The Working Woman’s Dilemma

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J. Lee Grady


Even today, some church leaders tell Christian women that God wants them to stay at home. But what does the Bible really say?

the small town of Berryville, in northwest Arkansas, members of the
board at First Baptist Church voted in February 1997 to close their
church-run day care center. They made the abrupt decision not because
the facility was too expensive to operate or because they didn’t have
enough children enrolled. The official reason, as stated in a letter
that was mailed to parents, was that church leaders felt their day care
center was encouraging women to work outside the home.

intended for the home to be the center of a mother’s world,” the letter
from First Baptist stated, adding that working moms “neglect their
children, damage their marriages and set a bad example.” First Baptist’s
day care center board, under the direction of the pastor, also noted in
their letter that families should learn to get by on the husband’s
single income.”

day care center closed one month later, and parents scrambled to find
another place to leave the 27 children who attended. Arkansas state
officials eventually found another church in town that was willing to
organize a day care program.

Is it any wonder that so many people—and an increasing number of women—have rejected the church?

The leaders of First Baptist of Berryville were totally out of touch
with the needs of the women in their community, and thankfully they
didn’t trigger a trend of day care center closings when news of their
decision made national headlines. But the sad fact is that the mind-set
that led the men of this church to act so irrationally is common in the
evangelical church today. We may live in the 21st century, but
18th-century ideas about women’s roles are still embedded in our
minds—and leaders twist and misinterpret the Bible to defend this view.

The “women shouldn’t work”
argument comes in various forms. The mildest variety—and the one that
actually makes sense in some situations—states that God intends for a
wife to nurture her children while they are young and that she should
let her husband provide the bulk of family income during those years.
This line of reasoning works for some families in wealthier Western
countries, and many women in the United States enjoy playing with their
toddlers at home all day while daddy is at the office.

Things get more complicated for families when they cannot survive on one
income. There are millions of two-parent families who struggle to pay
their bills, especially if the father works at a factory, a convenience
store or a construction site. The wife is often forced to find at least a
part-time job while she juggles childcare responsibilities.

And then there are many single mothers who must work even if they
qualify for partial welfare benefits. Perhaps because of their own wrong
choices, abandonment or social disadvantages these women struggle
constantly to balance the pressures of home and work.

They should be able to turn to the church for moral support and
spiritual resources. But often what we offer them is a slap in the face.
We often quote to them Titus 2:4-5: “Encourage the young women to love
their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at
home” (NASB, emphasis added).

Then we twist this verse to say that God requires all women to fit into
the cookie-cutter mold of the full-time Christian housewife. We also
tell women in the church that they should model their lives after the
“virtuous woman” (KJV) described in Proverbs 31—and then we misread that
passage to imply that she too was a stay-at-home mother.

But that is not what the Scripture says. First of all, the Proverbs 31
woman was never meant to be considered normative for every Christian
woman. The Hebrew poetry employed in this passage of Proverbs is an
acrostic; each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew
alphabet and describes some aspect of a godly woman’s life.

The “woman” described here is actually a composite, not just one woman.
Christian women who uphold the Proverbs 31 woman as a virtuous ideal
must realize that God does not expect them to emulate her unrealistic
schedule because she is actually several “model” women rolled into one.

But even if we view this woman as one individual, we need to recognize
that her work was not limited to domestic chores. She was a shrewd
businesswoman who was involved in real estate, agriculture and a textile
business. She also employed other women to help her (see Prov. 31:13,
16, 19, 24).

Traditionalists who champion this verse as a picture of the happy
housewife would probably not endorse the lifestyle of this woman if they
met her on the street. In her ancient Middle Eastern society, she was
an entrepreneur.

She stayed occupied with her home-based business day and night—and
someone else probably watched her children when she was selling linen in
the marketplace, dealing with merchants, buying fields or making wine
with the fruit of her vineyard. She was most definitely not a
stay-at-home mom in the suburban American sense of
the word! Those who use this passage to keep women locked into an
exclusively domestic role are misusing Scripture to hold women in a
crippling form of religious bondage.

Christians in the United States have long contended that God’s highest
plan for women is to function as housewives—content to iron clothes,
cook casseroles, diaper babies, bathe toddlers and perhaps master the
fine art of sewing or embroidery while the children are napping. That’s
because we have viewed the Bible through a warped cultural lens and have
imposed on the Scriptures our suburban American values and prejudice.

