What Does “Modesty” Mean? (Biblical Modesty, Pt. 1)

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As Christian women, the topic of modesty can be a conversation fraught with traps.

What does”modesty” even mean?

  • Do we all have to dress according to some standard of not drawing the gaze of the biggest creep in the room?
  • Or be like the most school-marm-y woman in the congregation?
  • Is it a matter of inches on our skirts?
  • Does it mean we all have to look like Ma Ingalls, June Cleaver, or a Jane Austen character?
  • Is it entirely a cultural thing (“that was then; this is now.”)?

How can we know?

The passage where this concept of ‘modesty’ is most clearly commanded to Christian women is found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10:

ESV: “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.”

NLT: “I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.”

Amplified Version: “I want women to adorn themselves modestly and appropriately and discreetly in proper clothing, not with [elaborately] braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but instead adorned by good deeds [helping others], as is proper for women who profess to worship God.”

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First, we should look at the word meanings.

As I researched the words used here, I looked to the original Greek, as well as the way various translations, common (dependable) commentaries, and faithful biblical teachers render it. I found the following definitions and phrases that help flesh out what this word means.

Read through this list slowly– maybe even out loud. Let these words take time to sink in, and swirl together so that the meaning will be more clear and robust to you. The word “modesty” carries the meaning along these lines:

  • with decency
  • modest apparel
  • adorn themselves modestly
  • appropriately
  • sensibly
  • seemly apparel
  • shamefacedness
  • sobriety
  • decent
  • well-ordered
  • sound-mindedness
  • “attractive in the right way”
  • “dressed quietly”
  • quiet and sensible
  • respectable
  • sensible
  • appropriate
  • proper
  • respect
  • show self-control and good sense
  • decently
  • with self-control
  • “dress with respect and right thinking”
  • with moderation
  • “show their beauty by dressing in appropriate clothes that are modest and respectable”
  • proper clothes that show respect and self-control
  • “suitable”
  • seemly
  • discreetly
  • “right and proper”
  • with decency and propriety
  • “decent and appropriate clothing”
  • modestly and sensibly

I was so thankful for the direction from this verse when we lived in a variety of cultures around the world. (From 2006-2011, we lived in China and Turkey, and travelled to Thailand and Egypt as well.)

The idea of “appropriateness” — learning to look around in each place to observe: what is “respectable clothing” here? — played a key role in helping me select and edit my wardrobe in each place we lived. This idea of “what clothing is unquestionably respectable in this place?” not only varied from culture to culture, but sometimes from neighborhood to neighborhood.

These ideas are still a key factor in helping me choose what to wear. The wisdom is applicable not only for different cultural settings, but also for all sorts of other usual and unusual circumstances.

Understanding this– dressing each day, and for each situation, in a way that is seen as respectable and appropriate — as my basis for modesty helped me develop a heart of wanting to defer to the people around me. Because the very idea of “respectability,” or appropriateness, is tethered to the collective view of whether or not something I’m wearing is suitable, fitting, well-ordered, and RIGHT, for the place/situation/activity.

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Among those translations, teachers, and descriptions, I found that modesty is NOT these things:

  • braided
  • costly
  • elaborate
  • expensive
  • fancy
  • showy
  • “very expensive”
  • plaited
  • gold or pearls, fine stones
  • draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair
  • “they should not make a show of themselves”
  • seductive
  • draw attention to themselves
  • “in a way that will make people look at them.”

These two concepts — what it IS, and what it IS NOT– lay a good initial foundation for a healthy understanding of modesty in our dress, attitude, and behavior.

Over the next three articles, we’ll dive in deeper to this Christian virtue of modesty.

 

IN THE COMMENTS: What thoughts and feedback do you have about the topic of modesty, based on these definitions and word meanings?

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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6 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    Looking forward to reading this series! Modesty has always been a confusing issue for me. It seems like such a grey area!

  2. Jess H says:

    Good start to a helpful series!
    The concept of “appropriateness” is so helpful. And as you say, it helps develop an “other-centred” attitude, rather than a “my rights” attitude, which seems so prevalent these days.
    I think on one side of the modesty coin is how our choices affect others, and on the other side of the coin is, where is my heart at? Because we can be wearing clothes that are appropriate for the context, but still have a heart of “I want everyone to look at me” or even “I want the attractive young men to look at me”.

    One question (that you may cover in part 2)… you have put jewellery and braided hair in the “not modesty” list. Are you saying that it is never okay to wear these things? Do you think that is what the passage is saying?

    • Jess Connell says:

      Hi Jess-
      I don’t really cover that here, but I would say this: from my reading, the emphasis is much more on the costliness and showiness of those items– the way that that would put an undue form of shame and division (by financial “class”) into the Body of Christ, as well as being immodest by way of calling attention to oneself.

      So- here in America, I do wear braids sometimes, and I do wear pearls sometimes, since in our culture these are not clear signals of a division between classes/financial groups.

      Do you have a thought on braids and pearls?

  1. May 3, 2017

    […] {In the first article in this series, we defined the word/idea of “modesty.”} […]

  2. May 8, 2017

    […] We started with what the word/idea of “modesty” even means. […]

  3. May 11, 2017

    […] We started with what the word/idea of “modesty” even means. […]

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