December 18, 2017

Are Leggings Modest?

Don Johnson

A friend of mine launched a bit of controversy on his Facebook page when he made a comment about ‘leggings,’ expressing his opinion that such articles are immodest. The discussion that ensued debated whether such items were in fact immodest. The debaters also discussed whether it was the responsibility of women to protect the weakness of the male mind when it comes to their clothing choices. As in all such conversations, a lot of opinions were thrown around, with little appeal to the Scriptures.

The discussion got me thinking. What is immodesty and why is it a concern for Bible-believing Christians? How should we apply the passages that call for modest clothing? Ultimately, can we as Bible-believers determine whether a particular style is immodest by definition and call for a ban? (The article in question, ‘leggings,’ could serve as an example.)

The Bible addresses female modesty primarily in two passages: 1 Tim 2.9-10 and 1 Pt 3.3-5.

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. (1 Tim 2.9-10)

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: (1 Pt 3.3-5)

I won’t be able to do a full exposition of these passages, but I think we can see some things quite clearly from the admonitions they contain. First of all, there is a legitimate biblical concern about adornment. In both passages, there is a call for a spiritual adornment, the ‘hidden man of the heart,’ so modesty is certainly about attitude, but it is also something that is expressed by physical accoutrements, i.e., the things a woman might wear. She is to forego ‘broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array’ (1 Tim) and ‘that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel’ (1 Pt). [We should note that Peter is not saying ‘no’ to apparel, but ‘no’ to making apparel the thing that beautifies the person.] From 1 Timothy we see that part of the concept of modest (spiritual) adornment is ‘modest apparel’ or ‘proper clothing’ (NASB). The full understanding of these passages must include both the spiritual and the physical. The kind of clothing a woman wears is related to the kind of spirit she displays.

So far all we have established is that clothing is related to modesty, we have not defined this modesty very much at all. In fact, there are some who will affirm both these passages but will seemingly completely ignore any actual application of it to their physical persons — their dress is barely distinguishable from the world, seemingly any style, no matter how immodest, is acceptable to people who will affirm the validity of the concept of modesty for Christians.

The strong vs. the weak argument

One concept that is appealed to in these discussions is the notion of ‘the weaker brother’ and the admonition not to put any occasion for stumbling before another. In this case, it is pointed out that men (in particular) are stimulated visually and clothing that is suggestive in any way can present a temptation to them. Christian women ought, therefore, out of love for the brethren avoid putting any temptation before the men. I think there is some merit to this argument as a motivation for Christian women, but there are some problems making the argument conclusive. It assumes that the garments are neutral, and the problem is merely with the male mind and it grounds its appeal for authority outside the Scriptures themselves.

The strong brother/weak brother argument, rooted in 1 Corinthians 8, assumes that there is nothing wrong with the item itself. In 1 Corinthians, the issue is meat offered to idols. Paul acknowledges that the meat is just meat; there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Nevertheless, some people, having a conscience about the idol-meat, find it a problem spiritually to participate. For their sake, Paul says, I will abstain. In other words, the problem is with them, and because I love my brother, I will give up my point on this issue rather than cause him a spiritual problem. So using this argument with clothing assumes that the clothing itself is neutral, it is just the overly sexualized minds of men that is the problem.

I think it is true that men are stimulated by sight more than women are and that immodest clothing can place temptation before them. The world is well aware of the power of the exposed human body. They don’t use bathing beauties dressed in parkas and mukluks to sell anything in ads on television. So the fact that men are stimulated by the way a woman might dress has some bearing on the whole argument. I think Christian women ought to take it into consideration. The fact is, I have been shocked at the expressions of Christian women who basically say, “I don’t care what your problem is, I won’t limit my freedom for your sake.” This hardly seems to be the adorning of that ‘meek and quiet spirit’ that Peter calls for.

In making this argument, we should note also that we are appealing to the observations of human science when we say that men are more stimulated by sight than women. I happen to think that is true, but I don’t know of any Bible passages that explicitly spell this out. Making this argument loses some steam if we attempt to invest it with divine authority, it seems to me.

Refining the question

Further, the thing we want to get at is this: is there something morally wrong with certain types of dress? Can we say leggings are immoral? Any number of other types of apparel could be examined — we could talk about everything from necklines and slits in ballroom gowns to bikinis and other forms of swimwear. For this discussion, I want to think about leggings because it is the item my friend raised and they have this characteristic: they cover (in a way) everything over which they are worn. Can we say something like that is immodest, i.e., morally wrong, not appropriate for Christian women?

The Old Testament and Nakedness

The Old Testament can help inform our understanding about this. There is a term that is repeated 54 times in the OT, translated often as ‘nakedness.’ It is famously used in Leviticus 18, beginning in verse 6 and addressing this subject:

None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.

In this chapter the term probably is a euphemism for inappropriate sexual relations, but it has become a euphemism because it is describing something that should be kept entirely private from you, it is not even an option. It is permissible to marry anyone outside your near kin and ‘uncover their nakedness,’ but not those closely related to you. That is to be hidden, private.

