What not to wear
There used to be a reality BBC television series called ‘What not to Wear.' It was hosted by the delightful, entertaining, straight-talking and down-to-earth hosts, Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. As fashion gurus, their task was to help woman dress to complement their body sizes and shapes.
What I have realised is that this reality TV show is not too far removed from our Churches and Christian living. Sometimes it feels, as Christian women and girls, that we are living this reality.
There are many self-appointed fashion gurus who tell us ‘what not to wear.’ And just as the world’s default position is to judge by outward appearance, apparently so is it ours.
Modesty is a popular theme for Christian women’s conferences where dress code is addressed. The common thread is this: 'Modesty is not about the clothes but about the heart,’ but then then the application is generally about the clothes. It all becomes about ‘what not to wear.’
We spend far more time focusing on specific fashion nitty gritties than the Bible does.
‘If it is too short, too tight, or too low’, don’t wear it. ‘If you can see up it, down it or through it,’ don’t wear it. Hemlines and straps are discussed. Bending is practiced. The criteria are seemingly endless. In fact, one assumes that Amish women and Muslim women are the only ones who have got it right. As far as covering up goes, they are doing pretty well.
An unrealistic bucolic longing
We long for the idyllic days of Jane Austen’s propriety and sense and sensibility when it comes to our wardrobes.
And yet, reading a Jane Austen classic or watching a Jane Austen movie leaves us with the impression that although the dresses may have covered cleavages and ankles, they failed to cover the heaving bosoms and seductive flirtations.
Modesty is an area where our Pharisaical hearts are easily exposed, because when we make modesty all about the clothes we wear we soon make up a list of rules.
It is that easy. It is that dangerous.
We believe rules will solve the problem of immodesty. We look at the clothing of others and in our hearts we have the mindset of the Pharisee toward the publican, ‘Thank you Lord that I am not like her.’
Your dress code often says more about my heart than it does yours.
Tim Challies begins his discussion on modesty using a few obscure verses in Colossian 2:20-23:
‘In these verses we see the stark truth that as sinful human beings we are rule-makers, rule-followers, and rule-breakers. We love rules! We love to make rules and we love to break rules. And if there is any discussion in all of the Christian world that is dominated by the making, keeping and breaking of rules, it must be this one (modesty). The modest woman is the woman who knows the rules and keeps the rules.’
Clothes may expose or cover a heart problem, but they don’t solve a heart problem.
A 'modesty' paradigm shift
John Piper’s approach when it comes to addressing modesty is as follows:
‘If you try to turn something around by starting with the rules or the guidelines, it will not accomplish a Christ-exalting, gospel-rooted, Spirit-empowered, faith-sustained, Bible-informed, joyful, free culture of modesty. It won’t. And yet that is the goal.
So, my approach was never to start with the rules or the guidelines, but to start with God and the gospel and the Bible and the Spirit and faith and joy. Deep things need to happen in a woman’s and a man’s soul before they have any chance of thinking and feeling about these things in a way that honours God. I will just say this to any woman, any man who dresses inappropriately:
“Until God has become your treasure, until your own sin has become the thing you hate most, until the Word of God is your supreme authority that you feel to be more precious than gold, sweeter than honey, until the gospel of Christ’s death in your place is the most precious news in the world to you, until you have learned to deny yourself short-term pleasures for the sake of long-term joy and holiness, until you have grown to love the Holy Spirit and long for his fruit more than man’s praise, until you count everything as loss compared to the supreme value of knowing Christ, your attitude towards your clothing and your appearance will be controlled by forces that don’t honour Christ.’”
The Greek word ‘kosmios,’ in 1 Timothy 2:9, used to describe how a woman should present herself, has been translated ‘modest’ or ‘respectable.’ ‘Kosmio' is related to the word cosmos and means orderliness and propriety. The same word is used in 1 Timothy 3:2, where overseers are to be ‘respectable’ or have ‘good behaviour.’
And yet the idea of modesty seems to be exclusively attached to women’s dress, narrowing its definition. Dress code should not be the standard or measure of godliness. Immodesty or modesty illustrate where we have placed our identity. Instead of boasting in Christ, we boast in our fashion status or bodies.
This can all get very complicated. On one level it is culturally dependant; the standard of modesty in my culture would be considered immodest in the Middle East. On another level, it is context dependant; there are certain types of sports attire which are deemed acceptable for that sport but not for everyday wear. When we make fashion rules, we can easily be inconsistent. Do we discourage Christian communities from watching the Olympics or Wimbledon due to the 'immodest' clothing the athletes are wearing?
French novelist, Honore de Balzac’s definition is profound:
‘Modesty is the conscience of the body.’
As Christians we are called to make much of Christ and nothing is to be a distraction to that – not our clothing, our speech, or our behaviour. Our clothes, speech or behaviour should never be neon signs that blind others so that they can see nothing else. We are to live in such a way, dress in such a way and speak in such a way that our reputations point to the one who has changed our hearts and made us new.
Our fashion brand is Jesus Christ.
‘Immodest clothing says, ‘Look at me. Focus on my body.’ But as believers, we live to point people to something more.’ (Kim Cash Tate)
If we are in Christ, we are new creations, the old has passed away - (that might very well apply to your wardrobe).
When the Bible talks about clothing it has surprising and counter-cultural things to say:
We are encouraged to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14).
As God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, we are to clothe ourselves with compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and forgiveness (Colossians 3:12-13).
We are to clothe ourselves with humility toward one another for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ (1 Peter 5:5).
Even though the Proverbs 31 woman is dressed in fine linen and purple, strength and dignity are her clothing. Her character is praised and valued even though she was dressed beautifully. Her fashionable fine linen and purple did not detract from her heart that feared the Lord.
In 1 Peter 3:3-4 we are encouraged to not only give attention to our outward adornment, but to focus more on the hidden character of the heart, that of a gentle and quiet spirit which is imperishable and is precious in God’s sight.
Clothing ourselves with these beautiful and Biblical qualities that flow out of a transformed heart and life, makes a fashion statement that will never be outdated.
As Christians, we are called to be salt and light and shining stars in a dark and depraved generation.
Does our clothing (speech/behaviour) overshadow the light of Christ within us?
Does our clothing leave more of a lasting impression on others than our Christ-like character or good deeds?
What are our reputations based on? Our fashion statements or our heart statements?
In the Old Testament, it would have been impossible for Ruth, as a foreigner, to not stand out among Jewish society.
‘Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, "Why have I found favour in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?"
Boaz replied to her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband has been fully reported to me, and how you left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and came to a people that you did not previously know. May the LORD reward your work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge." (Ruth 2:10-12)
Instead of conversations about what to wear, what not to wear or what is revealing, perhaps we would do better to focus on cultivating hearts that reveal more of Christ.
(And I don't think that means 'Christian' Tees.)