Relativity in Dress Codes?

By Mike Willis

I have frequently heard members of the church argue that the styles of dress worn by the ladies are considered modest or immodest on the basis of what is accepted by society. They argue that if society recognizes mini-skirts, halter tops, bikinis and other swim wear, the bra-less look, etc. as acceptable dress, then Christians are at liberty to also wear these clothes. At some point, an individual must grapple with the issue of just what influence does society have on the dress codes.

One fact which needs to be emphasized at this point is that God’s revelation contains absolute truth; it is not relative! Regardless of what society might say about premarital intercourse, homosexuality, drunkenness, etc., God’s standard is absolute and final in labeling these acts as sin. Similarly, God’s commandments regarding the dress codes for women are fixed forever; they are absolutes-not relatives. The demands of God are not determined by what society wills but by what He wills! Yet, no one can deny that society has some influence on the accepted dress codes. But, just what are the limitations of that influence?

I would like to suggest that society influences the dress codes in exactly the same way as it influences any other item. That is, within the realm of items of clothing which are scripturally lawful, some items might not be expedient and, therefore, should not be worn by a Christian. Thus, society might impose limitation above and beyond those which God has imposed but it can never loose what God has bound. A study of the matter of eating meats reveals a specific application of this point in another realm. Since meats were approved by God, a Christian could “eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions” (1 Cor. 10:25). However, if a brother thought that to eat meat was wrong and watching his brother eat meat caused him to stumble, the Christian must quit eating meats in order to save his brother (1 Cor. 8:12-13). Thus, the influence of society, in this case, bound on the Christian limitations over and above those which God had bound. However, even though Corinth accepted fornication as morally acceptable with reference to the Temple prostitutes, God still condemned fornication and adultery as sin (1 Cor. 6:9), despite the influence of the society.

Similarly, the society at Corinth believed that a woman should wear a veil in public places. “Writing in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, T. W. Davies says, ‘No respectable woman in an eastern village or city goes out without it, and, if she does she is in danger of being misjudged’ . . . . In the East, then, the veil is all important. It does not only mark the inferior status of a woman; it is the inviolable protection of her modesty and chastity” (William Barclay, The Letters to .the Corinthians, pp. 108-109). To the Christian women in that area, Paul commanded the wearing of the veil in keeping with their custom (sunetheia, 1 Cor. 11:16). Although the veil exposed nothing improper or not in keeping with a woman’s sense of shame, the custom of society bound over and above what God had bound. Society’s influence cannot loose what God has bound; it can only impose greater limitations than God has imposed.

The Guidelines

The guidelines of Christian dress are revealed in 1 Tim. 2:9. A person who claims to be a Christian must willingly submit to these commandments of the Lord. In keeping with this fact, a word study of the limitations sees in order.

1. kosmios is defined as follows:

Arndt and Gingrich: “respectable, honorable” (p. 446).

Thayer: “well-arranged, seemly, modest: 1 Tim. ii.9 . . .” (p. 356).

W. E. Vine: “orderly, well-arranged, decent, modest (akin to kosmos, in its primary sense as harmonious arrangement, adornment . . .), is used in 1 Tim. 2:9 of the apparel with which Christian women are to adorn themselves; in 3:2 . . ., of one of the qualifications essential for a bishop or overseer” (Vol. III, p. 79).

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: “In secular Gk we find this in poetry …. It describes one who disciplines himself and who may thus be regarded as genuinely moral and respectable. An essential part of the Gk ideal, namely, the element of the ordered, the controlled, the measured, or the balanced, is reflected in the idea of kosmiotes . . . Derived from kosmos in the sense of ‘order,’ then of ‘adornment,’ kosmios thus means ‘self-controlled,’ ‘disciplined,’ ‘well-mannered,’ ‘honorable.’ . . . In the NT kosmios is used at 1 Tim. 3:2 of a person: . . . the bishop must be . . . sober, well-behaved, honorable.’ The term has the same sense of ‘honorable, disciplined,’ in 1 Tim. 2:9, where it is used of the conduct of persons: women are to adorn themselves ‘in a decorous manner, with modesty and sobriety'” (Vol. III, pp. 895-896).

