It seems that periodically, the issue of modesty rises to the forefront of theological debates among Christians. On the one side, women are compelled to dress modestly so they don’t cause men to sin in lusting after them, as in Mat 5:28:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” -KJV
On the other side, women are not accountable for what sins someone else commits, so they should be free to dress how they please.
Allow me to provide some insights into this debate.
Mat. 5:28 Does not Describe a New Sin
First off, we should not forget the context of this passage. Yehoshua has just proclaimed the following:
“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” -Mat 5:20 (KJV)
So the point of this passage is not to add a new sin to the already long list in the Old Testament. It is to illustrate the fact that no matter how well you obey the commandments, you still are born with a sin nature and therefore cannot coexist in the same place as God, He being a perfectly righteous being. You need grace.
Furthermore, this is only the second example Yehoshua provides, the first being anger and murder:
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” -Mat 5:21-22a (KJV)
Interestingly, lust and anger are both primal urges that can occur without forethought or choice – an example of our sin nature. If the way most people interpret Mat 5:28 is correct, then it is a sin to experience not only lust, but anger. However, Yehoshua goes on to say
“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” -Mat 5:23-24 (KJV)
So it seems that it is not experiencing anger that is sinful, but how you react to it. This is nothing new. When Cain was angry with his brother at the altar, God told him to rule over it (Gen 4:7), but instead, Cain let it rule over him.
Similarly, Yehoshua is not adding anything new when he proclaims that to look at a woman with lust commits adultery with her in his heart. To understand this, you will need to know the theological and cultural context.
First, the word translated lust also means covet. So Yehoshua is simply reiterating the tenth commandment:
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” -Ex 20:17 (KJV)
“But wait, Ex 20 says ‘wife’ while Mat 5 says ‘woman’,” you may be thinking. Actually, the word translated as “woman” in Mat 5 can mean “wife” or “woman”. For confirmation, we can look at the biblical definition of adultery.
The modern Christian definition of adultery is usually given as the all inclusive “sex outside of marriage.” However, this is not the Biblical definition. In the Bible, if a man (married or unmarried) seduces an unmarried woman, he is commanded to make her his wife (Ex 22:16). Conversely, if a man (married or unmarried) takes another man’s wife, it is called adultery and both are to be put to death (Lev 20:10). So, as we have seen, adultery only occurs if a woman is married. The meaning of this verse also includes women who are engaged, which is why Miriam, mother of Yehoshua, was on the verge of being stoned for being pregnant although she was only engaged to Joseph.
“Since Yehoshua is talking about women who are already all covered up, immodesty and the lustful urges of the male spectator have nothing to do with this verse!”
Now I have established that Mat 5:28 only applies to married women. This is actually an important clue to the debate of whether women should wear whatever they want and whether men are sinning when they look at them. This is because in the culture of the day, married women wore veils to prevent men from lusting after them. Conversely, unmarried women did not wear veils because it was appropriate to have men chasing after them. Since Yehoshua is talking about women who are already all covered up, immodesty and the lustful urges of the male spectator have nothing to do with this verse! A more appropriate application of this verse is when 2 men pursue the same girl, and after she marries one of them, the other still doesn’t quit. Another application would be when someone facebook stalks their married ex’es. So just like anger, it is not the fact that you experienced lust for a woman, but how you choose to react to it that matters. That is, if she belongs to someone else, don’t pursue her! Like anger, you must rule over it.
“If you dress immodestly in the workplace, you could face legal action for sexual harassment”
To really answer the question of whether to dress with modesty, it will be helpful to look at neuroscience. Multiple studies have found that visual stimuli will ilicit a sexual response from men when it would not from women. So first, if you are a woman, realize that men will have a response to the way you dress. Second, if you are trying to understand how men respond to the way you dress, realize that you can’t do it by putting yourself in their shoes. My advice would be to ask your husband, brother, or father for their opinion on your outfit.
With this information in mind, you should consider the following points when answering for yourself whether to dress modestly:
- If you are trying to catch a man, as in the days of Yehoshua, you may find a degree of immodesty useful (and Biblically appropriate).
- If you are married, public immodesty is contrary to your commitment to your husband, as it encourages other men to chase you.
- If you dress immodestly, expect men to respond sexually.
- If you dress immodestly, Christian men who have been conditioned to feel guilty at their natural response to you, may find it unpleasant to be around you.
- If you dress immodestly in the workplace, you could face legal action for sexual harassment because it fits the interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the sexual discrimination law) given by The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to include “physical conduct of a sexual nature” which “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance.”