The Meaning of Christian Modesty

Mike Frank

It is an interesting fact that the Greek word euschemosune, which is translated in places as "modesty,"1 is related by Paul both to one's mode of dress and also to one's treatment of others. This is a striking fact and it suggests that the virtue of modesty carries with it far deeper implications than we might first suspect. Indeed, insofar as Paul relates modesty to appropriate behavior to the brethren, we begin to suspect that this virtue is part and parcel of the "New Creation" found in Christ. That is to say, insofar as I put on Christ, insofar as I allow my Old Nature to be crucified and appropriate by faith that New Nature which is mine in Christ, I will discover that I am putting on the virtue of modesty.

Having said this, I now turn to the virtue of modesty itself. As we attempt to understand this virtue let us remember that it is a virtue for Christians insofar as it is part of the choice a Christian man or woman makes when he chooses to walk in the reality and power of Christ. This virtue, then, is not like pagan virtues, a matter of heroic choice. It is, instead, a matter of choosing to live in the love of God as found in Jesus Christ, a matter of allowing God to love us.

Nevertheless, because a choice is involved, and because we must constantly choose to die to sin (and the temptations thereof) modesty can be called a Christian virtue: a virtue because choice which is constant, and therefore character forming, is involved; Christian because modesty is, as we shall see, intrinsic or natural to the New Creation one is in Jesus Christ.

Let us now turn to the virtue itself, We shall proceed by discussing the meaning of the Greek and English word. We shall then discuss the significance of modesty in relationship to the most familiar matter-- the matter of dress. Finally, we shall attempt to see the broader implications of this Christian virtue.

The Greek word euschemosune, which is translated by the word modesty in the RSV translation of 1 Corinthians 12:23 carries with it not only the connotation of "presentability of clothing," but also the notion of "propriety."2 Furthermore, the English word modesty, according to one definition can be rendered "propriety of behavior," The word "propriety" refers to behavior which is proper to "one's own state."3 All of this is mentioned because the word modesty is typically thought to refer only to one's manner of dress. As we can see the word embraces far more than one's sartorial state. It is, indeed, a word and a virtue rich with implications.

However, the virtue of modesty does embrace the notion of how one dresses. And it is here that we begin our exploration of the virtue. For we must not be like the young man who, upon discerning in his father's command to go to bed implications of love and concern, failed to obey the command. Deeper implications usually embrace the first and most literal level of meaning. Indeed, these implications are often only discovered after the first act of literal obedience.

We do not have to look very far in scripture to find the first example of the need for modesty. Adam and Eve are described in the 2nd chapter of Genesis as being "both naked" and "not ashamed." By the middle of the 3rd chapter they have rebelled against God and thus become by nature sinful. They discover their nakedness, know shame, and cover themselves, This act of covering is an act of modesty. Its continued practice presages the creation of the first virtue, the virtue of modesty.

If we analyze Adam and Eve's sudden sense of shame in light of the scriptural notion of lust we understand the matter thusly: before the entrance of sin Adam and Eve could gaze at each other properly, they could see the whole person that God created, Adam seeing and cherishing Eve as the helpmate God had given to him as a gift, a gift which caused him to cry out "at last...," Eve seeing and recognizing the helpmate and head to whom she had been given.

Certainly we must not imagine physical attraction and even the physical act of sexual intercourse as being in and of themselves sinful. But these things were meant by God to be simply part of the larger vision, part of the total appreciation of the other. Not so with lust. For when lust enters the picture the physical is the only appreciation possible. Sex becomes a matter of taking, a matter of manipulation. The whole person disappears. Adam sees Eve as an object to use (and discarded, perhaps, as Amnon, David's son, discarded his half sister Tamar after he had raped her). Thus, after sin has entered the world and begun to shape (or misshape) human nature Adam now sees Eve, not as Eve, but as a thing to be used. Eve regards Adam either as a thing to be feared, desired or manipulated, not as her head and glory. Eve the helpmate, Adam the head have disappeared, and thus a gross impropriety has entered. Behavior proper to whom one was created to be and to whom the other was created to be has been rendered impossible by lust. And so Adam and Eve learn shame, discover the first glimmer of the virtue of modesty and cover themselves.

