Christian brothers: What does the Bible really say about female modesty and male lust?

A few days ago, a Utah pastor found himself trending on Twitter after he opined on the need for female modesty. Here’s what he wrote:

My first reaction was to agree. While trolling the Internet, I’ve definitely been known to react (privately) to immodest photos of both sexes with a “Good grief, put some clothes on!” or a “Dude, no one wants to see that!”

But then, it occurred to me that the tweet and its online defenders — while attempting to promote female modesty, which is a good thing — actually have ended up crafting an argument for modesty that isn’t entirely biblical. Let me explain.

I begin by asking: Exactly who was Sauve’s target audience here? Was he admonishing saved women, unsaved women, or all women? I ask because he addressed his tweet only to “Ladies” but signed it “Your Brothers.” He didn’t say “Christian Ladies,” so that strongly implies that he meant to address all ladies. But since unsaved women aren’t “sisters in Christ” to any “brothers in Christ,” the “Your Brothers” reference makes no sense. Maybe he was just typing too fast and didn’t even think about it.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume he was addressing all women, since he did reply to his outraged critics by citing the broader need for Christian sexual ethics. Fair enough. I’m all for both women and men keeping their clothes on in the public square, too. (As an aside, though, I did wonder where and why Sauve is seeing this proliferation of women in low-cut shirts and bikinis when you can so easily block, mute and adjust your settings on Twitter to avoid content like that. I don’t know the answer — only that this issue bothered him enough to elicit his tweet.)

His online critics, of course, had a much more hostile reaction to the tweet than I did. How dare you only lecture “ladies” on modesty? they objected. What business is it of yours what people wear? And where are your lectures to men on their sin of lust and their responsibility to “pluck out their right eye” if it causes them to sin, as the Lord Jesus preached in Matthew 5:29? Besides, how can you equally condemn a clickbait photo of a half-naked Instagram “influencer” and a photo of a happy new mom partially exposing her nursing-bra strap in a hasty rush to show the online world her precious baby? They’re clearly not the same thing.

Sauve’s supporters rallied to his side, with many defending his admonition to “ladies” on the basis of these well-known passages on female modesty:

“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 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. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” 1 Timothy 2:8-10

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” 1 Peter 3:3-6

This is where I had to say: Hold on here, guys.

These are great, important Bible passages. I love them, and as a Christian woman, I strive to obey them. No argument there. But this approach raises a few very vital questions from a biblical standpoint.

In both of those passages, the apostles Paul and Peter were addressing Christian women’s modesty in the context of a specific and important theological argument related to their duties as born-again believers in Jesus Christ. To those saved women, the 1 Timothy 2 message was: BECAUSE you belong to Jesus Christ, dress like a woman who professes to be godly. The 1 Peter 3 message was: BECAUSE you belong to Jesus Christ, cultivate in yourselves the inward beauty of godliness in order to please the Lord. Dressing modestly and appropriately as a woman was — and continues to be — a matter of pleasing God and also a matter of bearing a godly witness.

They weren’t addressing non-Christian women, who weren’t even part of the church. So why are Christian men taking Bible passages addressing decorum among Christians and trying to apply it to women who don’t even know Jesus? Why would we expect unsaved women to care about either godliness or pleasing God? Paul touches on a similar concept in 1 Corinthians 5, when he argues that it is the sexually immoral people inside the church that we are to judge, while leaving the judgment of the sexually immoral pagans to God.

Now the Sauve supporters may argue: Yes, but even pagan women should dress modestly for a lot of good reasons. Many pagans have dress codes. And even if these women online reject Christian sexual ethics, those ethics are still true, and Christians should assert them to women everywhere. Modesty is a virtue every woman should cultivate.

OK, yes, agreed. Those are some worthy points that you certainly can discuss. But let’s not forget, first of all, that those aforementioned New Testament passages still cannot be used to browbeat unsaved women, because they were written to Christian women. Preach the gospel to unsaved women first, and pray that they will come to faith in Christ. Then you can address the issue of sanctification with them. After all, our central concern for them shouldn’t be that they wear swimsuits with better coverage but that they repent and believe in salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection alone.

Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — the main argument these Christian men like Sauve and his online defenders are making is that the most important reason for women to be modest is to keep men from stumbling. After all, Sauve did address his modesty tweet only to “Ladies” and signed his tweet, “Your Brothers” (as if no women are ever offended by the way other women dress?) And men who jumped in to defend him very much made the argument that women should be modest mainly because of the effect that immodesty has on men.

Now again, you can’t make that argument based on either 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 3. Yes, they might say, but what about Romans 14:13? “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

Ah, but there’s that word “brother” again! This isn’t a passage about pagans offending Christians and making them stumble. Again, the context is the behavior of believers toward other believers. Specifically, Paul is discussing eating and drinking, but even in the broader application toward issues like modesty, you can’t rebuke unbelieving women for making a “brother” stumble with her sexuality. As an unbeliever, she doesn’t even have a “brother” in the biblical sense of that term. You certainly can make a practical argument against female immodesty, or a moral plea against it, but no way can you make an argument to an unbelieving woman that the reason she should cover up is because of her (nonexistent) relationship to Jesus Christ.

I also wonder how many Christian women are really flaunting their bras and low-cut shirts on the Internet. Is this actually a big thing among Christian women? Really? If so, they’re not the kind of women I’ve ever run into online, nor would they appear to be the kind of women that men like Pastor Sauve would follow online. So that’s a conundrum in and of itself.

But if they are doing this, then we must get to the bigger question for our Christian brothers: Where does the Bible specifically teach that the central reason that Christian women should be modest in dress is to keep men from lusting? I certainly can’t find any direct admonition in the New Testament that explicitly says that. Where is it written?

As mentioned before, the reasons God gave for female Christian modesty in I Timothy and 1 Peter were to encourage saved women to conduct themselves in accordance with godliness and to dress so as to please the Lord. But I can’t find anything in the Bible that says Christian women had better dress modestly primarily to keep brothers in Christ from thinking impure thoughts.

And yes, there are broader biblical principles that do apply here, as in Romans 14 — that we should always have our brother’s good in mind with the way we conduct ourselves. This would cover the issue of modesty, for sure. No Christian woman should actively try to entice men to sin. But these men online who say, in effect, “dress modestly, ladies, so I don’t lust!” are going to have to reckon with the fact that that position is, in the end, just a personal plea and not a Bible verse.

And by the way, why aren’t we talking more about the nature of sin? I’ve already mentioned the “eye plucking” reference in Matthew 5:29, but look at what Jesus says right before that about man’s lust, in Matthew 5:28: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He condemns the lustful man for lusting. Curiously, though, he doesn’t blame the woman for causing the man’s lust. He also never mentions female clothing restrictions as a way of keeping men from lusting. Why? Because Jesus understands, much better than we do, the nature of sin that begins in the heart.

Even when a passage like Proverbs 6:25 says, “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes,” it doesn’t reference the neighbor’s wife’s clothes or lack thereof. The verse cites the fact that her beauty and captivating eyes are all that are needed to entice a man to lust. Shall we now condemn female beauty? Female eyes? Do you see the point?

Believe me, I am not arguing that, consequently, women should be able to freely wear as little clothing as possible. While not a stickler for mandatory skirt lengths that all hit three inches below the knee, I’ve also never been someone who dresses provocatively or inappropriately. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that, both for personal and theological reasons. So you can definitely count me in as strongly anti-exhibitionist and pro-modesty. I think both women and men, Christian and non-Christian, should dress appropriately. I say that, also knowing that while we can proclaim what the Bible says about modesty, there is no way we can possibly police everyone on it, especially not those in the world.

What we all need to understand is that men’s lusts cannot be stopped simply by making every woman wear a gunnysack. If we start going too far down that road, we’ll end up closer to Islam than Christianity. And I, for one, enjoy not having to wear a burqa.

So, yes, we should defend modesty. But please, let’s stay within the boundaries of Scripture when we do so, discussing relevant passages in context and not attributing to God’s Word arguments for modesty that it doesn’t make.

While we do that, it also might be helpful to memorize Galatians 5:16: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”