When this view is questioned, conservative Christians often cite Titus
2:4-5 as well as 1 Timothy 5:14: “Therefore, I want younger widows to
get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion
for reproach” (1 Tim. 5:14, NASB).

If we examine these two New Testament verses closely, it is obvious that
what the apostle Paul was demanding of women was not domesticity but
Christian faithfulness. He was not discouraging women from working
outside the home.

How do I know this? Because the concept of going to work was not an
option for women in the first century. Paul’s concern had nothing to do
with women leaving their homes to pursue careers because women in the
agrarian society of Crete in the year A.D. 62 didn’t do that!

We must be careful not to read into the Bible something that isn’t
there. We can’t use Paul’s instructions to the Christian women of
Ephesus and Crete to concoct a doctrine about men’s and women’s roles.
Paul was not talking about roles in either of these passages. He was
addressing serious issues of character.

When he mentioned the issue of “keeping house” in 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul
was encouraging married female converts to view with seriousness their
responsibilities as wives and mothers.

In Titus 1:12, Paul mentions that the people of Crete were known for
their laziness. Their pagan culture was crumbling because men and women
were enslaved to drunkenness, gluttony and debauchery.

It is possible that many of the men in Crete didn’t work at all—perhaps
they spent most of their lives drinking in their huts. Perhaps the women
were living in this kind of stupor as well. So naturally when they
embraced the message of Christ and joined the fledgling churches that
Titus was overseeing, one of Paul’s first priorities as an apostle was
to disciple them in areas of personal conduct, family life and basic

Paul told the men of Crete to learn to be temperate (see Titus 2:2).
They needed to break ties with their past and leave their alcoholism,
promiscuity and slothfulness behind. Likewise, he told the women to
learn to “keep house.”

Most likely the women were horrible at managing their domestic
affairs—and they were neglecting their children in the process. In order
to please God and be credible witnesses in their culture, these women
would have to change the way they lived. They would have to discipline
their unruly children. They would have to love them rather than neglect
them. They would have to bring order where there had been domestic

When we examine 1 Timothy 5:14, we see that Paul expressed concerns
about laziness among the women of Ephesus. He says in verse 13 that they
are idle and that many of them had become “gossips and busybodies.” So
naturally his remedy for their problem was to urge them to become women
of virtue and integrity.

He instructed them to stay home (rather than wasting time spreading
rumors and silly talk) and to maintain order in their homes. In fact,
the word used in this passage for “keep house” is the same word used for
a ruler or master.

Yet translators, perhaps because they were uncomfortable giving women a
sense of authority, translated this phrase “keep house” rather than
“rule their homes.” The one exception is the Revised Standard Version,
which translates 1 Timothy 5:14: “So I would have younger widows marry,
bear children, rule their households.”

Disorder and unfaithfulness in the homes of the Ephesian converts were
serious issues for Paul. When he listed the qualifications of an
overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, he wrote: “If a man does not know how to
manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?”
(v. 5).

In essence he says, “The Christian life must start at home. Get your own
life in order. Get your marriage in order. Get your children in order.
After you’ve done that, then you will have something of value to take to
the world.”

This is a hard-core truth from the Bible that has universal application
to us today. When we come to Christ, His transforming power should
change our behavior at home.

It should change alcoholics into sober, hardworking individuals. It
should change cavalier women-chasers into faithful husbands who treat
their wives with respect. And it should change self-absorbed,
undisciplined women into diligent disciples of Jesus Christ.

But we cannot use these verses to imply that Paul’s command to “keep
house” or to be “workers at home” requires that all Christian women in
the 21st century stay in their kitchens all day or shun their
God-ordained career paths. Those who teach this view impose a cruel and
legalistic burden on women that isn’t supported by Scripture. We need to
stop teaching it and release Christian women to follow the Holy
Spirit’s leading with regard to their callings and careers.

There is a world to win for Christ, and too often the church has told
half our volunteers that they can’t enlist. Let’s break the molds and
tear down the barriers. We need women on the front lines!

J. Lee Grady is contributing editor of Charisma magazine. He is also an ordained minister and the author of Ten Lies the Church Tells Women (Creation House), from which this article is adapted.

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