Paul’s discussion of the way men are to pray in public worship (1 Tim. 2:8) is a natural transition from his words about prayer in general (vv. 1–7) to how women should act when Christians assemble (vv. 9–15). As always, our analysis of verses 9–10 is well-served by considering the text’s cultural background.
Scholarship has revealed the “new Roman woman” of first-century Roman society whose attitudes — sexual libertinism, fueled by increasingly available contraception and abortion, and rebellion against male headship in the home — were close to those of modern, radical feminism. Jewish and pagan authors alike condemned such things, noting that a woman’s clothing could show her feelings on these subjects. Wives influenced by this “feminism” often traded the modest, many-layered garment called the stola for the more-revealing toga associated with prostitutes. “New” women commonly wore elaborate, braided hairstyles adorned with ribbons, tortoise-shell combs, and gold and silver pins. Unfortunately, this philosophy and dress affected many Christian women, if not toward sexual libertinism then toward the reversal of family roles. The false teachers in Ephesus may have even encouraged some of these practices.
Women who dressed this way did not commend Christianity to the Jews and pagans who frowned upon the new Roman woman, and their seductive dress would have been no help to the men in the believing community who struggled with lust. One commentator notes how the sparkling reflection of bejeweled hairstyles in candlelight during evening worship would also have taken the focus off of God. Knowing that godly women desire to point others to the Lord, not themselves, Paul told them not to focus on cosmetic enhancement but good works (vv. 9–10) that lead people to glorify our Father (Matt. 5:16).
Given this background and the approval of jewelry elsewhere in Scripture (Song 1:10–11), it seems best not to read Paul’s words as an absolute prohibition of precious stones and metals. He simply calls women to use good judgment and modesty when they dress and to emphasize deeds of service over their outward appearance. This principle must be heard anew in our own day.
Secular therapists often try to boost self-esteem by telling us not to care what other people think. While there is no doubt some truth in this principle, Scripture would never have us be wholly unconcerned with how others view us. Our manner of dress says much about our values, and modesty is one way that we say “no” to the idols of physical perfection and sex worshiped in our culture. What does your clothing say about you?