What Shall I Wear?
The desires to adorn the body with eye-catching clothes, costly jewelry, and colorful cosmetics have left few untouched. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout biblical and Christian history there have been frequent calls to dress modestly and decently.
The biblical teaching on dress and ornaments is especially relevant today when many in the fashion industry operate with little respect for the dignity of the human body as created by God. In this article, I shall present seven basic principles that can guide Christians in developing a philosophy of personal adornment. These principles are a result of studying biblical examples, allegories, and admonitions regarding clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics.1
Dress and appearance are an important index of Christian character. Clothes and appearance are most powerful nonverbal communicators not only of socioeconomic status, but also of moral values. William Thourlby, an acclaimed clothing consultant who advises executives on “how to package yourself for success,” points out that “consciously or unconsciously the clothing we wear reveal a set of beliefs about ourselves that we want the world to believe.”2 The business world has long recognized the importance of clothing and appearance in marketing their products, services, and the image of their companies.
The Bible also recognizes the importance of clothes. Implicitly, this is indicated by the symbolism of modest clothing used to represent God’s provision of salvation (“garment of salvation,” Isaiah 61:10; see also Revelation 3:18; 1 Peter 5:5),* and of immodest clothing used to represent spiritual adultery and apostasy (Ezekiel 23:40-42; Jeremiah 4:30; Revelation 17:4-6). Explicitly, this is indicated by the numerous stories, allegories, and admonitions regarding appropriate and inappropriate attire and adorning.
The Bible views the outward appearance as a visible and silent testimony of our moral values. Some people dress and adorn their bodies with costly clothes and jewelry to please themselves. They want to be admired for their wealth, power, or social status. Some dress in accordance with certain fashions to be accepted by their peers. The Christian dresses to glorify God.
Clothes are important for Christians because they serve as a frame to reveal the picture of the One whom they serve. “In no better way,” wrote Ellen White, “can you let your light shine to others than in your simplicity of dress and deportment. You may show to all that, in comparison with eternal things, you place a proper estimate upon the things of this life.”3
As Christians we cannot say, “What I look like is no one’s business!” because what we look like reflects on our Lord. My house, my personal appearance, the vehicle I own, my use of time and money, all reflect on how Christ has changed my life from the inside out. When Jesus comes into our lives, He does not cover our blemishes with cosmetic powder. Instead, he cleanses us wholly by working from within. This inner renewal is reflected in the outward appearance.
The most effective witness to the change that Christ has wrought within is a radiant smile on the face of a clean, becomingly dressed person. A too-sophisticated, coiffured, and made-up appearance, with glittering jewels and extravagant clothes, reveals not the radiance of a God-centered personality, but the artificial image of a self-centered man or woman.
Adorning our bodies with colorful cosmetics, glittering jewelry, and luxurious clothes reveals inner pride and vanity, which are destructive to ourselves and to others. This truth is brought out implicitly by the apostolic admonitions of Paul and Peter.
Isaiah reproves wealthy Jewish women for their pride shown by adorning head to foot with glittering jewelry and expensive clothes. They seduced the leaders, who eventually led the whole nation into disobedience and divine punishment (Isaiah 3:16-26).
Jezebel stands out in the Bible for her determined effort to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. The inner corruption of her heart is revealed by the attempt she made even in her final hour to look her seductive best by painting her eyes and adorning herself for the arrival of the new king, Jehu (2 Kings 9:30). But the king was not fooled, and she died an ignominious death. Because of this, her name has become a symbol of seduction in biblical history (Revelation 2:20).
Ezekiel dramatizes the apostasy of Israel and Judah through the allegory of two women, Oholah and Oholibah, who, like Jezebel, painted their eyes and decked themselves with ornaments to entice men to adultery (Ezekiel 23). In this allegory again we find cosmetics and ornaments associated with seduction, adultery, apostasy, and divine punishment.
Jeremiah also uses a similar allegory to represent the politically abandoned Israel, who is vainly trying to attract her former idolatrous allies (Jeremiah 4:30). Here again cosmetics and jewelry are used to seduce men into adulterous acts.
John the Revelator provides a prophetic portrayal of the great harlot “arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls” (Revelation 17:4). This impure woman, who represents the end-time apostate religious-political power, lures the inhabitants of the earth to commit spiritual fornication with her. By contrast, the bride of Christ, who represents the church, is attired modestly in pure and fine linen without outward ornaments (Revelation 19:7, 8).
