November 9, 1997
In 1 Timothy 2:9–15, Paul urged women to adorn themselves with good deeds and godly submission rather than fancy hairstyles, expensive clothes, and jewelry. Alistair Begg explains that Paul’s intent was not to place a blanket restriction on certain styles of dress but to encourage Christians to focus on God and His purposes during corporate worship. Although fashions come and go, this principle remains important for Christians in every generation.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let me invite you to take your Bible and turn to 1 Timothy and to chapter 2, where our focus this morning is on the section which begins with the ninth verse. And we read from verse 9 to the end of the chapter:
“I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
Father, as we turn to these verses, which have been the focus of furious debate and remain the focus, in many quarters, of rampant confusion, we pray that we might have that sense of your Word shining its light on our path; that you will take our minds and help us to think clearly and sensibly; that you will take our lives and bring them into line with your truth so that, as individuals and as couples and as a church family, we may declare your glory. For Christ’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Now, we know by this time in our studies that the wider context in which Paul is addressing these issues is that of his desire to ensure that Timothy, as the pastor, will be clear as to how God’s people should conduct themselves in God’s household. Now, the reason we know that is because that’s exactly what he says in verse 15: that “if I[’m] delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God.” This is not a matter of marginal importance; it is a matter of utmost priority. And he underscores it by his use of the word “ought,” which brings forcibly to the attention of Timothy, and then in turn to all the readership, this strong degree of necessity—instruction which had immediate application to the context in which Timothy was ministering and which has, in turn, abiding application to the church in every generation and in every place.
In verse 8, he has made it clear that it is important, if there is to be propriety in public worship, that men, in exercising their office and in fulfilling their responsibility in praying, should do so in a way that is not marred by anger or by disputing. Because if they were to come with stained hands, as it were, rather than “holy hands” and seek to exercise this leadership among the people, then they would do a disservice to themselves, to the church family, and they would dishonor God in doing so. “Therefore, men,” he says, “I want you to understand that when you ascend the hill of the Lord, you do so with clean hands and with a pure heart.” When he comes to verse 9, he then addresses the women. And his concern is exactly the same concern—namely, for propriety in public worship. The concern that he has for women is different in relationship to their activities, but the net impact of his instruction for women is in parallel to that of his instruction for men—namely, both sexes are to live holy lives, and both sexes are to participate in public worship according to God’s divine instruction.
Now, the difficulty that sometimes attaches the study of these verses has to do with two things: one, individuals who choose simply to set it aside and wreak havoc as a result of their lack of obedience; and two, other individuals who, in their zeal to make application of it, do so in a manner that is wooden—that is, w-o-o-d-e-n. And I will explain as I’m going along just what I mean by that. Those of you who’ve been around will have an inkling of it. But let me try, as it were, and fly across it at thirty thousand feet for just a moment.
In verse 9a, what we have is a principle about women’s dress, and the principle is this: in a woman’s dress in the context of public worship, it is to be marked by modesty, decency, and propriety. Then, in the second half of verse 9, we have an application. And the application is made to the current situation being faced by Timothy and the pastoral environment of his day. And then, in verse 10, he focuses his argument on what is the ultimate and timeless concern for the people of God—namely, that they should live lives which are holy and that they should bear in their lives good deeds which are appropriate to their profession of faith in Christ. And particularly, he is referring to this matter in relationship to women.
Now, let me back up again, then, to this principle. The principle can be understood by paying careful attention and at the same time by cross-referencing this statement with what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:3. In a similar point of emphasis, he says to the women: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and [a] quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Now, notice that the instruction is given to those who profess to worship God. A wooden application of 1 Peter 3:3, especially as it is translated in the King James Version, would lead us into some severe difficulties. Because if you have a King James Version—and I don’t have it in front of me, but from recollection, it reads something like this: “Your adornment, ladies, should not be in the wearing of clothes.” That’s the King James. “Your adornment should not be in the wearing of clothes.” Now, a wooden application of that would, of course, create some very interesting worship services. And clearly, that is not what he is saying, right? So we need to understand the Bible not literalistically, but we need to understand it literally. We need to understand it within the genre and framework of parts of speech and various uses of the English language. And the same is true in relationship to Paul’s emphasis back in 1 Timothy 2.
And I can’t say this often enough, but realize that the emphasis on women follows on from the directives for the men. Just as the men must prepare properly for worship and behave properly in worship—verse 8—so the woman must do the same: “And for the men, I don’t want you arguing, fighting, and disputing with one another. And ladies,” he says, “I want you to resist the temptation to use the way you dress yourself as an occasion of immodesty.”