The word is translated by “modest, decent, becoming, proper, appropriate” in the various translations. The comments of William Hendriksen summarize one interpretation of the lexicographical data:

“Moreover, the argument employed by several commentators, to the effect that the adjective used in the original must here mean virtuous or honorable, because in non-literary sources it is used in that sense . . ., ignores the fact that it has that meaning when it describes the character of a person (just as in 1 Tim. 3:2). Such references are of little value when the adjective modifies a noun which indicates not character but ‘dress.’ Surely in the latter case the more literal sense ‘adorning’ immediately suggests itself. Women must adorn themselves in adorning that is, becoming attire . . . .” (New Testament Commentary, p. 106). If his observations be correct, the main thrust of kosmios is more nearly “orderly, well-arranged” than “behaving according to a standard of what is proper, decent, pure.” One observation seems to be in order on the basis of this comment: There is no religious reason or justification for a woman to neglect her appearance. Sometimes, one meets a woman who thinks herself to be super-pious because she does not “waste” her time taking care of her body’s appearance. This word requires that a woman not run around sloppy or let her looks deteriorate because she is just too lazy to take care of herself.

However, the comments of Hendriksen seem to be offset by these remarks from R. C. Trench:

“Keeping company as kosmlos does with epithets such as these, it must be admitted that an explanation of it like the following, `of well ordered demeanour, decorous, courteous’ (Webster), dwells too much on the outside of things; the same with still greater truth may be affirmed of Tyndale’s rendering, `honestly apparelled’ (1 Tim. iii.3). No doubt the kosmios is all this; but it is more than this. The well ordering is not of dress and demeanour only, but of the inner life; uttering indeed and expressing itself in the outward conversation” (Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 346).

If Trench is right, the traditional approach to the word is not far off. The definition given by Arndt and Gingrich (“respectable, honorable”) and by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament seem to confirm these comments. The context, as the study of the following words will reveal, confirms the conclusion that katastole kosmfo (modest apparell-MV) in some way is to reflect the character of the one wearing it.

2. Aidos, the second word, which is translated by “shamefacedness” in the King James Version, is defined as follows:

Arndt and Gingrich: “1. modestly of women . . . 1 Tim. 2:9 . . . 2. reverence, respect” (p. 21).

Thayer: “a sense of shame, modesty: 1 Tim. ii.9, reverence, Heb. xii. 28. . . .” (p. 14).

W. E. Vine: “a sense of shame, modesty, is used regarding the demeanour of women in the church, 1 Tim. 2:9. . . . ‘Shamefastness is that, modesty which is ‘fast’ or rooted in the character . . . . The change to ‘shamefacedness’ is more to be regretted because shamefacedness . . . has come rather to an awkward diffidence called sheepishness’ ” (Vol. IV, p. 17).

Our battle against sensous clothing needs to be waged on the basis of the implications of this word as well as on kosmios. If there was any doubt whether kosmios condemned the wearing of revealing garments, that doubt can no longer exist once a person considers the definition of aidos. If it should be granted that kosmios says nothing about the subject, the wearing of revealing garments would be condemned by aidos. Notice that the more recent translations use “modest” to translate aidos instead of kosmios. Read carefully Trench’s comments about the meaning of aidos as contrasted with aischune:

“This much of truth the distinction drawn above possesses, that aidos . . . is the nobler word, and implies the nobler motive: in it is involved an innate moral repugnance to the doing of the dishonorable act, which moral repugnance scarcely or not at all exists in aisehune. Let the man who is restrained by it alone be insured against the outward disgrace which he fears his act will entail, and he will refrain from it no longer . . . . Its seat, therefore, as Aristotle proceeds to show, is not properly in the moral sense of him that entertains it, in his consciousness of a right which has been, or would be, violated by his act, but only in his apprehension of other persons who are, or who might be, privy to its violation. Let this apprehension be removed, and the aisehune ceases; while aldos finds its motive in itself, implies reverence for the good as good, and not merely as that to which honour and reputation are attached . . . . To sum up all, we may say that aidos would always restrain a good man from an unworthy act, while alsehune would sometimes restrain a bad one . . . .”

