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Modesty and Purity

An Axis Course On Sex Talk 2.0

“I also want the women to dress modestly… not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” – 1 Timothy 2:9

In her book Pure, Linda Kay Klein tells the story of a woman named Laura who was sexually assaulted. Afterward, when Laura told her dad what had happened to her, the first thing her dad said to her was, “What were you wearing?”

When a story of sexual assault is met with a question like that, what’s conveyed is that the one who is raped is to blame for the rape. As Dr. Sellers pointed out in Sex, God, and the Conservative Church,

Purity movement teachings also dealt with lust and modesty in such a way that women were made responsible for how men behaved. They were to wear modest clothing in order to keep men from “stumbling.” This taught women to distrust men and taught men that they were not responsible for their behavior or sexual drive.

In Matthew 5:29, Jesus gives a very different solution: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” In other words, we should deal with our proclivities toward stumbling and sin within ourselves—not by blaming others, or trying to force those around us into conformity with what we think will keep us pure. Galatians 5:23 lists “self-control” as a fruit of the Spirit within us, not a fruit of others’ modesty. The difference is that one school of thought locates the blame on what the aggressor sees, whereas the other locates the blame within the aggressor, i.e. on how he/she sees.

Obviously it’s much easier to blame external circumstances for our sin. But we have to teach our young men and women that every individual is responsible for his or her own sexual integrity. Previously, the entire discussion’s emphasis has been drawn from verses like 1 Corinthians 8:9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” In context, Paul is talking about whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. That doesn’t mean there aren’t principles that can apply beyond Paul’s specific example; but in fact, historical, scriptural, archaeological and literary evidence all suggest that nudity in Paul’s day didn’t have nearly the same taboo that nudity has in modern America.

The awkwardness is that we have invented a new way to stumble—and yet we now live and function within our invention. Inside, many women are condemned for their wardrobe choices, and many men learn that any attraction to the female form is sinful lust. In our Desire, Porn, and Masturbation track, we make the case that what Jesus is talking about when he uses the word “lust” is not desire, attraction, or even sexual arousal, but rather making plans for sexual gratification which fail to respect the boundaries of marriage. However, if we assume we’ve already sinned in our attraction to someone, we might now sin more deliberately to cover and numb the shame of the first sin (which, again, may not have actually been sin).

Many women learn through advertisements, TV shows, and movies that their value is in their body and their sexuality, so they display more than they otherwise might in an attempt to demonstrate their value to others. As we disciple our kids in how they see the human body, we should also disciple our daughters that their value does not come from their sexuality, but from the fact that they are made in the image of God and that Jesus died to make them his.

Others may use the body taboo as a baseline to transcend, maybe pushing the envelope for the purposes of seduction or to sexually signal others. We would argue that any intention to cause sin is sin. But in the #MeToo era of sexual assault, we would also rather encourage our kids to err on the side of assuming that how someone dresses is not a sexual invitation.

To quote again from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity:

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 own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).

On a debate panel, Sheila Gregoire was asked, “What do we do when a woman who is seeking walks into church wearing something really inappropriate, like a skimpy sundress? How do we tell her that she’s a stumbling block?” Sheila’s wise response was to say, “You don’t! Because in this situation, she is the weaker brother. The men are more mature in the faith. It’s her faith that God is most concerned with. He leaves the 99 to find the 1.”

Action Steps

Sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son or daughter what they’ve heard in church or in school about “modesty.” Listen for any clues that they’re starting to believe that a man’s sexual integrity is a woman’s responsibility. Ask them whether they think it’s right or not that one person should be held responsible for someone else’s sin. For more on these topics, check out our Parent Guides to Modesty, Purity, and Sexual Assault.

Also, if sexual assault is a part of your story, or a part of your daughter or son’s story, first of all, our heart breaks for you. We are not experts in the recovery process that will be necessary to find healing, and we would like to sincerely encourage you to seek counseling for that if you have not already done so. If you’re reading in America and you’d like to explore counseling, here’s a link to the American Association of Christian Counselors, which can help you find a counselor in your area.


“Father, what a mess we’ve made of the world you created. Have mercy on us. We need your love, we need your grace, and we need your powerful, transforming redemption. Come into our lives as we continue to seek you and your Kingdom. As you promised, may your Holy Spirit lead us into all truth. Guide our thoughts, words, actions, and tone as we continue to have these conversations with our kids. In Jesus’ name, amen.”