Clothing is one of the top “legalistic” or “Pharasaical” topics – along with music – that is up for constant debate among our churches. Should women wear skirts or are slacks okay? Blue jeans? Must men wear ties? Should that be with or without a jacket? What color suits and dress shirts are okay? How about long sleeves, short sleeves, or . . . no sleeves? *gasp*
My seven-year-old daughter was recently confronted by a young boy of about the same age and was shamed for wearing a sleeveless dress at church. My teen daughters are confused about whether or not they should wear dresses or skirts for some or all activities. They have been told that clothing is incredibly important for Christians.
I decided, for the sake of my wife and five daughters, that it was time to take a deep dive into Christian apparel and modesty.
THE BIBLICAL ARGUMENT
The first time clothes are mentioned in the Bible is Genesis 3. Adam and Eve have sinned and realized that they were naked, and that that their nudity was sinful. This is an interesting precedent. Constant nudity, even among a married couple who were literally the only people around, is sinful.
The first article of clothing was an apron made of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). In verse 10, Adam was “afraid” of being naked. God asked who told Adam he was naked (verse 11) and ended up making “coats of skins” for Adam and Eve in verse 21.
There is a lot to unpack here, so I will attempt to be brief.
- There was not even a concept of nudity until Adam and Eve sinned, despite their being naked since their creation. This leads me to believe that the “knowledge of good and evil” makes nakedness a great concern even amongst married couples. Nakedness is a sin – even in marriage.
- The fig leaves represent the way in which we try to hastily cover our shame. It is inadequate on our own; man-made solutions usually are. However, the covering that God gives us is more substantial and adequate.
- It is not written in the text, but I have to wonder what animal was sacrificed in order to provide skins to cover Adam and Eve. It seems to me that a lamb is the obvious choice, which is a wonderful spiritual application of how Christ’s sacrifice covers our sin to the satisfaction of God.
Nakedness is a sin, but how serious of a sin is it?
In Genesis 9, Noah and his family had just touched dry ground again after the flooding of the Earth. Noah got drunk on wine (the forbidden fruit?) and lay in his tent naked. His son, Ham, looked upon Noah’s nakedness while the other brothers walked backwards to cover him up.
This violation of merely seeing a naked body was serious enough that Noah ended up cursing Ham’s descendants (verse 25).
It is because of these strong indicators of nudity being a sin, that many church folk believe so strongly on “modest apparel” – especially for women.
The one and only time in the entire Bible this phrase is used is 1 Timothy 2:9, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;”
In this context, it appears that “modest apparel” is more related to the extravagant use of jewels, expensive clothing, or stylized hair than nudity.
The only time the word “modest” is used at all in the Bible is in this verse. The word, “modesty,” is not used at all – yet this very concept of modest apparel is so dogmatic that it can actually split a church.
So, if we are to use the Bible to define this phrase – the only conclusion we can come to is that “modest apparel” has nothing to do with skirts, pants, tight clothing, sleeve length, or even nudity.
Again, the first mention of Godly clothing in the Bible is Genesis 3:21. The Biblical word used is “clothed,” therefore, it is appropriate to look into some other times when that word was used.
The next mention is in Leviticus 8:7 in which the (male) priests were clothed with robes. 2 Samuel 1:24 addresses the (female) daughters of Israel being clothed in scarlet – which does not indicate the style, but color of the garments. In 1 Chronicles 15:27, David was clothed in a robe. In fact, the Bible is pretty clear that robes were the style of choice throughout the entire Scripture. In fact, the glorified bodies of Christians and Old Testament saints alike will be adorned by robes (Revelation 6:11).
Clearly, the Biblical choice for clothing is a robe. Yet, we do not wear robes today.
I would argue that robes were common place in all of the cultures from Ancient Egypt to Israel, Greece, and Rome that are discussed throughout the Bible. Thus, they are not merely religious garb, but culturally appropriate as well.
Modern Christians do the same. They dress in clothes that are culturally appropriate. The reason American men wear suits to church is because that is the norm when attending a special occasion. Men wear suits to weddings, funerals, movie premiers, award shows, court, and when meeting a U.S. President. It is formal wear.
It is not spelled out in the Bible. Christ never wore a suit. Paul did not know how to tie a Windsor knot. They might do so if they were walking around in this country at this time, but that just furthers the idea that clothing styles are cultural, not Biblical doctrine.
Another Biblical word for clothing is “attire.” There are only 3 mentions of this word in Scripture.
- Proverbs 7:10 “And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart.”
