Paul’s Instructions for “Modest” Dress

One hot topic among Christians at the moment is the subject of modesty.[1]  I think it is important for women not to dress in a sexually provocative way; however, I do not believe that this was Paul’s primary meaning in his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9.

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger and arguments.  Similarly[2] I want the women to make themselves beautiful (or orderly)[3] with modest and sensible fashions, not with fancy hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly.  1 Timothy 2:8-10[4] cf 1 Peter 3:3-4.

C1st wealthy Roman woman. Pompeii Floor MosaicIt is clear from Paul’s instructions in these verses that there were tensions in the church at Ephesus.  These tensions were resulting in anger and arguments among the men.  The cause of these tensions may have been the arrogance and conceit of the wealthy men (1 Tim 6:17).  The ostentatious dress of wealthy women was also causing problems.

The early church strived to be egalitarian and inclusive of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free (Gal 3:28).  While this goal was wonderfully achieved wherever and whenever the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully and freely (e.g. Acts 2:44), equality was not always easy to maintain.  So Paul taught that distinctions – which could lead to tensions and divisions – should be avoided.[5]

More so than today, back in the first century what a person wore was an indication of their socio-economic status.[6]  For instance, only wealthy women – who had slaves who could attend and dress them – had elaborate, braided hairstyles.  And only wealthy women could afford to wear gold, pearls and expensive, high quality clothes. Furthermore, the wealthy women were probably used to a lifestyle of idleness and leisure (cf 1 Tim 2:10; 6:17-19).  Some of their attire and lifestyle may also have been suggestive of immoral living.[7]

The poorer women and slave women, on the other hand, did not have fancy hairstyles; they did not own anything made from gold; they did not own pearls; and their clothes were simple, inexpensive and probably well-worn.[8]  Furthermore they had to work hard, either to support their families or for their masters.

It would have been difficult to maintain sisterly affection when some women wore gorgeous clothes and expensive jewellery while others wore plain, even drab, clothes.  To foster equality and harmony, Paul wanted the rich women to dress modestly, that is, simply and sensibly.  He also wanted them to be generous and to share their wealth with their poorer brothers and sisters.  And he wanted them to be busy with good works, rather than being idle (1 Tim 2:10; 6:18).

Paul’s real instruction in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 is for humility and meekness.[9]  He wanted the wealthy women to be humble for the sake of their poorer sisters, and to dress modestly and present themselves in a way that was unlikely to cause jealousy and ill-feeling.

Does the way you dress make less well-dressed, poorer women feel inferior?  Or does the way you dress and present yourself promote equality and harmony in the church?


Endnotes

[1] Several Hierarchical Complementarians give confusing messages to women about dress and modesty.  They state that women have an obligation to look attractive for their husbands, but not too attractive in case they become attractive to other men.

[2] The conjunction “similarly” (sautōs) indicates that verses 8 and 9 are addressing a similar situation.  Kevin Giles commenting on these verses writes:

When men pray, they should do so in the absence of contention or anger; when women pray they should dress modestly.  The reference to women praying is often missed by male commentators but it should be noted.  In v.9 the words addressed to women lack a verb which must be supplied from v.8.  In v.8 there are two verbs ‘to desire’ and ‘to pray’, which the adverb at the beginning of verse 9, sautōs (= in like manner) shows are both carried over (so Chrysostom, Calvin, Spicq, Barrett, Debilius and Conzelmann).
“Response” in The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue, Alan Nichols (Ed.) (Canberra: Acorn Press, 1990) p.72.

So, a translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-10 that more fully conveys the intended meaning may be:

I want the men to pray in every place, raising holy hands without anger and arguments, and likewise I want the woman to pray in respectable clothing with propriety and modesty, not to adorn themselves with fancy hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly. 

[3] Paul uses a cognate of the Greek word kosmeō twice in 1 Timothy 2:9.  This word can mean “adorn” and “beautify”, but it can also mean “make orderly”.  (The word “cosmetic” comes from this word kosmeō.)  It seems that Paul wanted the rich women to make themselves beautiful with sensible fashions and with good works.

[4] My translation/paraphrase.

[5] For instance, Paul’s main reason for writing his first letter to the Corinthians was to address various factions and divisions which were causing problems.  Some of these problems were between men and women (1 Cor 14:34-38 cf 1 Cor 11:11-13), between rich and poor (1 Cor 11:17-22), and between followers of different Christian leaders (1 Cor 1:10-13).

[6]  Useful information on this by Bruce W. Winter, “You Were What You Wore in Roman Law: Deciphering the Dress Codes of 1 Timothy 2:9-15″ here.
S.M Baugh makes these excellent observations on elaborate hairstyles and wives and mothers of Roman emperors:

The women of the imperial household originated new styles; by the Trajanic period they had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire: “See the tall edifice rise up on her head in serried tiers and storeys!” (Juvenal, Satire 6). One can even date representations of women by the increasing complexity of hair fashions.
If Roman styles seem a bit too far away to affect Ephesian fashions, consider that portraits of reigning empresses often appeared on coins minted in Ephesus and other Asian cities and that they had prominent statues in both public and private places. [Bust found in Ephesus of Livia (58BC – 29AD), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, here.]  Portraits of provincial women from the era show that the imperial coiffures were copied in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia.
Paul’s injunction regarding elaborate hairstyles reflects the increasing influence of Rome at Ephesus during the third quarter of the first century AD. And his skeptical response to this trend was due to his judgment that simplicity and modesty in dress befit pious women rather than external extravagance.
Furthermore, his reaction to women’s imitation of the latest hairstyles is understandable since it was quite a new trend, really begun only a decade or so earlier, and it carried connotations of imperial luxury and the infamous licentiousness of women like Messalina and Poppaea.

