The world hates biblical dress codes. Why you should live by them anyway
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part essay. Part one can be read here.
November 23, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — According to the Holy Scriptures, dress has another important function besides safeguarding chastity: it safeguards the distinct and complementary roles of men and women in the family and in society. The first “dress code” in the Bible can be found in the book of Deuteronomy. There, Moses warns the people that it is an “abomination” for a man to wear women’s apparel or for a woman to wear man’s apparel. An “abomination” in the Bible is not just a sin. It is something deeply offensive to God. The offensiveness of men wearing women’s clothes or vice versa flows from the fact that God created Adam and Eve as man and woman from the beginning, equal in dignity but with distinct and complementary roles.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the “last Adam,” came to Earth through the “New Eve,” the Holy Theotokos, but even though she is “higher than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim,” the sinless Virgin Mary respected the headship of her husband, St. Joseph. Three times the Lord directed the Holy Family to move quickly to escape mortal danger, and each time the direction was given to St. Joseph and obeyed unquestioningly by the Blessed Virgin. In this way, Our Lord showed that the ideal Christian family is not one of unisex equality, but one in which husband and wife, equal in dignity, carry out their God-given, distinct but complementary roles within the family. Just as Eve was created from Adam’s side to be her husband’s help-mate and the heart of her home, so Adam was created to be the spiritual leader of his wife and children and the head of his household. This was the ideal fully realized in the Holy Family of Nazareth and reflected in the distinct forms of dress adopted by the Lord Jesus, St. Joseph, and the Holy Theotokos.
Throughout the New Testament, St. Paul and the apostles make clear that men and women who rebel against God’s plan for the sexes reap nothing but misery. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of people who refuse to recognize God as Creator and to thank Him properly, whose hearts become darkened and who reject the natural forms of sexual relationship for homosexual relations. He writes:
For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error. And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, malignity, whisperers, detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy. Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them (Romans 1:25–30).
St. Paul’s warning obviously pertained to men as much as to women. The fourth-century North African apologist Arnobius — the teacher (according to St. Jerome) of the Church Father Lactantius — articulated the view of all of the Church Fathers that men must shun
women’s clothing and feminine mannerisms. He wrote of men who: Though in the form of men ... curl their hair with curling pins, make the skin of the body smooth, and they walk with bare knees. In every other type of wantonness, they lay aside the strength of their masculinity and grow effeminate in women’s habits and luxury.
Thus, from the beginning of human history, the Bible’s dress code has safeguarded chastity as well as the distinct and complementary roles of man and woman.
The New Testament Teaching on Modesty
The teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ on modesty brought the Mosaic law to fulfillment. Whereas the Mosaic law focused on external behavior, Jesus focused on the interior disposition of his hearers. As Creator, He knew what most psychologists recognize today: that men — much more than women — are attracted by what they see. That is why Jesus emphasized that “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28). That is also the reason why the New Testament gives more dress guidelines to women than to men. In St. Paul’s first letter to St. Timothy, Chapter Two, he writes that women ought to appear “in decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly attire.”
According to some commentators, the word translated “apparel,” the Greek word katastole, meant a long flowing dress that fell from the shoulders to the ankles. Certainly, it would have been a loose-fitting garment that extended below the knees. From the time of the apostles, the Fathers of the Church consistently upheld the same standard of dress for Christian women. Writing in the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote:
By no means are women to be allowed to uncover and exhibit any part of their bodies, lest both fall — the men by being incited to look, and the women by attracting to themselves the eyes of the men. Clement of Alexandria (circa. 195 AD), 2.246.
St. Cyprian, third-century Bishop of North Africa, wrote:
[S]elf-control and modesty do not consist only in purity of the flesh, but also in seemliness and in modesty of dress and adornment.
St. John Chrysostom.
In Byzantine Catholic churches, special reverence is shown to the Eastern Fathers, among whom St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great hold a special place. Of all the Doctors who preached on the duties of Christians in the family and in society, none holds a higher place than St. John Chrysostom, great preacher of Antioch and patriarch of Constantinople. St. John preached with great fervor on the importance of modesty. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
He was especially indignant at the immodest dress and conduct of women and their use of purple, silks, and jewels. He observed that “their veils were not worn as modest coverings and symbols of penance, but rather they wore thin veils in ways to attract the eyes of others.” St. John referred to these as, in some respects, “worse than public prostitutes: for these hide their baits at home only for the wicked: “but you”, he said: “carry your snare everywhere, and spread your nets publicly in all places.”
“You allege that you never invite others to sin. You did not by your tongue, but you have done it by your dress and deportment more effectively than you could by your voice. When you have made another to sin in his heart, how can you be innocent? You sharpened and drew the sword. You gave the thrust by which the soul is wounded.
“Tell me whom does the world condemn? Whom do judges punish? Those who drink the poison, or those who prepare and give the fatal draught? You mingled the execrable cup; you administered the potion of death. You are so much more criminal than poisoners, as the death which you cause is the more terrible; for you murder not the body, but the soul.
“Nor do you do this to enemies: not compelled by necessity nor provoked by any injury; but out of a foolish vanity and pride. You sport yourselves in the ruin of the souls of others, and make their spiritual death your pastime.”
