Kathryn & Carl

November 18, 2009

Keepers at Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn @ 12:48 pm

Probably to a good 90% of the US population, the following conversation doesn’t even make sense because OF COURSE women ought to be free to pursue careers in the work force, but I promise you there are a lot of real people who genuinely debate this topic in an effort to get at what the Bible truly expects of women (particularly wives).

Are all women called to be homemakers? Are women responsible for the home life in a way that men are not? And, for the cash prize, what does it mean that women are supposed to be “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5, KJV)?

Before we get into the discussion, I’d like to list the two verses/passages that usually get top billing in these kinds of discussions, so we all know where the ideas come from. Extra points for checking out the context and maybe looking at a few different translations. I’m going to give them in the KJV here:

I will therefore that the younger widows marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully (1 Timothy 5:14).

That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,  To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed (Titus 2:4-5).

Passages like these would definitely seem to give support to the traditional role of women running the house while men run the business. Women are, after all, called to “guide the house” and “be keepers at home.”

As a rough outline, I’d like to raise two points that I think are important for HOW we look at verses like these; then talk about the verses themselves, then discuss them in light of what the Bible has to say about real women from Genesis to the New Testament, and finally see if we can’t find some useful conclusions.

First, examining the idea of public vs. private.

I’m not a scholar of Biblical cultures, so please feel free to check up on my thoughts here through commentaries and experts. I do, however, know a little bit about our cultural history in the eighteen hundreds, the Industrial Revolution, and the way European societies were structured before those wheels started rolling.

What does that have to do with anything?

Well, it has a lot to do with how we think of the words “homemaker” and “home.”

I would argue that our mental pictures of what a home and wife should be owe at least as much to Romantic and Victorian ideas of domesticity as they do to the Bible. Mentally, we have divided our worlds into two spheres: the public and the private. Everything that is public—business, money, law, politics, etc etc—traditionally belongs to men. Husbands are the ones who go out, earn the money, and come home to the safe haven of their homes for rest. Everything that is private—the home, food preparation, laundry, child-rearing, and (traditionally) early education—belongs to women. It is the woman’s job to create a loving, restful atmosphere at home to soothe her husband’s work-weary soul.

Although the splitting of public and private has been happening for thousands of years among the top 1% or so of the population (royalty and the astronomically wealthy. Those who could afford to keep harems, for example), until the Industrial Revolution, most people through history lived with considerably more overlap between spheres.

From my understanding of pre-industrial and Biblical times, it seems clear that public and private were frequently living elbow-to-rib. I sincerely doubt that people thought of their homes as places untouched by the hustle of the world. Homes were themselves often the site of work and business. Priscilla and Aquila were tent-makers who worked as partners—quite probably in their home (Acts 18:2-3).

The idea that the “private sphere” includes child-rearing also seems tenuous to me. Certainly, pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding are physically female roles. But, as boys, both Joseph and David are sent out to the fields to check up on their brothers—suggesting that as soon as the boys were old enough they were assumed into the man’s world and guided by fathers and older brothers rather than mothers.

What does it mean, then, for a woman to be “guiding the home”? I think it’s important when we consider this verse to remember that the home was not simply a place of comfort and child-rearing, disconnected from the family’s struggle for financial stability.

Second, separating the essentials from the extras:

The cult of domesticity, if you will, really kicked off with a vengeance in the Victorian age, giving us the image of women as the guardian angels of the house, of mothers crooning lullabyes over lacy cradles, of picture-perfect homes, of Martha Stewart-like table settings, and five-course meals served up with a smile. Was there competition to keep up with the Jones’s before the Victorian Era? Of course. Did the average 2 Kings family worry about repainting their family room walls because the green was looking a little tired? Probably not.

My point is that when we think about the Biblical idea of “guiding the house” we need to be careful to separate out the essentials from the extras. I believe the Bible makes it clear that women are to be hard-working, kind, generous, and foresighted about their family’s needs. But, I don’t believe the Bible has anything to say about the automatic holiness of canning your own peaches, making dinner rolls from scratch, updating your family photos on the fridge, or keeping your 4,000 square feet of living space sparkling clean.

