(All Scripture quotations are from the ESV unless noted)

It is the purpose of this article to examine and exposit the teachings of the Apostle Paul which pertains to the conduct of women who profess godliness. Before diving into this very controversial passage, let us bear in mind what Paul’s underlying purpose was in this letter to Timothy: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5) 

Paul charges Timothy at the outset of his letter that the power of the Gospel constitutes the heart of it; that Spirit-worked changes have produced a pure heart in which there is no guile, a conscience which is no longer laden with sin, and a faith that is steadfast and sincere. This charge is entrusted to Timothy so that he might “wage the good warfare” (1:18) against those who would pollute sound doctrine. Let us keep the Gospel fixed firmly in our minds as we seek to understand this passage.

Most commentators agree that Paul’s letter is primarily directed towards public worship due to the apostle’s insistence on both the teaching of sound doctrine (1:3, 1:10), and public prayer (2:8).  Both of which characterize substantial elements of public worship (Acts 2:42).

Albert Barnes, in his commentary, writes the following in regards to Paul’s desire in 2:9-15:

“All the directions here evidently refer to the proper manner of conducting public worship, and not to private duties; and the object here is to state the way in which he would have the different sexes appear.”

While Barnes recognizes that the passage particularly addresses public worship, he observes that the principle set forth must carry over into the other situations of life:

“At the same time, the principles laid down are doubtless such as were intended to apply to them in the other situations in life, for if modest apparel is appropriate in the sanctuary, it is appropriate everywhere. If what is here prohibited in dress is wrong there, it would be difficult to show that it is right elsewhere.”

With the understanding that the precept, or explicit command, must govern our application of this passage to public worship, and the principle derived from the precept should govern our application of the passage to other situations of life, let us examine what Paul desires of women believers.

Remember, the Gospel is central to understanding what Paul is communicating to Timothy; “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (2:5-6). It is because these women “profess godliness” (2:10) that Paul desires that their lives reflect the conversion of their hearts by doing “what is proper” (2:10).

v. 9 – Likewise also. Women are supposed to join in public prayer (also Acts 1:14) in like manner as the men, by “lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (2:8), although the women should not lead in prayer. To lead in public prayer is to assume headship and authority over the believers who are gathered. This is an act that Paul does not permit a woman to perform (2:12).

v.9 – That women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel. Before we discuss how women “should adorn themselves”, and what constitutes “respectable”, we must first understand the nature of apparel. John Gill states in his Exposition of the Old & New Testaments: “the word rendered “apparel” signifies a long robe, which reaches down to the feet”. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary states that apparel is “[t]o dress with external ornaments; to cover with something ornamental; to cover, as with garments”. Hence the wearing of apparel is to cover oneself. This language should conjure Genesis 3:21 into our minds:

“And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”

It is because Adam and Eve transgressed the Law of God that they knew they were naked. And because their works (sewing fig leaves) could not redeem them, God made garments and clothed (wrapped or covered) them.  Scofield states the following in his study notes:

“Coats of skins: Type of “Christ, made unto us righteousness”– a divinely provided garment that the first sinners might be made fit for God’s presence.”

Clothing is a picture to us of Christ and His redeeming work on the Cross. Without Christ’s blood covering us for the remission of sins, there is no hope of salvation.

v.9 – Should adorn themselves. Paul is not against women adorning themselves, which is “to arrange” or “to make ready”, but that women should arrange themselves in an appropriate manner for public worship.

v.9 – In respectable apparel. The word “respectable” is commonly translated modest, comely, or proper. John Gill states in his Exposition of the Old & New Testaments:

“[T]he word translated “modest” signifies that which is clean, neat, and decent, yea, beautiful and ornamental; and the sense of the apostle is, that he would not have them to come to public worship in rags, and in dirty and filthy garments, but that their bodies should be covered with clean and decent raiment; so the Israelites washed their clothes that they might be ready to meet the Lord at Mount Sinai, Exodus 19:14.”

The wearing of “respectable apparel” is the outward reflection of a properly adorned and chaste heart.

v.9 – With modesty and self-control. These two rules are the right and proper way for women to dress. All rules, i.e. laws, have both a positive and negative aspect. Eight of the Ten Commandments are expressly stated in negative terms, with the other two being undergirded by a number of subordinate laws which are all negative in character. “You shall not murder” has a positive aspect of “You shall preserve life.” Likewise, Paul’s desire “that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self- control” would have the following negative aspect: “Women should not adorn themselves in unrespectable apparel, nor with immodesty and impudence.”

A woman who professes godliness should not be dressed as a harlot, in immodesty, nor should she be unaware of her sexual passions by behaving in an impudent fashion.  Instead a woman who professes godliness should remember two things. Firstly, the shame of her sin, and the purpose of her clothing. This should cause her to dress in a manner which will cover her with modesty. Secondly, she is required to exercise self-control over her sexual passions, for godly women despise sin and desire not to lead others into sin.

v.9 – Not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire. John Gill makes an intriguing observation regarding the appearance of a woman’s clothing that I find both acute and foundational to understanding this section of Scripture:

“[A woman’s dress] is right and proper, when it is consistent with chastity … and when it is moderate as well as modest, and suitable to a person’s age and station, and is not beyond the circumstances of life in which they are. There is no religion or irreligion in dress, provided pride and luxury are guarded against, and modesty and moderation preserved.” (Emphasis added)

Since we affirm analogia fidei or “the analogy of faith”, which is that Scripture interprets Scripture, we certainly cannot say that all forms of braided hair and gold or pearls and costly attire is forbidden. For Abraham sent a gold ring, two bracelets, jewelry of silver and gold, and garments which were given to, and then worn by Rebekah, who was a woman that professed godliness. We also find in Psalms 45:9, 13, 14 a picture of the church as the “Queen in gold of Ophir.” While this language is figurative, the illusion to what is literal is indeed honorable and commendable.

