Christians, Modesty, Lust, and What the Bible Says

Christians, Modesty, Lust, and What the Bible Says

The modesty debate: this is a perennial controversy that rears its ugly head every year in American Christian circles. The 2024 debate was ignited a little earlier than usual due to a calendar featuring women self-described as “conservative.” Oddly, it was one of the least provocative photos featured (of “Josie: The Redheaded Libertarian“) that really got things going on Twitter. While the controversy took libertarians by surprise, it was really not a surprise to any of us who’ve been in conservative Christians circles for any significant length of time. So, what does the bible say about Christian women, modesty, and lust?

Christians, Modesty, Lust, and What the Bible Says

What the Bible says about Modesty

“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” – 1 Timothy 2:9-10 NASB

This is the most cited passage concerning modesty in Scripture. If you only read a segment of the sentence, then you may think this is an open and shut case, but that’s not how language and communication works. You have modifiers in the sentence, telling you what is meant by certain terms. In this case, “proper clothes” is modified by the terms “modestly and discreetly,” which is also in turn modified by, “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments” (the prohibition), “but rather by means of good works as is proper for women making a claim of godliness,” (the command).

None of what is stated here alludes to hemlines or body parts or skin. The greater context of the chapter is saying nothing concerning sexuality.

The Greek word for “modesty” here is αἰδώς which generally means, “a sense of shame or honor, modesty, bashfulness, reverence, regard for others, respect.” This word only appears one other time in Scripture, and that’s in Hebrews 12:28,Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Here the αἰδώς is translated as “awe.” 

There is one other place where ‘modesty’ occurs in some English translations, 1 Corinthians 12:23. According to the ESV, this verse reads “… and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, …” The problem here, is that there is no word in the original Greek that can be translated as ‘modesty’. The NASB translates the verse this way instead, “… and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, …” This appears to be the more consistent translation when comparing to the interlinear Greek.

Why would the ESV use the word ‘modesty’? It seems pretty obvious that the ESV translators saw this as an opportunity to speak to “body parts,” because that’s what’s being discussed here unlike the passage in 1 Timothy 2.

But the bigger question is whether ‘modesty’ belongs here. And given the NASB rendering, it almost appears as though ‘modesty’ (as shamefacedness, which is the sense being argued in the modesty debate), is contradicting how the interlinear Greek delineates it – as ‘presentable’. This begs a question about what Scripture means by ‘modesty’ and how we are to treat those “unpresentable parts” of our body. We’ll come back to this.

What the Bible says about Lust

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-29

RELATED: Is the Billy Graham Rule Above Reproach?

This passage is Jesus speaking to the reality that lust is caused by the one lusting – specifically in the eye. Additionally, Romans 1:24; 6:12; 13:14 and Eph 2:3 affirm that lust is caused by “the flesh” of the one lusting. Scripture never says that lust is caused by the object of one’s lust.

Its notable to point what lust actually is, because it’s not mere sexual attraction as such. The Greek word for lust, ἐπιθυμέω, has both a negative connotation (as in covetousness) and a positive connotation (as in desire, cf Matt 13:17; 1 Tim 3:1; Heb 6:11). Lust is a desire for something not given to you. In the context of Matt 5, it’s a desire for a woman not given to a man. But the desire can be for something good; 1 Tim 3:1 (“This is a true saying, if a man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”) demonstrates how certain desires are not in themselves sinful.

Sexual attraction between one person and another not given to them (eg. desiring someone else’s spouse, or if you’re married, desiring one not your spouse) is a sinful (covetous) form of ἐπιθυμέω. But sexual attraction between a man and a woman, otherwise eligible for marriage, is not itself sinful.

1 Corinthians 7 does not condemn the sexual attraction between unmarrieds  – though, the forbidden thing, of course, is acting upon the attraction by engaging in intercourse outside of marriage. 1 Cor 7 is speaking to what are “better” circumstances in given situations concerning marriage and singleness. In this case, it’s suggesting that marriage may be better than leaving that passion unfulfilled. (This isn’t a universal rule however).

Sexual attraction for one’s spouse is also a very healthy and Christian thing given the book of Song of Solomon.

The issue at stake is when one sexually covets that which has not been given to him (or her). And in this case, the responsibility of covetousness, lays in the eyes (literally) of the beholder.

Let me restate this more emphatically: Scripture never once claims that modesty is the remedy to lust, or that a woman’s body, skin, or clothing causes lust.

What the Bible says about Christian Women

Does this mean women can walk around naked? What is the ground for women covering any part of their body?