Baugh, S. M. (2005). 1: A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century. In A. J. Köstenberger & T. R. Schreiner (Eds.), Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 (Second Edition., p. 35). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Messalina and her son Britannicus

[7] Pagan writers, contemporary with Paul, who were concerned about the brazenness of the “New Roman Woman”, counselled women to dress sensibly and not look like courtesans.  Plutarch praised his wife for the simplicity and plainness of her dress in his Consolatory Letter (para. 5).  Seneca likewise commended his mother Helvia in a consolatory letter,

Unchastity, the greatest evil of our time, has never classed you with the great majority of women; jewels have not moved you, nor pearls; to your eyes the glitter of riches has not seemed the greatest boon of the human race; you, who were soundly trained in an old-fashioned and strict household, have not been perverted by the imitation of worse women that leads even the virtuous into pitfalls; you have never blushed for the number of your children, as if it taunted you with your years; never have you, in the manner of other women whose only recommendation lies in their beauty, tried to conceal your pregnancy as if an unseemly burden, nor have you ever crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in your body; you have not defiled your face with paints and cosmetics; never have you fancied the kind of dress that exposed no greater nakedness by being removed. In you has been seen that peerless ornament, that fairest beauty on which time lays no hand, that chiefest glory which is modesty.” (Seneca the Younger, To Helvia, 16:3-4)

[8] Many people were poor in the Roman Empire, and many were slaves.  It has been estimated that one-third of the population of the Empire in the 1st century were slaves.  We know that women and slaves were attracted to Christianity.

[9] Perhaps the wealthy women were also loud and unruly (1 Tim 2:11).

One final comment: Very few churches insist that men raise their hands when they pray despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:8.  Very few churches forbid women to braid their hair, wear gold or pearl jewellery, or wear expensive clothes, despite Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9.  Yet many churches,  prohibit women from preaching and teaching because of  1 Timothy 2:12.  Why do churches ignore Paul’s instructions in verses 8 and 9, but focus on verse 12?  Is this reasonable and just?   [My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context here.]

Images:
(1) Mosaic of  a wealthy Roman lady, circa 1st Century AD, Pompeii.
(2) Mosaic depicting two slaves attending a Roman matron. National Museum of Carthage. (Fabien Dany)
(3) Statue of Messalina and her son Britannicus. (Ricardo André Frantz)


Related Articles

The Prominence of Women in the Cultic Life of Ephesus
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Likewise Women . . . Likewise Husbands

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Posted December 10th, 2011 . Categories/Tags: Christian Living, Equality and Gender Issues, , , ,

12 comments on “Paul’s Instructions for “Modest” Dress

  1. Excellent! We often fall into the trap of trying to understand the Bible with today’s culture. A simple reading of it tells us that men should raise their hands when praying – but few do – and that women should not braid their hair or wear jewelry. But most importantly, we are told that women are to remain silent and not have authority over men. But if we get too deeply into the clothing aspect of it, we might also realize that women being silent was cultural also. So we hem and haw (be evasive) over the clothing, but come down hard on the silent instruction in these scriptures.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Good insight!

  3. TL says:

    Yes, that would make good sense. Their wasn’t really any middle class as there is today.

  4. Kristen says:

    Wow, that’s great! It certainly makes more sense than the other reading!

  5. Marg says:

    Thanks for your comments! :)

    I know that many people wear their Sunday Best as a way of honoring God; yet I truly believe that God couldn’t care less about what we wear to church services, except in the sense of how it affects others.

    God is much more concerned with our “inner person” than with our “outer person”.

  6. […] I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.  1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV 2011) […]

  7. […] Unlike Paul’s instructions in verses 11-12, the instructions in verses 8-10 – for lifting holy hands in prayer and for not wearing luxurious clothing in church meetings – are rarely mentioned, let alone applied or enforced, in most contemporary churches. What is the reason behind the choice to ignore verses 8-10 and apply (enforce) verses 11-12? […]

  8. […] Paul’s Instructions for “Modest Dress” […]

  9. […] The numerous examples of surviving Ancient Greek artwork shows that reputable women wore their hair tied up in braids and bands.  Greek women, especially the upper-class women were not veiled.  It might be, however, that poorer women, who could not afford slaves to braid their hair into elaborate styles, wore veils.  And it could be that Jewish women in Corinth wore veils.  There is also evidence that Roman women wore veils during worship.  If Paul is asking women to wear veils—even though the Greek text never states this explicitly—he may have been saying this to reduced distinctions of class and race among the women. […]

  10. […] [This section adapted from "Paul's Instructions for 'Modest' Dress" here.] […]

  11. […] Paul’s Instructions for “Modest Dress” […]

  12. […] Paul’s Instructions about Modest Dress […]

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