The virtue of modesty, it should be noted, is here directly related to one's sense of shame. And one's sense of shame is related to one's sense of the way things should be. When one's life contradicts violently God's purpose in creation then shame appropriately results. And when the contradiction results from physical lust the kind of modesty exhibited by our first parents' clothing results.4 Only a deep seeded kind of "ontological insanity" generated by repeated sin can keep a person from this sense of shame. Indeed, the fact that this kind of shame seems to be absent from our midst, and the fact that modesty (at least in this physical sense) seems almost to have disappeared from modern society suggests that in some ways we have become calloused to God in a determined way and are engaged in a kind of corporate ontological insanity.

Furthermore, we should note at this point the relationship of the institution of marriage to the virtue of modesty. Marriage facilitates modesty thusly: it places our physical desires (which are not intrinsically evil, only misshapen by lust) into an arena where we are forced to relate to the total person. After all, there are 24 hours in one day, and even the most athletic and ambitious couples are left with a large portion of the day wherein they can know each other in ways other than physical. This relationship of marriage couched in the promises to love, honor, forsake all others, even to cherish until "death us do part", places a man and woman in the context where modesty can shape a relationship, for it places them in that context where one is forced to respond to the whole person that God made.5

Already we can see from this discussion two faces of the virtue of modesty. One is a kind of negative face and has to do with clothing which discourages inappropriate feelings such as lust. The other, however, has a positive face. It has to do with feelings appropriate to another person: here with the opposite sex. It has to do with the constant choice of seeing one's spouse as a gift from God. It has to do with seeing the other person in light of God's purpose for them in creation. It thus has to do with the choice to shun lust (a choice which involves both appropriate garb and appropriate looking) and to learn godly attitudes and behavior toward the other.

Having said this let us turn to another instance of biblical direction in terms of modest garb. This is found in Deuteronomy 22:5 where we find this strong admonition: "A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God." Here the issue is not one of lust. But it is one of propriety in the deepest sense. For here the issue is one of the proper response to God's creation. Specifically, what is at stake is the distinction between male and female. Modesty, insofar as it involves proper behavior to one's own state, then demands a recognition of this distinction. What is at stake is not so much how the distinction is made (function and comfort are also legitimate concerns in the design of clothing!), but that it is made. There is no intrinsic guide to making the distinction (a different cut in the robe, a different stitching in the pants, etc.). The intrinsic and ontological distinction rests not in the clothing, but in the distinction between male and female. And because this distinction is given by God and is important to Him, the fact of distinction between the clothing carries with it far deeper significance than at first meets the eye.

We could press the matter of modesty and dress further. For instance, we could insist that, because God has made the human body beautiful, it is actually an immodest thing to cloak it as if it were ugly - a bad gift from God. Dress which highlights this beauty, and yet is chaste - this is modest dress.

Furthermore, we could point out that real human beauty is finally not just a physical matter, but a spiritual one. It is finally the woman who fears the Lord that is to be praised (cf. Proverbs 31:31). This would enable us to say something about an undue care, which is finally immodest, placed on fashion, on expensive jewelry and the like (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-10).6

But we will close here concerning the relationship between modesty and dress. We close with this summary remark: modesty in dress has to do with grave issues - a recognition of God's good work in creation, obedience to God by dressing in such a way that this work is recognized and not contradicted, charity between the sexes, etc.

We must now look more closely at a notion that was suggested when we examined modesty and dress. That notion has to do with behavior which is modest because it is appropriate to who I am and who my neighbor is. It has to do, then, with seeing myself and my neighbor in light of the cross, with seeing myself and my neighbor through the eyes of Christ.7

Let us begin by looking at two concepts that help me understand who I am.

In the first place I arm a sinner saved by the grace of God. This means that I come to see the impropriety of counting myself as better than others. It means that where there was pride, modesty now reigns. It means that where there was a sense of autonomy I now see my terrible need for the continuing grace of God.

