The Real Meaning of Modesty
The tall woman in jeans and heavy eye makeup was wild-eyed and frantic. She carried a yellow legal pad with extensive notes scrawled in blue ballpoint pen, and couldn't wait to sit down with the pastor—who was my husband, Tim—and me to share what was on her mind.
"Women must dress modestly," she began. "Modesty is disappearing in our culture and it is up to Christians to uphold it." Then she started reading Bible verses off her legal pad and readying herself to deliver a passionate sermon.
"Wait, hold on," Tim said when the woman showed no signs of slowing or stopping what was turning into a rant. "What is it that you're concerned about? What do you want to discuss with us?"
He had a vague idea of what it might be because, several weeks before, this woman had loudly rebuked a female member of our church for being "inappropriately dressed" (which was entirely debatable).
As it happened, the woman wanted to discuss the dress I had worn to church the previous Sunday. It was long enough, she said. (I hope so, as it touched the tops of my sandals!) But because I was wearing a denim jacket over it, she suspected it might be strapless. And that would be unacceptable.
"It has straps," I said, "but even if it was strapless, I didn't take off my jacket." (I was 21 years old at the time, which, I hope, partly explains why I felt the need to justify myself when I'd clearly done nothing wrong.)
"Doesn't matter. I couldn't tell that it wasn't strapless," she insisted.
The conversation became even less reasonable from there, and it is perhaps unnecessary to note that it did not end very well.
One point that my husband and I tried to make in our conversation with the woman was this: What is considered "modest" (or not) depends on your social and cultural context. Many Christian communities, for example, might find the woman's jeans and makeup inappropriate. (Consider what the early church father Tertullian had to say about makeup: "Whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on that, is the devil's work.")
The woman, however, was baffled that the Bible verses she'd brought did not make absolutely clear to us—and to everyone—what did and did not constitute modesty for everyone and for all time: in other words, a universal standard of modesty.