Post author Christopher R. Hutson is Professor of Bible, Missions, and Ministry at Abilene Christian University and serves on the Board of Equity for Women in the Church.
According to 1 Timothy 2:9, women should adorn themselves “with modesty and temperance, not with braids and gold or pearls or expensive garments.” It is ironic that many Christians who rigidly enforce the injunction against women teaching in 2:11-12, simply ignore the guidelines on clothing in the same context. If we can see how the instructions about adornments fit into a specific ancient context and are not automatically applicable in every social context, then perhaps we might begin to understand how the same could be true for the injunction about teaching.
Below is an excerpt from Christopher R. Hutson, First and Second Timothy and Titus (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), pp. 70–71. Used by permission. Baker Academic is a division of Baker Publishing Group, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.
Romans alternated between two competing attitudes toward women’s dress. Fancy clothing and adornments could represent “feminine excess that was leading Rome into a state of moral decline” or they could advertise the wealth and prestige of Rome’s leading families, according honor especially to their male relatives” (Upson-Saia 2011, 19; cf. Livy, Ab urbe 34.1-8).
Two portraits illustrate the alternatives, both carefully composed. A Roman-Egyptian mummy portrait from the early second century shows a woman whose attire matches 1 Tim 2:9. We do not know whether she is wearing her best pearls, sentimental favorite pearls, her only pearls, borrowed pearls, or pearls imagined by the artist. All that remain of her identity are the name Isidora on the shoulder of the mummy wrappings and this portrait, in which elaborate braids, gold, pearls, and lavender clothing project wealth and status. By contrast, a statue of Livia from Spain projects a different image. As the wife of Augustus, Livia was enormously wealthy and powerful, but the statue projects none of that. The artist sculpted an image of unadorned virtue—a Roman wife with simple hairstyle, no jewels, and simple clothing that projected modesty and temperance.
Respectable Roman women appeared in public flaunting wealth or flaunting virtue. Given those choices, Pastoral Paul urged that Christian values were in line with the Roman rhetoric of modesty but not the Roman practice of status competition. Far from capitulating to Roman values, this argument for the apologetic value of clothing anticipates Diognetus (Diog. 5.4). We can plot a trajectory from 1 Tim 2 through the third and fourth centuries, as Christians developed clothing traditions that demonstrated Christian values to the wider society (Upson-Saia 2011, 33-58).
There is nothing inherently sinful about braids or gold. Christians should behave in ways that reflect modesty and temperance where they live. This is all the more true where Christianity is not well known or lacking secure legal status. But what hairstyle, jewelry or clothing constitutes “decorum” or “extravagance” varies, from culture to culture and from century to century. We should not expect Christians in all times and places to conform to the societal norms of the early Roman Empire, but Christians should consider how their attire reflects Christian values.