Now, if we might put it in common parlance, what he is saying is this: “Ladies, when you come to worship, don’t dress yourselves up to the nines. When you come in public worship, don’t get off track and make your focus the various clothes that you’re wearing, the style of your hair, the jewelry that you’re able to use, because that would be to divert your focus and the focus of those who are around you. Showy clothes and flashy jewelry ill-befit the broken and the contrite heart, and it is a broken and a contrite heart for which God looks in the worship of his people.”
Now, this emphasis is not unique to biblical literature. Hellenistic and Judaistic literature address the very same issues. And a whole variety of them contain multiple references. For example—and I quote here from one—“‘Dressing up’ on the part of women [conveyed] both sexual wantonness and wifely insubordination …. Indeed, for a married woman so to dress in public was tantamount to marital unfaithfulness.” So the way women conducted themselves in terms of the way they put themselves together was easily understood by the community. There was a certain way of doing your hair. There was a certain way of wearing your clothes. There was a certain jewelry fashion that you could impregnate into the high coiffure of your hair so that it sparkled, and then it glistened, and the people couldn’t look at you without saying, “Goodness, gracious, look at her hair! Look at how it sparkles!” or “Look at her” in this respect, or “Look at her” in that respect. And Paul says, “You mustn’t do that.”
Now, the answer was not for them to become awkwardly old-fashioned. The answer was not for them to find some weird way of dressing so that they would be regarded as, you know, very, very different. The answer was for them to scale it back—not to become otherworldly; to live in the real world. And he certainly is not seeking to prevent women from looking their best.
Now, I say all of that because the application of this principle to our current situation must be understood in light of the principle. Because there is a timeless dimension to the principle; there is a passing element to its application. For example, I do not believe that Paul here is providing a timeless, categorical denial of a particular hairstyle or of a particular kind of clothing. Now, the issue of “expensive”—the little adjective “expensive”—is an issue all the time, everywhere. And he seems to be saying this: “For those of you who can afford really expensive stuff, recognize that nine-tenths of the congregation can’t afford that. And for you to wear that—unless you are able to do so with great discretion and with deportment—may become a source of aggravation. And since you would want to abstain from anything that would make your brother or your sister stumble, you probably don’t want to do that.” And “expensive” is understood in every culture. I’m not about to flesh it out, but each of us must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling in relationship to the adjective.
There is no doubt that Paul is forbidding in this section here, verses 9 and 10, a style of dress and a kind of hairdo that was known to his readers and that was particularly reprehensible. And the reason it was reprehensible was because of its immodesty and because of its cost in terms of time and money and effort. However, his emphasis is on the effect that these elements bring and not on the elements as such. You have to understand this. This is not a timeless denial of a way of wearing your hair. People get all knotted up with this so they can’t wear their hair in braids, and they think they’re obeying 1 Timothy 2. No, they may not be obeying 1 Timothy 2. Their motivation is fine; their execution is probably flawed. It is with braided hair, gold, pearls, and very costly garments as violations of this principle, not with hair however arranged, or gold, or pearls, or garments in and of themselves that he is concerned. You got this? Say yes, please, if you have got it. Say no if you haven’t. ’Cause I thought I was going to go mad in the first service, ’cause I could not convey what I was trying to convey.
Is it not right for us to assume that Paul understands that his readership will understand that he does not mean hairstyles, jewelry, clothes as such, but rather, he uses this as illustrative of the immodesty and the indiscretion which he says is unacceptable within the context of public worship? In other words, if it was in the late twentieth century, if it was in the ’60s, he would have said, “And don’t show up at church wearing those miniskirts. Don’t show up at church wearing those halter tops. Don’t show up at church doing that, because they are classic illustrations of immodesty, impropriety, and indiscretion.” Don’t show up wearing your bikini. Now, you may wear it somewhere else, but you shouldn’t wear it in public worship.
And we may smile when the Muslims pass us in the street. But they understand, from an Eastern context, the fundamental principle which underlies this—namely, that a woman’s beauty is for her husband; it’s not for general consumption; that the physical attributes that are given to a woman are given for the enjoyment within the framework of marriage and not so that she can parade it in front of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who comes within the orb of her influence, and certainly not within the context of public worship! Because we are here to focus on God. And anyone and anything that moves the focus is negated in these verses.
