Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Titus 2 women, keepers at home, biblical womanhood, gender roles

Watercolour and ink portrait of Ruth by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

The older women “are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands and to love their children, to be self-controlled, pure, workers at home, kind, and in submission to their husbands, so that God’s word will not be slandered.” (Titus 2:4-5 CSB, italics added)

Paul’s instructions in Titus 2, about what the older women in Crete should teach the younger women, come up from time to time in conversations about women’s “roles.” (See Sharon’s comment here, for example.) The idea that women are to be “keepers at home” (KJV), “workers at home” (CSB), or “busy at home” (NIV) is one phrase that is often highlighted and emphasised.

I’ve previously written about the meaning of the Greek words behind “keepers/workers at home” here. And I’ve written about Titus 2:4-5 more generally here, including the fact that the qualities Paul lists in these two verses were often used on epitaphs, etc, when describing virtuous Roman matrons who weren’t Christians. (See footnotes here.) There is nothing especially Christian in Paul’s list.

I’m all for loving one another, especially our family members. And having a home that is clean and tidy is important. But the Bible, overall, does not indicate that keeping at home, or housekeeping, is all women are meant for. Far from it. What Paul says about young Cretan women in Titus 2:4-5 is not the sum total of what the Bible, or even Paul, says about women.

Most women who are portrayed in a positive light in the Bible were not primarily, or only, keepers at home. Here is a sample.

~ The women who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle were not keepers at home. More on these women here.

~ Rahab wasn’t just a housekeeper, she was an innkeeper, and God chose her to have faith, risk her life, and to help the Israelites. More on Rahab here.

~ Ruth wasn’t a keeper at home She worked hard gleaning in the barley fields. Many ancient women, including godly women, worked hard for their livelihood. More on working women in the Bible here.

~ Deborah, a prophetess and judge of Israel, didn’t keep at home but judged under the Palm of Deborah, a landmark at crossroads in the centre of Israel. And she went with Barak to battle against their enemy. More on Deborah here.

~ The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah didn’t keep at home when she spoke with Joab (the commander of David’s army) on behalf of her city and negotiated for its safety. More on this wise woman and other Bible women with authority here.

~ Huldah, on the other hand, seems to have been at home when she received a delegation sent from King Josiah seeking her advice. This delegation included the High Priest (Hilkiah), the father of the future governor (Ahikam), the son of a prophet (Achbor), the secretary of state (Shaphan), and the king’s officer (Asaiah). Huldah speaks to these men on behalf of God. More on Huldah here.

~ The Queen of Sheba didn’t keep at home and she was commended by both Solomon and Jesus for coming “from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom” (1 Kings 10:1-29; Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31). More on this queen here.

~ Sheerah could not have built towns if her main role was housekeeping (1 Chron. 7:24). More on her here. And the daughters of Shallum could not have helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem if their main role was housekeeping (Neh. 3:12).

~ Anna spent little time at home. She spent her days and nights fasting and praying in the temple in Jerusalem. She was there when Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple, and from that time she began telling everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem about Jesus (Luke 2:37-38). More on Anna here.

~ Many Galilean women didn’t keep at home but followed Jesus as he ministered in Galilee. They even followed him to Jerusalem where they watched him be crucified. And Mary Magdalene wasn’t at home on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection. I’m glad she didn’t miss out on being the first to see the risen Lord by keeping at home. More about the many women who followed Jesus here.

~ When Paul first met Lydia she wasn’t at home but she later used her home as a base for the new church at Philippi. She also ran a business dealing with luxury textiles. Lydia, and many other first-century women like her, had servants and slaves to do the housework. Paul wasn’t talking about scrubbing floors or doing the laundry in Titus 2:4-5. More on Lydia here.

~ Phoebe didn’t stay home or do laundry. She travelled from Cenchrea (a port city of Corinth) carrying Paul’s precious letter to the church at Rome. Paul speaks about her warmly and tells the Romans she is a diakonos (minister or deacon) of the church at Cenchrea and a patron of many. More on Phoebe here.

~ Junia didn’t say home. She was a missionary and, at one point at least, was imprisoned with Paul. More about Junia here.

~ Priscilla didn’t stay home. She travelled with her husband Aquila and the apostle Paul. Paul mentions that she and her husband risked their lives for him. The couple’s home was a base for the church at Ephesus and they later hosted a church at Rome. When Paul greets 28 Christians at Rome, he greets Priscilla first. First! More in Priscilla here.

There are still more women I could mention such as Miriam, the woman of Thebez, and Mary the mother of Jesus, who didn’t devote their lives to housekeeping and didn’t restrict their lives to the domestic sphere. Rather they were out and about helping, sometimes rescuing, their family and community, or were ministering the gospel.

In his other letters, Paul mentions 18 women. He does not primarily identify these women by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead, they are described and identified by their work, their travels, but especially by their faith and ministries in the church.

If young women not keeping at home will cause God’s word to be slandered by non-Christians, then women should probably keep at home. This was the issue in ancient Crete. But young women working outside the home is usually not a problem in developed countries. And there is nothing wrong with following the examples of Anna, Mary Magdalene, Phoebe, Priscilla, and other women devoted to Jesus and to Christian ministry, and who were not primarily keepers at home.

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15 thoughts on “Bible women who weren’t “keepers at home”

  1. I would not include Ruth in a list like this. A poor woman gleaning in the fields was just a step above begging. It was the only way to get food, not much choice about this. Most servants and slaves were better off. Also it was dangerous work, sexual harrassment and sexual abuse by the male harvesters in the fields. My estimation of Boaz went down a lot, when I read that after he found out who Ruth was, he told his men not to touch her and he told her to stay with the girls that worked for him. This means that he knew what his men were up to and didn’t stop them. I would have been happier if he had told his men not to touch any of the poor women gleaning in his fields. It seems to have been common knowledge that women gleaning were in this sort of danger as Naomi said to Ruth, “It is good that you are in his fields because somewhere else you might have been harmed.”

