Question: Does the Bible give a standard for modesty in the way believers are to dress?
Certainly the clearest statement in Scripture regarding how a person should dress in public is the admonition in First Timothy:
1Tim. 2:9-10 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.
This passage has often been mistranslated, misinterpreted and, consequently, misapplied. So take a closer look with me into this teaching, phrase by phrase. At the end of this post you will find my own translation of these two verses from the Greek to contemporary English.
The phrase “I also want” (NIV) more literally translates as “In the same manner,” connecting us back to comments made regarding how people (men especially) are to conduct themselves in worship. This is important because God’s standard on modesty is far more concerned with conduct and the attitude of the heart than with the length of a dress.
“to dress modestly”
“Modestly” (Gk. kosmeo, from which we get the word “cosmetic”) is more literally translated as “well-ordered” or “neat” attire. It is used twice in the Greek, the first time in the sense of ‘neat’ and the second time in the sense of ‘adornment’ or ‘attractiveness.’
“with decency and propriety”
“Decency” translates the Greek word aidos. It carries the idea of turning one’s gaze away in bashfulness or reverence. It was used especially to portray a woman looking away from a man with a bashful innocence, or a person looking down in reverential awe in the presence of God. The idea behind “propriety” (Gk. sophrosune) is that of sanity and self-control.
The ideas at work here are that of humility born of innocence, common sense and self-control—all attitudes of the heart: making a point to dress in a way that does not advertise or show off.
“not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes”
The image behind the words “braided hair” (phlegmasin) refers to anything that is plaited, interwoven or interlaced. However, this is not some legalistic rule against pigtails and braided hair. How ridiculous that would be coming from the apostle who argued so forcefully against legalistic religious requirements:
Col. 2:16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
The same non-legalistic principle applies with the “gold, pearls and expensive clothes.” The Bible is not giving a new commandment against wearing specific items, but promotes creating an inward and outward attractiveness based on a godly attitude and lifestyle.
My translation below follows the flow of thought in the original Greek, placing the emphasis on the attitude of the heart rather than the cut of the clothes.
“In the same way, women should beautify themselves in neat, unrevealing attire, showing good judgment, rather than with fancy hairstyles, gold jewelry, pearls or expensive clothes, being conspicuous as women who profess to worship God by doing good.”