Ostentation and extravagance hardly point to a mind that is set on heavenly things. And a woman’s dress is a mirror of her mind. A woman’s dress is a mirror of her mind. You say, “Well, a man’s dress is a mirror of his mind. Don’t be chauvinistic.” Well, you know, I think it probably is now. But it wasn’t. And when you go in farming and fishing communities, it largely isn’t. When you go where people just work, when you go back to Little House on the Prairie, the guy has the trousers. He pulls them up. He has the belt. Remember your grandfather’s pants? I couldn’t get my grandfather to put the belt through the loops. “What do you think they have loops for, Grandpa?” “Doesn’t matter! Pull ’em up! Belt it over! Shirt sleeves rolled up! Here we go! I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! Da-da-da-da-da-da!” He wasn’t concerned! He would do his job and everything else. Now, his wife, my grandmother—that was different. And when she came out and she was dressed, she was expressing something. As men become increasingly feminine and as women become increasingly masculine, of course, these understandable discriminations and discernments of the New Testament text are out swinging in the breeze.
This is how Phillips paraphrases it: “The women should be dressed quietly, and their demeanour should be modest and serious. The adornment of a Christian woman is not a matter of … elaborate coiffure, expensive clothes or valuable jewelry, but [is] the living of a good life.” That’s what verses 9 and 10 essentially say. And the “good deeds” are not uniquely the prerogative of women, because Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, has given that to all of his followers: that you should “let your light [so] shine before men, that they [will] see your good deeds and [glorify] your Father [who is] in heaven.” And Paul is merely applying that in a feminine context, and he says, “Don’t be the kind of person who is immediately noticed for the way she wears her hair, the way she dresses, the jewelry she wears, but rather, become the kind of person who is noticeable for the kindness and quality of an imperishable jewel, and a gentle and a quiet spirit, and a life of integrity and holiness, and so on.”
Now, there’s nothing hard about that, is there? Good. Gets a little harder, though, in verse 11.
What is a woman to do? Well, a woman is to “learn.” A woman should learn. Most of us just jump right over that to “in quietness and full submission.” Most of the discussions I have with women have to do with “Why does it say in ‘quietness and full submission’?” Say, “Hey, wait a minute. Hang on!” First of all, let’s see what it says. It says, “Women are to learn.” Is that an issue? Well, it actually is. Because the Babylonian Talmud said of the women who attended the synagogue worship, “The men come to learn; the women come to hear.” So they’re allowed to listen, but they’re not supposed to learn. There’s no reason for them to learn. Paul says, “No, it is not that, but the women come, and they benefit from their place in the assembling of God’s people, and they benefit as a result of the edification and the instruction of God’s Word. And in that context, they begin to grow in grace and in a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But in the context of public worship, their learning is not the learning of dialogue, it is not the learning that comes as a result of themselves being teachers and learning as they teach, but it is the learning that comes as a result of quietness and submission.
Now, this silence here ought not to stumble us. You can cross-reference it with Paul’s emphasis elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. But the silence is simply a concrete expression of the principle of submission which Paul is articulating. You see, if somebody had said to him—if it simply said, “A woman should learn in full submission,” and someone responded, said, “Well, what does full submission mean, Paul?” one of the things he would have said was “She should learn in silence”—that she is not to be a teacher in that context; she is to be a learner in that context.
Now, the principle of submission is underscored through the whole of the Bible. And it is the principle of submission which needs to be laid hold of, understood, and applied in every dimension of life. And it is largely because we are rebellious and cantankerous creatures when it comes to the issue of submission at all that it is no surprise that in this firework display of role relationships there should be such confusion.
The Bible speaks about submission—the submission of the Christian to God the Father. In James chapter 4, for example, he talks about submitting to God your Father. The Bible speaks about the submission of all things to the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians :22; Philippians 3:21), speaks of the submission of all Christians to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21), speaks of the submission of the church family to those whom God has placed in positions of authority and leadership, eldership (in 1 Peter 5:5 and Titus 2), and it speaks clearly of the submission principle expressed within marriage—namely, the submission of the husband to God in exercising the role of leadership and the submission of the wife to God in exercising the role of a submissive helpmeet. And unless that is understood and applied within a marriage, you may be certain that it will never be understood and applied in the corporate context in church. And until there has come clarity to the heart and mind of a woman in relationship to her role as a wife and as a mother, as a woman, then you will make heavy weather of trying to apply 1 Timothy 2:11 and following.
Let me pause from the text and say a number of things that may appear to be disparate, but I hope by the end of it all, it will weave one whole piece of fabric.
