What is Biblical Modesty?

What does it mean for a Christian woman to dress modestly? Does “modest” in the Bible mean “not sexually arousing” as we often think of the term today? Is a woman’s beauty meant only for her husband in the privacy of her home or it acceptable for her to display her beauty in public as well?

I Timothy 2:9 is probably the most popular passage in all of Scripture that is taught by Christian teachers and preachers regarding how God want’s Christian women to dress.

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array”

I Timothy 2:9 (KJV)

What is the context of I Timothy 2:9?

Some people interpret I Timothy 2:9 as applying to Christian women at all times, as opposed to being specifically targeted at how women should dress for worship and instruction in the Church Assembly. This a faulty interpretation.

One of the first rules of proper Biblical Hermeneutics (interpretation of Scripture) is to take verses within the larger context of which they are written.

I Timothy, was a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a young church planter who was working under him. In the beginning of I Timothy Paul writes to Timothy:

“Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine…”

I Timothy 1:2-3(KJV)

In the first chapter, Paul is encouraging to take on false teachers in the churches at Ephesus. In Chapter 2 of I Timothy, in verse 8 Paul moves to instructions for proper etiquette in worship and instruction in the Church assembly:

“I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. “

I Timothy 2:8-12(KJV)

Verse 8 is a clear jump into worship with men being told “to pray, lifting up holy hands”.

Paul’s ending of I Timothy, after giving the qualifications for Bishops and deacons, clearly gives the purpose for this entire first epistle to Timothy:

“These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

I Timothy 3:14-15(KJV)

But what about the phrase “every where” in verse 8?

Some in order to apply all parts of I Timothy to all parts of Christian life(not just Church assembly etiquette), have attempted to use the Paul’s phrase of “ever where” to mean this equally applies inside and outside the Church assembly meetings. This is an incorrect interpretation, as this phrase is means for Church assemblies “every where”. Paul makes it clear at the end of his Epistle that this entire letter is aimed at proper etiquette in the Church, taking on false teachers, and the qualifications of Bishops and Deacons.

Four key words in I Timothy 2:9

Now that we understand the context I Timothy, as apply to Church assembly etiquette, we will look at four key words that are found in this passage.


This is an English translation of the Greek word Kosmios, which means “seemly” or “appropriate”. In modern English, most people think of a woman dressing modest as, a woman dressing in a non-sexual manner. But this was not the meaning of the original word used by the Apostle Paul. Can sexually revealing clothing be “unseemly” or “inappropriate” on a woman in certain situations? But it is not specific to sexually revealing clothing.

With the word Kosmios, Paul is telling women to wear clothing that is appropriate for the given situation.


This is an English translation of the Greek word Katastole, which comes from two Greek words, Kata and Stole. This literally refers to a “complete stola”. A stola in New Testament times was a one piece robe with holes for the head and arms. A variety of stolas women might of worn are pictured above. Often times a strap would be worn around the middle below the breasts to give the stola some form around the body. Sometimes a stola had sleeves, other times it was sleeveless.

When peasant women were working they might wear tunics (like men did), similar to what you see below.

The differences would have been in the coloring or extra straps worn by women.

When playing sports some Roman women actually wore bikinis as seen in this ancient Roman painting:

Paul had just told women to wear appropriate clothing for worship and instruction with the Greek word Kosmios. Now with the word Katastole, he was telling women what the proper attire for Church worship and instruction was. They were to be fully clothed, as opposed to wearing tunics they may work in, or bikinis they might have played sports in.

Those Christians who still believe it is wrong for women to wear pants (and yes they are still out there and I grew up in Churches that taught this) take the Greek word stole, which refers to the Roman Stola’s that women war, and they go its most literal meaning – which means “long and flowing”. But this is not Paul’s intention in using this word. It was simply referring to what women in that day would understand as the dress that women generally wore when they went out to meetings and gatherings, or special occasions.

Paul is not saying that Christians must be frozen in time with fashion, and literally saying Christian women must wear ancient Roman stolas. If we take it that literally, then men can’t wear pants either, because men back in Paul’s day wore tunics and togas.

All Paul is saying is, it is appropriate and proper for a woman to be fully clothed and covered for Church gatherings.


This is an English translation of the Greek word Aidos, which means to show honor, respect or reverence to others. With Aidos, Paul was saying the attitude of a woman’s dress in the Church services was to be one of reverence for God, and respect for others.


