Modesty: Go Ahead and Get Naked, or Better Yet, Don’t


I don’t like to brag about it, but HOLY CRAP AM I MODEST.

The photo at the left is an example of what you’ll see me wearing if you ever go swimming with me. I’ll be dressed from my shoulders to my knees. It’s not that weird — at least, I don’t think so — just a pair of trunks and an Under Armour shirt. It’s a way of covering up without (I think) looking like a total tool, fashion-wise.

Why do I dress like that? Because I value modesty — and I think the historical Christian virtue of modesty applies to men as well as women. In modern evangelical culture we tend to freak out when our daughters are in bikinis but we don’t bat an eye at the fact that our sons wear exactly half as much at the beach.

The other day (well, four weeks ago, but here at The Western Branch we’re always On The Cutting Edge of Last Month®), Kimberly Hall, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife in Austin, posted a piece on her personal blog entitled “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl).” The essence was one fairly typical of modern evangelicalism — “We need to guard our men’s eyes from sexy women” — and all things considered, she stated her case in a fairly reasonable way:

But, if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent.  If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

My naked boys can't handle your immodesty!

You can tell it’s a Christian blog because only the MEN are half-naked.

Not entirely unreasonable. She’s just trying to shield her sons from temptation. Unfortunately for Hall, though, she also chose to pepper the post with half-naked pictures of her sons (since removed) — treating us all to a good bit of male semi-nudity, along with a strong dose of irony and a cartoon of a stereotype of evangelical subculture — namely that we tend to treat female sexuality as something dirty and shameful, but we’re barely aware that male sexuality is, like, even a thing.

Even that wouldn’t have been so bad, though, except that women’s rag Jezebel found out about it and all hell broke loose:

Why would you devil harlots want to control the Hall boys’ minds? Are you whores and witches?

Official motto: "If we wrote about any other subculture the way we write about evangelical Christians, we'd be on an SPLC watch list!"

Official motto: “If we wrote about any other subculture the way we write about evangelical Christians, we’d be on an SPLC watch list!”®

Ha ha, Jezebel! It’s so funny how you, like, take the things people say, and then exaggerate them till they’re stupid! Is there no end to your wit? (And are you taking applications? I think my trained monkey is — I mean, I am — just what you’re looking for in a writer!) It’s really too bad the Internet’s professional trolls got to the piece, though, before the rest of us did, because there’s a lot there that’s worth discussing.

For instance, what is modesty?

Well, hmm. Those of you who think that it means “Cover thine vile boobies, harlot!” will be surprised to know that St. Paul doesn’t mention hiding flesh at all the one time he addresses modesty:

…likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

And St. Peter actually says something very similar:

For a guy who's into modesty, he sure plated his icon with an awful lot of gold.

For a guy who’s into modesty, he’s sure got an awful lot of gold leaf on his icon.

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

When the Bible talks about modesty, it pretty much always means “Don’t dress like you’re rich” — so how did we get from there to “Don’t dress like you’re sexy?”

I imagine it has something to do with these words from Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

Look at this guy acting stupid. Totally tempting me to anger.

Look at this guy acting stupid. Totally tempting me to anger.

So lustfulness is a sin. Okay — but why do we put the blame on the one being lusted after?

Six verses earlier, Jesus says this:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

I think we can all agree that this meme isn't getting old at all.

I think we can all agree that this meme isn’t getting old at all.

It’s the exact same formulation as the condemnation of lust that follows it, and yet we almost never talk about a Christian responsibility not to anger others, or not to act foolish — presumably because the sin belongs to the one who is angry, not the one who angered her. Just as the sin above belongs to the one who is lustful, not the one who inspired the lust.

But the real problem, I think, comes from the evangelical tendency to muddle the Law and the Gospel — to confuse that which condemns with that which saves. When Jesus equates lust with adultery — and when he equates anger with murder — his ultimate point is not “So you’d better try really, really hard not to lust and/or get angry!” The purpose of the Law is to drive the listener to the Gospel, as Paul tells us:

As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one;…For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:10,20)

I have literally no idea what's going on here.

I have literally no idea what’s going on here.

The Gospel has broken the power of the Law. All of creation — including the human body and its sexuality — has been redeemed in the death and resurrection of Christ. We are no longer chained to the Law, and we don’t need to live in fear of it.

Coincidentally, the same day that Hall posted her piece, Caryn Rivadeneira posted a piece on Christianity Today’s blog Her.meneutics (a blog that, if you don’t read it, you should) in which she embraced the need to teach her children about the wonders of the human body:

[Screenshot courtesy of the Seymour Butts Foundation]

Like when we see a woman breastfeeding on a commercial or friends hugging in a hallway, and we understand that bodies are meant to bond and nourish.

Like when we see athletes vaulting or running or diving or grunting as they whop a ball across a court and understand that bodies are meant to be pushed and to be strong.

Like when we see dancers leap and twirl and bend and flow and understand that bodies can create art, express emotion and desire and pain.

Or like, for instance, when SpongeBob breaks his butt again and is threatened with the “iron butt” we see that bodies are breakable and sometimes (well, butts always) really funny.

Google: The only search engine not afraid to tell the truth.

Google: The only search engine not afraid to tell the truth.

