Modesty

“Should a Christian woman wear jewellery?” I was asked that question recently by a member of the congregation.  We’ll call her Rita.  Rita had been reading an article which said that no Christian woman should wear jewellery, even a wedding-ring.  So she wanted to know, did I agree?  I wasn’t ready to give her an answer on the spot.  But I promised I would write about it in my next “letter from the manse”.  So here it is.

Instant answers from the Bible?

I guess the person who wrote the article Rita referred to had in mind these words from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

“…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire…”

or maybe this from 1 Peter:

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear…

Clear enough? Well, yes, these verses are obviously relevant.  And it certainly looks as if Paul and Peter were pretty negative about women wearing jewellery.  But maybe we need to look at the verses more closely.  To start with, let’s put them in their contexts.

Modesty and Moderation

First the quote from Paul:

“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness – with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:8-12).

What’s the paragraph actually about? It’s about the way men on the one hand, women on the other, should behave in the meetings of the church.  The men play the public roles: they pray aloud and they do it visibly, lifting up their hands. For them the temptation is to start competing with one another – one man trying to “perform” better than another. Paul warns them against such wicked behaviour – he says there must be no “anger or quarrelling” as they pray.  But then he turns to the women.  What is their role?  They must “learn quietly with all submissiveness”. They must never try to assert themselves, to teach or exercise authority in the meetings.  And one sign of their willingness to efface themselves is that they dress with “modesty and self-control”What does Paul mean by “modesty”?  He means that they should never draw attention to themselves. What does he mean by “self-control”?  Another translation might be “moderation”.  He means that they should never be extreme, over-the-top, dressing in such a way that everyone will notice them.

A woman’s outward appearance could be immodest and extreme in all sorts of ways. She could draw attention to herself by wearing skimpy, revealing clothes – or by wearing clothes that were absurdly bulky and voluminous. She could deliberately choose tatty, scruffy clothes, or she could deliberately choose a flamboyant outfit.  She could wear clothes more appropriate for a man than a woman, or inappropriate for her age.  Paul’s words warn Christian women against adopting any style that would make them stand out in a meeting of the church.

When Paul wrote to Timothy, he had in mind particularly the church which Timothy led in Ephesus. In that church, the particular way that women were tempted to draw attention to themselves was by choosing the most fashionable and expensive-looking outfits they could find.  They didn’t need to be warned against provocative, revealing clothes, nor were they interested in adopting a masculine or unisex appearance.  But they were eager for braided hair; gold or pearls and costly attire.  They wanted to show off the fact that they could afford to pay for elaborate hairstyles, jewellery, and designer clothes.

Paul’s command to such women is clear. He doesn’t say that they should wear the most drab, uniform clothes they can find.  He says that instead of their ostentatious display of wealth, they should “adorn themselves in respectable (the word means neat, orderly, appropriate) apparel”. And even more important they should adorn themselves with good works. If they have money to spare, instead of using it to turn church meetings into fashion parades, they should use it for the benefit of others.  Such good works are the most appropriate adornment for “women who profess godliness”.

So is Paul laying down a rule that Christian women should never wear jewellery? Hardly.  He’s forbidding vanity, extravagance, self-display.  But would he frown at a woman wearing a wedding ring?  Or with an attractive slide to keep her hair in order?  Respectable women of Paul’s day wore a stola, a long pleated dress fastened at the shoulder with a fibula: a brooch.  Was Paul demanding that they throw away their brooches and sew on buttons instead?  Such “sacrifices” might themselves be ostentatious and attention-seeking.  And that’s what Paul was most concerned to challenge.

Beauty: Outer and Inner

What about Peter? Again, we need to look at the context.

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, 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. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:1-6).

What’s Peter talking about in these verses?   He’s not dealing here with church meetings.  Rather, his big concern is about the way Christian women – especially those whose husbands aren’t believers – relate to their husbands.  He assumes that women will want to appear attractive to their husbands and that they’re right to do so.  The question is how should they go about it?  What’s his answer? “By being “subject to your own husbands”.  “That’s the way to win them!” he says, “by your respectful and pure conduct”. The best way of making yourself beautiful in your husband’s eyes, he says, is not by external adorning – “braiding of hair, putting on of fine gold jewellery, the clothing you wear” but rather, with the “imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit”Peter tells them that they need to be beautiful insideit’s more important that the “hidden person of the heartbe beautiful than that they spend lots of money trying to make themselves look beautiful outside.

And he adds – it works! It worked for the holy women of old, women like Sarah.  They used to make themselves beautiful by submitting to their husbands – Sarah called Abraham “my lord” and meant it.  And Abraham loved her for it!

Again, Peter’s point isn’t that a woman should never have her hair styled, or wear jewellery or buy a nice dress. It’s that she ought to want to please her husband – and that the best way to do that is by a gentle, quiet, submissive attitude.  In fact, there may be times when submitting to her husband actually requires her to have her hair done, or to put on a stylish dress. Anne and I will be celebrating our wedding anniversary in a few days time.  We’re planning to go out for a meal.  I hope she’ll put on something special for the occasion.  If she really wants to please me, she’ll be submissive to that request!

The fact is that the “holy women” that Peter refers to did wear jewellery at times – and honoured their husbands by doing it.  Think of Abraham himself.  When he sent his servant to choose a wife for his son Isaac, he loaded him with gifts to pass on to her when he found her. The servant found Rebekah, and “put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms” (Genesis 24:47).  Later he brought out yet more gifts: “jewellery of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah…” (Genesis 24: 53).  Clearly Abraham had no objection to a woman wearing jewellery or nice clothes for the delight of her husband – or in this instance husband-to-be!  But if you had asked Abraham, “Which is better?  To have a wife who looks like a fashion model, or to have a wife with a gentle and quiet spirit?”, what do you think Abraham would have said?