This is an English translation of the Greek word Sophrosune, which means self-control. With Sophrosune, Paul was saying woman needed to dress for Church services in a way that showed self-control.

Is Paul forbidding women to have “broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array”?

Paul is not saying it is wrong for Christian woman to have nice hair, jewelry or dresses. What he is saying is, the Church assembly should not turn into a fashion show. Unfortunately in many of our modern Churches today – that is just the case. Paul is not saying women cannot wear nice Sunday dresses, he is just saying women should not go overboard or be trying to compete with one another in what they wear for worship.

So if we take I Timothy 2:9 in its full context, understanding the key phrases in it, this is what Paul was trying to tell us:

“I want men in all church assemblies everywhere to lift up holy hands, and do not be angry and doubt. In these same church assemblies, I want women to wear clothing that is appropriate for Church worship and instruction. Women should be fully clothed, in clothing that shows respect and self-control when they come for worship and instruction. I don’t want you to turn the church assembly into a fashion show with broided hair, fancy jewelry and costly clothing. I am writing all this to you so you will know how to behave when the church is assembled for worship and instruction.”

There is one other place where the Apostle Peter mentions “braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses”:

“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3 Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4 but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”

I Peter 3:1-4(NASB)

Here Peter makes a similar statement about women’s adornment. The word here translated as “dresses” in the NASB (and “apparel” in the KJV) comes from the Greek word Himation. Himation simply refers to garments in general. It is a term that could apply to women or men’s garments depending on the context.

The context of I Peter 3:1-4 is not behavior specific to the Church assembly (as I Timothy is) but this is just talking about the general behavior of women as they go about their daily lives. This is not telling women that you cannot have your hair done, or wear jewelry or put on dresses. Even though the word “merely” is not in the original Greek, the NASB correctly adds this for emphasis as to what Peter is saying.

It is interesting to note there is no mention here of “Katastole,” referring to the more full and formal dress that Paul spoke of for women to wear in the Church assembly in I Timothy 2:9. Instead Peter refers simply to garments here.

Peter is saying a woman’s inner beauty is just as important as her outer beauty. Some Christians historically have incorrectly interpreted this passage as well as I Timothy 2 to say Christian women cannot wear makeup, or wear nice clothes. This is not Peter’s meaning, he simply wants to drive home the point, that you can look pretty on the outside as a woman with your outer adornments, but your inside person may still be ugly. God wants both the inside and outside of a woman to be beautiful.

Conclusion on Biblical modesty

While Paul’s Katastole requirement (women to be fully clothed) is confined to the Church assembly, that does not mean that the principle of modesty cannot apply elsewhere, when we understand that modesty means Christian women ought to wear clothing that is appropriate to the occasion.

What a woman wears to church may be very different than what she wears to Church. What a woman wears to beach may be very different than what she wears to work. What a woman wears for a date with her husband, may not be what she would wear for Church on Sunday.

In the end, whatever, we do as men or women, or whatever we wear should all be done in manner that would bring glory to God, and not bring shame to him in the eyes of the world:

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

I Corinthians 10:31(KJV)

Published by biblicalgenderroles

I am a Christian husband and father in his 40's. The goal of my blog is to help educate people on the distinct ways God has designed men and women and his special purposes for each gender.

2 thoughts on “What is Biblical Modesty?

  1. When it comes to the issue of “women shouldn’t wear pants”, the verse that comes to mind for me is not the modesty passages but Deut 22:5. In our society we have clothing that can only be worn by women (unless you are cross-dressing) and clothing that can be worn by men or women. We no longer have clothing that is just for men. Why? Because women insisted that they ought to be able to wear anything that men wear – thus obliterating yet another distinction between genders. I think we would be better off if there was a difference between what men wore and what woman wore. Instead many women wear the same clothing, and often cut their hair the same length, and style their hair the same way, and do everything possible to look just like men. To me that sounds like an attempt by women to take over the man’s role, which is a problem and is not something Christians should be supporting. Wouldn’t it be more Biblical to bring that distinction back?


    1. Jonathan,

      I respect that some men only allow their wives and daughters to wear dresses to make that distinction between the sexes more clear. But as a student of history, when I look back and see that before men started wearing trousers 500 years ago, for 7000 years men and women both wore robes and tunics and those robes and tunics were just styled differently for men or women, I then have no issue with my wife or daughter wearing pants as long as there pants cut and styled in a feminine manner. They just always need to look feminine.


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