Continuing a theme from this week which started with Do we still need International Women’s Day and What are Christians to make of gender equity in the workplace, I wanted to explore this issue of where a woman’s “place” is. In my reading I’ve come across opinions that are pretty unequivocal in Christian writings on one hand and “Big F” Feminism on the other. A woman’s place is in the home, they say. Feminism has destroyed the family and puts pressure on women to be working when what they really want is to tend to a godly hearth and home. A woman’s place is wherever she wants, say others. Christianity has suppressed and oppressed a woman’s natural desire to do valuable work in the world.
Far out! What are we to make of that?
Well, OK, lets ask the question – is there a prohibition in the Bible on women working outside of the home? Not that I can see, although some would argue with that. Advocates of the “woman’s place is in the home” paradigm lean on Titus 2:1-5:
You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge 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.
It’s important to see that this is not prescriptive – it is not a universal command but relates to the character of the people Paul is talking about. Why do I say that? Because scripture is littered with women who have a variety of occupations outside the home and Paul mentions no censure of them:
- In the Old Testament, we see women with many jobs – not least of which is the famous Proverbs 31 woman who buys and sells land and goods ‘sees that her trading is good”
- In the New Testament we see some women were servants (see Rhoda in Acts 12:13) and Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15)
In addition, in New Testament times, women worked in a variety of professions including artisanal work, shop keepers, fullers and dyers and many more. So women working was not at all uncommon and Paul is not talking to some Utopian ideal. He is speaking to character and a reverence for God’s created functional order (which can be observed in our occupations outside the home as I discussed here).
Women working has been a reality of life since the beginning. Women worked when there was a need. Through time, this has included many money making occupations within or associated with the home. For example, women were wool makers, carders and dyers, weavers, bakers, dressmakers – and yes OK, we might not find those terribly scintillating but theses were honest to goodness professions. As Dorothy L Sayers (who was a strong Christian and did not identify as a feminist) helpfully points out in her 1938 essay “Are Women Human?”:
“It is all very well to say that woman’s place is in the home – but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the woman looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organised by men.” She continues, “It is perfectly idiotic to take away woman’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones“
Part of the Christian focus on marriage is also a cultural hangover from the Reformation. The reformers (principally Martin Luther and Martin Bucer) exalted marriage to a status just below scripture itself. I am not exaggerating. They believed that the marriage relationship and family unit was where God’s work would be achieved and where culture would change. Bear in mind the culture they wished to change was built on the corruption of the Medieval church and which they felt needed to be revolutionised through a re-focus on scripture and the familial unit among other things.
As a Reformed Evangelical, I’m a mad fan of the reformers but this particular one created a hierarchy of purpose that echoes down to today. This exaltation of marriage has hangovers still in our churches, leaving many with the feeling that singleness is the entry level with progressive level-ups through “work”, and then “married-and-working” with the highest level at “married-with-kids-and-not-working” which is second only to paradise in the presence of God.
On the other hand, separate to the relentless onward march of progress, the women’s movement has opened doors to opportunities that were denied women for centuries. In so doing, women who would rather make their occupation in the home do feel under great pressure and can be made to feel as though they are wasting themselves, and somehow should be obligated to do “valuable” work outside the home.
This is a very poor outcome of feminism and I find that very disappointing. It is by no means an across-the-board reaction within the women’s movement but it can be a damaging by-product. Particularly because this leaves women in an impossible situation. Women already feel guilty if they leave their children to go back to work (even when they love their work and really want to). They also feel guilty when they don’t work and choose to support their children full time through the formative years.
The Bible does focus on the family to a certain extent. Partially this is cultural (the ancient near east was built on familial clans and tribes) and women’s work was more limited. But also God’s creation itself began with the man-woman relationship and their first command is to go do some procreating. God’s people is built on the idea of family.
In addition, God’s teaching comes through the parents. In Proverbs there is an exhortation to heed the teaching of both father and mother (see Proverbs 1:8 and 23:22 as examples). This is striking because in the rest of the ancient near east, the mother is absent from these kinds of wisdom exhortations. God sees this teaching in his ways as a joint effort – built through the family unit. So just as the Bible does not censure women who work outside the home, there is also a strong family component to biblical teaching – not at the exclusion of all else though. The Bible still illuminates the power and potential in young single people and widow(ers) and the church family to whom we are not biologically related, but to whom we are deeply spiritually related under Christ.
The point is that both/either is OK. The Bible does not censure women for working so if you want to (or for many of us, need to), then we should not feel guilty as Christians for doing so. And we can take advantage of the opportunities afforded us through the women’s movement – even more so now as flexible working conditions become more available to us so we can balance work and family far more readily (although this is not the norm yet). By the same token, a focus on the family is biblically good. We see this time and again in scripture. If you don’t have to work and would rather focus on home (which is a full time job in itself) and even volunteer in ministries at church, that is a great and wonderful thing – but there is no hierarchy of purpose and we should be clear on that, lest we fall into legalism. We know what pleases God and it isn’t the outward trappings of where we work and what we do – it is the demeanor of our hearts, curved towards Him.
So, as with many things, the reality lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Women being in the home is not prescriptive. Women being out in the world is not a command. What is important is how you build your house. A fall-back should always be Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” How do we build our home through the lens of God? How do we do our work through the lens of God? Do we keep a godly focus on the family even though we have/want to work? How do we build the work/home balance so we are still (to the best of our ability and among the realities of life) expressing obedience and humility to God?
Sometimes asking ourselves these questions might result in some changes being made so we can be more intentional in what we are doing. We also need to support the women around us who may be feeling the pressure both ways – whether they are working outside the home or within it. We should support women who – married or unmarried – don’t or can’t have children and so feel the extra pressure of not conforming to this “woman in the home” picture.
Both work and home can be done obediently and in humility. Both have value. Both can glorify God. And we should support each other to do this.
So the question as to where a woman’s place is needs to be shifted. We need to ask:
Whether at work, or in the home, or both, are we glorifying God in everything we do?