The Church Fathers on Modesty

As many of my readers may have surmised, we come from a holiness tradition – meaning that we dress in what we consider modesty, or holiness. I often times refer to this as the ‘uniform’ – long, uncut hair for the women, as well as long dresses, no beards and shorts for the men. This is a rather coy way of looking at, but it is the easiest way to do so.

For me, it is not a uniform or some legalistic standard, but a manner in which we choose to live our life by having God and His things come first. Modesty/Holiness is not the clothes your wear, or the items that you don’t wear, but the cloths that you wear when you put God first and the adornments that you don’t wear when the only adornment that you need is Jesus Christ. I am not going to discuss what some might call the ‘holy-hair’ doctrine or whether or not ‘below the knee’ really means touching the ankle, but I am going to attempt to explore what some of the early Church Fathers and writers thought about modesty.

Many people point to us who practice this holiness as being old fashioned and out of touch, yet in reading some of the earliest Christian viewpoints on modesty, grooming, apparel, we find striking similarities and even some standards that stricter than ours. By all means, this is not an exhaustive list. (I really like Tertullian’s tact).

Let the head of men be clipped, unless they have curly hair. But let the chin have the hair. Cutting is to be used, not for the sake of elegance, but on account of the necessity of the case…so that it may not grow so long to come down and interfere with the eyes. …It is enough for women to protect their locks and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty. – Clement of Alex., 2.286

This (male) sex of ours acknowledges to itself deceptive trickeries of form peculiarly its own. I am referring to things such as cutting the beard too sharply, plucking it out here and there, shaving around the mouth, arranging the hair, and disguising its hoariness by dyes – Tertullian 4.22

A woman should not be adorned in a worldly fashion …. “Let your women be such as down themselves with shamefacedness and modesty, not with twisted hair, nor with gold, nor with pearls, or precious garments.” – Cyprian 5.544

Though in the form of men, they …curl their hair with curling pins, make the skin of the body smooth, and they walk with bare knees. In every other type of wantonness, they lay aside the strength of their masculinity and grow effeminate in women’s habits and luxury – Arnobius, 6.450

Silly women who dye their gray hair and anoint their locks, grow speedily grayer by the perfumes they use. For they are of a drying nature – Clement of Alex., 2.255

Neither is the hair to be dyed, nor gray hair to have it’s color changed…Old age, which conciliates trust, is not to be concealed. – Clement of Alex., 2.286

I see some women turn the color of their hair with saffron. They are shamed even of their own nation, ashamed that their birth did not assign them to Germany or to Gaul. To there, as it is, they transfer their hair. Ill, most ill, do they predict for themselves with their flame-colored head… God says, “Who of you can make a white hair black, or out of a black a white?” And so they refute the Lord! They say, “Behold! Instead of white or black, we make it yellow.” – Tertullian, 4.21

If you feel no shame at the enormity of (wearing a wig), feel some at the pollution. You should fear that you may be fitting on a holy and Christian head the excess of someone else’s head – perhaps unclean, perhaps guilty and destined to Gehenna – Tertullian, 4.21.22

You dye your hair, so that it will always be black…but these things are not necessary for modest women – Commodianus, 4.214

How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck his hairs out of them, and smooth them!…For God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But He has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest – a sign of strength and rule – Clement of Alex., 2.275

Although it is written, “You will not mar the figure of your beard,” he plucks out his beard and dresses his hair! – Cyprian, 5.445

Bu no means are women to be allowed to uncover and exhibit any part of their bodies, lest both fall – the men by being incited to look, and the women by attracting to themselves the eyes of men – Clement of Alex., 2.246

Neither are we to provide for ourselves costly clothing – Clement of Alex., 2.263

I say, then, that man requires clothing for nothing else than the covering of the body, for defense against excess of cold and intensity, lest the inclemency of the air injure us. And if this is the purpose of clothing, see that one kind is not assigned to men and another to women. For it is common to both be covered, as it is to eat and drink….And if some accommodation is to be made, women may be permitted to sue softer clothes, provided they avoid fabrics that are foolishly thin and of curious texture in weaving. They should also bid farewell to embroidery of gold and Indian silks….Luxurious clothing that cannot conceal the shape of the body is no more a covering. For such clothing, falling close to the body, takes its form more easily. Clinging to the body as though it were the flesh, it receives its shape and outlines the woman’s figure. As a result, the whole make of the body is visible to spectators, although they cannot see the body itself. Dyeing of clothes is also to be rejected…But for those persons who are white and unstained within, it is most suitable to use white and simple garments – Clement of Alex., 2.265

