Paul instructs, “[T]hat women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; [b]ut (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”1 Many of the words used in this passage have changed in meaning over the centuries since the King James Version was produced. Let’s take a Closer Look.
“Shamefacedness” is not about being ashamed of oneself, but means with a sense of shame and honor, regard for others, propriety. “Sobriety’ is in the Greek, sophronsynē, soundness of mind or sanity. “Adorn” and “modest” are both forms of kosmos, orderly, well arranged, decorous, seemly, ornamented. The ancients knew that the heavens were well ordered and predictable. Pythagoras applied the word to the universe, since it operates in a kosmios fashion. Kosmos also gives us cosmetics, which adorn and enhance beauty.
Apparel and array both refer to clothing, but are different words in Greek, katastolē, and himatismos, respectively, and seem to be fairly generic words for a garment.
We can update the language of the verse thus: Women should order themselves in orderly clothes, with propriety and sanity; not with ostentatious hair, or rude displays of wealth; but . . . with good works. This preserves the repetition of kosmios in the original. A woman’s good works enhance her beauty.
What sorts of clothing are proper, and therefore modest, vary according to the time, occasion, culture, venue. T-shirt and shorts would be appropriate in a McDonalds, but not in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Evening attire would be out of place at Taco Bell, but not at an embassy reception. In sauna culture of northern Europe, it is considered tacky to wear any clothes at all in the sauna; they do not understand why Americans are uncomfortable with that. In some societies women cover their faces. Until Covid, many American jurisdictions forbade anyone over trick-or-treating age to wear a mask in public. Hiding one’s identity suggests nefarious intent.
Across time and culture, throughout human history, the primary function of clothing is to display rank and status. Armies wear uniforms to display who is in charge and who has earned distinctions. Some clergy wear distinctive collars. John Malloy wrote his classic Dress for Success to teach working class men how to use their wardrobes to project the appearance of membership in the upper middle class. Even among remote peoples living in tropical rain forests, where they never developed anything that a Westerner would recognize as clothing, they still adorn themselves with beads or feathers or paint. The chief or shaman will be identifiable by his adornments. Indeed, in a tropical rain forest, clothing as we understand the term would be unhealthy. Laundry would never dry. Moldy clothes would trap sweat, bacteria and other pathogens against the skin.
When the Creator made the Earth is six days, He called his creation “good.” But on Day Six, after He put a single breeding pair of naked humans in the Garden, He called His creation “very good.”2 When He had to evict His tenants from the Garden, He provided them “coats of skins.”3 The humans needed these coats for protection from the thorns and thistles they would encounter in the wilderness outside of Eden.4 Remember that Adam said that he was afraid after he had sinned because he was naked;5 he never expresses any shame at being naked.
In the ancient world, nakedness was seen as a symptom of poverty, not lunacy or sinfulness. In the modern world, the opposite of shame is pride (in a good sense). In the ancient world, the opposite of shame is honor. Shame and honor come from the outside; shame and pride are internal. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” In a shame-and-honor culture, any “shame” in nakedness is the lack of the honor one receives when richly dressed.
The second most common use for clothing is as portable shelter. Bedouins wear long, flowing robes for protection from the sun. We need to wear additional insulation in cold or otherwise inclement weather. Certain occupations require protective clothing. Naturists wear clothes while in textile society as protection from a hostile legal climate.
The western notion of modesty as wearing clothes simply to not be naked comes from the Gnostic errors imported with Greek philosophy as the great influx of Gentiles first were called Christians at Antioch.6 Gnosticism taught that spirit is good and matter is evil. The human body, being made of matter is therefore “sinful flesh.” Anything that gives pleasure to the flesh is therefore sin. At various times the church even discouraged bathing, because it served and gave pleasure to the body. This is not the kind of false modesty Paul was writing about.
Biblical modesty is in not attracting attention to oneself. Dressing to send the message, “Look at me! See how pious I am!” is as immodest as dressing to proclaim, “Look at me! See how sexy I am!” A country road has a ditch on both sides. To err on the side of caution may be wiser than erring on the side of recklessness, but it is still error. We dress, or not, properly for the situation, to give God glory, not ourselves.
In the footnotes to 1 Timothy 2:9, the Revised English Version commentary says, “A generally reliable way to think about your clothing is that if you, as a dedicated believer, would be uncomfortable wearing a certain outfit in the presence of Jesus Christ, then you should likely not wear it in public.”7 On the other hand, the Nudist movement was founded as a health movement and “an antidote to civilization” in Germany between the world wars. It was imported to America by German immigrants, and led by their Christian pastors.
1 1 Tim 2:9–10.
2 Gen 1:31.
3 Gen 3:21.
4 Gen 3:18.
5 Gen 3:10.
6 Acts 11:26.