Modesty. The church’s self-created sub-culture. What does it mean? What does it look like? Who gets to say what it is and isn’t? And why is modesty something more heavily taught to women?
Even children are taught from a young age that girls are supposed to be modest and boys don’t really have to think about that. Think about the gender differences in these sentences:
To a boy: “Those shorts are too small for you! Looks like you’ve grown again!”
To a girl: “Those shorts are too short. We need to stay modest.”
Where does this concept of “modesty” come from and what do we do about it in an ever-changing culture? For everyone would have to agree that even those who say they are the most modest in the world have far different standards of dress than the Puritans or Elizabethan English women.
First, the term. 1 Timothy 2:9 is the verse most go to, specifically in the King James Version, since it says, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” So it looks as though this is talking about what women need to wear—modest apparel.
But take a closer look at context here. Why does it say “in like manner also”? Well, that’s because verse eight shares that the men of the church are to pray while they lift their hands in worship without anger or quarreling. And “in like manner also”...women are to be…modest? How is that similar?
Because this passage isn’t talking about whether or not women should wear skirts, or whether or not you can show off your shoulders. It's talking about men and women in the church not doing things that draw attention to themselves. Men, you’re not supposed to be praying in church while you’re arguing and trying to get your own way. Women, you’re supposed to wear clothing that doesn’t draw attention to yourself, something that’s “respectable apparel” (ESV), something you’ve put on with a spirit of modesty and self-control. And that has nothing to do with the length of your skirt, because given Paul's examples here, it’s actually talking about not showing off your wealth in a way that draws attention to you. “Not with braided hair and gold and pearls or costly attire…” Consider the use of the term modest this way: "She lives off of a very modest income." Meaning, it's nothing she's flaunting around and bragging about. It's the same with the women, who apparently were flaunting their wealth in Timothy's church, showing off jewels and expensive clothing. They needed a little self-control, not in covering up more so they wouldn't be a "stumbling block" to some lustful men, but rather so their wealth wouldn't put them in self-proclaimed positions over others because the attention needing to be on them. The Puritans actually chose their garments based on this concept of wealth. The New England Historical Society says, "In 1634, the General Court in Plymouth decried 'the great, superfluous and unnecessary expenses occasioned by reason of some new and immodest fashions, as also the ordinary wearing of silver, gold and silk laces, girdles, hatbands, etc.'"
So what is the solution?
Verse 10: "But what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works." Churches, we teach women how to be godly. And their freedom in Christ and presence of the Holy Spirit allows them to make godly decisions for themselves about their own clothing. Clothes are not the most important issue. Godliness is. And when godliness is taught and nurtured and encouraged correctly, the clothing will be a by product. And yes, there will be differences of opinion on clothing. That's okay. Because again, it's not the most important thing.
If you read this and immediately think, "But she's just giving the hall pass now to Christian women everywhere to wear whatever they want!" then you don't know what teaching true godliness looks like. Perhaps you've been taught that godliness equals obeying certain rules about your attire, and this brings up fear that someone may deviate from those rules. But godliness comes out of one's heart. Absolutely a woman could flaunt her body and expose it on purpose to get a man's attention. But is that something a godly woman would do? Could a man show off his body so that women noticed and admired him? Yes, that happens, too. The desire for attention is not gender-specific.
No pastor, pastor's wife, deacon, church leader, etc, should be making up the rules for what every individual in his/her church should be wearing. Our primary focus is making disciples. The Gospel first, then discipleship to godliness and spiritual maturity from then on.
We must hold to biblical doctrine without wavering or swaying. And we must also recognize that our lives come with certain opinions, things that we individually hold important for our own lives that the Bible does not clearly dictate. We allow for these differences because the Holy Spirit works in each of us in different ways.
We live in our culture with our current culture's fashions, making choices for ourselves through the biblical worldview that infiltrates everything about our lives. And in this way, and in many small differing ways, we live with those Christians around us, seeking to glorify God together.