Many Christian women are told that it is immodest for them to consider any type of strapless wedding dress. The primary reason they are told strapless wedding dresses are immodest is because they expose a woman’s shoulders and draw more attention to her cleavage which in turn will cause the men at the wedding and reception to lust.
The problem with this condemnation of Christian brides wearing strapless wedding dresses is that it is based on a faulty understanding of how the Bible defines modesty and lust.
How the Bible Defines Lust
Christ said the following in Matthew 5:27-28 (KJV):
“27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
So, what did Christ mean when condemn a man who “looketh on a woman to lust after her”? For definition of lust in the Bible we must look to Romans 7:7 where the Apostle Paul gives us that definition:
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”
The apostle tells us that to lust is to covet and that covetousness is defined in the 10th commandment. So let’s look at Exodus 20:17 (KJV):
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”
In order to understand what covetousness is we must look at what God tells a man not to covet. He tells him not covet his house, his servants, his animals or anything that is his neighbors – including his wife.
And by seeing what God tells men not to covet we know what covetousness is not. It is not mere desire. If covetousness was merely finding something or someone desirable, then all commerce would be sinful. It would be sinful for a man to desire another man’s daughter in marriage. But we know the Bible allows commerce and it allows men to approach other men for their daughters in marriage.
Exodus 20:17 teaches us that the Biblical definition of covetousness is not merely finding our neighbors things (including his wife) desirable. But rather, the Biblical definition of covetousness is for us to entertain a desire to unlawfully possess or use something that does not belong to us (including our neighbor’s wife).
And this definition ties in perfectly with what Christ said in Matthew 5:27-28. He was speaking on the 7th commandment against adultery and telling men that if they looked “on a woman to lust after her”, in other words looked on her with adulterous desire – the desire to have sex with her while she was married to another man, that they had committed adultery in their heart.
But nowhere does the Bible condemn mere sexual desire or sexual arousal in men. It condemns men allowing their God given desire to run into a sinful desire for whoremongering or adultery.
And to be sure the faulty understanding in the church of how the Bible defines lust goes back centuries to the early church. Not long after the Apostles died the early church fathers fell into the error of ascetism. They began to teach that Christians should avoid indulgencing in any physical pleasures in this world and they taught married couples should only have sex to have children and then avoid sex after the woman was past child bearing age. Sex for pleasure was condemn.
And this is the root of modern errors regarding a correct understanding of lust find their root.
So now that we have a correct understanding of the Biblical definition of lust, we will move on to how the Bible defines modesty.
How the Bible Defines Modesty
In 1 Timothy 2:8-12 & 3:15 states the following:
“2:8 I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. 11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence…. 3:15 But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
First, we must understand the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not put there by the prophets and apostles. But rather, they were added by scholars’ centuries after the Bible was written.
The Apostle Paul began a discussion about proper conduct within the assembled church in 1 Timothy 2:8 and he concludes this discussion in 1 Timothy 3:15.
It is important to understand this because if we don’t, we can misinterpret the Bible. The prohibition against women wearing costly array and broided hair is not for all times and occasions, but it is speaking to the attire women wear for coming to worship in the assembled church. In other words, God does not want the worship service to be turned into a fashion show.
If we were to say that 1 Timothy 2:9-10 apply to women at all times, then we must also say that women must be silent at all times as verses 11-12 state. And we know that is not the case as God encourages women to speak and teach other women in Titus 2:3-5.
So what God is saying in 1 Timothy 2:8-12 is that it not appropriate for women to turn the worship service into a fashion show or for them to speak during a worship service. It is the men who are to do the teaching and preaching to the assemble church and women are to remain silent during this time.
But now let’s return to the English word “modest” found in 1 Timothy 2:9. The word modest is a translation of the Greek word “Kosmios” which means “orderly or appropriate”. So, what the Apostle Paul was saying is that women should dress appropriately for the worship service and not in costly array with a bunch of fancy jewelry.
And who determines what is appropriate attire for a church assembly? The answer is the pastor of a local church. And the pastor would be guided by the Biblical principle that we should not be distracted by fancy clothing nor should women wear clothing that would cause any arousal in men as that would distract from the worship as well.
But who determines what is appropriate for women to wear outside the assembled church? The answer to that is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (KJV):
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”
So, the answer to who determines what is and is not modest (appropriate) to the occasion for women outside the church is – their father if they are not married or their husband if they are married.
And 1 Corinthians 11:3 is really a summary of Numbers 30 which indicates the power and responsibility of fathers over their daughters and husbands over their wives.
Shouldn’t Women Dress Not to Cause Men to Lust?
The Bible does not condemn women for causing men to lust by their ATTIRE, but rather it condemns women for trying to cause men to lust by their ACTIONS in Proverbs 6:23-26 (KJV):
“23 For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life: 24 To keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. 25 Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. 26 For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adultress will hunt for the precious life.”
A whorish woman seeks to entice a man into lusting after (desiring unlawful sex with her) by her flattering words and the use of her eyes and body movements. It is these actions by women that the Bible condemns.
But contrary to popular teaching today, the Bible does not tell women not to wear any clothing that might be sexually arousing to men. If a man allows his God given sexual arousal at the sight of a woman’s beauty and attire to be perverted into thoughts of enticing that woman into unlawful sex the of lust lay with him and him alone. Not her.
The Bible is clear in its definition of lust based on Romans 7:7 and then Exodus 20:17. Lust is not mere desire, sexual or otherwise. Lust is the desire to unlawfully possess or use something or someone that does not belong to us.
The Bible is also clear that modesty does not mean “non-arousing” or even “non-fancy” clothing. It means wearing clothing that is appropriate to the occasion. In the context of worship, the Bible is clear that women should not be wearing costly or arousing or otherwise distracting clothing.
But is the Bible condemning women from wearing costly array to a wedding? The answer is absolutely not! Not just the bride, but even women as guests to weddings love picking out fancy dresses for these occasions and getting their hair done special for these occasions. And there is no sin in this.
Costly array or even arousing apparel such as a woman’s wedding dress or other dresses worn by guests to a wedding would be inappropriate for the assembled worship service of a church. But these kinds of dress are perfectly modest (appropriate) for a wedding.
In the end who determines whether it is immodest or not for a woman to wear a strapless wedding dress? The answer is that her father, her husband to whom he will be giving her away and the pastor of the local church where the wedding is being held must all be in agreement on this. If the husband and father believe the woman can wear a strapless dress, yet the Pastor will not allow it for his church, then they have the option of seeking another church or they can agree to the Pastor’s dress standards for the wedding.