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When Modesty Becomes Vanity

"There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes, yet is not washed from its filth. There is a generation - how haughty its eyes and pretentious its looks." - Proverbs 30:12-13 (HCSB)

Debates over modesty in dress have arisen at one time or another in almost every sect laying claim to a position within Christendom.  These have ranged from debates among European Roman Catholics in regard to whether it was acceptable for women to dress as men in order to escape being raped by passing Christian Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land to wage war against the Muslims to a late 19th century debate within Methodism as to whether lace on a Sunday bonnet was too ostentatious if worn in the buggy on the way to the Meeting House.

The subject of these debates has not always been women.  In fact, a cold war has raged among various sects of Anabaptists for hundreds of years on the subject of men's facial hair.  Some argue that only married men should have beards while others say beards are a requirement as soon as a man is able to grow one.  It is not too dissimilar to the 16th century division within the Russian Orthodox Church which resulted in the separation of the Old Believers who adhere to the firm conviction that the altering of a man's beard is immodest and a grave sin.  

Oneness Pentecostalism has not escaped the modesty debate.  Even in the 21st century you are not guaranteed a singular standard of modesty within Pentecostal circles.  While it is true that a significant number of Oneness Pentecostals adhere to at least a few basic common views in regard to the subject, the variations within Apostolic Churches can range from the most basic (distinction in dress between genders is necessary) to the most absurd (metal framed glasses are vanity and sin).  It is so much so that, in some cases, modesty is not defined by the Scriptures at all but rather by a system of direct, divine revelation given by God to Christian Leadership within the local Assembly.  And while one cannot deny the right to and need for personal convictions, likewise the clear message of Romans 14 in regard to the subject cannot be ignored.  

But the purpose of this article is not to argue or even explore what is and is not modest dress but, rather, to address an alarming problem where clothing has become the extent of Christian teaching in regard to modesty.

"Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, 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, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening."  - 1 Peter 3:1-6 (ESV)

1 Peter 3:1-6 is a text commonly used to instruct Christians in regard to modest dress and it is appropriate to do so to a degree.  While it is true that the Apostle Peter mentions the issue of vestments, it should be noted that this is not the core subject being addressed.  Rather, the Apostle is giving advice to women who, in many cases, were living with unbelieving spouses.  Throughout Christian history the Church has been a dividing point within some families and the First Century was no exception to this rule.  Christ warned that His doctrine would cause familiar division (see Matthew 10:34-36) and this includes situations where one spouse follows God while the other does not.

The message of the Holy Spirit through our Apostle Peter was that women in these cases should be obedient to their husbands through respectful and pure conduct so that, in doing so, they might win their husbands to Christ.  As the English Standard Version says, "so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives" (1 Peter 3:1).  Yes, dress was an issue.  No, dress was not the only issue.  Conduct was a major issue in regard to defining modesty.  God instructed the Christian women of the First Century to disengage from preoccupation in regard to their outward adornment and to concentrate on adorning themselves with "the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:4 ESV).  Yes, there must be a taming of the outward but this is not to the exclusion of the need of the proper adorning of the inward.

Christian women in the 21st century are done a great disservice if they are led to believe that the only requirement to be modest is the length of their skirt, sleeves and hair.  Likewise, our Christian men should not be deceived into thinking that they are appropriately, Biblically modest because of the length of their pants, sleeves and hair.  The Bible speaks loudly in regard to all of these things and, yet, does not elevate them above the necessity for a modest attitude and modest behavior on the part of the Christian.  Modesty in dress is the adequate covering of one's body so as not to overtly attract, intentionally or unintentionally, the opposite sex in a manner which would cause lust and impurity.  This also includes distinction in dress between the sexes and the avoidance of ostentation in adornment.  Modesty could also be defined as "quietness, meekness, humility, appropriateness."  In other words, the exact opposite of the popular trend in modern culture.

Yet, these four traits are far too seldom superimposed upon Christian behavior.  In fact, one could make the argument that a doctrine has developed which says, in effect, the dress code is of greater importance than the moral code.  The beginning of conversion is internal.  The first works of the Spirit are internal.  The fruit of the Spirit is the outward demonstration of an internal change. Christians cannot allow themselves to become duped into believing that it is more important to change appearances before there is an internal change through the baptism of the Spirit.  Likewise, Christians are foolish to believe that the manifestation of outward change alone is indicative of an inward change.  An atheist can wear an ankle length skirt while refraining from cursing, drinking and adultery.

