Modesty is Not About Covering Up Skin; It is About Glory - A Look at First Timothy 2

This post won’t have an introduction which explains my purpose for writing it. If you would like a rambling intro, read my last post linked here

To begin, we should look at the verses where the English term “modesty” appears. 

(I am using the ESV translation of the Bible.) 

The term “modesty” appears in 1 Timothy 2 verse 9 and is elaborated on in verse 10. 

(Paul does this a lot in this chapter. Likewise, vs. 11 states a key point and then vs. 12 elaborates on it.) This distinction between a verse making a point and a verse elaborating on the point is important because, often, the verse making clarifications is mistaken as the point and leads to gross misinterpretations. For more on this, I would recommend listening to the Eden podcast by Bruce C.E. Fleming.) 

Verse 9: “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,”

Verse 10: “but with what is proper for women who profess godliness  - with good works.” 

This passage has often been used to tell women that they must cover up because men are visual creatures and will be tempted by their bodies. We are told that if we do not cover up, we will become stumbling blocks to other men. I find this to be an interesting case since this exact teaching has become a major stumbling block for women and has resulted in a lot of them leaving the church and/or rejecting Christianity altogether. 

From what I’ve seen in many parts of the Bible, God addresses our issues personally (but also knowing that, as humans, we fall to the same temptations.) Paul also addressed issues in his letters personally and to the specific needs of the church/people he was writing to based on social, political, economical, and religious climate. 

Why would something like “modesty” then become such a blanketed topic? There is something very specific being addressed here in 1 Timothy 2 and context is key for discovering it. 

I think the difference between A church and THE church is very key here. 

If Paul/God wanted this rule of modesty for THE church, then WHY were the Ephesians the only church told about it? Was it okay for other churches to have women with exposed collarbones and ankles? I don’t think it’s about “covering up” skin. This direction of Paul’s is saying something else altogether. 


Let’s start with some context and a little history lesson. 

Context: time, culture, & history: 

Some quick facts about the book of Timothy:

  • 1 Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy, a leader in an Ephesian church. (1 Tim. 1:3)
  • Timothy was a young man (1 Tim 4:12) called by Paul as “my true child in the faith,” and “my beloved child.” 
  • Paul had previously visited Ephesus (Acts 18-20) and had already written a letter to them (the book of Ephesians.) This letter was written after the events of Acts 28 (so 8 or more years after Paul’s three year stay in Ephesus.) 
  • Timothy had a Greek father and a Jewish mother which is interesting since the church was, at this time, a combination of the two. Timothy thus understood Greek and Jewish culture. 

A couple quick facts about Ephesus:

  • Ephesus was a city in ancient Greece but by the point of the book of Timothy had come under Roman control in 129 BC. It was one of 12 cities in the Ionian League. 
  • Their Ruling deity was Artemis. The temple dedicated to her was one of the seven ones of the ancient world. It was completed around 550 BC (so long before Timothy). 

Quick facts about the Greek Goddess Artemis:

  • She was the Greek Goddess of the hunt, wilderness, wild animals, the moon, fertility, and birth. Diana was her Roman equivalent. 
  • She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin of Apollo but she was born first and therefore seen as superior to her brother by the Greeks hence her being the ruling deity and not Apollo. We learn this from Theogony by Hesiod (lines 918-920.) 

I think it would also be prudent to define the term modesty before going directly into the quoted passage above. 

Defining Modesty: 

“Modesty” was a Latin term coined after the Greek word used in the passage. 

Oxford dictionary defines modest as : unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements. 

The Greek word for “modest” is “Kosmios” meaning orderly and well-arranged which makes a lot of sense given the fact that, before addressing the modesty of the women in these verses, Paul addresses the disorderly worship caused by in the same church. 

In none of these definitions is modesty about covering up your body. 

Now let’s dig into these verses: 

What perplexes me is that this whole concept of women needing to cover up because the Bible says we have to be modest is taught while also leaving out the whole first part of the chapter where Paul addresses men in the same church who were causing anger and quarreling in worship. There is a distinct comparison between how Paul addresses the men and the women that is worth noticing. Actually, noticing this comparison results in a radically feminist interpretation (which I explain in detail in the next post.) 