Let’s recognize this: that in the relationship of husband and wife, the concept of submission is used of a voluntary and willing submission on the part of the wife—an equal with her husband—to one whom God has called to be the head in that relationship. I’m going to say that to you again, ’cause I want you to understand this: that the concept of submission within the framework of husband-wife relationships is used of a voluntary and willing compliance on the part of the wife—an equal—to one whom God has called to be the head in that relationship.
Now, when people challenge this principle in the home, they challenge it in the church. And the issue is so vitally important. Because, as my friend and mentor Derek Prime says, “there is a divinely intended order in the creation of male and then female. This sequence was not a mistake. Men and women are equal in value and as persons but different and distinct in the roles they are to play.” And so we affirm the fact that the leadership or the headship role of the male in no way implies the inferiority of the female. There is no implied, inferred, stated inferiority on the part of the woman. And of course, you see, the feminist cause loves to obscure and confuse this.
There is no inferiority in the Trinity. The precedence of God the Father in the order of the Trinity in no way implies the inferiority of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. But God the Son and God the Spirit submit to God the Father—not because they are inferior to him but because that is the role that they have been given to play. And the wife submits to her husband not on account of her inferiority intellectually or her capacities, but she submits to her husband because that is the role she’s been given to play. And the husband is supposed to lead his wife, not sit around and gaze at the stars and wait for her next bright idea. He is to take ownership and leadership and protectorship and initiative, because that is the role he’s been given to play.
Incidentally and in passing: single men, take the initiative! The more I’ve studied this, the more I concluded again what I said before (and I get a lot of letters and phone calls; I don’t know what the problem was then): you are supposed to be initiative takers. This doesn’t mean that a girl can’t take initiative with you, but the principle is that the man is an initiator. It’s not politically correct. I know that! But it’s what the Bible says. Men and women are different by divine intention.
Because the issue of equality between the sexes is under such continual debate, and because, as a result of human perversity, male dominance has been taken to extremes—which it has—then the tendency has been to suggest that male and female are completely identical, simply to reinforce the arguments for equal treatment. Now, this is the flaw, you see, in the feminist position. Because the thing they regard to be so skew-whiff, they say, “Now, what we must argue for is the absolute equality in every dimension of male and female.” And in saying “equality,” they mean, “There is no difference!” So it doesn’t matter if the mum’s the dad or the dad’s the mum. It doesn’t matter if you wear the pants, I wear the pants, you wear the skirt, you wear no skirt. It doesn’t matter! There is no difference. The Bible says, “Yes there is. Men and women are equal but different. They are equal, but they are complementary. And it is in that vital distinction that the Bible urges the roles of men and women to be worked out, and not least of all within the framework of corporate worship and how it is that a woman is to learn.
Men and women are equal in their standing before God as human beings and equal as the objects of God’s concern and love. Nevertheless, they are different, and their difference is part of the delightful chemistry of human relationships. Now, do you need me to work that out for you? “The delightful chemistry of human relationships”—covers it all! But when you start with a worldview that is evolutionary, that DNA introduced itself to DNA in a pile of sludge, that you emerge by happenstance and formulate yourself into these beings in which there is really no male and no female and no precedence and no response, etc., then you end up with the manifold confusion which is part and parcel of men and women’s lives today. One of the reasons that we get such short change as Christians is because we appear simply to be a radical fringe banging away on the drum, and we’re playing such a lousy tune on the drum. That’s why I want to try and help you understand this stuff.
Now, we’d better come back to the text, ’cause we’ve been away for a while.
It’s clear that Paul’s concern is that a woman’s learning—verse 11—should not become an occasion for her to overturn her role in relationship to the teaching role that is given for men to exercise in the church. In other words, her desire to learn must not be used to gain the privilege of speaking.
Now, I want you to notice very carefully that this prohibition is qualified by the context. There’s not a full stop after “teach”: “I do not permit a woman to teach.” If you just put from “or” to “authority” in parentheses for a minute, you get it clear: “I do not permit a woman to teach … a man.” It’s qualified by “man,” it’s qualified by the fact that we’re talking about religious instruction in the life of the church, and it’s qualified by the fact that we’re talking about the Bible; we’re not talking about a woman teaching a man politics or a woman teaching a man mathematics or a woman teaching a man how to put sutures effectively in an open wound. That’s very, very important. It is the teaching in church services, where both sexes are together, is to be a male function, as is the exercise of spiritual authority.
