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Dr. Henry B. Waiters: Christian modesty defined

Part 2 of 3 in a series on Christian Modesty

What is modesty? Like the words love and faith, we often use the word modesty without grasping its Biblical meaning. Modern dictionaries offer definitions such as: Showing a disinclination to call attention to oneself; Retiring or diffident; Reserve or propriety in speech, dress or behavior; Free from showiness or ostentation; Unpretentious;  Not extreme.

Noah Webster defines modesty as “that lowly temper which accompanies a  moderate estimate of one’s own worth and importance. … in females, modesty has the like character as in males, but the word is used also as synonymous with chastity or purity of manners. In this sense, modesty results  from purity of mind, or from the fear of disgrace and ignominy… Unaffected modesty is the sweetest charm of female excellence, the richest gem in the diadem of their  honor.”

These definitions, then, indicate  that modesty is a not limited to sexual connotation. This state of mind or disposition expresses a humble estimate of one’s self before God. Modesty, like humility, is the opposite of boldness or arrogance. It does not seek to draw attention to itself or to show off. Webster apparently links chastity with modest because chastity means “moral purity in thought and conduct.” Moral purity, like humility, will not exhibit sensuality in a display intended to attract notice or admiration.

Modesty is not first an issue of clothing; it is primarily an issue of the heart. If the heart is right with God, it will govern itself in purity coupled with humility. Calvin says, “We must always begin with the dispositions; for where debauchery reigns within, there will be no chastity; and where ambition reigns within, there will be no modesty in the outward dress.”

He concludes, “Undoubtedly the dress of a virtuous and godly woman must differ from that of a strumpet. If piety must be testified by works, this profession ought also to be visible in chaste and becoming dress.”

This applies not only to corporate worship, but to daily living also. One may dress modestly from a sinful and prideful motive, but one cannot knowingly dress lavishly or sensually from a good one. The  purity and humility of a regenerate heart must ultimately express itself by modest clothing externally.

In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul commands women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.” George Knight III says that “the word modest generally means respectable and honorable, and when used in reference to women means elsewhere, as here, modest.” Paul warns women to “adorn themselves in keeping with their Christian profession and life.” Paul’s directive implies that this is an especially crucial matter for women.

According to Knight, shamefacedness denotes “a state of mind or attitude necessary for one to be concerned about modesty and thus to dress modestly.” It means “A moral feeling, reverence, awe, respect for the feeling or opinion of others or for one’s own conscience.”

William Hendrikson says it “indicates a sense of shame, a shrinking from trespassing the boundaries of propriety.” Meaning, modesty knows the boundaries and desires to stay within them; it has no desire to show off.

Finally, sobriety has among its meanings “the general one of good judgment, moderation, self-control, which when seen as a feminine virtue is understood as decency and chastity.”

Sobriety signifies “a command over bodily passions, a state of self-mastery in the area of the appetite.” The basic meaning of the word has different nuances and represents constant rein on the passions and desires. Paul is saying that when such attitudes self-consciously control a woman’s mind, the result is evident in her modest apparel.

What then is Christian modesty? Since modesty possesses a range of meanings, we look to Biblical material for definition. Christian modesty is the inner self-government, rooted in a proper understanding of one’s self before God, outwardly displayed in humility and purity from a genuine love for Jesus Christ, rather than in self-glorification or self-advertisement.

Some ministers believe Paul’s words apply only to luxurious, expensive or gaudy clothing in the worship services of Christ’s church. Their point is that such clothing would distract in the worship services. However, they want to stop there and overlook the sexual aspect. While Paul is speaking against female extravagance, his focus is on the impropriety of women exploiting their physical charms on such occasions and also the emotional disturbance they are liable to cause their male fellow-worshipers.

Knight suggests that the reason for Paul’s prohibition of elaborate hair styles, ornate jewelry and extremely expensive clothing becomes clear when one reads in contemporary literature of the inordinate time, expense and effort that is required. It is not just ostentatious display, but a mode of dress of prostitutes and harlots. It is the excess and sensuality that Paul forbids.

Excess and sensuality bear on modesty. Christian women must consciously control their hearts and passions, instead of arraying themselves elaborately, expensively and sensuously. If they are modest, they will not draw attention to themselves in the wrong way. Their clothing will not say “Sex!” or “Money!” but “Purity!”, “Humility!” and “Moderation!”

Because the immediate context of Paul’s letter to Timothy regards the Christian’s behavior in church, some believe that Paul limits his discussion to distractions in the church’s worship, and not principles of dress at all times. I believe this entirely misses Paul’s point. Therefore, the principles we learn in the worship of God for ordering our lives should ultimately guide our daily living in the presence of God.

Can one honestly conclude that a woman should dress modestly in the presence of men and God for a worship service? Knights’ insight is keen here: “Therefore, Paul’s instructions to women, like the preceding instructions to men, are related to the context of the gathered Christian community but are not restricted to it. Women are always to live in accord with their profession of godliness, dressing modestly and discreetly.”

We have then a Biblical directive for modest apparel that begins in the context of corporate worship and extends from there to our daily living.

“Modesty and shamefacedness become women at all times, especially in times of public worship. The more of this is mixed with their grace and personage, the more beautiful they are both to God and men.” — John Bunyan.

Dr. Waiters can be reached at 704-636-3369. 

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