On the 5th of September in 2019, thousands of women across South Africa took to the streets to protest. The outcry was against the overwhelming levels of gender-based violence (GBV) taking place every day. In the same week, I found myself in an unsettling conversation. A friend of mine, while reading through several social media posts and articles, voiced his agreement with the protests. But he added that surely the protesters could make different clothing choices and dress with more modesty. He went on to say that women who truly wanted to be treated with respect should clothe themselves more respectfully.
Why are we so quick to cry ‘immodesty’ before we cry ‘injustice’?
This statement was puzzling. In many ways it was also offensive. Instead of seeing the real anger and hurt caused by a pressing issue, my friend saw what he believed to be immodesty. So he drew unfair conclusions. The question I found myself asking when I first heard his comment was: how can we be so quick to lay blame at the feet of victims of GBV, simply because we disagree with their clothing choice? Why are we so quick to cry ‘immodesty’ before we cry ‘injustice’? Below I will explore these questions, while also suggesting how we might broaden our understanding of modesty beyond dress codes.
Is Clothing Choice The Best Measure?
I didn’t really know how to respond to my friend at the time. But looking back I wish I had been able to express that the clothing choice of the young women protesting shouldn’t have been his measure of modesty. Without realising it, we often place incredibly unfair—and sometimes unrealistic—expectations upon women when it comes to modesty. In the African Church, there are innumerable diverse cultures. These all have very different clothing preferences and dress codes. Therefore, it is difficult to make clothing choice the standard by which we judge modesty.
Furthermore GBV is not an issue that is centred on modesty. It is an issue centred around injustice. It is the narrow, and often false, understanding of modesty that leads us to include it in a conversation where it does not belong.
The Problem With Narrow Definitions
For many Christians, the topic of modesty focuses on dress code. And while some may not necessarily explicitly say so, more often than not we place an expectation upon women to dress appropriately. Plunging necklines, shorter skirts, and tighter jeans are the main talking points in this conversation. Sadly, they become the central points in conversations around GBV as well.
When we hold to this narrow interpretation of modesty, we tend to place the blame for sexual sin at the feet of women.
Going Beyond Clothing
When we hold to this narrow interpretation of modesty, we often place the blame for sexual sin at the feet of women. Of course, one cannot deny or disregard the role that revealing clothing plays in the struggle against lust. But the full blame for arousing sexual thoughts and actions cannot be placed upon a women’s choice of clothing. Each believer carries this responsibility. We must all be self-controlled. We must all flee sexual immorality. (1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).
A false understanding of modesty leads to a false understanding of self-control and personal repentance.
Therefore, when we make modesty into a matter about clothing we relegate responsibility to women; the blame has shifted. A false understanding of modesty leads to a false understanding of self-control. As I have already suggested, I’m not sure that clothing choice can be the only—or even the primary—standard for judging modesty. Reading the Bible’s teaching on modesty has moved me to broaden and deepen my own definition of modesty.
Modesty Is An Attitude of The Heart
Modesty is, first and foremost, an attitude of our hearts. When we look at Scripture this much is clear. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, the passage frequently quoted when it comes to modesty, Paul writes: “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Paul is addressing physical dress. However his motives run deeper than that. Paul instructs Christian women to dress in a manner that demonstrates the gospel they proclaim. The root of the outward appearance is a deeper, inner attitude of one’s heart and understanding of the gospel.
Modesty, at its core, is a desire that God would become more and I would become less.
Modesty, at its core, is a desire that in my outer dress, as with my inner life, God would become more and I would become less. It is walking with the attitude that means when others look at my life, they see Christ first. We must assess our speech, actions, and clothing by asking, “Does this draw attention to me or does this glorify God and honour my neighbour?” One could even ascribe Jesus’ summary of the Law – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself – as a call to modesty.
Modesty Is An Act of Worship
In Romans 12:1-2, Paul encourages believers that in light of God’s mercy, they must offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This, Paul says, is true and proper worship. As Christians, God calls us to be transformed: transformed into Christ’s likeness. Therefore modesty is ultimately an act of worship before God.
The question of ‘what should I wear today?’ is not primarily a question about fashion but one of worship.
It is the daily choice to walk in holiness and humility so that we will honour our Lord. Modesty should be a true joy for believers as it is an opportunity to honour and worship our great God. In light of his great mercy toward us in his Son, the question of ‘what should I wear today?’ is no longer primarily a question about fashion, but one of worship. This has been an extremely helpful adjustment for my own thinking about modesty. Instead of trying to bear in mind the hundreds of opinions concerning dress code, I can ask myself what the intention is behind my choice of dress.
Modesty Is For Men Too
If we categorise modesty as both an attitude of the heart and an act of worship, we understand that it is not simply a requirement for women. It is a call to all believers. This allows us to consider what modesty might mean in our communities and churches, especially for men. When we flee sexual immorality and practise self-control in the face of sexual temptation, we are worshiping the Lord—an act of modesty. As we teach our sons how to treat women with respect, we are honouring the Lord—an act of modesty. When we choose to see our sisters in Christ as precious image bearers of the most high God and not sexual objects, we are glorifying God—an act of modesty.
Choosing to respect, protect, and honour women is one of the greatest ways to walk in modesty.
Choosing to respect, protect, and honour women in our churches and communities is one of the greatest ways to walk in modesty. We desperately need this in a society ravaged by violence and disrespect towards women. This is a sincere call to Christian men to see themselves as having a responsibility for modesty in the Church. For our lives are meant to demonstrate the gospel and worship the Lord.
We Need A Narrative Shift
In a conversation where unfair expectations are met with prideful resistance, nobody wins. It will simply become a game of blame shifting and finger-pointing. Unfortunately this often leads to women being incorrectly ‘Bible-bashed’, while men are labelled chauvinistic or ‘old school’.
Modesty is not a dirty word. Nor is it a term we can assign to a specific gender. It is truly a beautiful attribute that God desires all of his children, to wear in worship of him. Therefore, a shift in the narrative around modesty is much needed. As a Church, we are to lift our eyes from modesty being an outdated and shifting dress code and see it instead as a call to worship.