The term is used to describe whatever happened to Noah after the flood when Ham ‘saw the nakedness of his father.’ (Gen 9.22) Obviously this was a shame to Noah and had something to do with him being uncovered in some way, his other sons carefully and respectfully covering him up.

The term is also used to describe regulations for the Levitical priesthood in their exercise of their office. They were to wear ornate robes, but they were to take care that in their work not to allow their ‘nakedness’ to be ‘discovered’ on the steps of any altar (Ex 20.26). To prevent this, they were commanded to wear, in addition to the holy garments, ‘linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach’ (Ex 28.42). They were not to disclose or reveal, even to the stone steps below their feet, their private parts, though hidden from public view by their robes.

Finally, there is a related term in Genesis 2 and 3 that informs us about how God intends for us to behave with respect to nakedness. Man was created ‘naked’ (Gen2.25) and they ‘were not ashamed.’ But after the fall, the man and the woman were suddenly aware of their nakedness ‘and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons’ (Gen 3.7). They were chagrined and embarrassed, though man and wife, they had a sense of a need to cover themselves. One wonders, who was there to see? Why did they need covering, especially before each other?

When God confronts Adam, the man confesses, ‘I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’ (Gen 3.10). He suddenly had a sense that he must cover himself, and overwhelmingly so when God was present. In fact, he knew his own feeble attempts at covering were inadequate, so he hid himself.

Some Observations

Since the fall, man is conscious of the need to cover himself. It is not merely a problem for women, but something required of both men and women. Nakedness, one’s ‘private parts,’ are to remain just that, private. In fact, the term ‘private parts’ is a euphemism and is used by itself to even cover up the actual terms for the things we mean. Everyone knows what we mean by private parts, but we are using it as a cover word because nakedness is shameful which prompts us to be careful about even using the actual terms our language provides.

The problem with immodest clothing is that it reveals that which we inherently know to ought to be kept private and hidden. To the degree that clothing reveals that which should be hidden, to that degree it is immodest. Clothing may technically cover the private parts, but in our depraved society, even that which covers enough to be legal often reveals much that still should remain covered. I don’t think there can really be any argument about that. You can go to any beach in the summertime and find both men and women clad in such a way as not to be charged with public nudity, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Christian to agree that such garments actually covered anything.

There are degrees of exposure, surely, that clothing offers. Sometimes that which ‘just covers,’ but is ‘oh, so close’ to revealing that which should be hidden is offered as a means of flirting with the limits of propriety. Or else it is just going over the line… a little…

Now I am not going to advocate a return to floor length skirts or other forms of clothing that completely cover. I agree that the Christian needs to work these principles out spiritually and apply them physically. One is accountable to God primarily for covering nakedness, and secondarily to one’s fellow man.

That last point is extremely important, however. Remember who Adam was conscious he needed to cover up for. It was God. He had a sense he needed to be covered in public before his own wife (their ‘public’ of two), but even more so, he had the sense that it was a shameful thing now to be caught naked before God.

So What About Those Leggings?

Well, the believer will have to work this out for himself or herself, but the concept of modesty is rooted in this fact of the fall: we are now naked and ashamed without covering. Do leggings cover, or do they reveal that which should be kept private?

In a fine new commentary on 1 Timothy, Presbyterian pastor William B. Barcley says, “In Paul’s day, ostentatious dressing by women was associated with immorality and loose morals, and was often seen as a form of seduction. But today too, the way a woman dresses says much about how she wants to be known and what she wants to draw attention to, whether the outward and physical or the inward and spiritual.”[1] Note this: ‘what she wants to draw attention to.’ We could put it this way: ‘What she wants to reveal.’

Personally, I think leggings reveal too much. I wouldn’t allow my daughters to wear them. You will have to decide for yourself, of course.

And as to that matter of your ‘love for the brother,’ yes, I think that you should bear in mind the weakness of my flesh in what way you choose to dress. It is a matter of Christian charity. However, not everyone who wears leggings is going to excite any man’s baser nature. But they will still reveal what ought to be kept private. Modesty is for them too. It is for all of us, before God, to cover those parts of the body that should be kept private.

UPDATE – Another friend adds the comments below, I thought they were worth adding to the article, note especially his definition of immodesty:

I think Christians in general including fundamentalists have dropped the ball on this one. Over the years I have had to bite my tongue because it seems like the younger fundamentalists don’t have a problem with going to the beach with their families. I still, for the life of me, can’t figure out what a ‘modest bathing suit’ looks like in today’s terms.

Seeing that Paul used the issue of jewelry to discuss the concept of modesty, it is clear that immodesty isn’t just a case of causing a brother to lust. Immodesty is the desire and attempt to cause undue attention to one’s person (physical features, wealth, social standing, etc.).

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Barcley, 1 & 2 Timothy, Evangelical Press, 89. []

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