This is an important one. This is one that I have often heard twisted maybe more than any other piece of Scripture, and one in which people claim shows St. Paul’s sexism. They couldn’t be more wrong.
First, I’ll copy and paste this email I sent to myself a decade ago (don’t know who wrote it), and then add my thoughts. I have also heard a sermon about this from Michael Youseff, but unfortunately I do not know the title of that sermon. Anyway, the sermon and this piece concur.
“Should Christian women avoid wearing jewelry or braids?
I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair 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
These verses might throw you for a loop if your Bible-reading plan calls for an arbitrary number of verses a day. But if you read the Bible a book at a time and you have the ten minutes it takes to read this epistle all in one chunk, you notice two things: First, that the entire second chapter deals with the worship service, so Paul is not talking about how women should dress when they go grocery shopping. Second, that Paul addressed this epistle specifically to Timothy, not to us. We are reading this epistle, so to speak, over Timothy’s shoulder:
To Timothy my true son in the faith
—1 Timothy 1:2, NIV
Therefore, if we apply this passage directly, without taking the context or Timothy’s immediate needs into account, our interpretation isn’t biblical.
Every time I go to the mall and see how the people are dressed, I wonder how we could have had a shipwreck this far inland. But even in this age of fashionable grunge, clothing says a lot about you. For example, it is fairly safe to presume that a man dressed in a tuxedo is probably not on his way to the harbor to unload a ship. And a woman who is standing on a street corner in a bad neighborhood at night in fishnet stockings, a clear vinyl skirt, and too much makeup, is not likely to be a nun. So if I were a modern apostle writing to the pastor of a church located near a red-light district, I would say, “your women should not be wearing fishnet stockings and clear vinyl skirts.” By that I would not mean that if fashion changes and fishnet stockings become respectable, you should still not wear them, I just mean that however the entrepreneurs of the horizontal industry should happen to dress, you shouldn’t.
However, the situation wasn’t quite that extreme for Timothy. In those days, braids and jewelry were ostentatious, beauty-pageant type things. Paul’s concern was not about braids and jewelry, but about vanity and ostentatiousness. It’s important not to turn the worship service into a beauty pageant, because women would spend all their time competing and none of it worshiping. It can send the poor women home in tears and puff the rich women up with pride, and this is not supposed to be the outcome of Christian worship.
So I think we should interpret Paul as giving specific instructions to Timothy that were applicable to his immediate needs and circumstances, from which we should derive the principle that Christian women should dress appropriately—neither too severely, nor too wildly. Paul did not speak of men, not because the principle does not apply to them, but because men’s clothing wasn’t the problem in Timothy’s church and Paul’s immediate purpose was to address Timothy’s needs. We should apply the same rules to men, because the underlying principle is applicable everywhere and to everyone. We should all dress modestly and appropriately, not sticking out in one extreme or the other.
Well, that’s what Paul said in 1 Timothy 2:9—what we should not wear. In 1 Timothy 2:10, Paul talks about what we should wear. And this brings to mind the popular saying that you are never fully dressed without a smile. I suppose that would be true for us if we were secular people, because we live in a shallow society that shuns people who are sad. If we are secular people, concerned only about getting ahead, we should always smile, so that we won’t suffer any disadvantage. But if we are Christians, we have something better than cheerfulness—we have the love of God, which is so strong we don’t need to plaster our faces with fake smiles, and we do not need to avoid sad people. In fact, Jesus sent us to seek them out and lift them up.
A doctor is never fully dressed for work without a stethoscope, nor a mason without a trowel, nor a carpenter without a hammer. A Christian is never fully dressed without the good deeds that are appropriate for those who profess to worship God.”
The people who claim that Paul was sexist do not understand this passage, and that is too bad. In fact, in high school especially, this was brought up and flung in my face to make me doubt my faith, or to show me that my religion was one of oppression of women. But they didn’t understand the times. They didn’t understand that these particular women to whom Paul was writing were dressing up for one another and that was taking focus off worship. Women like to dress up. If I could wear a ball gown and glitter everyday, I would. But church is not a time for dress up, it is to be a time of focus on God. Attention should be on Him and Him alone.