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Does God care what I wear?

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burqa

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Published: 2 July 2013 (GMT+10)

Every day, when we choose what clothes to wear, we are presenting ourselves to the rest of the world in a certain way. Without saying a word, we’re sending a message to everyone who sees us. Clothing companies pay millions in marketing: ‘Successful, happy people wear our clothes.’ ‘These jeans will make girls want to go out with you.’ Does what we wear matter? And how do we draw appropriate lines without being legalistic? Let’s approach this issue from a biblical perspective.

Origin of clothing

When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden they “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). This would have been surprising to the Jewish reader of Genesis: “Nakedness among the Hebrews was shameful because it was often associated with guilt. … It would have been remarkable to the Hebrews that the couple could be naked without embarrassment.” 1 But since there was no sin, there was no shame.

Jesus Christ is a live Saviour, while the founders of other religions decay in their tombs

But after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, immediately, “the eyes of both were open, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Notice that no one had to tell Adam and Eve that being naked in their sinful state was a problem; they realized it naturally. Some have linked this self-awareness with sexual knowledge, somehow implying that sexuality in and of itself is sinful. However, this cannot be, since Adam and Eve were married before they sinned, and had already been told to be fruitful and fill the earth. If now they were ashamed to be naked in front of each other that is a secondary focus at best. Their real concern (and the inadequacy of their own attempts) is revealed when they heard God walking in the Garden: they knew that they could no longer appear before God naked—their nakedness was now shameful, because of their guilt before their Creator.

Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness was really an outward reflection of an inward reality. Their exterior bodies required a covering, because their inward sin required a covering. God’s subsequent actions confirmed that their instinct to cover themselves was appropriate: He took care of both their inward guilt by slaying animals (creating the precedent that sin is covered by the shedding of blood) and their outward nakedness by making clothes out of the skins.2 This was also a merciful provision of protection, as the fallen world would now be hostile to people, and they would need protection from the elements.

So the reason we wear clothes is because our sins required a covering, and clothing is an outward sign of that inward reality. It was also a constant reminder of humanity’s changed status before God. Henceforth in Scripture, nakedness is linked with shame, as is seen in the account of Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood.

By the end of Genesis, we see that people wore clothing to differentiate their status. Tamar wore certain clothes to indicate that she was a widow; she put on a prostitute’s clothes when she wanted to trick Judah (Genesis 38). In Deuteronomy, God forbids a woman to wear a man’s clothes, or a man to wear a woman’s clothes (Deuteronomy 22:5). He does so without specifying exactly what sort of clothing that entails, so the principle can apply to differing cultural norms at various times in history. For instance, a garment like a ‘dress’ or ‘skirt’ is not necessarily only a woman’s attire, as robes, kilts, etc., have been worn in various cultures by men as men’s garments. And trousers or slacks are not necessarily only a man’s garment, as various cultures allow both sexes to wear them.3

For Levitical priests, the proper clothing was crucial when they appeared before God. They even had special undergarments that would preclude them exposing themselves when they went up to the altar (Exodus 20:26; 28:42–43). God went into great detail regarding the clothes that the priests were to wear when they ministered. And all the Jews were to wear tassels on their clothing that marked them as God’s people.

Clothes and the New Covenant

In the New Testament, both Paul and Peter direct their teachings on modesty specifically to women. But just as the teachings directed to men are applicable to women, these teachings are applicable to men, even though they are directed primarily to women.

It is actually a lot easier to find a condemnation of overly elaborate clothing in these passages than a condemnation of sexually provocative clothing, though the latter is clearly included. However, discussions of modesty in Christian circles generally stress only this sexual aspect, and then only for women.

Paul says, “women should adorn themselves in respectful apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9–10). Peter says about the same thing (specifically about married women): “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear, but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3–4).

