The swimming pools of France heated up last summer, and not just because of August’s warm air. A French woman who converted to Islam 17 years ago showed up at a public swimming pool in Émerainville wearing a burkini. The pool manager turned her away on the grounds that a burkini is unhygienic, as are T-shirts and Bermuda-length swimming trunks. French law says so.

A Burk-what?

The burkini, created by Australian Aheda Zanetti for Muslim women, is an actual swimsuit that covers from head to ankles. Émerainville was not the first instance of a burkini worn to a French swimming pool. And more than once, French politicians from the right and the left have called the attempt to wear one a political provocation.

Most of the arguments against too much covering in the pool (heard all over Europe) are specious: it is unhygienic, it absorbs too much pool water, it plugs water filters through excess worn-off fibers, and on the arguments go. The director of the City of Berlin Swimming Pools, Klaus Lipinski, says simply, “There is no logical reason to forbid the burkini at a swimming pool.”

But the most culturally telling of all that has been said about burkini episodes is the statement of the French woman who wore one in Émerainville: “I know that my swimsuit can be shocking.”

History of Modesty: 101

Until 1900, women who went to public swimming places in the Western world were covered from ankles to shoulders, and often to the head as well. Swim apparel was not dictated by religious conviction, but by common modesty. It is a telltale sign of how much a culture has changed and where it is morally when modesty no longer is merely prudish but is shocking.

Greco-Roman culture and modesty

To understand the origins of our now-fading modesty, one needs to look at Greco-Roman culture and the beginnings of Christianity. As Christianity was beginning, modesty in the Greco-Roman world had begun to fade. The Romans had no need of photography to create pornography: they used sculpture, painting, and mosaics. In many places, phallic symbols were common, including in homes. The public bath was exactly that in many cities, with both sexes participating at the same time. Bacchian worship—with all its frenzy, immodesty, and immorality—had spread throughout the Roman Empire by the time of Jesus’ birth.

Christianity and modesty

The Christian view of modesty, in contrast to Greco-Roman immodesty, was expressed by Paul to Timothy with the words, “That the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation” (1 Timothy 2:9). Paul’s ethical training was in Judaism. When he taught Christ to the Gentiles, he taught not only Christian doctrine but also Jewish ethos, including the pious Jewish view of modesty.

Step by step, the Christian ethos first changed the people in Christian churches (sometimes with difficulty, as in the instances of Corinth and Thessalonica), and then the surrounding culture. About AD 200, the church fathers Tertullian in the West and Clement in the East decried the moral compromise of church members who had imbibed the looseness of the Greco-Roman lifestyle. They challenged Christians about their modesty: at the bath, at the theater, in their clothing, in the way they carried themselves. If you read what they said about Christians in their day, you will be surprised. Perhaps you thought the average Christian in AD 200 possessed such moral and spiritual certitude that he was ready to face the lions in the arena. Guess again. But the interesting truth about the history of modesty is that ultimately the apostolic idea (for it is found in 1 Peter as well) not only dominated Christian thinking, it also highly influenced the culture into which the Christian faith expanded. From the time of Paul until the 21st century, wherever missionaries made converts, people put on more clothes, even when conversions weren’t genuine. From the days of St. Augustine until the Roaring Twenties, modesty, even if frequently mingled with hypocrisy, ruled in the Western world. Speaking of the changes wrought by WWI, Churchill said, “The Old World was glorious in its demise!” Part of its glory was its modesty.

Christian missionaries got their ideas of modesty from the New Testament, which got its ideas from the Old Testament. Modesty appears very early in the Bible: in Genesis 3, in fact. First there was sin (vv. 1–6), then shame (vv. 8–13), then clothing (v. 21). Shame is fallen man’s possession. Modesty is God’s gracious gift to fallen man; it tells him how to cover his shame. No wonder naked people who have accepted the gospel have gotten dressed. From the days of the demoniac of Gadara until today, the story repeats itself. Modesty is God’s gracious gift for man’s shame, and new converts have grasped it gladly.

A young Jewish woman and modesty

In 1999 Wendy Shalit published the best seller A Return to Modesty and in 2007, Girls Gone Mild. The positive response to her writings was so extensive that she launched the blog “Modestly Yours.” Her writings have also prompted what has been called “the modesty movement.” Since the 1960s, she tells us, media, feminists, and educators have taught us that modesty is repression, that embarrassment is a sign of being uncomfortable with one’s body. Quite the contrary, Shalit argues: embarrassment is a part of being human. It functions as a protection. An attempt to do away with it is an attempt to remove part of our humanity.

