Knowing what it means to dress modestly can be difficult because there is no Christian list of clothes you can and cannot wear. To dress modestly is to show propriety in the way you dress. To be modest is to be unpretentious or to have an accurate estimation of oneself. Modesty does not only concern women, and it doesn't only have to do with revealing clothes. It means much more, and certainly not less, than dressing appropriately. The biblical idea of modesty has to do with one's heart and attitude as well as with one's actions and appearance.
Paul and Peter both write about modesty, and specifically about dressing modestly, in their epistles. Paul writes to Timothy, "likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works" (1 Timothy 2:9–10). Here Paul is not so much talking about revealing clothing as he is about flashy clothes. His emphasis is on wearing respectable apparel that demonstrates modesty and self-control. Braiding hair, gold, and pearls were costly and showed the wearer's social status. Paul is not saying that it is wrong for a woman to braid her hair or wear jewelry; the emphasis is on wearing clothes that are appropriate for the occasion, not too much or too little, not overdressed or under dressed. Christian women and men should not be trying to assert their social status or draw attention to themselves through their appearance. Rather, good works stemming from godliness are what make Christians beautiful.
Peter has a similar emphasis when he writes, "Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:3–4). Peter de-emphasizes the importance of what we put on and instead emphasizes the heart. What makes someone attractive or what makes someone stand out is not the way they look, but their heart. We dress modestly because we have an attitude of humility and a desire to honor God in all our ways.
While women are more often the subject of discussions on what it means to dress modestly, this principle applies to both men and women. Paul uses the same Greek word to describe "respectable apparel" for women in 1 Timothy 2:9 as he does to explain that an overseer must be "respectable" in 1 Timothy 3:2. Modesty is an issue for all believers. We are to be modest not only in our appearance, but also in our behavior. It is the same principle when God chose David to be king: "For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Our adornment is not primarily what we do or do not wear, but our adornment is our character. Good works and a gentle and quiet spirit please God and are much more attractive to people. When our heart is in the right place, our outward appearance is much more likely to also be appropriate to the occasion.
When it comes to clothing these verses leave a lot of questions up for debate. How do you know what it means to dress modestly in a specific sense? What is too revealing? What is flashy and what is disrespectfully underdressed? One way to determine whether your clothes are modest or not is by looking at your intentions in wearing them. Are you wearing that outfit to attract the attention of someone of the opposite sex? Will your outfit cause others to be uncomfortable? Do you want to stand out as more stylish, as richer, or as more holy than everyone else? If your outfit is primarily intended to gain attention or esteem from others, then it might be time to evaluate your heart and your wardrobe. Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and follow the call of Colossians 3:17: "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
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