Some Christians in modern westernised countries seem to long for an earlier time when most middle-class women stayed at home and stayed out of the workforce. Some of these Christians even believe the Bible teaches that the woman’s primary domain is in the home where her primary responsibility is to care for her husband and children, the presumption being that all women will marry and have children. They also believe the man’s primary domain is public, outside of the home, where he has various responsibilities including working for money. The only time the Bible mentions that women should stay at home, however, is in two instructions regarding young idle women. In this article, I look especially at Paul’s instruction in Titus 2:4-5.
The Context 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” (Titus 2:4b-5).
As with every Bible text, we should read these verses with an understanding of the context of the surrounding passage. Titus chapter 2 follows on from Titus 1:10-16 where Paul describes bad behaviours and ascetic ideas (regarding purity and defilement) in the church at Crete. The instructions to the young women were, at least in part, a countermeasure to Jewish myths and man-made rules that encouraged asceticism (Tit. 1:14-15).
From other verses in the New Testament and from early church documents, we know that some Christians were renouncing sex and marriage and were not having children (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:1-17; 1 Tim 2:15; 4:3). Some women were staying, or becoming, single and independent of husbands and families ties. With a narrow view of piety, they were freeing themselves from domestic responsibilities. Paul’s words in Titus 2:4-5 are partly a response to this phenomenon that threatened the reputation of the church.
The Basics of Titus 2:4-5
The content of the training in Titus 2:4-5 is basic and implies some of the young women of Crete were negligent wives and mothers and were abandoning their household responsibilities, due to notions of piety or because of laziness (cf. Tit. 1:12). While the teaching is basic, it is also important. Moreover, much of it can apply to more people than just young wives.
~ 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 women to love their children. It is also important for men to love their children (cf. Eph. 5:2).
~ It is important for young women to be self-controlled (sōphrōn) 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). (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 also important that the young wives of Crete be busy at home? If the alternative was being lazy and idle (cf. Tit. 1:12-13), or being single and relying on church support (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9-15), then yes, they should be busy at home.
Being mostly housebound and occupied with work such as spinning and weaving was the only socially acceptable situation for respectable Roman matrons in some parts of the Greco-Roman world. In western society today, however, young women have much more freedom and they can choose to use their talents and gifts to be useful and productive inside or outside their homes without causing a scandal. (See Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV.)
Does Titus 2:4-5 Define Womanhood?
Unlike what some Christians suggest, Titus 2:4-5 does not equate womanhood with being homemakers. Paul’s directive in Titus 2:4-5 was 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 attempts to define “womanhood.” Instead, the Bible shows that some women, even in ancient times, were involved in all kinds of ventures, ministries, and roles with God’s blessing.
Furthermore, nowhere does the New Testament give any indication that young girls or older women should always be confined to the home or restricted to domestic duties. There are Bible women who did important things outside their homes without any mention that they were doing wrong. See here.
Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4-5 and in 1 Timothy 5:14 were specifically related to young women of childbearing age and are similar to instructions written by pagan authors of the time. Paul’s instructions directly reflect the cultural values of his day. Since his words relate to a group of women in a culture different from our own, some of it may not be applicable to all women everywhere. The principle behind his instruction, however, continues to have relevance.
The Timeless Principle in Titus 2
Paul’s principle is that Christians should not behave in ways that their society finds offensive, or in ways that society believes is disruptive to social harmony. Otherwise, Christians may find themselves bringing disrepute to God and Christian doctrine (cf. Tit. 2:5, 8, 9-10).
Modern western society is moving towards regarding and treating men and women as social equals. Equality and mutuality are seen by many as the ideal. The clearly delineated gender roles that were part of a particular demographic of past ages and previous generations are now recognised as not being appropriate or practical for all people and all marriages. Every person is unique and every marriage is unique. Not everyone, for example, fits the mould of post-war, white, middle-class gender roles that some presume to be “biblical.”
Churches and Christians in western society who insist that men and women follow fixed, hierarchical gender roles, roles that include women staying at home and only men being productive outside the home, are giving the church and God’s word a bad name, the very thing Paul wanted to avoid.
What was socially respectable in Cretan society in the first century is different from what is socially acceptable in western society today. Yet, even in the first century, it was sometimes possible for gifted and enterprising women to rise above social norms and not cause disgrace. Nowadays it seems to be some sectors of the church that are disgracing themselves in contemporary society by limiting, restricting, and subordinating their women.
