Not long ago, the Desiring God site ran an article titled, “Does My Family Need a Second Income?” The article began like this: “‘Will you stay home?’ This is the question I ask when I meet a postpartum mom wearing her weeks-old baby in a Moby Wrap or Ergobaby carrier. Whether the answer is yes or no, I’m glad for every opportunity to talk with new moms about what it will cost them to return to the workplace.” The article went on to talk about why women should stay at home with their kids.
Some of the author’s arguments are worth exploring, because Christian parents have this in common: we want the best for ourselves and our families. But it’s important to recognize that the binary, either-or for women to work outside the home vs. stay home with kids is a post-Industrial Revolution, western construct. And one we’ve started reading into our Bibles.
Not only that. When the abovementioned article hit Twitter, many members of underrepresented groups pointed out that among most persons of color, this debate has largely been considered a “white” one. Along with a retweet of the article, one person included an apology to her “black sisters” with this added: “I'm sorry articles like these hurt you. They know not what they do.”
Within a backdrop of these historical and social elements, I’ll consider the arguments in light of the Bible. But it’ll take me a higher-than-usual word count to do so, because ideas about earnings and gender so are engrained in our many subcultures that the topic deserves a thorough analysis.
The Husband’s Job to Provide?
Many like the author in question believe it’s the husband’s job to bring home the paycheck. In her piece the author wrote, “a husband’s disability, unemployment, or laziness might force you out of the home (1 Timothy 5:8).” But let’s look at her proof text there in parentheses. It’s so, so, so often cited as the Bible verse that puts the full economic responsibility on the husband. And it’s easy to see how we got there. . . .
Most translations of 1 Timothy 5:8, including the ESV’s (coming up in a sec), make it sound like providing is totally his job: “But if anyone [sometimes elsewhere translated “If a man…] does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (ESV, emphasis mine).
Did you notice the three male pronouns in that short little verse? There’s only one problem with them—they’re only part of the translation, not in the original. That is, the Greek does not assign this “providing” to one sex or the other. It’s neutral. But the “male weighted” translation is more elegant than the clunky translation required in order to show the actual intent regarding gender in the original: “If anyone does not provide for that one’s own relatives, and especially for members of that one’s own household, that person has denied the faith….” There’s actually nothing exclusively male about it. Nothing.
Later in the same passage, when Paul finally does give a gender-directed suggestion, he actually says that Christian women should provide for their family members in need (v. 16). Same context. Same subject. But totally different assignment of responsibility from what we usually hear. Providing is certainly not “the man’s job” eight verses after the genderless exhortation in 1 Timothy 5:8.
Consider the ideal woman—wisdom personified—whom we read about in Proverbs 31. Is her husband a financial provider? He doesn’t appear to be. Is he lazy? No. Disabled? No. Does she have wrong priorities? No.
Yet, rather than expecting her husband to be the sole provider, this idealized mom with children (v. 28) is buying and selling a field (v. 6). Ever stopped to wonder how she could “consider a field” without leaving her house to go look at it? It’s not like she can Google photos. Maybe she takes her kids with her (i.e., is a work-from-home mom). Or perhaps she leaves them with her workers (v. 15) when she does so (work outside-the-home mom). Perhaps her husband even comes home for lunch while she dashes off to make a deal (sharing-the-work-with-her-partner mom).
This woman also sells linen garments and sashes (v. 24) and does volunteer work for the poor and needy (v. 20). Meanwhile, where is her guy? He’s appears to be bringing in no income because he has a more honorable calling—sitting with the elders in the gate, where justice happens (v. 23). Together they make a better world possible through their division of labor based on gifting. And the kids and hubby end up thinking, “She’s awesome!” (v. 28).
The Culture Change That Got Us Here
The middle-and upper-class (it was never the poor) didn’t really start debating whether or not a woman could be gainfully employed outside the home until the Industrial Revolution. Before then, no one questioned a woman contributing to the family’s income.
But Paul knew nothing of the Industrial Revolution. When he exhorted Titus to have the older women in Crete to teach younger women how, among other things, “to be workers at home” (Titus 2:5), he was speaking into a situation in which almost 85 percent of industry happened in a domestic setting. People knew no such thing as a factory or office worker vs. a stay-at-home mom. Both husband and wife shared the jobs of stay-at-home parent and worker. In Paul’s world, if a man was home from war, both husband and wife raised kids, taught kids, and contributed to the family’s economics. And when he went off to war, she managed it all.
