Questions From Readers
● Often there is much discussion about what is “proper” and what is “improper” in the matter of dress. Can we really set any rules on this? If not, why show so much concern?—U.S.A.
The Bible itself does not give any detailed description as to what is “proper” dress. On the other hand, it supplies us with all we need in order to be fully satisfied about the properness of our clothing. How?
In the very first book of the Bible we are provided with a standard. The record there shows that the matter of dress posed no problem for the first human pair in their sinless state. Only after their transgression, when they began to experience shame and guilt, did they clothe themselves. With what? The account says they made “loin coverings” of fig leaves. (Gen. 3:6, 7) Is that the standard for us?
No, for God evidently viewed these garments as unsuitable. Though ejecting the human pair from their garden home as willful violators of his law, in his undeserved kindness God saw fit to supply them with clothing. Genesis 3:21 says: “And Jehovah God proceeded to make long garments of skin for Adam and for his wife and to clothe them.” So, man’s Creator not only treated these humans with dignity—lawbreakers though they were—but thereby also provided a standard for human dress.
How long were these “long garments”? The Hebrew word used is understood to denote long garments reaching to the knees, or even to the ankles. Does this authorize condemning any dress whose length does not fall precisely within those two points, the knees and the ankles? No, for that would be trying to read into the expression “long garments” a preciseness or specificity that simply is not there. It could lead to such futile arguments as: Our determining whether dress comes to the bottom of the knee, the middle or the top of it, as the dividing line between proper and improper dress. It would be missing the main point of the standard set. What is that?
It is that the garments were “long” in contrast with the short “loin coverings.” So, they gave, not just bare coverage, but good coverage to the body.
There is no reason to doubt that those who thereafter sought to please God were guided by this standard in their dress. In fact, it seems to have been a general standard among mankind. What evidence we have of clothing styles in ancient times serves to confirm this.
This same standard evidently carried over into the Christian congregation in the first century C.E. The apostle Paul wrote that women should “adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind.” (1 Tim. 2:9) The Greek word (ka·ta·sto·leʹ) for “dress” here literally means “a letting down.” (The simpler term sto·leʹ refers basically to a long, loose garment; compare Mark 16:5; Luke 15:22; Revelation 7:9.) Whatever their style, such garments clearly provided good coverage.
Why did God provide the standard he did? It was definitely for man’s benefit, as are all God’s acts. Due to sin, humans are subject to passion and easily incline to immorality. Humans who seek to please God have to fight against their wrong tendencies in this respect. By the standard he set in clothing Adam and Eve, God, in love, kindly provided one way to make this fight somewhat easier.
Not that circumstances might not allow for using other types of clothing on occasion. Certain types of work would make the customary long garb impractical—such as the work of fishermen, which is what some of Jesus’ early disciples were. So, in some types of work, and in other activities (such as swimming), shorter clothing might reasonably be used. (Compare John 21:3, 7.) But from our own experience we must admit that, when the reason and purpose for using such clothing is evident, the effect on the observer is not the same as when there is no apparent reason or need for its use. What God did in clothing Adam and Eve, however, serves as a fundamental standard to guide us. And, as shown, that clothing was better described as “long” than as “short.”
One might say, But if there are no specific details, how are we to know whether clothing is modest or immodest, whether it is too short or too tight or otherwise objectionable?
God’s Word was written to be understood by persons of normal intelligence. If a father tells his son not to hit his little sister or not to shout at her, does the boy take that to mean that he should not even touch his sister or talk to her? Does it take much intelligence to know the difference? Could not even a child know when he was simply giving a friendly pat as compared to a blow designed to hurt, or speaking normally as compared to shouting? If we can understand the difference in degrees in such matters, why should it be difficult for any of us to apply the Bible’s standards on clothing, to know whether something is moderate or extreme, well fitting or tight, modest or vain?
If we are unsure, why not notice others around us? Within a congregation of genuine Christians there are plenty of persons who very evidently manifest God’s spirit in their lives and show real appreciation for the counsel of his Word. How does our clothing compare with theirs?
Really, our major concern as to clothing is to be sure that we are fulfilling the two most important rules of all: love for God and love for our neighbor as for ourselves. Since we do love ourselves, it is natural and proper that we please ourselves in the way we dress. But we should not do this to the exclusion of pleasing others at the same time. Even if we had the right to do so, love would keep us from ignoring their feelings and interests. (1 Cor. 10:24; 13:4, 5; Phil. 2:4) In fact, much of our enjoyment of dress should come from feeling that others find our appearance pleasant.
Of course, many persons today are pleased with immodesty. Dressing to please them would draw their attention—and even their propositions. It could lead to our stumbling into something like fornication, adultery or even homosexuality. No one should be so naïve as to think this is not so. So, then, in your heart whom are you trying to please?
Equally of concern is the danger of inciting someone else to stumble into immorality. Christ Jesus said: “Whoever stumbles one of these little ones that believe, it would be finer for him if a millstone such as is turned by an ass were put around his neck and he were actually pitched into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) Anyone who wore clothing designed to provoke passion in another could become guilty of stumbling a fellow Christian. Is this to say that God would commit to destruction someone just because of the shortness or tightness of his or her clothing? No; rather it would be because the person’s provocative dress is due to shortness on love for righteousness and because, instead, it reveals that his or her heart has a love of what is bad in God’s eyes.
Actually, if God’s Word gave us specific and detailed description and rules on what to wear, the whole matter would resolve down simply to our compliance or noncompliance therewith. As it is, the rules God has given us put to the test what we are inside, what is in our heart, with its associated faculty of conscience, and how much consideration we have for the spiritual welfare of others.
So, the entire question reduces down to this: If you had reason to believe that your dress was objectionable, not to just one or two individuals, but to many persons, particularly those whom you love—your family, your brothers in the faith—would you change? Would you want to do so? And, even more important, if you had reason to believe that the effect of your appearance could be harmful to others because of the type of thinking it encouraged in their minds and hearts, would you sincerely regret that fact and be quick to correct it?
Of course, there are those who can make rules concerning dress. Who are these? Husbands and fathers. All the members of a man’s household bear his name and what they do reflects on his name. As the God-appointed family head, he can properly rule out certain clothing as objectionable.
Do we consider the difficult job parents have today in trying to protect their children from widespread delinquency? Then we will not willingly undercut or undermine their efforts by lack of concern about the modesty of our dress. Why make their difficult struggle all the harder?
What about the body of elders or overseers in a congregation? Beyond the rules contained in the Bible, they cannot set rules as to what those in the congregation will wear. But they can use their own knowledge, understanding and wisdom in determining whether someone is clearly setting a bad example or not in regard to the Scriptural principles regarding dress. They may decide not to give prominence to such one in assignments they extend to others to represent or serve the congregation in congregational meetings. Such action would be governed not simply by the preferences or prejudices of one or two persons but by the judgment of the body of elders in weighing any objections raised.