The Bible never tries to make the case that women should not work or have influential roles outside the home. The Old and New Testaments show us that many godly women were not confined to the domestic domain. New Testament women such as Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia, 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 my 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 and changing roles in life.
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 Some material in this post comes from a previous article Working Women in the New Testament here.
 The idea of delineated domestic (or, private) and public domains for women and for men has its origins in Greek philosophy which influenced the Greco-Roman world, including Cretan society. However, in Roman times, domestic and public domains sometimes merged. This merging is seen in house churches, for example.
 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:
“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 Tim. 5:13-14).
These instructions were designed to keep idle, young widows occupied so that they would not give the church a bad name (cf. Titus 2:5, 8, 10). These women were wealthy enough to be idle. A few may have been supported by the church; however, Paul instructs the church to only allow widows over the age of 60 to be enrolled as widows (1 Tim. 5:9). Poorer women worked for their survival. See this comment below for more on the advice that these women were to “keep house” (oikodespotein, related to the noun oikodespotēs).
 Apart from the 4 verses at the beginning and the 4 verses at end, the letter to Titus is one of the most cohesive of the New Testament letters. The sentences and paragraphs flow and elaborate on one major idea: the conduct of the Christians in Crete. (Unfortunately, the chapter divisions hinder and disguise the flow.)
The Cretans described in Titus 1:10-16 were “unqualified (or unfit) for every good work” (pros pan ergon agathon) (Tit. 1:16). But Paul wanted them “to be ready (or prepared) for every good work” (pros pan ergon agathon) (Tit. 3:1). This repeated phrase highlights Paul’s purpose in his letter to Titus. He wanted the Christians in Crete to behave themselves, do good, and “live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Tit. 3:12 CEB). This way the Christian message wouldn’t be maligned, opponents would be silenced, and the teaching would be attractive (Tit. 2:5, 8, 10). Paul’s instructions about the young wives must be read within the context of the whole letter if we want to more fully understand the apostle’s concern and intention, including his heart for evangelism.
 The United Bible Society 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.]
 The idle young wives and young widows Paul is referring to in Titus 2:5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 would have had household slaves for the mundane and difficult domestic duties. In these verses, Paul is speaking about the management of the home and socially respectable occupations such as spinning and weaving.
 Some suggest the Greek noun presbutidas (from presbutis) used in Titus 2:3 should be translated as “women elders.” “Women elders” might be the sense here; 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 typically means “elder,” not the nouns presbutēs (masculine) and presbutis (feminine) that are used in Titus 2:2 and 3.
The feminine word for “elders” is used, however, in 1 Timothy 5:2. Is Paul speaking about female elders here? There is nothing in the New Testament that 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 female elders 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—an idea that 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.)
 The pagan Theano, for example, 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.
Quoted by Annette Bourland Huizenga in her book Moral Education for Women in the Pastoral and Pythagorean Letters: Philosophers of the Household. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2013), 50.
 Similar words and concepts that occur in Titus 2:4-5 are also frequently found on epitaphs expressing the virtues of deceased pagan wives. On the coffin cartonnage of a pagan woman, who died around the same time as the letter to Titus was written, are inscribed these words:
Here lies Valeria, daughter of Marcus, of free-born status from Caesarea in Mauritania. She was kind, affectionate, dignified, blameless, she loved her husband (philandros) [as in Tit. 2:4], loved her children (philoteknos) [as in Tit. 2:4], kept the marriage bed chaste. Out of respect and love for what is good, her husband Lucius Dexios from Herculaneum buried her. AE 828; SEG 1536.
This epitaph is discussed by G.H.R. Horsley in “11. A Woman’s Virtue,” New Documents illustrating early Christianity, Vol. 3 (North Ryde: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1983), 40-43. In the same article, Horsley provides more examples of epitaphs of wives with the words philandros and philoteknos. See also “80” in New Docs Vol. 2.
 Mutuality, 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.)
 Being a homemaker is a noble activity, and some women feel especially called to this role. I am not in any way discrediting or diminishing this important function.
Ancient Greek woman with tapestry loom. From Stackelberg’s Graeber der Hellenen (plate 33). (Source: Project Guttenberg.)
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