In this series, we’re aiming to expose the meaning in some commonly used scriptures. They’re heavy on application and sometimes we forget to really look at the meaning behind the scriptures commanding women to dress modestly. Last week we discussed 1 Peter 3:3-6 and examined our attitudes about beauty’s source. This week, we’re looking at 1 Timothy 2:9, 10. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
The first step in studying a passage is to figure out what the context is and Paul does some of the work for us. In 1 Timothy 3:15, he tells us exactly why he’s writing. It says, “…I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” Basically, Paul is telling Timothy (and us, too) the family rules. He’s laying down the guidelines of how a Christian is expected to conduct him/herself. In 2:1, he starts with the first rule: pray for everyone, especially those in authority. He backs up his right to give these commands in 2:7 by reminding his readers that he is an apostle. In 2:8 he lays down the second rule: men are to be doing the praying and the men leading the public prayers need to meet certain qualifications. Then we get to our section.
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness” (1 Timothy 2:9,10).
You’ll notice that “I want” is in italics in the New American Standard Bible. That indicates it’s not there in the original language; it’s an interpretation of the translators. The “I want” of 2:8 is what the “likewise” refers to, so for our understanding, the translators added it (considerate of them, huh?). Paul wanted the men to do something and gave a command; now he wants the women to do something and gives us a command.
The word for “women” here is just the general word for women. This is a command for all women, not just wives or any other subset. Women are to adorn (this is the same word we discussed last week– it refers to the arrangement and decoration of one’s external appearance) themselves with proper clothing.
Let’s look at “clothing” first (we’ll get to “proper” soon). This word is one where sometimes what is really a mole hill gets turned into a mountain. The word KATASTOLE literally means a long garment or robe reaching down to the feet. Some have taken this to mean that women must always wear long skirts or dresses, but this is to misunderstand the sense of the word. While the word literally means something that is long and flowing, it was also just the general word for apparel or a garment. It’s like when I tell my boys to get shoes on. Sandals, sneakers, even boots will fit the bill. This is just a generic word for the common garment of the day. Think of illustrations you’ve seen of Jesus and his disciples. While Jesus was surely not a white man with long, curly locks and a glowing white robe, the type of clothing depicted is fairly accurate. The point is this: everyone– men and women alike– were wearing long, flowing robes and this is just a word for “clothing.” There is no case to be made from this word that a woman must wear skirts.
Paul gives three words to describe the clothing of a woman of God: proper, modest, discreet.
- “Proper” speaks of being respectable, honorable, appropriate. Propriety in dress considers more than just the clothes, but also the atmosphere. For example, if I were to walk into Sunday morning services wearing a red satin ball gown, no matter how much of my skin is covered or how little of my figure I reveal, I am not dressed properly for the setting or atmosphere.
- “Modest” in the NAS is the word the KJV translates “shamefacedness.” Having a spirit of modesty causes me to feel shame if I have too much of my body exposed. It has to do with having a distaste for things that are not honorable. The Complete Word Study Dictionary says, “It implies reverence for the good as good, not merely as that to which honor and reputation are attached.” A woman who dresses modestly does so simply because it is right, not because someone might think ill of her if she doesn’t.
- “Discreet” refers to using sound judgment, moderation and self-control in dress. Discretion helps me understand that revealing too much of my body (whether by leaving it uncovered or by covering it too tightly) goes against many of God’s principles. Discretion also helps me to realize I don’t need to pay $200.00 for a name brand dress when I can get one that is equally nice elsewhere for less than half the price. Moderation helps me to see that three necklaces, rings on every finger and dramatic makeup is a bit excessive. Self-control in my dress helps me to choose something else even though I really think I look adorable in an outfit that doesn’t cover enough of my body.
Next Paul addresses where a woman’s adornment or decoration should and should not come from. Much of last week’s article discussed this point, so we won’t dwell here long. One major difference between 1 Peter 3:3 and 1 Timothy 2:9 is the word “merely” in Peter’s letter. With this word in the reading, Peter’s exhortation seems milder and more clearly allows room for wearing gold and braiding the hair so long as it isn’t one’s focus. A closer look, though, and we see that just as “I want” was in italics in 1 Timothy 2:9, so also “merely” is italicized in 1 Peter 3:3; it is the addition of the translators. While it is an addition, the context shows it is not unjustified. The word isn’t present here, but the same idea carries through. As Christian women, our decoration, our beauty does not find its source in gold, pearls, braided hair or expensive clothes. Instead, our beauty comes from the inner self and its outer expression in the form of good works.
Paul also clearly lays out the motivation for all of this: this is proper for those making a claim to godliness. Article after article on modesty gives the motivation for following this command as helping our brothers avoid temptation, having respect for ourselves, preserving what is only for the marriage bed, etc. These motivations fall short and leave room for justification and rationalization. Someone says “I’m too overweight to draw anyone’s attention anyway, so I might as well wear what I want.” Someone else says, “My eye makeup is my trademark; it’s how I express my self-respect.” Another believes they’ll never marry so there’s no harm in showing whatever skin or figure they see fit to show. Aside from falling short, none of these motivations are the motivation given by God through Paul.
We are to dress modestly and let our beauty come from the inside because this is what is proper, right, fitting for those who are making a claim to godliness. By simply being Christians, we are saying that we follow God and we want to be like Him… and the world watches to see what that looks like. It’s like the saying “your life may be the only Bible someone reads.” When we dress in a revealing way, when we try so hard to make our externals beautiful that we forget our inner-self, the world takes notice… and they think that’s how God is too. If, on the other hand, the world sees someone whose dress is nice, but not extravagant, not designed to draw the wrong kind of attention and moderate in style as well as cost– these things leave room for our good works to speak of God. When our focus shifts, so does theirs. When our focus is on our dress reflecting the claim we make to godliness, the claim is what others will see. Modesty is simply part of the family rules. It’s how we are to conduct ourselves as part of the household of God.
By Erynn Sprouse
Erynn and her husband, Jeremy serve with the Patrick Street church of Christ in Dublin, TX . Her husband is the pulpit minister and evangelist. Erynn is a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom to their four-going-on-five children (Jaden, 7; Isaiah, 4; Isaac, 4; Ean, 27 mo’s; #5 due in September). They are 2003 graduates of the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver.