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Does God care what I wear?

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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.

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?

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.

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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