    1. What you say is true, Joanna. However, Ruth’s poverty and the difficulties and dangers of gleaning make her actions more admirable and noteworthy, not less.

      She didn’t beg. Ruth worked hard to provide for herself and for Naomi, and she had a good reputation in Bethlehem. Boaz says of her, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”

      Ruth’s situation was not unique. Being poor and in potential danger was common in ancient times. In some places in the world, this is still the case. So I’m happy to have Ruth in this list. She worked outside the home, provided for her family, and is commended for it.

  2. This is another place where people pick and choose what to emphasize. I think we need to take advantage of the statement that the older women should teach the younger women to be good wives! What a perfect opening to teach them about a marriage of mutual submission!!

    1. I’m an older woman teaching younger women about mutual love and submission in marriage, etc. I’m teaching men the same things. 😛

      1. Were all these women married? Certainly Ruth was not married when she was working in the fields. St Paul was referring to married woman – and why? – because they would be bringing up children – a family, the building blocks of a civilised society. Now there is no nobler human endeavour than bringing up the next generation. It is indeed impossible to speak of woman in the world without honouring this most important role. And nowadays as our age span has increased over twofold, a woman would not be caring for children all her adult life. The older woman would be a grandmother for example. If a woman is married with children its more the sensible and natural order that such a woman stay at home to look after the children until they are about 12. And the men take responsibility and earn a living for his family and doesn’t imagine marriage should be a permanent honeymoon, i.e. he is not to get jealous when his wife puts care of the children ahead of him. I worked in mental health and often the victims of domestic violence would tell stories where the man was insanely jealous of the his wife/partners attention to the children. Such a state of affairs is a pathetic state for a man to be in. Needless to say we woman should not be encouraged to switch roles with men and end up neglecting the children. Woman is the protector and man is the defender.

        1. Hi Kay, Some of these women were married, some were not.

          Bringing up children is an immensely important role, one that parents and grandparents and all society should take seriously. However, this has little to do with Paul’s intention in Titus 2:4-5. He wrote these words primarily so that the word of God would not be slandered by pagan Cretans. His primary concern here is not that children would be brought up by their mothers.

          I’ve written more about Titus 2:4-5 here:

  3. Thank you for your continued work. You are a blessing to many!

    1. Thanks, Marie.

  4. Dear Marg,
    As a Greek speaker and reader with a love of Greek language and Hebrew language, and a love for the deep feeling and mystery conveyed which exists in both of these languages, words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards you and the time you give to breakdown the Greek to help us understand the thoughts behind the text.

    I look forward to your posts
    God bless

    1. Thanks, Balledina. 🙂

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough work. I am learning more about how we can amplify the distinctive difference Jesus created and his endorsment of the rich history of women in the OT – all power to your calling and ministry.

  6. Thank you,Marg. Appreciate the work you put into opening the bible to us all.

  7. Thank you for this post. There were a few women on your list that I haven’t heard about before, I will look into them! I’m very grateful for your work!

  8. On more research I’ve learned on this subject, It appeared that in the letter Paul wrote, He was addressing the Island of Crete in which the inhabitants had a very bad reputation of being, lazy, drunkards, liars an brutes. They worshipped the Greek god Zeus who they believed was born on the Island. For many of the young women, they also adopted the “New Roman Woman” model who enjoyed their new freedom by neglecting their household and their families by engaging in sexual immoral behavior and other worldly pursuits. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul instructed the older women themselves no to drunkards or liars themselves but to teach was good and so they can be better examples to the younger women and teach them how to be better wives and mothers to their families by not neglecting their homes, be more pure and loving to their families since at era marriages were arranged. The Greek translation for “Keepers at home” was “oikouros” which means watcher, warden or guardian of the household. This doesn’t necessary mean housework but that the young women should be spending time watching over and managing their homes. In that era and culture, women’s responsibilities in the home were the domestic tasks, even if they were earning an income in their work and if they were wealthy, they manage their servants. Today, many women have more opportunities in their roles and many juggle and career and family, while some work from home or homeschool but they can still be keepers of their homes in their diverse ways. Great article again God Bless.

    1. Hi CT, Great thoughts!

      Yes, Paul was writing to Titus who was in Crete (Tit. 1:5). And Paul scathingly mentions three negative traits of some Cretans: “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Tit. 1:12-13), possibly for rhetorical effect.

      I don’t think “watcher, warden or guardian of the household” is the best translation of oikouros. The etymology of oikouros gives this sense, but etymology is not a reliable indicator of meaning. “Housekeeper” is arguably a better translation but it still doesn’t adequately convey Paul’s meaning.

      Oikouros refers to the domestic life that was typical of respectable married women in Greco-Roman society. Words closely related to oikouros also have a sense of domesticity (e.g., oikourēma, oikouria, oikourios). Note that kēpouros, which has ouros (“keeper/watcher”) as part of the word, is simply translated as “gardener” in John 20:15 without any lofty connotations. (I’ve written about this here.)

      The young women in Titus 2:4-5 were women with some wealth behind them as they had the option of being idle and perhaps even “lazy gluttons. But Paul wants them to conform to the respectable standards of the day and to manage their homes. This would have included having oversight of slaves and servants, who did the actual cooking and cleaning, and who had oversight of home-based industries. As you say, the young women in Titus 2:4-5 should have been “spending time watching over and managing their homes.”

      I spend a lot of time at home. A lot! But housework is not my life because many women, such as myself, do have more freedoms and more options today.

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