Fewer words in Biblical theology have greater potential of moving large groups of professing Christian women to hate you.
Fewer words in Biblical theology have more diverse associations.
Fewer words in Biblical theology have more associated confusion.
Fewer words get serious exploration, since everyone already knows that it means, right?
Not so fast.
So what does the word “modesty” actually mean, like in the Bible?
If you look up “modesty”in your ESV, you’ll strangely come across only two occurrences: 1 Cor. 12:23 and 1 Tim. 2:9 (there’s zero occurrences of “modest”). Now that doesn’t mean that the concept doesn’t occur more frequently, but rather that the English Bible translates a Greek term as “modesty” only twice.
In case you’re wondering if I’ve stacked the deck because of my chosen Bible version, that’s hardly the case. The NIV only has those two occurrences of “modesty” as well. The New Living Translation has 1 Tim. 2:9 and 2:15. The RSV has all three (1 Cor. 12:23; 1 Tim. 2:9, 2:15). The NASB and KJV only have 1 Tim. 2:9. The Message hilariously has none of those but rather has Song of Solomon 2:10-14; Matt. 10:11; Mark 6:10; Luke 9:1-5; John 8:54-56. Let’s be serious: if your study bible is The Message, you may have confusions about a whole lot more theology than “modesty.”
So let’s look at those two sections of scripture quickly (sticking with the ESV) and unpack the term “modesty” as best we can:
1. Cor. 12:23 – I’m going to set the verse within its immediate context of 1 Cor. 12:21-26.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
So the original language has some related terms in verses 23 and 24. The term “unpresentable” is translated from the Greek term aschemon and the term “modesty” is translated from the Greek term euschemosyne. Both of those terms occur once in the entire Bible, but they’re both derived from the term that is translated “presentable” in 12:24; euschemon . Without knowing Greek you can see the common schem component in all those words. Aschemon is an adjective (the ‘a’ on the front makes it a negative), as is euschemon . Euschemosyne is a noun.
The root term of all of these terms is made up of eu (meaning “well”) and schema, which I’d argue should be understood to mean “form/conduct” (schema only appears in 1 Cor. 7:31 and Phil. 2:8 and both times is translated “form”, but it carries a far deeper concept than “shape”). In 1 Cor. 7:31 the root term schema refers to not just the shape of the world, but behaviour. That behaviour is spelled out in 1 Cor. 7:32-40, for those who want to dig int that.
In Phil 2:8 the term expands on the Greek term morphe (form/shape) which appears in Phil. 2:7 (“…by taking the form of a servant…”) by adding discussion of Christ’s conduct in the second half of Phil. 2:8. I actually like translating the euschema family of words with either “courtly” (meaning “befitting a royal court”) or “seemly”, even though those words are obtuse archaisms.
Well, come to think of it, the phrase “obtuse archaism” is somewhat an obtuse archaism.
Still, I’d suggest that the idea of 1 Cor. 12:23 is something along the lines of:
“and on those parts of the body we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our discourtly parts are treated with greater courtliness, which our more courtly parts do not require.”
The idea is one of not just form, but demeanor/deportment. The first clause of 1 Cor. 12: 23 (“those parts of the body we think less honorable”) suggests that those members of the church whom are not generally deemed as important need to be treated as though they were important. That means that, in a church, nursery workers and church custodians may not be as important to the administration of the church as the board of elders, but they should not be treated in a secondary way. The reason for this is due to their connection to Christ, not tangible contribution to the church.
The second clause (“and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty“) deals less with perceived value and more with functional demeanour. I’d suggest that the idea here is along the lines of treating inappropriately behaving church members as if they were behaving better than they are: being gracious with them and not looking down on their immaturity or lack of church-appropriate decorum. In other words, when a young “rough around the edges” woman joins the church, treat her as if she was equally befitting of the social graces afforded to the more elegant and stately women of the church.
I’ll say it again: the idea behind “modesty” in 1 Cor. 12:23 isn’t primarily one of appearance, but rather overall demeanour. To be clear, it includes appearance but is far more than just appearance.
Now it seems rather obvious that 1 Cor. 12:23 doesn’t directly talk about women, clothing, fashion, or anything of the sort…except there is an important conceptual framework that comes out when the term is used in other places. Knowing the underlying Greek terminology, it’s now worth looking at two other passages where euschemon appears but is not translated as some version of “modesty”:
Acts 13:50 – “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.”
Acts 17:12 – “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
In both instances, the English words translated from euschemon are underlined. One can see the underlying idea of “seemly/courtly demeanour” coming out in both usages of the term. For interest sake, the term occurs only five times in the entire New Testament, and two of the five occurrences are describing women. That’s certainly something worth noticing, and that brings us to our next passage…
…which we’ll address in the next post.
If anyone feels short-changed, just remember that shorter posts make for easier reads.
Also, I’d like to state the following: