Modesty — by Cheryl Hemphill

Republished on July 1, 2017

Mrs. Hemphill is the wife of retired RPCNA pastor, Bob Hemphill: they ministered together at Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church in Colorado before planting a now constituted RPCNA church in Laramie, Wyoming, where they still live and worship. This article, originally written for and posted on the Laramie RPC website in 2013, is updated and used for the Puritan Evangelical Church of America’s (PECA) website and booklet inserts by her permission. We are grateful for these words of wisdom from a “Mother in Israel”.

Recently, I’ve been at a number of events involving Christian young women, many of them Reformed Christian young ladies, and I find myself wondering where we are as a church concerning the principle of modesty.

If you have a few moments, I would appreciate you reading my article while prayerfully and humbly considering the following questions about this Biblical principle:

  1. What does Scripture say about the principle of modesty?
  2. Do you think the clothing standards of Christian young ladies that you know are honoring to God? If yes, how so? If not, why not?
  3. How can we best apply this godly standard to the 21st century?

There are probably few people who enjoy clothes more than I do. I love color and style, though I don’t think it’s an obsession.

Daring to bring up this subject may bring on a knee-jerk reaction from some, and might brand me as legalistic, though I don’t think this is the case. I am not interested in wearing gunnysacks, looking dowdy, or making rules about clothes that are measured in inches.

Certainly I have not walked a straight and pure line in this matter myself—I admit that. We all like to look good. Having said that, what am I talking about? What am I seeing these days?

I am seeing really short shorts, and very short dresses and skirts. Low necklines are another thing, plunging in some cases, but mostly showing just a hint of cleavage. That seems to be the accepted and common way to wear a top…just enough to tease. Off-the-shoulder tops and dresses are quite the thing now. Once we were to cover our underwear, but now it seems to add just that touch of class to show your underwear strap(s). And the tighter the better, when it comes to clothes. I think we all see the aim of most clothing stores these days—to make us appear as sexy as possible. But I have been wondering, do we as Christians, do we as the body of Christ, look much different? Rather than aiming for attractive modesty, are we trying to get as “close to the line” as possible without crossing over into obvious and flagrant immodesty? Maybe we say, “I dress more modestly than my non-Christian neighbors”, and maybe we do, but should that be our standard?

Even in a church culture that seems to value some degree of modesty, I have attended weddings among the same people where modesty seems to have left the radar screen of the wedding wardrobe planners.

Swimming—are we thinking of God’s words to us when we select a swimsuit? In this case, it seems the issue is bigger outside the pool than when actually swimming.

I love to dance, but even good and fun dancing can take a bad turn if we are not careful in our dress. Aren’t we seeing events where Christian women are dancing, and their clothing seems to be turning a fun dance into a pretty worldly affair. (Certain dancing can be an issue as well, but that is another discussion.)

Are mothers teaching their daughters about this? Maybe they don’t really believe it? Maybe the reason they themselves aren’t dressing sexy is NOT because they see that as dishonoring to God, but because they don’t want to appear as though they are trying to look young. So is that how it is? It’s fine to dress sexy in our youth, and then we start being modest as we get older? Seems to me it’s a principle regardless of our age. I Timothy 2:9 instructs women to adorn themselves in modest[1] apparel. Is this only for older and/or married women?

Are fathers telling their daughters how their dress affects men, and giving guidance? Certainly men need to “make a covenant with their eyes”, but they also should be helping their wives and daughters avoid being obvious temptations.

On my local, secular university campus, there is an evening each year during which girls/women are encouraged to form a parade walking in their underwear. The point is to fight against rape and sexual assault, and the attitude is, “it doesn’t matter what I wear—you’d better not touch me.” Are we in the church doing a bit of this, just on a different level?

Would you agree that in recent years in Reformed and Presbyterian culture (and other church cultures) it seems that great importance is placed on one’s appearance, even on one’s sexiness? If you’re a knockout, so much the better.[2]

Are we so afraid of appearing legalistic that we have dropped the principle altogether, throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Where this affects me most is with those outside of the church. If part of our church ethos is the importance of sexual attractiveness, then what do we say to non-Christians, and how do we train those being discipled as new Christians? Believing biblical doctrine is very important, but it must be reflected in the way we live our lives. If it’s really no big deal how we dress, then others can legitimately wonder if we really believe what we say we believe. If this is the message (our dress doesn’t matter) that is coming through from us to non-Christians, or to young Christians, then I must protest. We should not be in conformity with the world here.

Should not this area of modesty be subject to the prayer in the psalms: “Search me oh God…and see if there be any wicked way in me … ” (Psalm 139:23-24).

At the risk of the reader’s knee-jerk reaction mentioned above, or a response of, “oh, please, that was a different age”, let me quote John Bunyan’s words:

Why are they for going with their … naked shoulders, and paps hanging out like a cow’s bag? Why are they for painting their faces, for stretching out their neck, and for putting of themselves unto all the formalities which proud fancy leads them to? Is it because they would honor God? Because they would adorn the gospel? Because they would beautify religion, and make sinners to fall in love with their own salvation? No, no, it is rather to please their lusts … I believe also that Satan has drawn more into the sin of uncleanness by the spangling show of fine clothes, than he could possibly have drawn unto it without them. I wonder what it was that of old was called the attire of a harlot: certainly it could not be more bewitching and tempting than are the garments of many professors this day. [I believe professors here means professing Christians.]

Yes, it was a different age, but doesn’t the principle still apply?

Some pertinent scriptures:

Genesis 3:21—Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them. (coats, not fur bikinis)

Romans 14:13—Therefore … decide never to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.

I Corinthians 6:19, 20—Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit … for ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

I Timothy 2:9—In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation …

Titus 2:4, 5—that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste … that the word of God may not be blasphemed.

Hebrews 10:24—And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.

[1] PECA note: the Greek word here for “modest” could be translated, “respectable”, “appropriate”, “proper”, or “honorable”.

[2] PECA note: sadly, in the past in our church a young lady struggling with her physical appearance volunteered that her aunt had said to her and others that Christian women still have to present themselves in a way as to attract the eyes of Christian men to gain their interest: these folks (including elders at the time) are no longer in our church, and that young lady now openly denies the faith.