Paul begins the chapter by stating who God is, who Jesus is, and then who he is. THEN Paul says it is good for men to pray without anger or quarreling. Why would they be arguing during prayer? This implies that this prayer is public and before a congregation of people (not the quiet, private prayer Jesus encourages in the Gospels.) Was their “prayer” then a form of teaching, prophesying, etc? 

Before ALL OF THIS is even stated, at the beginning of the letter, Paul writes a warning about false teachers. This would make sense in the context of prayer being in a public situation. Paul uses the word “likewise also” after talking about the angry men before referring to the women. There are similar situations going on with the wayward men and wayward women of this church but they are addressed differently and there is a big reason why (which is explained more in depth in the third and fourth articles in this series.) 

I think it’s amusing that he says both “likewise” and “also.” The point would have been the same if he had just used one word or the other, but he uses both thus really stressing his point. 

NOWHERE in this passage DOES IT SAY “modesty is so men don’t stumble.” Nowhere in the Bible is modesty done FOR MEN. It refers to “costly attire” not “revealing clothing.” This was a statement against flaunting wealth and social status.

Here are some quick facts worth noting before we move on:

(I learned this from the Eden podcast hosted by Bruce C.E. Fleming) 

  • There are several verses where Paul mentions women leading churches: Romans 16:3-16, Gal 3:28, Phil 4:2, Col 4:15, Acts 16:11-15, Acts 16:40, Acts 18:24-28, and more.) Paul is not addressing all women who are teaching. He is addressing a subgroup of women who were teaching improperly and/or false doctrines. 
  • The Greek word “authentain” which is translated to “authority” refers to an unusual use of power and would be better translated as “misuse of authority.” 1 Timothy 2:12 is the ONLY PLACE IN THE BIBLE where this word is used. This was a specific and unusual problem Timothy was dealing with. 

What I believe was going on here was not that women were teaching and Paul says it was wrong. I believe women who were wealthy (very few women could afford gold and pearls during that time) were teaching false doctrine based on what they knew of the Greek Goddess Artemis and their possible participation in ritual temple prostitution. (My second article in this series expounds on this a lot more.) 

There is so much to unpack after this, but I’m trying my best to stay on the topic of modesty. I don’t think that modesty is about covering up skin. I think modesty is about glory. 

I read an article by Christine Woolger that helped me understand this a lot. You can read it here(You’ll enjoy it if you’ve read Harry Potter.) 

She explains modesty by explaining what immodesty is. Immodesty, she says, is when your glory EXCLUDES others. 

I’d argue that the older woman sitting in the front row at church wearing a red skirt with a matching two piece suit and a string of pearls and heavy makeup and looking down her nose at the young woman in ripped jeans with her collarbones out is more immodest than the latter. 

“Modesty is about veiling your glory as a means of inclusion” - Christine Woolger 

I think modesty is similar to meekness and humility which, by the way, were both taught by Jesus (Matthew 5 as one example.) The term “modesty” never comes up in Jesus’ teaching or anywhere else in the Bible but glory, power, wealth, and influence do. 

The glory of Jesus helped others and did not harm them. His most glorious moment saved the entire world from sin. Jesus also had many opportunities to misuse His power and glory, but He didn’t. Jesus made the ultimate act of inclusion and that is where I think the heart of modesty lies. 

In conclusion: 

This verse with the term modesty isn’t, I don’t think even about modesty. Meaning, I don’t think modesty is the point. It is about using wealth and status to teach false doctrine. Why then has such a thing been taught as something completely different? To control, limit, and oppress women. 

From woman came Christ. From Her womb came the One who defeated Satan. Why then would Satan not want to do all he could to put women at a disadvantage starting with the church? 

My second and third article show why this passage of 1 Timothy 2 is radically feminist. I encourage you to read both and have an understanding of what the entire passage says altogether. And, as always, please reach out if you have questions or concerns.