Photo of a long skirt trailing the ground

From Modest Clothing Bible Study by Ray and Elaine Powell

What Does God Mean When He Instructs Women to Dress Modestly?

This chapter focuses on two pivotal verses in the New Testament for understanding God’s perspective on appearance for women.

1 Timothy 2:9-10, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (KJV).

Let’s take a look at the definitions of the original Greek words in the above verses.

Adorn/kosmeo: to put in order, arrange, make ready, prepare, to ornament, adorn. God teaches us through His Word and through His creation that He is a God of order and cleanliness. Untidiness and disorder do not correctly represent Christianity. This word would seem to indicate that sloppiness or slothfulness should have no place in a Christian’s appearance. A Godly woman will want to be clean and neat.

Modest/kosmios: well arranged, seemly, modest. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines modesty as orderly, well–arranged, decent, modest. The Greek word for “modest” would be more correctly translated into today’s English as “orderly, neatly arranged or proper.” God’s instructions here would seem to indicate that a Christian would avoid the “sloppy look,” the “wild and crazy unkempt look” as well as the slothful, “I don’t care look.” A Christian woman should wash her hair, take a bath, and take care of her clothing. She would realize that her appearance must not repel others because of dirt, odor, slothfulness or wildness so that she misses an opportunity to draw someone closer to the Lord!

Roget’s Thesaurus lists the following words as synonyms and antonyms of modesty:

  • Synonyms: “plain; quiet; simple; unpretending; shy; kept in the background; taking a back seat; reserved; humble; conservative; meek; chaste; lowly; decent; maidenly; bashful; shamefaced; unexcessive; unextravagant.”
  • Antonyms: “indecent; shameless; bold; brazen; loud; shameful; unblushing; unseemly; sexy; smutty; spicy; suggestive; boasting; show-off; strut; flaunt; extravagant; self-confident; pride; haughtiness; arrogance; vanity; self-importance; self-adoration; self-glorification; high-minded; superior; puffed up; over bearing; display; parade; pageantry; flash; gloss; glitter; gaudy; exhibitionism; to advertise or exhibit; swanky.”

The instruction in this verse would seem to indicate that a Christian should conceal her body. She would avoid seductive, suggestive clothing (or body language). She would avoid bold, flashy styles and material as well as any type of clothing that had a “look at me attitude.” Instead, her clothing would be characterized as humble and conservative. She would have a preference for chaste, subdued, plain, and nonexhibitionistic dress. She would avoid blatantly or subtly seeking to advertise or reveal her body or attract the eyes and thoughts of others. Instead, she would conceal the nakedness of her body so that the worth of her soul might appear. A modest woman would have a spirit of shyness and reservation.

Apparel/katastole: a lowering, letting down, a garment let down, dress, attire. The Adam Clarke Commentary on the New Testament makes these comments about “katastole” (apparel), pp. 591-592, “The apostle seems to refer here to different parts of the Grecian and Roman dress. The stola seems to have been originally very simple. It was a long piece of cloth, doubled in the middle, and sewed up on both sides, leaving room only for the arms; at the tip, a piece was cut out, or a slit made, through which the head passed. It hung down to the feet, both before and behind, and was girded with the zona round the body . . . . The katastole seems to have been the same as the pallium or mantle, which being made nearly in the form of the stola, hung down to the waist, both in back and front, was gathered on the shoulder with a band or buckle, and a hole or slit at top for the head to pass through, and hung loosely over the stola, without being confined by the girdle . . . . A more modest and becoming dress than the Grecian was never invented . . . . It was too rational to last long; and too much like religious simplicity to be suffered in a land of shadows, and a world of painted outsides.”

It is interesting that the definition of the Greek word katastole seems to imply something long and “let down” rather than short or “hiked up.” Paul was here exhorting women who were already wearing loose, long garments to be modest!

How long is long? Which lengths could undeniably be classified as long?
What about you? Is your dress “long”? Is your motivation to wear your skirts as short as you can get by with? Or instead, do you seek to get them long enough that no one could deny they are long?

Shamefacedness/aidos: a sense of shame or honor, modesty, bashfulness, reverence, regard for others, respect. Webster’s Dictionary (1828) defines shamefacedness, “Bashfulness; with excess of modesty.” Webster's Dictionary (1980) defines modesty as, “Freedom from conceit or vanity; propriety in dress, speech, or conduct; decent; limited in size, amount or aim; humble; shy; chaste.” The Greek word for “shamefacedness” (used in the KJV) would be more correctly translated into today’s English as “modest” (used in the NASB).