What Paul is forbidding in this verse is the specific practices of distraction and discord in the church. John MacArthur states the following:

“Women in the first century often wove “gold or pearls” or other jewelry into their hair styles (“braided hair”) to call attention to themselves and their wealth or beauty. The same was true of those women who wore “costly attire.” By doing so they would draw attention to themselves and away from the Lord,”

These objects of beauty are fine and proper in certain situations, but when we come before Almighty God to worship him, we are not to flaunt our wealth or draw attention away from the Lord. Therefore, women are to do what is contrary to luxury and pride, and dress in modesty and self-control.

v. 10 – But with what is proper for women who profess godliness. What Paul described before this was the negative rule. What Paul states here is the positive rule. What is proper is not merely internal religion, nor an outward appearance of godliness, nor a knowledge of the Gospel, but the whole of all of this, all religion, internal and external, the whole of godliness, both in a doctrinal and a practical way. Women who profess a life of godliness must not merely dress in what is proper, but must cloth themselves in righteous behavior.

v. 10 – With good works. Again I will quote John Gill because he is perspicacious on this text:

“Good works are like good clothes, to which the apostle alludes; they do not make persons men and women, but they adorn them as such; so good works, they do not make men and women Christians, or believers, but they adorn them as such; they are ornaments to their persons, and to their profession, and to the Gospel they profess.”

Remember the charge of Paul’s letter, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5) It is because we have come to Christ through faith alone, that we desire to do good works.

v. 11 – Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. In one short sentence the Apostle Paul depicts how women are supposed to participate in public worship. The form of the Greek verb translated “learn” is an imperative. Paul not only requires women to pray during the public worship, but he also requires that they should be taught. He also describes the way women are to receive their instruction; “with all submissiveness.” Paul explains what he means by submissiveness in the following verse.

v.12 – I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. This is the submissiveness which a women is required to perform; that she should not desire to teach, nor should she be permitted to teach in the public worship. Paul uses a Greek word for “permit” that signifies a restraining of someone’s desires. Those who have been delegated the authority to teach publically in the church are the elders (5:17), and here we have an express declaration that women are not to teach. Ergo we conclude that women cannot occupy the office of an elder. Remember that this teaching of Paul’s is directed towards public worship. Paul commands older women to teach the young women of the church (Titus 2:3,4). There are many other examples in Scripture where women give instruction to members of the church or their families, but they are not in the context of public worship: Prov 1:8, 31:1-4, Acts 13:1, 2 Timothy 1:5.

The issue of primacy is that of “authority.” Paul does not permit women to exercise any type of authority of men. John Gill states the following:

“not in civil and political things, or in things relating to civil government; and in things domestic, or the affairs of the family; so not in things ecclesiastical, or what relate to the church and government of it; for one part of rule is to feed the church with knowledge and understanding; and for a woman to take upon her to do this, is to usurp an authority over the man: this therefore she ought not to do,”

It is explicit that a woman is not to exercise authority over a man, neither in church, nor in the public or private spheres of life. Women are to submit to their husbands, and they are to submit without fear (1 Pet 3:6) for God has commanded their husbands to love them (Eph 5:25). This is most readily understood by Paul’s use of Adam and Eve as the source for his argument.

v. 13 – For Adam was formed first, then Eve. The submission of a wife to her husband is not a result of the fall, for it was established by God in the original creation. It was God who declared that He would make Eve as a helper who was fit for Adam so that he would be more fruitful in his labors and that he might multiply his posterity and fill the earth, and that he could be more effective in subduing the earth and exercising his dominion over it.

v. 14 – And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. When women disregard the Word of God by failing to submit to the authority of their husbands, sin and deception is the inevitable result. John Calvin offers the following incite:

“Because she had given fatal advice, it was right that she should learn that she was under the power and will of another; and because she had drawn her husband aside from the command of God, it was right that she should be deprived of all liberty and placed under the yoke. Besides, the Apostle does not rest his argument entirely or absolutely on the cause of the transgression, but founds it on the sentence which was pronounced by God.”

Eve was more easily deceived by the Devil, not because she was naturally prone to deception, but because she usurped the headship of her husband and failed to submit to the Word of God.

v.15 – Yet she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. Not that women will receive any justification through their childbearing, rather that women who profess godliness will raise up their children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” despite a woman being the initial instrument which led the human race into sin.

Paul concludes his elucidation of the conduct of women in the church with a reminder of the Gospel. Because women who profess godliness have been promised deliverance from any inferior status, and given the great joy of raising godly children, they are motivated to live a life that is characterized by godly appearance, demeanor, and behavior.