Mahaney: “Worldliness,” ch. 5

Review: Chapter 5 – “God, My Heart, and Clothes” by C. J. Mahaney in Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, C. J. Mahaney, ed.

A friend of mine loaned me his copy of this little book for my review. Since it is a compilation of six essays by five Sovereign Grace Ministries clergymen, I thought it best to review the book section by section. Previously: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four.

Chapter 5 is the second chapter by C. J. Mahaney himself. The subject is ‘clothes’, but primarily in the sense of modesty and primarily addressed to women.1 The subject is important to Mahaney as is seen by two appendices, one by his wife and daughters and one apparently a policy statement for Covenant Life Church concerning making godly decisions about dress for weddings.

As far as it goes, fundamentalists can have little complaint about the main thrust and teaching of this chapter. There are some small quibbles here and there, but the general thrust of Mahaney’s message in this chapter most fundamentalists would agree with. Some would want his applications to be tighter than as described in the appendix by his wife and daughters. But the general philosophy and teaching resonates with our sensibilities.

However, there is a complaint. The complaint is that Mahaney does not go far enough and is too narrow in his focus in his discussion of worldliness as seen in the clothes women wear. I will point this out as we review the chapter.

The first major section of the chapter is called The Attitude of the Modest Woman. The discussion begins:

Any biblical discussion of modesty begins by addressing the heart, not the hemline. We must start with the attitude of the modest woman.2

Mahaney begins his discussion by defining three terms, modesty, immodesty, and self-restraint. He says these are the heart issues front and center in 1 Timothy 2.9. Here are his three short paragraphs defining these terms:

Modesty means propriety. It means avoiding clothes and adornment that are extravagant or sexually enticing. Modesty is humility expressed in dress. It’s a desire to serve others, particularly men, by not promoting or provoking sensuality.

Immodesty, then, is much more than wearing a short skirt or low-cut top; it’s the act of drawing undue attention to yourself. It’s pride, on display by what you wear.

Self-control is, in a word, restraint. Restraint for the purpose of purity; restraint for the purpose of exalting God and not ourselves. Together, these attitudes of modesty and self-control should be the hallmark of the godly woman’s dress.3

There is a lot to like in this discussion. These attitudes are reflected in the choice of clothes a woman wears. Mahaney asks several probing questions pointing at personal motivation in choosing one’s wardrobe – seeking attention? worldly approval? presence or lack of self-control? “There’s an inseparable link between your heart and your clothes. Your clothes say something about your attitude.”4

In discussing The Appearance of the Modest Woman some of the first quibbles appear. On p. 122, I think he misunderstands 1 Tim 2.8 which is addressed to men. He takes the phrase “without anger or quarreling” to refer to dissensions and distractions in the church service. I believe this misses the context of the passage which is one that enjoins prayer for civil authorities so that believers might have religious freedom. The “without anger or quarreling” refers, I think, to the attitude towards civil authorities, not to dissensions in the church. A minor quibble, perhaps. But he then takes the idea of dissensions in the church and applies it to his understanding of 1 Tim 2.9, due to the ‘likewise’ with which the verse begins.

It is true that the ‘likewise’ refers to Christian conduct in public, especially in the public church meeting, but I don’t get the sense that the women were distracting or quarrelling, rather they were mimicking the world and its showiness just as the men were mimicking the world and its aggressiveness.

In explaining the teaching to women in 1 Tim 2.8, Mahaney makes this statement:

[Paul] is concerned because some of them are imitating the dress and adornment of the ladies of the Roman court and prostitutes. These women were known for their expensive clothes and jewelry and elaborate hairstyles; they dressed not only to attract attention but to seduce as well.5

Well… I don’t think the text gives us a clue who the models for Ephesian dress were in 1 Timothy. While I am not an expert, Tom Constable in his notes cites no less than five other commentators, none of whom identify ‘rich Roman women’ or ‘prostitutes’ as models here. This is important because much of the discussion of this chapter rests on the notion that the models of dress spoken against in our passage are either showy Roman elites or immoral seductresses. And while the comments about modesty through the chapter are wise and appropriate, this unwarranted narrowing of the meaning limits the application of the passage too much, especially since Mahaney will simply dismiss the ‘showiness’ of the rich Roman elites with this:

It’s been almost two thousand years since Paul penned his letter, but 1 Timothy 2.9 remains a pastoral concern. Today, the issue is immodest and sensual clothing more than ostentatious attire. Immodest dress has greater potential for distraction in our church and in our culture.6

Really? Ostentation is out? Who knew?