Sobriety/sophrosune: soundness of mind, self control, sobriety. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines sobriety as soundness of mind; Acts 26:25, “soberness;” 1 Tim. 2:9, 15, “sobriety;” "sound judgment" practically expresses the meaning; “it is that habitual inner self–government, with its constant rein on all the passions and desires, which would hinder the temptation to these from arising, or at all events from arising in such strength as would overbear the checks and barriers which shamefastness opposed to it.”

The word "sobriety" seems to indicate an inner strength and self-government. God’s instructions here would seem to indicate that a Christian woman demonstrate (through her apparel) temperance in desires and passions. She would avoid the “decked-out look.” Her appearance would be characterized by restraint and self-control (rather than indulgence). Sobriety will be visible in a Godly woman’s clothing and appearance.

Broided/plegma: what is woven, plaited, or twisted together, a web, plait, braid, of a net, of a basket, in which the infant Moses was laid, of braided hair. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines broided as what is woven, whether a net or basket (Josephus uses it of the ark of bulrushes in which the infant Moses was laid), or of a web, plait, braid. It is used in 1 Tim. 2:9, of “braided hair,” which the Vulgate signifies as ringlets, curls.

Does this verse indicate that a Christian woman will avoid adorning herself with elaborate hairdos? An honest and sincere search of the heart would be wise before a woman decides to follow hair fashions of the world. Hair has certainly become an ornament for adornment in today’s society.

Costly/poluteles: precious, requiring very great outlay, very costly, excellent, of surpassing value.

This would exclude apparel which is extremely costly. Wisdom would point us toward good stewardship and also to the motives of our heart. Sometimes an item of superior quality may cost more, but it may also be more durable and thus a wiser purchase in the long run. There is no need to be legalistic about the price tag of an item. However, there is a need to guard one’s heart against a lust for luxury or the appearance of affluence.

Array/himatismos: clothing, apparel.

Let’s look at several other translations of I Timothy 2:9-10.

  • Revised Standard Version: “Also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire, but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion.”
  • American Standard Version: “In like manner, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment; but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works.”
  • New American Standard Bible: “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness."
  • New International Version: “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.”

A Christian woman has the Spirit of Christ dwelling within her, thus she will want to be modest and not merely avoid immodesty by getting as close to “the line” as possible. She will not want to wear anything that will cast a shadow on her moral purity! Her outward clothing and appearance will represent her inner purity! She will dress on purpose! She will wear loose clothing on purpose to conceal the shape of her body. She will wear clean and neat clothing on purpose. She will wear long clothes on purpose. She will avoid very expensive clothing on purpose. She will wear clothing “which becomes a woman professing Godliness” on purpose. She will avoid attracting attention to herself, or placing temptations in front of other men on purpose.

Avoiding Extremes

Often in Christian circles, you find two extremes when it comes to determining modest clothing. One group will accept “anything” and follow the trends and fashions of the world. Other groups will reject “everything” and adopt a type of uniform in an attempt to stay as far away from the world as possible. Some Christians would like to have a “do and don’t list” to help them make personal decisions about what is modest or immodest, while others will resist any attempt to restrict or limit their “freedom” to dress as they please.

Even though such a list might simplify the issue of modesty in some people’s minds, it would not deal with the root causes of immodesty. Modesty is more than conservative dress (even though it does include conservative dress). Modesty is more than covering the skin of your body (even though it does include covering your body). Modesty involves your heart, your attitude, your motive and your behavior. There is no “do and don’t list” of things you can follow in order to become a modest woman. The issue is more than what you put on your body. The issue also includes your heart!

  • Where is your life focus? Is it on self? Is it on Christ?
  • Where are your affections? Are they on earth? Are they in Heaven?
  • What is your life purpose? Is it to be known? Is it to make Him known?
  • What is the desire of your heart? Is it attractiveness? Is it purity and holiness?

The issue is much deeper than outward modesty, however, outward modesty is important! What you wear is important because it reflects who you are inwardly, and it also affects others visually. In the previous chapters of this study we have pointed you to God’s Word in order to deal with your inward heart attitudes. In the next few chapters we will now attempt to deal with outward actions.

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