I grew up in a church that handed out a modesty checklist to young girls. Some of the rules were:
- You can’t wear shirts with spaghetti straps unless you wear something under it or over it.
- You cannot wear any prints or fabrics that drew attention to your chest.
- Your tank top straps should measure four fingers wide or else pitch it.
- You must always wear board shorts over the bottoms of any bathing suit (even a traditional one piece).
We tried to follow and enforce these rules. And it all bred severe criticism, judgment, legalism, and self-righteousness. We began to assess ourselves and other girls through the narrow lens of externals, believing it to be the standard of a godly woman. From this list, it seemed as if this was the norm of a godly woman. The list above was not a biblical standard, but a man-made one. If only godly womanhood and gospel living were as easy as checking off a list that some church ladies made up. But it’s not. Godly womanhood and gospel living stem from the heart, and only God can change hearts. We can only change our outfits.
Putting on certain outfits or behaviors does not make someone godly. Only when the gospel changes our hearts can there be practical, visible change. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1, when God awakens our hearts to the power of the gospel, our outward behavior changes.
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul describes two hindrances to prayer: disunity and immodesty. He calls the men to unity when he says to pray without anger or quarreling (vs.8). Then he calls the women to modesty when he says they should “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (vs.9). This section of Scripture is in 1 Peter 3:3-4 where Peter exhorts the women not to let their adorning be merely external: “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear” (vs.3). Paul and Peter are not saying women can’t try to look beautiful or presentable or not have any interest in fashion. Instead, they are saying not to let that be the focus of our lives. Both Paul and Peter say that a woman must adorn herself in good works (1Tim. 2:10) and the “imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). Godly women value these things over fashion trends and external beauty. A woman whose heart is changed by the gospel will consider with discernment what her heart motives are with her outfit choices.
Do we seek God’s glory or our own? Do we desire for God to get the attention or that it be directed only at us? Is there some inordinate desire we are trying to fulfill by the way we dress? These are harder and deeper issues that a checklist will not reveal. While heart-probing isn’t itself the problem, what is, is honestly acknowledging our real motives which are the result of the Holy Spirit probing our hearts, convicting us of sin, and redirecting and reorienting us to Christ through repentance for the purpose of righteous living. It is to this point; Paul brings us back to, again and again, because, he knows the gospel cannot be reduced to a mere checklist.
You see all of this is more about our hearts than our bodies, though our bodies are not insignificant since they too are to be affected by the gospel. What we put on our bodies shows what we believe about the gospel. But if we check ourselves, and our hearts are right before God, no man can come to us with any list in his hand to condemn us. Man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). The gospel breathes freedom. It also tells us we can’t wear whatever we want, since we have been bought with a price, and are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Bitter quarreling is a hindrance to prayer because it is evidence of placing ourselves first; instead of the Lord. A person whose heart is changed by the gospel will put God and others first, with the evidence of it being modesty and unity. We must throw away the checklist and, like Paul, use the gospel as a standard of measurement. Only the gospel can reach the heart to make effective change and give us freedom in Christ, who alone fulfilled God’s checklist and covered it in and with His blood.