Modesty (6) – The Appearance of the Modest Woman

C.J. Mahaney

The third of seven excerpts from C.J.’s chapter on modesty in the forthcoming book Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway, Sept. 2008).

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What do humble, modest clothes look like? First Timothy 2:9 tells us: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel  …  not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.”

To better understand this verse, let’s travel back in time to the early church. There had been some startling disruptions to the church’s meetings of late, and Paul was writing to Timothy  “so that  . . .  you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:14–15).

Clearly some people were not behaving in a manner worthy of the church of the living God, thus necessitating this gracious rebuke from the apostle.

Paul begins, appropriately, with the men: “I desire that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). He’s saying, “Guys, quit arguing in church! You’re distracting from worship, teaching and prayer. Anger is always wrong, but especially at church, the household of God, the church of the living God. So you need to stop fighting and start praying!”

Then, Paul addresses the women in the verse we just read (1 Tim 2:9). He is concerned because some of them are imitating the dress and adornment of the ladies of the Roman court and the prostitutes. Those women were known for their expensive clothes and jewelry and elaborate hairstyles; they dressed, not only to attract attention, but to seduce as well.

When the women of the church arrived dressed like this, it’s no surprise that they distracted others from worshipping God. What’s more, through their ostentatious dress they associated themselves with the wealthy (thus separating themselves from the poor) and the ungodly (thus distancing themselves from their fellow church members). Their dress was distracting, and maybe even divisive.

That’s why Paul urges them to dress in “respectable apparel” and “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” He wants the Savior, not seductive style, to be the focus of the church gathering—and indeed, the focus of all of life.

So the real issue wasn’t actually braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly attire. The issue was—and is—clothing that associates with worldly and not godly values: clothes that say “look at me” and “I’m with the world.”

Let me be clear: Paul is not categorically prohibiting a woman from enhancing her appearance—on Sunday or any day of the week. In fact, you’ll find other places in Scripture where godly women wore fine clothing and jewelry.

The woman of noble character in Proverbs 31 dressed in colorful and high-quality clothing (31:22). Likewise the bride in the Song of Solomon adorned herself with jewelry (1:10). Esther had twelve months of beauty treatments (Est. 2:12). Obviously God isn’t opposed to women making themselves beautiful.

In fact, as my wife Carolyn has observed:

God is the creator of beauty. God delights in beauty. All we need to verify this fact is to consider the beauty He created all around us: whether it is an elegant flower, or towering trees, or a meandering river, or billowy clouds or the majestic night sky. Every time we stop to take in one of these breathtaking scenes on display in God’s creation, we can’t help but be convinced that He delights in beauty!

[B]ecause we are created in the image of our Creator, each of us has this propensity to make things beautiful. That means, when we decorate our homes, or plant a lovely flower garden, or seek to add some form of beauty to our surroundings, even when we attempt to enhance our personal appearance—we are actually imitating and delighting in the works of our Great Creator.

I admire my wife’s feminine desire for beauty and her ability to make herself and her surroundings attractive. A woman can honor God by enhancing her personal appearance or bringing beauty to her environment.

John Angell James agrees, with qualification:

This taste [for beauty], however in many cases it may be altogether corrupted in its object, wrong in its principle, or excessive in its degree, is in its own nature an imitation of the workmanship of God, who, “by his spirit has garnished the heavens,” and covered the earth with beauty. *

Mr. James is right. A woman’s taste for beauty can be an imitation of God’s character, but it can also become corrupted. And such was the case in this first-century church. Paul exhorted the women who professed godliness: “You should not dress in a way that resembles those who are extravagant, or worse, intent on being seductive or sexy. You must not identify with the sinful, worldly culture through your dress.” Paul was writing not to condemn attractive attire but to address its corruption by association with worldly ideals and goals.

This truth has timeless relevance.  Consider, who inspires your attire? Who are you identifying with through your appearance? Who are you trying to imitate or be like in your dress?

Does your hairstyle, clothing, or any aspect of your appearance reveal an excessive fascination with sinful cultural values? Are you preoccupied with looking like the latest American Idol winner, or the actresses on magazine covers, or the immodest woman next door? Are your role models the godly women of Scripture or the worldly women of our culture?

The women in the church should not look exactly like the ungodly, seductive women in the world. Women in the church are to be different. They should stand out not because of their revealing clothing but because of their distinctly modest heart and dress.

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* James Angell James, Female Piety (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1860; repr. 1995)


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Taken from C.J. Mahaney’s chapter “God, My Heart, and Clothes,” in the book Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, © 2008. The book will be available from Crossway in September. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.org;  published on Sovereign Grace Ministries, 2008

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