Friday, August 23, 2013

On Modesty :: {Everyone's doing it}

It didn't take me long to shed the habit of wearing a shirt.  I remember being two days into village living, our family's first solo foray of complete immersion in island culture, and my dad telling me, "You can take your shirt off, you know.  You don't have to wear it if you don't want to."

It was a suggestion, not a command, and honestly, it weirded  me out.  My mind immediately went to the two other men who lived on the island, native Papua New Guineans with kids of their own.  I was ashamed that they would see my 9 year old chest.  But as I observed my peers, and watched how the other girls on the island ran around in shorts or lava lavas, bare chested and free, one day I peeled my hot, sticky shirt off and was struck by the thrill of air blowing across my skin.  After a few hours, I forgot I'd even taken it off.  I didn't don another one until we left the island for civilization again two months later.

After our two month stint in the village was up, we packed all our things into bags and crates, and sat waiting for the outrigger to ferry us to the mainland, and to the rumbling diesel truck that would take us back to missionary base camp.  I suddenly became aware, after nearly eight weeks of not even thinking about it, that the top half of me was unclothed.  I remember the internal conflict as my brain struggled to shift from 'village' to 'town', and considered for a while if I would even put a shirt back on once we got around other Westerners again.  But seeing the outrigger approach our island caused something to click in my brain, and I began digging for a T-shirt in our bags.  

This started a dual standard of modesty for me.  In the village, I would go topless and sometimes even strip naked to swim, until I reached puberty.  In town, I would cover up.  In the village, I became used to all the women around me baring their breasts to the sun, and wrapping their lava lavas (cloth sarongs) tightly around their waists.  In town, nobody wore lava lavas in public because they were considered akin to nightgowns.  In the village I went barefoot, even over where the reef was made jagged and treacherous from the surf.  In town, I wore flip flops.  It was no big deal, switching from one standard to the other.

One evening, I wrapped a clean lava lava around my waist in preparation for church.  I was experimenting with a new style of wrapping it, with the cloth gathered until it hit right above my knees, and then tucked in jauntily at my waist to create a bright waterfall of fabric down the side.  I liked the shortness, because I had discovered that just bringing the hemline up two inches, going from hitting just below the knee to just above it, made it much easier to move around, and my lava lava didn't get tangled up in my legs.  Shirtless, shoeless, and prayer book in hand, I set off to evening service.  

I wasn't five yards from my front door when an older girl stopped me.

"Don't wear your lava lava like that!"  she scolded.  "It's indecent!  Especially at church!!!   Lower it down so it covers your knees."  Appropriately chastised, I lowered my hemline and she moved on, shaking her head at my indiscretion.  


Lately, I've been in a lot of discussions online around the topic of modesty.  They're usually on religious (read:  Christian) blogs, since it seems that other people really don't care about the issue as much as we do.  I think that, of course, everyone's entitled to their own opinion about the issue.  And really, it has to come down to personal opinion.  After all, even Webster defines 'modesty' as "Observing the proprieties of the sex; not unwomanly in act or bearing; free from undue familiarity, indecency, or lewdness; decent in speech and demeanor".  Who (or what), then, gets to define this propriety?  I think that each culture sets its own general standard, which probably evolves through time based mainly on climate and social anthropology.  And then that general standard becomes narrowly defined by each individual person, or people group (family, religious group, clan, etc).  

Like I said, this is all very well and good.  The problem comes in, I think, when people start equating modesty with Godly righteousness.  They use the term, 'biblical modesty', and quote Scriptures to support their assertions that women should cover their bodies in a certain way.  

I have a big problem with this.  I think these people, although well-intentioned, are completely misreading those infamous 'modesty passages'.  What passages am I talking about here?  The favorite seems to be: 

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.  1 Timothy 2: 9 - 10

I would add the sister verses 1 Peter 3:3 - 4, in which the apostle Peter addresses the same type of issues that Paul did in his letter to Timothy.  Peter says:

Your adornment must not be merely external - braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.

What both apostles are talking about here is not hemlines, or how tightly clothing clings to a woman's form ... they're talking about good works, flowing from a heart submitted to God.  This supports what did Christ Himself taught (as it should - Scripture should agree with Scripture)  He didn't lay down lists of rules.  Instead, He reiterated time and again that it's not what's on the outside that matters to God - it's what's on the inside.  

