Reimagining the Home as a Place of Meaningful Work

This is the second of three posts considering biblical motherhood in a modern context. See also post 1 and post 3

This is my second post exploring some things older women were to teach younger women in Titus 2.[1] The first explored the command to love children, and this one will explore Paul’s instruction that older women were to train the younger women to be busy, or literally to ‘work’ at home. This article will not provide answers, rather it seeks to build a framework as you consider how you might fulfil your unique responsibilities.

Having read, not understood, and ignored this text many times, I needed answers.

I struggled to understand this text in a time of personal crisis. I was a few months into being a mother of two small children and felt completely overwhelmed by my responsibilities, but also lacked clarity about what my responsibilities were! I wanted to know what I could delegate and outsource, while still living with godly wisdom. Having read, not understood, and ignored this text many times, I needed answers. What is the place for mothers in God’s world?

Home as a Place of Work

Initially, I baulked at the level of basic comprehension: what does it mean for home to be a place of work? In my upbringing and in our culture, our homes are the places we go to rest. They are not places of work, but places of escape and sanctuary. But here, homes are a place of meaningful labour, and incredibly, a mother’s work at home is part of the godly life God’s grace teaches her to live (Titus 2:11-12).

Part of the reason we struggle to comprehend home as a place of labour is because of the industrial revolution. In a pre-industrial society, there was little distinction between work inside the home and work outside. Men and women, mothers and fathers, largely laboured at home. It is a recent change that ‘work’ is something largely done outside the home and (at least initially) largely restricted to men. At this point, it is also helpful to highlight what we discovered when we considered the instruction to love one’s children: that the bearing and nurturing of children acts as a complement to the task of work in God’s created order. This connection between the two tasks is very much lost in our industrialised society, such that going to work and raising children are often pitted against one another in competition, rather than seen as complementary. One article with the tagline ‘Why some young women don’t see motherhood as realistic,’ quotes one young woman who said ‘merely mentioning pregnancy’ would have been detrimental to her career.

In a pre-industrial society, there was little distinction between work inside the home and work outside.

So, if almost everyone was working at home, why did Paul want the younger women to be taught to do it, and why were the stakes so high? (‘that no one will malign the word of God,’ Titus 2:5)

1 Timothy 5 is another passage that sets out the activities of a godly woman, and it provides helpful insight into the significance of a mother’s labour at home. Paul writes,

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
(1 Timonthy 5:9-15; NIV)

The opposite of working at home isn’t working outside the home; it’s being idle. Paul warns against the irresponsibility of young widows ‘going about from house to house.’ Their idleness comes from eschewing the responsibilities of work that waits for them in their own homes. So he counsels younger widows to remarry, and sets them the tasks of having children and managing their homes. In an industrial society, where so much meaningful work happens outside the home, it can be hard to see the labour we have to do at home as meaningful. But God’s word counsels us that this is part of the godly life which His grace teaches us to live (Titus 2:11-12).

Do we take the responsibility of the work we have at home seriously, and what might be the consequences if we don’t?

Paul’s instructions don’t necessarily mean that mothers should be the primary caregivers of children in their homes, and they absolutely do not prohibit women from participating in work outside the home. For some mothers, it may be downright irresponsible for them not to work outside their homes; their children would have no other means to eat or be dressed. But it does ask us, do we take the responsibility of the work we have at home seriously, and what might be the consequences if we don’t?

For all the good that’s come with mothers having more opportunity to work outside the home, it might be worth asking the question, ‘Have there been some unintended negative consequences?’ The Australian Institute of Family Studies reports:

One of the most significant social trends of the 20th century has been the move of mothers into paid work, with widespread repercussions for family life, workplaces and community supports for families.

While the circumstances and financial situations of each family are different, the decision of individuals does have an impact on others. As Philip Jensen writes:

The increase in two-income families has affected standards of living and the competitive pricing of housing. The choice of some families [to have two incomes] becomes the necessity of others.

I recently heard a conversation between host Richard Fidler and author Bill Bryson, where they reflected on the changes that have happened such that we have built a modern world where there is a crisis of care for children, the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled—all the most vulnerable in our society, as both men and women are spending more time in the paid workforce. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the groups affected by the crises of care to those the godly older widow in 1 Timothy 5 was to serve. In our individualistic society, where each family makes decisions to increase their own affluence, those households who are privileged enough to have the choice to work or not, ought to ask ‘What is the cost of both a mother and father working to others?’

If you are an older woman, do not neglect the responsibility you have to the younger mothers in your church.

So, dear mothers, how are you going at fulfilling the responsibilities God has given you? To be sure, for all of us, seeking to live godly lives will look different. But it is a worthwhile exercise to let the Bible critique our culture. The world around us puts personal gain at the fore; the transformed life of the gospel is a life devoted to loving others, and especially the vulnerable in our midst. It means our relationships are paramount. We cannot look to the world around us to gauge whether we are meeting our responsibilities; part of why the world is as it is, is because people do not take their responsibilities seriously. So where can we look? Paul would suggest godly older women.

So, if you are a younger mother feeling lost about how to make godly decisions, find an older woman who is willing to urge you in the right direction. And if you are an older woman, do not neglect the responsibility you have to the younger mothers in your church, to help them on their way. And if you are interested in reading further, I have found Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key invaluable in setting a vision for a life of meaningful labour at home.

Our final post will explore another reason we have difficulty with the work we have to do at home.

[1] Please note that in the text there is an assumption that women will be married, and so have husbands and children. We know from other parts of the New Testament that this is not everyone’s situation. See 1 Corinthians 7.