Why ‘Modesty’ in 1 Timothy Has Nothing To Do With Showing Off Skin


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.

{Continue reading…}

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About Rachel Marie Stone

I write about food, family, faith, justice, and joy at my blog, on Christianity Today's website, and elsewhere, including at Books & Culture, Sojourners, and Relevant. My book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, is forthcoming from @IVPress in March 2013. I live in Zomba, Malawi, with my husband Tim, an Old Testament professor at Zomba Theological College (where I also teach writing.) We have two bright and beautiful sons who play Lego and listen to audiobooks almost constantly. Follow me @rachel_m_stone on Twitter or "like" us on FB (see sidebar.) All views are my own and should not be taken as official positions from any of the above organizations.

10 Responses »

  1. This makes me very proud of my son who believes that the best place on earth to buy clothing is at a second-hand shop, especially the Salvation Army store in Rutland, Vermont :-) I was horrified, on the other hand, to learn of an acquaintance who keeps her La Boutin & other designer shoes locked in a safe! King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.) Matthew: 6:21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also..
    As someone who is half-Swedish with a German husband, I try (and often fail) to explain to Americans that nudity is not necessarily sexy or provocative, but simply natural. German grandmas with sagging everything show up at German public pools in bikinis. They are probably unwittingly answering nature’s call to absorb more vitamin D3 from the sun by exposing as much skin as possible. As to the German men with vast beer bellies,flat droopy bottoms, and equally unshaven underarms wearing Speedos…no comment! ;-) American men often indicate that women who don’t measure up to beauty standards have a duty to cover up, so my little joke about German men is only to point out that their job is not to be aesthetically pleasing to me (or anyone.)

    • Haha, yes, we lived for one year in Germany and visited the public pool every week! It’s a bit surprising for Americans at first–especially the “family changing rooms” but I think there is plenty to learn from the relaxed attitude toward bodies. We all have bodies, after all!

  2. My caution to going down this road is that it discounts some of the cultural implications. Women who dressed flashy, with lots of gold and jewels and such, weren’t always doing so to flaunt their wealth… it was advertising for prostitution.

    I agree that modesty “don’t show too much skin”. But then, culturally speaking, what is “too much skin”? In our Victorian-influenced European West, that means one thing… but does it apply to the Buntu in Zimbabwe? Or to other tribal groups where a woman wearing too MUCH clothing was advertising her wealth coming from prostitution? “Modesty”, in this sense, is a cultural more and we need to be careful not to impose our Victorian cultural mores on cultures who don’t necessarily have the same issues.

    However, this does not mean that I’m going to allow my almost-13-year-old daughter to go topless around town (or the current cultural equivalent thereof)… that goes to the “don’t cause someone to stumble” deal…but I do agree… we shouldn’t equate the term “modesty” with our current cultural interpretation of it… there’s a lot more nuance in 1 Timothy than is generally accepted by more conservative groups.

  3. Another good, thought-provoking post. As our Dr. Stone would (very softly and dryly) say,

    “there are a lot of interesting things going on in this chapter…”

    I for one was always somewhat amused by verse 8, inasmuch as so much of my earlier career was spent trying to deal with the anger and disputing that arose precisely over the raising of said holy hands!

    If I hadn’t actually lived through my pastoral experiences I should think so many of them were some sort of surreal dream…

  4. Really excited to read this later tonight! I have two post due about modesty so I am sure this will be insightful. Thanks for writing on the subject.

  5. The way I’ve come to remind myself what the verse seems to be getting at is to use the word modest the same way we do in the phrase “a man of modest means”. The way I live should be modest in the sight of God and the people he has put in my life.

    In the rest of the article on the other website, I really appreciated this line: “The modesty he’s talking about has to do with economic justice and equality… .” I have to be careful about enforcing dress standards in the courtroom for those very reasons. The standards cannot be imposed in a way that actually works injustice to those coming to court.

  6. Rachel, Great article. The U.S. could use some more of this type of thinking to break down economic barriers, free men from knee jerk lust and reduce the profits of the porn and fashion industries.

    I want to take a moment address the “she shall be saved through child bearing.” Many translations render the “she” in a way that seems to speak about women in general, but I think the context and the original language make it clear the word “she” is referring to Eve who was “the woman” mentioned in the previous sentence. She (Eve) will be saved through childbearing. Also in the Greek before the word childbearing there is the definite article which could then render the translation “She (Eve) will be saved (salvation is sometimes referring to temporal, sometimes eternal salvation) through THE childbearing. This could be THE childbearing of the Messiah through which all believers are saved, Eve included. Or it could be referencing “the childbearing” that was now cursed and involves pain and she was saved (or preserved) through it even though the pain was virtually unbearable. I don’t expect that this completely explains the passage to your satisfaction, but it might give you something to chew on that will help you be satisfied that God had something reasonable He was saying through Paul and not some new unique doctrine of female soteriology to be found here in this passage.

  7. Thanks so much, Rachel, for this thought-provoking post. There’s been a lot of discussion in the Christian blogosophere of late on modesty, and I think you managed to add an even deeper angle to the conversation. I’ll likely be following up with a post on this, which is part of the reason I decided to not buy anything new least year and am trying to continue the commitment in 2013.

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