I have a friend, a godly Christian man, who’s written a series of articles on modesty. His basic premise is, modesty isn’t a static condition; it’s the intention of the heart.
I’m not sure I agree. But I’m not sure I disagree either.
Standards such as modesty do seem to fluctuate. What was modest in one generation will seem positively prehistoric in another. Take the Amish, for instance. By their dress, you’d expect the Bible to have mandated double-breasted, floor-length dresses that don’t use such modern things as buttons and zippers (If the hook and eye was good enough for granny, it’s good enough for me).
The point here is this: freezing clothing style at a certain point in history does not insure that it meets God’s standards. After all, there’s mention in the Bible of women covering their faces at certain times. So the Amish aren’t modest according to Biblical standards.
On the other hand, the swim wear of the 1920s would look positively risque in comparison to Amish dress. And yet today, someone at the beach in a ’20s suit would stand out like a sore thumb for the very fact that no one wears that much clothing at the beach these days.
In some senses, then, it seems as if God’s standards need to be applied to our lives today, but that may look different from the application of those same standards by people living a hundred years ago.
I understand this when it comes to clothing. A teenage girl may desire in her heart to be modest, but the shorts she buys which are longer than all her friends’ shorts, might still have her parents telling her she can’t be seen outside the house wearing such a revealing outfit.
According to my friend’s standard, the teen with the intent to be modest should be credited with mission accomplished, despite the fact that her parents think her shorts are too revealing. Is the issue how revealing her clothing is or whether or not she’s trying to be alluring by what she wears?
This modesty issue is reflective, I think, of a host of standards God set before His people, starting back with Adam and Eve, but moving from them to the people of Israel. When God gave Moses His law, He said the people were not to commit adultery, and if they did, they were to be put to death. Flash forward to King David who committed adultery and did not give himself up to the death penalty.
Or how about the Keep the Sabbath command. Shortly after the people of Israel agreed to keep the Law, a man slipped out of camp one Sabbath to gather wood. He was discovered, brought before Moses, who in turn went to God, and at God’s direction the man was stoned to death. Yet a few centuries later, God said one of Israel’s problems was that they weren’t keeping the Sabbath any more. Apparently they were breaking the Sabbath with impunity.
The cultural slide away from what God said and initially punished by death, was not OK. It was still God’s standard for His people to keep the Sabbath, but they no longer thought it was so important. And after they returned from exile and instituted Pharisaic Law to insure obedience to God’s standards, there were still people finding ways to skirt the point and purpose of the Law. Jesus, in fact, called out the Pharisees for holding up their tradition as a way to avoid doing what God said they were to do (in that particular case, to honor their parents).
Then there was God’s direction not to make any idols or offer any sacrifices on high places at any altar other than the one altar consecrated for His worship. In fact, when two of the twelve tribes departed for their homes after spending five years fighting to win the promised land, they built an altar on beside the Jordan as a witness that they too were worshipers of the LORD God Almighty.
The ten tribes, however, thought they were disobeying God and had built the altar for a place to offer sacrifices. They gathered their fighting men and headed off to do battle with their brothers because they thought they’d broken God’s standard.
Fast forward a couple generations, and everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes, including building altars on high places and creating their own house gods to put in their shrines. Even God’s prophet, Elijah built an altar when he had the showdown with the prophets of Baal.
So when is a standard, a standard? And who is to define words like “modestly” or “keep the Sabbath” or “altar of the LORD”?
Or should we chuck all those discussions? I mean, we are New Testament believers, saved by grace, no longer under the law.
Except it was Paul who set the standard of modest wear for women in the Church. And it was Jesus who told the Pharisees they should be tithing even their spices, just not at the expense of justice and mercy and faithfulness (see Matt. 23:23).
Later, when believers were selling property to give to the needy, two Christians, Ananias and Sapphira, were struck down for lying about how much money they sold their home for. But we know there are professing Christians today who have not been struck down for lying on their income tax or juggling the books at work or even committing outright fraud.
God seems to start out so strict, but then He lets us go our own way. If we want to stretch the boundaries of modesty, He seems to let us do it. If we want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to worship before His altar, He seemed to let the people of Israel do it. If we want to stretch the boundary of integrity, He seems to let us do it.
Granted, He doesn’t relent in His judgment. Israel went into exile in part because of their Sabbath breaking and idol worshiping.
So do His standards apply to the twenty-first century? They do. Any fudging we do, any accommodation to the culture that nullifies what He’s said, will surely bring us grief. God says what He means and means what He says. But we aren’t always so quick to figure out how that looks in our society today. Especially since so many in our culture are going in the opposite direction.