Later, as Trench contrasts aidos and sophrosune, he said the following with reference to aidos:

“. . . it is properly the condition of an entire command over the passions and desires, so that they receive no further allowance than that which the law and right reason admit and approve . . . . ” (R. C. Trench, Synonymns of the New Testament, pp. 66-71).

These comments are particularly worthy of emphasis since we have witnessed the erosion of society’s moral influence and have seen the effect the change has had on the dress of Christian women, revealing that the sense of shame which they had was rooted in society instead of in their own character. A similar case of the improper rooting of one’s character could be demonstrated with reference to fornication. Men and women used not to commit fornication as frequently as they do now. However, with the advent of the “pill” and other prophylactics, compounded with society’s changed disposition toward illegitimate pregnancies, promiscuity has increased. The morality of the 1950’s, apparently, was more nearly rooted in society than in the individual character. A godly woman has her morality rooted in her character; she will not commit fornication or dress immodestly because it is wrong, even though society might condone the sinful acts.

Society is presently endorsing as appropriate apparel bikinis and other swimwear, halter-tops, short dresses, the braless look, etc. even though they expose one’s nakedness. If these clothes are not examples of clothing which would expose one’s nakedness and which, therefore, Christian women should not wear, will someone please design one which does violate this scripture! (On second thought, please do not design one; if you did, some of our good sisters would be wearing them and calling them “modest.”)

3. A third regulation, sophrosune, translated by “sobriety, sensibly, or self-restraint” is given by Paul in 1 Tim. 2:9. It is defined as follows:

Arndt and Gingrich: “1. reasonableness, rationality, mental soundness . . . . 2. good judgment, moderation, self-control” (p. 810).

Thayer. “a. soundness of mind . . . . b. self-control, sobriety” (p. 613).

W. E. Vine: “denotes soundness of mind . . . .” (Vol. IV, p. 44).

Again, Trench’s comments are useful. He said, “. . . it is that habitual inner self-government, with its constant rein on all the passions and desires, which would hinder the temptation to. this from arising, or at all events from arising in such strength as should overbear the checks and barriers which aidos opposed to it” (Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 72). Apparently, sophrosune acts as a bridle to the passions, controlling the desires to disregard God’s commandments.

4. A fourth guideline for dress is given which condemns an inordinate emphasis on one’s dress. It says, “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments” (1 Tim. 2:9). These words do not contain an absolute prohibition of the wearing of any of these items but of the excess. From this, one should learn that a woman can overdress as easily as she can underdress. Many a sister wears so much make-up, spends so much money and time on her hair, and spends such exorbitant amounts of money on her clothes that she lives in violation of this commandment.

The Decision

In selecting her clothes, a woman must ask if her garments comply with these guidelines, first of all. If they do, they are lawful; if they do not, they are sinful, regardless of what society in 1974 might say to the contrary! Then, she must ask if they ask in line with the accepted moral standards of her time and place. If they are, then the clothes are expedient. She can and should wear these types of clothes. This is the only way, that society has any, effect on the moral standards of dress.

If society decides that some things are, approved which stand in direct violation to any one of these commandments; the Christian should look at that fact in the same manner as he looks at the fact that society will look with no disfavor on homosexuality even, though God calls it sin. Society cannot loose where God has bound; it can only impose limitations over and above, what God has imposed!

Truth Magazine XVIII: 3, pp. 38-40
November 21, 1974