"You think you're OK if you don't commit murder?"  Jesus asked.  "I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to the judgement."  

"You think you've fulfilled the requirements of the law by not committing adultery?  .... But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  

This is something I'm finding to be true time and again as I study the Scriptures.  Man looks at the outward appearance.  But the Lord looks at the heart. 

Going back to 'modesty'.  I find it interesting that the definition I quoted above from Webster is actually the secondary definition for the word.  The first definition is, "Restraining within due limits of propriety; not forward, bold, boastful, or presumptuous; rather retiring than pushing one's self forward; not obstructive".

Interesting, right?  Sounds like what both Peter and Paul were getting at when describing the behavior of a Godly woman.  

One last definition to throw out, and this is, I think, the most important of all.  It is the definition of the original Greek word, translated in our English bibles as 'modest', that Paul used when he wrote his letter to Timothy - 'aidos'.  It means, "a sense of shame or honour, modesty, bashfulness, reverence, regard for others, respect".  (If you're interested in where I found this, or in doing further study on your own, check out  It's a wonderful resource for bible study.)

Peter and Paul weren't talking about women dressing their bodies in such a way as to cause the men around them to think lustful thoughts.  They were describing to new Christians, who were living during the infancy of Christianity, what defines a Godly woman.  Should it surprise anyone that the majority of women back then were much the same as the majority of women today?  We love our elaborate hair styles, and cute jewelry, and hard-to-get handbags, and status phones.  But the apostles said, in their letters to the churches, that Christian women weren't supposed to be about that.  We're supposed to be about good works, flowing out of submissive hearts that aren't proud, but are rather humble.  

Go ahead and read all the passages the purity advocates throw out to back up their positions on hemlines and bathing suits, and this time, read them with a new lens.  Read them with the lens of grace and truth that Christ brought to the Jews' strict interpretation of the Law, remembering that always, man may care about the outward appearance, but the Lord cares about the heart.


  1. I remember when I was teaching second grade, and a young man (from a heavily Catholic, Hispanic background, I could add), noticed my cross necklace. "Are you a Christian?" he asked, with a puzzled look on his face. "Yes," I answered, figuring just the one word was safe in public school. "But, you're wearing pants!" he protested. And that was in NM.

  2. The lexical, exegetical and hermeneutical consensus throughout church history by those with actual knowledge of the bible beyond Google and the heathen of New Guinea is that the full range of inappropriate physical attire is what is in view here. Yes, luxuriant ostentation is included, but the sense of shame being addressed here is clearly that which accompanies a wholesome sense of sexual reserve as contrasted with the unleashed whoredom of the city of Ephesus where Timothy was when Paul wrote him this letter. In fact they were two sides of the same coin. Opulent dress was associated with immorality as well as pride.

    The notion that differing cultures are allowed to contrive their own standards of physical coverage after the fall of Adam is a purely modernist perversion. A major component in evangelizing the heathen is bringing them onto line with God's revealed standards which will be their joy if truly converted.

    Your time as a "TCK has afforded you exactly zero credibility as far as these assertions are concerned. Nakedness in the presence of anyone not your covenant spouse is universally shameful in the scriptures after Genesis 3. The universal creator God who covered Adam and Eve because of the shame of their being publicly naked now in sin is our standard. Not the godless natives of some island. You'll fit right in with today's permissive relativity though.

  3. THANK-YOU! As another MK who occasionally swam naked as a child, lived in a culture that was modest, if slightly unclothed at times, I so understand this! Then I moved to a culture that covered everything in excess... and guess what I found? Rampant sexual abuse. And not of the women who were uncovered. Of all women. I could have only my eyes showing, and even then not making eye contact, walking discreetly with my male escorts (brothers and father), and still be harrassed, touched, grabbed.

    I came back to a church which said, "If you cover, you will help men not sin". Baloney! Men will only be constrained by their desire to constrain themselves. I know - I've walked around in a tent, and it hasn't stopped them. I've played naked and was not even looked at. And yes, I was about the same "development age" (pre-puberty) both times.

    If we keep telling our boys this lie, we let them not take responsibility for their thoughts. The world is over half women, so they had better learn to control their minds.

  4. 1 John 2:15-17

    New International Version (NIV)

    15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

  5. Last week I actually referenced this post in conversation with a friend :) I've been reading your blog for years, and it's still one of my all time favourite TCK-related blogs.