In short, there must be a change that goes "beyond the skirt."  If the inward man is not changed, anything done by the outward man is absolute vanity.

Oneness Pentecostals are often accused of being Pharisees in issues of modest dress.  This is, perhaps, the second favorite pejorative behind that of "Legalistic."  While neither is, in and of itself, true in regard to Biblical teachings regarding modest dress, the latter is most certainly true in an unfortunate amount of individuals in regard to modesty in general.  One of the Lord Jesus' most scathing condemnations of the Pharisees can be found in Matthew 23:27 where, after using the analogy of the foolishness of cleaning only the outside of a dirty cup or dish, the Lord calls them "whited sepulchers" (KJV) or, in more modern translations, "whitewashed tombs."  The comparison struck home soundly because of its complete accuracy: beautiful on the outside; full of death and corruption on the inside.

Consider why the Lord used such an example.  Matthew 23 begins with four condemnations of the Pharisees conduct: their hypocrisy (verse 1-3), the placing of heavy burdens on others that they themselves would not carry (verse 4), the performance of religious duties for show (verse 5,7) and the demand to occupy places of prominence (verse 6).  Beyond this, the Lord railed against the Pharisees with seven additional judgments while maintaining parallels between their correct and incorrect conduct:

1. Preventing others from entering the Kingdom while also not entering (verse 13).
2. Going to lengths to make a convert only to make him twice the son of hell (verse 15).
3. Breaking oaths sworn by God's Temple or the Altar but demanding fulfillment of oaths sworn by the gold in the Temple or the gifts on the Altar (verses 16-22).
4. Tithing the smallest grain of a spice but neglecting justice, mercy and faith (verses 23-24).
5. Preoccupation with cleaning the outside of a cup (verses 25-26).
6. Exaltation of external demonstration of religiosity and piety (verses 27-28).
7. The murder of righteous individuals through misplaced religious zeal (verses 29-36).

It is no wonder that some would hurl the accusation of Pharisaism against those who advocate modest dress while ignoring the matter of internal purification and sanctification.  There is no legitimacy behind any claim to holiness when an individual displays outward modesty while maintaining inward unrighteousness!  One may stand and boldly declare, "I am not ashamed of my long skirt, long hair and clean face."  But if this same individual is a gossip, their modesty is vanity.  Another may insist, "I wear long pants because I believe in holiness!"  Yet they find telling the truth to be a difficulty and, therefore, are not practicing holiness at all but, rather, vanity and self-deception.

Modesty in dress is absolute vanity if the inner man has not been freed from the bonds of sin and the desire to pursue sinfulness as a way of life.  One who is a liar, hateful, boastful, proud, unfaithful, conceited, condescending, rude, arrogant, forward, abrasive, impudent or boisterously insistent in regard to their own righteousness while condemning anyone not exactly like them has absolutely no right to claim to be following after Biblical modesty or holiness.  One who embraces such practices is accomplishing absolutely nothing by dressing in conformity with Biblical precepts.  In short, this individual's modesty has become total vanity and self-deception.

It is shameful to see Christians who believe their manner of dress somehow entitles them to walk in the world with their nose turned up at unbelievers.  No, a Christian should not be ashamed to be modest but they also should not invalidate their modesty with pride, haughtiness and self-aggrandizement.  Christians are who they are and do what they do because of the completely undeserved grace of God.  That should cause one to walk in the world carefully, circumspectly, cautiously and consistently while always maintaining the vivid memory of the unmerited favor of God given to them in the work of Christ Jesus at Calvary.  Furthermore, it should give the Christian an overwhelming desire to share their faith with others; not to stand over them with proud eyes, lifted nose and an elevated self-opinion.  

The mistake should  not be made, however, in thinking that Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees is applicable only to those guilty of "gross sins."  Spiritual lethargy, religious apathy and misplaced zeal are the threefold root of escalated manifestations of unrighteousness.  Indifference to prayer negates modesty as much as making a show of prayer.  Slothfulness in worship is as wrong as being demonstrative for the sake of being seen.  Spiritual lethargy is slowness in regard to spiritual things: prayer, fasting, Bible study, etc.  Religious apathy is indifference to religious duty: witnessing, giving of time and resources, etc.  Misplaced zeal is emotional fervor in incorrect areas: being judgmental, ridiculing in the name of God, etc.  It is incorrect to believe that these "small things" are exempted simply because an individual is dressed modestly.  They represent spiritual deadness and putting one's sepulcher on parade gains them nothing in the eyes of God.

