Having described the “quiet life” as a Christian virtue, Paul now discusses two potential disruptions of that quiet life.
First, men are command to pray without anger or quarreling (v. 8). It seems odd that people would pray in the church “in anger,” perhaps continuing arguments they were having in the act of prayer. The noun Paul chooses here (διαλογισμός) does in fact focus on differences of opinion which can develop into an argument. In Luke 9:46 it is used for the disciples arguing among themselves over who was the greatest, in Phil 2:14 Paul uses it in conjunction with grumbling.
It is possible that some people were using public prayers to condemn their opponents, continuing their dispute in prayer, when the opponent cannot respond immediately. (“Lord, open the eyes of my rather dull brother in Christ so that the Holy Spirit will teach him that clearly I am right and that he is wrong, may he repent soon of the sin of his stupidity in disagreeing with me over this minor point of theology….”)
Second, women are warned to dress modestly (v. 9-10). While this might seem to be a different topic, Paul is still talking about things which potentially cause disorder and chaos in during prayer. Paul makes a contrast between external adornments (jewelry, clothing hair styles) and godly, good works.
Paul does not forbid people from looking good in public, nor is Paul commanding woman not fix their hair, use makeup or wear jewelry. What he is concerned about is an over-emphasis on external beauty. The hair style Paul mentions is preferred by the fashionable, wealthy women, even though it is the exact opposite of the hairstyles found in public statues of Imperial women. He describes the jewelry as “costly,” one of the stronger terms he could have used in this case. Paul is not saying that women should not wear any jewelry, but that it should not be overly expensive.
Bruce Winter points out that “jewelry epitomized sumptuousness” and was often associated with a shameful woman. He quotes Juvenal: “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears” (Satires, 6.458-59, cited by Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 208). These clothes are adorned with gold and pearl, two very valuable items in the ancient world. (The great whore of Babylon is adorned with “gold and pearls” (Rev 17:4). Jesus used a “pearl of great price” as an analogy for the value of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 13:45).
If someone is wearing expensive clothing, real gold and pearls, they would be dressed like royalty! In Paul’s churches there are supposed to be no difference between rich and poor. A woman dressed like this is flaunting her wealth, or flaunting her family’s wealth.
Remarkably, this advice does not vary much from that found in Plutarch, in his “Advice to a Bride and Groom.” Like Paul, Plutarch points out that external adornments are nothing compared to a virtuous woman:
For, as Crates used to say, ‘adornment is that which adorns,’ and that adorns or decorates a woman which makes her more decorous. It is not gold or precious stones or scarlet that makes her such, but whatever invests her with that something which betokens dignity (σεμνότης, 1 Tim 2:2), good behaviour (εὐταξία), and modesty (αἰδώς, 12 Tim 2:9). Plutarch, Praecepta Coniugialia 26 (Moralia II, 141e).
The real problem with this verse is defining “modest dress.” It is possible that one person’s modesty will offend someone. The same thing is true for wearing expensive clothing: is this a question of Walmart vs. Kohls vs. Target vs. the trendy shops at the mall? I imagine Amish women get accused of immodesty for wearing the wrong color snood. Think about the difference between what a teenage girl wants to wear and what her father wants her to wear! What I think is too fancy and expensive is going to differ dramatically from someone else.
It is also important to read this text as applying to both men and women. If a man spends an inordinate amount of attention on his clothing, hair, and makeup, if he is focusing on his external appearance and not putting on godly, good works, then he is just as much of a distraction as a woman. This is not the problem in Ephesus (men have other problems), but the application seems to be clear.
Paul does not give all people permission to point out what they think is an immodest display, or a person wearing expensive clothing. He is urging people to think about the effect that their clothing might have on other people when they wear it in a worship service. There is no permission given here for you to be peevish about what other people wear.
The controlling idea is living a quiet, dignified life, whether women or men are in view. In both cases Paul wants his congregations to worship in peace, without distracting from the proper focus of worship, the One God who wants to draw all people to himself.