Is Modest Hottest?
Updated: May 30
With summer camps and youth retreats often come a litany of rules regarding swimwear—particularly for girls. However, these summer months have seen an increasingly passionate attack on the traditional concept of modesty. A Facebook post from a former youth pastor apologizing for his “ridiculous ultimatum” requiring one-piece swimwear for girls at camps received tens of thousands of likes, comments, and shares. News articles and blog posts filled the internet lambasting singer Matthew West for his now-deleted attempt at a comedic song, “Modest Is Hottest,” a tongue-in-cheek plea for his daughters to cover every inch of their skin with clothing. Christians and non-Christians alike stand in opposition to comments and rules they say promote the sexualization of girls from a young age and absolve young men of their responsibility to control their bodies and minds. As the culture increasingly moves away from the traditional understanding of modesty, we must stop and ask ourselves if Christians should follow suit.
Modesty Rules Don’t Fix the Heart of the Issue
Let’s be honest: modesty rules—for example, rules requiring one-piece swimwear or shorts that meet a certain length—exist because of lust. Far too often, rather than identifying and correcting the root issue of lust, blame is shifted entirely onto girls for the clothing they choose to wear. While some clothing designs may more readily lend themselves to lustful gazes, the ultimate issue is not the clothing—it’s the one who chooses to give in to the temptation to lust. When youth pastors fail to correct lustful thoughts and behavior, and instead exclusively attack the clothing girls choose to wear, they implicitly affirm the sexualization of female students and give credence to the idea that lust is simply unavoidable. Therefore, modesty rules miss their mark because they fail to correct the root issue of lustful thoughts and behaviors. While that is not a reason to celebrate the rejection of traditional modesty, we also can’t pretend that the use of modesty rules ever ultimately ended the problem of lust.
Modesty Rules Promote the Wrong Standard
One positive aspect of this abandonment of modesty rules is the potential to return to a more biblical framework for decision-making. For believers, all decisions boil down to whether or not an action glorifies God. The decision is easy in some cases, when the issues at hand are black and white. Murder is always wrong, as it never brings God glory; loving others is always right, as it always brings God glory. Wondering if you should sleep with your neighbor’s wife? I don’t need to know the context to tell you the answer is “no.” Wondering if you should share the gospel with your unbelieving coworker? Again, I don’t need to know the context to tell you the answer is “yes.” In such cases, the nature of the action either always violates God’s design for His creation, or it always brings glory and honor to the Lord; thus, the decision is easy.
Most issues, however, exist in a nebulous gray area. Can Christians eat pork? Can they dance in public? Can they see a movie? The answers to these questions primarily depend on your situation. The actions are fundamentally neutral—food, dancing, and movies are not inherently spiritual items with eternal significance. Thus, in the absence of clear-cut instructions, Christians need a way to make such decisions.
Thankfully, Paul provides a framework for Christian decision-making in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul answers a question from the Corinthian church about a similarly complicated issue—whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul identifies this issue as a gray area, and he provides the Corinthian church with three questions they must ask before making any decision.
How will my decision affect other Christians? Specifically, Paul wants the Corinthian believers to look around and decide if their action is going to cause another believer to sin by encouraging them to do something they think is wrong. If your action is going to cause another believer to do something they think is a sin, then you shouldn’t do it, since instead of bringing God glory, it will harm your fellow Christian.
How will my decision affect my ability to present the gospel to nonbelievers? If an action is going to build an obstacle to sharing the gospel with a nonbeliever, then you shouldn’t do it.
What are my motivations for making this decision? Sometimes a decision is perfectly harmless, but our motivations can be sinful. For example, going to the gym is a perfectly neutral activity, but some may be driven to exercise by lustful motivations. If your action is driven by a sinful motivation, then you shouldn’t do it.
If you get to this point in the process and still believe your decision will bring God glory, then go for it! Unfortunately, many Christians do not like the ambiguity found in the gray area, so they try to make the area as small as possible. They do so by drawing lines the Bible never draws. Thus, instead of asking girls to evaluate whether their choice of swimwear is glorifying to God, they ban all two-piece swimsuits, turning the gray area of clothing into an artificially black-and-white issue.
As Christians, the calling on our life is higher than conforming to some arbitrarily defined rules; our calling is to glorify God with everything we’re doing. Thus, on the issue of swimsuits, girls and guys should consider whether their choice of swimwear brings glory to God and decide based upon that standard. Depending on the context, some two-piece swimsuits for girls can be worn while bringing God glory; similarly, some one-piece swimsuits can be worn without bringing God glory. Instead of asking students whether their swimsuits conform to a rule, youth pastors should encourage students to determine whether their swimsuits are bringing glory to God.
In that sense, abandoning modesty rules allows for a return to a more biblical decision-making framework. It offers an opportunity to raise the standard for students, forcing them to base their decisions on the surpassing glory of God, rather than basing their decisions on a simple rule invented by a fallible human being to make the uncomfortable gray area smaller. If abandoning modesty rules means raising the standards in such a manner, then Christians should celebrate the development.
Nobody Lives in a Vacuum
Unfortunately, I’m not naïve enough to believe we’re abandoning modesty rules in favor of the higher standard of biblical decision-making. In most cases, we’re abandoning modesty rules because it’s culturally fashionable to do so, motivated by an ideology of fierce personal independence. In other words, we are rejecting modesty rules for an attitude that says, “I can wear whatever I want to.”
Such an attitude ignores the fact that none of us live in a vacuum. Our actions do, in fact, affect other people. Asking whether or not you want to do something is an unbiblically low standard for decision-making. As believers, we should bring God glory with everything we do; in some cases, that means sacrificing personal comforts and preferences for the sake of others. In the example of swimwear, biblical decision-making may require you to forego a revealing bikini at a coed pool party for the sake of others who may be more readily drawn to lustful thoughts than if you chose a different swimsuit. Therefore, before picking an outfit, choosing a beverage, engaging in a conversation, evaluate whether or not your choice is going to bring glory to God. Look around and determine the impact your choice may have on other people. If you’re excited to see the end of traditional modesty simply because you found it too restrictive, Scripture implores you to think more deeply about the decisions you make.
I’m glad Christians are questioning traditional modesty rules. Whenever Christians recognize a gray issue for what it is, greater opportunities abound for biblical decision-making. However, the current push seems devoid of the higher calling on the lives of believers. Ensure that your decision-making has as its aim the ultimate calling on a believer: to bring glory to God. Moreover, if you participate in the abandonment of modesty rules, do so with the expressed purpose of conforming to a biblical pattern of decision-making, as the selfish, fierce independence that motivates most of the current conversations has no place in the church.