Throughout the ages there have been many scholars and plain men alike that have argued for or against a certain type of dress. Some argued because of their heavily opinionated minds, and others argued because of a personal intense study of Holy Scriptures.
I myself have desired to understand if Christianity had its own “Dress Code”. Fortunately, many of the greatest Christian men that lived have left us some advice on clothing. I started off with reading the New Testament and other early Christian writings.
In the New Testament we have basically only two verses that speak directly about clothing. Paul of Tarsus tells us “ that women should dress modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (1 Timothy 2:9 NRSV).
The Greek word for “clothing” is καταστολή (which is transliterated katastolē). The word specifically means a “long, loose, flowing garment”. The word katastolē is a combination of two Greek words; kata, which means “down”, and stolē, which basically means a “long, loose garment reaching the feet.” Basically, a woman is to wear a long and loose dress. Unfortunately, clothing that “hugs” the body is anti-Pauline, and thus, anti-Christian.
For Paul (and many other Christians), modesty was essential to the Christian faith. There really were no religious fanatics running around questioning the ban on certain types of dress. I mean, why would there be? Every religion requires something and every nation has its own set of laws. Why shouldn’t the God Jesus Christ require of His followers?
For many people, in the early days of Christianity, clothing really wasn’t a great issue. You did have the few odd ones but that was the minority. And how do we know this? Because we have many, many writers that have left us books that speak about such matters and specifically say what was, and what wasn’t, accepted by the early Christians. If we take into consideration the seriousness of this religion (early Christianity), we would develop a more accurate understanding of it. The early church was a witness to many miracles. God was ever present. He was in all and knew all. He could make liars drop dead on the floor (Acts 5:1-11). God was simply too real.
We live in a world where you turn to “god substitutes”. You want to get healed, you go to the doctor; you want to eat, you go to the market. God is the last place that we turn. Now, if we take away this irrational perspective of ours and look at early Christianity with eyes that actually “try” to “see” reality, a new Christianity emerges out of the murky waters. People turned to a real God. He was so real that I cannot even begin to describe his reality. Really. I can’t. This was God (for them). Now, why am I lecturing on the reality of God when I should be quoting verses on apparel?? It’s quite simple. If we see God as a God that is honestly real, we can understand why people would believe each and every word breathed by the apostles of Jesus Christ (who was for the early Christians, contrary to some modern and ancient heretical teachings, God incarnate). If Jesus Christ was God, and if the apostles were followers of God, then their teachings were, essentially, God’s. Thus, we begin to see the writings of the New Testament as God’s word. And if this God will send you to Hell for wearing inappropriate clothing, then what do we do? We don’t wear it! It was really that simple.
Anyways, now, the second verse that directly speaks about clothing is 1 Peter 3:3-4, which reads, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight”(NRSV).
And so we have it. Two primary verses that are used to instruct our young women. The verses are all self evident but I guess that I can “comment” on them a little. Both Paul’s and Peter’s verses are almost identical. They both speak of an “inner” beauty, which, they believe, should be more cared for. They both cast negative eyes on “expensive” or “fine” clothing; this basically is a call to spend money elsewhere (i.e. help the poor, feed the hungry, etc,.). Both abhor the putting on of “gold” (which is synonymous with jewelry). Both make negative statements about “braided” hair. This, if I am correct, is a reference to the waste of time that a lot of women spend on their hair. Which, of course, our ladies love to do! Also, for Paul, modesty is the abandonment of these things (gold, braided hair, pearls…).
We cannot speak about modesty without dealing with lust. Lust can arise because of inappropriate clothing. Since lust is proportional to modesty, we must speak of it. Jesus Christ spoke of lust as follows, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 NRSV). Notice that lust is always associated with looking. It is this lust that Jesus is speaking about. The lust of the eyes. Since clothing is a covering, what is it “covering” and from whom? That is the question. Obviously, clothing covers the body and covers it so that others eyes may not see it.
