"Busy at Home": How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?

Some Christians in westernised countries seem to long for an earlier time when many middle-class women stayed out of the workforce and stayed at home.[1] Some of these Christians even believe the Bible teaches that the woman’s primary domain is private, in the home, where her primary responsibility is to care for her husband and children—the presumption being that women will marry and have children. They also believe that the man’s primary domain is public, outside of the home, where he has various responsibilities including working for money.[2] The only time the Bible mentions that women should stay at home, however, is in two instructions regarding young women.[3] In this article I look especially at Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4-5.

The Basics of Titus 2:4-5

In his letter to Titus (who was temporarily stationed in Crete), Paul wrote that the older women should “. . . train younger women to love their husbands and love their children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home [or workers at home], to be kind [or good], and to be submissive to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Tit. 2:4b-5).

Most of the content of this teaching to young women is very basic indeed, and so it could be inferred that some of the young women of Crete were negligent wives, mothers and household managers, and in need of basic training. Nevertheless, while the teaching might be basic, it is also important.

~ It is important for wives to love their husbands; it is also important for husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25).
~ It is important for mothers to love their children; it is also important for fathers to love their children (cf. Eph. 5:2).
~ It is important for young women to be self-controlled and pure; it is also important for young men to be self-controlled and pure (2 Tim. 2:22).
~ It is important for women to be kind; it is important for everyone to be kind (Col. 3:12).
~ It is important for wives to be submissive—deferential, cooperative, supportive and loyal—to their own husbands; it is also important for husbands to be submissive—deferential, cooperative, supportive and loyal— to their wives (1 Pet. 3:7 cf. Eph. 5:21). (It is important to note that the word “obedient” in the King James Version is not the most precise or accurate translation of hupotassō in Titus 2:5.)

Was it important that the young women of Crete be busy at home?[4a] If the alternative was being lazy and idle, which may well have been the case, then ‘yes’ they should be busy at home (cf. Tit. 1:12-13).

Being housebound and involved with domestic work was the only socially acceptable situation for respectable Roman matrons in some parts of the Greco-Roman world.[4b] In western society today, however, young women and wives have many freedoms, and they can choose to use their talents and gifts to be useful and productive outside their homes without causing a scandal. (See Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV.)

Does Titus 2:4-5 Prescribe and Define Womanhood?

Unlike what some Christians suggest, Titus 2:4-5 does not equate womanhood with being homemakers. I like what my internet friend Retha has said on this.

Some read Titus 2:3-5 as if it says: “Women should dedicate their whole lives to xyz.”
But it actually says: “Older women should teach younger women to xyz.”[5]
The difference between these two statements is like the difference between saying: “Connie should spend all day, every day, in the water practising swimming strokes”, and “Teach Connie how to swim”.

The instructions in Titus 2:4-5 were appropriate for the young wives in Crete at that time, yet these instructions do not define these women, or women in general. None of the biblical authors attempt to define “womanhood”. Rather, the Bible shows that some women, even in ancient times, were involved in all kinds of ventures, ministries, and roles.

Furthermore, nowhere does the New Testament give any indication that girls or older women should be confined to the home or restricted to domestic duties. Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4-5 (and 1 Timothy 5:14) were specifically related to young women of childbearing age, and are similar to instructions, also concerning young women, which were written by pagan authors of the time. [See endnote 6.] Paul’s instructions reflect the cultural values of his day. His instruction were given to a specific group of women in a culture very different from our own, and they cannot be taken as universal, timeless directives to all women everywhere. The principle behind his instructions, however, still has relevance and importance today.

Paul’s Main Point in Titus 2

Paul’s principle is that Christians should not behave in ways that their society finds offensive, or in ways that their society believes is disruptive to social harmony. Otherwise Christians may find themselves bringing disrepute to God and Christian doctrine (cf. Titus 2:5, 8, 9-10).

Modern western society is moving towards regarding and treating men and women as equals.[7] Equality and mutuality are seen by many as the ideals. The clearly delineated gender roles that were part of a particular demographic of a previous generation are now recognised as not being suited to all people and all marriages. Every person is unique and every marriage is unique. Not everyone fits the mould of post-war, white, middle-class gender roles which some presume to be “biblical”.

