Thursday, 23 May 2013

John Calvin on 1 Timothy 2:9-10

"9 In like manner also women As he enjoined men to lift up pure hands, so he now prescribes the manner in which women ought to prepare for praying aright. And there appears to be an implied contrast between those virtues which he recommends and the outward sanctification of the Jews; for he intimates that there is no profane place, nor any from which both men and women may not draw near to God, provided they are not excluded by their vices.

He intended to embrace the opportunity of correcting a vice to which women are almost always prone, and which perhaps at Ephesus, being a city of vast wealth and extensive merchandise, especially abounded. That vice is — excessive eagerness and desire to be richly dressed. He wishes therefore that their dress should be regulated by modesty and sobriety; for luxury and immoderate expense arise from a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity. And hence we ought to derive the rule of moderation; for, since dress is an indifferent matter, (as all outward matters are,) it is difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go. Magistrates may indeed make laws, by means of which a rage for superfluous expenditure shall be in some measure restrained; but godly teachers, whose business it is to guide the consciences, ought always to keep in view the end of lawful use. This at least will be settled beyond all controversy, that every thing in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved.

Yet we must always begin with the dispositions; for where debauchery reigns within, there will be no chastity; and where ambition reigns within, there will be no modesty in the outward dress. But because hypocrites commonly avail themselves of all the pretexts that they can find for concealing their wicked dispositions, we are under the necessity of pointing out what meets the eye. It would be great baseness to deny the appropriateness of modesty as the peculiar and constant ornament of virtuous and chaste women, or the duty of all to observe moderation. Whatever is opposed to these virtues it will be in vain to excuse. He expressly censures certain kinds of superfluity, such as curled hair, jewels, and golden rings; not that the use of gold or of jewels is expressly forbidden, but that, wherever they are prominently displayed, these things commonly draw along with them the other evils which I have mentioned, and arise from ambition or from want of chastity as their source."*

A lot of old-fashioned talk to sift through, but I what I want to highlight here is the emphasis of Calvin (and, I believe, the passage itself) on "modesty" as a counterpoint to "excessive eagerness and desire to be richly dressed". Calvin uses the word "chastity" to talk about what we often refer to as modesty: not dressing to be sexually alluring. "Modesty", in his vocabulary, is is about not dressing to highlight one's wealth, to achieve one's ambitions (whether for attention, a sense of superiority, or some other worldly advantage), or to display oneself (he does mention "either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity", as both are certainly temptations). 

We often hear in the church of the need to be modest in the modern sense I mentioned. Depending on how conservative your church is, that could be anything from only wearing floor-length dresses to covering your chest to a certain height. These are what Calvin refers to as "a fixed limit" and says that a godly teacher will seek to guide the conscience and address the disposition rather than making rules. Not that choosing not to dress in a provocative way is wrong-- far from it!-- but rules prescribing exactly what is and is not appropriately chaste tend to miss that the emphasis in Scripture is on a more subtle heart issue.**

Calvin speaks of "Ephesus, being a city of vast wealth and extensive merchandise." What could be more descriptive of us in the affluent West? I believe we could do well to take to heart Calvin's charge to begin with "the dispositions; for where debauchery reigns within, there will be no chastity; and where ambition reigns within, there will be no modesty in the outward dress." I believe I spent the majority of the last ten years dressing, in some sense or another, to impress. Whether this took the form of dressing like a punk to show people I was above all their petty consumerist attitudes, or trying to emulate the women I saw on The Sartorialist to display my superior fashion sense, it certainly came from a disposition of ambition, not of Christlike humility.

When I look at my Saviour who "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped", I am ashamed of myself for trying to use clothing as a way to make myself look better than others. My prayer and hope going forward is that I can devote less time and energy to attempting to raise my status through clothing, and more time and energy to what God calls "proper" for the women who serve him-- good works. Meditating on the glorious truth that my status before God is already secure in Christ should serve to fight my fleshly desire towards self-promotion.

Is it wrong to dress in a way that is fun, fashion-forward, unusual, or high-end? I don't think that can be Scripturally argued. The issue of how to dress in a God-honouring way is deeply nuanced and must encompass, for starters, the topics of respectability, creativity, and Christian liberty, as well as what I've begun discussing here. However, I think it can be Scripturally argued that modern Christian women could benefit from a swing more in the other direction-- away from telling each other that it's okay to enjoy dressing up and fashion, and towards what Calvin calls "the duty of all to observe moderation." We must strive for wisdom and balance in every issue not specifically prescribed in Scripture, and I believe in the present-day, we need to move towards moderation to achieve balance.

I want to end, then, with a challenge to my sisters in the church: Calvin says, "This at least will be settled beyond all controversy, that every thing in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved." Do you think you could describe how everything about how you dress as "in accordance with modesty*** and sobriety"? Will you pray and ask the Spirit to reveal to you if your clothing choices are driven by ambition instead of godly character?
**And vilify the female body over the human heart, but that's a topic for another post...
***In Calvin's "not putting on a display" sense.


  1. Great thoughts! I have always felt wary about an overgeneralization on the practical extent of modesty that is put forward by many, simply because ideas of what is modest will look VERY different to both women and men from New York City, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Polynesia. In its most basic sense, modesty is the proper check placed upon sexuality and hubris....but beyond that, its prescriptions are almost entirely cultural. The Bible cares far more about the state of the heart and the attitude of modesty over the length of a skirt or the coverage of a loincloth.

    Also, kudos for Calvin.

  2. The coverage of a loincloth. Future post idea if I ever saw one...