This question inevitably is asked by those who have staked their belief about modesty being about sexuality and not about flaunting wealth viz 1 Tim 2 speaks to. And it makes sense that if this is your grounding, that you then wouldn’t see any other grounding in Scripture for women clothing their nakedness. Given that 1 Tim 2 does not provide the ground for covering nakedness as such, then it’s absurd to think it’s the only grounding or that Scripture doesn’t provide different grounds for clothing nakedness.

The human body was created naked and called good.

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; … 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good … And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” – Genesis 1:27-28; 31; 2:31

It’s worth starting out with the reality of nakedness before the fall. This is important for understanding why humans were covered after the fall. Before the fall, the human body was created good. It was not a source of shame. In fact, Genesis 2:31 is cited in terms of godly marriage after the fall, where husband and wife (even as sinners) can be naked and unashamed in front of each other.

Eve covered her nakedness of her own volition

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” – Genesis 3:7

To be clear, what Adam and Eve were ashamed of was their disobedience before God, ie. their general fall into sin. Their shame wasn’t in terms of sexual attraction or lust towards one another. No one had to tell Eve to cover her nakedness. She (and Adam) did it of their own volition.

God covered (Adam and) Eve as a foretelling

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” – Genesis 3:21

Adam’s and Eve’s fig leaf coverings were insufficient. God made them coverings from animal skins. There is a depth of Biblical theology here that I won’t get into, but it’s an allusion to God’s grace and the protoevangelian (announced in Gen 3:15). The covering of the human body by God here may be said to be a precursor of 1 Cor 12:23, making “our less presentable members become much more presentable, …” Obviously, the body is still covered, but the reason for it is not sin or mitigating the sin of someone else. It’s for the reason God’s love and grace bestowed undeservingly on fallen humanity. This is the proper ground for Christian women (and men) not walking around naked.

What does God call women to wear (and not!)?

  • “… glorify God in your body.” 1 Cor 6:20
  • “… with good works …” – 1 Tim 2:10
  • “… the hidden person of the heart with … a gentle and quiet spirit,…” – 1 Peter 3:4
  • “… fears the Lord …” – Pr 31:30
  • “… discretion.” – Pr 11:22
  • “For the Lord sees not as man sees: … the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Sam 16:7
  • “Strength and dignity are her clothing, … “ – Pr 31:25

There’s a notable juxtaposition between 1 Tim 2:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:23: In 1 Tim 2:9, where the modesty referenced is concerning avoiding flaunting wealth, Paul is pretty specific. But in 1 Corinthians 12:23, where it speaks to part of the body, Paul is pretty vague. What counts as an “unpresentable part?” Throughout history, every single part of the female body, from head to feet has been considered by someone to be “unpresentable.” So, if modesty is about shielding part of the woman’s body from men, then by what standard are we to measure?

When Scripture is not specific to details of Christian living, the matter is adiaphora – bearing in mind what women are explicitly called too, examples above. This is the part that makes men struggling with lust very uncomfortable with. But the reality is, women are not responsible for your lust – you are!

What about the weaker brother?

The late Dr. R. C. Sproul gave a lecture on the Tyranny of the Weaker Brother (1 Cor 8) On the one hand, we are free in Christ in matters of adiaphora (Romans 14), on the other if something we are clear in our conscience is not clear in another’s conscience, we are called to use discretion. This is in accord with the verses cited above. The idea here, however, is a particular person in a particular circumstance. And it’s not a means to universalize a concession because of whom might, unknown to you, fall under a similar struggle. This is how legalism arises.

Not to mention, discretion is a particular action of thinking through given circumstances. By universalizing a concession you make with one brother, you undermine the very essence of our liberty in Christ and thus the call to discretion in the first place. By universalizing it, you’ve removed the necessity for discretion.

And I’ll remind once again, even in 1 Cor 8, which uses food as the example of causing sin, in Matt 5 we see from Christ, that it is the eye that causes lust. In other words, not the object but the subject of the lust.

The problem with the whole modesty debate

So much of the problem with the modesty debate is that certain people are trying to make the Bible says something it does not. Alleged proponents of Biblical modesty are eisegeting the text which is a major error in biblical interpretation. They want to project on the English words a 21st century cultural understanding. This is not how one exegetes – tries to figure out – what the text is intended to say. This not only causes us to ignore what the text intends to convey, but (especially in this case) it creates in our Christian brothers and sisters something that isn’t there. It’s really a reprehensible and anti-Christian thing to do.

There are certainly those who struggle with lust; and this is not an exclusively male problem … women struggle with this too. And while the nature of lust creates social, moral, and legal hazards – that hazard is the person with the lust problem, not the object of their lust. It’s not the person they’re lusting after that poses the hazard.

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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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