Two thousand years later, we’ve adapted to—capitulated, if you will—to the post Industrial Revolution division of labor. Initially when the factories got built, the men went off to do economics, and the women stayed with the kids (again, assuming upper classes; the lower-class kids worked in the same factories as their parents). And sometimes we’ve made this typical division the ideal. We need to rethink that.
In families in which moms could stay home with kids, many women grew restless. Nearly eighty years ago, decades before second-wave feminism, Dorothy L. Sayers addressed this phenomenon in Are Women Human? In a speech she delivered to a women’s society, she noted that much of women’s restlessness happened after the mind-engaging work (international trade, equipment purchase, negotiation, people contact) was taken from the domestic setting and sent to factories, where the men got to do it.
Mind-engaging work wasn’t the only thing transferred to men. When the home businesses shifted to factories, far more fathers than mothers earned paychecks. So men obtained even more social power, and people valued parenting less.
Plus, because of this division of labor, couples began to see raising kids as women’s work rather than as a partnership (i.e., moms parent; dads babysit). On those few occasions when dads kept the kids, these inexperienced fathers found the job overwhelming. And people noticed. People attributed the women’s superior parenting skills to something innate in woman and lacking in man. And one sad consequence was that it became more socially acceptable to be an incompetent father.
Freudian thinking added to the burden in that women who wanted to do “men’s work” (i.e., international trade, equipment purchase, negotiation, people contact) were told they were not fully sexualized and had penis envy. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
Some say a wife having a vocation besides homemaking undermines a man’s sense of true manhood—and it’s especially bad if she earns more than he does. But maybe that’s because he’s been told it undermines his manhood by members of his subculture. Such thinking is hogwash. Our very model of Christian Manhood—Jesus and The Twelve—were supported by women.
Consider Mary Magdalene. She’s often referred to as a reformed prostitute. (That’s how she was portrayed in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Risen.”) But the only reference to Mary Magdalene’s occupation in the Bible is actually a reference to her supporting Jesus financially out of her income (Luke 8:1–3)—along with some other prominent women who did the same. Mary had more money than Jesus and The Twelve, and she was glad to share. No shame on anyone.
But binary constructs don’t allow for modern day Mary Magdalenes. Those who argue that a family’s ideal division of labor is “dads at the office and moms at home” are looking at family economics through western eyes and arguing for adherence to a post-Industrial Revolution construct. In an agrarian society, everyone works, and they all do so from home. It was after canning moved from home to the cannery that we started saying women had to stay home with their kids.
But the world is changing back to men and women working from home. And allow me to remind us that the ideal is not “moms with the kids” but “parents with the kids.”
When I go to rural Kenya and Ethiopia, no one I meet is having a conversation about whether women can contribute to the economics of their households. Sometimes the kids work in the field picking produce with Dad. And then they get sent to help Mom in the house or hauling water. All day the kids go back and forth from parent to parent, and everybody’s working. Many of these children also have grandparents around to watch them. The grandparents who are younger and stronger do manual labor. The older folks watch the littlest ones. “It takes a village. . . . ” In such a world, it’s much easier to see why Proverbs talks of both dads and moms teaching the kids (Prov. 1:8), and they can do so all day—sitting at home, walking along the way, when they lie down, and get up (Deut 6:7).
When the Industrial Revolution came along, the divorce rate shot up. Lots of kids stopped knowing their fathers in any meaningful way. Why would we want to hang on to that model—much less hold it up as biblical?
Work vs. Laziness
Again, the author of the article writes, “The apostle Paul encouraged young moms to focus their loving attention on their homes, presumably because such a priority was not a given in first-century Ephesus (Titus 2:5).”
Titus 2:5 is the main proof-text cited in the argument for women choosing not to work outside the home when they have children around. And this author got the “apostle Paul” part correct—he did indeed write the epistle in which this text is found. But the location was actually Crete (1:5), and the emphasis in the “home” part of the verse was not loving attention—though that’s always good—but on hard work.