If you like dinner rolls from scratch then by all means, break out the oven mitts. But, please don’t glance snarkily across the way at a working mom with her shiny Pillsbury tin. We all have to make choices about where to put our time. For some families, the home-canned peaches are a symbol of warmth and some quality bonding time in the kitchen working side by side. That’s fabulous. For other women, Pillsbury means time gained for other projects and responsibilities.

Pretty sure God doesn’t care whether or not your home conforms to some ideal standards of homeyness and comfort. Pretty sure what matters is that we as women are doing our part to support the family and see that real needs are being met.

Looking at I Timothy 5:14

I will therefore that the younger widows marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully (1 Timothy 5:14).

In this passage, Paul is addressing an apparent problem at Ephesus involving the distribution of welfare to needy widows in the congregation and, presumably, setting down a guideline for the other churches too.

Paul says that only widows over the age of 60 ought to be put on the church’s list for a dole, and then only if they have good characters in the Lord (v. 9-10). Young widows are not to be put on the list—why? Because either they marry or they become busy bodies. The principle isn’t so much that all women ought to marry, but a recognition that most women do and that—regardless of marital state—a godly woman ought to be industrious and productive.

In this passage young widows are counseled to marry, to have children, and to manage their homes. [As a side point, if Paul is counseling women to have children, doesn’t it sort of imply some amount of choice in conception?].

Excellent… remind me when we get to the conclusions part how this advice translates into a woman never working outside the home or a man never washing the dishes.

Looking at Titus 2:4-5

Then [the older women] can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. (NIV)

This is a great passage. I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it, except that I think it would be unfair to say that because Paul tells women to love their husbands and children all women must HAVE husbands and children. Many women do, but not having a husband or children certainly doesn’t make a woman less womanly, and it certainly doesn’t exempt a woman from her calling to be kind, industrious, self-controlled, or pure.

As for what it means to be busy at home, clearly it means to be busy at home—to be industrious, useful, and productive so that there’s a decent quality to the home life. With three kids and a yellow lab, most women could make the classic homemaker gig a full-time job—especially if their husband is blessed with a good, middle-class American job. But, not every woman is married to Mr. Middle-Class with those three kids and yellow lab. I believe if we’re going to have a useful conversation about what it means to be a godly woman, we have to have a model of womanhood that encompasses women of all different situations, abilities, talents, and callings.

Real Womanhood in the Bible

I would never argue that the Bible isn’t full of homemakers. Women are often portrayed baking bread, giving birth, and being given in marriage. Being wives and mothers are fabulous roles, requiring time and talent to do well, and the Bible regularly praises women for their fulfillment of those roles. However, I think we often fall into the mistake of limiting women only to those roles and fail to see where the Bible shows us women participating in a wide variety of activities.

This is getting long, so I’ll just give you some names, references, and brief ideas. I’ve really been enjoying looking at different women in the Bible over the last few days, and heartily recommend taking some time to do the same yourself. Some will be extremely familiar. Some maybe not.

Zelophehad’s Daughters (Number 27:1-11). When Zelophehad dies without any sons, his five daughters go to Moses and respectfully demand that they be allowed to inherit and keep the family name alive. Far from chiding them or telling them to provide for themselves through marriage, Moses puts their case before God. His answer? “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right.” God then adds an addendum to his laws on inheritance, stating that when a man dies without sons his daughters should be allowed inherit in their place. Instead of being labeled feminazis, these five sisters are rewarded for being bold about their situation. God was perfectly willing to listen to these women’s request—but he also apparently wanted them to bring their complaint to the attention of their spiritual and political authority, just like the men were told to.

Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3). Usually a negative example of women catfighting, Paul also gives these two women a high compliment: apparently, these women “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (v. 3). How did these women minister? We don’t know for sure, but whatever they did it wasn’t apparently worth distinguishing from the men’s work, and it took place at Paul’s “side.”