On the other hand, because I am a sinner who really has been saved by the grace of God, I come to see self pity and a sense of worthlessness as terrible improprieties. In spite of being a sinner I really am a child of the King, loved and valued by God himself. Modesty, then, may demand that I refuse the claims of pride. But it also demands that I confess and stand on that status which God gives me. A sense that I am worthless, that unlike those about me I can do nothing has nothing to with Christian modesty: for the shape of Christian modesty is determined not by groveling but by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.8

In the second place, as a member of the Body of Christ, I understand myself to be one who is given gifts (which are kinds of talents).9 Therefore, in all modesty I must put away false modesty. For although I understand that the gifts I have been given are no reason for pride in myself, I nevertheless understand them as really given to me to be used for the sake of the Body of Christ. I understand further that the fear of exercising these gifts before and on behalf of those who are great in the eyes of the world is a false modesty. True modesty understands that God is the Giver of gifts and He intends them to be used.10 In this case, then, true modesty embraces the boldness of action and exercises these gifts for the well being of the Church and the glory of God.

We now turn to the true understanding of one's Christian neighbor.

In the first place my neighbor is a sinner, forgiven by God's mercy in Jesus Christ, loved by God. Therefore I will not unduly honor one neighbor and despise another. This does not mean that I will not give honor where honor is due - Christianity does not flatten our lives to such an extent that there are no distinctions. Certainly to the spouse the appropriate love and honor is rendered. Likewise to the friend. Or to the government official.11 But also to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched, the unlovely there is an appropriate and loving attitude and behavior, for the sake of Jesus and His work. Indeed, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:23 that within the body of Christ those who are the most wretched are to be clothed (by the actions and attitudes of others in the body) with the greatest honor, that the whole body might appear beautiful before God.12

In the second place my Christian neighbor as a member of the body of Christ is given gifts by God for the sake the body. Thus, not only do I not despise my brother or sister, but I allow them to bring me the blessing of God, to nurture me in the faith. Thus a Lutheran pastor is nourished and blessed by the prayer of a Baptist washerwoman, a Baptist minister nourished and blessed by the word of wisdom of a Catholic layman, a congregation blessed and nourished by the God given work of a pastor.

Thus we find modesty to be a virtue of immense importance to the Christian. When practiced it affects our lives in very practical ways. It determines the way a man or woman dresses, the way a man looks at a woman (and vice versa), the kind of magazines, books or movies we enjoy or eschew. It determines the dress code established at a Christian Youth Camp.13 But it also touches on my attitude and therefore my behavior toward God, others and myself.

Modesty is practical, not because it is superficial, but because it has to do with a response which is proper to the way things really are - that is, proper to God's act in Jesus Christ.


1) cf. the RSV translation of 1 Corinthians 12:23.

2) cf. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, 1952.

3) cf. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, ed. CT Onions, 1964.

4) For the Christian how one dresses is finally for the sake of Jesus. It has to do with obedience. It is for the sake of preventing lust on occasion, but it can also be a statement that says: "I belong to God and not to you. I cover myself thusly because I am not an object for you to take, but God's child, and only under his guidelines can I (or do I want to) give myself to another." Modesty in this sense is a way of refusing to be less than a human being (in the full Christian sense of this word).

5) The modern experiment of unmarried couples to live together to get to know each other better (and thus be certain of a good match) is doomed a priori. For to know another is to know the other as God's, and to know the other as God's is to treat the other according to the will of God, and God's will is that the physical relationship between man and woman occur after the commitment of marriage. Furthermore not only does one fail to properly understand the other, but one demonstrates by the willfulness of this experiment that one does not understand himself as being under the rule of God. So not only is the other misunderstood, but the self is trained in the worst possible habit for a marriage - self-centered willfulness.

6) Men, as well as women, are guilty of this foolish and effete concern, and have been guilty for a very long time.

7) It is in God's work in Christ, the Crucified One, that we come to understand who we really are. cf. Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:17.

8) Modesty is finally rooted in strength, not weakness, in the certainty of God's love, in the power of God's presence, in the willingness to behave in a manner that seems strange to an insane world.

9) cf. 1 Corinthians 12.

10) cf. Matthew 25:14-30.

11) What cannot happen, however, is that our honoring of a spouse, friend and most especially government official lead us to despise or dishonor another,

12) cf. Eph. 5:25-27 and Revelation 21:3. In the special honoring of the wretched we imitate our Lord who in our wretchedness has loved us and made us (and will make us) beautiful.

13) Certainly it is a scandal that mature Christian men do not teach young Christian men modesty of garb and mature Christian women do not teach young Christian girls. Given the single-minded submission of society to the demands of lust and promiscuity in the area of fashion (and the media) such teaching is absolutely necessary if we are to remain salt and not become worthless. (cf. Matt. 5:13)

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