- Jeremiah 2:32 “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? yet my people have forgotten me days without number.”
- Ezekiel 23:15 “Girded with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldea, the land of their nativity:”
First, a harlot has attire. Second, a bride has attire. Third, attire does not necessarily mean an outfit.
These are important distinctions. They show that a person can indicate something about their status through their attire – whether that be clothing or in some sort of ornament or adornment other than clothes. A bride, for instance, has a veil. This would mark her as a bride.
The Bible does not make a distinction as to whether or not this is actual clothing or accessories, and neither should we. However, we can better understand that attire is an outward expression of profession or position.
This term is used 57 times in the King James Version of the Bible.
Its first mention is as part of a number of gifts given to Isaac’s future wife, Rebekah, in Genesis 24:53. We next see it used when Rebekah puts Esau’s raiment on Jacob to deceive Isaac and steal his brother’s blessing.
As with attire, raiment was often used to signify a person’s profession or position. Kings wear different raiment than the poor. After mourning, sackcloth was removed for clean raiment. We are to wash our raiment. And, in the book of Revelation, we believers will be dressed in white raiment that we already know will be robes.
With so much emphasis being put on skirts, it is worth seeing what the Bible has to say about them.
The first mention is Deuteronomy 22:30, “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor discover his father’s skirt.”
In fact, there is not one mention of a female in all the Bible wearing a skirt. It is almost exclusively men’s apparel.
Would those dear, Bible believing Christians who are so dogmatic on “modest apparel” wear a robe or a garment with a skirt as our Biblical forefathers once did?
Of course not, because they also adhere to the social norms of the cultures in which they live.
I have talked with some Christians who go by the “men look like men, and women look like women” mentality based on Deuteronomy 22:5, which says ““The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”
While this is a solid principle, it again becomes contextual. As I mentioned before, men and women in ancient times wore robes. There were obviously some other indicators of their gender – whether that be adornment, haircut, or something of that nature.
In a modern context, we can usually tell a lady who wears jeans and t-shirts from a man because of their body shape, the cut of their clothing, and their adornments.
Those who are truly attempting to be androgynous or cross dress are an abomination.
THE CULTURAL ARGUMENT
There is no Biblical argument in support of ladies being relegated to dresses and skirts, or men wearing suits and ties. Thus, there really is only a cultural argument. Because cultural standards change over time and across different countries, it becomes difficult to take a dogmatic approach. However, we can still be practical in these matters.
My father once put it this way, the church is the house of God – the King of kings. If the Queen of England or the President of the United States invited you to their estate, what would you wear?
This is a compelling argument, for sure.
The only problem many of these concepts is the arbitrary nature of them.
If we were born in India and went to meet with the Queen or President, we would likely not wear the same clothes that an American would – because cultures are different. Formal attire in one part of the world is not the same in another part.
A Muslim woman – arguable the most modestly dressed person on the planet – might be covered head to toe in a robe with a Niqab or Burka that reveals next to no skin whatsoever. Not even the staunchest Baptist would go that far.
Isn’t it ironic that the most Biblically dressed people are Muslims?
This was a day at the beach just about 100 years ago in the United States. Most people were fully clothed. The woman in black was wearing a swimsuit. Notice that the level of “modesty” at the beach in 1901 exceeds even that of your average pastor’s wife at church in 2021.
There was a point in which the skin of an ankle or wrist constituted “nakedness.” We are now up to below the knee and above the elbow being acceptable. Our forefathers (and mothers) would think ladies nowadays were dressed in the attire of harlots.
This is why an historical argument falls on its face. Our Founding Fathers wore powdered wigs and stockings – neither of which are found today (thank goodness). Ladies used to wear corsets and girdles along with cages under their dresses that distorted the shapes of the female body (to the detriment of their health in many cases).
Fashions change, styles change, and cultures change. We cannot base our choices of church attire based on historical trends.
As I said, historically speaking, the idea of nakedness has changed. Churches have “compromised” in that they allow for short sleeves, though not necessarily sleeveless dresses, which would have never been allowed in Victorian churches.
The other extreme in this era is that the tightest, least amount of fabric that still covers genitals is considered not nudity. String bikinis, thongs, and speedos are all “okay” on the beaches these days. We would obviously never allow our choir members to dress like that on a Sunday morning – which is a slippery slope fallacy whenever someone accuses you of this extreme when suggesting a woman can wear slacks at church.
That being said, where do we draw the line? Nakedness is a sin, but we must define nakedness based on culture and preference.
The same can be said of modesty.