Thus, with few metaphorical exceptions (Isaiah 61:10; Jeremiah 2:32; Ezekiel 16:9-14), both the Old and New Testaments relate the use of colorful cosmetics, glittering jewelry, and eye-catching clothes with apostasy and rebellion against God. Such a pattern implicitly reveals God’s condemnation of their use. What is taught implicitly in the Old Testament through negative examples is reiterated positively in the New Testament by the apostles Paul and Peter in their condemnation of the use of jewelry and luxurious clothes.
Both apostles contrast the appropriate adorning of Christian women with the inappropriate ornaments of worldly women. Both apostles give us essentially the same list of inappropriate ornaments (1 Timothy 2:9, 10; 1 Peter 3:3, 4). Both apostles recognize that, for both women and men, the outward ornaments are inconsistent with the appropriate inward ornaments of the heart, the quiet spirit and benevolent deeds.
To experience inner spiritual renewal and reconciliation with God, it is necessary to remove all outward objects of idolatry, including jewelry and ornaments. This truth is expressed especially through the experience of Jacob’s family at Shechem and of the Israelites at Mount Horeb. In both instances ornaments were removed to effect reconciliation with God.
At Shechem Jacob summoned his family members to remove their outward idols and ornaments (Genesis 35:2, 3) as a means of preparing themselves for an inward spiritual cleansing at the altar he intended to build at Bethel. The response was commendable: “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem” (Genesis 35:4).
At Mount Horeb God requested the Israelites to remove their ornaments as proof of their sincere repentance for worshiping the golden calf: “’So now put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what to do with you’” (Exodus 33:5). Again the response of the people was positive: “Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward” (Exodus 33:6). The phrase “from Mount Horeb onward” implies that repentant Israelites made a commitment at Mount Horeb to discontinue the use of ornaments in order to show their sincere desire to obey God. Both at Shechem and Mount Horeb the removal of ornamental jewelry helped prepare the people for a renewal of a covenant commitment to God.
These experiences teach us that wearing ornamental jewelry contributes to rebellion against God by fostering self-glorification, and that removing it facilitates reconciliation with God by encouraging a humble attitude. Therefore, to experience spiritual renewal and reformation, we need to remove from our hearts the idols we cherish—whether they be self-exaltation, professional achievement, material possessions—and replace them with devotion to God.
Christians should dress in a modest and becoming way, voiding extremes. This principle is found in Paul’s use of the term kosmios (well-ordered) to describe the appropriate adorning of the Christian (1 Timothy 2:9). When referring to clothing, the term means that Christians must dress in a well-ordered, decorous, becoming way. This principle challenges us to be attentive to our personal appearance but to avoid extremes.
To dress modestly implies that clothing must provide adequate covering for the body so that others are not embarrassed or tempted. This principle is especially relevant today when the fashion industry seeks to sell clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics that exploit the powerful sex drives of the human body, even if it means marketing immodest products that foster pride and sensuality.
We can violate the Christian dress code of modesty by neglecting personal appearance as well as by giving excessive attention to it. “Dress neatly and becomingly,” Ellen White counseled, “but do not make yourself the subject of remarks either by being overdressed or by dressing in a lax, untidy manner. Act as though you knew that the eye of heaven is upon you, and you are living under the approbation of disapprobation of God.”4
Christians should dress in a decent, dignified way, showing respect for God, themselves, and others. This principle is found in Paul’s use of the term aidos (decency, reverence) to describe appropriate Christian adorning (1 Timothy 2:9). Christians show reverence and respect by dressing decently and sensibly, without causing shame or embarrassment to God, others or themselves.
This principle is especially relevant today when the fashion industry frequently rejects respect and decency as the basis for constructive human relationships. The Bible explicitly condemns the lustful look: “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). The revealing clothes promoted by some of the leading fashion designers awaken lustful passions in the heart of the beholder and contribute to the depravity of our time. By dressing modestly, Christians play a key role in maintaining public morality.
God calls us to dress immodestly and decently, not only to prevent sin, but also to preserve intimacy. People who want to sin will sin no matter how modestly dressed are the people they see. The purpose of modesty is not only to prevent lustful desires, but also to preserve something that is very fragile and yet fundamental to the survival of a marital relationship: the ability to maintain a deep, intimate relationship with one’s spouse. If marriage is to last a lifetime, as God intended, then husband and wife must work together to preserve, protect, and nurture that intimacy. Modesty and decency will preserve the joy of intimacy long after the ringing of the wedding bells.
Christians should dress soberly, restraining any desire to exhibit themselves. This principle is found in Paul’s use of the term sophrosune (soberly) to describe appropriate Christian adorning (1 Timothy 2:9). This term denotes a mental attitude of self-control, an attitude that determines all other virtues. The apostle recognized that self-control is indispensable in helping a Christian to dress modestly and decently. Paul pictures the converted Christian woman as one who dresses soberly by restraining her desire to exhibit herself through wearing elaborate hair styles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. (1 Timothy 2:9). Her appearance does not say, “Look at me; admire me,” but rather, “Look at how Christ has changed me from inside out.” A Christian woman or a Christian man who have been freed from the abiding concern to be the object of admiration will not be afraid to wear the same piece of clothing too often, if it is well-made, modest, and wears well.