And the great problem is ‘distraction’? Isn’t it the heart issue?

I say this to note that I do appreciate the comments in the chapter addressing immodest dress, but the commentary and discussion rest on a shaky exegetical foundation that fails to address all that the passage addresses. Tom Constable, in his summary statement about this passage says:

Perhaps Paul gave these instructions to the men (v. 8) and to the women (vv. 9–10) partially to counteract the natural (fleshly) tendencies in males and females. Most men tend to be active, so it is important that they give attention to praying, which is more contemplative than active. Women like to look good, so they need to remember that good deeds are more important than good looks.7

The application of the passage is far reaching indeed. It is possible to be dressed in such a way that all the ‘enticing parts’ are appropriately covered, but the clothing still says, “Look at me.” Is that not true?

But my quibble with the exegesis may be minor, because Mahaney does say, rather boldly, “The issue was — and is — clothing that associates with worldly and ungodly values; clothes that say ‘look at me’ and ‘I’m with the world.’”8 Exactly.

Notice, here, however, the clear notion of the world being something outside one’s self, a distinction I faulted Mahaney for not making clear in chapter 1. The inner problem of the heart is the issue, but this particular inner problem is a love affair with certain aspects of the external world system that entice my flaunting of those heart issues in public display. In line with this thought, he also says:

This truth has timeless relevance. Consider who inspires your attire. Who are you identifying with through your appearance? Who are you trying to imitated or be like in your dress? Does your hairstyle, clothing, or any aspect of your appearance reveal an excessive fascination with sinful cultural values? Are you preoccupied with looking like women at school or work or the actresses, socialites, and models on magazine covers, or the immodest woman next door? Are your role models the godly women of Scripture or the worldly women of our culture?9

Mahaney does make it clear that he is not opposed to women and beauty or beautifying, citing several biblical examples including Esther and her twelve months of beauty treatments (Est 2.12). This is a rather unfortunate reference, because these beauty treatments were entirely worldly, designed to make the young woman as attractive as possible for her ‘one-night stand’ with the king. His positive mention of Esther in this context caused a resounding ‘clang’ of dissonance in my mind as I read that one! Well, I don’t think women should dress as plainly as possible in pursuit of modesty, but I just wouldn’t use Esther as a biblical foundation for that notion!

In arguing for modesty, Mahaney uses the testimonies of two young men and one young woman to talk about something many women seem unaware of, the battle men fight with lust aroused by sight.10 How many times have we heard this from fundamentalist pulpits? How refreshing to hear an evangelical raise these issues!

He does make it clear that our churches should welcome the lost who come in dressed like lost people. But as such people are won to Christ, they should be lovingly discipled and taught to follow biblical standards.

Oh, did I use the ‘s’ word? (Standards!) So does Mahaney. In A Word to Fathers, he says:

We must not simply oversee our daughters’ closets; we must teach them God’s perspective of modest dress and educate them about the temptations of men. And we must have clear standards informed by Scripture, not by culture. This will make it easier for them to follow our leadership when difficult choices are necessary.11

In further discussion, he offers an appropriate warning about the ‘shopping’ habits of women especially (running some risks to do so). He cites a book called The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg that looks at changes in attitudes women have developed over the last century or so. This book shows that the culture shifted from a typical young woman’s desires to develop good character to her desires for looking good. He raises these especially appropriate questions:

So, what are you consumed with — your clothing or your character? What are you known for — your good looks or your good works? If you’re a mother, what is your daughter learning from you in this regard? She’s surely studying you; as she does so, what is she learning — the latest fashions or good deeds?12

Well, this should be sufficient for you to get a sense of the chapter. In his concluding remarks he offers the testimonial of a girls whose mind was changed on the subject after hearing his teaching about it. He also emphasizes that there are bigger issues at stake (the gospel) than one’s own selfish desires to look good or to be trendy. All of this is appropriate and appreciated.

Overall, then, I have to rate this chapter as perhaps the second best in the book, after chapter two. Mahaney makes appropriate applications and clearly sees there is a world out there that Christians should not imitate.

My biggest criticism is that he is too narrow in his application. I mean this in two ways:

  1. Men and the way they dress are also an issue. Men like to mimic the world also. Men display heart attitudes by their clothing also. Men show what they love by what they wear also. Men can be immodest and sensual in their dress also, and are increasingly becoming so in our modern age. So there needs to be some pointed application to men as well as women in a book like this.
  2. Narrowing the topic merely to immodesty in the sense of sensuality is a mistake. Showiness is still a problem. Broided hair, gold, pearls, costly array… still a problem. Many women overdo their attire in church and think they are ‘modest’ because they are ‘covered’. Well… there needs to be a much broader application in a chapter like this on the whole gamut of worldliness of attire that assaults our spirits everywhere today, including addressing such things as tattoos and hairstyles as well as clothing.

But lest I be too critical, I do have to applaud C. J. Mahaney for this chapter and the forthrightness and boldness with which he makes his points and applications.

I also have to commend Caroline Mahaney and the Mahaney daughters for their Appendix A which offers women wise guidelines for establishing one’s own personal dress code. Some fundamentalists would quibble here because the Mahaney’s allow for women dressing in slacks (as I do) and because they allow for dressing in shorts (which I would have some qualms about). Nevertheless, the suggestions are wise, practical, and on the whole, godly.

There is also an Appendix B which comes from the Covenant Life Church policies on choosing good dress for weddings. This is more and more a problem in our culture and I appreciate the attempt to address the issue in a forthright and godly manner.



  1. “Now, this chapter is primarily written for women, not only because that’s who 1 Timothy 2.9 addresses, but also because this is a topic of particular concern for women. p. 119 []
  2. p. 119 []
  3. p. 120 []
  4. p. 121 []
  5. p. 122, with a note indicating that this paragraph was written by Mahaney’s wife and daughters on their Girl Talk blog. []
  6. p. 125 []
  7. Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003; 2003), 1 Ti 2:9. []
  8. p. 123 []
  9. p. 125 – emphasis mine []
  10. pp. 126-129 []
  11. p. 131, emphasis mine []
  12. p. 135 []


  1. Roger Carlsn says:

    I, too really liked this chapter. But I also agree with you in that the Esther comparison was pretty bad too.

  2. Keith says:

    “In arguing for modesty, Mahaney uses the testimonies of two young men and one young woman to talk about something many women seem unaware of, the battle men fight with lust aroused by sight.10 How many times have we heard this from fundamentalist pulpits? How refreshing to hear an evangelical raise these issues!”

    As one who regularly sits in Evangelical church services, let me just say that Evangelicals and their pulpits raise this issue all of the time. You seriously think fundamentalists are the only ones who have noticed or who deal with the reality that men are aroused by sight?

    • No, but I often hear fundamentalists criticized for their statements along this line. We are often treated as if we are some kind of weirdos to think that way. I’m glad to hear evangelicals take the same stand.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Keith says:

    I think that you are treated as weirdos for things like concern over “slacks”, the wearing of “culottes”, and such like. Not over the observation that men are tempted visually.

    • Well, you would know, wouldn’t you? Come on, Keith. Do you have to argue about everything? Can’t you take someone at their word? There are so-called fundamentalists (evangelical wannabes) who will mock the teaching concerning modesty.

      And you wonder why we think you just want to argue? Sheesh!

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Don,

    Perhaps you draw people who like to “argue about everything” b/c birds of a feather…

    After all, you criticize Mahaney for saying that sensual clothing is more of a problem then ostentatious clothing by making it sound like he’s completely removed the problem of ostentatious clothing. Then, you come back and say he does see part of the problem is the “look at me” mentality. Certainly seems hyper-critical and argumentative.

    FWIW, it seems like you picked up the book to try to nitpick at any issue you could and show why Evangelicals still get worldliness wrong, but when pressed admit that it’s basically the same thing you would say. I can’t imagine you would critique a BJU Press book the same way.

    • No, don’t think so. It’s just Keith.

      I am reading the book because a friend of mine asked me to. I decided to share my observations on line as a way of thinking through the book as I read it. (In fact, it isn’t my copy… my friend mailed it to me, all the way from Noo York, because he thinks I’m a bigot too. He’s right.)

      It is hard to read without preconceptions, and I expected to disagree with the book to some extent.

      However, please note my essay on ch. 3. I was surprised by Kauflin’s position on music which wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact, I think he makes my arguments on the subject, just doesn’t realize the implications of his own positions.

      I admit I am negative, especially about Mahaney. It bugs me when the scriptures are mishandled. I really don’t care who is doing it. In this case I happen to be writing about an evangelical book.

      I’ll offer a summary critique after I post my observations on the last chapter. That one is in the works.

      And… Mahaney clearly states ostentatious clothing is no issue. His later comments show a bit of inconsistency on that, but that is his statement.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. Unless your quotations is not representative of Mahaney’s position, he doesn’t clearly state it’s not an issue:

    “Today, the issue is immodest and sensual clothing more than ostentatious attire”

    So if I said “I like Mahaney more than Johnson”, would that be a clear statement that I don’t like you at all? Then later, if I said, “I do like Johnson” I would be inconsistent?

    • Ok, I looked at the quote again. He said, “Today, the issue is immodest and sensual clothing more than ostentatious attire.” So he didn’t say ostentation wasn’t a problem. But he clearly wants to talk about immodesty only, and for the most part, other than a few oblique comments at the end, stays on topic.

      But surely ostentation ought to be a pastoral concern today, no? It apparently isn’t too much of one, since so many dress so fine in churches all across the land. I have held to the notion that we should dress more formally when we attend Sunday services, but I am coming to think this can be a problem as well.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. I agree with you that ostentatious dress is a problem that has been largely ignored. I think in our culture at large that immodesty is a greater problem than ostentatious dress. But within many churches, we fail to take 1 Tim 2:9 (and James 2:2) seriously, allowing women to be “modest” in the sense that their bodies are covered but very immodest in that their dress brings unnecessary attention to themselves (or their wealth).

  7. Keith says:

    “Can’t you take someone at their word? There are so-called fundamentalists (evangelical wannabes) who will mock the teaching concerning modesty.”

    Sure I can take someone at their word, when their word is what is in question. However, your word doesn’t get to establish what is reality in evangelicalism — something other than your word is in question there.

    Further, you didn’t say anything in your previous comment about it being “so called fundamentalists (evangelical wannabes)” mocking fundamentalists. I assumed you were talking about evangelicals mocking fundamentalists. I apologize for the faulty assumption.

    I’ll take you at your word that you know some “so called fundamentalists” who mock the teaching on modesty. Although, I do think that some time spent pondering the distinction between mocking a certain approach to modesty and the Biblical teaching on modesty might be illuminating. There is a difference between rejecting certain cultural approaches to modesty and rejecting the Bible’s teaching on the subject.

    “And you wonder why we think you just want to argue? Sheesh!”

    Well, if you can take me at my word, no I don’t “just” want to argue. You have been saying certain things about worldliness and about evangelicalism that I find harmful, and so I’ve commented on that — because I believe and care about what I’ve commented, not just to argue.

    Nevertheless, at worst, I’ve interacted with your arguments and teaching in a way similar to what you are doing with Maheney’s book. Not sure why what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.

    Ed seems to be making the points I’d like to make better than I am. So, I’ll bow out and let him continue.

    • well, Keith, we can leave it to the readers to judge. You rarely want to interact with what is said.

      When you say, “I do think that some time spent pondering the distinction between mocking a certain approach to modesty and the Biblical teaching on modesty might be illuminating” are you saying that Mahaney’s teaching isn’t biblical? Because I am affirming his teaching on this subject, with some quibbles. But as far as it goes, I basically agree with his teaching on modesty and thought I said so.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. Keith says:

    I think that I am always interacting with what is said. A different perspective, or even disagreement, is not a lack of interaction.

    Either way, I’m fine leaving it with the readers to judge.

  9. It doesn’t surprise me that some evangelicals talk about immodesty. However, if immodesty is unbiblical and a sin, then it is an issue of church discipline. Do evangelical churches forbid the wearing of these things, the typical beach or swimming pool attire in public? If this is an issue of the heart, and about God, then it would be. If it is only about appearing to be against immodesty, then nothing will be done about it but talk.

    • Hi Kent,

      Interesting. At some point I think it might become an issue of discipline, but at what level would you discipline someone for immodest dress and, assuming refusal of repentance, what would be your Scriptural grounds for such discipline?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. If our church agrees that the Bible teaches it, which seems to be what evangelicals are saying (or why would they be saying it), then we would discipline. On all matters of discipline, there is tremendous patience—instruction, help, time spent, waiting, but it is a process of discipleship for a church. If someone is rebellious against the teaching, and divisive, then we would discipline. Certainly, church activities and general behavior of a church that believes in modesty would be modesty—not widespread immodesty, nothing enforced, yet with a book written against immodesty—then its just all talk.