Paul the Apostle has been accused of many things when it comes to his views about women in society. We can debate about that later. However, despite popular interpretations, when Paul wrote about women dressing modestly, the last thing he was thinking about was sex.
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” 1 Tim 2:9-10
Nothing in the passage above suggests that Paul was primarily thinking about men’s sexuality or men’s eyes when he wrote this instruction to Timothy. Instead, we are closer to the truth if we infer that Paul was thinking about women’s money.
Money not sex
Elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls and expensive clothes are symbols of wealth, not sexuality. Paul was primarily thinking about materialism when he wrote about women dressing modestly. More fundamentally, Paul was thinking about women’s hearts.
So how come this passage is often quoted in Christian discussions about what women wear in relation to sex? Probably because of the word “decency”. Our oversexualized culture has hijacked this word and confined it to the topic of sex and specifically women’s sexuality.
This is a sad turn of events. Because the anchor word in Paul’s instruction is modesty, not decency. The context tells us as much.
It also reveals our latent misogyny as far as women’s bodies are concerned. For instance, when we say a man is being modest, none of us ever assumes we are talking about how sexy the man’s clothes look. If anything, we think of his wealth and power and the fact that he is not rubbing it in people’s faces.
There is nothing sexually conservative about Mark Zuckerberg’s t-shirt and jeans, but there’s a lot of modesty in it. That’s the same image we should have in mind when we read Paul’s instructions on women’s modesty.
Reading our biases into the passage
I believe the reason many of us are quick to assume Paul is telling women to dress modestly because of sexual immorality is because we are reading the passage from the point of view of men (or more accurately, men who objectify women).
We are socially man-centric (regrettably) and we instinctively assume that the passage is about women in relation to men and men’s inability to control their sexual urges.
This common (and anachronistic) interpretation only betrays our own cultural obsession with sex; and even sadder, our prevalent assumption that the responsibility for sexual purity in men lies largely in how women dress and behave around men.
I wish we could see Paul’s message for the simple non-sexist instruction that it is — women should dress modestly primarily for the good of women’s hearts, not for the protection of men’s eyes. Please note that while it is important that we all “love our neighbors” even in how we dress, the more important goal in choosing our dress is glorifying God and guarding our hearts.
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
1 Peter 3:3-4 ESV
Of all the reasons in the world we could think of for “telling women what to wear”, may we be wary of asking women to wear “cheap” clothes simply because men can’t help but be tempted to “steal” their expensive clothes.
Because that’s essentially what we do each time we blame a woman’s dress code for whatever sexual perversions and invasions men commit against her body.