Modesty, or the Rule of Propriety


Part of the problem with words is they do not always stay where you last put them. Their meanings alter over time. Usually for the worst. They they become muddled by being turned to be synonymous with things they should not be. In the introduction of Mere Christianity, Lewis demonstrates this problem with the word Gentleman, which used to simply mean landed gentry but shifted to mean a chivalrous man with good manners. Not only can words change in their general definition but also in their emotional reception. Many times this in a semantical game that frustrates English Majors. But there are times when the Devil is literally in the details. 

“Woe to those who call evil good

    and good evil,

who put darkness for light

    and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

    and sweet for bitter!” – Isaiah 5:20

From this launching point we could easily rant about our political class and head in many fun directions. Instead we will wade into the murky waters of purity culture and modesty, two things that, we are told are everything that is wrong with evangelicalism.

Some Groundwork

“The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of modesty (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’ , proper, or decent, according to the standards of their won societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste)… When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.” – C.S. Lewis, Christian Sexuality

Lewis is helpful here because he cuts right through the arguments for legalism and license and gets to where those are symptoms of the larger heart problem. Legalists are at odds with the gospel adding specific dress to what constitutes salvation. But he also blows the gaff on the play run by the license party in trying to call the evils of unchastity and uncharitableness good things. 

For the rest of this post I intend to only make passing reference (if any) to the legalist position. They have been pretty soundly trounced historically and are simply an easy punching bag. Instead the church today has swung the pendulum to the other side and not only remains mum on the issue but allows sin to run rampant. If you think I exaggerate please consider the last time you heard 1 Timothy 2:9-15 preached straight up, without any preface or pulling of punches.

“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. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” 1 Timothy 2:9-15

Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I have ever even heard of a mother be willing to pull that out to correct a daughter. 

The Root and the Fruit

The first order of business is to love Christ. To behold his glory.

“Oh to behold the Glory of Christ! Here in would I live, Here in would I die, here on would I dwell in my thoughts and my affections until all things here below become as dead and deformed things, and in no longer, any way, calling out for my affections” ~ John Owen

When Christ is all and we live to glorify him in our lives suddenly we find that the pride which drives immodesty shrivels. The problems are not in the specifics of dress but in the theft of glory from God. The man who insists on running shirtless in public is not so much concerned with exercise or even wind resistance but in the glory he receives from others noticing his physique or athleticism. The same sin is committed by the ostentatious host who only has guests to glory in their hospitality presentation. And also sin for the woman who displays her body for the attention or the lust of others. It is pride. The focus is on the individual and their own glory and not the worship of the one who is alone worthy receive all worship.

The evidence of this pride is in what Lewis points to, the lack of charity. And it makes perfect sense. If the offending person cares not a wit God, then it stands to reason that they care even less for their fellows. It should be pointed out that in the current failing of the pulpits to teach the virtue of charity (Properly defined) that the groundwork was already laid for the popular justification that a young woman is not responsible for the lust of a man. In the sense that yes he has failed to have Job like self control. But she has failed to show charity. Some men will lust no matter how modestly a woman is dressed, and the sin is all his own. And some women will dress to provoke and then cry foul when they are called on it, their sin is being uncharitable and lying through intellectual dishonesty. Guilt is not a shared proposition with the man being 60% guilty of the sin and the woman tallying up a neat 40%. It is 100% and 100%. He is guilty of his sin and she guilty of hers. If we love God first with all our heart, souls, and minds, we will then love our neighbors as ourselves. Luther was correct when he stated that if the first four commandments were not broken the last six would not be broken either.

Just to Muddy the Waters a Bit

I began with noting that words are not static. And standards of propriety are not either. Solomon reminds us that all is cyclical. Things come and go and come again. It is in interesting thing to note that the Victorian era was more uptight in it’s cultural mores than the Puritan era. This can be explained in that the Puritans were so enamored with God that they discerned what was and wasn’t acceptable based on both their society and the Word of God. Victorians in contrast were in competition with one another on who could adhere to the most restrictions. This is how we received fancy table cloths some brilliant victorian marm was afraid the sensual curve of her tables legs could lead a man to lust, hence a frilly floor length dress for the table. The Victorian era came out of a society trying to replicate the Clapham Sect but without the God Wilberforce and his friends so passionately loved.

Fashions and vogues are transitory, and while Screwtape provides ample evidence that they are designed to be detrimental to humanity, they will remain with us and must be dealt with. There was never a golden age of modesty we can not compare our current fashions to the designs of the past without making ourselves ridiculous. This has been amply demonstrated for us Ad nauseam by Independent Fundamental Baptists. Lewis is helpful in that he directs us to look at what culture an individual Christian is in and then with charity in mind dress appropriately and accordingly. Or to paraphrase Karl Barth* in a rather beastly way, “Take your Bible and take your Gap add, and read both. But interpret Gap add from your Bible.” 

Good for Evil and Vice Versa

What we need are guardrails not third rails. While I in no way discount facts of rebellion, or that the sinful cultures around us have their dress codes to signal allegiances. At the same time any hard and fast line becomes brittle and useless with the changing of each season. Jeans used to be considered a safe bet to put on our ministries dress code and the problem was solved. Then came holes, super skinny, low rise… All designed to push the envelope of modesty. And now even having a dress code is considered regressive. And that is the crux. Where our eyes should be is on the space where they flip will be preformed. And before that, stick to our guns. 

Some slopes are actually slippery. Christians are to be in the world but not of it. Or as Doug Wilson would have it, “Strangers and sojourners so much so that we wonder why we are not required to have a green card.” A sinful world wants nothing more than to keep conviction at an all time minimum. Sinners are not so stupid as to be unable to do that math and know that surrender to Christ will mean laying down their weapons of spiritual war they love so dearly. They will have to give up all, their pride, their lusts, laziness, as they see it their lives. “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather than give in there is a full press to recast the players. It is God who is the villain and Satan is the libertarian fighting against a totalitarian regime. God would tell you how to dress?! “No fear, my body my choice.” The slight of hand is to posit slavery as freedom. Not to over refer to Wilson but all of the “freedoms” of the world can be preformed in a 6×8 cell. The freedoms of God are eternal and expansive, all further up and further in.


I will concede that the branch of purity culture labeled modesty has been dead for some time. In fact it has been dead for some time, simply because the life was frozen out of it long ago. Rather than being attached to Christ and flowing forth from gladness in him. It was severed and tied onto an ailing sapling labeled I kissed dating goodbye. And there it withered and became unsightly. Anything removed from Christ is hideous. He must be our first love and object of our affections. Then in his grace we navigate how to present our bodies to him as a living sacrifice, acceptable to him.

*Yes yes I know, his theology has issues. But on this point I think he is bang on.

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