Deborah (Judges 4-5). This one’s familiar, so we won’t go into it much. The salient point is that Deborah was both a wife and a prophetess who was called by God to lead Israel. Verse 5 tells us that she “held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.” Doesn’t sound like she was keeping at home to me. So, was she rebelling against God’s mandate that women “guide their houses” or does the phrase maybe allow a lot more latitude than we usually admit?

Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20). While we’re talking about prophetesses, why not mention Huldah too. She doesn’t get much air time, but Huldah was also a prophetess (and a wife, btw), and King Josiah sends to her for insight when he finds the Book of the Law, although according to my timelines there were several other (male) prophets alive and well at that time. Apparently neither Josiah nor his male advisors and priests found it crazy-weird to go consult Huldah, even though she was a woman.

Lydia (Acts 16:13-15) is a familiar figure, being both a “worshipper of God” and a “dealer in purple cloth.” I see no mention of Paul’s attempts to persuade her to give up her day job in favor of being a stay at home wife. In fact, no mention is made of Lydia’s husband at all here (if he exists). She seems to be the head of the house, since it is “her” household that is baptized and “her” home where the apostles stay. Was she a single, working woman? Was her husband a nonentity for some other reason? Your guess is as good as mine.

“These women” (Mark 15:40-41). “In Galilee, these women had followed [Jesus] and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” Some of these women were mothers, we don’t know what percentage of them were wives. Because of the gentle way Jesus deals with these women, my guess is that they were not rebellious harpies who ditched their husbands and families in order to swagger about serving Jesus. It seems infinitely more likely to me that these women had the agreement of their husbands. I would bet they didn’t make it home in time to cook dinner every night. I would bet the laundry piled up. And you know what, I bet they had husbands with a little more sense than John Wayne, who famously observed that “Women have the right to work wherever they want, as long as they have the dinner ready when you get home.” Some things are more important than dinner. For real.

Sheerah (I Chron. 7:24). She only gets one verse, and I’d definitely never heard of her before I did this search, but here goes: “[Ephraim’s] daughter was Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah.” The Bible gives neither praise nor censure for Sheerah’s urban planning, but the fact that it was included at all suggests to me that the writer found it impressive.

Job’s daughters (Job 42:13-15). Chapter one tells us that Job was “blameless and upright” and that God said of him there was “no one on earth like him”…  and though the book has almost nothing to say about women of any kind, I think it’s interesting how this upright and blameless guy treated his daughters: “and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.”

There are lots of other women, but this post is getting ridiculously long. Check out Jael, Priscilla, Abigail, Anna, Mary, Esther, Ruth, the Proverbs 31 woman, etc. I don’t mean to suggest that these are all career women—rather than our ideas of career women vs. homemakers might not be a particularly Biblical distinction. The Bible doesn’t differentiate between women with jobs or women without jobs. If anything, ALL women have jobs, but our division of them as either “homemaker” jobs or “money-making” jobs may not reflect the Bible so much as our own cultural heritage.

Even the women in the Bible who aren’t making money are still frequently participating in the family business. Moses meets his future wife as she’s trying to water her father’s flock of sheep. She probably didn’t earn a wage for that, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t contributing to the family’s economic situation. Earning a salary in 2009 and watering the sheep in 2009 BC might not be as different as we think.

