Up to this point, I have outlined a number of different purposes for clothing that are biblically valid, based upon evidence of their usage in the Scriptures where God commands it, acknowledges it, or simply reports is without any reprimand or condemnation.
Notably, there was one usage of clothing that was rebuked by God, and that was the effort by Adam and Eve to address their own shame and fear by clothing themselves. For this reason, I have concluded that the use of clothing to address fear and shame is not Scripturally condoned.
The Culturally Assumed Purpose
There is a purpose for clothing that is assumed so universally in our world today that most people likely consider it the most important of all the purposes for clothing… and it is certainly the most inviolate. All other purposes for clothing may be applicable at some times but not others—except this one. The adherence to this one “purpose” is the only one that is considered impossible and immoral to lay aside…
I speak of the idea that clothing is for controlling lust.
Everyone “knows” that when the unclothed form (or even “too much” skin) is seen by the opposite sex, it will “automatically” incite sexual desires and lust. So, according to that assumption, the obvious way to minimize a lustful response is to make sure we keep clothed. And this—it is assumed—is why God clothed Adam and Eve.
Is the Purpose of “Controlling Lust” Found in the Bible?
In a word… No.
It’s easy to demonstrate that something is in the Bible… you just find it and quote it. But showing that something is not in the Bible is nearly impossible… there’s nothing to quote!
However, let me take a look at a couple of passages that some may believe teach this purpose for clothing. I will examine them to discern if they really do teach it. In each case, I find that the interpretations that reach that conclusion are actually in error, for they are not consistent with the careful reading and understanding of the texts.
Do not “uncover the nakedness of…”
In Leviticus 18, the command “Do not uncover the nakedness of…” is repeated time and again. It is also clear that the passage is talking about sexual conduct. But does this mean that nakedness must be “covered” in order to control our sexual lusts?
Lev. 18:6-7 – “None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the LORD. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness.” (NASB)
I have dealt with this extended passage at length in my article, The Meaning of Nakedness, which looks at the usage of the Hebrew word here translated “nakedness” in order to discern its true meaning as it is actually used in the Bible. Let me summarize some of the key points that help us understand this passage.
First of all, I think we can all agree that the word “nakedness” here is not talking about simply being unclothed. The word as used in this context connotes sexual activity and “uncover the nakedness of…” is clearly a euphemism for sexual intercourse. This conclusion is not in debate at all, and modern translations such as the NIV simply translate the phrase as “have sexual relations with….”
However, these Scriptural prohibitions are not simply about avoiding sexual relations. As you can see in the passage above, they apply specifically and only to “blood relatives.” In other words, this passage is about defining and prohibiting incest in all it’s variations. The text itself invokes that limit on its application four times (verses 6, 12, 13, & 17), and every relationship for which “uncovering nakedness” is forbidden is a close family member.
The fact that this passage speaks so specifically to various family relationships shows that it is not intended to prohibit the uncovering of nakedness between any man or woman, but only in relationships that are incestuous—that is, between blood relatives. In other words, non-family men and women are permitted to marry and have sexual relations. This understanding is further in evidence two chapters later:
Lev. 20:17 “If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and they have sexual relations, it is a disgrace. They are to be publicly removed from their people. He has dishonored his sister [‘uncovered his sister’s nakedness’ – NASB] and will be held responsible.” (NIV)
Sexual intercourse with one’s sister is incestuous, even if a man attempts to formally marry her. Sexual union (uncovering nakedness) between a man and his wife otherwise is expected and blessed.
This passage again underscores the fact that the phrase “uncover the nakedness of…” is a biblical euphemism for incest. It is not a general command to keep clothed in order to control lust. If it were, then there would be no limitation of its application to “blood relatives.”
Leviticus 18 defines and prohibits incest. It does not define a purpose of clothing to control lust.
Priestly Garments and Altars with Steps
Exodus 20:25-26 - “If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it.” (NASB)
Exodus 28:42-43 – “You shall make for them linen breeches to cover their bare flesh [nakedness]; they shall reach from the loins even to the thighs. They shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they enter the tent of meeting, or when they approach the altar to minister in the holy place, so that they do not incur guilt and die. It shall be a statute forever to him and to his descendants after him.” (NASB)
In both of these passages, we see that God expressly forbids the exposure of the genitals (the word is ervah/“nakedness” and the context makes it clear that it’s talking about the genitals) at the altar. Notably, God never forbids that exposure anywhere else… only at the altar.
In the first passage above, we see that steps leading up to an altar with is forbidden… but, notably, not all steps. Hebrew homes very typically used their rooftops for usable living space. They built steps on the outside of their homes to provide that access. Such steps were not forbidden… only those going up to an altar. Clearly, it is the context of an altar that made the exposure a problem, not just any exposure any time.
In the second passage above, the special linen breeches were prescribed for the Aaronic priestly line for when they entered the “Tent of Meeting” (the tabernacle where the altar was). It was not required for the other priests; it was not a command for the the general populace, and it was not even a requirement for the Aaronic priests when they were not serving in the Tent of Meeting. Again, this passage is very limited in its application and is not a general “rule” or “law” for all people everywhere.
Since both of these passages have to do with exposure of the genitals at the altar, it does beg the question, “Why?” What is it about exposure in that specific context was offensive to God? Why were God’s commands to keep their genitals covered limited to only those special places of worship?
While we cannot know the reason for sure, we can at least say with confidence that if God intended this for all times for all people, He would not have given the commands for such a limited and specific context. Furthermore, the idea that God’s intent was to avoid exposure so as to minimize lust is completely foreign to both passages. The presence of absence of other people who may “see” the exposure is completely missing, and therefore irrelevant to both commands.