Neither is it seemly for the clothes to be above the knee – Clement of Alex., 2.266

Those who glory in their looks – not in their hearts – dress to please others – Clement of Alex., 2.273

Let a woman wear a plain and becoming dress, but softer than what is suitable for a man. Yet, it should not be immodest or entirely steeped in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, person, figure, natures, and pursuits. – Clement of Alex., 2.285

First, then, blessed sisters, take heed that you do not admit to your use flashy and sluttish garbs and clothing. – Tertullian, 4.22

But self-control and modesty do not consist only in purity of the flesh, but also in seemliness and in modesty of dress and adornment – Cyprian, 5.431

He takes away anxious care for clothes, food, and all luxuries as being unnecessary. What are we to imagine, then, should be said about love of embellishments, the dyeing of wool, and the variety of colors? What should we said about the love of gems, exquisite working of god, and still more, of artificial hair and wreathed curls? Furthermore, what should be said about staining the eyes, plucking out the hairs and painting with rouge and white lead, dyeing of the hair, and the wicked arts that are employed in such deceptions? – Clement of Alex., 2.272

If anyone where to refer to these women as prostitutes, he would make no mistake. For they turn their faces into masks. – Clement of Alex., 2.274

What does God think of spurious beauty, rejecting utterly as He does all falsehood? – Clement of Alex., 2.274

For those women sin against God when they rub their skin with ointments, stain their cheeks with rouge, and make their eyes prominent with antimony. To them, I suppose, the artistic skill of God is displeasing – Tertullian, 4.20

Both sexes alike should be admonished that they work of God and His fashioning and formation should in no manner be adulterated – either with e application of yellow color, black dust, rouge, or with any kind of cosmetic…God says “let us make man in our image and likeness.” Does anyone dare to alter and change what God has made?” – Cyprian, 5.434.

Most women…have the boldness to walk as if modesty consisted only in the bare integrity of the flesh and in turning away from the actual fornication….They wear in their gait the same appearance as do the women of the nations, from whom the sense of true modesty is absent…In short, how many women are there who do not earnestly desire to look pleasing to strangers? Who does not on that very account take care to have herself painted out, yet denying that she has ever been an object of carnal appetite? – Tertullian, 4.18, 19

So are, in fact, are Christians from indulging in incestuous desire, that with some Christians even the modest mingling of the sexes causes a blush. – Mark Minucius Felix, 4.192

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10 Replies to “The Church Fathers on Modesty”

  1. Really great article. I was reared in church and by the holiest people I know. It was not something they considered, it was just right and do it as led. That is lost for the most part today, people consider what is and what is not holy in the carnal, and omit God’s leading. It is not a matter of choice, holiness is the ‘character’ of God, thus, Holy Ghost in us. If one denies holiness, they loose the protecting power of God and Satan and flesh usually win out.

  2. Bro. Lanis, you know that I agree with you. I have seem people ‘dress the part’ but have an inside so corrupt and bitter as to deny any part of the holiness that they attempted to adorn themselves with.

  3. Same rules apply for the summer?…couldn’t imagine not wearing shorts my man…

    WV was awesome Polycarp. What a great group of people, so hospitable. About 12 students came forward to receive the Lord during the altar call. The host youth pastor was able to take them off and minister to them personally. Others were delivered from suicidal thoughts/attempts, sexual promiscuity, and the affects of sexual molestation. A great weekend! God is so awesome, so faithful.

  4. Clark, glad to see you returned safely and without any wrong turns and the need to be delivered… (Movie references)

    It is great that these children have the heart to reach out to God and to overcome these great obstacles that seem to weigh so many down.

  5. I am a bit confused. You seem to advocate smooth-shaven faces for men, yet your citations of the Church Fathers clearly teach that men are to have beards (a position with which I wholeheartedly agree).

    If I read your overall point correctly, i.e., that we should adorn ourselves modestly–yet, also take care not to base our righteousness on such outward affects but on the work of Jesus Christ alone, then I am with you completely.

  6. 9lb, I posted those things for a reason, as you might have guessed.

    You are right – our modesty is made holy by the work of Christ and if we keep Him before our eyes. When we come to boast of this or that as modesty, then we have none.

  7. Wow…what a difference between now and over 1000 years ago. These days looks are everything, even amongst Christians! It’s difficult to escape at times. What really bugs me about then as well as now as how nearly everything is blamed on the women and how they look. That part stinks!

  8. I find it very odd that you quoted so much of this book of the words of Clement of Alexandria but left out the bit about how women ought to cover their heads in church.

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