Put on Love: Applying the Gospel to the Modesty Debate
My family spends a lot of time playing outdoors. My kids explore every inch of our yard daily, and and when my son Lincoln was younger he was never without a stick in his hands. Every good explorer needs a sturdy stick for prodding bugs, overturning rocks, and bossing sisters.
One day at the park, though, Lincoln and his stick found an irresistible mound of dirt with a curious hole at its peak. It only took a moment of consideration before the point of his stick jammed down deep into that sandy volcano, and I will never forget the eruption that followed. Tiny red fire ants were suddenly everywhere, covering everything. Miraculously, Lincoln escaped the angry ants with only a few stings and a lesson learned.
That erupting ant pile is the picture that comes to mind when the topic of modesty comes up—a swarm of red-hot stinging opinions and accusations. Even among followers of Christ, the modesty debate is volcanic, re-igniting every time someone mentions bikinis or yoga pants.
It finally drove me to study what God’s Word says (and doesn’t say) about modest dress. In an ultra sexualized, consumerist culture, amidst a flood of “what not to wear” opinions from all sides, how is a God-fearing woman to approach her appearance? Does the Gospel have anything to say about our clothing?
In his “Ask Pastor John” series, John Piper said this about where we are to begin in our pursuit of modesty:
“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 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 toward your clothing and your appearance will be controlled by forces that don’t honor Christ” (#342).
This is where we must begin, with the Gospel. The Gospel must be applied to every area of our life—even clothing—or we end up either bound by a list of rules and self-righteous pursuits, or selfishly indulging our flesh.
Two New Testament passages that address modesty are in 1 Peter and 1 Timothy. In 1 Peter 3:3–4 Peter 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.” The “holy women” Peter describes in these verses and in the surrounding text were called so because they were different from the world; they stood out in hope and in heart, marked by submission, gentleness, and meekness. We, likewise, are to find our hope, our satisfaction, and our confidence not from our outward appearance, but from inwardly reflecting the grace of God, which is imperishable (1 Cor. 15:53, Isa. 32:17).
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul is giving instructions for worship gatherings, to promote unity and to eliminate distraction, since both men and women were doing things to hinder peace and order. In verses 9–10 Paul says, “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.” While sexy, revealing clothing was not the issue of Paul’s day, he was speaking to a culture of excess—a flaunting of status and possessions while people around them lived in poverty. Their clothing and adornment choices identified them with the world rather than setting them apart. The theme of this passage echoes the previous one: the elaborate hair and glittering jewelry weren’t the real problem, but mere symptoms of an ugly heart issue. A believer’s testimony and Spirit-borne fruit should speak louder than her clothing.
We see plainly in Scripture that we are called to modesty. It is irrefutable. So what causes the volcanic eruptions of debate and disunity? Why can’t followers of Jesus just agree on this issue and others like it?
I believe that it boils down to this: while the call to modesty is clear in Scripture, the specifics of what modesty looks like are gray areas. You won’t find hemlines and necklines in the pages of Scripture. And those are the things we argue about.
It has helped me immensely to look at issues like this through a hierarchy of truth, conviction, and opinion:
Truth: includes the non-negotiables of God’s Word—the building blocks of our faith and theology, and clear commands we must obey. The Trinity, the doctrine of Salvation, and the commands to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:14) or “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1) are just a few of many. The Body of Christ is to be unified around these truths found in God’s Word (Eph. 4).
Conviction: includes those tricky gray areas and the “minors” in Scripture that foster so much debate in interpretation. Our convictions are important, and the Holy Spirit works powerfully in the lives of believers by shaping our convictions, but what so often leads the Body of Christ into disunity is when we raise our personal convictions to the level of truth and try to impose them on others. Convictions include the specifics of modest dress and other sensitive issues like alcohol consumption, the types of TV and movies we watch, or methods of disciplining our children, among many others.
Opinion: the bottom of the hierarchy, where personal taste and preference live. Our opinions hold no spiritual weight, yet sometimes we try to throw them around like they bear the weight of truth. When churches divide over music styles or carpet color, our opinions are carrying far more weight than they ought.
One of the places in Scripture where we see this hierarchy in application is the book of Galatians. Paul penned this powerful letter to the church of Galatia to chastise them for straying from the truth of the Gospel. At first glance it doesn’t seem like a book that talks so much about false teaching and circumcision could have much to do with modesty, but it does.
