Rethinking the role of women in the home

The rise of feminism has called into question the traditional distribution of roles between husbands and wives, however much Christian literature still argues on the basis of scripture that the husband is the one to pursue a vocation outside the home whilst the wife stays home to raise the children and be the homemaker. However, a positive that accompanies every challenge to traditional Christian thought is that it drives us back to the Bible to see whether the views we have inherited are indeed grounded there. And on this subject, we would suggest that the testimony of scripture is not quite as clear cut.

Genesis 2 speaks of the wife being a “helper.” Men and women have just been commissioned to the fill the world and subdue it, and Adam here has been charged to work and care for Eden. In context then, to help is not just to help in bearing and raising children to fill the world, but also in cultivating and caring for it. Moreover, “help” suggests not tasks that are distinct from the man’s, but sharing with the man in his tasks. Somehow both are therefore to be engaged together as a couple in both filling the world and subduing it.

However two things must qualify this. First, the emphasis is on the man’s initiative in what they are doing as a couple. She is called to help him the filling and subduing work. This upholds the idea of male headship. However it does not mean that how the couple choose to fill and subdue should not be decided together. Second, although they share in both tasks, as with every team this doesn’t mean they fulfil the same roles.

How then do these principles apply? The immediate application is in childbirth, where the male/female roles are governed by biology. Here the curse of Gen 3v16 affirms this to be the particular province of women, and certainly in the ancient world where many children were born and were breastfed for longer than is usual today, this would by necessity have included caring for children in the early years and cumulatively have filled much of the wife’s life. The particular province for men is then in working the ground (v17-19), with the stress on providing food for the family, and as Genesis progresses, contributing to wider society (Gen 4v19-22).

It might be said that these emphases are not portrayed as divine commands, but more as the necessary realities of ancient life. There is truth here. However in the context of the call to fill and subdue – seen perhaps as one task and vocation, there is at the very least a recognition that these are perhaps the key ways the husband and wife contribute towards its fulfilment. However, this sense of necessity in the ancient world to which scripture came does raise an issue in applying such things today.

Consider Paul’s word about widows in 1 Timothy 5v9-14. There is no doubt this demonstrates the ideal activity of a godly wife and mother in his day. He says a widow should be “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” He then goes on to outline what Christian wives were expected to do by counselling “younger widows to marry, have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” In Titus he also urges wives to be “busy at home” (Titus 2v5).

These are commendable traits, and show that the expectations on Christian mothers in the 1st century was much broader than those sometimes held by Christians today. The stress is not just on raising children and managing their homes, but on doing good by welcoming people, serving Christians and helping the needy. This is a high calling indeed, and means there should be much stimulation to counter the inevitable drudgery (or in biblical terms “toil”) that comes with simple child-care and domestic chores. We should note too that a rejection of the importance of this wider “stay at home” role would leave the church lacking many hours of Christian service provided by wives who are financially supported by the work of their husbands. Those with such a role should therefore be asking themselves: “What extra time do I reasonably have, and how can I use it in co-ordinating or expressing hospitality, Christian service or work for the needy?”

However, the question still remains as to whether Paul is outlining what all wives and widows today should be doing by divine command, or whether he is simply saying that in a context when they are “at home,” as many were by necessity in his day, they should be busy in these ways and not lazy?

This is important, because if these instructions were not intended in such a prescriptive way, reading them as such could prevent a wife from not contributing to society or serving the church in other ways. There is no lack of examples of women who have so prioritised homemaking that they have wasted endless time and money on creating or managing the perfect home, when their time and money could have been better used elsewhere.

Here it is noteworthy that the texts of widows and wives cited above are utterly lacking references to the Trinity or to creation, which are what give the principles of headship and submission a transcultural application. On the contrary, the justification for the instructions is that women were in “the habit of being idle and going about from house to house” and being “gossips and busybodies.” (1 Tim 5v13 - the same ideas are at least hinted at in Titus 2v1-4). This would certainly suggest the focus of Paul’s instructions are on those who by circumstance or choice are at home and with time on their hands (perhaps because they had servants), meaning that we cannot assume he is prescribing a specific role for all wives.

On a wider examination of the scriptures too, we must note that traditionally domestic chores are not only the province of women. When the LORD visited Abram, Abram asked Sarai to prepare some bread, but he didn’t leave it all to her while he chatted to the three men. Instead he went shopping for the meat and milk (Gen 18v6-8)! It’s a wonderful example of the husband taking the initiative in hospitality, but of both serving as a team. It also means that the story of Martha’s excessive busyness in the home could apply to men as well as women – except for its stress on Mary showing that women as well as men can be full disciples. Again, Rachel prepared a meal for Jacob on Joseph’s behalf, but the expectation was that Esau should have cooked it, which assumes he regularly did (Gen 27v7-14). Think too of Jesus, cooking for his disciples and even “washing their feet,” a role we have seen widows commended for.

Looking at things the other way, we also see that the traditionally vocational roles were not simply the province of men. So in Proverbs 31 the wife of noble character is a picture of what Paul commends in 1 Timothy 5, working hard in providing food and clothing for her family, caring for the needy and managing the affairs of the household. Yet she also takes opportunities to develop her own business to contribute to her family’s financial security. We might consider the example of Lydia too, who is described by Luke not according to her role in the household but as a “dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16v14).

What should we make of this testimony? We cannot necessarily assert that men should have the “career” whilst women should be in charge of the home. Rather, we should prayerfully make decisions as to the distribution of the tasks of creation, guided by the following summary:
  1. Both husbands and wives are to engage in both tasks of filling and subduing the world ie. raising children, and providing for the family whilst contributing to wider society.
  2. Nevertheless, from creation the consistent pattern is that there has been a leaning towards wives focusing on the former and husbands on the latter, and certainly during the period when children are reliant on their mother and so the mother is primarily in the home.
  3. The New Testament commends this emphasis in the context of women who are wasting time in the home, and challenges them with the responsibilities they have to raise their children, manage their homes, and do good for Christ whilst in this situation.
  4. However the two tasks of creation are not mutually exclusive. In scripture men readily fetch and prepare food, and are called on the example of Christ to do more traditionally menial tasks, whereas women engage in business and money making.
  5. The headship of the man suggests that he should take the initiative in all this. In short, he is responsible to God for ensuring his children are raised in the faith, the world’s resources are harnessed to provide for them and a contribution is made through work to wider society. His wife’s calling and responsibility is to help him in all of that, not just with the children. So more critical in scripture is not who does what, but that under the husband’s leadership the couple decide how to fulfil these tasks between them, and that the opportunity having only one earner gives for the other to give time to Christian service is not missed.
  6. It may well be agreed therefore that a wife will stay at home to raise the children, manage the household, give time to Christian service, and perhaps increase the degree to which she serves or earns money as the needs of the children and household decrease. However, it may be decided that the husband takes on this role, perhaps because he will be better at it, because he is not coping in his employment, because his wife is not coping at home, or because the wife can earn more without which neither could stay at home. Alternatively, the two tasks might be shared.
  7. In all this motives seem to be key: There is no sense in “going back to work” for the purposes of self-fulfilment or to earn as much as possible. The stress is instead on raising children, providing for the family, contributing one’s gifts to the good of wider society, and using extra time where possible to serve Christ. It is in doing these things, and so pleasing Christ, that fulfilment should be found.