As Christian women, we are often encouraged to dress modestly. There are plenty of reasons that are given for this virtue, but some reasons seem to have a tendency to be warped into something nasty or nonsensical. Attempts to teach girls about modesty have been used to shame them or deluge them with a long list of rules – rules that can sound a lot like “Touch not; taste not; handle not” (Colossians 2:21).*
But here's the thing. Modesty wasn't designed to fit men's rules or women's opinions. It was not made up on the spot to oppress women or make them feel bad about themselves. Using the words "shame" and "modesty" together, for example, should be oxymoronic. From a Christian perspective, those words just don’t fit together at all. Modesty is not is a checklist of arbitrary rules. Its main purpose is not even to help men better honor God with their eyes. Modesty is God's idea.
When the Bible touches on a woman's apparel (and yes, it only touches on it. It doesn't set out a whole chapter of do's and don'ts), it mentions things like propriety, moderation, godliness, and incorruptible beauty (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:3-4).
So why does God want women to dress modestly? Perhaps a clue can be found in the context of that 1 Timothy verse:
I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation . . . with good works.
- 1 Timothy 2:8-10
What an interesting insert that phrase is, in like manner also. In like manner to what? In the same way that the men are lifting up their hands in prayer, the women are dressing modestly and doing good things. When the men pray (free from anger and doubt), they are honoring and worshipping God. In like manner also, the women are honoring and worshipping God with their clothing and conduct.
Note that the Bible does not say, "I desire therefore that women dress modestly, to make life easier for our godly men, with their fragile little eyes." It does not say "I desire therefore that women dress modestly, because their bodies are shameful and they ought to cover them up." Nor does it declare, "I desire therefore that women dress modestly, if for no other reason than that I like to come up with long and burdensome lists of rules for them to follow to make it easier for me to judge and ridicule them."
No. It says that in the same way that men worship God, women should worship God, which includes, among other things, "adorn[ing] themselves in modest apparel."
Now, encouraging our brothers in Christ towards purity is certainly a nice thing to do; don’t get me wrong here! Dressing modestly can even help us to encourage our sisters in Christ by dampening competitive or jealous tendencies. But it is certainly not our responsibility as Christian women to uphold other Christians in their pursuits of holiness. We can encourage them, we can refrain from overtly tempting them, but their sins are not our responsibility.
Furthermore, if you’re a young Christian girl, I’m not telling you to ignore your parents’ dress code. I simply intend to imply that different people are going to have different opinions, on what counts as modest or not. We have to allow for that. In the same way that we don’t criticize other Christians for their keeping of Sabbaths and holy days or for what they eat and drink (Colossians 2:16), we shouldn’t criticize other Christians for differing opinions on modesty. Some opinions are more or less neutral, and others may be caused by variations in spiritual maturity (like the dining habits of early Christians). Despite all this, in like manner also, let us encourage and not condemn our weaker, or simply differing, brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:7-9).
Ultimately, modesty is about worship. About our hearts in relation to Jesus. About practicing humility and honoring Christ. What more reason than that do we really need?
*In context, that verse says “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which are all to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?” (Col. 2:20-22)