For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on the latter question.
While inappropriate clothing is an issue that can affect both sexes, we tend to emphasize the dress of the fairer sex more frequently. This is probably because A) ladies typically put more emphasis on their clothing, B) ladies have more “areas” that need to be covered and C) men tend to be more visually stimulated and thus more susceptible to the sin of lust, which (fair or not) is very much related to what ladies are wearing.
The issue of what ladies wear to church is apparently not a new one, because Paul addresses it in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, “in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.”
The first thing I would point out here is that there IS a standard! For some ladies, the very idea of even raising the question, raises their hackles. But, clearly, the Bible tells ladies they are to dress in modest clothing, with propriety (decency), and moderation (discretion). The notion, then, that there should not be any sort of standard for what we wear to church is simply unbiblical.
Now, of course, the fun begins when we attempt to arrive at a common definition for “modesty.” Who gets to set that standard? For some denominations, pants are immodest. Some would say bare shoulders cross the line. Some would say shoulders are okay, just watch the neckline. What about length of skirt? To the ankles? The knees? Or the old fingertip rule? (This is the rule at my daughter’s junior high school, so I would hate to think the church is any more liberal than that.) I once heard of a culture that considered ankle bones to be the most erotic part of a woman’s body!
The definition of modesty changes from culture to culture, and from generation to generation. What’s considered immodest in Missouri may not be so in Mozambique. What’s deplorable to a 72 year-old may be conservative to a 27 year-old. How in the world do we ever go about arriving at a consensus? Because in terms of a specific dress code, it doesn’t exist. At least not in Scripture.
If we look for biblical principles that may be a help to us here, may I suggest 1 Corinthians 8? In that passage, some Christians are eating meat at their regular meals that had previously been sacrificed to idols in pagan religious ceremonies. From these Christians’ perspective, meat was meat! They knew the idols weren’t real and they didn’t worship the idols, so who cares? No need to let good meat go to waste! However, other believers at Corinth who had come out of that pagan background took exception to this practice. In their minds, they very much connected the meat to the idol, and so it “defiled their conscience” (it upset them) to see their brothers and sisters in Christ chowing down on tainted meat (so to speak).
Now here’s the key – How did Paul instruct this first group of believers to respond to the concerns of the second group of believers? After all, the first group of believers wasn’t doing anything wrong! Paul flatly says eating or not eating makes them no better or no worse. So what does he tell them? “Shake it off! It’s none of their business! They need to worry about themselves!” NO! He tells them, “Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling block to those who are weak… Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Did you catch that? No liberty is worth making our brother stumble. Not eating steak and not even wearing spaghetti straps.
To be sure, the men folk have a responsibility in all of this as well. Contrary to what is often depicted, men are not helpless over where our eyes settle, or the thoughts we entertain in our mind. One person has said, “It’s one thing to have a bird land on your head. It’s another thing to let it build a nest there.” The sin of lust doesn’t happen because we see a woman in a low cut blouse. The sin of lust happens because we take that second, prolonged glance, and then allow our imagination to run from there. In other words, guys, the sin of lust is on us. We’re not Neanderthals that are slave to our base instincts. We have the power, through the Holy Spirit in us, to look the other way. To think on other things. Anyone who blames their lust on a woman’s dress isn’t being real with themselves.
At the same time, ladies, would you please help us out a bit? I’m not sure a lot of women really understand how powerful the temptation of lust is for men, and how visually oriented most men are. And here’s the thing, ladies… There are solid Christian men in your church who genuinely want to honor you and the Lord by not lusting with their eyes, but they are weak! (Just like the Corinthians!) For you to wear a revealing dress in front of them is like sitting down with a friend trying to quit Mountain Dew, popping the tab on a can of that sweet nectar, taking a loud slurp, and finishing with a big “aaahhh.” Then turning to the friend and saying, “You don’t mind, do you?”
Now at this point, most of us have a little voice in our head that says, “So that’s how it is, huh? I just let other people dictate what I do, right? What about MY feelings? What about MY preferences? What about MY rights?” Make no mistake, dear Christian, that is the voice of your flesh. In contrast, the voice of the Spirit is “gentle, willing to yield.” Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “in lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” When we dress with the mind of Christ (or do anything for that matter) we will always consider the effects our decisions have on others.
So, in closing, how do we apply these principles in the church? I’m certainly not advocating for any kind of “modesty police.” The last thing we need are a bunch of Barney Fifes running around the church measuring girls’ skirts. Nor do I as a pastor feel comfortable approaching a lady and saying, “Can we talk about your plunging neckline?” No, this is the kind of thing on which there simply needs to be mutual accountability. Husband, if your wife is about to wear something to church that you know will have men’s eyes looking at her in an impure way, you need to (gently) address that situation. (And vice-versa where it applies.) Likewise, friends need to hold friends accountable. Older Christians need to tenderly direct younger Christians.
Confession time: As a pastor, I once wore shorts to VBS. An older man pulled me aside after it was over that night and privately told me that when I sat down you could see way too far up my leg. Was it embarrassing at the time? Horribly! Am I glad he did it? Absolutely. He didn’t make a big deal out of it. I knew he meant it in love. And I learned a valuable lesson. (No one wants to see their pastor’s upper thigh!) There needs to be more of this kind of accountability in the church!
May I add one more thing?... In fairness, my wife tells me it can be nearly impossible for a woman to even find modest clothing to purchase. She also tells me that ladies’ bodies change, and sometimes what others consider “indecency” is simply clothes that don’t fit right, and the lady is no more happy about it than anyone else! I add that just to say this… Let’s not judge one another’s hearts or motives in our dress. Let’s just be determined to consider others in what we wear, and encourage one another in this area, in a spirit of Christian love.