In the second chapter of 1st Timothy, after explaining the need for prayer in the local church, and then addressing the men and their need for integrity, peacefulness, and leadership, Paul turns his attention to women in verse 9. Paul says that women “should adorn themselves in respectable clothing with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold jewelry, or pearls or expensive clothing.”
It is critical, in trying to understand passages like this, to understand the context of the first century church. In passages like this, particularly, the historical context is often misrepresented, and so we need to understand correctly the culture of that time in order to get a better grasp on what Paul is talking about here. In verses 9 and 10, its easy to assume that Paul is speaking primarily against women dressing in sexually immodest clothing. And certainly, this was an issue then, as it is today. Ephesus, like so many
ancient cities, was filled with sexual immorality. It was common for women to use ornate fashion to attract attention to themselves and, of course, sometimes in seductive ways.
But more likely, Paul is not primarily — and certainly not only — addressing seductive styles of dress in this passage, but rather the flaunting of status. It was customary in Hellenistic cities (that is, those influenced by Greek culture), for women to dress in the finest, most expensive clothing they could get their hands on, to go out to public feasts. These public feasts held in the cities were social gatherings to be sure; but basically the whole purpose was to demonstrate your social status. When people would come out for these feasts, it was one of the rare times that women were out in public for the sole purpose of being in the public eye, and so they would flaunt their status and social class as much as they possibly could. They did this by wearing incredibly expensive clothing, costly makeup, and elaborate, flamboyant hairstyles in which they would weave jewelry, such as gold or pearls, through their hair. By a few hundred years before Christ, this custom had bled into places of worship. So whenever there was a public gathering for worship, the women would come ready to present themselves — to show everyone just how high-status they were.
But Paul is giving the women in the church at Ephesus an altogether different exhortation: “Adorn yourselves modestly, and with self control.” Paul wants to shift their focus from themselves, and what other people are thinking of them, to what the assembly of the local church is supposed to be about — which is the worship of God.
The specifics of application for today may differ a little (I don’t think most will argue that women today cannot wear pearls in church). There’s a difference between the culturally relevant examples Paul gives, and the timeless principle that applies to us still today. The principle — the truth — remains: Christian women should have a different motivation in their dress than the surrounding culture, and the local assembly for the worship of God is not the place to flaunt your wealth, or your sexuality, or your social status. Paul’s exhortation in verse 9 is, I think, twofold:
The first is, don’t focus on drawing attention to physical beauty. Paul says to dress with modesty and self-control, or as the Holman translates it: “with decency, and good sense.” Modesty was an issue back then just as it is an issue today. And as with so many other things, this trend has taken hold in the church as well. The way some women dress in churches is at best a negligent cause for distraction to others from focusing on and honoring God, and at worst a deliberate attempt to attract attention to themselves, to appear sexually appealing to men, or to impress other women. Paul is clearly teaching here: that is not what church is about.
By the way though, notice that it’s not inherently wrong for contemporary style to be made use of by Christians. There’s nothing inherently moral, or spiritual, in being unfashionable or behind the times! Sometimes Christians imply that women should take note of the current clothing trends and then do the exact opposite! But that’s not what Paul is saying here either. Chuck Swindoll makes the point that Paul does say women should adorn themselves! The word Paul uses actually means to decorate, to beautify, to make attractive, or to put in order.
In other words, Christian women don’t need to be dowdy, or completely ignorant of fashion, in order to be godly. In fact, Paul says women should adorn themselves in “respectable,” “proper,” or “orderly” clothing. Women are to come to worship ready to face the Lord. They shouldn’t be in slovenly disarray. There is a place for lovely clothes that reflect the humble grace of a woman — like the Proverbs 31 woman, whose clothing was fine linen and purple. There should be an orderly and proper adornment on the outside to reflect the properly adorned heart. A Christian woman is free to dress according to the style and custom of where she lives — but within reason, and within certain limits. And as we will see in the next post in this series, Paul’s emphasis is that the church is not the place for women to flaunt their wealth or social status. It does (especially today), take discernment — which, much like common sense, isn’t very common!