By worldly conformity most religious teachers mean outward likeness of dress, manner, customs, etc. This, however, is not its true significance. Conformity to Christ does not mean dressing as he dressed, speaking the language that he spoke, eating the same kind of food that he ate, or observing any of those externals that went to make up his life.
In the true meaning of the word, conformity goes deeper than externals. Two things may look very much alike and yet be very different in their natures. Pyrites of iron looks so much like gold that it has deceived many a person into thinking that he had found riches. For this reason it is called "fool's gold." Likewise things may outwardly seem very different, while in reality they are very much the same. A sparkling diamond seems very different from a lump of coal, but the chief difference is only in the arrangement of their particles. Both are composed chiefly of carbon, so in nature they conform closely to each other.
Conformity is a thing of nature, not of external appearance. We are "by nature the children of wrath." Our likeness to the world consists in a likeness of character, and for that reason we are told that we must be transformed. This transformation is a change of character; it has to do, first of all, with internals, not with externals.
Conformity to the world in most externals is not only advisable but necessary. We wear clothing as the world does; we live in houses built like those around us; we speak the same language as sinners; we have the same habits of thought and speech in general that they have; we use the same implements and tools; we raise the same crops; we employ the same methods of work and business; in fact, we conform to the world in all these things. We can not avoid doing this without sacrificing what is vital and proper in our lives. Conformity to the world in these externals becomes evil only when such conformity has its origin in an evil principle in the heart or when it produces an evil effect.
When Christ prayed for his disciples, he said, "Keep them from the evil." Paul said, "As using and not abusing." It is that which is evil, or the evil use that is made of externals, that is obnoxious to God. A proper use of all things is permissible, and if our hearts are conformed to God, we naturally desire and seek only the proper use of things. But the natural heart is wicked; it is set on pleasing itself; it is full of vanity and pride. So long as this condition exists, the heart is not conformed to God. There must be a transformation, and this is not one which starts from the outside and works inward, for such at best could be only a reformation. The real transformation is a thing that begins on the inside and works a vital change in the spiritual condition and character. When this internal change is wrought, it gives a new quality and direction to the whole range of thought and activity. It manifests itself in new desires and aspirations, in new habits and customs, in newness of speech and looks and behavior. When we are transformed so that we become new creatures in Christ Jesus, we begin to act like new creatures. But our bodies are not transformed: we still have bodies of flesh, which retain their natural desires and appetites, and these we may gratify in a lawful way without sin.
When the heart is transformed and purified from its vanity and pride, these qualities will not be manifested in external things. But so long as pride and vanity remain in the heart, preaching to people and requiring them to cease wearing worldly adornment is like trying to kill a tree by pulling off some of its leaves -- the people may layoff such things under pressure, but they are no better than before. People must be taught the Bible standard of externals, but the chief thing is to get their hearts right. When the heart is conformed to the image of Christ, the words of the old song are true of it:
"There's no thirsting for life's pleasure,
Neither force nor persuasion is required to get persons with such an experience to act properly regarding external things.
In carrying out their idea of non-conformity to the world, some bodies of people have adopted a special garb or a special form of speech to distinguish them from others. This, however, is not a mark of real non-conformity, but a mark of sectarianism. The true and only difference needful between ourselves and the world in externals is that we are to reject those things that are evil or that produce evil. All things else are lawful to us, though these lawful things must also be judged by the law of expediency.
Conformity to Christ means conformity in character. It means purity of desire, so that our hearts reach out for only those things that are pure, and we are moved by pure motives and actuated by holy purposes. It means that we have a conscience toward God in whatever we do. It means to put his will before everything else. It means that the dominating purpose of our life will be to please him in every detail, and not ourselves. A heart like this is not attracted by the vain and sinful things of the world; on the contrary, it is repelled by them.
When the person is adorned with gold, jewels, costly or gaudy array, or immodest clothing, we must needs look for the root in the heart. There is where the trouble lies. There is the seat of the desire. It is useless to take off the externals while the internal corruption is permitted to continue. God hates all vanity and pride. There is no such element in his character. If we are conformed to him, there is no such element in our character; and if our character is purged from these things, we have no desire for their external manifestations. God loves meekness and modesty, and these are the opposites of display. If we are meek and modest in character, our dress and deportment will manifest these qualities. If we do not manifest them, it is because we do not possess them.
It may not be out of place here to call attention to the Bible principles relating to the subject of dress and personal adornment. In beginning this phase of the subject we should note that the gospel is not a set of rules, but a revelation of moral principles. It is intended for all people in all countries, climates, and ages. We should not, therefore, expect that these principles as they relate to dress would be revealed in other than the most general terms, or applied to the details of the subject. There is just one principle involved; we may sum up the whole subject under that one heading. The Bible standard of dress consists of just three words, but these three words cover the whole scope of life. They are, "in modest apparel" (1 Tim.2: 9). This is the standard, and this is the whole standard. We are given a hint regarding how to apply this standard, but our own good judgment is sufficient to draw the line in the right place, provided our hearts are conformed to the divine image. There is no excuse for fanaticism any more than there is for pride. Sound judgment and good sense will help us avoid both extremes.
A definition of modesty is, "Restrained within due limits of propriety; free from indecency or lewdness; not excessive or extreme; moderate." A Christian's apparel should be modest in cut, that is, in the way it is made; it should cover the body as a modest person would cover it, not displaying those parts that the prevailing standards of modesty require to be covered.(1) Judged by this standard, very many religious professors come far short, their clothing being less than decency really requires. Such a thing, of course, does not have its origin in a pure heart. The woman who displays herself to attract attention is anything but modest.
Clothing should be made to conform to modesty in all other respects also. Useless things added to one's apparel for the purpose of display and show do not conform to modesty. "Loud" and flashy colors are not modest. The Bible does not forbid us to wear any particular shade, but there are shades and combinations that are showy and gaudy, and by their extremeness violate modesty, for modesty is the avoidance of extreme. Whatever we wear, it should be modest in color just as well as in other particulars.
Christian apparel should be modest in texture; that is, it should not be so thin that it displays the body or the underwear. No man thinks a woman modest who wears goods so thin as to display her under-garments, or hosiery so thin as to display her limbs. Such things are very unbecoming to saints, and of course not less so to other people. Sisters, dress so that a modest man will not feel embarrassed in your presence.
Apparel should be modest as to cost. It should not be what the Scriptures term "costly array." It is well to buy good material, and for such we must pay a good price, but this is not what the Bible means by "costly array." It means not to be extravagant. We should not waste money, but make the best possible use of it.
Some have thought it wrong to try to make our clothes becoming. This is not the case. The Bible says "that women adorn themselves in modest apparel"; that is, their apparel should be such as adorns or becomes them, so long as it is modest clothing. It should be adapted in cut, color, etc., to harmonize with the complexion, size, and height of the person. We owe it to ourselves to make a good appearance. To make ourselves outlandish in any way is neither wise nor right. It is violating modesty, and this is not consistent. It is only when we make a proper appearance that we can have a proper influence, and so be effective for God.
God delights in modesty in dress, in words, in actions -- in all things. Pride and show are an abomination to him, and if we conform to him in our inner life and character, outward conformity will naturally follow; but if inward desire runs out after that which is immodest and gaudy, if the heart desires to display upon the person gold and jewels and finery, it is because it does not conform to the image of God's Son, but to the world.