Both Paul and Peter’s statements about clothing are set within the wider context of their letter. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul starts out by urging the church to pray for their leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior … ” (1 Timothy 2:2b–3). His instructions in the next paragraph follow from that. So in light of what he has just said, he instructs men to pray “lifting holy hands without anger and quarreling” (v. 8). And then he instructs women (who he assumes are praying as well, based on his instruction above) to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel”. This is modified positively: “with modesty and self-control”.

Then Paul modifies his statement with prohibitions: “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (v. 9). There are probably multiple motivations for Paul’s statement here. First, the early church was made up of a lot of poorer people, with a few elites who converted to Christianity as well. In this setting, showing off one’s wealth could create divisions in the church, something which Paul is concerned to avoid. Some of the ways that women specifically could show off their wealth was with very elaborately braided hairstyles, sometimes incorporating gold jewelry and pearls (which were more precious than gold in the ancient world) into the braids, and also very expensive clothing and jewelry.

Another reason Paul might have prohibited these items of clothing is because the literature of the time period makes clear that this is how prostitutes dressed. The Jewish philosopher Philo wrote:

Accordingly, the one comes to us luxuriously dressed in the guise of a harlot and prostitute, … having the hair of her head dressed with the most superfluous elaborateness, having her eyes penciled, her eyebrows covered over, … painted with a fictitious colour, exquisitely dressed with costly garments, richly embroidered, adorned with armlets, and bracelets, and necklaces, and all other ornaments which can be made of gold, and precious stones, and all kinds of female decorations … 4

Philo, on the other hand, describes the dress of a virtuous woman as “a moderate style of dress, and the ornaments of prudence and virtue, more precious than any gold.”5 So Paul is actually stating an ideal of feminine virtue that was held in the wider culture as well.

It is important to note that these decorative things aren’t being condemned in and of themselves; the Bible speaks approvingly of, for instance, the bride decked out for her bridegroom (Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 19:7–8). Likewise, the woman of Proverbs 31 dresses her whole household in scarlet garments (scarlet or purple cloth was the most expensive dyed cloth). So it is the excess and ostentatiousness of the clothing Paul is condemning, the ‘social message’ it conveys, not the precious materials in and of themselves.

Both Paul and Peter link the appropriate dress of a woman with the appropriate attitude of a woman, as well. Philo also makes a connection between a woman’s style of dress and the attitude of her heart.

Causing others to stumble?

The Bible is the only Holy Book to accurately describe the problem, and also the only logical solution

One of the most common reasons for modest dress heard today is that women should not cause men to stumble. Now, no Christian should want to lead someone else into sin. So a secondary application of the modesty issue would be that a Christian should avoid dressing in ways that are likely to provoke improper thoughts. This will mean different things in different cultures, varying even within a given society over time. What is provocative (and rebellious, even) in one context, is not so in another.6 (One of the genius characteristics of the Bible’s teachings on modesty is that it doesn’t have overly specific instructions, such as the exact hem length, allowing it to be applied based on context and thus focusing more on the ‘heart attitude’.)

Nonetheless, however much women might want to show consideration for the men they come into contact with, the Bible nowhere makes women responsible for a man’s tendency to lust. Indeed, Jesus was quite clear that lust is the sin of the one lusting, not that of the object of lust (Matthew 5:27ff). In many Muslim cultures, on the other hand, lust is regarded as the woman’s responsibility. Thus, because almost any part of the body can become an object of lust, the entirely consistent outcome is what is generally regarded as the ultimate symbol of oppression against women—the burqa.7

So while a woman should take reasonable steps to ensure that she is not actively enticing a man to sin (and this would include dressing modestly in the context of her own culture), women are not responsible for causing men to stumble.

Modesty: showing what is truly precious

Looking at both these passages, the reason for modesty is the woman’s standing before God in Christ. Women who declare belief in Christ should dress modestly and simply so that their good works are what people notice. Women should dress modestly to highlight the state of their spirit, which is what God considers precious. The Bible is not saying that a woman can never wear anything pretty or attractive. Rather, it’s saying that these things should not be the focus, and they should not be allowed to distract from what is vastly more important. This principle can clearly apply as much to the young man flaunting his wealth and status through the latest flashy ‘designer gear’.

So the broader application is that both women and men should avoid sexually provocative clothes, or clothes that are overly elaborate to the point of becoming the primary focus. The general rule of thumb is that clothes should help the individual glorify Christ by not distracting from the person’s godly lifestyle and good deeds. Just as in the focus of Paul’s comments, clothes which glorify the individual (whether man or woman) by saying ‘look at me’ are not in the spirit of humility that should characterize a follower of Jesus.

This way of viewing modesty leads to a positive view of women particularly—because the command assumes that women have something better to show than external beauty, not that they are dangerous temptresses that should be covered up as much as possible. It also is an effective answer for Christless legalism that dictates hem lengths without addressing the condition of the heart.

So does God care what we wear? Yes—but He cares more about the inward condition that our apparel can often signify.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. K. A. Mathews, Vol. 1A: Genesis 1–11:26, New American Commentary, Return to text.
  2. The Hebrew word for atonement, kaphar, means to ‘cover over’, making this connection even more obvious. Return to text.
  3. However, within a particular culture someone wearing garb which would normally be associated with that of the other sex is sending a ‘message’ of sorts, one involving elements of gender confusion and rebellion against God’s created order. The principle involved would seem to be one akin to cross-dressing and the associated gender confusion or rebellion. Return to text.
  4. Philo, trans. C.D. Yonge, Sacrifices 21. Return to text.
  5. Sacrifices 26. Return to text.
  6. In Victorian England, for instance, the sight of a bare ankle was scandalous while deep cleavage was overtly displayed without arousing similar passions or qualms. Return to text.
  7. If indeed the main thrust of God’s desire for modest dress concerned men’s lust, one could logically ask whether an extremely unattractive woman could therefore dress immodestly, due to the unlikelihood of anyone lusting after her. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Robert S., Australia, 2 July 2013

"Jesus was quite clear that lust is the sin of the one lusting, not that of the object of lust."

This is true. Sinful behaviour is only an outward manifestation of what is already going on inside man’s corrupted, sinful nature.

“For a tree is known by its fruit.” Mathew 12:33

“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Mathew 7:18.

Sin and lust don't come from outside but from within.

“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within and defile a man.” Mark 7:21-23

And this cannot change except that God ‘recreates’ us from within, which is what is meant by being ‘born again,’ that is, to become a new and changed person (John 3:3-7).

The pot cannot remodel itself; only the Potter has this power. The patient cannot operate on their own heart; that work belongs to the Surgeon.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." 2Corinthians 5:17

robert B., Australia, 2 July 2013

Thanks Lita,

I agree that God is not concerned with externalities- modern media-saturated society is distracted by skin/hair/eyelashes/toned muscles and sex appeal ..trivial externalities.

As far as clothes.. there should always be a pocket- not for an iphone - but for the word of God. Smith Wigglesworth- who knew/knows God closely ,said that he did not consider himself well-dressed unless he had the word of God in his pocket. In this world, rather than worrying about what clothes we or others wear- we should always be wearing the full armor of God- belt, breastplate, helmet ,shield and the Word- for our struggle is not against flesh and blood.. but against evil.

Ephesian 6.11-17

Lita Cosner responds

A good thought, but surely it is more important to have the Word of God in one's heart (Psalm 119:11).

Hans G., Australia, 2 July 2013

You wrote:

....women are NOT responsible for causing men to stumble.

Why they play then the attraction card? Adam had no problem, he had only one choice.

Today our first connection is by sight, smell or sound...outward signs. Not only within the flora and fauna are attractive methods used to start this commanded reproduction process, we humans have this God given desire too. And this is not strictly based on a mechanical doing, it is more like to become one flesh with desire. When there is desire there also must be a satisfaction of it. I am sure, God didn't reinvented the wheel especially for humans, as a colorful flower unfolds to attract helpers to fulfill the multiply

order or the female deer produces an attractive smell for the male, so too, our females like to be attractive to the other sex. The methods are questionable, still the attention seeking is there.

And while we are all think we are intelligent, so should it be no surprise for a female that a man acts on her appearance. Here are two players in this game and not only the bad man.

And which husband will risk a war when he avoids to find his wife attractive with a constant 'prayer': Lord, please don't let me stumble?

Lita Cosner responds

This article was not condoning women who purposely dress provocatively (and some do)--that is just as sinful as lust. But they are not held responsible for the sinful lust of the men--to think that they are actually demeans men, as if they were helpless.

Humans are held to a much higher standard than animals because we are in the image of God. As such, God has given the believer the ability to fight against all sorts of sin. Some women may need to re-evaluate the way they dress in light of the Bible's teachings, but some men may need to examine their hearts if they are prone to lust.

Sas E., United Kingdom, 2 July 2013

Good article. What I find sad is some Christian dominations that misinterpret these verses and say women should not show their hair i.e. wear headscarf, short skirt, jewellery, make up etc

J. T., Australia, 2 July 2013

'17 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [Greek 'Stumbling blocks'] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him [or her] if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones [Christians] to sin [Greek 'stumble']. 3 Pay attention to yourselves!' (Luke 17: 1-3a in the English Standard Version).

Lita Cosner responds

First, the sin in view in Luke 17 is apostasy, or something very close to it. Lust is certainly a very secondary application at best.

Second, the article clearly said that we should dress modestly, in a way that won't entice people to stumble (of course, someone prone to lusting can lust after a person no matter how covered up she is)--but this is because of our relationship with God first and foremost.

Barbara K., Namibia, 2 July 2013

This article says that women are not responsible for men's tendency to lust. Yet Jesus did say "It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come!" Luke 17:1. So clearly we are responsible if we dress in a manner that would cause men to sin.

Great article otherwise. Thank you.

Lita Cosner responds

There was nothing in the article that said it wasn't sinful to dress in a provocative manner. In fact, the Bible is very clear that we should dress modestly. However, the reason we should dress modestly isn't because of legalism or fear of what reaction others will have, but out of a desire to please God and reflect our relationship with Him in every area of our life, including how we present ourselves to the world in how we dress.

Don D., United States, 2 July 2013

Light rays carry information. Each of us is responsible for the information conveyed by the light rays that leave our body.

Diane S., Australia, 3 July 2013

Thank you Lita for addressing this modesty topic. Modesty is blithely used as a self-righteous shield by women shrouded in various Islamic clothes. They say that they should only be seen uncovered by their husband, but keep very quiet about being only one of his allocation of four wives? How miserable would our lives be in the civilized world, if our men could enslave us so, yet take no responsibility for controlling their own urges. Oddly, Muslim men seem to enjoy wearing our unislamic immodest clothing. Blending in.

Terence T., South Africa, 3 July 2013

Thank you for an awesome article once again. I agree with everything in the article and was just interested to know what guilt a woman who acts in a sexually provocative film, exposing body parts or in porn would carry? I ask not as a challenge to the article because even in such a case lust is ruling the gender watching. Again it comes down to moderate dressing I presume and what is revealed of her or his heart

T

Ray H., United States, 4 July 2013

Please define modesty. One's Christian view is very different than another's as I see it in my church. Modesty today would be considered shameful just fifty years ago. Does modesty change with time and culture? Yes it does. Maybe the "modest" mini-skirt will return soon in church.

Lita Cosner responds

As the article stated, "[Modesty] will mean different things in different cultures, varying even within a given society over time. What is provocative (and rebellious, even) in one context, is not so in another. (One of the genius characteristics of the Bible's teachings on modesty is that it doesn't have overly specific instructions, such as the exact hem length, allowing it to be applied based on context and thus focusing more on 'heart attitude'.)"

Cecily M., Australia, 4 July 2013

Good article, Lita. Other helpful Scriptures are Paul’s advice to the Romans in chapter 14:13-23, and to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 8: 10-12; 10: 25-29), where he speaks about meat offered to idols. We should take care not to put a stumbling block in the way of our weaker brother/sister in anything that we allow in our lives, whether it is eating meat offered to idols or the clothes we wear.

In Cor. 10: 27-28, Paul says, if we are invited to a feast by a nonbeliever, we need not ask where the ‘meat’ that is set before us comes from but, if the host himself tells us that it has been offered to idols, then we should not eat it. This straight away rules out the mini skirt for the Christian girl or woman as its designer, Mary Quant, has told the world through the media that her clothes are designed for women who belong to the ‘permissive society’. “The mini skirt”, she said “Is for women who want to seduce men”.

It is also important to consider the risk of involuntary sexual arousal in people before it becomes lust. Men are aroused by visual stimuli, whereas women respond to or are aroused by touch. If a man touches an intimate part of a woman’s body, he is intruding into her privacy but, if a woman knowingly dresses provocatively then steps out into a public place where men are aroused by her, she is intruding into their privacy, both of which are an offence against love to his/her neighbour (Matt. 22:27-40).

The best thing to do when we go shopping, or anywhere at all, is to take the Lord with us and heed His advice.

Ross W., Australia, 4 July 2013

Excellent article. I think a poor choice of photo though.

Lita Cosner responds

The photo exemplifies one way of thinking about modesty, and serves as a useful visual contrast to the ideas the article promotes.

Mike T., New Zealand, 4 July 2013

Please ladies, do not blame yourselves for men's weakness in giving in to lust. All men have the ability to overcome this weakness, but many simply choose not to and blame the object of their lust instead.

Jesus told us that if our eye offends us, then we should cut it out. All men have control on where they let their eye's linger. Some of us need to man up and learn to bounce our eye's before lust takes hold, and remember how blessed we are to have the woman that God has given us already (or will give us for those of us who are unmarried).

I'm not perfect at this by any means, but I'm always mindful of trying to apply this technique.

Christian men who blame woman for this problem are no better than those in the Bible who wanted to stone the prostitute. Come on men, we are supposed to be raising a standard!

Katrina M., Australia, 4 July 2013

I find it interesting that the picture used for the article is Islamic dress for women yet the comments jump almost exclusively to immodest choices by non Islamic women.

I also find it interesting that by and large, when women make an effort to dress, it's for other women, by which I mean to impress or 'out do' other women.

Lastly I understand that one of the shortcomings of the Islamic ideology is that men are just frail faulted creatures so their lusts and shortcomings can't be helped. So men/Islam put it back onto women to police their appearance to make it less stressful for mans own inherent weakness. No wonder it's such a fast growing all pervasive view.

Katrina- Brisbane

Paul W., Australia, 5 July 2013

Very interesting article and very helpful. I wonder could the writer please comment on the injunction by Paul for women to wear a head covering which naturally follows on from this topic.

Lita Cosner responds

It's beyond the scope of the article (and CMI's ministry) to comment on this passage, but if you look at the Greek and the first-century culture at the time, it becomes apparent that it is actually a command for married women to wear their customary head-covering in church services. In that culture, only married women would wear head-covering; its significance was similar to a wedding ring in saying that the woman was married, but much stronger; its absence actually would have suggested that she was available to be unfaithful to her husband.

Dave W., Australia, 5 July 2013

Hi Lita

Good strong short essay with some solid points. That said, there seems to be slight deficits on a couple of points.

Modesty is a relational concept. It has implications both in an individual’s relationship with God, as well as in relation to others. I do not here speak of the necessity to cover nakedness – only the principle of modesty.

It is an offense to God to dress, speak, and/or behave immodestly. It is offensive to others if we dress, speak, or behave immodestly. Immodesty DOES create a stumbling block for others, and therefore how we behave, speak, and appear IS important from that perspective.

The Bible seems to indicate that nakedness is a different issues altogether. As you point out the need to cover the shame of our sin was established in the Garden. It is very clear then that failure to cover our shame is again a relational issue. It is an offense to God, and it can either be an offense against our brothers and sisters, and can CAUSE offense by creating a stumbling block to them.

Denying that what we do, say, or appear like, in the context of our brothers and sisters, denying that this leads to sumbling, to sin, and to offense, is simply naïve.

Lita Cosner responds

Dave, I think you pretty seriously misunderstood my article. I would agree that how we dress can make it easier for others to sin. I would also suggest that when someone intentionally and knowingly dresses in a provocative manner, that is sinful. But even when someone sinfully dresses in a provocative manner, he or she is not responsible for the sin in anyone else's heart, only his or her own.

I also emphasized the aspect of the believer's relationship with God being the important reason for modesty.

Ronnie D., United States, 5 July 2013

Lita, I am thankful by the way you always hold positions in balance within the context of Scripture as your final authority.

Peter D., United Kingdom, 5 July 2013

Thank you Lita for a really helpful article: getting to the bigger picture and balancing the clear relevance and responsibility of what we wear, with the intrinsically more important aspect of the attitude of heart that underlies things.

Leonie E., Australia, 5 July 2013

Reading the article, I did, of course, look at the pictures presented.

The two ladies (presumably) fully covered from head to toe, all of a sudden made me wonder, would some men find them more sexy because they have hidden what could be very desirable features under all that 'invisibility garb'?

Then that, of course, would still bring back the Muslim religion's requirement for women to not tempt men - clearly impossible!

By the great Logic of the Creator, lust should indeed be controlled by the individual feeling the desire.

God is sooo Good! lol

Ray H., United States, 5 July 2013

(Lita Cosner) Again please define modesty. Your response was just like my preacher's, very vague. I look around my church and I see cleavage and short shirts. I don't see my pastor defining modesty. At least my previous pastor spoke up and gave examples. But he was an older Pastor. These younger pastors want numbers so they don't define modesty. I am waiting for the first mini-skirt woman to sing in the choir. There is more to modesty than having the right spiritual attitude. I would probably leave the church but where could I go, to another immodestly dressed church?

Lita Cosner responds

Ray, modest dress is that which does not unduly draw attention to oneself, whether by the ostentatious and expensive nature of the clothing, or by being sexually provocative. Modesty is both cultural (what is modest in Papua New Guinea may not be on the streets of New York), and situational (a modest swimsuit may not be modest in other situations, for example).

The genius of Scripture is that it commands modesty without defining it as a certain hemline, etc. I cannot in good conscience go beyond what Scripture commands.

M. L., United States, 5 July 2013

Thank you so much for this!

Men, women are NOT responsible for your lust. I know from experience I can be dressed in sweats and still get unwanted male attention.

We give way too much license to men in this regard. What happened to all the modern day Josephs?

There are always going to be women dressed provocatively in our culture. You cannot change that. Christians women should dress modestly, but that does not negate a man's responsibility to look away.

Evert K., South Africa, 5 July 2013

Well written article, Lita, and very informative.

I am a geo-scientist by profession, yet also I require spiritual food in the form of: living God's way, beyond science, solely focussing on scripture.

I have first hand experience of what a mans' sinful nature can do to destroy beautiful godly relationships between men and women, as God wants it, one man one woman. My eyes were always wondering and taking in the sexual beauty of other women. For most of my life I thought the former natural and "okay".

My view of this luckily changed when I lost my loved one by means of impurity; and I say luckily because otherwise I would not have been reborn and given the real truth, that serving God is a fulfilling thing.

My comment is the following: every man has it within himself to overcome this natural, animalistic sexual urge towards other females other than his own wife. We are not animals, but spiritual beings created in the likeness of God our saviour; we have the ability to choose what we do, something animals do not. Men, it is "work" to choose not to look, it wants perseverance and truthfulness, something most of us are not willing to do. But believe me when I say: the rewards greatly out-way the effort.

