“… 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 2:8-10).
The first thing we must realize is that Paul’s instructions in this regard are for a specific setting – that of public worship. The apostle begins this instruction in the first verse of the chapter speaking about prayer. He elaborates on this topic before saying “Therefore … “ – meaning as a result of what he has just said about public prayer – “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly…” (1 Timothy 2:8-9). His thoughts regarding both men and women are relative to prayer.
So Paul’s instructions regarding women’s dress and appearance are aimed primarily at public worship. The key is that he says the women should dress “modestly” (vs. 9), meaning not to draw attention to themselves in a way that is not fitting for public worship. We should also realize that the word translated to “dress” modestly can refer to demeanor as well as dress, to behavior as well as clothing.
We see this principle throughout what Paul says. When he speaks of “elaborate hairstyles” he is not condemning women styling their hair, but the practice of the time in which well-to-do Greco-Roman women would weave gold threads into their hair – again to draw attention to themselves (see also 1 Peter 3:3). The proper attire for Christian women in Christian worship, Paul stresses, is not attire that is focused on themselves, but that which is “appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (vs. 10).
From Paul’s perspective there are two things wrong with women wearing the kinds of clothing and adornment that he condemns for public worship. First, by wearing clothing that was not modest or that drew inordinate attention to themselves, women might be a distraction to the men with whom they were worshipping. Second, by wearing obviously expensive clothing, pearls and gold, women might likewise arouse jealousy among poorer women in the congregation. This is not to say that either result would be intentional, but that Paul says it is the woman’s responsibility not to provide a “stumbling block” (Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 8:9) to their fellow worshippers.
If we read his words carefully, we see that Paul’s instructions to Timothy are certainly aimed at wrong intent or unintentional error in women’s dress – not as a ruling against their adornment. In a very similar manner, the apostle Peter admonishes women:
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
But once again we find that context makes this instruction clear. In the verses directly before these, Peter is discussing the situation of how women whose husbands are unconverted can best be a proper influence on their mates, saying:
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment …” (1 Peter 3:1-3).
In other words, Peter does not condemn or disallow the woman’s adornment either – he simply stresses that wives should not look to their physical beauty to influence their husbands, but to the inner beauty to which they have been called.
That it is not wrong for a woman to be adorned in a beautiful way is made clear in a number of scriptures and none is clearer than Ezekiel 16 where God himself speaks of Israel as a young woman whom he adorned:
“I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck …” (Ezekiel 16:10-11).
Peter and Paul both knew this and similar scriptures and would hardly have forbidden something that God tells us he has done. The Bible does not speak against women adorning themselves, but against the wrong intent of such adornment or its excessive use in inappropriate settings such as that of public worship.