Churches and Christians in western society who insist that men and women follow fixed, hierarchical gender roles are giving the Church a bad name, the very thing Paul wanted to avoid.[8]

What was socially acceptable for Cretan society in the first century is very different to what is socially acceptable today. Yet, even in those days, it was possible for gifted and enterprising women to occasionally rise above the social norms and not necessarily cause disgrace. Nowadays it seems to be some sectors of the Church who are disgracing themselves in contemporary society by limiting, restricting, and subordinating their women.

Conclusion

The Bible never tries to make the case that women should not work or have influential roles outside the home. Rather, the Old and New Testaments show us that many godly women were not confined to the private, domestic domain. New Testament women such as Priscilla, Lydia, and Phoebe worked, travelled and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Paul did not identify these women primarily by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they are described and identified by their work, their travels, and their ministries.

I love my husband and now grown children. I hope that I am self-controlled and pure, that I manage my home well, and am submissive to my husband, as he is with me. Most of my work, ministry and study, as well as family life, in fact, happens at home. But, I also have a life outside of my home. Titus 2:4-5 does not begin to define me or my various roles in life.


Endnotes

[1] Some material in this post comes from a previous article Working Women in the New Testament here.

[2] The idea of private and public domains for women and men has its origins in Greek philosophy which influenced the Greco-Roman world, including Cretan society, of New Testament times

[3] The other reference is in 1 Timothy 5:14.  In his first letter to Timothy (who was temporarily stationed in Ephesus), Paul wrote about the young widows that,

“… 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. I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach …” (1 Timothy 5:13-14).

These instructions were designed to keep silly, idle, young widows occupied, so that they would not give the Church a bad name (cf. Titus 2:5, 8, 10).

[4a] My UBS Greek New Testament has oikourgous, the accusative plural of oikourgos, in Titus 2:5. Oikourgos (with the letter gamma) means “a worker at home” (oikos=house + ergos=worker.) There is a textual variant however: oikourous (without a gamma), is the accusative plural of oikouros, and literally means “house-keeper” (oikos=house + ouros=keeper or guardian.) This word is found in Titus 2:5 of later Greek manuscripts and in editions such as Stephanus (1550) and the Textus Receptus. [More on this here.]

[4b] The idle young wives and young widows that Paul is referring to in Titus 2:5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 would have had domestic slaves for the more unpleasant, tedious, and difficult domestic duties. Paul is speaking about the management of the home and home-based industries, such as spinning and weaving, in these verses.

[5] Some people suggest that the word presbutidas (from presbutis) used in Titus 2:3 should be translated as “women elders”. However, the emphasis is on contrasting the older women with the younger women, just as older men are contrasted with younger men in Titus 2:2 and 2:6. Moreover, it is the adjective presbuteros that is typically used for the word “elder”, rather than the nouns presbutēs (masculine) and prebutis (feminine) which are used in Titus 2:2 and 3. (The feminine for “elders” is used in 1 Timothy 5:2. Is Paul speaking about female elders here?) There is nothing in the New Testament which rules out the possibility that some elders in the church were women. I suspect Priscilla was an elder of the church at Ephesus when she and her husband corrected the doctrine of Apollos. [More on this here.]

Note also that Paul does not tell the older women that they are to teach theology or the Christian faith to the younger women. The idea that women can teach other women theology—which is accepted in most churches—has less of a biblical precedent than women teaching theology to men. There are several instances where Bible women taught theology and prophesied to men. [More on this here.]

[6] E.g. The pagan Theano instructed the younger women to listen to the teaching of older women:

“Indeed, to you younger women authority has been given by custom to rule over the household slaves once you have been married, but the teaching (didaskalia) ought to come from the older women (presbyterōn) because they are forever giving advice about household management. For it is good first to learn the things you do not know and to consider the counsel of the older women the most suitable; for a young soul must be brought up in these teachings from girlhood.” Annette Bourland Huizenga, Moral Education for Women in the Pastoral and Pythagorean Letters: Philosophers of the Household. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2013) p. 50.

[7] Equality and unity between men and women, rather than a gender hierarchy and divide, are also the ideals of the New Covenant (e.g. Gal. 3:28). [More on this here.]

[8] Being a homemaker is a noble activity, and some women feel especially called to this role. I am not in any way diminishing this important function.

Image credit: Ancient Greek woman with tapestry loom. From Stackelberg’s Graeber der Hellenen (plate 33). (Source: Project Guttenberg.)


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