A few conclusions I’ve come to:

  1. While the Bible states that women are to be “busy at home,” the Bible does not ever forbid or discourage women from earning money. In fact, the Bible shows multiple women helping to improve their family’s finances.
  2. After looking at other Bible passages (check out Proverbs 31), being “busy at home” seems to refers more to a character of industry, good works, and a desire to provide good things for one’s family than a rule about women not setting foot outside the home or earning an income. On the contrary, the Proverbs 31 woman seems to be something of a career type, since the bulk of verses refer to earnings and good works. Her children do “call her blessed,” so we assume she’s a good mother, but comparatively little is said about her maternal role.
  3. Children are a shared responsibility. Women are counseled to have children and to love their children, but I still haven’t seen the verse that says that children are the mother’s responsibility. It is no more right for a mother to watch her children on a Tuesday afternoon than it is for a father to watch the kids. A father cannot “babysit” his own children. It’s not babysitting if the child is yours.
  4. Our images of the words “home”  and “homemaker” are more colored by cultural history than we would usually like to admit. Often when we talk about homemaking, we mean cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and other upkeep. With so many conveniences (and if we would all downsize our bins of STUFF), women (particularly those without young children) have more freedom and more choice about where to invest their time today. I think it’s fabulous to grow your own string beans, raise chickens, make scrapbooks of your family history, homeschool your children—but I think we should be careful of saying that those “extra” activities in the home are more in line with scripture than, say, earning money. I think the Bible gives couples a lot of room for personal decisions on how husbands and wives invest their time, and I think it would be wise for us to do the same.

Coming full circle to our original questions, here are my feelings.

Are all women called to be homemakers?

Not really. The Bible never recommends squalor as a viable option, so there does seem to be a basic level of upkeep. Biblical women either did it themselves or had servants to do it. Sounds like nobody should feel guilty for hiring a weekly maid or sending out their laundry… And, some women had either a direct calling from God (Deborah, Huldah), a need (Lydia, Ruth), or supportive husbands (likely “these women” from Mark, the Proverbs 31 woman) that encouraged them to look beyond the home to find the right place for their talents, whether in ministry or in business.

Are women responsible for the home life in a way that men are not?

This seems like a given, right? We have the passages in Titus and Timothy that instruct women to “guide the house” and be “keepers at home.” Certainly, I think there is nothing unBiblical about homemaking wives and wage-earning husbands (at least, I sincerely hope not, since I fall into that category right now), but here are some interesting verses to think about.

An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. (Titus 1:6 NIV)

A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. (I Tim 3:12 NIV).

Both verses strip away the notion that parenting is a primarily maternal occupation, and the second verse should make us question some of our basic assumptions. Why do we assume that Paul meant one thing when he told women to “guide the house” and another when he told men to “manage… [the] household”? If Paul had told women to “manage the household,” wouldn’t we have automatically thought, oh, cooking and laundry and child care, right?

We need to be careful.

In my opinion, there is no right answer to who does the laundry, who cooks dinner, who helps the child with homework, mows the lawn, or does the finances. As I read the Bible, God is much more concerned with our character, our attitudes, and our ability to work supportively and harmoniously with our spouse and Christian community.

When we avidly support the traditional roles of husband as bread-winner and wife as homemaker, we run the risk of taking our own good fortune for granted and making others feel inadequate.

When we say that women should be mothers, we forget that many women can’t have children.

When we say that women should be stay-at-home wives, we forget that many women are already struggling with feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction because they don’t have husbands.

When we say that women shouldn’t work outside the home, we forget that some husbands have difficulty finding work and that many fields haven’t seen significant pay increases for decades (though the cost of living continues to mount).

When we say that a real man takes care of his family’s financial needs, we forget that some men are in wheelchairs.

I think it’s important to seek an honest interpretation of what the Bible has to say about gender roles, but I think we need to be careful that we don’t tailor our interpretations around whatever we deem “normal” or “reasonable.” If I’ve learned anything from reading the Bible, it’s that God loves his human exceptions more than he loves his rules.

I think we should probably concentrate on doing the same.

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1 Comment »

  1. I don’t think this was boring! I think it rocks! Love the Biblical examples…excellent to know these rad women were out there….can’t wait to teach my kids about them. I might put some of these verses up on my fridge….totally inspiring.

    I think I’m going to rope A into reading this post if he doesn’t do it on his own….

    You are brilliant and encouraging and inspiring. Keep on. You really gave me a boost today.

    Comment by botanyhead — November 18, 2009 @ 6:21 pm | Reply


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