Paul’s admonition to restrain the desire to buy or wear “expensive clothes” (I Timothy 2:9, NEB) also points to the principle of Christian stewardship. Expenditures that go beyond our means are incompatible with the Christian principle of stewardship. Even if we can afford to buy expensive clothes, we cannot afford to waste the means that God has given us at a time when there are many crying needs to help the needy and reach the unreached with the gospel message.
Christians should respect gender distinctions in clothing by wearing clothes that affirm their male or female identities. This principle is taught in the law found in Deuteronomy 22:5, which prohibits wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. One Bible commentary, reflecting a widely held view among scholars, points out that “the immediate design of this prohibition was not to prevent licentiousness, or to oppose idolatrous practices…but to maintain the sanctity of that distinction of the sexes which was established by the creation of man and woman.”5
This concept is especially relevant today when many, in the world of fashion, no longer shout, “Vive la difference!” but rather “Vive la similarite!” In fact, the similarity between certain men’s and women’s hairstyles and clothing has become so great that one cannot always be sure whether two young people walking down the sidewalk are both boys, both girls, or one of each.
The Bible considers it important to preserve gender distinctions in dress. These are fundamental to our understanding of who we are and of the role God wants us to fulfill. Clothes define our identity. A man who wants to be treated as a woman will most likely wear feminine items like jewelry, perfume, and ornate clothing. Similarly, a woman who wants to be treated like a man will most likely dress like a man.
The Bible does not tell us what style of clothing men and women should wear, because it recognizes that style is dictated by climate and culture. The Bible does teach us to respect the gender distinction in clothing as it is known within our own culture. This means that as Christians we need to ask ourselves when buying clothes: Does this article of clothing affirm my gender identity, or does it make me look as though I belong to the opposite sex? Whenever you feel that a certain type of clothing does not belong to your gender, follow your conscience: Don’t buy it, even if it’s fashionable.
At a time when some fashion styles seem bent on abolishing gender distinctions in clothing, it is not always easy for Christians to find clothes that affirm their gender identity. But it has never been easy to live by biblical principles. Yet this is our Christian calling—not to conform to the values and styles of our society, but to be a transforming influence in this world through the enabling power of God.
Clothes do not make a Christian, but Christians reveal their identity through their clothes and appearance. The Bible does not prescribe a standardized dress for Christian men and women to wear, but it calls us to follow the simplicity and unpretentiousness of Jesus’ lifestyle, even in our clothes and appearance.
To follow Jesus in our dress and adornment means to stand apart from the crowd by not painting up, jewelling up, and dolling up our bodies as many of our contemporaries do. This takes courage and discernment. Courage not to conform to the seductive dictates of fashion, but to be transformed by the sensible directives of the Word of God (Romans 12:2). Discernment to distinguish between the capricious mode that changes and the sensible style that remains. Courage to reveal the loveliness of Christ’s character, not by the external decoration of our bodies “with gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9, NEB) but by the internal beautification of our souls with the graces of the heart, the gentle and quiet spirit which is precious in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:3, 4). Courage to dress, not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God by dressing modestly, decently, and soberly.
Our outward appearance is a constant silent witness of our Christian identity. May it always tell the world that we live to glorify God and not ourselves.
Samuele Bacchiocchi (Doctor of Theology, Pontifical University of Rome) teaches Theology and Church History at Andrews University. He is the author of many books, including The Marriage Covenant, Wine in the Bible, The Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness, and From Sabbath to Sunday. The second of these books was reviewedin Dialogue 2:3.
*Except where noted, Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
Notes and references
- This article is adapted from my book Christian Dress and Adornment (Berrien Sprigs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1994). The book may be purchased from local Adventist Book Centers or by mail (US$13.00, postagepaid) from Biblical Perspectives, 4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs Michigan, 49103, U.S.A.
- William Thourlby, You Are What You Wear (New York: New American Library, 1980), p. 52.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p. 376.
- Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Nashville: Southern Publ. Assn., 1954), p. 415.
- C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1873). In a similar vein, J. Ridderbos writes: “These prohibitions are designed to instill respect for the God-given order of creation and for the distinction between sexes and kinds it presents” (Deuteronomy [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Regency Reference Library, 1984], p. 135). See also The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Ten.: Abingdon, 1981), vol. 2, p. 464; The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), vol. 3, p. 135.