Ladies, I fully agree that a Christian women must dress in such a way as to not willingly or unwillingly entice a man to impure thoughts. We must be mindful of our brothers and sisters. There is no sense in debating the length of a skirt, when all of you already know the purpose you imply when wearing it, or the consequences thereof. And if you are still wanting an approval of apparel, try to hear what the Holy Spirit tells you to do, or wear for that matter.

Kind regards

Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 5 July 2013

Re 1 Tim. 2:9: The adjective before “clothing/array”—the Greek word 4185, polutelays, meaning (from Thayer) “requiring very great outlay; very costly”—seems to be the single datum that most constrains interpretation of this text. In Mk 14:3, this word is used for an ointment that cost a year’s salary (14:5). If John 12:3 is another account of the same event, the mentioned ointment, also costing a year’s salary (12:5), is connected to G4186. G4186 is also connected to the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:46) worth a businessman’s entire estate—which has to be at least several year’s salary. In I Tim. 2:9, the negative command to women of the Ephesian church regarding clothing thus seems to be **DON’T come to church in a single outfit costing at least a year’s salary**. (Prior to textile automation, a single nice-enough clothing outfit could cost several years’ salary.)

For whatever reason, this was a temptation to the Ephesian church women. Yielding to that temptation would (1) trash their daily walk with God, (2) trash their financial stewardship, (3) cause the non-wealthy among them either to neglect their kids to free up such money, or- (much more likely) cause them and their husbands (“lift up clean hands…without disputes”) to use ethical shortcuts to gain that money. If so, a church crisis threatened God hearing the prayers of the church, one needing a church discipline meeting. This verse is a needed pastoral intervention. In it, Paul is NOT majoring on minors, NOT side-tracking, NOT slipping the leash of the Holy Spirit, NOT being a fussy martinet.

Paul, gentle pastor to women, enfolds the negative command within a positive command (NOT mentioned in the NIV) to women to "adorn/decorate/make beautiful/make gorgeous" themselves--through godly good works.

G. F., United States, 5 July 2013

Quoting the article "...discussions of modesty in Christian circles generally stress only this sexual aspect, and then only for women." The reason for this is because, old or young, rich or poor, women in our culture today have already thrown off the admonition to avoid the multitude of accouterments that can possibly accompany a simple attractive way to dress and spend an inordinate amount of time on their physical appearance; body hair and clothing. Now good men are just trying to get them to cover themselves a little, though some go the other way and actually want to show off their mates in provocative wear. Women have no internal experiential understanding of how a man is wired (and vice versa) and so some women think it is absolutely harmless to go baring as much as possible - legs, cleavage, in particular. Others know the impact skin can have on men and dress to purposefully make one. Anyway, here's an example of a woman teaching the bible rather than heading Paul's admonition not to. Now that that is culturally acceptable, does it make it biblically acceptable?

Lita Cosner responds

This article advocated modesty, but from the perspective of the woman's relationship with God primarily, which is the biblical emphasis as well. And Paul's admonitions were in the context of a church leadership setting. The Bible is actually full of faithful women who taught outside of the organized church setting. Priscilla especially comes to mind. In the OT, Deborah was a 'judge', which certainly had a teaching aspect.

Gary F., United States, 6 July 2013

To say that men must suck up the cultural 'norms' and deal with lust in their hearts is a copout for women that are afraid to look different for Christ and actually dress modestly. A woman who dresses in such a way that she reveals her body to every man who sees her, is like a man going about and whispering sensual things in the ears of every woman that he encounters. And then to say that the woman should just have to deal with her weakness rather than rebuking the man would be ludicrous.

Lita Cosner responds

Gary, please tell me where I said, "men must suck up the cultural 'norms'." I advocated modesty on the part of both men and women based on their relationship with God. If one makes another's tendency to lust the basis, the burqa is the logical extent. Rather, both men and women should be modest because it is an outward reflection of what God desires us to be like inwardly.

