Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel
R W Glenn and Tim Challies , Cruciform Press , 2012, 106 pp.
If the Holy Spirit was my personal shopper I wouldn’t have a problem. Long pants: modest. Short shorts: immodest. Long sleeve shirt: modest. Plunging neckline: immodest.
Modesty seems obvious, and would be simple if I could just get the right skirt length and be done with it—unfortunately the heart issue is more complicated. This is what Tim Challies and RW Glenn explore in Modest.
The key shape of the gospel that Challies and Glenn highlight is that Jesus brings comfort and call (p. 39). He brings comfort, because in Christ there is no condemnation. His grace is soothing balm like no other. He heals sin, guilt and shame. There is absolute certainty of his love and acceptance. Jesus also calls, with a grace that transforms us, teaching us to say no to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14). So, should we go on sinning? The logic of the gospel demands an emphatic, “By no means!” Jesus Christ is saviour and Lord.
Well, except for my idolatrous heart. Modest diagnoses a worship problem at the heart of immodesty. Idolatry is the underlying sin behind all sin. Outward disobedience is the fruit not the root of the problem. Idolatry makes empty destructive promises abhorrent and hurtful to God. Without the gospel my innate idolatry will distort any attempts at obedience.
Idolatry is at the root of immodesty, because we replace God with ourselves, or other’s approval, or…, well, anything really. The solution is not simply to obey a set of commands, but we need to have the gospel of the Lordship of Jesus transform our lives to bring about obedience.
This book helpfully points out that modesty exceeds the scope of my wardrobe. Modest seeks to give the gospel maximum impact. Modest attire for a tropical holiday will not be the same for a job interview. Modesty can be expressed in all times and all circumstances by all people, regardless of your gender and wardrobe taste. It’s an issue for all of us (not just pretty girls!), because love must always be expressed appropriately for the situation. This book defines modesty as a form of love and respect for my neighbour, sensitive to her cultural and situational context.
This means, of course, that cultural engagement is a critical element of working out what modesty is. Modest outlines three false paths that try to engage culture: first, demonization, a rejection of all culture as corrupt; second, idolization, the selection of one particular moment in geography and history as acceptable culture; third, divinization, the acceptance of all culture. Challies and Glenn want to tread a middle path that neither whole-heartedly embraces culture nor rejects everything. Culture is simultaneously broken and beautiful, but is to be entirely transformed by God’s redeeming work.
So I thoroughly appreciate the insistence that the ultimate arbiter is the revealed word of God: “There are some biblical lines we ought never to cross” (p. 70). As it critiques a divinization of culture Modest tells me there are “biblical standards for decency, propriety, lewdness and sexual intimacy” (p. 47). Respect for culture—modesty—is not permission to slip into other areas of transgression. One can be entirely modest yet unchaste or impure or proud, none of which are acceptable.
Yet I found the statement that “culture around us will be wrong more often than it is right” (p. 73) a little confusing in the context of affirming respect for culture as a virtue.
Modest appeals to biblical foundations to justify respect for culture as virtue. 1 Timothy 2:9-10 is the key text:
Likewise also 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.
Paul is not condemning physical beauty as such, but “adornment that struts its stuff so as to call attention to itself” (p.19). The authors are also at pains to show that “our culture determines the way that modesty and discretion express themselves” (p.18). Culture controls the expression of modesty. In the same way that I love you differently depending on whether you’re my friend, husband, or boss, my modesty will express itself differently at home, at play and at work.
This is well and good, but then culture sneaks into the definition of modesty and not only its expression:
“Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”(p. 23, bold italics original)
This seemed a little shaky to me. Glenn and Challies point out that the word translated ‘modest’ in the ESV appears nowhere else in the New Testament, but considering other translations (and the underlying Greek) I noticed some related ideas: decency and propriety for starters. At the very least, there is more to explore in understanding biblical modesty. A single word need not exhaustively define a biblical concept when others contribute to the field.
I won’t burden you with the details of the Greek lexical study I went through;1 suffice to say that Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus use related words to explain the concept of appropriate and respectable conduct on more than one occasion. For example, the list of characteristics required of an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:2 include self-control and respectability, using (and mirroring) the virtue words related to modesty from 2:9. Similarly, Titus includes self-control not only in the list for overseers (1:8), but also for older men (2:2) and older women for the instruction of younger women (2:5). ‘Self-control’ seems to be sometimes, but not always, related to modesty in feminine contexts. It’s a right-mindedness that trains and disciplines itself in right behaviour; a reasonable, sound judgement resulting in prudence and moderation.
1 Peter 3 gives another account of feminine virtue with a word of comfort and hope for women vulnerable in their marriages: doing good lets these women beautify the gospel in a particularly feminine way:
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, 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. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands.” (1 Peter 3:3-5)
These brief excursions suggest that this virtue does not find its primary context in cultural norms. Modesty comes not from the expectations of society, but from the behaviour that is fitting for saved people. Modesty strikes at pride and idolatry head on, not obliquely through culture.
Modesty sits among virtues that adorn the gospel and beautify Christ. We’re modest when we’re aware of our dependence on God for every breath, every ability, every finger, toe and, curve in between.
Thinking about modesty in these terms challenges me to wise up and get my priorities straight, to value God’s approval before the approval of others, to value Jesus’ reputation before my own. This will transform how I use my body and my abilities. I won’t flaunt my grades, nor athleticism, nor the latest gadgets, nor the promotion in order to put others down and draw attention to myself. I won’t seek attention of men who are not my husband. I won’t boast of home or children or talents that are mine only as a gift from my Father. I will discipline myself to avoid the excesses that might tarnish my Lord’s holy name.
My frustration is that it feels like, in the end, despite all the talk of grace and gospel obedience Modest has simply shifted the goal posts from an arbitrarily drawn hem line to a limit drawn through cultural standards. There’s plenty to like about this book: it’s really helpful to set obedience in the context of the gospel not rules; it’s a call to love whole-heartedly and be transformed by Christ. This book highlights that modesty must be culturally appropriate or it may not be modest, and very usefully expands it beyond dress sense. But I’m unconvinced that the biblical concept of modesty is fully explored.
- If you must know: αἰδώς, κόσμιος, σωφροσύνη, with links to κοσμέω and σωφρονίζω. ↩