“Workers at Home”Categories: Meditations
A few weeks ago, I was asked to lead a study on gender roles in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. I admit that I received the assignment with some amount of fear and trembling (There are a few opinions on 1 Timothy 2 in the brotherhood. A few.), but the study itself went well. However, the discussion was so involved that we didn’t get to any of the material I had prepared on Titus, particularly the instructions to young women in Titus 2:4-5.
Of the attributes listed in those two verses, “working at home” (the ESV rendering) especially caught my attention. Many Christians read this phrase (more specifically, the KJV rendering of “keepers at home”) as defining the woman of God’s station in life. Though she may be forced by circumstances to work outside the home, ideally the home is where she should remain. She is to be a stay-at-home. A house-keeper. According to this way of thinking, when Christian women could do this but choose not to, there’s something spiritually suspect about their decision.
Though I would never criticize a sister for choosing to devote herself to domestic pursuits (indeed, my own wife is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools our children), I don’t think the text requires her to do so. First of all, there’s a slight translation issue here. The ESV and KJV readings are based on different Greek words from different Greek manuscripts. The KJV’s “keepers at home” comes from the Greek oikouros, which does indeed mean “housekeeper”. However, manuscript evidence points to the conclusion that Paul’s original letter used oikourgos, “worker at home”.
These are two related but different ideas. A housekeeper’s function is exclusive. However, the home-worker’s function is not. I work at the church building, but I don’t spend all my time here (though my wife may disagree!). Oikourgos thus leaves more rhetorical space for other pursuits.
Similarly, I think it’s important to pay attention to context. Paul reveals why he thinks it’s important for a woman to be a worker at home. It’s the same reason as for every other instruction he gives to young Christian women—so that the word of God won’t be reviled.
This is a common preoccupation in the Pastoral Epistles. Paul is concerned with the impression that Christians are making on the communities around them. He wants to make sure that disciples have a good reputation so that they will be able to share the gospel with others.
When we read “working at home” in this light, a slightly different picture emerges. So that she doesn’t bring discredit on the cause of Christ, the Christian woman should maintain her home and its inhabitants in a way that meets the standards of society. The front yard of her house shouldn’t be filled with toys and trash. When her children go off to school, they should be clean, fed, and with provisions for lunch in hand. Even if her house won’t always pass a white-glove inspection, she shouldn’t feel afraid to invite in unexpected visitors. We know the rules. Basically, don’t do the things that will get the neighbors talking about you behind your back.
This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with whether a woman works outside the home or not. I know sisters who hold down full-time jobs yet manage to keep their domestic economy running smoothly. On the other hand, I know some stay-at-home Christian moms whose lifestyle I can only describe as slatternly. Certainly, more time makes it easier to keep on top of the household, but if a woman can balance work and home responsibilities, more power to her!
Checking the cultural check-boxes is important, but I think our analysis should go deeper still. As with our word “home”, the Greek oikos is about more than a physical structure. It relates as much to a family as it does to the place where they live. A woman of God who is an oikourgos, then, isn’t merely a worker at home. She’s also a worker at family.
Obviously, the physical needs of husbands and children are important, but their emotional and spiritual needs are no less important. A woman who cares for the body without tending to the soul isn’t running a home. She’s operating a hotel.
Instead, part of her charge must be to make her house a home. This starts with the other items on the Titus 2 list. She must love her husband and her children, and they must know that they are loved. She must govern her body and her passions, lest she find herself in the position of the foolish woman of Proverbs 14:1. She must be kind. She must honor her husband as the head of her family, especially when she doesn’t want to.
However, as with all Scriptural lists of virtues, this one is far from exhaustive. Instead, the woman of God must seek out all the things that will help her family to flourish (including working outside the home if that’s what’s best for the family). This includes the laborious task of teaching children to be self-sufficient. Paradoxically, it is the children’s ability to leave a home and thrive that shows that a mother’s work in that home was successful.
This is a universal activity. There have been homes and families and mothers since the beginning. However, simply because it is common does not mean that it is low. Jesus Himself knelt to wash feet, and even if the world might look down on a family-first woman (just as family men are sneered at), her humility and willingness to serve will win for her a lofty status in the kingdom.