It will be worthwhile to carefully study these few paragraphs, which sum up St. John’s views on the importance of modesty. In the first place, he condemns as “worse than prostitutes” women (but it could be men) who wear certain styles of clothing that attract attention to themselves as objects of lust. He rejects the common excuse that these women (or men) do not “invite” others to have lustful thoughts or to act on their lustful desires, arguing that a person who dresses in a way that excites lustful thoughts when she could avoid doing so is guilty of the effects of her immodesty. Finally, St. John exposes the root of immodest dress as pride and vanity — the desire to draw attention to oneself and away from God and other people — without regard for the spiritual harm that immodesty inflicts on other people.
But there is another aspect to Chrysostom’s teaching on this subject, which flows from his exalted view of marriage. He takes quite literally the teaching of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians that a husband should love his wife “as his own body.” Any husband who takes this teaching to heart will lay down his life for his wife every day, doing all that he can to show her that she is precious in his sight. But he will also express his special love for her “as his own body” by encouraging her to dress modestly. For her part, in the light of St. Chrysostom’s teaching, a Christian wife delights in belonging to her husband and shows by the way that she acts and dresses that she belongs to him.
Our Lady of Guadalupe.
But the implications of Chrysostom’s beautiful teaching on modesty extend even beyond the marriage relationship to the modesty of children and young adults. In the light of his preaching of the Gospel, it is easy to see that young men and women should regard themselves first and foremost as “temples of the Holy Spirit,” and only secondly as future spouses and parents if God calls them to that vocation. However, in the light of Chrysostom’s teaching, young men or women who discern that God is calling them to holy marriage have a special reason to dress modestly. The young man dresses modestly because he knows that his body belongs in a very real way to his future spouse. He does not want to share it with the whole world. The young woman also dresses modestly because she knows that her body belongs in a very real way to her future husband. When two young people marry who have lived with this attitude, they know a joy that cannot be compared to any worldly enjoyment — the joy of giving and receiving the total gift of themselves! But nothing safeguards this joy like the practice of modesty before marriage.
Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Is Modesty Old Hat?
If one looks at the standards of dress for men and women throughout the history of the Church, it is apparent that today’s fashions clash violently with the standards of modesty that prevailed from the time of the apostles and Church Fathers until about sixty or seventy years ago. From the time of the apostles until then, pants, sleeveless or low-cut dresses, and short skirts for women were never tolerated in Catholic society, much less in the house of God during divine worship. Nor have shorts, sleeveless shirts, or other casual forms of dress for men ever been tolerated in the house of God.
It is worth noting that the Holy Theotokos has appeared on earth numerous times from the first century until the present time, and always in the same modest attire, clothed in a long dress. If the Holy Theotokos wanted to endorse the fashions of the modern world, surely, she would have varied her style of dress at least once or twice in the last two thousand years. But from one end of the world to the other, from the time of the apostles until now, the Holy Theotokos has always abided by the guidelines set down by St. Paul two thousand years ago. Our Lord Jesus Christ has also appeared numerous times, but always in dignified attire.
Some might object that the old standards of modesty were oppressive to women (and men), as the segregation of churches according to race was oppressive to minorities. But it is hard to see how this analogy applies. We have seen that the biblical dress codes as upheld by the Church Fathers were designed to safeguard chastity as well as the distinctive roles of men and women in the family and in society. If the old standards of modesty were oppressive and ill suited to their purpose, then the abandonment of those standards should not have contributed to gender confusion or to sexual immorality. But what do we see? In reality, the abandonment of biblical standards of modesty has been accompanied by a meteoric rise in the percentage of Catholics who are confused about their sexual identity; who approve of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle; and who practice or tolerate fornication, contraception, abortion and divorce.*
Is it really possible that the abandonment of biblical standards of modesty has played no part in the explosion of sexual confusion and immorality within the Catholic community, especially in Europe and North America? Can Catholics violate with impunity the rules handed down from the time of the apostles and maintained for almost two thousand years? Isn’t it time that we abandoned this destructive experiment and returned to the guidelines handed down to us by our fathers in the Faith? What is right cannot be determined by taking a poll. It can only be determined by consulting the Word of God as it has been understood in the Church from the beginning. When that is done, it becomes apparent that modesty is not “old hat.” It is an essential safeguard of chastity and healthy sexuality. To embrace that safeguard gives life. To discard it is suicidal.
*According to Gallup Poll surveys between 2006 and 2008, American Catholics are even more approving of sexual immorality than non-Catholics. When asked if the following practices are morally acceptable, the following percentages of Catholics surveyed said “Yes”: Sexual relations between unmarried man and woman? 67 per cent; Divorce? 71 percent; Homosexual relationships? 54 percent.
Hugh Owen is the founder and director of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation www.kolbecenter.org which recently produced the DVD series “Foundations Restored,” a comprehensive defense of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation from the perspective of theology, philosophy, and natural science: www.foundationsrestored.com. He and his wife Maria belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. They have nine children, including two who are religious sisters, and eighteen grandchildren (so far!).