Twice in the Bible, braided hair is seemingly spurned. First, Peter instructs, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear” (1 Peter 3:3–4). Second, the apostle Paul tells his co-missionary Timothy to convey to his church members “that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9). At first glance, these verses (only partially quoted here) appear to admonish against specific hair and clothing styles, but, when taken in context, they instead refer to bigger topics: humility and modesty.
In first-century Roman culture, women would customarily braid or twist their hair high onto their heads, often decorating their locks with jewels, gold adornments, and more to garner attention. The ornate displays indeed drew a public response, but the apostles’ point is that to flaunt one’s beauty for selfish adoration is not in line with the humility of Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 23:12, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
First Peter 3:3–5 speaks of true beauty: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” There is a contrast set up here between outward, fleeting beauty and inward, lasting beauty. God sees the heart, and a beautiful woman has a “gentle and quiet spirit,” whether or not her hair is plaited into fancy braids. It’s not that braided hair is sinful, but it is more worthwhile to develop godly character than to coiffure the hair.
First Timothy 2:9–10 refers to modesty, a highly debated topic in Christian culture: “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” Again we have a contrast, this time between flashy externals and less-noticeable deeds. The best attire for a Christian woman is “good deeds,” whether or not she has the braided hair, jeweled adornments, and chic clothing of the day. Scripture does not teach it is a sin to groom oneself to feel more attractive, but it is sinful to do so with the prideful intention of turning heads, and the good works are always more important than the hairdo.
Both passages referring to braided hair utilize a literary technique common in the Bible—the comparison and substitution of an undesirable (sinful) thing for a better (godly) thing. For example, Jesus states in John 6:27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Is Jesus saying that a person should not work for physical food? Of course not. Second Thessalonians 3:10 tells us, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Jesus is simply comparing spiritual food to physical food, emphasizing that spiritual food must be given a higher priority. To value physical health over spiritual health would be detrimental.
Christians should strive to maintain a godly perspective on how they present themselves to the world, demonstrating God’s glory with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) and caring about the spiritual state of their brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 15:1–2). Rather than focusing on outward appearances, an inward focus on developing Christlike behavior is more profitable. Christians must “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5–8).