I attended a Christian university that had—and still has—a dress code. While it’s nothing particularly shocking or countercultural, it’s just enough to bother students who find that “no athletic wear in academic buildings during class hours” cramps their style.
Dress codes have become controversial in recent years. Many young women point out that dress codes focus more on the female population than on the male, particularly in Christian environments. Others say that dress codes are a way to equalize a student or work population; if everyone is dressed the same way, there is less room for bullying or comparison.
In today’s post, we’re diving into the deep end of this issue, starting with whether or not dress codes are even a good idea for believers today.
Are Dress Codes Even a Good Idea?
What’s the goal of a dress code? Well, that depends on the institution. A workplace dress code usually exists so employees will present a cohesive image to the public and maintain professionalism in the office. A school might have one for similar reasons—professionalism—or as a way to enforce modesty among students. But when it comes to dress codes for believers, not all motives are created equal.
Professional dress codes have a distinct purpose: to set employees apart and present a streamlined image to clients and peers. Many offices have to implement dress codes because employees don’t know how to dress professionally!
But what about dress codes meant to enforce modesty? Here’s where we run into a problem. Biblical modesty is a status of the heart. To be “modest” is to be “humble,” not attention-seeking or distracting. When schools or institutions attempt to enforce modesty by external means, they can make people change clothes, but they can’t change hearts.
Many modesty-based dress codes use terminology that focuses on “helping our brothers” and “not causing men to stumble.” While it’s important to aid our brothers in Christ in their battle against lust, sexual sin is a personal choice. Men have the responsibility to control their urges and behave in a humble, modest way toward their sisters at school. If the goal of a dress code is to “protect men,” the dress code is not encouraging modesty. It’s encouraging a sexualized view of women, seeing them as temptations instead of as women of God.
Both modesty and purity are heart decisions. These heart decisions are lived out as we actively disciple young men and women in what it means to follow Christ. When a man lusts after a woman and a woman purposely shortens her skirt for male attention, the solution is not another dress code. The solution is a transforming walk with Jesus Christ. Read more about this in my personal testimony “What a Bikini Taught Me About Modesty.”
All this said, you might attend a school or workplace that has a dress code—maybe even for the wrong reasons. How do you respond? The Bible has clear things to say about our response to authority. Even if you disagree with the dress code, you have a responsibility to honor the authorities placed over you.
Honor the Authorities Placed Over You
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)
Though you might not like the dress code and the people who put it in place, God allowed those authorities to be there. For the time you are working or being educated in that sphere, the appropriate action is respect and submission to the current structure. If you have a complaint, express it with kindness and respect.
Respect the Goals of the Institution
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme… (1 Peter 2:13)
Before you write off all dress codes, remember that different institutions have different reasons for them. Respect the goals of the institution. If your workplace has a strict dress code because you work for a Christian company (like I did for many years), understand that higher standards will be required of you. Find the good in it and respect those goals.
Don’t Cause Dissension
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone… (2 Timothy 2:23)
Finally, don’t cause dissension for the sake of a quarrel. It’s possible to disagree respectfully with an authority figure, but they are still the authority. Instead, let your heart become more in tune with God’s will for you in this season. Learn what modesty looks like practically, from the heart. Someday you won’t be required to abide by a dress code, but until then, honor the Lord in your current context, and let your heart and obedience speak for you.