Clement of Alexandria says it well, “By no means are women to be allowed to uncover and exhibit any part of their bodies, lest both fall- the men by being incited to look, and the women by attracting to themselves the eyes of the men” (Clement of Alexandria, 2. 246).
This basically sums up lust. We see lust as a direct product of inappropriate clothing. Thus, by dressing immodestly the Christian is inviting “adultery of the heart” and is taking apart of the “sexual” act. It takes two to have sex (be it physical or “imaginary”).
As we can see, these verses basically sum up Christian modesty/apparel. Nevertheless, such a basic explanation throws many astray. Many want more. If that is the case, I am going to gladly give it. I have quoted two verses from the New Testament as we have it. Next, I want to show the beliefs that early Christians had after the apostles.
After the Apostles
A little while after the apostles left, Christianity began to produce scores of writings by its followers, mainly the writings of the “Church Fathers”. We have many of the so-called “Church Fathers” being either bishops or “preachers” of the gospel. The advice they left for us is almost unreadable in one’s lifetime.
Tertullian, a fiery writer of the second century, wrote two books on clothing. In them he stated very negatively on the wearing of jewelry and immodest clothing. In one passage he was reasoning with the women and asking them why they wanted to wear “worldly” clothing. Their reply was, “We are bound to please our husbands”. Tertullian retaliates by saying that a Christian husband does not look at the beauty without, but at the beauty within. Moreover, if the Christian husband doesn’t care about your “beautifying of the flesh” then are you trying to please the Gentile (un-Christian) man next door?? Tertullian concluding states, “For whom, then, is it that you cherish your beauty? If for a believer, he does not exact it: if for an unbeliever, he does not believe in it unless it be artless” (Tertullian, On Apparel, Book Two, Chapter 4).
Humility, simplicity, and modesty were all almost solely “Christian” traits. In Tertullian’s day he even says that there was a saying, “Ever since she became a Christian, she walks in poorer garb [clothing]” (Tertullian, On Apparel, Book Two, Chapter 11). In the second century Roman society, it was almost inconceivable to dress “poorer”. People were expected to dress according to their rank in society. A lawyer, with his proper tunic; a king, in his proper attire; a poor man, in his poor garb. This was the way people believed things should be. A soldier wears his uniform, right? Dressing against your social standing was almost unheard of until Christianity began.
Tertullian mentioned other things as well, for example, he did not allow the putting on of make-up, the dyeing of the hair, and the wearing of jewelry. Being himself, Tertullian said, “blessed sisters, take heed that you do not admit to your use flashy and sluttish garbs and clothing” (Tertullian 4. 22). Which, as many other early Christians, if not all, believed the same thing.
Clement of Alexandria, a second century author, writes, “The wearing of gold […] is to be entirely prohibited” (Clement of Alexandria 2. 284).
Even something as simple as wearing shoes was discussed! We have a beautiful verse from Clement about this (I think that in it he reveals his rather “tender” side); “Women should for the most part wear shoes. For it is not suitable for the foot to be shown naked. Besides, woman is a tender thing, easily hurt” (Clement of Alexandria 2. 267). He stands up for the ladies and says how “easily hurt” they are. How sweet of such a “pharisaical” writer!!
Nevertheless, even “old and harsh” Clement of Alexandria allowed women (who were married to unchaste husbands) to dress “immodestly”; but only for the admiration of their husbands (Clement of Alexandria 2. 285).
