Some Christians in westernised countries seem to long for an earlier time when most women stayed out of the workforce and stayed at home. Some of these Christians even believe that the Bible teaches that the woman’s primary domain is private, in the home, caring for her husband and children – the presumption being that most women will marry and have children. They also believe that the man’s primary domain is public, outside of the home – working for money. The only time the Bible mentions that women should stay at home, however, is in two instructions regarding young women. In this article I look especially at Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4-5.
In his letter to Titus (who was temporarily stationed in Crete), Paul wrote that the older women should,
“… train younger women to love their husbands and love their children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home [or workers at home], to be kind [or good], and to be submissive to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:4b-5).
Most of the content of this teaching to young women is very basic indeed. The inference is that the young wives of Crete were negligent wives, mothers and household managers, and in need of basic training. While the teaching might be basic, it is also important.
It is important for wives to love their husbands; it is also important for husbands to love their wives (Eph 5:25). It is important for mothers to love their children; it is also important for fathers to love their children. It is important for young women to be self-controlled and pure; it is also important for young men to be self-controlled and pure (2 Timothy 2:22). It is important for women to be kind; it is important for everyone to be kind (Colossians 3:12). It is important for wives to be submissive – deferential, cooperative, supportive and loyal – to their own husbands; it is also important for husbands to be submissive – deferential, cooperative, supportive and loyal – to their wives (1 Peter 3:7 cf Ephesians 5:21).
Is it important that young women be busy at home? If the alternative is being lazy and idle, which may well have been the case with the young wives of Crete, then ‘yes’ they should be busy – busy at home (cf Titus 1:12-13). With some exceptions, being housebound and involved with domestic work was the only acceptable situation for respectable Roman matrons in many parts of the Greco-Roman world. In western society today, however, young women and wives have many options and alternatives, and they can use their talents and gifts to be useful and productive inside and outside their homes. (See Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV.)
Prescribing and Defining Womanhood?
Some read Titus 2:3-5 as if it says:
“Women should dedicate their whole lives to xyz.”
But it actually says:
“Older women should teach younger women to xyz.”
The difference between these two statements is like the difference between saying: “Connie should spend all day, every day, in the water practicing swimming strokes”, and “Teach Connie how to swim”.
The instructions in Titus 2:4-5 were appropriate for the young wives in Crete at that time, but these instructions do not define these women, or women in general. Nowhere do the authors of the Bible attempt to define womanhood. Rather, the Bible shows that at least some women, even in Ancient times, were involved in all kinds of ventures, ministries and roles.
Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4-5 (and 1 Timothy 5:14) were specifically related to young women of child-bearing age. Nowhere does the Bible give any indication that girls or older women should be confined to the home or restricted to domestic duties. Paul’s instructions to the young wives were given to a specific group of women in a specific church situated in a culture very different from our own, and cannot be taken as universal, timeless directives to all women everywhere. The principle behind his instructions, however, still has relevance today.
Paul’s Main Point
Paul’s principle is that Christians should not behave in ways that their society finds offensive, or in ways that their society believes is disruptive to social harmony, otherwise Christians may find themselves bringing disrepute to God and Christian doctrine (cf Titus 2:5, 8, 10).
Modern western society is moving towards regarding men and women as equal; this is seen as the ideal. The clearly delineated gender roles that were part of a particular demographic of a previous generation, namely white middle-class America in the 1950s, are now recognised as not being healthy, or suited to, all people and all marriages. Every person is unique, and every marriage is unique; not everyone fits the mould of post-war, middle-class American gender roles which some suppose to be biblical. Churches and Christians in western society who insist that men and women follow fixed, hierarchical gender roles are giving the Church a bad name, the very thing Paul wanted to avoid.
What was socially acceptable for Cretan society in the 1st century is different to what is socially acceptable now. Yet, even in those days, it was possible for gifted and enterprising women to occasionally rise above the social norms and not necessarily cause disgrace. Nowadays it seems to be some sectors of the Church that are disgracing themselves in contemporary society by limiting and suppressing their women.
The Bible never tries to make the case that women should not work or have influential roles outside the home. Rather, the Bible – in the Old and New Testaments – shows us that many godly women were not confined to a private, domestic domain. For example: Priscilla, Lydia and Phoebe worked, travelled and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Paul did not identify these women primarily by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they are described and identified by their work, their travels and their ministries.
I love my husband and now grown children. I hope that I am self-controlled and pure, that I manage my home well and am submissive to my husband. Most of my work, ministry and study, as well as family life, in fact, happens at home. But, I also have a life outside of my home. Titus 2:4-5 does not begin to define me or my roles in life.