Now, when you say that, the common reaction is this: “I’ll bet, Alistair, if you look at this more carefully, you will realize that verses 11 and 12 emerge from a cultural background. It all has to do with Paul’s day. It has to do with some circumstance about which we know nothing. And if Paul were alive today, he would never write as he writes.” Well, that that is not the case can be safely deduced from the fact that Paul doesn’t argue from culture as he applies his principle, but he argues from Scripture.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
“Where do you get that from, Paul?”
“For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
“Excuse me? That’s the reason?”
That’s the reason: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man …. For Adam was formed first, [and] then Eve.”
Hm! Has nothing to do with pragmatism. Has nothing to do with the culture of his day. Has nothing to do with being politically correct. It has to do with his knowledge of the Bible. It has to do primarily with his knowledge of the first three chapters of the Bible—which, of course, have been undermined consistently for the last 150 years. And the Evil One understands that. Because now, when the battle is at its fiercest in relationship to human sexuality, you have Christian people who ought to know better saying, “Well, we can’t take 1 Timothy 2 and apply it to today, because after all, it’s cultural, and there is no point in us going back to the opening chapters of Genesis, because we’re not convinced that they are anything other than a mythology.” Now, that used to be the realm of liberalism! At the turn of the century, that was people who denied the Bible that said that. But it’s no longer people who apparently deny the Bible; it is people who like to interpret the Bible in light of the times. They accommodate the Bible to the culture of the day: “God could not be saying that to this day.” Well, the fact is, he is saying that to this day. “What more can he say than to you he hath said?” That’s what we just sang. “What more can he say than to you he has said, to you unto Jesus for refuge you fled?”
So Paul begins with Adam and Eve. Paul begins with creation. And he does so to illustrate the fact that the principles applied in a timeless way throughout time immemorial are grounded in the unfailing, unerring purpose of God for his creation. Is it not legitimate that God the Creator can decide what his creation does and how it happens? But you see, again we’re up against a problem of a worldview. Because when you talk to people about God, God is a cosmic principle. God is a genie. God is an extension of your self. God is within you. Therefore, God is tailored to meet whatever the circumstances of the day are. And “No,” says the Bible, “God is transcendent. He is above time. He is eternal. He is incomprehensible. He spoke, and the world came into being, and he ordered events just as the Word of God says. Now do what he says.”
And that, interestingly, is the same way in which Jesus argued when the Pharisees came to him and said, “What should we do about divorce?”: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Interesting response on the part of Jesus—he quotes Genesis: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”?’” In other words, says Jesus, the timeless, abiding principle of God’s order in creation is that which needs to be applied here. And the issue in verse 13 is not an issue of chronology—“For Adam was formed first”—but the issue is what is entailed by the chronology.
Now, this is basically where I ran adrift in the first service, because my time is gone with two minutes to go, and I haven’t broken the back of what I’m about to say. So we have a number of alternatives. The only reasonable one is to stop and to pick it up later on. And I’m going to do that. I’m just going to pick up this evening and try and make this clear with a second attempt.
Father, we hate just to break off, as it were, in the middle of a sentence here. But maybe we can at least grab this: that your Word is timeless, and it’s unerring; that the real battle which underlies these questions and this confusion is actually a battle about the Bible—about whether we’re going to allow the Bible to be the authoritative, unerring Word of God, or whether we’re going to constantly bring the Bible into subjection to our cultural preferences and our own personal predilections. We want to be men and women of your book. We recognize that we “see through a glass, darkly.” We don’t grab it all, necessarily, the first time, or even the second or the third time, but we do want to be students of your Word. We do want to make an impact in our day. And we have a strong sense that with all these battered women, and all these horrible things that are going on, and all these weak-kneed men wandering around, that these issues before us are crucially important. So we pray that you will help us to think and to pray and to reason and to understand and to live in a way that pleases you.
Be with us in the hours of this day. Thank you for the prospect that they bring to us. Draw near to us, Lord Jesus, and grant us to know your presence and your strength. And may your grace and mercy and peace be our abiding portion, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Psalm 119:105.
 1 Timothy 3:15 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 2:8 (NIV 1984).
 See Psalm 24:3–4.
 1 Peter 3:3 (paraphrased from the KJV).
 See Psalm 51:17.
 Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, New International Biblical Commentary, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 71.
 See Philippians 2:12.
 Matthew 5:16 (NIV 1984).
 b. Hagigah 3a. Paraphrased.
 See 2 Peter 3:18.
 See 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
 See James 4:7.
 See Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–19.
 “How Firm a Foundation” (1787). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Matthew 19:3–5 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.