Once a Minister was found to be guilty of a moral failure: adultery - deliberate and habitual.  The Minister was meeting with his mistress at a local hotel.  Both of the individuals claimed to be Christians and, quite sadly, each had their own spouse.  When the affair came to light and divorce papers were filed by the Minister's wife, the court depositions contained an interesting detail in regard to the affair.  On one occasion, after having committed the act of adultery, the adulteress took the remote control and turned on the television.  The Minister, having just committed adultery with the woman, took the remote from her hand, turned the television off and soundly rebuked the woman on the grounds that, "We don't watch television."  This man's "holiness" helped him not at all.

More specifically, on the issue of modesty in dress, there is the case of an individual who was found guilty on numerous counts of child molestation.  His guilt was beyond any reasonable doubt.  When incarcerated, the individual protested because he was forced to wear a short-sleeved jumpsuit in prison.  His special request for long-sleeved jumpsuits was based on his "religious conviction" that short sleeves were immodest.  This man's "modesty" helped him not at all.

These are two real and extreme cases which show a very real and common occurrence.  No amount of legislation against certain behavior can make an individual moral.  This is not to say that one can simply ignore Scriptural mandates in regard to behavior but, rather, that great emphasis must be placed upon the inward man lest that which is practiced externally become nothing more than vanity.  The three great enemies of the Christian (the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life - see 1 John 2:16) are not defeated through modesty in dress.  They are overcome by the purification and sanctification of the inward man.

Only by the washing of the inside of the cup can what issues forth from it be maintained as clean and pure.  A cup filled with dirt cannot pour out clean water no matter how clean the outside of the cup is.  But when the inside is purified, that which comes out is clean.  Likewise a Christian must be thoroughly washed inside by the work of the indwelling Spirit of God which will ultimately produce a change in behavior rooted in a change of heart and mind.  An individual cannot cling to their outward demonstrations of piety and justify their ungodly attitudes and actions thereby.  There is no legitimate moral superiority founded strictly upon external manifestations of modesty.

It is absolutely correct to insist that the New Testament mandates modesty.  Men and women professing themselves to be Christians are instructed to dress in a way which is modest, maintain attitudes which are modest, deal with one another in modesty and, in all things, display a modest spirit.  It is completely incorrect to say, "I'm proud to be modest."  The very notion is ridiculous.  Instead, the mantra of a Christian in regard to this subject should be, "I strive to be modest and am humbled by the call to live so."  Christians are not to be ashamed of the way they dress.  Likewise, they are not to flaunt it and, in doing so, transform modesty into vanity.

Modest dress is not a Christian Merit Badge, a spiritual Purple Heart or a Certificate of Achievement; a modest spirit is.  A modest spirit creates a beauty within the Christian that radiates brighter than any article of clothing one can wear.  There is something intrinsically beautiful about the joy in a Christian's smile, the hope in a Christian's eyes and the modest manner in which a Christian conducts himself or herself while walking humbly with their God.  The loud, boisterous, "in your face" type of Christian is, quite frankly, a shameful exhibition of the antithesis of Christ-likeness.  If there is a point of pride that a Christian should take, let it be in the person of Christ and let any boast be made in Him that He may be glorified.

There is no such thing as a modest gossip or a modest liar or a modest brawler or a modest hypocrite.  The prayerless are not modest.  The unfaithful are not modest.  The hateful are not modest.  The proud, boastful and arrogant are not modest...and no degree of dress can make them so.  Yet there is a modesty which God desires for His people.  It begins inside first.

Agur said, in Proverbs 30:12, "There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes, yet is not washed from its filth."  Let it not be said that this Christian generation would be guilty in exalting external modesty to a point of using it to justify spiritual filth.  "There is a generation," he would go on to say, how haughty its eyes and pretentious its looks" (verse 13).  Let this be considered next time one feels compelled to raise one's head in self-righteousness so as not to look upon those esteemed as less holy, less modest, less worthy than one's self.  Let this generation be one which learns to live modestly so that it might never be said, "In that age, their modesty was vanity."


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