In my article, The Meaning of Nakedness, I have offered what I consider to be a reasonable explanation of why God included these laws in the Bible. There is insufficient space here in this article to summarize or defend them, so I recommend that you read that article where I cover it in detail. Suffice it here to say that the very limited scope where these laws apply indicates that they are not about covering the body to prevent lust in others.
What about “Modest Attire”?
Many people would likely point to 1 Timothy 2:9 as a clear command that women “dress modestly” since Paul said it so plainly there. So, let’s look at the passage to see if it supports the assertion that women should keep dressed to prevent lust in men.
1 Timothy 2:9-10 “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. ” (NIV)
Let me say up front that I do not believe this is a very accurate translation of the passage. A full review of the reasons why can be found in the online article Rightly Dividing 1 Timothy 2:9.
But let’s assume for the sake of this survey that this is an accurate translation. Even as it is stated here in the NIV, can we reach the conclusion that clothes are needed to prevent lust? I don’t believe so.
- Paul’s command is that a woman should not attract attention to herself by things that she wears. Paul lists hairstyles, jewelry, and expensive clothing as things to avoid, but nothing is said about skimpy clothing or covering certain body parts.
- If I live in a “modest” house and drive a “modest” car, it means that I’m not putting on airs or trying to impress people with my house or car. It has nothing to do with how sexually alluring they are… that’s a completely different meaning for the English word, “modest.”
- Paul’s meaning is that women are to avoid ostentation to impress people with their wealth. He was not telling them to make sure “this and that” are adequately covered.
- Paul tells the women not to adorn themselves with those things, but instead… to adorn themselves with “good deeds.” This is, quite literally, a de-emphasis on clothing, not an emphasis upon it.
- 1 Peter 3:3-4 affirms the same de-emphasis on clothing: “Your adornment must not be [merely] external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but [let it be] the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit…” (NASB) [Note: the words in brackets are not in the original Greek text]
- Neither Paul nor Peter require clothing; in both cases, they only warn against the misuse of clothing. If clothing were required for the prevention of lust, then both would have made note of that need.
1 Timothy 2:9 is the only passage in all the Bible that speaks to dressing “modestly.” But upon close examination, it cannot by itself prove that clothing must be worn to inhibit lust in others. Lust is not even mentioned by Paul.
If preventing lust really were a valid biblical purpose for clothing, surely we would find that purpose stated somewhere in the Scriptures and there would be a clear description of which parts of the body need to be covered to accomplish that purpose. Such a passage is utterly missing in all the Bible.
Do some people today use clothing to attract attention to themselves? Absolutely. It happens with some when they wear skimpy clothing. It also happens with others who are covered neck to toe. Both are forbidden by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, but any requirement to wear clothes to prevent lust is completely missing… both in this text and the rest of God’s word.
Who is Really Responsible for Lust Anyway?
Could it be that the real responsibility for avoiding lust rests with the observer and not the observed? If we place that responsibility on a woman and how she dresses, are we not—at least in some measure—absolving the man who sees her of that responsibility? Isn’t lust always a choice? Is a man any less responsible for his own lust, even if a woman is literally trying to seduce him?
I’m not condoning a woman’s use of clothing to incite lust, but if a woman does that, her real problem is with her heart, not her clothing. nevertheless, no matter what her motives or actions are, the man is still fully responsible for his own choice to lust or not.
Imagine for a moment how Jesus (as a man) would respond to a woman attempting to seduce Him to lust after her. Would He do so? No, He would not. Men, we are called to be like Christ; His response to such a woman must be ours as well. We can never blame the woman—or her choice of attire—for our own sin.
The use of clothes to prevent or inhibit lust is NOT a biblically valid purpose for clothing.
Biblically speaking, there is no evidence that God intended clothing to inhibit lust. The fact that we have a culture full of men that lust when they see skin and do not lust when they don’t only reveals the fact that we have set up a cultural expectation that assumes—and therefore condones—lust in the hearts of men.
Does it Fit “Before and After” the Fall?
What about “Before and After”? To be fair, those who promote this purpose for clothing correctly observe that after the Fall, men and women now possessed a sin nature, and were no longer “naked and unashamed.” They would claim that before the Fall, men and women were able to see the nude form of the opposite sex without sin, but thereafter, they were no longer able to see nakedness without lust.
Indeed, this appears to be plausible. Without a doubt, most Christians in the world believe this is absolute truth.
The problem is, however, that there’s not a shred of evidence in all the Bible that this claim is true. We have, quite literally, taken a cultural experience and elevated it to being equal to the Word of God.
But let’s ask the question anyway… if “controlling lust” were a valid purpose for clothing, would it fit the context of the life before and after the Fall?
A simple reading of the text in Genesis 1-3 shows that when Adam and Eve sinned, there were no other people in the world; there simply was no need to “control lust” at that moment (Did God intend to limit Adams’s sexual desire for Eve?). We cannot conclude that God’s purpose for clothing Adam and Eve was a purpose that did not even apply at that moment. In other words, it also fails the before/after test.
If we want to be Biblical Christians, we must be honest enough to recognize when our interpretations of God’s Word are being influenced by subjective experience. We must be ready to reexamine them and—if necessary—lay them aside.
The belief that God intends for clothing to be used to control lust is a belief that must be laid aside.
— Matthew Neal
This article Series:
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Introduction
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 1 – Shame and Fear??
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 2 – Clothing as Currency
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 3 – Sign of Position
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 4 – Communicate About the Person
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 5 – Gender Distinction?
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 6 – Warmth and Protection
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 7 – Controlling Lust??
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Conclusion
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Epilogue