I have a piece up on “Rethinking Modesty” at Catapult magazine’s CLOTHE YOURSELF issue. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating showing off more skin…
Here’s the beginning:
When I was growing up, the only thing that could be said about clothing was that it should be “modest,” and ideally not too “worldly.” “Modesty” was proof-texted from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
Not looking “worldly” usually meant not being too fashionable — neither dressing in accordance with what was popular in the mainstream nor wearing anything with strong counterculture associations: no skater pants for boys, no ripped jeans for girls. This is what was meant, apparently, by 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world, or anything in the world.”
While it seems that fewer churches are pushing the second issue — except, perhaps, to offer OMG-wear and other Christian versions of whatever is popular — modesty continues to be a topic of interest. Most American Christian definitions of modesty involve “not showing too much skin.” The question of male lust is often a part of the discussion. But in context, that doesn’t seem to be what Paul is talking about at all: modesty, in 1 Timothy 2:9, is about not flaunting your wealth, which is a surprisingly important thing in the Epistles as well as the Gospels. Braids and gold and pearls have nothing to do with not looking like the other, non-Christian, worldly women. The opposite of “modest” is not “sexually provocative,” but “flashy.”
Perhaps contemporary readers are tempted to regard 1 Timothy 2 as irrelevant anyway; that’s the place where Paul says he does not permit women to teach or have authority over men, and where he says, weirdly, that they will be “saved through childbearing,” a phrase no one has ever explained to my satisfaction. But what Paul says about modesty doesn’t seem particularly idiosyncratic or easily dismissed. What did John the Baptist call people to do in preparation for Jesus? Give away your extra clothes. What makes it hard to enter God’s kingdom? Wealth. What causes quarrels and fights in the various churches? People segregating themselves on the basis of social status and marginalizing those who are poor. Modesty in 1 Timothy 2 has more to do with dismantling social class divisions than keeping your skin covered.