Baby Boomers and modesty

Joan Baez has said that the most wonderful moment of Woodstock was to watch a man fully disrobe and run through the crowd while a policeman standing nearby did nothing. From that day to this, many of the leaders of my generation have done their best to mock, out-manipulate, or steamroll over whatever attempts there have been at keeping the public modest. Along comes a new generation, and with it, Wendy Shalit. Shalit gives the leaders of the Baby Boomer generation and all their followers a good going over for their foolishness in the area of sexual morality, not only because of the way they have acted, but also for their thoroughly cockeyed ideas.

People read what Shalit writes. Wendy Shalit is Jewish. That is one of the most fascinating parts of the whole modesty movement. It was Christians who took Jewish modesty throughout the world as Christianity spread. But now it appears that Christians do not possess their former moral authority to assert the truth of the God of modesty to their surrounding culture. It is people of the Islamic and Jewish faiths who are making moral statements, and that with some success (even if the raison d’être for modesty is quite different for each).

The trickling loss of Christian modesty

This turn of events should not surprise us. The leaders of the Reformation departed from a church that they were convinced was thoroughly married to the world. But ever since the Reformation, Protestants have had a good deal of trouble trying to get the world out of their churches. In fact, since the days of the Enlightenment they have done their best to alter their message and lifestyle so as to gain the world’s approval. The evangelical-fundamentalist movement began as a beacon of hope against this compromising trend. But a certain part of the movement has always had a desire for acceptance in the world. Its giveaways of Christian truth and practice multiply with every generation. Those who have attempted to correct their brothers and sisters and call them back to God’s gracious gift of modesty have had to reckon with the designations “narrow,” “prudish,” “old-fashioned,” “repressive,” “legalistic”—not from the world, but from other Christians.

True, many of the moralistic Christian sermons of the past lacked substance. But I don’t think many complaints came from Christians who wanted more teaching on why to be modest. Rather, we simply asked the preachers to change the subject. What we really need is more rigorous Bible exegesis that specifically addresses how to implement the spiritual discipline of modesty in a given culture.

Meanwhile, Islamic women wear burkinis at the swimming pool, while professing Christian women strut across the stage in scant bikinis for the entire beauty-pageant crowd to ogle at.

The truth is, Christian writers who tackle Shalit’s subject don’t get the resonance she has gotten, even from other Christians.

Modesty and the Human Heart

Whatever happened to Christian modesty, the type so often understood and practiced in evangelical circles decades ago? The answer is that there was a change in Christian hearts. Peter, addressing the subject, said to Christian women, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3, 4).

A modest heart understands the reality of shame and the nature of true beauty. It makes its boast in God, not in itself or in its own accomplishments. It is because of an immodest heart that a woman will pose for a pornographic magazine, just as an immodest heart will cause a man to boast of his sexual escapades. The immodest heart prompts a woman to dress so she can show her curves, and a man to do the same to show his bulging muscles. The woman who shares the intimate details of her life on a talk show does so because of an immodest heart. The preacher who repeatedly talks of his spiritual successes and authority speaks from the same source. And what shall we say of confessing Christians who seek to become idols to others? Isn’t this just as immodest as the strutting men and women who show off their figures?

We are becoming immodest Christians in an immodest culture because we have come to believe that swagger is strength, and gentleness, a snare. We need to regain the Biblical perspective that it is the modest heart, not the clothes, that makes the Christian man or woman. We have something wonderfully redemptive to offer the world that we have doubted far too long.

A Call for Modesty

I keep waiting for a new Peter or Paul to rise and call Christians back to the God Who demands modesty. I keep listening for a Christian voice to guide the way back to virtue. They would not need to define how much clothing qualifies as modest. If they would just reconnect us with what God tells us on the subject, we adults, at least, could pretty much figure out the practical application and accept our own differences of opinion. And when we are troubled by the world’s reaction to our modesty, a new Peter or Paul could remind us, as the apostle John said, “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you.” In 21st century terms, don’t be surprised—a society that pushes condoms in our faces will find Biblical modesty offensive. But either the new voice is not speaking, or we are not listening. Perhaps this time it will take a Jewish woman to get the right idea about virtue through our thick heads. Or perhaps it will be a few Islamic women who will make us understand what we have become.

To the dear lady of Émerainville I say, “I do not believe like you—that you will be a temptation to men unless you cover all but your face and hands. I will say that plainly. But I love the way you have shocked our culture and made Christians think.”

Jeff Brown (DMin, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church-planting missionary with Baptist Mid-Missions in Baiersdorf, Germany.