The context of Crete is important. Because Paul’s concern seems less about the women’s location and more about laziness. And that comes out in his statement that one of Crete’s own prophets described his people as being “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (v. 12, emphasis mine).
Perhaps you’ve read Titus 1:5 in the KJ V, whose translators rendered the word in question (it’s a single word) as “keepers at home.” But they were relying on later manuscripts that had a letter “g” missing in this word—which slightly altered its meaning. The older manuscripts are more reliable, and in them this letter isn’t missing. And the difference in meaning with or without the “g in the Greek” is between home-keepers (KJV) and home-workers (most modern translations).
Today most scholars like the translation that’s based on older, better manuscripts that have a compound word (oikos + ergou; from οἰκος, ἐργου).We get the word “ergonomics,” or the study of work/productivity, from the latter part of the compound word here. (Also, ironically, “Ergobaby.”) And that seems to be the point—work.
Some translate oikos + ergou as “domestic,” but that makes it sound like Paul’s focused on the Pinterest-perfect mastery of cleaning and cooking in opposition to enterprise—which is unfortunate, because that again misses the force of his emphasis on work. Paul was not living in a world in which he expected Priscilla to train the kids (if there were any) while Aquila did all the making and selling of tents. In fact, many of the homes in first-century Greece were like storefront businesses, with a counter and shop in the front and domestic space in the back. So a woman’s involvement in income-producing enterprise was not necessarily a “leaving home vs. staying home” situation. Seeing it that way is reading our culture back into hers.
The younger women in Paul’s day were home. And he wanted them to work hard in this domestic setting rather than doing the equivalent of lying around bingeing all day on old episodes of Downton Abbey while the kids made mud pies on the kitchen floor.
Listen, I’m no longer in my childrearing years. I don’t have an iron in this fire other than this—I care about the biblical text and how we handle it. And I care about my hard-working Millennial women friends being guilted into thinking that parenting is all on them and they suck as moms if they earn a salary. But I also care about their husbands guilted into thinking the income-earning to support their families is all on them—and missing out on a lot of their kids’ lives. It’s supposed to be a partnership. And flexibility is allowed.
When I was a mom with a young daughter, I would teach grad school in the evenings after my husband—who has always handled all the grocery shopping—got home. And I’d work as a magazine editor while our girl took naps or went one morning a week to mothers’ day out. When she hit the teen years, my husband started working from home, which gave us more flexibility. He started handling all of our daughter’s school and medical appointments, and I started doing more freelance writing and teaching on the weekdays.
Think Outside the Constructs of a Binary System
The author of the article wrote, “I also might offend moms who would rather not be challenged to think outside the comforts of a double income. . . . Can we be honest enough, and secure enough in Christ, to face both questions? The first question—What is the cost if you don’t return to work?—is a fairly easy one to tabulate in terms of financial sacrifice. But this second question—What is the cost to your family if you do return to work?—is less easy to calculate, but more important, and demands even greater thought, consideration, and prayer.”
I applaud the exhortation to eschew materialism and fight for our families. But why does the decision fall completely on the mom’s work, and why does it have to be either/or? Why not look at how she might work from home? Or how her husband might work from home? Or better, both? Or maybe work some evenings while he’s parenting—not babysitting.
If we value the family, we need to expand the considerations beyond what it will cost only moms if they return to the workforce. We need to include what it will cost dads to cut back on in-office work to be good fathers. Or change to working jobs that will flex according to their growing family’s needs. And we can stop judging brothers and sisters in Christ about their work/life choices.
Certainly, it’s biblical for fathers and mothers to make childrearing a top priority. It’s biblical for families to pool their gifts, to partner in caring for one another. It’s biblical to abhor materialism, refusing to let it dictate our standard of living. But it’s also biblical to stop using 1 Timothy 5:8 as the men-bring-home-the-bacon proof text and Titus 2:5 as the moms-can’t-work-outside-the-home proof text. We can do a lot of damage to families when we read the biblical text only through western, middle-class eyes and hold up Ward and June Cleaver as the ideal.
If a couple with a small child decide together (1 Cor. 7:5) that it’s in everyone’s best interest to add more work and income to their lives, they have some options that can fall squarely within the good and perfect will of God. So let’s stop asking if new moms will or won’t return to work and instead help them explore a much wider range of options.