Shawn M., Canada, 6 July 2013

Another good article, Lita. Thank-you. Coming from a denomination that has often been accused of being "legalistic", I find it interesting to read articles like this, which are written among the broader scope of Christendom. The theory is that modesty is a culturally relative term and will take on new shades, and that to impose a certain form of attire on the church is (ugh!) "legalism." But for a me as a conservative Mennonite, the experience doesn't quite line up with the theory. If you were to ask any of the women in my church, I'm confident they would tell you it is with pleasure that they dress "excessively modest". The biblical principle of modesty is one that we hold dear, although we refuse to see our stricter application of it as the rule by which all of Christianity is to be judged. I feel like we have found a way that takes away a lot of the questions about the definitions of modesty, but wish you God's continued blessing as you seek to glorify Him.

Lita Cosner responds

Shawn, thanks for this take on the issue, which I'm sure our readers will find informative. Indeed, Christian woman (and men!) should enjoy any opportunity to conform their lives with Scripture, and modesty is one of the more visible ways in which we can do so.

Chris W., Canada, 6 July 2013

I feel I may be in an interesting position to respond to this article. Our family has moved from a "regular" church to a "plain" church; one where the women wear dresses and coverings and the men would tend to avoid casual clothing. I find it refreshing to attend church services and not have to see cleavage and tight pants. It's much easier to deal with the problem of lust when you don't have to stare at female body parts during a church service. Does this make me a weak Christian? Perhaps, but if I wanted to go on a diet, the first thing I would do would be to take all the sugar out of my house.

If we look at the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba, David takes a whole heap of blame for his adultery, and rightly so. But, why was Bathsheba bathing naked on the roof of her house anyway? Seems like that whole episode could have been avoided with a little bit of prudence.

All that being said, our godliness should never be tied up in one aspect of our lives, whether it be clothing, music, evangelism methods or Bible translation. Our godliness should be tied up only in our love for God and our love for others.

Lita Cosner responds

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your comment, but let me correct one misunderstanding; bathing on the rooftop was a common practice in biblical times. There was a wall around the rooftop, so no one could see up there. The exception would be the king, whose palace was higher up than the other houses. Also, as a subject of the king, Bathsheba would not have had a chance to refuse David's advances. She is not to blame in any way for the episode, or if she was, the Bible doesn't indicate it.

Brian H., Australia, 8 July 2013

Quite a balanced article. God looks on the heart - clothes only fool people. Many ancient people only ever had 1 change of clothes.

The modern tendency to overdress & wear 'Sunday best' & the elaborate clothing of Christian clergy has been a big problem in various denominations giving clothing an exaggerated position.

Some have also attempted to stop women wearing pants based on the Jewish restriction probably aimed at deliberate gender bending. Pants may well be more modest than dresses esp. for some activities.

Modesty is important but it can be simply used to bash women with. As you say, its largely cultural. If a lot of people think its immodest it probably is.

R. B., United States, 12 July 2013

Two principles are described in this article.

Lusting after someone is wrong and is completely the fault of the lust-er.

Enticing someone to lust is wrong and is completely the fault of the entice-er.

Are these contradictory?

No. Rejecting the first principle is a denial of free will and reduces humans to mere stimulus-response machines. Some situations may be more tempting than others, but giving in to lust is always a decision made by a person. There is no situation so tempting that it cannot be rejected.

What of the second principle? If lust is the result of a decision of the lust-er and he or she bears complete responsibility for this action, then why is it wrong to entice someone to lust? The answer lies in motivation. It is the intent of the action, not the result of the action, that is wrong. Enticing is fundamentally the encouragement of sin. Whether the sin being encouraged ultimately occurs is irrelevant.

If all of this still seems hopelessly contradictory, just replace the word "lust" with "steal".

Lawrence J., Australia, 12 July 2013

Thank you Lita for an excellent article. Not only Joseph but Job also show us their determination to obey and please God. Job 31:1 NIV says, I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. Sadly, the world uses people as exhibitionists, God's way is to transform us by renewing our minds, but this requires our cooperation to stop conforming to this worlds pattern. Over the years, I have been helped and encouraged by CMI's ministry. Thank-you.

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