Good point, Rivadeneira. Butts are always really funny. But more importantly, a Christian ethic of the body demands not that we disregard the sexual aspect of the body, but that we celebrate it — along with every other incredible bodily aspect. Sexualizing the body is a sin and an error — but it is just as erroneous and sinful to desexualize it.

There’s a good chance you’re sitting there thinking, “But then why do you wear a shirt when you swim, Mr. Everything-has-been-redeemed?”

Clearly, the guy with the jewel-encrusted mitre is the best one to ask about modesty.

Clearly, the guy with the jewel-encrusted mitre is the best one to ask about modesty.

The answer, I think, is that modesty is valuable as a personal discipline, and I do see the value in directing the eyes of others to that which is important. I hope the Catholic Church won’t mind if I borrow its catechism for a moment:

The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2524)

You can tell this is a Christian blog, because only the men are half-naked.

But then, when you got what I got, you can’t help it.

In other words, modesty is about much more than not giving people boners (or, if you’re a strapping adonis like me, lady-boners) — just as it’s about much more than not making people jealous of your Gucci…handbag? Gucci makes handbags, right? Or something?

Modesty is about presenting yourself as an ensouled individual, someone who bears the image of God and takes that responsibility seriously. Modesty means understanding and proclaiming that there is a deeper reality beyond the physical, that we’re more than just collections of molecules bumping into each other (sexily).

And that’s why modesty is valuable. Not because it keeps teenage boys from thinking about sex (nothing could keep teenage boys from thinking about sex), but because it refocuses human interaction: away from the individual, and toward the God reflected in all of humanity.


And may I humbly suggest:

Mama, Creepy Kids, and Six Degrees of Humanae Vitae

I am an Ass, part II: The Sign of the Cross

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Shambling Zombie Propped Up By Decadent Copyright Law

9 thoughts on “Modesty: Go Ahead and Get Naked, or Better Yet, Don’t

  1. You mention above:

    “In modern evangelical culture we tend to freak out when our daughters are in bikinis but we don’t bat an eye at the fact that our sons wear exactly half as much at the beach.”

    Nobody seems to take issue with pierced ears on toddlers. Temporary tattoos are in quarter machines, candy wrappers, and Cracker Jack box (to name a few). Society tells our young people it’s ok to adorn your body. Why are piercing and tattoos given a free pass? And no, a religious tattoo doesn’t make it alright.

    The bible has a few things to say on that body topic.

    Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord. ~ Leviticus 19:28

    And for good measure:

    Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

    • I don’t think we’re going to agree much on this one, Stine. The prohibition of tattoos you reference comes from the Levitical purity code, which the Apostles declare not to be binding on Christians in Acts chapter 15. That said, I personally see a conflict between tattoos and personal modesty, so I wouldn’t get one — but there’s plenty of room for Christian freedom here. I might also direct you to Paul’s words in Romans 14:13-14:

      “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”

      • Then couldn’t you apply the same words to modesty?

        “that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean”

        And I’m not saying that I’m passing judgement on anyone, just that society seems to be picking and choosing what they crusade for. Heaven forbid we show smoking on television, but it’s ok for boobs to make an appearance. Let’s look at things black and white only or the whole crayon box. This gray thing isn’t working out. (I believe there’s a verse about being lukewarm that I should post, but eh.) Not everyone can get an award.

        And I’m rambling.

  2. Don’t worry, the uber-convervative crowd wants boys to wear shirts swimming too. Not to burst your bubble or anything. Girls are expected to be covered shoulder to knee as well. I went to plenty of homeschool swimming parties where there was modesty a-plenty. I agree with what your saying about modesty. That word however, just causes me to recoil and shudder at all the crap I was taught on that topic as a child and teen. And your suggestion of boys needing to wear shirts at the pool does a bit too, if I were to be completely honest. Good article overall though, still sorting out all my thoughts on this subject.

    • What I was trying to convey in this piece is that modesty is best understood as a personal discipline, not a set of rules for everyone. I choose to wear a top when I swim, but I’m not trying to prescribe it for everyone. Christian piety starts in the heart, and it can be expressed externally in many different ways. As I said, we’ve been set free from the Law.

  3. Luke, I want to say that I like your post. It is my conviction that modesty is an untaught principle in the modern church. Your point about it being about material jealousy is quite true, as Peter mentions “the wearing of gold,” and is a general call for simplicity and goodness. I will say though, that it *Is* also about your onlookers. The Christian prescription for love is to love your neighbor as yourself, and as such, we ought to desire the best for others, ie, prevent them from falling into sin. In the case of modesty, we dress modestly for the sake of our brethren and sisteren who may be tempted, either to lust, OR covetousness. Remember the advice of the apostles James and Paul, the first who said “Resist the Devil,” and the latter who said, “Flee youthful lusts.” Thats because we resist the devil in the power of Christ, but the lust in our hearts we must FLEE from, and in a world of hypersexualization, its hard to run ANYWHERE. Therefore, for the sake of love, one ought to dress modestly, men and women. I will leave with a great reading suggestion by the great Tertullian “On the Apparel of Women.” To get a nice 2nd Century look at the complete doctrine. In in he says, “Ought not a modest person dress modestly?”

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