Modesty and Moderation

Modesty, surely a Christian virtue, is a middle-of-the-road word, implying holy moderation between two, equally problematic extremes.

Modesty in one’s self-estimation provides sufficient humility so that arrogance does not develop, regardless of success or prosperity, while also protecting against unrealistic self-loathing. Modesty accepts congratulation while deflecting flattery, maintaining a healthy mental balance that prevents both inflation and deflation of one’s confidence.

A modest person can prosper without needing to rub it in the faces of the less fortunate. He can be bright and articulate and blessed without lording it over others (see Galatians 5:26, First Timothy 3:6).

Modesty, however, is not only concerned with ostentation, but also overexposure. Applied to attire, jewelry, cosmetics, and hairstyles, modesty dares not draw attention through envy or lust, but is more determined to express a more worthy, inner attractiveness.

Modesty is a consideration in two of Paul’s letters, both dealing with our sartorial presentation.

He tells Timothy, “I desire then … 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” (First Timothy 2:8-10). His focus in this letter is shared by the apostle Peter, who wrote about believing women married to non-Christians: “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” (First Peter 3:3-4).

The apostles were concerned with ostentation, that Christian women should not become defined by what they could afford as external adornments, but that they be known, by their alien husbands and the broader community, for their personal virtues and imperishable goodness. Sometimes overdressing interferes with that silent message, by expressing materialism and arrogant wealth. The application surely does not prohibit wedding bands, hairbrushes, or tasteful garments, but warns against destroying a godly reputation with ostentatious displays of wealth.

Modesty, then, leads the believing woman to restrain her presentation if it creates a conflict with her profession of godliness. After all, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

Paul used the Greek word kosmios in addressing the women in Ephesus, a word defined as “well arranged, seemly, modest,” and indicating being attired and presented in way befitting the circumstances.

In writing to the church at Corinth, however, he approached the opposite side of modesty, that is, pursuing moderation where the temptation might be to underdress, so that, “our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty” (First Corinthians 12:23). Unpresentable parts are private and demand a healthy dose of “modestly, seemliness” according to Thayer’s definition of the Greek word there, euschÄ“mosynÄ“.

Unpresentable parts, those with mainly reproductive or excretory functions, merit greater concealment.

Modesty is the common theme in both of these situations. In the one, the danger is denying spirituality with an ostentatious display of wealth and material means. In the other, the peril is making an unseemly exposure of one’s private, unpresentable body parts.

Neither issue should be a greater concern than the other. Indeed, modern society invites indulgence at both extremes, whittling away at modesty as an anachronism in a highly sexualized, materialistic environment.

Christians who extol the nobility of sharing and having compassion for others might find that their moralizing is drowned out as they indulge their cravings at the department store and compete to own the most expensive suits, dresses, rings and bracelets. Simultaneously, the garments are designed to draw attention to the sexual potential of the body, inviting leers and catcalls, producing lust and incivility (see Matthew 5:27-31).

The goal of evoking envy among one’s own gender and lust in the opposite sex is inconsistent with any profession of godliness and a renewal of modesty is the only profitable solution (James 3:16, Romans 13:13).