MODESTY: What Does the Bible Teach?

By Harry R. Osborne

Is there any thought of modesty in this day and age? A few years ago, you could stay away from the beach and avoid the exhibitionism. Now it seems like you cannot go around the block without being confronted by someone in an outfit which used to be associated more with a porno-graphic movie than public attire. What in the world has happened to the concept of decency?

Like most movements towards shamelessness, the mass media has aided in the degeneracy. On the covers of a few recent magazines at the check-out stand in the grocery store, I have seen the following bold printed leads:

 “Is it lingerie or clothes? You decide!”

 “Clothing or lingerie, who cares? Its pretty!”

 “Summer’s Sexiest Clothes”

 “The good, the bad, and the see-through”

Is it any wonder we are surrounded by a bunch of Madonna clones in our time? An article by John Leo in U.S. News & World Report entitled “Haute porn, hard-core couture” chronicled the growing influence of pornography upon the fashion world. It is disgusting!

On magazine covers and television shows about the latest fashions in swimwear, the leads are all similar. They speak of “sexy,” “revealing,” “eye-catching,” “hot,” and “provocative” styles. A recent survey showed that the average span of fabric between the armhole and leg hole on a one-piece bathing suit is between four and six inches. It is clear they were not designed that way to facilitate swimming.

Some interesting poll results were reported in the December 1982 issue of Psychology Today. They asked people, “What is your primary reason for going to the beach?” Of the men, 69% said it was “to watch the opposite sex.” Of the women, 40% said it was “to be seen.” That which was being shown and watched is very obvious, given the attire typical of the beach.

The Bible clearly condemns such lustful displays. It instructs “that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shame fastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment” (1 Tim. 2:9). Let us examine a few of the things said about that which characterizes “modest apparel” and that which conflicts with it.

Shame fastness

The Bible says the modest clothing that should be worn is associated with “shame fastness.” What does that mean? The original word from the Greek referred to a sense of shame or modesty which is rooted in the character. In other words, it is that inner decency which recognizes the lack of clothing to be shameful.

The word of God speaks of the lack of full clothing or “nakedness” as being shameful (Rev. 3:19; Isa. 47:3; 2 Sam. 6:20; Jer. 13:26). However, the Bible term “naked” does not refer to nudity, but a lack of needed clothing to protect one (Jas. 2:15-16). The book of Job speaks of one who “stripped the naked of their clothing” (Job 22:6). How could one strip the clothes off of a person who was already nude? Thus, the “nakedness” which is shameful is not just total nudity. Isaiah spoke of the uncovering of the thigh as resulting in nakedness being uncovered (Isa. 47:2-3). Since many modern fashions totally expose the thigh, how do you think God views them? “Shame fastness” is that which would cause one to blush if seen without being fully covered. It is a rare quality in our time! However, it is a quality demanded of those who would please God.


The Bible also says that modest clothing is associated with “sobriety.” The sobriety under consideration is not solely speaking of being free from intoxication due to alcohol, although that may be involved, but is describing a state of sound judgment. W.E. Vine makes these comments (Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, IV:44-45):

It is that habitual inner self-government, with its constant rein on all the passions and desires, which would hinder the temptation to these from arising, or at all events from arising in such strength as would overbear the checks and barriers which “shame fastness” opposed to it.

“Sobriety” would keep one from wearing that which is designed to be the “sexy,” “revealing,” “eye-catching,” “hot,” and “provocative” styles currently in fashion. It would see such as the “attire of a harlot” (Prov. 7:10). It is a needed characteristic today!

Clothing of the Rich

While “shame fastness and sobriety” are the allies of modesty, the New Testament depicts the clothing characteristic of wealth as that which opposes modesty. Paul cautions against being clothed in “gold or pearls or costly raiment” (1 Tim. 2:9). Peter warns “of wearing gold, or of putting on fine apparel” (1 Pet. 3:3). Were these writers merely prejudiced against the wealthy or is something else involved?

To answer that question, we need to find out what kind of clothing was the “costly raiment” or “fine apparel” of the New Testament time. This is not difficult since a great number of historical sources clearly and unanimously tell us about the fashions of the day. The following is an extended quote from Robert Collen ‘s book, East to Cathay: The Silk Road (pp. 44-46), dealing with the introduction of silk clothing into the first century Roman kingdom:

Silk in its natural state clung to the female form in a way that was infinitely more pleasing to the eye than Parthian banners. But Roman ladies did not stop at that. For one thing, there was not enough pure silk to go around at first. And, anyway, it was not sexy enough for those freewheeling days. So, they unraveled the close-woven Chinese fabric and rewove it into a flimsy gauze which left little to the imagination. So unlike Chinese silk was this Roman adaptation that the Chinese, when they eventually saw it, named it “ling,” assuming that Rome was growing a special product of its own. For the average Roman girl-watcher those were golden years, but the moralists raised a fearful outcry. “I see clothes of silk, if clothes they can be called,” wrote the philosopher Seneca (4 B.C. – A.D. 64), “affording protection neither to the body nor to the modesty of the wearer, and which are purchased for enormous sums, from unknown people.” Pliny told of garments that “render women naked.” Other writers waggishly referred to clothes “made of glass.”

Thus, the expensive clothes of New Testament times were the revealing clothes that lacked modesty. It was not a prejudice against wealthy people and the luxuries they could afford which caused the Bible writers to condemn “costly raiment.” It was the indecency associated with such clothing that caused it to be condemned.

Late in the first century, Clement of Alexandria spoke of the same silk fashions as “fabrics foolishly thin, and of curious texture in weaving.” He went on to speak of such as follows (The Instructor, II, XI):

For these superfluous and diaphanous (transparent – HRO) materials are proof of a weak mind, covering as they do the shame of the body with a slender veil. For luxurious clothing, which cannot conceal the shape of the body, is no more a covering. For such clothing, falling close to the body, takes its form more easily, and adhering as it were to the flesh, receives its shape, and marks out the woman’s figure, so that the whole body is visible.

Clement goes on to say that such clothing was associated with “vice” and not with “modesty.” The second century Tertullian described such as “garments which, light and thin, were to be heavy in price alone.” He referred to them as “prostitutionary garbs” appealing to “the pro-vocative charms of apparel.” Tertullian also noted that such clothing was the polar opposite of “modesty.”

In our time, the same is true. Modest clothing which covers the body is relatively inexpensive when contrasted with the price of the provocative styles in vogue among the fashion world. One could buy several decent changes of clothes for the price of one fashionable swimsuit. The centuries have changed, but the principles have not! Such fashions are no more tolerable to God today than they were when he condemned them through the New Testament writers. Let us not take our direction from the sinful fashions of our day, but from God.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 13, p. 10-11
July 7, 1994