Question: "What does it mean to dress modestly?"
Answer: The biblical instruction to “dress modestly” is found in 1 Timothy 2:9. As a pastoral epistle, 1 Timothy is a letter of instruction and encouragement written by the apostle Paul to Timothy, who was overseeing the church in Ephesus. Paul calls for “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving [to] be made for all people . . . that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1). He talks about God’s desire for “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He describes Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His mediatorial work between God and mankind (1 Timothy 2:5–6). Then he writes, “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” These commands for behavior and appearance are linked to worship of God and to public witness.
First Peter 3:1–4 gives similar instructions: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” Peter also gives instructions to husbands regarding being considerate of their wives, who are “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7).
At the core of dressing modestly is reverence for God. Rather than seek to garner attention through appearance, godly women are to seek to glorify God. Of course, this same principle also applies to men. Both women and men are called to honor God in all aspects of their lives, including in how they dress. Instead of focusing on a societally impressive exterior, believers are to grow in godly character. Rather than be known for their clothing or hair style, they should be known for how they honor God. Jesus told His followers, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).
Modesty also has to do with respect for others. Our outward appearance does communicate things to the watching world. When believers are overly concerned about externals—flaunting wealth or beauty or flashing cultural status symbols—the world misunderstands who God is. When we dress in “respectable apparel,” with modesty (unassuming, humble, reverent, respectful), we better demonstrate the truth of God. We better demonstrate that our worth is in Him, not in the things the world pursues.
Our appearance also affects fellow believers. First Corinthians 10:31–33 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” We should be cognizant of how our choice of apparel affects our sisters and brothers in Christ, and we should be willing to lay down our own rights for the sake of their spiritual maturation when necessary (1 Corinthians 10:23–33; Romans 14). We should not purposefully encourage others to sin.
Dressing modestly often requires us to check our motives. Are we dressing a particular way to draw attention to ourselves? To feel superior to others? To engender jealousy in others? To incite lust? Out of idolatry? If so, we need to check our hearts and possibly change our clothes. It’s also important to consider the cultural and situational context. For example, in the United States, it would be immodest to wear a ball gown to serve at a soup kitchen. But the same gown might be appropriate at a charity fundraising event. Our clothes should demonstrate a right understanding of God, a right understanding of ourselves, and respect for the people we are around.
Proverbs 31:30 gives this wisdom: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” May our clothing choices be grounded in glorifying God and focusing on that which is of eternal worth (Matthew 6:19–21).