The other question is whether or not the context changes our mindset. Should we wear what we do to church regardless of the situation, or should we dress for the occasion?
In other words, should we wear suits and dresses to the grocery store? To the bank? To the beach?
To be consistent . . . yes. To be Biblical – wear your robes.
So let us take the extremes. Nakedness means zero clothing or covering other than what your own body provides. Modesty is covering your body in a way that it becomes shapeless and invisible at all.
The Bible allows for robes with men having uncovered heads. I do believe that, at the very least, heads, faces, and hands were exposed. The flesh itself is not naked.
The Bible also has an interesting statement on nakedness in Isaiah 20:4, “So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”
The fact that there is a delineation between being naked and having “their buttocks uncovered” causes me to wonder if one can wear an undergarment and still be considered naked. This would lend credence to the argument that underwear and certain swimsuits that only cover genitals might be considered nudity by the Lord.
If that is the standard, then any Christian perusing Instagram should be ashamed of themselves and repent for their sins.
If we understand that showing some skin is not nakedness, but only covering genitals is considered to be as naked as wearing nothing at all, we can assess that proper “modesty” is somewhere in between.
We must either go with Biblical precedent of wearing robes (for both men and women) or the Biblical precedent of “nakedness” based on cultural norms. I propose the latter.
We again run into the problem of arbitrary line drawing, but my response to that is to appeal back to our own cultural norms. Because I am an American and typically attend Baptist churches, I do believe that men wearing suits and women wearing dresses are ideal for Sunday morning worship.
However, I would never be dogmatic about it. I go by the “Sunday best” mentality – wear your best clothes, whatever they may be. Just try to avoid wearing the attire of “an harlot.”
We Christians must also understand that not everyone shares the same definitions of modesty and harlot attire. We MUST be graceful when someone comes to church in shorts and a t-shirt or a dress that might be too tight. This is where we men need to learn to avert our eyes and focus them on the Lord.
We MUST control our fleshly lusts. As a man, I know from experience that we can look upon a woman, regardless of their outfit, with lust.
The imagination is a powerful force. Women who dress provocatively to attract men often misunderstand the power of the imagination (that was a “freebie” – as my pastor often says).
If you are a man in church who believes that women should dress in shapeless dresses in order to not cause men to lust – you are a fool in denial of the depths of your own lust and lack of self-discipline.
Women who wear pants are no more or less modest than those who wear skirts or dresses. The same rules apply – be wise in your attire. Super tight jeans and super tight skirts elicit the same responses. The same for loose fits.
By the way, for those who are in the “dresses for all occasions” (including sports, which I find absurd) crowd – have you ever walked up the stairs behind a lady wearing a dress when a breeze comes by? Have you ever watched a young girl trip and accidentally open their legs as they hit the ground?
Sometimes pants come in handy.
In the end, you are trying to please God and give Him the glory in all things.
That is why women are to dress in “modest apparel” in 1 Timothy 2:9. It is so that YOU do not receive the glory of your beauty. YOU are not to be the center of attention. Gaudy diamond rings, golden necklaces, or jewel encrusted bracelets are just as inappropriate as wearing a pair of skinny jeans when the Lord is not being glorified.
The same goes for men. Wearing a skin-tight dress shirt or an attention seeking watch can take away from God’s glory. Designer shoes, colorful socks, and expensive cars do the same.
THE WRAP UP
This is a debate that will likely rage so long as there are human beings inhabiting our churches. Someone always believes their preferences are doctrines – and that is simply untrue.
We Christians need to be graceful and Godly – and that is based on our attitude more than our attire.
Sure, clothing is important. It is the outward expression of the inner self. People who are wealthy wear wealthy clothes. People who identify most with their preferred music genre often dress accordingly.
As Christians, we identify with Christ. That often means standing out from among our peers, but we must do so in a way that allows for God to have the glory.
If we have to explain to someone that our designer clothes are because of God’s blessing, then we might consider why our clothes themselves do not tell the story without our words.
There was a time in this country when suits and dresses were the norm. Wearing them to church was as common as doing so at the grocery store, work, or even at home in many cases. Standing out for the sake of standing out is not the same as standing out to give glory to God.
I do believe we focus too much on the outward appearance in our churches. We most often make women feel “less than” because of how they dress. We keep them from sitting in our choirs or teaching Sunday school just because of choosing a pair of comfortable slacks over a dress.
We too often attempt to judge the heart based on attire. That is God’s job, not yours. Your preference is not doctrine – and it is most likely not even Biblical.
Cut each other some slack(s).