This is the final post exploring some things older women were to teach younger women in Titus 2. The first explored the command to love children, and the second sought to reimagine homes as a place of work. This post will seek to explore how the work we have to do in our homes is meaningful.
Perhaps I believe what feminism has taught me: that women need to be liberated from meaningless labour in their homes.
Do you ever wonder whether you’re making the best use of your time, as you set down another meal that’s wholeheartedly rejected by your toddler? What’s the point of that? Perhaps I believe what feminism has taught me: that women need to be liberated from meaningless labour in their homes. Simone de Beauvoir, writing in the late 1950s and 60s, recounts helping her mother wash the dishes and looking out her window to see other families operating the same way. ‘Every day lunch and dinner; every day washing-up, all those hours, those endlessly recurring hours, all leading nowhere: could I live like that?’ For her and many other women, the answer has been no.
But de Beauvoir’s critique is denigrating any form of menial, repetitive labour; not just the vocation of a housewife. Our culture despises the tasks of menial service, but honours skilled workers; the more training your work requires, the more honour you will receive. I was educated in a girls high school that had a strong feminist agenda, and one of the things I was told I could expect of my life is that my work would ‘make a difference’. Never once did I hear raising children and running a home would be a worthwhile thing to devote my time to. I did not expect repetitive tasks, and that the end of the day may amount to a chasing of the wind (there will be dirty washing again tomorrow), to be my life’s calling. We are taught to find our significance in what we can do and achieve, and if we are devoted to tasks that in the end lead nowhere and up to nothing, then frustration is all that lies ahead. A temptation for Christians in the complementary tasks of raising children and working, is to want the labour to have a lasting impact and significance. David Höhne observes a pressure we feel in our culture to ‘make a difference.’ I’ve certainly felt that pressure. What am I contributing to society at large by working at home?
It is a lie to think any of our labour will have a lasting impact; even the work of the most skilled labourers doesn’t last; the person healed by the doctor will eventually die. Cultural and intellectual achievements are forgotten or rejected. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it:
Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, NIV)
Yet these things that don’t last can still have immense value in God’s sight. The thing that dignifies our labour and gives it value—whether it’s paid work or the labour of raising children—is not its permanence but that it is done ‘unto the Lord’ (Col 3:23) and that we do it in love for our neighbour.
The tasks of raising children and running a household are menial, repetitive, and in many ways, lead nowhere. But the New Testament teaches that women raising children and working at home honour God and his word, as they seek to fulfil their responsibilities and love those in their midst.
The work of older widows had little to do with housework.
So, as we wake up our moral imaginations to consider our homes as places of meaningful work, what could it look like? The list of virtues required for the older widow in 1 Timothy 5 again provides insight into a what a life of meaningful work at home could involve. It is not simply housework. In fact, the work of older widows had little to do with housework— her work at home opened up opportunities to care for people in proximity to her: her husband, her children, those in her church (the ‘saints’), those in need or in trouble. (However do note the expansion of services is particularly required of older widows; those whose children do not demand so much time!).
If you, like de Beauvoir, find doing the dishes unbearable, these texts are not prescribing that it is the mother who has to do them. Delegate! Outsource! Use the dishwasher! But do not neglect to love your husband and children, or to show hospitality to both strangers and God’s people.
The reality of embodiment is that people have many physical needs that are met by the completion of menial tasks such as those that make up housework. It is a great honour that we can love those around us, whether it is by showing hospitality or changing nappies. The contrast of ungodly idleness is that the mother that abdicates her responsibilities and does not seek the love those in her home by caring for their physical needs: she ‘goes about from house to house’ and gossips (1 Timothy 5:13).
At this point we may note that the responsibilities given to women in this text are not exclusive to women. For example, in 1 Timothy 3, it is a requirement of elders to be hospitable. In Hebrews 13, everyone is instructed to show hospitality. As Andrew Moody has noted, many of the things we should do as women overlap with the things we should do as Christians. However, as he also writes:
In none of these examples should we use the general principle to contradict the specific—that would be a wilful and ham-fisted way to handle Scripture … Yet neither must we reactively allow the specific to overrule the general. Rather … the challenge for both egalitarians and complementarians is to maintain the tensions that we find in the Bible.
Jesus has dignified our service, and in his economy those who are last will be first … let us revel in the honour we have as mothers.
Our culture’s worship of career means that menial and repetitive tasks are not honoured. Yet godly older women were expected to wash the feet of the saints (1 Timothy 5:10), a task reserved for the lowest servants in the household. Jesus, though he was God, stripped himself of his glory and came to serve; he too washes feet. Jesus has dignified our service, and in his economy those who are last will be first. So let us revel in the honour we have as mothers at home to serve those who are vulnerable in our society: from those who are in trouble, to our children.
 de Beauvoir in Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Feminism (Australia: Matthias Media, 2004), 29.
 The book of Proverbs also provides some insight into what it looks like to take the responsibility of work at home seriously. The Wife of Noble Character in Proverbs 31 is a great example of this kind of godly living. She is devoted to her husband (11-12, 23), her children (15, 28), and managing her home (27). She is clearly involved in economic activity outside her home (Proverbs 31: 16, 18, 24), but this is not a detriment to her service of her husband and children; rather they assist her responsibilities at home, so that she can provide food and clothing for her household (v. 15, 21, 27). On the other hand, the woman of Folly is ‘undisciplined’, and rather than preparing a meal for those who would join her, has stolen water and secret food (9:17).