The false doctrine Paul addresses in Galatians is coming from Judaizers—Jews who had converted to Christianity but were now trying to add Jewish law to the Gospel. The Judaizers were convincing Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow the Jewish customs in addition to the Gospel of Jesus (Gal. 5:1–12). But throughout his letter, Paul reminds the Galatians that the Gospel plus anything is not the Gospel. Christ’s atoning work is sufficient! To add works to it is to nullify it completely.
So if we say that to be a Christian—to be godly—means you have to dress a certain way, we are falling into the same trap as the Galatians. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). But this grates at the self-righteous legalist in all of us, doesn’t it? We love standards by which to measure our righteousness, and a list of rules to follow to assuage our guilt. We want the comfort of thinking, “If I only wear one-piece swimsuits, shorts that are longer than my fingertips, and don’t show my cleavage, then I am godly.” We might not think that exactly, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ve all gone there. And we have probably imposed those same regulations on others, at least through mental comparison. But what we don’t see is that when we add qualifications to righteousness, we are enslaving ourselves all over again to the very law Christ freed us from. We’re strapping the chains back on ourselves.
Paul continues later in chapter 5, however, with these weighty words: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13–14).
Yes, we are free in Christ. But, as Martin Luther wisely said, “Freedom is not the right to do what you want, but rather the power to do what you ought.” If we think freedom in Christ is a license to do whatever we want (or dress however we want), we are mistaken and we will only find ourselves enslaved again to our sinful desires, not truly free (Rom. 6:1–2).
This is where the powerful work of the Holy Spirit comes into play. The Spirit indwells each of us at the moment of salvation (Eph. 1:13–14), and the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidenced in the life of a maturing believer. Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit in the last portion of Galatians 5: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for they are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:16–18).
Followers of Christ are no longer ruled by our sin nature, but we still battle fleshly desires daily by the power of the Holy Spirit within us. It requires effort, but we don’t do it on our own. Colossians 3 contains a powerful picture of this, instructing us in what we are to “put off” and what we are to “put on”—like clothing. Verse 5 says, “Put to death what is earthly in you…” We are to peel off the things of this world, shed the desires of our flesh like dirty clothes. Instead we are to clothe ourselves with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12). And above all, we are to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 13). We are to clothe ourselves in love.
I understand, however, that there can be a chasm of confusion between hearing the biblical admonition to “put on love” and standing in front of our closet or in a dressing room wondering what to wear. Or, for moms, teaching our daughters to make appropriate clothing choices. This is the reason so many of us turn to legalism in our approach to modesty, or go to the other extreme and say, “It’s my body, my decision, and my life. I’ll wear what I want.” Neither is correct, and both bring bondage.
There are three important questions to begin with as you consider your approach to modest dress:
Am I being honest with myself?
I don’t know about you, but I am an expert at justifying my thoughts and actions. I can put a gloss on the ugliness in my heart to make it appear presentable. I’ve tried on plenty of dresses and shorts, knowing they were too skimpy by my convictions (which happens a lot because I’m tall) and tried to justify buying them anyway. We can tell ourselves all kinds of pretty things to convince ourselves that what we’re considering is okay even when we know it’s not. Let’s be honest with ourselves in front of the mirror. What is my true heart motive for wearing what I’m wearing?
Am I maturing in my walk with God?
As I grow in my relationship with the Lord through studying his Word, communicating with him through prayer, and fellowshipping with other believers, my desires will align more and more with his. The fruit of the Spirit will be more and more evident in my life and he will shape my convictions to honor him. My appetite for the things of the world will dull.
This question is important to consider in others’ lives as well. Though we can’t truly know where a person stands with God, we can recognize believers by their fruit (Matt. 7:16) and our expectations should be appropriate. We should not expect an unbeliever to dress modestly; the Word of God is not her standard! We should have reasonable expectations for new believers and extend grace as they grow in their convictions. And as for our fellow maturing believers, our role is not to police and judge, but to pray and encourage as we all walk by the Spirit and grow in our convictions.
Am I promoting unity within the Body of Christ?
At one point in Paul’s argument against adding law to the Gospel in Galatians 5, he warns the Church, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15). Differing views cause rampant disunity among believers if we allow it. The Gospel should be held higher than any of our views on one- or two-piece bathing suits. The name of Christ is to be proclaimed louder than our opinion on leggings as pants. Our enemy Satan rejoices when we allow disunity to creep in and turn bondservants of the cross into an anthill of biting-and-devouring chaos. Let us choose instead to put on love, lay down our rights, and serve one another in the freedom Christ has won for us.