One would think that, by the time of the church historian Eusebius (A.D. 260-340), immodest clothing would have set in. But, on the contrary, Christianity remained as fiery as ever. Apollonius, as quoted by Eusebius, refuted the Montanistic prophets as false by asking them the following questions, “But it is necessary that all the fruits of a prophet should be examined. Tell me, does a prophet dye [his hair]? Does a prophet stain [his eyelids]? Does a prophet delight in ornament?” (Ecclesiastical History 176). Such “prophets” were never even considered genuine. To wear make-up was to be banned from the church. Modesty was still a principle. Many people of that, and the previous century, kept in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The LORD said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet[…] the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarfs; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings[…]instead of perfume there will be a stench[…] instead of the well-set hair; baldness” (Isaiah 3:16-24 NRSV). [A lot of these words are ancient words for jewelry and their exact definition remains either unknown or inconclusive. So, for example, we may not know what specific object the “crescents” were. We do know that Isaiah is criticizing the women of Zion and their jewelry in an “indirect” fashion. ]
So, even though some 300 years passed, Christianity held in high esteem modesty. It was still ardently fought for. Apparently, much didn’t change dress-wise. Even years later modesty will be held in high esteem. Take a look at the modern United Pentecostal Church; it holds the same views as the early Christians. One doesn’t have to look far to see many other Christian churches that have a similar, or, at least, a semi-similar dress code. It may not be as rigorous, but it still may have the remains of a previous era’s beliefs.
Arguments against the Early Christian Teaching
In my lifetime I have encountered a few people that have argued against what the early Christian church believed. They all primarily bring to mind passages from the Old Testament.
First, I would like to state that the Old Testament is, almost irrefutably, in secondary status with us Christians. Not in the ordinary sense of “secondary”, but in a sense that, upon finding conflict between the Old and the New, the Christian is to accept the New Testament over the Old. So, do we, as the Old Testament says, “not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord (Ex. 20:7 NRSV)”, or do we, as the New Testament says, “not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34 NRSV)??
These are points of conflict. We resolve them by accepting the New Testament over the Old.
Secondly, many people remind me of Ezekiel chapter 16. To me it has become a byword. I hear it all the time. Ezekiel chapter 16 talks about a woman (Jerusalem personified) who rebels against God and His goodness. In it God says, “I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears […] you were adorned with gold and silver […]” (Ezekiel 16: 11-13 NRSV).
God goes on to describe how He gave Jerusalem (personified as a woman) everything that she ever wanted. How she was absolutely poor and hungry without Him. How He fed her and raised her. But now, she goes and turns away from her very Guardian. God is angry. Later He says, “You took my gold and my silver that I had given you, and made for yourself male images, and with them played the whore [.]” (Ezekiel 16: 17 NRSV). God is saying, in more modern language, “You took my gold and my silver and made yourself a golden idol (with a “golden” erection) and had sex with it!!!”
God doesn’t know what to do! Jerusalem became that bad. Now, people will usually remind me of the jewelry that God gave the “woman”. But, when I tell them that it is a city that we are talking about, they lose their hopes. Ezekiel just writes in a fashion where he moves from speaking about a city to personifying Jerusalem, to such an extent, that he begins to describe even the women in Jerusalem. The jewelry is symbolic of the richness that God gave Jerusalem. Nothing more.
There are a few other “arguments” that exist, but this one was one that seemed to be fairly common.
This writing is not even near exhaustive. I have just brought out the most basic verses and quotations. Though there exist hundreds, if not thousands, of passages on modesty, I do not see the need to quote Tertullian or Novatian a hundred times in order to get the point across. The belief that modesty is a must for early Christianity is universally recognized by most, if not all, biblical scholars. The topic of modesty has been talked about by everyone from Paul to Clement to Tertullian to Commodianus to Cyprian. All said the same basic thing. So, in conclusion, early Christianity reserved make-up, jewelry, dyeing of the hair and what not all to those who were “outside” of the church. Even though such language comes across as harsh today, it is what Christianity taught for centuries. In this writing, I haven’t stated any of my own personal beliefs. Everything came from the lips of Paul or another Church Father. Thus, this writing should be viewed as an “informative” writing. There is no avoiding the truth. Do we accept what early Christianity taught or do we “reinterpret” its doctrines?? That is the question. And it is a good one.
Moses Mikheyev is Senior Editor for The Snyder Bible.