Standards for Biblical Modesty

The third in a short series on the biblical virtue of modesty. Despite the Church’s lax stance on the issue today, Scripture nevertheless commands and expects modesty from those who follow Christ. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8).


If clothing should draw attention to what’s inside a woman’s heart, rather than what’s under the clothes, what can we do to ensure this is the case? In other words, what practical, concrete guidelines can we establish to focus attention where it should be? I can think of two overarching principles that will go a long way in keeping dress modest.


First, a woman who longs to honor God in her dress by drawing attention to the gospel and her hope in God, will guarantee she reveals nothing inappropriate by the way she dresses. No matter the position she is sitting or standing in, no matter how disheveled her clothing becomes during the course of the day, no one will be able to see what they shouldn’t. A loose-fitting, reasonably high-cut top may be extremely modest in a standing position. However, if that same top hangs low enough when the woman bends down to pick something else up that her bra is exposed, it is hard to classify that as truly modest dress. In that case, the woman should take care to wear a high-cut tank top underneath the shirt that is tight enough that it doesn’t pull away from her body when she leans over.


Second, a woman who longs to honor God in her dress by drawing attention to the gospel and her hope in God, will not draw attention to what is underneath by the way she dresses. This is an important accompaniment to the first principle. For example, imagine a young woman wearing a short (mid-thigh) dress to a formal event. Of course, she runs great danger of exposing herself accidentally, failing to keep the first principle of modest dress. However, if she wears athletic shorts underneath her skirt, has she solved the problem? Now she has guaranteed that she will reveal nothing inappropriate, assuming for the moment that a woman should expose that much of her legs anyway (a point I am probably unwilling to concede). Unfortunately, those around her do not know she has made these guarantees. She may still draw illicit attention because her dress will almost certainly draw attention to what is underneath it. A modest-fitting blouse with sparkles emblazoned across the chest runs afoul of the same problem. Truly modest dress makes observers forget a woman’s body and remember her heart.


With these two principles in mind, I think we can establish some good standards for modest dress[1]:


Upper Body
1. No cleavage should be visible whatsoever, no matter the position you are sitting or standing in.
2. No midriff should be visible whatsoever, even when you lift your hands above your head.
3. If wearing a loose-fitting blouse or scoop neck, nothing should be visible when bending down. (A high, tight-fitting tank top underneath can help in this regard.)
4. If wearing a button-down top, nothing should be visible through gaps in the buttons. (Again, a tank top can help.)
5. If wearing a sleeveless shirt, your bra should not be visible through the sleeve-holes.
6. Girls should refrain from wearing spaghetti-strap, halter, or sheer blouses, as these draw attention to what is underneath.
7. Girls should refrain from wearing shirts that are too tight around the chest.
8. Girls should refrain from wearing shirts that draw attention to the chest by writing or graphics inappropriately placed.


Lower Body
1. No midriff or underwear should be visible, even when bending over or lifting hands. (Tucking in the tank top [Upper Body #3] can help prevent this.)
2. Girls should refrain from wearing pants that are too tight around the backside (especially if the outline of your underwear shows).
3. Skirts/dresses should cover the knee when one is in a sitting position.
4. Skirts/dresses must pass the “sunlight” test: that is, make sure the dress or skirt is not see-through. If it is, wear a slip.
5. Check any slits in your skirts/dresses to see if they draw undo attention to what is underneath or reveal more than they should.
6. Shorts should be long enough that they do not expose too much leg. They should probably be longer than mid-thigh.
7. Girls must make sure shorts are long enough and tight enough at the leg-opening that they cannot expose themselves when sitting. In many ways, shorts are more dangerous than skirts because girls tend to be less cautious when wearing them. (Wearing athletic shorts underneath may help in this regard.)


[1] Undoubtedly many will raise the charge of legalism at this point. I suspect this misses the point of legalism; after all, the apostle Paul, who taught against legalism more strongly than any other biblical writer, nevertheless gives specific ethical instruction in every letter (including the call for women to dress modestly [1 Timothy 2:9-10]). Legalism has to do with trying to win God’s grace by good deeds, and is heretical. However, those who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone—and not by works—nevertheless respond with good deeds (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). In other words, dressing modestly doesn’t win you God’s favor; but if God has won your affection, this is how women will dress as a grace-inspired response to his goodness and mercy, as the Spirit sanctifies them through and through.

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