Naturally, complying with a husband’s wishes, and seeking to make a husband happy are a part of glorifying God, but if we aren’t careful to look at it as “God first, then my husband” we are again in danger of going off balance.

    Just some thoughts. Great post, Gretchen! I appreciate your honesty and willingness to speak out!

    1. I don’t think anybody here came to the conclusion or was under the impression that they should drop all standards or stop dressing modestly. Gretchen just said, “(It) is not to say we believe modesty is unimportant. But perhaps it is, in a way, “immaterial.” I agree. I think a lot of people who grew up with strict parents are coming to realize not that they can do whatever they want now, but that these things aren’t the main point, and shifting rather to a focus on a personal relationship with God rather than a focus on rules and laws.

      I didn’t see anything in the post or comments that was leaning towards extremism. I hope this helps.

      1. Exactly, Heather. But I completely agree with Joanna! Especially as to the reactionary tendency in this generation.

    2. I agree with Joanna as well. The reactionary approach I’ve seen in many homeschool graduates is very disturbing.

  4. So true! Modesty is more than just a matter of outward adornment; it’s a matter of the heart. Thanks for sharing this!
    Blessings in Christ,
    Kate

  5. Heather Wood says:

    This was great, Gretchen. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Christian girls who insist that one way of dressing is, because of its modesty, more godly because that point of view is ethnocentric. Cultures vary not only by space but also time and it simply isn’t practical to view certain pieces of clothing as more righteous or godly than others. I’ve worn only skirts before, now I wear pants often. To me – and I do only view this as to me and not universal for all Christian girls – my clothing should be modest enough that it honors God and my husband, updated enough that I am NOT drawing too much attention to myself, and a style that I am comfortable enough in that I am not thinking too much on what I am wearing. Does that make sense? I am a servant and a tool in the hands of God. My clothing should be such that people are not noticing me for my clothing but for my actions and my service. Neither I nor those I come in contact with should be distracted by what I am wearing.
    Of course – I know we are human and everybody notices clothing, so that is a little idealistic, but I just want people to walk away from me thinking about what kind of person I was and how I blessed them rather than thinking about the cute top I was wearing.

    1. Excellent points, Heather. Lindsay has some very helpful links here–for evaluating ones wardrobe and attitude about it. I would encourage anyone interested in this discussion to check out her post and links.

  6. Great post, Gretchen…and an important one for the conservative Christian culture where sometimes modesty (i.e. rules about the appropriateness of certain modes of dress) has become, in my opinion, way too big of an issue. It’s something my group talked about in a missionary debriefing seminar we went to after moving here…there are some values that we as Christians can’t compromise on, and then there are some values that are cultural. Modes of dress falls mainly in the cultural category.

    Liz, as someone who lived 22 years in an Asian country, I really believe that cross-cultural modesty really depends on the situation. I would encourage anyone going to minister in a foreign country for the first time to seek the counsel of people who are already there. Honestly, I think it really depends on the country, and how the people there view foreigners. They may expect foreigners to conform to their modes of dress, or they may expect you not to care or to dress like they do because you are a foreigner. I have a friend who ministered in Jordan for two years, and she never wore a headcovering, and generally wore American-style, loose-fitting clothing. She had a great ministry to women and children there, and she is planning to go back soon. In other Islamic countries, it could be dangerous for a woman to go out in public without a headcovering. It just really depends.

    I would encourage you to seek the counsel of those who know, to pray about it, to discuss the specifics of what you’ve learned with your husband, and then dress as God leads. And don’t worry too much…you will quickly adapt and learn to balance what you believe with what is culturally-acceptable.

  7. Gretchen, thank you!! This post came at the perfect time! Such an awesome reminder that we should not judge or look down on a person based on the way they dress but should strive to show them the love of Christ regardless. Also, a reminder of why we dress modestly…. Which is something I have been struggling with lately…I know in my heart why I should dress modestly (and I do strive to do so), but my husband has told me that before that he wouldn’t care either way how I dress so sometimes that makes it hard to stay strong and not crumble under the pressure to wear the pretty (immodest) clothes I see other women wearing. Thank you again for this post — it was exactly what I needed right now.

  8. This was a great article. I am working on a post regarding modesty and femininity for my blog and this has been helpful. It’s so hard to keep a balance between obedience/desiring to please our Lord and legalism!

  9. Very interesting! My husband and I have been discussing this recently, particularly about how our clothing reflects to gospel in a cross-cultural missions situation. We can’t make up our minds – for example, if you minister in an Islamic country, should you wear a burka (or whatever the local custom is) in order to demonstrate modesty in a way which will be understood, or should you deliberately not, in order to provoke questions? Is there an absolute standard of modesty which is acceptable to God (so you know you are pleasing him no matter what locals say) or should you adopt local customs and understandings of modesty? And would upholding the modesty standards of another religion ever be counter-productive? Can we draw a parallel with Jesus being accused of being a glutton and associating with immoral people, yet being free to love those people because he ignored social values?

    And to return to what Gretchen was saying, what if my husband thinks [email protected] being *too* modest (I’m thinking in cross-cultural mission situations mainly here – unlikely to be a problem in this country!)?

    I’m thinking aloud….would love to know what anyone else thinks?

    1. Joanna Wert says:

      Liz,
      I live in an Old Order Mennonite Community. Most of these folks, I believe, are simply living by the traditions of men. I have made this my ministry for the past 26 yrs.
      They are open to Christian literature, which I share on a regular basis. I have friendly interaction with them.
      I have considered the dress factor. If they are “more righteous” (in their own eyes) than me, what do I have to share?
      I came to the conclusion, however, that to change my dress would profit nothing unless I am also going to give up electricity, cars, etc.
      And so, I continue to be the best neighbor I can be while subtlely sharing my faith.
      I think I am a mystery to them. They hear me talk of my relationship with Christ, my church, etc. They know I have seven children and homeschool. They even know we butcher, can, etc. But they also see all the “worldly” things.
      It is a tough mission field, but my faith is in God. I can save no one.

  10. Wow, Gretchen, these were very helpful thoughts!! I will be marrying my man this summer, and this has also been a frequent topic of conversation. I can completely relate to being jealous for his eyes. As for me, it can definitely be a temptation to dress for the approval of others. But thank you so much for the reminder that “his is the approval I dress for.”

  11. I like this =) =) So important what you write. It went straight to my heart, because even if I’ve thought of these things, I hadn’t gotten to a conclusion in my mind (which you didn’t really either, I guess, but at least you managed to write sentences down), and I liked so much what you wrote because it’s what I though, just wasn’t able to formulate… does this make sense?

    Well, Gretchen, I liked it, that’s the short story =) =)

    åslaug abigail

  12. Heather Prosch says:

    Wow! You are right on in everything you said. I’ve been thinking a bit about this topic again lately as I’ve encountered friends who never wear anything but long dresses. I’m afraid as Christian girls we can allow legalism to dictate our lives in the area of dress. I fell prey to it in my teen years, and really didn’t have a good answer for why I always wore dresses. It is certainly not a commandment in the Bible; we are told to be modest, but modesty in the Bible is first and foremost a quiet and gentle spirit. As we strive to protect our brother’s eyes, we will clothe ourselves in a modest fashion as well. Thank you for this great post! It was extremely encouraging to me.

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