The bride and her jewels

Of all the occasions when a woman should want to look special for her husband, the most important must be their wedding-day. The Bible is full of references to the way that a bride is adorned for her husband.  The Song of Solomon is the Bible’s celebration of passionate love between a man and a woman.  The King heaps compliments – and jewels – on his Princess-Bride!

O most beautiful of women… your cheeks are lovely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels… we will make for you ornaments of gold, studded with silver…”  (Song of Songs 1:8-11).

Many times the prophets pictured the Lord as a bridegroom and his people – Israel, Jerusalem – as his bride. How glad the Lord is to bedeck his bride with jewels, and fine clothing:

I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the LORD God, and you became mine… I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.  And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck.  And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.  Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth” (Ezekiel 16:8-13).

“Lift up your eyes around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, declares the Lord, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does”. (Isaiah 49:18).

And how delighted the bride is to receive these lovegifts from her husband and to wear them for his sake:

“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…” (Isaiah 61:10-11).

Does it sound as if the Lord disapproves of jewellery? Or thinks that it’s always wrong for a woman to wear it?   The very last book of the Bible looks forward to the return of Christ and his “marriage” to the Church, his bride.  How is she pictured? “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully adorned for her husband… The foundations of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel… and the twelve gates were twelve pearls…” (Revelation 21: 2, 19, 21).  In fact, the bride is compared with one single jewel, for her husband’s delight and honour. “…Coming down from heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal…” (21: 10-11).

Made in God’s image

The truth that underlies all these pictures is that God is a God of beauty. He has filled his world with beautiful things.  He has created beautiful stones – we call them jewels.  He has created plants and shellfish which produce beautiful dyes.  He has created gold and silver which can be polished to a beautiful sheen.  And he has taught his people to appreciate beauty.  When he gave instructions for the high priest’s garments, for the tabernacle, for the temple, he commanded that they should be beautiful – beautifully coloured, beautifully shaped, beautifully ornamented:

“You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it.  It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree” (Exodus 28:15-20).

A fine craftsman who produces a beautiful piece of furniture is acting as God’s image-bearer: he is reflecting God’s creativity and love of beauty. So is a designer producing fine fabrics (like the purple goods that Lydia sold – Acts 16:14). So is a jeweller, polishing stones to bring out their beauty and then putting them in fine settings.

There is nothing godlike about choosing to look drab and ugly. If a woman has a choice between wearing a beautiful dress and a shapeless sack, surely she should choose what is graceful and attractive!  If she has a choice between keeping her hair in place with a clothes peg, and using a finely crafted brooch, she should choose what is beautiful.  By doing so, she reflects God and she honours her husband.

So, Rita, there’s the answer to your question. The Bible doesn’t forbid a woman to wear jewellery, or stylish clothes.  It doesn’t forbid her to have her hair styled – whether braided or in any other attractive way.  As far as I can see, it doesn’t forbid her to wear makeup.

The real dangers

But the Bible does give very solemn warnings. It warns against any attempt to be sexually alluring and provocative (Proverbs 6:23-25, 7:10).  It warns against extravagance and selfish use of money (remember the rich man in Jesus’s parable who “dressed in purple and fine linen” while a beggar starved at his gate – Luke 16:19-20).  It warns against vanity (remember Absalom: how conscious he was of his good looks! – 2 Samuel 14: 25-26).  It warns against  competitiveness and rivalry – the desire to outshine others by your appearance and the pride you feel if you succeed (Ezekiel 27:3).  It warns that the desire to look fashionable and attractive can become an obsession which distracts people (women especially) from what really matters. 

Read Isaiah’s savage indictment of the “haughty women of Zion who “walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing as they go; tinkling with their feet”.  Isaiah lists out all their fashionable accessories: “the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils” (Isaiah 4:16-22).

Read again the verses we quoted from Paul at the beginning of this letter. Remember his warning against the desire to draw attention to yourself by your outward appearance – especially in the meetings of the church.  Read again the quote from Peter.  Remember his warning to Christian women that they can become more concerned with outward appearance than inward beauty.

These are the real sins that Christian women (and men too) must guard themselves against. I’m sure the writer who told Rita she should never wear jewellery was well-meaning.  But imposing such a rule is neither Biblical nor sensible.  If we once say that all jewellery is forbidden, where do we draw the line?   My wife’s brooch must go.  But what about the stainless steel bracelet on my wristwatch?  Is that jewellery?  After all, I could tie the watch to my arm with a piece of string or put it in my pocket.  How about the buckle on my belt?  And if metal ornaments are banned, what about wooden ones?  Or fabric?  Can my wife have an embroidered pattern on her skirt?   Do I need a necktie?  My shirt has a top button so I could get rid of it –  it’s there simply as an ornament – a dash of colour. But then are you allowed a patterned shirt?

Take the rule to its logical extreme and the only garments we will be permitted will be black or white sacks covering us from head to foot. Our hair will be allowed to grow “naturally” and then we’ll get out the regulation sized pudding-bowl for the uniform cut.

And instead of competing with one another for the most elaborate costume, we may finish up competing for the plainest. “My overalls are plainer than your boiler-suit!”

Real modesty is a matter of the heart. Yes, it will show itself in outward ways including the way we dress.  But man-made rules will never create pure hearts.  We have one great, God-given rule which must dictate everything we do. You’ll find it at 1 Corinthians chapter 10 vs 31.

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”.

If we live with that rule in our hearts and minds, God’s Spirit will teach us through God’s Word what will bring him most glory in every situation.

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