Many readers of the Bible are puzzled, or even embarrassed, by a statement made by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, that suggests that women should never wear braided hair, or jewelry. But is this flat prohibition against the wearing of braided hair or jewelry something that the Bible actually proscribes? Let us take a closer look, reading Scripture in context.
In 1 Timothy 2:8-10 we read:
- “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 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.” (ESV).
A similar passage comes from the words of Peter, at 1 Peter 3:3-4. At first glance, the negative, specific references to “braided hair” and “gold or pearls” would appear that the Apostles Paul and Peter sound like legalists at best, or even, misogynists at worst!
When we read puzzling passages like this, it is important to look at what the whole of Scripture teaches on the matter, and not focus on one or two isolated verses. Since both Paul and Peter were Jewish, and looked to their Hebrew Scriptures, as their written authority, it might help to look at what the Old Testament has to say about the wearing of jewelry, etc.
There are occasions when the Old Testament takes a negative view towards the wearing of jewelry, but such instances are within the context of accenting a woman’s sexual attractiveness for the purposes of manipulation, as when the wicked queen Jezebel “painted her eyes and adorned her head,” when Jehu came to confront her of her sin (2 Kings 9:30).
However, the Old Testament does not dismiss the wearing of jewelry outright:
- “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold
is a wise reprover to a listening ear.“ (Proverbs 25:12 ESV).
Here in Proverbs, jewelry has a positive value, being directly compared to the situation when someone gives wise counsel or correction to someone else, and that someone else receives such counsel or correction willingly.
When the Song of Solomon extolls the beauty of a woman, such beauty is positively related to the value of jewelry:
- “How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
O noble daughter!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
the work of a master hand.“ (Song of Solomon 7:1 ESV).
As Jews, both Paul and Peter would have taken similar views towards the wearing of jewelry. They would have accepted the modest display of jewelry as perfectly acceptable, but would find the extravagant display of jewelry to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the godly behavior of a Christian woman.
Focusing on the 1 Timothy passage, carefully notice how the Apostle Paul specifically finds a modest level of jewelry wearing to be wholly appropriate: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel.” Rather, Paul is contending against the flaunting of a woman’s beauty, by the excessive use of make up and jewelry, as this would distract others from seeing the real, inward beauty of a Christian woman, her “godliness.”
It is important not to confuse the principle of modesty, with respect to jewelry wearing, with the specific cultural application in Paul’s first century, Roman empire context. For example, some might be troubled by Paul’s restriction regarding the wearing of “braided hair.” So, does Paul really have some type of weird hangup regarding “braided hair?”
Again, a careful reading of the text shows that it is the combination of “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” not “braided hair” by itself. The inclusion of “costly attire” should be evidence that there is a big difference between a modest set of ear rings, versus showing up at church with a $25,000 necklace, combined with some over-the-top hairstyling.
New Testament scholar Steven Baugh notes that by the mid-first-century, “women’s hairstyles had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire.” The historical evidence shows that wealthy women were following the same fashionable trends of the Roman cultural elite, as a means of flaunting their wealth. Paul would have been consistently applying the Scriptural principle of modest dress, by condemning such flaunting of wealth, in Timothy’s church in Ephesus. The flaunting of wealth inevitably shames those believers, who do not possess great wealth, the type of messaging that the Apostle Paul strongly sought to discourage. Baugh concludes: “Today, it is the equivalent of warning Christians away from imitating styles set by promiscuous pop singers or actresses. How one dresses can convey rebellious or ungodly messages whether intended or not.“1
Remember this, too: The focus should be on how we ourselves understand what makes someone beautiful. This is not an excuse to cast a condescending eye on others.
Far from being a psychologically prudish hangup, on the part of the Apostle Paul, Paul’s instructions to Timothy, advocating the modesty of women’s external appearance, is a specific application of a timeless Scripture principle. Should Christians today be embarrassed by what Scripture says here? Absolutely not. While a 21st century Christian might apply the principle differently, according to the fashions of our day, the principle remains the same. The Bible consistently seeks to accentuate the inward beauty of a believer, while warning against the display of external extravagance, designed to shame others or to be inappropriately sexually provocative.2
1. Steven Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” p. 54-55, in Women and the Church, 3rd Edition. ↩
2. For more detail, please consult chapter 36, of David A. Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, on “Women Should Not Wear Jewelry,” p. 210-214.. ↩