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Topics: Womanhood, Women

Modesty and Legalism

May 14, 2013

legalism post

By Courtney Reissig

The dawn of summer is nearly upon us and so with it comes the dreaded discussion of modesty. Few things are more unpopular in our everyday conversations like modesty. Yet, every year it is bound to come up in some capacity.

I remember my brother talking to a girl about modesty in college only to be met with disdain and a quick remark about how any mention of modesty was only legalism in disguise.

Legalism is a scary word, especially these days. To be a legalist is anti-gospel. To be a legalist, is to say that your behavior saves you, not the abundant grace of God. To be a legalist is to add to the already completed work of Christ. It’s dangerous to be a legalist.

The dreaded “L” word is often stamped onto any mention of holiness or obedience to God. But is it really legalism to provide women with a loose example to follow? Is it legalism to encourage women to dress modestly in order to glorify their heavenly father?

Probably not

Obedience to God by dressing modestly, when the goal is glorifying God, is the beautiful fruit of a life changed by Christ. It’s not empty rules and bondage to the Law.

The Dreaded “List”

In some ways, our fear of legalism is rooted in our dislike for lists. Now, don’t get me wrong, lists can be very detrimental to people—especially those who delight in being good rule followers. But some lists are merely guidelines. Some lists give us a framework for applying God’s word to our lives. And application is not a bad thing.

As Christian women, we are called to be holy not because it saves us but because our God is holy (Leviticus 11:44). As his daughters we should want nothing more than to emulate the one in whose image we are created.

It’s true that lists can often be burdensome and unhelpful. But can it also be that we hate lists because we don’t want the finger pointed at us, too? It’s hard to go against the gushing waters of ambient culture, and even harder with the way we dress. But Christ has purchased us, and part of his blood bought payment includes good works. Not so we get glory or earn points with God, but because God gets glory when we grow more and more like him through his son’s atoning death.

So why are we so afraid of lists? The reality is that in many cases a list has been abused by even the most well-meaning people. A list is not intended to be the modesty police, or someone else’s Holy Spirit. It’s meant to be a guideline. It’s meant to be a help to women who truly want to serve God and need a little help in thinking through their dress. It’s not for us to use as a harsh check-list at our next church function. A list is not, nor could it ever be, exhaustive. And to subject women to a list as the judge for their own holiness is hardly helpful. But just because a list has been unhelpful doesn’t mean we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. And that is where grace comes in.

Understanding Grace

Any discussion of legalism and modesty usually comes with a discussion of grace, as if grace is what frees us from ever having any guidelines. But is that really grace? Grace is not an invitation to do as we wish or dress like we want. That’s licentiousness. And modesty isn’t legalism. It’s freedom. The freedom Christ gives us doesn’t let us do whatever we want, it frees us from ourselves and the endless pursuit of me and my wants. And at the very heart of immodesty is a selfish quest for the praise and adoration of men.

The reason we dress modestly is not so people will praise us and our good works. And it’s not so we can get another gold star in God’s record of good works. We dress modestly because we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). We are not our own.

The next time we are tempted to slap a legalism label on our quest for holiness we must remember what Christ died for. Christ died for the legalist and the licentious. And both are tempted to forget that truth.  What my brother’s friend failed to realize, and I fear many Christian women do too, is that Christ didn’t die so you could show off your body this summer and not feel guilty about it. He also didn’t die so you could feel good about your clothed body either. He died to make you his. And with his purchase comes a changed life.

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